Uruguay is a South American country known for its verdant interior and beach-lined coast. The capital, Montevideo, revolves around Plaza Independencia, once home to a Spanish citadel. Progressive, stable, safe and culturally sophisticated, Uruguay offers visitors opportunities to experience everyday ‘not made for tourists’ moments, whether caught in a cow-and-gaucho (cowboy) traffic jam on a dirt road to nowhere or strolling with maté-toting locals along Montevideo’s beachfront.
It pays to dig deeper than just the cosmopolitan Montevideo though. Go wildlife-watching along the Atlantic coast, or hot-spring-hopping up the Río Uruguay, or horseback riding under the big sky of Uruguay’s interior, where vast fields spread out like oceans.
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URUGUAY QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Montevideo
- Government: Republic
- Currency: Uruguayan peso (UYU)
- Area: 176,220 km²
- Population: 3,449 million (2018)
- Language: Spanish (official), Portuñol, or Brasilero
- Religion: Roman Catholic 47%, non-professing or other the remainder, with almost 20% agnostic/atheist
Uruguay is often called the Switzerland of South America not for geographical features but for a stable democracy and social benefits such as free education, but mostly due to a developed financial sector based on bank secrecy.
In 2013 Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize cannabis. Uruguayan citizens are allowed to grow up to 6 marijuana plants for personal use each year, and are entitled to purchase up to 40g per month at local pharmacies through the government’s national distribution system. Smoking marijuana in public is perfectly legal – for anyone, foreigners included – in the same places where cigarette smoking is permitted. However, non-Uruguayans are not allowed to purchase any for themselves.
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URUGUAY PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 6 January, Epiphany/Children’s Day
- 19 April, Landing Day of the 33 Orientales
- 1 May, Labor Day
- 18 May, Battle of Las Piedras
- 19 June, Birthday of José Gervasio Artigas
- 18 July, Constitution Day
- 25 August, Independence Day
- 12 October, Battle of Sarandi/Día de la Raza
- 2 November, All Souls’ Day
FESTIVALS IN URUGUAY
- Carnaval - Much livelier and longer-lasting than its Buenos Aires counterpart, Montevideo’s multiweek Carnaval is the cultural highlight of the year. Festivities begin as early as January and end as late as March, depending on the year. Montevideanos cut loose in a big way every year, with music and dance filling the air for a solid month. Not to be missed is the early February Desfile de las Llamadas, a two-night parade of comparsas (neighbourhood Carnaval societies) through the streets of Palermo and Barrio Sur districts. Another key element of Montevideo’s Carnaval are the murgas, organized groups of 15 to 17 gaudily dressed performers, including three percussionists, who perform original pieces of musical theatre, often satirical and based on political themes all over the city
- Semana Criolla - (March) After Carnaval, this is Montevideo’s liveliest fest, and is essentially a celebration of gaucho culture – those tough-looking, leather boot-wearing cowboys from Uruguay’s interior who manage to make oversized belt buckles look cool. Come for rodeo events, concerts, open-air barbecues and craft fairs.
- Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha - (March) This colourful, homegrown five-day event in Tacuarembó is the planet’s largest gaucho festival, attracting participants from Argentina, southern Brazil and all over Uruguay for exhibitions of traditional gaucho skills, music and other activities. (http://www.patriagaucha.com.uy/)
- Días del Patrimonio - In the last weekend of September or first weekend of October, Montevideo’s museums, churches and historic homes all open their doors free to the public during the National Heritage Days, celebrated throughout Uruguay.
BEST TIME TO VISIT URUGUAY
The best time to visit Uruguay is October through March, when the sun shines and temperatures are mild. Punta del Este overflows with tourists from Argentina in summer; if you're seeking a more relaxed time to visit the beaches of the coast, consider going between October and December. That said, every season in Uruguay offers travellers ideal weather for a certain type of activity. In the country’s autumn months (from late April to early June), you can enjoy exploring the city, as well as the coastal region without the crowds of the summer season.
Temperatures begin to cool in Uruguay during the Autumn months (March - May). While the busy tourist season of the summer dies down, visitors at this time will enjoy warm days and quiet streets perfect for strolling. Additionally, marked as the harvest season, vineyards across the country are busy picking grapes. The event is largely celebrated, including wine festivals and events at many vineyards and towns across the country.
- February - Street theatre and drumming consume Montevideo during Carnaval celebrations.
- March - Tacuarembó’s gaucho festival, plus lower prices on the still-sunny Atlantic coast.
- October - Soak in Salto’s hot springs, or explore Uruguay’s monuments for free during Días del Patrimonio.
URUGUAY WEATHER SYNOPSIS
Warm Temperate; Freezing Temperatures Almost Unknown
URUGUAY TOURIST SEASONS
Most destinations have different times of the year when they’re more or less popular with tourists.
Off Peak Season
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN URUGUAY
HIKING & CYCLING IN URUGUAY
You can enjoy outdoor activities in Uruguay throughout the year. The peak season is from December to March and can be a little hot, while the months of May to September can get rather chilly. The best time for hiking is during the shoulder season months of April, October and November when the crowds are less, but the weather still good.
BEACH OPTIONS IN URUGUAY
The best time to enjoy the beautiful beaches of Uruguay is from October to May, with the busiest peak tourist season (and warmest weather) between December and March.
SURFING IN URUGUAY
Uruguay has over 80 surf breaks scattered along its 200kms of Atlantic coast. There are waves all year round, but the best months are from September to November and from March to May.
KITESURF IN URUGUAY
You can find suitable conditions for kitesurfing in Uruguay from September to March, with December and January being the most consistent months. There are good flat water lagoons and wave spots for both beginners and advanced riders, the most popular being Laguna Garzon.
For more details on kite surfing in Uruguay expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN URUGUAY
Be aware of possible health risks in
Yellow fever - The yellow fever virus is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America. The virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. There is no medicine to treat or cure an infection. To prevent getting sick from yellow fever, use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and get vaccinated.
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
URUGUAY TRAVEL COSTS
Uruguay is surprisingly expensive, especially going by the backpacking standard that attracts so many budget travellers to South America. A chivito sandwich in Montevideo costs about the same as a pulled pork sandwich in Memphis, and you won’t find hotels charging hostel prices like elsewhere on the continent. On average the cost of travel in Uruguay is about 20% higher than in Argentina, though still lower than Brazil.
Hostels and hotel prices in Uruguay are on par with what you will pay in the USA or Europe. Rates can easily double or triple per night in the summer season (late December through February) when demand is at the highest. Breakfast is often included in the price of a bed, though what's on offer will vary. If you want to stay for a few weeks or more, it'll make sense to rent an apartment. Just remember that if you intend to visit during the summer season, you'll have to book two to three months in advance. During the low season, Punta del Este's apartments are very affordable.
Food in Uruguay is not cheap either, which leads many backpackers to cook for themselves to save some money.
SAMPLE COSTS FOR URUGUAY:
Meal, Inexpensive Restaurant US$ 10.21
Meal for 2 People, Mid-range Restaurant, Three-course US$ 39.20
Domestic Beer in a bar (0.5 litre draught) US$ 3.18
Cappuccino in restaurant US$ 2.64
How To Stick to a Tight Budget:
The best way to save money is to visit outside of the peak summer season (late December to February).
Slow down - stick around and enjoy a place rather than rushing off to the next destination. The further and faster you go, the more you’ll have to pay.
Eat like a local at street stalls or markets.
Opt for dorm rooms or share a room with a buddy.
Stay in fan (non-air-con) rooms with shared bathroom.
Travel overland instead of flying.
Book flights online (and bus tickets where possible) rather than paying an agent commission.
Snorkel instead of dive.
Choose small towns instead of big cities.
Be discriminating about which sites and national parks to visit.
Factor in more free days: on the beach and exploring neighbourhoods.
Avoid package deals (transportation, lodging, touring).
Know how much local transportation should cost and bargain accordingly.
Avoid surprises by negotiating taxi fares before getting inside.
Don’t forget to factor in the costs of visas.
Track all of your daily expenses so you know your average costs.
URUGUAY TRAVEL TIPS
Uruguay is a paradise for travellers who want to get off the beaten track. Look beyond the tourist hot spots and embrace Uruguay’s wide-open spaces in places like Valle del Lunarejo and Cabo Polonio.
Travel in Uruguay is refreshingly easy. Buses are frequent, efficient, comfortable and relatively inexpensive, while driving Uruguay’s sparsely travelled back roads is considerably less stressful than in many other South American countries.
If possible, visit Montevideo on the weekend, when you can enjoy some of the city’s most iconic local events, like the Ciudad Vieja antiques market.
One of the prettiest beach towns on the Atlantic Coast, the Punta del Diablo has an easy-going vibe and laid-back guesthouses, beachfront bars and fireside parties on the sands.
GETTING AROUND MONTEVIDEO
Buses, shuttle vans, taxis and remises (private cars) make the 20km journey from the airport into Montevideo. Cheapest are the local Copsa and Cutcsa buses (US$1.50, 45 minutes) that leave from a stop directly in front of the arrivals hall, making frequent stops en route to Terminal Suburbana, five blocks north of Plaza del Entrevero. Faster and more comfortable is COT’s direct bus service between the airport (US$4.50, 30 minutes) and Tres Cruces bus terminal. Look for the stop to the right as you exit the arrivals hall. Shared shuttle vans (five-person minimum) also travel from the airport to the center (US$10 per person); buy tickets from the taxi counter in the airport arrivals hall. Fixed-rate airport taxis charge between US$30 to US$40 (depending on neighbourhood) for the 30- to 45-minute taxi ride from the airport into Montevideo. You can also book a private car (remise) for the same price in advance on www.bybremises.com.
Montevideo’s city buses, operated by Cutcsa, go almost everywhere for < US$1 per ride. For the beach neighbourhoods of Punta Carretas and Pocitos, take city buses 174 and 183, respectively, from in front of the terminal.
GETTING AROUND URUGUAY
Buses are comfortable, the government-regulated fares are reasonable and distances are short. Many companies offer free wi-fi on board. In the few cities that lack terminals, all companies are within easy walking distance of each other, usually around the main plaza.
If you are staying in Uruguay less than 90 days and plan to drive, you need only bring a valid driver’s license from your home country. Uruguayan drivers are extremely considerate on average.
Taxis, remises (private cars) and local buses are similar to those in Argentina. Taxis are metered; between 10pm and 6am, and on Sundays and holidays, fares are 20% higher. There’s a small additional charge for luggage, and passengers generally tip the driver by rounding fares up to the next multiple of five or 10 pesos. Uber and similar ride-sharing services are also widely used in Montevideo and Punta de Este.
Micros (minibuses) form the backbone of the local transit network in smaller coastal towns such as La Paloma.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF URUGUAY
- Carnaval - Dance the nights away during Montevideo’s famous festivities.
- Punta del Diablo - Catch a wave or a beach party along the sultry shoreline.
- Thermal Baths - Soak your travel-weary muscles in the hot springs near Salto.
- Valle del Lunarejo - Get yourself off the beaten track in this pristine nature preserve.
- Colonia del Sacramento - Sunbathe on the town wall like a local, or just wander around this town on the Río de la Plata.
- Cabo Polonio - Get lost in the sand dunes and spot sea lions from atop the lighthouse.
- Museo de la Revolución Industrial - Tour Uruguay’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site in Fray Bentos.
- Punta del Este - Hitting the beaches by day and the clubs by night.
- Tacuarembó - Discover the simple joys of estancia living under the stars.
With a week up your sleeve you definitely won’t see all of Uruguay, but if you keep on the move you can see some of the best of what Uruguay has to offer. Start in the easy-going, picturesque historical river port of Colonia and head for the urban attractions of Montevideo, both an easy ferry ride from Buenos Aires. From Montevideo, continue north along the Atlantic coast and sample a few of Uruguay’s best beaches: the 1930s vintage resort of Piriápolis, glitzy Punta del Este, isolated Cabo Polonio, surfer-friendly La Paloma or the relaxed beach-party town of Punta del Diablo. Alternatively, follow the Río Uruguay upstream toward Iguazú Falls via the quirky industrial museum at Fray Bentos and the wonderful hot springs of Salto. Adding another week will allow you to do the above at a more leisurely pace, plus get out and explore Uruguay’s scenic and little-visited interior, where the gaucho (cowboy) tradition lives on.
Uruguay’s capital and largest city, Montevideo is a favourite for many travellers: small enough to walk or cycle around, but big enough to have some great museums and nightlife, plus an impressive string of beaches along the Río de la Plata. Young montevideanos (people from Montevideo) take genuine pride in their city, and the arts and artisan scene is particularly strong. Montevideo’s most interesting buildings and museums are in the Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), west of Plaza Independencia, the city’s largest square. Hire a bicycle and go cruising along the riverfront Rambla, a 20km walking-jogging-cycling track that leads past Parque Rodó, one of Montevideo’s most popular parks, then follows the shoreline to the city’s eastern beaches: Punta Carretas, Pocitos, Buceo, Malvin and Carrasco.
More location information and points of interest are available in the above map
The land west of Montevideo is in many ways the ‘real’ Uruguay – little river towns separated by large expanses of pampas and wheat fields. It’s far off the tourist trail, mostly, except for the region’s superstar, Colonia del Sacramento, whose charms attract visitors from all over the world.
Take a step back in time as you explore the gracious 18th-century cobbled streets and fascinating history of former smugglers’ haven, Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Check out the great bar and restaurant scene and the gorgeous position on a peninsula of the Río de la Plata. All this and its super-accessible location a short hop away from both Montevideo and Buenos Aires make ‘Colonia’ a classic tourist town, but even on weekends it’s worth dodging the crowds and letting yourself get seduced by the town’s eternal charms.
This is Uruguay’s playground - a long stretch of beaches all the way from Montevideo to the Brazilian border offers something for everyone: from surfers, party animals, nature lovers to family groups. In midsummer prices skyrocket and beach towns seriously pack out. During the rest of the year you might have them to yourself. Conflicts between Spain and Portugal, and then between Argentina and Brazil, left eastern Uruguay with historical monuments such as the imposing fortress of Santa Teresa. Just inland lies a varied landscape of palm savannas, lagoons and marshes rich in birdlife.
WHAT TO PACK FOR URUGUAY
Take as little as possible because you’re going to have to carry it everywhere. Pack your bag once and then repack it with a third less stuff. Repeat until your pack is small enough to fit into the aircraft’s overhead locker. The smaller your pack the easier it will be to climb on and off public transportation (which doesn’t always come to a complete stop), the easier it will be to walk if taxi drivers are asking for too much money, and you’ll look like less of a target for touts and hustlers.
In general, lightweight, loose-fitting clothes will be the most comfortable options. Bring a jacket for cool highland temperatures and over-air-conditioned buses. Pants and long-sleeve shirts are handy insect protection for jungle hikes.
- Rain gear (jacket, dry pack for electronics)
- Hat (for sun and rain)
- Good walking shoes
- Flip-flops (for beaches and dodgy showers)
- Medicine/first-aid kit
- Unlocked GSM cell phone
- Refillable water bottle & water filter
- Tissues (for public toilets)
WHAT TO EAT IN URUGUAY
Uruguayan cuisine revolves around grilled meat. Parrillas (restaurants with big racks of meat roasting over a wood fire) are everywhere, and weekend asados (barbecues) are a national tradition. Chivitos are hugely popular, as are chivitos al plato (served with fried potatoes instead of bread). In rural Uruguay, vegetarians often have to content themselves with the ubiquitous pizza and pasta, although vegetarian- and vegan-friendly restaurants are increasingly emerging in places like Montevideo and Colonia del Sacramento. Seafood is excellent on the coast. Desserts are heavy on meringue, dulce de leche (milk caramel), burnt sugar and custard.
ESSETIALS TO TRY:
- Asado - Mixed grill featuring various cuts of meat cooked over a wood fire.
- Buñuelos de Algas - Savoury seaweed fritters.
- Chajá - A sweet concoction of sponge cake, meringue, cream and fruit.
- Chivito - Steak sandwich piled high with toppings.
- Medio y medio - A refreshing blend of half white wine, half sparkling wine.
Most restaurants charge cubiertos – small ‘cover’ charges that theoretically pay for the basket of bread offered before your meal.
LGBTQ IN URUGUAY
Uruguay is arguably the most LGBT-friendly country in Latin America and has also tied 3 ranked most LGBT-friendly countries in the world with France and Switzerland. The annual Gay Pride Festival is currently known as the Diversity March and takes place in the capital Montevideo.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Uruguay are among the most liberal in both South America and the world. Same-sex sexual activity has been legal since 1934. Anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT people have been in place since 2004. Civil unions for same-sex couples have been allowed since 2008 and same-sex marriage in Uruguay has been legal since August 5, 2013.
WHERE TO STAY IN URUGUAY
Uruguay has an excellent network of hostels and campgrounds, especially along the Atlantic coast. Other low-end options include hospedajes (family homes) and residenciales (budget hotels). Posadas are available in all price ranges and tend to be homier than hotels. Hotels are ranked from one to five stars, according to amenities. Country estancias turísticas (marked with blue National Tourism Ministry signs) provide lodging on farms.
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