We hadn’t initially planned to visit Uruguay – to be honest before I came I didn’t know a single thing about the country! With neighbours like Brazil and Argentina that are such well known and desirable destinations it tends to be overlooked, but as we were so close we thought we may as well pop over and check it out. We started researching it and discovered Uruguay was the first country in the world to fully legalise cannabis. Who knew!? (That’s not the reason we decided to go – honest!) Apparently it has some of the best beaches in South America, but going by the weather in Buenos Aires we wouldn’t be spending much time on the beach unfortunately! It’s also a lot more economically and politically stable than most other countries in South America, and a lot safer – which my mum was glad to hear! We only spent one week in Uruguay due to it being comparably as expensive as Argentina, but we were most pleasantly surprised by how much we loved it.
Colonia del Sacramento
The ferry from Buenos Aires takes around one hour to the port of Colonia del Sacramento.
Word of Warning! The ferry boards 1 hour before departure and you should really be there at that time. Of course we were running late and we did not realise the traffic in Buenos Aires is similar to that of traffic in London during rush hour – absolute fucking torture – so a 10 minute taxi ride took 40 minutes and we were told off when we arrived 20 minutes before the boat left and that we better run if we want to make it on. Remember you are going to a different country so there is passport control and customs to go through!
Anyway, I digress! Colonia is a small, lazy town on the coast filled with picturesque cobbled streets, Spanish and Portuguese architecture and stylish cafes and restaurants with seating spilling out into the historic plazas. It’s perfect for spending a chilled couple of days, wandering around the character filled streets, taking in the views of the port from the lighthouse and sampling the local Tannat wine (or drinking four bottles as we did!)
Other things to do in Colonia
Free vineyard tour – Take a 10 minute bus ride from the terminal to the family run Bodego Bernardi vineyard. The guide only speaks Spanish so if your language skills aren’t great try and find a translator to go along with you! Luckily there were some other backpackers going at the same time as us and one of them was from Argentina. It was really good for a free tour, he told us a lot about wine production in Uruguay and we got to taste 2 wines and also 2 grappas (grape brandy).
Museum Granja Arenas – This tiny museum is about 40 minute walk from the vineyard. It’s the first museum we have set foot in since arriving in South America, but it sounded pretty interesting, if ever so geeky! It’s a museum of Guiness World Record holding collections of items, including pencils and key chains. Sounds a bit lame I know, but it was kind of cool. Everything has been collected by a guy called Emilio Arenas and in 55 years he has collected over 16000 pencils and 36000 keyrings from all over the world – every single one is different! The best bit however was that there was a little store at the end where you got to sample cheese and jams!
Montevideo is the capital city of Uruguay, and although close to BA in distance we felt it was much further in culture! The pace is slower, the people are more friendly and I loved the contrast of the architecture – castle like structures surrounded by apartment blocks or modern glass office buildings.
We started off our tour of the city by the coast at the MONTEVIDEO sign, its kind of like the one in Amsterdam, which is worth visiting for a photo. Even though the sea is a really weird, browny/grey colour that I’ve never seen before the walk along the ramblas, which weaves around the coast line is really nice, especially of the sun comes out as it did for us, and there is a constant faint fragrance of marijuana in the air.
We actually walked all the way to the Plaza Indepedencia (about 2 hours walk), which is in the centre of the city, perched on the border of the Ciudad Vieja, the Old Town. This was my favourite part of the city; the buildings, the mellow atmosphere and the Mercado del Puerto! I would have gladly spent a week in Montevideo just to come here every day (if I wasnt on a backpackers budget! It certainly isn’t cheap). Although originally a harbour market selling fruit, veg and meat, its now less market stalls and more mini restaurants, most of which have a few tables situated around huge open grills. It’s meat heaven! We treated ourself to a delicious juicy steak cooked right in front of us with some creamy mash and an extra large glass of red – well deserved after our long walk around the city! We also tried Media y Media, a traditional drink which is half white wine and half sparkling wine. I have know idea why you would mix them as both are perfectly delicious drinks on their own, but hey it wasn’t totally awful!
We read about Cabo in our Lonely Planet guide and loved the sound of it, so we spontaneously decided to head there the next morning. It’s a 5 hour bus ride east along the coast from Montevideo and the only way to get there from the bus stop is to take a ride in one of the open 4×4 trucks as there is no road to the town (if you can even call it a town!) It’s about a 15 minute drive through the sand dunes then you start to see little wooden houses popping up on the hill ahead arranged in no particular fashion, all randomly build, facing in different directions, and horses absentmindedly wandering around the gardens. There are probably about 50 houses max, and the population is heavily outnumbered by the sealions on the beach! They have no electricity or running water in Cabo, surviving solely on wind power and a reserve of rain water. Our hostel, Viejo Lobo, was a cute little cottage with fish painted all over and a multi coloured roof. Our inner hippies were in heaven! (after 1 night here I decided I wanted to be a real hippy so I bought an ‘ugly but funky’ wooly jumper and watched a tutorial on how to do dreadlocks! That faze has now passed.)
Down on the rocks inbetween the north and south beaches is where you will find the seal lions, and there are hundreds of them! From the south beach, between April and October, its also possible to see whales! We sat on the rocks for ages watching the sea lions playing in the sea right under our noses, hoping to catch sight of some whales but unfortunately we had no luck. We did however spot a huge pod of dolphins swim right past us which was amazing!
In the evening head up to the top of the lighthouse to watch the sun go down as it’s a simply stunning view. We then walked along the south beach admiring the ever changing colours of the sky. It’s so peaceful, and there is no noise or light pollution so you can enjoy the beautiful, starry night sky without any interruptions.
That night we sat around a candle with a few locals and backpackers drinking beer and listening to music. We also had our first taste of Maté, a kind of herbal tea, which tastes a little like cabbage at first, that is drank from a small curved cup with a metal straw. The cup is filled with the herbs and is continuously topped up with hot water. We came to notice that it’s not just a drink – its actually more of a social activity, one person tops up the cup, drinks all the liquid, then tops it up again and passes it to the next person – and this was going on for ages and ages. We also learned from our time in Uruguay that drinking maté is also a huge part of their way of life – Uruguayans are never without a maté cup in hand and a full thermos of hot water under one arm (which we always thought looked ever so inconvenient to carry around all day!)
If you love to escape civilisation every now and again, can cope without the modern luxuries and enjoy just appreciating nature and the simple life, you will love spending a day or two getting lost in the uniqueness of Cabo, wandering along the deserted coastline, relaxing in hammocks or getting to know the locals. We adored it and could have easily spent a few more days chilling with the hippies and the sea lions!
Although our visit to Uruguay was short and sweet we really loved the country. The people were so friendly and the places we visited were so diverse. We would love to go back and find out what the rest of the country has to offer. If you are planning a trip to South America and Uruguay isn’t in your itinerary I recomend you have a re-think!