Montevideo was originally founded as a small military fortress in 1724. Today it has a population of some 1.3 million (over 35% of the country’s total). The heart of the city is best explored on foot. Key landmarks include the Plaza de la Constitution and the cathedral which dates from 1790. The pedestrianised area around Independence Square is full of cafes, restaurants and small independent shops. We recommend a visit to the Museo del Carnaval and to the lively Mercado del Puerto particularly around lunchtime.
Visitors with an interest in history may like to visit the Naval Museum which has information about the Graf Spee and the Battle of the River Plate (13 Dec 1939).
Colonia do Sacramento was founded in 1680 by Portuguese settlers from Brazil. Today Colonia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with lovely old stone colonial houses, cobbled streets and well-preserved ‘olde worlde’ charm although it does get busy at weekends with day trippers from Buenos Aires arriving by ferry.
Colonia can easily be explored on foot in a few hours but we recommend at least one night here to enjoy the town when it is quieter. The Museo Portugues is worth a visit. On a clear day you can see Buenos Aires from the lighthouse. At the northern edge of the town you can find the fortifications of the Bastion del Carmen which is now also home to a theatre and arts complex.
Punta del Este is a well-established resort with sandy beaches, blue waters and yachts which in January and February attracts lots of tourists. It has long been popular with affluent Argentines and Brazilian and with its casinos, expensive restaurants and lively nightclubs ‘Punta’ (as it is known) is sometimes compared with the South of France, Monaco or the Hamptons. Playa Mansa on the western side of the peninsula is calmer than Playa Brava.
Wildlife enthusiasts might like to visit Isla Gorriti or Isla de Lobos where there is a large sea-lion colony. If you are particularly interested in birdwatching we suggest a visit to Parque Indigena where 230 species have been recorded. At Punta Ballena you might like to visit the Casapueblo home and gallery of Uruguayan artist Carlos Pez Vilaro who died in 2014.
Not very long ago Jose Ignacio was an unknown sleepy fishing village. Today Jose Ignacio is a highly fashionable chic retreat for socialites, surfers and international jet-setters particularly in the period around Christmas and the New Year. Ultra-modern hotels have sprung up with an emphasis on design and the ultimate in barefoot luxury. They call this stretch of the coastline north of Punta del Este Uruguay’s riviera.
Cabo Polonio is rather an eclectic off-the-beaten track hamlet with a small collection of cottages built upon sand dunes, with no electricity or running water. Road access is limited (private vehicles are not allowed so you have to walk 7km or pay for a lift in a 4×4) and WiFi is non-existant.
The Cabo Polonio National Park is an area of great natural beauty and diversity with sandy beaches, rocky outcrops, expansive dunes, coastal forest, small wetlands, ocean areas and islands. It is home to endangered and threatened species and provides the breeding and feeding grounds for fur seals, sea lions and various species of fish.
The small Uruguayan city of Fray Bentos, close to the border with Argentina, was the original location of the main factory of the German-British Liebig Extract of Meat Company (Lemco) which gave the world Oxo and corned beef. Fray Bentos grew simultaneously with the factory. The plant played a significant role in the development of Uruguay’s beef farming industry. Lemco’s famous factory, which became known as the Anglo-Meatpacking Company (or ‘Frigorifico Anglo del Uruguay’) in 1924, has been turned into an industrial museum, the Museo de la Revolucion Industrial and has received recognition as a UNESCO site of cultural significance.
Paysandú, on the Uruguay River just over 100 km north of Fray Bentos, was founded in 1772 by and has a particularly good museum from the time of the Brazilian siege of 1864-65.
The Paysandú Beer Festival is celebrated every year during Easter week and attracts thousands of attendees as well as national and international musicians who play for around 19,000 people at an outdoor stage. If wine is your thing, we recommend a visit to the Bodega Leonardo Falcone, one of Uruguay’s finest vineyards.
Cerro Colorado is a small town with a population of around 1400 people in the interior. It has an ornate watertower and a 130 ft bell-tower with 23 bells which was built between 1954 and 1960. The bell tower, the land, the school, the police station, the medical centre and an amphitheatre were all donated and built by philanthropist Alberto Gallinal Heber, whose family built and owned the nearby San Pedro de Timote estancia which is now a country hotel.
The impressive fortress at Santa Teresa was started by the Portuguese in 1762 and is the site of many battles between colonial powers (British, Spanish and Portuguese) as well as the ‘Orientales’ seeking independence for Uruguay. The fort is surrounded by 3000 hectares of forest. Nearby, at La Coronilla, is the Karumbe marine turtle protection centre which has received support from the Latin America Travel Association Foundation.