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The landscape of Uruguay | © Marcelo Campi / Flickr
The landscape of Uruguay | © Marcelo Campi / Flickr
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15 Reasons Why Uruguay Needs to Be on Your South American Bucket List

Picture of Milena Fajardo
Updated: 15 November 2017
Tucked in a corner of South America, Uruguay can be overshadowed by its neighbors Argentina and Brazil, which far surpass it in size and fame. While most big cities are crowded with tourists, Uruguay benefits from its reputation as a little-known treasure, an unspoiled vacation spot where you will enjoy peace and quiet away from the masses. But in case you need more convincing, here’s a round-up of 15 reasons why Uruguay should be on your South American bucket list.

There’s a great variety of experiences

Finding your ideal travel destination depends on your personality and your expectations. For some people, a perfect holiday involves partying every night; for others it’s about filling their days with sports and outdoor activities, or culture and historical tours. There are also those who want nothing more than to relax and recharge their batteries. Whichever type you are, you can find what you’re looking for in Uruguay. There’s such a range of things to do and places to visit that you will definitely have a varied vacation.

It has some of the most unspoiled beaches on the continent

Many countries in Latin America are world-famous for having incredible beaches. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword as they have become overcrowded by the tourists who flock to enjoy them. If you travel to the far east coast of Uruguay in the summer you will find stunning beaches of fine, white sand and turquoise water. The best part? You’ll have them all to yourself!

A woman on a Uruguayan beach at twilight
Twilight on a beach in Uruguay | © © Jimmy Baikovicius / Flickr

It’s one of the safest countries in Latin America

Back in 2002, Uruguay went through a financial crisis, but it has since been making a steady recovery. It is free from social or political turmoil and the people have a relatively carefree disposition. People walk around the city at all hours, wear jewellery out and use their phones on public transport, none of which are advised in some other countries. Naturally, there are certain precautions you should take, just like in any other country: trust your intuition and don’t leave your possessions unattended.

You can have an authentic gaucho experience

Gauchos were once the unruly cowboys of Latin America, but now their image is associated with freedom, bravery and generosity. Their trademark qualities were their skill on horseback and their knowledge of the countryside. In Uruguay, you can stay in a comfortable countryside hotel and have a luxurious gaucho experience. Typically, you are able to go horseback riding and fishing, and you can even milk cattle. You can also soak up the peaceful rural atmosphere and have some delicious traditional meals.

A man dressed as a gaucho on horseback
A modern Uruguayan gaucho | © Bicentenario Uruguay / Flickr

There are untouched indigenous forests to explore

There is far more uninhabited land than populated areas in Uruguay, leaving vast natural landscapes with no sign of human life that stretch as far as the eye can see. There are some hills and forests in Uruguay that have remained untouched throughout time, allowing the ecosystem to evolve freely. You can visit these areas, provided you take special care not to ruin nature’s hard work.

Old architecture, even from the colonial period, is remarkably maintained

You will find buildings of many different architectural styles scattered across the country. Uruguay is not afraid to develop and innovate, but at the same time it cherishes its cultural past, so many projects are focussed on the renovation of historical buildings. Some urban places, like the historic quarter of Colonia del Sacramento, have been maintained since the 17th century: this is a territory that was fiercely disputed during the wars between Spain and Portugal and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cobbled streets and colonial architecture in Colonia del Sacramento
Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay | © John O'Connell / Flickr

A whole area of the country has abundant natural hot springs

The northwest region of Uruguay is just like one big wellness retreat. The Guaraní aquifer is an underground layer of thermal water that can be extracted very easily. The discovery of this aquifer in the 1940s led to the development of several resorts dedicated to making the most out of the health properties of mineral water. You can find spas with Finnish saunas, wet saunas, massages, facials, outdoor jacuzzis and pools with different water temperatures. There are also water parks with slides for children (and grown-up children).

You can see stars like you’ve never seen before

The Uruguayan sky at night is a sight to behold. In the Southern Hemisphere, you can see more stars and constellations than you ever knew existed if you’re from the Northern Hemisphere. The Uruguayan countryside is perfect for this, because there is no light pollution for miles. Definitely worth a visit is the fishing village of Cabo Polonio, which has no electricity, so you can see the Milky Way in all its glory while listening to the gentle murmur of the ocean.

A view of the Milky Way in the night's sky of Uruguay
A view of the night sky in Uruguay | © Mai Rodriguez / Flickr

Uruguayan people are unique

Uruguayans are easily recognisable: they wear big smiles on their face and often have a mate in their hands. Mate is a traditional Uruguayan beverage, similar to tea, which is shared among friends and strangers. Few Uruguayans speak fluent English, but even those who don’t speak a word will offer you some mate as they strive to understand you and try to make you feel at home. As a tourist, you are sure to find that the Uruguayan people incredibly hospitable and accommodating.

A Uruguayan man holding a mate beverage, in black and white
A typical Uruguayan holding a mate | © Brian Fitzharris / Flickr

There is a strong feeling of community

Perhaps surprisingly, you can feel a sense of community in Uruguay’s biggest cities. In Montevideo, for example, even if you work in one of the busiest neighbourhoods, you may recognise familiar faces and make friends on your daily commute. If you go to a bakery or shop, you are likely to end up having a conversation with the person behind the counter, whom you will meet again next time you’re there. You will see complete strangers greeting with the customary kiss on the cheek, and people sitting on the bus engaged in long conversations with the driver.

It’s a meat lover’s paradise

With its extensive fields and pastures and its five-to-one cow to human ratio, cows are Uruguay’s most significant population. The animals are free to roam as they please and live peacefully, which results in very tender beef that Uruguayans claim is the best in the world. They make the most of the meat by cooking it on enormous grills (parrillas) along with other ingredients, resulting in their meal of choice, the asado (barbecue).

A man watching over food cooking on an open grill
Beef and other ingredients on the grill | © André Ribeiro / Flickr

Experience a different way of life

Many people describe Uruguay as a country that goes at a slower pace. If you visit any of the small towns outside the capital, you will understand exactly what that means. Some of these towns seem to be stuck in time, detached from the rest of the world. Even in Montevideo people take it easy: people grill meat on street corners, cars drive slowly and children play outside. All this peace and quiet seems to end when the sun goes down, as the city comes alive with bars and clubs and people partying until 8am.

Uruguay is home to some amazing and unique wildlife

You can discover several new animals here, such as the carpincho, an adorable giant rodent similar to the capybara. or the mulita, a small and easily scared mammal of the same family as the armadillo. Marvel at the ñandú, a giant flightless bird related to the ostrich, and try to avoid getting chased down by wild boars and teros, the country’s national birds. You may have the opportunity to see brightly coloured flamingos, sea lions, dolphins, green sea turtles and even penguins. If you’re lucky you might even spot one of the more elusive animals such as the puma, or the southern right whale.

A giant Uruguayan rodent known as Carpincho and similar to the Capybara
A wild carpincho | © Kevin Jones / Flickr

You don’t have to travel far to experience everything Uruguay has to offer

The country is very compact and most of its main attractions are quite close together. This is great news for two reasons: you don’t need to spend a lot of time in Uruguay to experience it fully, and you can do so very easily by renting a car and going on a short, beautiful road trip. You won’t be driving for more than three hours at a time, and some people even tour the country by bicycle.

It’s home to the world’s first-ever World Cup football stadium

You can take a trip back in time to 1930 by visiting the Centenario Football Stadium in Montevideo. If you’re a football fan, you will love the vibrant energy of a clásico, a match between Montevideo’s two largest rival teams. If you’re more interested in the history of football, there is a museum inside the stadium that teaches you all about Uruguay’s love affair with the sport.

Fans unravel a Uruguayan flag at Uruguay's main Football stadium
Estadio Centenario, Uruguay’s main football stadium | © Jimmy Baikovicius / Flickr