Font size isn't everything, but Uruguay's self-esteem may be challenged by the succession of travel guidebooks that shout "ARGENTINA" and follow up almost apologetically with "& Uruguay" in much smaller type. The nation (which, since you ask, is nine times the size of Wales, and 90th biggest in the world) seems destined to be merely an appendix to a trip to mighty, beautiful Argentina.

Which is how I first arrived. The ferry 'cross the Plate leaves every hour or so from a smart steel-and-glass terminal close to the centre of Buenos Aires. The Argentinian capital likes to parade its supremacy over the rest of South America, with some economic and cultural justification – and it remains the only capital on that continent with a direct flight to Britain. But in sporting terms? Well, the fast passenger ferry sails from a nation that has won football's World Cup twice to :a nation that has won football's World Cup twice.

The Channel might be murky, but it is nothing to compare with the liquid mud of the River Plate. And while the white cliffs of France frame the traveller's arrival in Calais or Boulogne, low-lying Uruguay creeps over the horizon sporting colours barely discernable from the estuary. But at the end of the 33-mile crossing, you clamber ashore to a nation out of time.

Partly, the sense of chronological discontinuity is engendered by the way that Uruguay looks the part. If you asked a Hollywood designer to create the typical South American backwater, the resulting spectrum of faded primary colours, peeling paint and encroaching rust would look very much like Uruguay in the 21st century – and look, here comes a threadbare old bus that reached its drive-by date some decades earlier. CGI? No, reality. And, if you happen to step smartly aboard that bus for the three-hour ride to the capital, Montevideo, you will notice the human details that have been erased from most modern travel experiences – such as the way that the conductor wanders up and down waking slumbering passengers just before their stops.

Yet before you set the controls for the heart of Uruguay, you should explore the place where your ship came in. The town of Colonia del Sacramento occupies a peninsula and resembles, once again, a film set – this time for a stylish tale of passion and intrigue in the 18th-century Spanish Empire. But nothing has been restored: this jumble of churches and courtyards (actually created by Portuguese colonists) has been a backwater for most of its life.

Like Argentina, Uruguay is cowboy country – and the bus trip over the 110 miles from Colonia to the capital, Montevideo, takes you through endless, mesmerising, plains until the city begins to take shape. You will soon discover that this is a very elegant city, on a human scale, a comfortable place that gently embraces you. This is Latin America the way it was – or certainly the way it was meant to be.

Besides the cathedral, breezy plazas, and a selection of government buildings trying vainly to look important, there's one more reason to come to the Uruguayan capital. Like Rio, it is a Latin American city with a beach attached: silvery sand stretching for miles, opening up Montevideo to the world and providing the perfect start or end for a South American adventure. End, probably – not because the nation is an add-on, but so that, on a grim Northern Hemisphere morning, the colours and the smiles of a Uruguayan journey can flood back to warm the day.

Simon Calder bought a flight to Buenos Aires on Aerolineas Argentinas, and from Montevideo on Iberia

Heading south

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