Most people have never heard of Uruguay, and those who have likely can’t point to it on a map. For the few of us lucky enough to have spent time in this little slice of paradise tucked in next to Argentina, we’ll happily shout our praises from the rooftops: Uruguay is not to be missed.
Why not, you ask? The reasons are plenty. From incredible people and food (let’s be real, we all travel to eat) to beautiful scenery and architecture, this gem boasts a not-so-well-kept secret that will lure the most selective sun-seeking travelers… Beaches upon beaches upon beaches.
Uruguay has 410 miles of coastline that stretches between Argentina and Brazil; as an ocean girl I couldn’t resist. Some of the more popular destinations can get pretty busy in the summer months, but because of the sheer number of accessible beaches here you’re never far from a piece of prime ocean front towel real estate.
Here are a few of my favorite scenic spots in the country:
For the city slicker
Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, is a destination in and of itself, and was one of my favorite cities in South America. Built up around the Ciudad Vieja (old town), this pedestrian-friendly city is surrounded by La Rambla, a 13.6 mile waterside road that runs along the waterfront, passing fish stalls, piers and spectacular views.
Follow La Rambla along until you reach the stunning Pocitos Beach for a beautiful stretch of sandy beach. With little tiendas (shops), volleyball courts and a lighthouse there’s plenty to keep you occupied for the day. My day at Pocitos was one of my favorites – I sat on the beach with a book and my yerba mate (buy a gourd and make your own!) and felt like I was part of the action.
Foodie tip: You can’t visit Montevideo without sampling the parilla (BBQ) and the local vino tinto (red wine) that put Uruguay on my “I could live here” list. Montevideo is also home to the best alfajores I’ve ever had – dulche de leche fille cookies that are covered in chocolate and are a well-deserved treat after a full day following La Ramba. Try them… thank me later.
For the star power
Punta del Este, in the country’s southeast, is known for its vibrant nightlife and upscale vibes. This resort destination offers an array of options, from sandy beaches to adventure sports. The prices in Punta del Este are definitely higher than the rest of the country, however the “Monaco of South America” is definitely the place to see and be seen.
This peninsula offers two coastlines: the calm “mansa” side to relax and enjoy the beach, or the windier “brava” side for adventure enthusiasts looking to surf, windsurf or kite surf. I loved the sharp contrast between the two sides and enjoyed my time on both, but will give bonus points to the brava side for an amazing windsurfer rental experience.
Isla Gorriti is a quick ferry ride (or jaunt on a private yacht if that’s more your speed) away, and is a protected area offering pristine beaches, a party vibe and a fantastic restaurant. Famous beaches in the area include La playa de los Dedos (The Finger Beach), famous for a giant hand emerging from the sand that’s not nearly as creepy as it sounds, and La Barra (Bikini Beach), known for attracting models, and lined with seaside mansions.
Packed with star power and boasting a glitzy nightlife, sunny days here are spent in Punta del Esta, while nights are spent in the clubs of La Barra. To ease yourself into the scene try a medio y medio (half white wine and half sparkling wine) or a cleric (wine and fruit juice) to prep yourself for a night on the town. The parties start late and finish well after the sun comes up, making this the clubbing capital of the country.
For the nature lovers
This rustic beach town in Rocha is the most developed in the area; La Paloma and nearby La Pedrera are widely recognized as having some of the best surf sports in the country. La Paloma is a sleepy fishing village that swells in the summer months with South American vacationers looking for the perfect wave. For a break from surfing I did a stunning hike to Laguna de Rocha, a nearby wetland nature reserve boasting more than 200 different species of birds, and saw the threatened Chilean Flamingo.
Considerably quieter than its neighbors, Rocha is a budding area that’s slowly being developed and is a great option for a quiet getaway. With no real nightlife to speak of this area has all of the essentials with none of the pretension. Stunning scenery, some of the best sunsets I have ever seen and waves worth chasing make Rocha an area worth exploring.
For the wave chasers
Punta del Diablo is a stark contrast to Punta del Esta, even though it’s only an hour away. With laid-back vibes and a bohemian feel, this charming barrio is a fishing village whose population balloons in the summer months to accommodate vacationers from Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.
Boasting fantastic surfing and an incredible arts scene, this town turns from quiet, quaint and charming during the winter months (I had the beach to myself in April) to a vibrant town full of activities in the summer months (from December through to February). From local jeep tours through the Ombu forests to beachside horseback rides, sand boarding on the sand dunes and water sports, this easygoing beach town is a sharp contrast to the party scene of Punta del Este.
Because this is such a popular tourist destination, expect prices here to be higher than the rest of Uruguay (though not as high as in Punta del Este). The artisan community has some great souvenirs on offer, and I was surprised at how good the food was for a tourist town. For the best value and quality, consider buying seafood from the fishermen at stalls along the beach.
For the shoppers
Chuy is quite literally across the street from Brazil. In fact the main street is the actual border between Uruguay and Brazil. Boasting a huge number of shopping malls and stores along Internacional Avenue, the street that divides the countries, stores are constantly competing to offer the best brands at the best prices. This tax-free zone opens early and closes late to meet demand from both sides of the border.
Given its proximity to Southern Brazil, Chuy has a temperate climate that fluctuates little over the course of the year. The beach here is often hit by strong waves, making it the perfect spot for kite surfing. Because most of the people traveling to Chuy are here for the shopping, not the beaches, there’s a sense of solitude in Barra del Chuy that’s not found on many other beaches in Uruguay, especially during the summer months. With a beautiful red and white lighthouse standing guard, it’s an unexpected piece of beauty that’s a sharp contrast to the consumerism just down the road.
Regardless of what beach you end up on in Uruguay, the warm and welcoming people, incredible scenery, delicious food and myriad of activities is bound to impress. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with Uruguay when I stepped off the ferry, but combine all those sandy beaches with a wine industry worth writing home about, I couldn’t help it.
It’s definitely time to add Uruguay to your list of must-visit beach destinations.
Ready to visit this beautiful, lesser-discovered hotspot? Check out our range of small group adventures to Uruguay.
(All images c/o iStock, except Mondevideo ferry photo c/o Intrepid Travel)