Uruguay: off the map?
The first thing to say about Uruguay is that it's definitely not like many other Latin American countries – and that's a big positive. Uruguay is small by the standards of its big neighbours, about one-third larger than England. The nation is prosperous and stable, run by serious politicians who are not in the game to enrich themselves. The buses run on time, and hotels and restaurants are down-to-earth and friendly (much like the Uruguayan people) – except in the main beach resort of Punta del Este, which in season is essentially an Argentinian enclave.
Uruguay is squeezed between two giant neighbours, with Argentina to the south and Brazil to the north, and it has the same sort of relation to them as does Canada to the United States, or Ireland to Britain – a sense of being overshadowed by a larger, louder neighbour, while its inhabitants feel, deep inside, that they are the smarter, wittier ones.
Many European travellers pass through Uruguay only briefly en route between Argentina and Brazil, or pop over for a flying visit from Buenos Aires before returning to the big-city delights of the Argentinian capital. But Uruguay deserves attention in its own right – and is also the country that, more than any other in South America, could be classed as the ideal low-budget, low-stress introduction to the continent.
Paint me a picture
The Atlantic coast to the east of Montevideo is marked by a succession of rocky capes. Each has a calmer beach on its western side and a wilder beach, usually dominated with surfers, on its eastern side. The interior comprises mainly open grassland roamed by large herds of cattle, waiting to be converted into the world's finest beef. There are still traditional estancias where you can stay and ride with the gauchos – such as the Estancia La Sirena, near Rio Negro in the Soriano department (00 598 99 102 130; lasirena.com.uy). The cost of full board is a modest US$110 (£74) per person, per night for full board and all activities.
The west of the country, along the Rio Uruguay which gave the country its name, is known for hot springs and unspoilt wetlands, with a wonderful array of bird species and stunning sunsets.
Oh, and the nation excels at football. Even though Uruguay has only about as many people as the West Midlands, the national team has done brilliantly to win the World Cup twice and reach the semi-finals this year. If you want to see a game, the best venue is Montevideo's Estadio Centenario.
Where do I start?
Almost all visitors arrive in Montevideo – a surprisingly elegant capital, on a human scale. Like Acapulco and Rio, it is a Latin American city with an excellent beach attached.
Montevideo's museums are not exactly world-class, but the main drag, the Avenida 18 de Julio, is lined with a top-notch line-up of architecture from the 1870s to the present, with plenty of over-the-top historical eclecticism and much cooler Art Deco.
The city's main landmark is the Palacio Salvo, a tower that resembles Jules Verne's idea of a space rocket. Beyond it lies the Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), with colonial buildings – some very dilapidated – and the city's liveliest bars, such as Roldos, in the Mercado del Puerto.
Where can I stay – and eat?
Plenty of visitors stay in one of the capital's many locally owned mid-range hotels, such as the Balmoral Plaza at Plaza Cagancha 1126 (00 598 2 902 2393; balmoral.com.uy; doubles from US$90/£60 room only). Luxury chains such as the Four Points by Sheraton at Ejido 1275 (00 598 2 901 7000; fourpoints.com/montevideo) are represented, with rates well below the international norm. Doubles here start at US$155 (£103) room only.
Montevideo now has half-a-dozen backpackers' hostels, such as the Red Hostel at San Jose 1406 (00 598 2 908 8514/16; redhostel.com), where rates start at US$14 (£9) per night including breakfast.
Perhaps surprisingly, Montevideo is one of the best places in the world to sample Basque cuisine, because of the number of immigrants from northern Spain and south-west France who settled here. Baserri Etxeko at the corner of Avenida Julio Herrera at Calle Reissig 957 (00 598 2 411 6895; baserricocina vasca.blogspot.com) is highly regarded for seafood. It opens noon-3pm and 8pm-midnight daily except Sunday.
El Fogó*at San Jose 1080 (00 598 2 900 0900; elfogon.com.uy) is one of the most renowned parrilladas (grills). It opens noon-4pm and 7pm-1am daily, and is well placed for many mid-range hotels.
The Rincó*de Zabala (Rincó*787; 00 598 2 915 1617; open 9.30am-5.30pm from Monday to Friday), known as RdZ ("erre-day-zayta"), is a stylish place for lunch. It's aimed at financial types but is well within the budget of those working their way through the nearby museums. Besides sandwiches, there is always a cheap menu of the day, plus specials such as veal, stuffed pumpkins or paella.
For something simpler and cheaper, El Gaucho (18 de Julio 1449 at the corner of Barrios Amorin; 00 598 2 908 3249; elgaucho.com.uy) is an all-day diner (8am-1am daily) with few pretensions.
Colonia del Sacramento, better known simply as Colonia, is the country's best-preserved colonial town and a touristic hotspot. Despite its location just across the River Plate from Buenos Aires – to which it is linked by frequent fast ferries, taking just an hour for a fare of US$25 (£16.50) with Buquebus (buquebus.com) – Colonia retains a village-like charm. The jumble of mainly 17th-century buildings is now occupied by galleries and restaurants. The Municipal Museum at Plaza Mayor 77 is well worth exploring. Consider staying at the Hotel Posada Casa Los Pinos at Washington Barbot 191 (00 598 52 31470; posadacasalospinos.com) where double rooms start at US$49 (£33) including breakfast.
I need a beach
A couple of hours east of the capital, Uruguay's Punta del Este is the leading Argentine beach resort (due to the lack of decent beaches anywhere on the south side of the River Plate). It has all the bling-tastic hotels and clubs a self-respecting Porteño [a resident of Buenos Aires] could wish for. For something cooler and less crowded, La Barra and Manantiales – around 20km further east – are where the surfing dudes hang out, V Cwith the bars pumping out the vibes late into the night. At the stylish and relaxed Posada de los Pajaros at Calle 10 & 5, parada 48 in Montoya (00 598 42 772181; posadadelospajaros.com.uy) a double room costs from US$130 (£86), including breakfast.
A little further east, from here to the chic fishing village of José Ignacio, is where the really rich and fashionable – including Argentine politicians and tycoons, singers such as Shakira, supermodels such as Gisele Bundchen and the writer Martin Amis – rent villas.
José Ignacio has no budget accommodation, but boasts boutique hotels built in a strikingly minimalist white-cube style. A good example is Posada del Faro, Calle de la Bahia (00 598 486 2110; posadadelfaro.com) where doubles start at US$180 (£120), including breakfast.
The great outdoors?
Surfing in the west, bird-watching in the east (and elsewhere), and horse-riding throughout the country are the most obvious outdoor activities. Many of Uruguay's estancias welcome visitors, who mostly come for horseback riding (perhaps heading out at dawn with the gauchos to select cattle for dipping and other treatments). Tour operator Last Frontiers (01296 653000; lastfrontiers.com) can put together a custom itinerary lasting around nine days from £1,415, excluding flights.
There is little hiking terrain or genuine backcountry. The country's highest point, Cerro Catedral, rises a mere 514 metres above sea level, but it's not a bad hike, mainly due to the birdlife along the way. You can access it from buses between Maldonado and Aigua; stay at the Posada de Campo La Laguna (00 598 944 23136; posadadecampolalaguna.com).
What's the food and drink like?
Uruguayan grass-fed beef is possibly the finest in the world, and the country has a fine sideline in seafood as well. Many of the people here are of Italian extraction, so almost every urban restaurant offers pasta, as well as a local approximation to pizza.
Rural Uruguay has a wide range of establishments, from pretty basic working farms to luxury country hotels with spas, swimming pools, tennis courts and even their own wineries – but all offer a warm welcome and large quantities of wholesome food, usually beef.
Uruguay's wineries are all boutique-sized (Chile's Concha y Toro winery produces more wine than the whole of Uruguay), and thus will never have much impact on the world's supermarkets, but they are almost all family-run, individual and very welcoming. In the Montevideo department, for example, you could visit the amusingly named Bodega Bouza at Camino de la Redencion 7658 bis (00 598 2 323 4030; bodegabouza.com).
Tannat, an obscure grape from south-west France, has become Uruguay's national varietal. As the name implies, it is heavy on tannin. But skilled winemakers and modern techniques now produce some superb wines: full-bodied, fruity and a bit smoky. Tannat-merlot blends work well, and some wineries are introducing delicious fortified tannats.
Tim Burford is author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay (£15.99), the first English-language guide dedicated to Uruguay alone.
A sense of history
Uruguay has been inhabited for at least 13,000 years; from around 4,000 years ago the main inhabitants were known as the Charrúa, who were largely killed off by the Europeans who arrived some time between 1502 and 1516. The few remaining aboriginal inhabitants were assimilated by the mid-19th century. The first Europeans introduced cattle, but they were left to run wild and breed like crazy, with Spanish settlers from Buenos Aires landing occasionally to kill some for their hides (rather than their meat).
Spanish Jesuits founded a mission at Isla Vizcaino in 1624, while in 1680 the Portuguese established Colonia del Sacramento as a rival to Buenos Aires, directly across the River Plate.
Spain and Portugal tussled over the so-called Banda Oriental (Eastern Shore) until Spain achieved supremacy in the 1770s. Almost at once, however, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, an independence movement gathered pace. It was led by the "father of the nation", José Gervasio Artigas. This established Uruguay as a separate nation independent from the future Argentina. In 1820 the country was occupied by Brazil, but independence was finally achieved in 1828 by Juan Antonio Lavalleja, with the help of British diplomats.
Civil war dominated much of the rest of the 19th century, but from 1903 President José Batlle y Ordóñez began the creation of a progressive welfare state, with stable democratic government and a profitable agricultural sector, exporting huge quantities of beef worldwide.
In the 1970s a military dictatorship triggered an urban guerrilla movement (the Tupamaros), but a democratic transition allowed a return to stability. Since 1995 the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) has ruled, benefiting from firm commodity prices for natural resources such as wood pulp, as well as beef, wheat and soya.
The Fray Bentos story
Initially cattle in Uruguay were raised for leather, but when Justus von Liebig, "father of organic chemistry", invented concentrated meat extract around 1840, nutrition soon became a far more profitable line of business.
The Liebig Company pioneering modern marketing techniques to create a worldwide market. A plant was established at the small port of Fray Bentos ("Friar Benedict"), on the Rio Uruguay.
From 1887 canning technology allowed the introduction of corned beef and steak-and-kidney pies, and – in 1899 – a cheap-to-produce meat extract called Oxo (a pun on "ox"). Further expansion came in the early 20th century with the introduction of refrigeration. At its peak, the plant processed 2,000 or more cattle a day, as well as lambs, pigs, turkeys and fruit and vegetables.
Fray Bentos played a huge role supplying the troops in both World Wars and the Korean War. But it was taken over by the British firm Vesteys in 1979; with no investment, changing trade patterns led to its closure in 1979. The plant, known as "El Anglo", remained in a state of suspended animation, and finally reopened as the Museo de la Revolució*Industrial (Museum of the Industrial Revolution) in 2005, thanks to a dedicated band of local enthusiasts.
Each year more is restored and reopened, and in any case, the scale of the place is impressive, and the enthusiasm of the guides infectious. You can reach Fray Bentos by bus from Montevideo. The museum opens 9am-7.30pm daily, and later on summer weekends and holidays. Admission is US$1 (60p), with an extra $1.40 (90p) for a guided tour (at 10am and 3pm daily).
Travel essentials: Uruguay
* Fares from the UK to Montevideo are relatively high, because of the limited competition. The main links are from Madrid on Iberia, code-shared with the national airline, Pluna. Typical fares for November from Heathrow to Montevideo's spanking new airport on Iberia are around £900 return. Via Sao Paulo, TAM has a fare from Heathrow of £750 return.
* The other approach takes advantage of the much stronger competition to Buenos Aires across the River Plate in Argentina. On TAM, the fare in November is below £700. From the Argentinian capital, there are good ferry connections from Colonia and Montevideo.
* From Montevideo's very efficient Tres Cruces bus terminal, frequent and comfortable coaches fan out across the country. The longest journey from here is to Artigas in under eight hours, for a fare of US$24 (£16).
* International and local car rental companies are widespread, with compact cars available from US$40 (£27) a day or US$200 (£133) a week; automatics cost a lot more, and one-way rentals are rarely possible.
* Cycling is enjoyable, especially due to the courteous and patient local drivers; there are few facilities specifically for cycling, but main roads have decent shoulders.
Red tape and currency
* British passport holders need no visas for stays of up to three months. The local currency is the Uruguayan peso, which presently trades at a rate of around £1=30. The best way to carry money is in US dollars – sterling is barely recognised.
When to go
* November – which corresponds with late spring/early summer – is ideal, in terms of low air fares, easily available accommodation and climate. Peak season is from December to February, although prices only go totally insane in Punta del Este for New Year and the first two weeks of January. Autumn, ie the northern hemisphere's spring, is also very pleasant, and even the midwinter months of June and July are not particularly cold or wet.
* Although Uruguayans are generally quiet and sober, Montevideo boasts the longest carnival season of any, starting with a deafening procession of massed drummers (Las Llamadas), usually in February, followed by the glitzy Carnaval opening parade and then performances of murga, a sort of satirical musical theatre, for a month on stages in each quarter of the capital and its open-air theatre. Carnaval in 2011 last for 40 days, climaxing between 4 and 8 March.
* No vaccinations are required. Dengue and yellow fever occur in some nearby parts of Argentina, but have not yet appeared in Uruguay, which has a good health system.
* For further information contact Uruguay's Ministry of Tourism (Ministerio de Turismo y Deporte, Rambla 25 de Agosto de 1825 & Yacaré, Montevideo; 00 598 2 188 5100; uruguaynatural.com).