Best known for the town of Fray Bentos, World Cup glory and having more cattle than people, Uruguay is far more than the sum of its cows. Gauchos roam vast stretches of grassland, estancias welcome visitors with old-style hospitality and boutique fishing villages line the unspoiled beaches. This laidback country can certainly stand up to its bigger, brasher neighbours.
A laidback capital
Montevideo's rambla is a wonderful spot to watch city life © jorge, Shutterstock
Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, indeed its only major city, sits on the estuary of the River Plate, with 13km of beaches linked by a waterfront boulevard known as the rambla. It’s a delightfully laid-back, peaceful and friendly city where a normal working day seems like a sleepy Sunday morning in Buenos Aires, but it has all the services you’d expect, plus a lively social and cultural scene. Enjoy the grand buildings along the main Avenida 18 de Julio, as well as candombé drumming groups rehearsing on Sundays for the Las Llamadas procession.
The greatest party on earth
Candombe drummers are a frequent sight during carnaval © jorge, Shutterstock
Uruguay takes great pride in having the longest carnival season of any country, over 80 days long. The prelude to Montevideo’s carnaval season is a grand parade, when huge floats, giant puppets and groups of murga performers proceed for five hours along Avenida 18 de Julio, the city’s main axis. A week later, Las Llamadas (‘The Calls’) is a procession of 40 different comparsas or cuerdas (candombé drumming groups) each night through the Barrio Sur and Palermo. The 40 days of Lent are occupied by performances on tablados or temporary stages in the various quarters of Montevideo and in the Teatro del Verano, the open-air theatre near Parque Rodó, where a competition is held to choose the very best acts.
Discover where corned beef originated
To Uruguayans, Fray Bentos is known largely for its international bridge to Argentina and the blockades that kept it closed as a result of Argentine dislike of the Botnia paper pulp mill, close to Fray Bentos. To the British, however, Fray Bentos is synonymous with corned beef, and happily the meat-packing plant has reopened as an industrial heritage museum. The site, awarded Unesco World Heritage status in July 2015, stands alone on the east bank of the River Uruguay with a backdrop of flat, fertile pampas and attractive palm trees.
Hike one of the world’s largest canyons
© Psiblastaeban, Wikimedia Commons
The Quebrada de los Cuervos is the largest canyon in Uruguay, with subtropical forest at its bottom and many species of birds and flowers otherwise found mainly in Brazil, makes for a superb hiking experience. Cut into the Cuchilla Grande range by the , the canyon reaches a depth of 175m. The name means ‘Gorge of the Crows’ but refers to vultures, all three Uruguayan species of which breed on its cliffs.
...and when you’re ready for rest and relaxation
© Ministry of Tourism and Sport in Uruguay
The small fishing village of José Ignacio has recently been transformed into one of the world’s most chic and exclusive holiday destinations, with boutique hotels, superb restaurants and an array of stunning modern houses. The sandy roads, empty beaches, hand-painted wooden signs and boho-chic style are key to its success, studiously avoiding the Miami Beach-style high-rise development of Punta del Este.