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Uruguay: What to See and Do

Filed Under: Sightseeing, South America

All too often, tiny Uruguay becomes a side-trip destination from Buenos Aires, as tourists overlook the small nation's many attractive towns, beaches and outdoor activities. All manner of travelers will be satisfied with a jaunt to Uruguay, though. Whether you're seeking out the history of Colonia del Sacramento or the urban delights of Montevideo, Uruguay will meet your needs. Plus, you can enjoy a hike through remote villages, unwind in hot tubs, work on an actual ranch and even cheer on the home team among impassioned fans at a soccer game. Here we've highlighted Uruguay's must-see cities and activities.

Cities to Visit
Colonia del Sacramento
Far too many tourists head into Colonia del Sacramento as a day trip from Buenos Aires -- the Argentine capital city is a short 50-minute boat ride across the Rio de la Plata. But Uruguay's oldest city warrants a multiday stop to truly savor the many charms of its cobbled streets, welcoming plaza and interesting museums. First pay a visit to the Plaza Mayor 25 de Mayo, where you'll find the 17th-century Convent of San Francisco ruins and a 19th-century lighthouse. Climb to the top of the lighthouse for excellent views of the town. Also be sure the visit the Municipal Museum, which is filled with historic artifacts. Plus check out the city gate and wooden drawbridge, as well as the Casa de Nacarello, a restored 18th-century Portuguese house, and the Iglesia Matriz, Uruguay's oldest church.

Montevideo, Uruguay
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Montevideo, Uruguay
Montevideo
The capital of Uruguay, Montevideo is also the country's largest city, luring visitors with its bustling streets and urban landscape. Immediately visit the historic Old City's main landmark, the tree-lined Plaza Independencia. It’s marked by the enormous Mausoleo de Artigas, a statue and underground crypt that commemorates the life of Jose Artigas, a national hero of independence. Also in the plaza, check out the city's original stone gateway, the Puerta de la Ciudadela, as well as the former government house the Palacio Estevez, and the Iglesia Matriz, the city's oldest public building. After immersing yourself in history, unwind in one of Montevideo's 6 public parks, including the Parque Prado and Parque Rodo.
What to See and Do
La Rambla
A trip to Montevideo is hardly complete without a stroll along its famed La Rambla, a promenade that stretches some 13 miles alongside the city's coastline. Join scores of locals as they walk, jog and bicycle along La Rambla on sunny days and at sunset. Plenty of public space means that people use La Rambla as a gathering point, as well as to fly kites and even to fish. Tourists might want to consider renting a bicycle to fully explore La Rambla -- and to see Uruguayan culture at its most relaxed.

Attend a Soccer Match at Estadio Centenario
When they're not strolling along La Rambla, Montevideo’s locals can likely be found rooting for the Uruguayan national soccer team (remember, it's called "futbol" in South America). The team plays at the Estadio Centenario stadium. Dating back to 1929, the stadium was built to host the 1930 FIFA World Cup, and earned its famed status after being listed by FIFA as one of soccer's 9 classic stadiums. Today, Uruguayans clamor to attend the stadium’s games, which are always raucous good times. To get an unparalleled sense of Uruguay's sporting culture, grab game tickets while in Montevideo.

Punta del Este
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Punta del Este
Punta del Este
One of South America's most glamorous seaside resort towns, Punta del Este's glittering lights, sandy shores, casinos and yachts attract a well-heeled crowd. The “punta” is actually a point where the Rio de la Plata and Atlantic Ocean meet, and it's along the river side that tourists will find a majority of beach resorts. Don't worry about immersing yourself in culture here; Punta's greatest attraction is its beaches. After a day spent lounging on the sands, visit the town's port, where you can see the city's landmark Punta del Este Lighthouse.

Casapueblo
For a unique experience visit Casapueblo, the playful art studio of the artist Carlos Paéz Vilaró. The studio is a 9-story masterpiece in itself, reminiscent of Gaudi's Catalan Modernism architecture, with whitewashed walls and ledges tumbling down a hillside toward bright blue waters below. The space now serves as a museum, art gallery and resort -- guests can stay overnight within these whimsical walls.

Relax in Hot Springs Near Salto
Travelers to Uruguay's northwest region should indulge their weary muscles -- or even their wide-awake muscles! -- in the steamy hot springs located outside the small town of Salto. Head to the Termas del Daymán, a complex of hot-spring pools that are kept at a sweltering 100 to 110 degrees. The complex also features tourist-friendly amenities, such as showers, food kiosks and lawns for relaxing. Proponents of hot springs believe that the hot, mineral-rich water can cure all kinds of ailments, from sore muscles, to acne, arthritis and even general anxiety -- so take a dip and leave any worries behind.

Cabo Polonio
Should you make your way to Uruguay's far eastern shores, head to Cabo Polonio, an isolated village located on the tip of a peninsula. For those willing to hike the 4 miles into the hamlet -- no roads access the village -- Cabo is like a trip back in time. Visitors will see a stark landscape and thriving wildlife such as sea lions and a scenic lighthouse dotting the coast. The area is truly breathtaking: sand-covered, windswept dunes, crashing waves and rocky promontories. Cabo simply feels like the end of the world in all its wildness; fewer than 100 residents call it home. Still, there are accommodations, including a small clean hotel, Hosteria la Perla, as well as a smattering of restaurants, and during the summer, food stands.

Visit an Estancia
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Visit an Estancia
Visit an Estancia
Visiting one of Uruguay’s estancias -- basically a South American ranch or agricultural estate -- offers visitors insight into the rural life of the country's gauchos, or cowboys, who were once a mainstay across Uruguay's rolling grasslands and pastures. An estancia trip introduces travelers to cultural traditions and a rustic lifestyle not found within Uruguay's small towns and cities. Many estancias have been adapted specifically for tourists, so you won't truly be "roughing it" on the ranch. Rather, visits might involve scenic horseback rides, bird-watching, gardening and helping gauchos with their cattle-related activities, like feeding, branding or milking, if you so desire.

What to Eat
As a nation that once based its economy on ranching, Uruguay is a utopia of meats; a vast number of the nation’s restaurants are parrilladas, or grill rooms. Chow down on the meats favored by locals, such as bife de chorizo, a rump steak, and morcilla salada, a salty sausage. Other specialties include chivito, a decadent steak sandwich stuffed with cheese, lettuce, tomato, ham, olives, bacon and pickles. You'll need something to wash all that grilled goodness down, and luckily, Uruguay has a decent selection of wines. Many of the locals also drink yerba mate, a strong, bitter tea. Finally, if you've saved room for dessert, order anything that features dulce de leche -- similar to caramel, it's divine.

About the Author

Valerie Conners is a freelance writer, editor and producer who has worked with the Travel Channel for more than 14 years, specializing in travel topics including the world's best beaches, outdoor travel and romantic getaways. Her work also appears in many online and print publications including, Aol Travel, Discovery Channel, World Hum, Frommer's Travel Guides, the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer. She's happiest when eating spicy Thai food, snorkeling with sea turtles in Indonesia and bargaining for bangles in Indian markets. She blogs about her travels at PassengerConners.com.

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