Many people who come to South America tend to hit the big spots – Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, maybe Santiago. But often, the small country squished between Argentina and Brazil gets overlooked – Uruguay. Home to less than 3.5 million people, this small country has more cows and sheep than humans. Yet, it’s full of charm and its own colonial history. So yes, in a nutshell, Uruguay is worth visiting.
Getting to Uruguay
There are two main ways to enter the country: flight into the capital, Montevideo or a ferry from Buenos Aires. You can catch a ferry with Colonia Express or Buque Bus. There are a few direct ferries from Buenos Aires, but most go to Colonia del Sacramento and then onward to Montevideo via bus. I would recommend taking the ferry to Colonia del Sacramento and enjoying a half day walking through the old town with lunch along the water. There are many boutiques, ice cream parlors and cafes to enjoy a few hours in this small harbor town. If you want to splurge on a meal, visit Charco Bistro by the water for delicious fish, poke bowls and desserts. Credit cards accepted.
Pro Tip: If you choose to take the ferry, be sure to arrive at the terminal at least 90 minutes before departure. Like the airport, foreigners must check-in, go through customs and passport control and baggage security. You will go through both Argentina and Uruguay immigration before you board, which makes arrival very easy!
If you book your ferry + bus together you don’t have time to enjoy the town, so I would suggest booking a separate bus ticket for later in the day. There are several different companies with almost hourly departures to Montevideo. The pricing is about the same separately as the ferry + bus combo, so take a few hours to enjoy Colonia del Sacramento. Luggage lockers can be found at the bus terminal, which is just 3 minutes’ walk from the ferry terminal.
Best Things to do in Uruguay
If you only have a few days in Uruguay, I’d suggest spending a half day in Colonia del Sacramento upon arrival from Argentina and then the rest of your time in the capital, Montevideo.
While in Montevideo, be sure to take a free walking tour through the old city; I loved Curioso’s tour with great local recommendations and a taste of the grappamiel, Uruguay’s own take on Italian grappa. The tour ends at Mercado del Puerto. Once a fish market, it quickly became a favorite spot for beef. Currently a little touristy, it still houses great parrillas if you are looking for a filling lunch.
Rent a bike for the day with Orange Bike to enjoy a long ride along the Rambla, the world’s longest continuous sidewalk almost 23 km long. You can stop along the way at one of the many beaches. My favorite beaches were Ramirez Beach and Pocitos Beach. Near Pocitos Beach is the famous Montevideo sign.
Get great views of the entire city atop City Hall. Visit the rear entrance of the building to the take the elevator up to the Mirador Panoramico de Montevideo. Entrance is free and open to the public every day from 10 am to 6 pm. There is a small cafe on the 22nd floor as well.
If you have a few extra days, you can take a trip along the coast to Punta del Este or other beach towns.
There are also a few wineries nearby to try Uruguay’s tannat wine. Take a day trip to do a few tastings. If you visit during the summer, try a medio y medio – half white wine and half sparkling wine. It’s the perfect local drink for the heat!
Tips for Montevideo
While you will need some cash to tip your walking tour guide and to use on the buses, you should use your international credit card as much as possible (Visa widely accepted). In doing so, the country provides an automatic discount on purchases to remove the VAT (18-20%). That helped offset the almost expected 10% service charge at restaurants and the higher prices in the country. While it’s still more expensive than other South American countries (often rivaling U.S. prices), the discount on international cards was worth noting.
When Uruguay gained independence, they were the first South American country to separate Church and State. In doing so, religion seems to be a smaller part of everyday life in Uruguay with only 40% of the population Catholic and almost 50% atheist or agnostic. Our tour guide joked, instead of celebrating Christmas, they celebrate “family day.” This secularization means Uruguay is the first country in South America to legalize marijuana for production and personal use. However, only the locals can purchase legally and must be registered to do so.
As the richest country in South America, it is a little harder to visit Uruguay on a shoestring budget. However, I enjoyed a few days in the country. As a female solo traveler, it’s always important to be on your guard, especially at night. The old town is not as safe as other areas in the evenings, so take care to stay in well-lit areas and pay attention to your surroundings. There are less homeless (it seemed to me) in Montevideo than in Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro, but you should also exercise caution when walking alone at night.
Hope these tips make your trip to Uruguay even better. It’s certainly worth visiting Montevideo.
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