If you know little about Uruguay, that is understandable. Uruguay seems to fly under just about everyone’s radar. The country is largely agricultural with an emphasis on farming, renewable forestry, and grazing land. Little manufacturing takes place in Uruguay, perhaps because her larger neighbors are so dominant at producing and shipping goods. Uruguay seems comfortable wedged between Brazil and Argentina. With over 400 miles of Atlantic coastline and situated at a temperate latitude, Uruguay is perfectly situated to serve as the playground for its wealthier neighbors. Its 68,000 square miles of rolling, fertile countryside, about the size of Missouri, serves as a relaxed getaway for all who come to enjoy the highlights.
Having arrived at the Montevideo airport around midnight, we glimpse silhouettes of palm trees on the drive to our hotel. September is still winter in Uruguay. We wake up the next morning and venture out in the brisk air to gather our first impressions, and we see Montevideo is peaceful, clean, and welcoming. A day tour takes us by train to Juanico to visit the Don Pascual Winery about 20 miles north of the capital, and the award-winning wines we sampled were every bit as good as the fine wines from Argentina and Chile.
We choose public transportation to tour the countryside, first to the coast resort cities of Piriopolis, Maldonado, and Punta del Este. Almost everything is closed until the holidays when Argentineans with their families pour across the border by the thousands to summer homes in fancy neighborhoods. Punta del Este actually has a suburb appropriately named Beverly Hills, and it rivals its namesake with its stately mansions and its luxurious estates.
Our next stop is Cabo Polonia National Park on the Atlantic Coast. This isolated seaside village, accessible only by safari truck, is home to a large herd of seals and features scattered quaint summer cabins, a Coast Guard lighthouse, a couple of restaurants, and a couple of hotels, one of which opens just for us thanks to advance reservations. There are perhaps ten other people in the village, and five of them are in the Coast Guard. Blanca, the hotel housekeeper, prepares us a room and opens the kitchen at dinnertime, providing us with our choice of fried fish or baked fish, with or without mayonnaise. She fires up the hotel generator for an hour or so of light before bedtime. The portable propane heater supplements the wool blankets to keep us warm. The highlight for me is when Blanca shuts down the generator and I step outside into total darkness to see the Southern Cross and strangely new constellations for the first time. It is literally like being on another planet.
Our travel route takes us clear across the country to the western cities of Mercedes, Fray Bentos, Salto, and eventually back to Colonia de Sacramento. Each of these towns has a unique and special appeal. Mercedes has a beautiful riverfront park and spectacular cathedrals and plazas. Fray Bentos is the quaintest of these towns. It features one of the few factories in Uruguay, a paper fiber plant that produces cardboard boxes, mostly for shipping customers in Buenos Aires. Argentina is just across the bridge over the Uruguay River. Salto has an historic playhouse that oozes charm, and there is a nearby hot spring park that we enjoyed on an uncrowded day.
Colonia de Sacramento was an appropriate location to end our three week tour of Uruguay. The oldest of Uruguay’s cities, it was settled by the Portuguese in 1680. The Spanish and Portuguese fought over this strategic port during colonial times for 150 years. The city changed hands a dozen times between Spain, Portugal and Brazil before it became part of the independent Republic of Uruguay in 1828. One highlight in the historic center of Colonia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the Street of Sighs. Some say this historic street derived its name from the prostitutes who served the desires of sailors visiting the port. Regardless of the story, it remains much the same as it was in colonial times with its cobblestone streets and low stucco houses that now serve as shops to the many tourists. Buenos Aires is 45 minutes away by ferry, and that’s where our travels take us next on our Vacation of a Lifetime.