Pinned in between tourism monster magnets Argentina (to the south) and Brazil (to the north), little Uruguay has for many years been a secret treasure. Now, however, that is starting to change. Luxury resorts, miles of untouched beaches, charming coastal villages, world-class surfing spots, and a friendly exchange rate have made the country´s Atlantic coast a spectacular option for a beach vacation and one of South America’s top up-and-coming destinations. Indeed, National Geographic Traveler recently listed Uruguay as one of its 20 top trips of 2011.
With a population of just 3 million, most of which is concentrated in the capital city of Montevideo, one thing Uruguay manages to sidestep are crowds. The exception is in summertime, when glamorous Brazilian and Argentine scenesters pour into coastal Uruguay’s summertime mecca, Punta del Este. This beautiful peninsular city is full of sparkling new oceanfront high-rise condos (investors take note: anyone, regardless of nationality, can buy property in Uruguay) and world-class dining, as well as fashionable events and nightlife options offered both here and in the nearby, jet-set beach communities of La Barra, Punta Ballena, and José Ignacio, all of which have been touched on recently in the New York Times and Conde Nast Traveler.
Fear not, however, if high-end resort vacationing isn’t your cup of tea. Backtrack to pretty, colonial Montevideo or retro Piriápolis, both charming cities situated on the Rio de la Plata, a river so wide that it appears to be an ocean. Miles of rock-dotted beach are lined with boardwalks and balnearios, or beach clubs, that are rather démodé and quite the opposite of the trendy beach scene up the coast – perfect for those who prefer not to get caught up in the see-and-be-seen spectacle with the likes of Naomi Campbell and Ralph Lauren in Punta del Este.
If what you seek, though, is peace and quiet, trek 30 miles up the coast towards Brazil, past the pleasant ocean towns of La Pedrera and La Paloma, to the region of Rocha. This is Uruguay’s most untamed zone, where small pockets of people are outnumbered by cows, and horseback is a common mode of transportation. Much of Rocha’s rugged coastline is protected. Those who dwell in the tiny fishing villages of Valizas, Aguas Dulces, Punto del Diablo, and the wild peninsula of Cabo Polonio – powered exclusively by generators and accessible only by giant 4×4 trucks that cross dunes as high as buildings – are essentially squatters. A handful of hostels and bed and breakfasts (and, now, a luxury hotel in Cabo Polonio) attract mainly surfers and backpackers – travelers prepared to pitch a tent for the night and grill the catch of the day over a pit fire. The natural beauty of this section of Uruguay’s shore is absolutely breathtaking: palm forests, rivers that ebb and flow with the ocean tides, pearly white dunes, wild horses, and a horizon dotted by rickety fishing boats.
As coastal Uruguay gains attention on a global scale, some of these rustic areas are sure to become overrun with hostels and condos. Fortunately for peace-seekers, fashionable Punta del Este draws most of the hard-partying crowd, and much of the rest of the shoreline is protected by law.