Uruguay is the relatively small coastal country that sits between Brazil and Argentina. It was originally a disputed territory between the Spanish and the Portuguese during their colonial rules and then became a disputed territory between Spain, Portugal, Britain, Brazil and Argentina in the early 19th century. It eventually won independence in 1828 when all parties decided that it would be wise to have a neutral buffer between Argentina and Brazil. That is the role it still plays today as the preferred beach destination for Argentines and Brazilian alike.
The easiest and most popular way to travel to Uruguay from Buenos Aires is via a one hour ferry to Colonia del Sacramento, an old military fort of the Portuguese. The old city of Colonia is picturesque with narrow cobblestone streets, old colonial buildings and memorable outdoor cafes. We were fortunate enough to have our tour guided by one of the several stray dogs walking through the streets, a friendly black lab-mutt who accompanied us all afternoon. He clearly had abundant experience supporting tourists as he patiently waited outside when we entered museums, churches and restaurants. He also provided his service for free as he declined my offer for slices of ham late in the afternoon (perhaps he prefers higher quality meat!)
Uruguay is best known for the seaside towns so we spent most of our time traveling along the coast. Our first stop was at Piriapolis, “the destination” for Argentina’s elite during the early 20th century. Unfortunately, there have been several economic depressions/recessions and civil unrest across South America since then. Today, it reminded us of a slightly smaller and safer version of Atlantic City. Our highlight in Piriapolis was visiting an abandoned castle and church and then hiking a mountain that had a giant concrete cross at the summit. We were able to climb up the cross and take great pictures of the surrounding countryside.
Our next destination – after an unexpectedly long detour through the rural countryside – was a surf town called La Paloma. It seemed like it would be a great beach town in season, but we were several it was too cold and windy during our visit to enjoy the beach. After visiting the town’s token white light house, we headed on our way to the highlight of our Uruguay trip – the small seaside town of Cabo Polonia. It is a prized destination for global backpackers because no cars are allowed within 3 miles of the town, plus electricity is very limited and you can only access the town by hiking or reserving a seat on a twice daily shuttle. We didn’t plan appropriately in advance so we had to hike the 3 miles along the sandy pine forests and beach. Just like Colonia, we were fortunate to have a day companion who guided our tour from the parking lot to the town. He was a particularly friendly and attractive black and white mutt (we would have adopted him if we were back in the US). The town of Cabo consists of 25-30 three room beach houses, five basic amenity hostels and 5-7 café/bars. We were there out-of-season so the town was mostly deserted other than a handful of day visitors like ourselves. We were lucky to find an open cafes\ and we enjoyed a seafood tapas entre for lunch. The café was particularly memorable because it did not have traditional tables and chairs, but rather ground level tables with basic benches. The seafood was fantastic and the entire cost was surprisingly cheap considering the remoteness of the town. The entire Cabo experience was memorable and we recommend a visit for anyone traveling through Uruguay.
We spent our last day in the capital of Montevideo. The capital generally reflects the humble pleasantness of Uruguay in general. The citizens are friendly and the city is safe, but other than a few quaint blocks in the old city, it lacks the plethora of attractions available in Buenos Aires. The highlight of our day was a visit to Museo Andes 1972, which chronicles the tragic plane crash covered in the book and movie ‘Alive’. The museum is only two rooms but it presents a vivid picture of the natural and human factors that contributed to the crash and then the series of heroic efforts made by the survivors to overcome overwhelming challenges. It is an incredible tale of determination, perseverance and hope.