Low-profile Uruguay has received attention recently thanks in part to the unconventional ways of José Mujica, its president from 2010 to 2015, who lived in a ramshackle house on a dirt road and donated much of his salary to charity. The attention is deserved: South America’s second smallest country, dwarfed by surrounding giants Brazil and Argentina, is an oasis of stability.
A fashion-fixated international crowd flocks to the beaches, luxury lodgings, and arts scene in Punta del Este. To the east, wetlands stretch up the Atlantic coast to Brazil, notably the Bañados del Este Biosphere Reserve, home to more than a hundred bird species. Then there's 17th-century Colonia del Sacramento, a World Heritage site for the fusion of Spanish and Portuguese architecture in its old town.
Montevideo, where about half of the nation’s 3.3 million people live, is “the calmest capital city in Latin America, whether you’re strolling along the Plata River or ducking into a boutique museum,” says novelist and filmmaker Carolina De Robertis. Highlights here include the colonial Old Town and the costume-filled Museo del Carnaval.
Uruguay may never emerge from the shadows of its neighbors, but for a land where banknotes feature artists and writers instead of generals and admirals, that may be a good thing. —Wayne Bernhardson
When to Go: October and November (mid to late spring) and March and April (early to mid fall) for fewer tourists and milder temperatures. December through February (summer) is high season.
How to Get Around: Fly directly to Montevideo's Carrasco International Airport, or take a fast ferry from Buenos Aires to either Colonia Del Sacramento or Montevideo. Use remises (radio-dispatched taxis) and local buses in cities. Long-distance buses leave from Montevideo's Tres Cruces terminal, a combination shopping mall and bus station. Small-group and custom tours also are available through Uruguay travel specialists, such as SouthAmerica.travel or Southern Explorations.
Where to Stay: Play gaucho at El Charabon, a nine-room agritourism estancia (ranch) located in the Sierras de Rocha of eastern Uruguay. Rates include guided horseback rides, daily meals, and opportunities to try branding, milking, and other ranch chores. The family-owned cattle ranch is located about 50 miles northeast of Punta del Este, near the Atlantic coast.
What to Eat or Drink: Jump-start your day with a morning maté (pronounced mah-TAY), the bitter, earthy drink made by steeping the leaves and stems of the yerba maté plant. Maté is traditionally prepared in a hollowed-out gourd or cup, typically wood or ceramic, and sipped through a bombilla, or metal straw. Uruguayans commonly tote a thermos of hot water so they can make maté anywhere (including on the beach) and any time.
What to Buy: Manos del Uruguay hand-spun and kettle-dyed wool, silk, and blended yarns are produced by rural artisan cooperatives. Each skein includes a tag with the name of the artisan and her co-op. Yarn, clothing, ceramics, and other handcrafted items produced by cooperatives and independent artists are sold at Manos del Uruguay stores in Montevideo, Colonia, and Punta del Este.
What to Read Before You Go: The Invisible Mountain (Vintage; reprint edition, 2010) by Carolina De Robertis is a powerful multigenerational saga set in 20th-century Uruguay and Argentina.