Uruguay can be a forgotten country that many travelers pass over. Despite a coastline that runs for 410 miles and an area the size of Washington, too often the country is erroneously passed off as a suburb of Argentina.
Sure, both nations officially speak Spanish and have a passionate love for soccer, and both have locals who habitually sip mate and feast on the finest of beef, but when you dig a bit deeper you’ll quickly find that Uruguay is not Argentina. It’s a laidback country with a low population and minimal violent crime, and it’s a unique country which has noticeable influences from Portugal as well as Spain. Then, of course, there is the diverse stretch of coast, where cobbled alleyways and glitzy resorts aren’t far from villages and sand dunes. There’s room to spread out and room to explore, yet nothing seems too far.
In other words, it’s the perfect country for loading up your gear and embarking on a coastal road trip.
With the exception of Motorcycles Diaries, most travelers don’t associate South America as a place you go on road trips. Uruguay is different, however, and there is a feeling of freedom that comes with cruising down the coast on entirely your own agenda. Add in the fact that that there aren’t any freeways and you can cross the country in six hours, and Uruguay sits high on the list of the continent’s best coastal road trips.
For those interested in making the trip, here’s a guide to six destinations you’ll find along the coast of Uruguay.
Colonia del Sacramento
The most convenient way to road trip across Uruguay is to start the journey in Colonia del Sacramento, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was established by the Portuguese as a colony in 1680. Colonia is a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires, and the skyline of Argentina’s populous capital is visible across the Rio de Plata. Prior to renting a car, take some time to wander the old town and get lost amongst its cobbled alleys. The pastel buildings and historic lighthouse provide a maritime, colonial feel, and enjoy some lunch at a quiet café in a square which has been unchanged for centuries. When renting a car, be sure to pay extra attention to the forms you’ll have to sign, one of which states that you’re aware of road laws which may be different than you’re used to at home (such as driving with your lights on and keeping two hands on the wheel).
When leaving Colonia, it doesn’t take long for the buildings to give way to ranchland. Agriculture and ranching are staples of the nation’s economy, and the 2.5 hour stretch between Colonia and Montevideo provides a glimpse into the rural interior. All of that changes, however, when the road approaches the shoreline and Montevideo. Far more tranquil than neighboring Buenos Aires (pop: 13.5 million), the 1.3 million inhabitants of the nation’s capital comprise over a third of Uruguay’s population. During the warm summer months of December-April, hundreds of joggers line the promenade which parallels the city skyscrapers, and the seashore is a festive collection of locals out for a midday stroll. In the old town, plumes of smoke billow from the entrance of the famous Mercado del Puerto, a wrought-iron train station turned carnivorous meat market that serves as the local gathering place. Uruguay is regarded as having the best meat in the world—even better than Argentina—and in the energetic confines of the market’s interior, the sizzle of meat is met by the clink of glasses and an ebullient port town atmosphere.
Piriapolis and Punta Ballena
While Montevideo marks the official beginning of the “Uruguay Riviera”, the most notable town along this coastal strip is undoubtedly Punta del Este. First, however, the road passes through beach resorts which are often overlooked by tourists. In Piriapolis—90 minutes east of Montevideo and 40 minutes west of Punta del Este—visitors will find a popular beach resort which is far more relaxed than its neighbor. A coastal promenade runs the length of a large white sand beach, and small hotels and oceanfront lodgings provide an alternative to Punta del Este. A good choice here is Hotel Colon, a coastal fusion of a Victorian townhome and the German architecture of Alsace. 20 minutes up the coast, take a side trip to Punta Ballena and the eccentric Casapueblo, a sprig of land with views of the coastline and a wildly artistic hotel. Built by the artist Carlos Paez Vilaro, the whitewashed hotel looks like a cross between a sand castle and a villa on Santorini. In the distance to the east, the high rise of condos of Punta del Este spring from the coastal waters, and it’s only a 20 minute drive from Punta Ballena to the heart of the thumping action.
Punta del Este
Love it or hate it, Punta del Este is the chic beach resort of the see-and-be-seen, jet-setting crowd. Prices here can be twice as high as anywhere else in Uruguay, and surfboards and bikinis dominate the sand before the casinos take over at night. A South American combination of Monaco and Miami Beach, high-rise hotels and all-night clubs dominate the popular shoreline. While the beaches downtown are the daytime hot spots, most of the clubs are in nearby La Barra, as are a number of high end accommodations such as the lavish Mantra Resort. Public transport can be sporadic between Punta del Este and La Barra, and this a place where having your own car is definitely a logistical bonus. In town, take time to stop at the famous sculpture popularly known as “The Hand”, where five fingers reach out of the sand to warn swimmers of the hazards of the ocean. For those who want the beautiful beaches without the hype and scene, consider staying in Jose Ignacio, located 40 minutes east of Punta del Este in a relaxing coastal commune.
Browse tours of Punta del Este
East of Jose Ignacio is when the coastline turns wild and the trip takes on a sense of adventure. From here to the border with neighboring Brazil, the coast is a collection of sleepy fishing villages, towering sand dunes, and numerous colonies of hippies and transients. It’s not a coastline that’s going to be for everyone, but for those looking for a coastal retreat and a dose of old-fashioned simplicity, the beaches and villages of eastern Uruguay are one of South America’s most refreshing outposts. Turning inland to skirt a lagoon before the joining the shore at La Paloma, one of the most adventurous stops along this stretch of coast is the community of Cabo Polonio. With no electricity, empty beaches, and an ad hoc collection of dwellings, Cabo Polonio can only be accessed by 4WD jeeps which traverse the coastal sand dunes. Be sure to pack a headlamp if you plan to stay overnight, and the hostels and inns which populate the shore are a far cry from the five-star variety. Nevertheless, the remoteness aside, this is a place where you can completely tap out and actually hear yourself think. It’s a sliver of shoreline where sea lions rest in a protected coastal colony, and friendly locals smile and wave and treat you as one of their own.
Punta del Diablo
Finally, one hour further up the road and only 45 minutes from the Brazilian border, the fishing village of Punta del Diablo has become one of Uruguay’s trendiest getaways. Beaches, beer, and plates of freshly-caught corvina punctuate a lazy schedule, and basking in the sun beneath a thatched-roof hut is the toughest activity for the day. A happy medium between the flashlights of Cabo Polonio and the strobe lights of Punta del Este, Punta del Diablo offers just enough modernity to provide a level of comfort, but just enough of a coastal escape that it completely recharges your soul.
On the return journey, you can either make the 6.5-hour trek back to Colonia del Sacramento, or arrange in advance to drop the car in the capital at Montevideo. From here you can catch a direct ferry back to Buenos Aires, and reflect on your time spent scouring the beaches of one of South America’s best stretches of coastline.
Photos courtesy of Kyle Ellison.
– Kyle Ellison