Cabo Polonio is a natural reserve right on the coast, with two beautiful beaches and a rocky peninsula where you will find a lighthouse next to a big colony of sea lions. The lighthouse is the only tall point in the otherwise flat, green town. There are very few small houses and hostels, mostly without electricity, and it is forbidden to build more, which creates a cozy atmosphere and allows for a million stars to be seen. Here you will find the biggest sand dunes in Uruguay; they are protected from cars so the only access by vehicle to the town is by large trucks.
There is a tradition in this coastal city, to go to La Balconada beach at sunset. This beach is different from the other surfing beaches in La Paloma because it is very flat and still. Neighbors and tourists all gather at sunset to experience one of the most spectacular natural shows, with the perfect backdrop of the beach, and applaud in celebration. There is a beach restaurant you can go to after the sun sets to continue this experience under the starry night.
Beach storms are fantastic to watch from afar, as you can see the bolts of lightning very clearly scatter towards the ocean. When locals know a big, gray storm is approaching, some flock to the beach to catch a glimpse of the light show in the distance. The fun comes when the storm starts approaching, and you have to time it right so you get to see as much of the lightning as possible without actually getting caught in the middle of the storm. Usually people don’t time it well, and just end up running home in the rain.
There are many spots where you can book a trip on a boat to go fishing in the middle of the ocean. It is a very rewarding experience as you are taught how to use the bait and fish, and you also get to jump from the top of the boat and swim in the middle of the Atlantic. You can choose what kind of fish to go after, depending on how good your skills are, and you keep everything you catch to eat later (the best is to cook it on the grill). You can pay at the port for someone to clean the fish if you want. Many ports, like the one in Punta del Este, have friendly resident sea lions swimming about, waiting for treats; ask the people who clean the fish for some leftovers to give them.
Uruguay is mainly made up of countryside, cities, and small towns stuck in time. Visit these towns with the knowledge that people take things very, very slowly, and make the most of it. We can all learn from a little peace and quiet, and these towns are precisely built for that. A few recommendations are Garzón, which has the feature of being home to a Michelin-starred restaurant; Edén, with its old train tracks and natural beauty; and Bella Unión, where you can walk along the silent streets looking at the rusty buildings.
There are many countryside spots throughout Uruguay that offer horseback riding, accommodation and great gastronomy. If you don’t have enough time to spend the night in one of these—even though it is highly recommended—a good alternative is to book a horseback ride and then stay for dinner. These places have horses for all experience levels, so rest assured that beginners and children will be safe on the most docile animals. Exploring the Uruguayan rolling hills is beautiful in itself, and the experience is even more rewarding by connecting to these animals.
There are plenty of curious and quirky museums in the different cities of Uruguay. There’s the museum of Tango, where you can learn all about this traditional music and dance, the carnival museum, the tile museum, the Andes survivors’ museum, many sculpture parks, the sea museum, and many more. Bring back home some stories about a whale skeleton you saw, or everything you learnt about the Native Americans local to the area.
Uruguay has amazing natural landscapes, which also make for a wide variety of outdoor sports that can be practiced there. Find out about the best surfing spots in the country, and rent a board or get lessons from a beach surf school. You can also snorkel in a river, go rock climbing or hiking up one of the numerous mountains. Find natural waterfalls and rock pools to bathe in, and do canopy through a valley. You can also go on cycling trips, camping, or just hike through a natural reserve.
Uruguayan typical cuisine is based on beef, and recipes from Italian and Spanish heritage that have been reconstructed throughout the years. The best meal to try is the chivito, a massive steak sandwich filled with anything you can think of. There is also the asado, featuring grilled meats, vegetables and cheese. If you have a sweet tooth, you will love dulce de leche, a delicacy in between caramel and toffee. Don’t forget to try the sweet and savory pastries and cakes from any bakery to taste a little piece of heaven.
All around the coastal cities of Uruguay, you will find specially designed observatories to spot sea animals and birds. From July to October, the southern right whales pay Uruguay a visit and stay to reproduce and take care of their young. This makes for an exceptional experience that you can complement by also spotting dolphins, sea lions, seals, turtles, and other animals. Another pleasant experience is to walk along the beach collecting different seashells and crabs.
Uruguay is home to around 3.5 million people, almost half of which reside in or around the capital city, Montevideo. The rest concentrate in other cities and small towns, which leaves miles and miles of Uruguayan countryside uninhabited (this land is owned to keep livestock or do agriculture, and is home to quirky native animals like the ñandú). The reality is that there are plenty of points in Uruguay where you wouldn’t see any evidence of human life around you, anywhere you look, stretching as far to the horizon. If that sounds like a bit too much, there are also vast amounts of very safe small towns with little development, dirt roads, super-friendly locals and beautiful countryside landscapes around. Being witness to the way of life of a small town in the middle of nowhere, and taking part of being remote for a couple of days, is an experience you will never forget.