1. The people. Uruguayans are officially the nicest people on the planet. If they are annoyed by the legions of tourists that invade their country every year, they sure aren’t showing it. From sales clerks to fashion designers, waitresses to construction workers – everywhere we went we were greeted with smiling faces and helpful directions. Unlike many South Americans, Uruguayans are not prone to be loud or dramatic and are generally laid-back, down-to-earth people. And did I mention nice?
2. The beach. Uruguay is blessed with one looooong unending beach as its sandy coastline extends uninterrupted from the Rio Plata to Brazil. And with the government banning building on the beach itself, this means the beach will remain accessible and enjoyable for everyone despite the new developments popping up like crazy.
3. The unique mix. Where else can you find a South American destination that feels decidedly European, but with the sprawling, big-sky feeling of the American midwest? A big bonus: no American tourists (besides the lone travel blogger)!
4. The antiques. And by “antiques” I mean that the entire country feels like it’s left over from another era – in the best way possible. Whether you are on the coast a la the Hamptons in the 1960s, in the rustic colonial town of Colonia that seems to be frozen in time, or enjoying the 1890s Parisian-style buildings of Montevideo, Uruguay is full of beauty, charm, and romance. Dream of owning a colonial home? Vintage cars your thing? Uruguay is the place – especially for those for whom restoration isn’t a dirty word but a fantasy. I dream of scouring the villages and countryside for antiques, hardware, and tiling… preferably in a baby blue vintage Fiat 500.
5. The opportunities. Savvy investors worldwide now have Uruguay on their radar. It offers First World ammenities at Third World prices, has good infrastructure and little corruption, fantastic housing bargains, and an enjoyable climate. For more details check out International Living, Escape Artist, and Ola Uruguay.
In the States we are often so desperate for a sense of history and culture, and yet everywhere you turn in Uruguay is another example of beautiful old architecture – without anyone to see it! Nowhere is this more evident than in the sleepy coastal town of Piriapolis. Quite empty during our visit, its grand name hints at its grand history: developed around the 1920s by Francisco Piria, it was the original “it” resort destination in Uruguay before Punta del Este. With its wide beach promenade and Belle Epoque-era buildings, it was known as the Cannes of South America. Even more interesting: Piria was an alchemist who designed the town based on precise geometric principles to properly align energies. Or something like that. While I didn’t feel “reenergized,” I did enjoy the palatial Argentino Hotel, a throwback to a much more glamourous time.
A Dutch man we met who lives in the area wrinkled his nose at the mention of Maldonado. “Terribly mediocre” is how he described it. I beg to differ. Maldonado offered charming bakeries, the best cortado of the trip, and a liveliness lacking in the off-season resort areas. In a cobblestoned plaza in Rocha we feasted on pork chops and homemade pizza and were suddenly joined by a party of 30 locals on their lunch break, passing around whiskey and laughing as they waited for their steaks. In San Carlos we were given the opportunity to tour a beautiful old building in the midst of restoration by extremely friendly and talkative construction workers.
While it never fails to surprise me how differently people view the ideal vacation, in my opinion it is worth it to explore the less beaten path. Yes, we saw average people milling about what would most likely be called average towns, but the chance to see how people across the planet choose to live their lives – without having to cater to outsiders – is thrilling. And often photogenic!
I’ve quickly noticed what a strange place Uruguay is. Half of the population lives in Montevideo and the rest is scattered about the country the size of Iowa, living in small rural villages in the pampas or in towns along the coast. If you are anyone but an American tourist you might have heard of Punta del Este, the ritzy beach resort 2 hours outside of Montevideo. Argentinians, Brazilians, and Europeans flock to the area for fun in the sun during their summer when literally every hotel, house, hostel, and fishing shack is rented. For the other 9 months of the year, it is practically empty – they even turn off the stop lights in town.
Now this is great if you are, say, a writer in need of silence and long stretches of abandoned beach, or considering retirement (like my parents), but personally I found it a little strange. Some creative travel writers in my pre-trip reading described the area as resorting back to “sleepy fishing villages” in the off-season. Well, as far as I can tell, the only “villages” left are comprised of mammoth 10-bedroom vacation homes and sleek (but empty) cafe-lounges serving $15 burgers. My parents know a European couple who are the ONLY people living in their 12-story luxury condominium once the summer has ended… all a little too close to The Shining for me!
While we continued our search for a more authentic Uruguayan experience, we did manage to suffer through the glorious weather and peaceful beaches! And we even saw some sea lions – or as I like to call them, the “Bullmastiff of the Sea” – huge blubber blobs roaring and slobbering as they lazily await their daily treat from the fishmongers in the harbor.
We started off our wonderful Uruguayan getaway in the capital of Montevideo. I was blown away by the beauty of this city! Every other building looks like a historic monument with elaborately carved moldings, 15 foot high doors, and marble tiled floors. Most of the older buildings were built in the late 1800s to early 1900s, and sadly much is now in disrepair. Think Paris with (a lot more) patina! We spent the rest of our trip fantasizing about which romantic place we would buy and restore.
We spent most of the day exploring the Ciudad Vieja, the old part of Montevideo full of colonial buildings and charming cafes and markets. This neighborhood had previously been abandoned when the population moved to the suburbs, but it is now experiencing a resurgence as more and more places are being restored. Although still considered to be dangerous at night, the area is expected to only become more popular.