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Uruguay - When and where to visit
Uruguay has a warm-temperate (or subtropical) climate – in fact it’s the only South American country to be wholly within the temperate zone. The sun shines for most of the year and temperatures hardly ever drop below freezing point. Nevertheless, the weather can be unstable, owing to the lack of hills to act as barriers, and it can be windy, especially in winter and spring, with storms blowing up on the Plata estuary. In winter, a warm spell is liable to be ended by the pampero, a chilly wind that can howl in from the southwest, while the warmer sudestada brings rain from the southeast when a high-pressure system south of Buenos Aires combines with low pressure over northeastern Argentina. In summer, ocean breezes can bring welcome relief on hot days, while winds from the north only bring heat and humidity.
The seasons are clearly defined, but without great extremes of heat or cold. Spring is usually cool, damp and breezy; summer is hot, autumn is milder, and winter is relatively chilly and wet. The northwest of Uruguay, however, being further from the sea and the River Plate, is hotter in summer and drier and warmer in winter, but it does get more rain than the rest of the country.
Average temperatures range from 12°C in winter (June–September) to 25°C in summer (December–March). Rainfall (1m per annum) is evenly distributed year-round, although the wettest months are July and August, when cold fronts bring grey, drizzly weather; in summer thunderstorms are common (tornados are possible but very rare). Droughts can occur in summer and are likely to become more common with global climate change, even though average rainfall may be increasing – Uruguay is becoming more tropical, with species already extending their range southwards from Brazil. A drought in 2008–09 cost the country US$500–900 million as a result of lost agricultural production and of oil imports needed to replace normally plentiful hydro-electricity. There was another drought in 2011–12, but 2012–13 was very wet, and then very hot – in February 2013 the country recorded summer demand for both electricity and water. However, natural gas deposits have recently been located offshore, and by 2015 wind power should cover 25% of demand.
A 2008 report by Maplecroft (www.maplecroft.com) showed that Uruguay was the ninth-best-placed country to adapt to climate change, owing to its combination of geography, low population density, agricultural capacity, education level and infrastructure provision. Increased rainfall will bring more flooding, but Uruguay should cope reasonably well.
Uruguay can be visited all year round, but the high season is summer, from late December to February, when it’s hot and sunny and perfect for hanging out on the beach. It’s never really cold or wet at other times, but it certainly can be chilly in winter. Carnaval (carnival) is also a high point, culminating on Shrove Tuesday but starting (in Uruguay) long before then.
In Montevideo you should 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. Montevideo’s Carnaval is also spectacular, and at Easter there are impressive rodeos here. Montevideo is also a good base for visiting the wineries of Canelones department and nearby.
Colonia del Sacramento © kastianz, Shutterstock
Some of the best and most popular beaches in South America lie east of the capital, near the over-developed resort of Punta del Este and also the fashionable little villages of La Pedrera and José Ignacio, with their boutique hotels and restaurants.
Hiking and horseriding
Inland there is attractive hill country with opportunities for hiking and horseriding; the country’s most dramatic scenery is the Quebrada de los Cuervos, a gorge sheltering subtropical flora and fauna.
In the west of the country, there’s great birdwatching (and spectacular sunsets) by the Río Uruguay.
Further north there are many hot-springs resorts, such as the Termas de Daymán, near Salto.
Spend time on an estancia (ranch) such as La Sirena, near Mercedes, riding with gauchos, boating, birdwatching, and enjoying the relaxed old-style hospitality.
The El Anglo meat-processing plant at Fray Bentos is being restored as a wonderful museum of industrial heritage.
Almost all visits to Uruguay start in Montevideo, home of half of the country’s population, hub of its transport system and a place to enjoy architecture, markets, street life, beaches and museums. From there most visitors follow the coast, either west to Colonia or east to beach resorts, lagoons and wetlands. There’s less to see in the interior, with good roads linking a few towns that make good bases for visiting estancias – ideal locations to sample horseriding and country life. To the west larger cities lie along the Río Uruguay, which forms the border with Argentina, and make good bases for more riding and as well as birdwatching in the wetlands.
Many people visit from Argentina, often just for a short side trip. A basic triangular route would go by ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia, by bus to Montevideo and back to Buenos Aires by ferry, but it’s worth taking a side trip up to Carmelo, and if possible visiting the wineries near Montevideo. With a couple of extra days you could also go east to a beach.
(Photo: An old street in Colonia del Sacramento © Daniel Korzeniewski, Shutterstock)
Others are passing through from Buenos Aires to Brazil – most follow the coast, maybe bypassing Punta for La Pedrera, Cabo Polonio or José Ignacio – but it’s also possible to go through the interior to Rivera (which offers the best onward connections) or other border points. It’s also possible to travel up the litoral of western Uruguay and through Argentina (entering from Fray Bentos, Paysandú or Salto) to reach Iguazú Falls and the pantanal.