Uruguay is a captivating destination that too often gets passed over for the nearby tourist magnets of Argentina and Brazil, whose own residents know full well what their neighbor has to offer. But with its miles of coastline, inland cowboy culture, and laid-back vibe, this friendly country of about 3.5 million citizens deserves a spot on every travel bucket list. When planning your Uruguayan getaway, though, here are a few things you should keep in mind:
1. It costs a pretty peso.
Uruguay is surprisingly expensive, especially going by the backpacking standard that attracts so many budget travelers to South America. A chivito sandwich in Montevideo costs about the same as a pulled pork sandwich in Memphis, and you won’t find hotels charging hostel prices like elsewhere on the continent. Considering that a chivito is a juicy slab of steak topped with ham, a fried egg, lettuce, and tomato, all on a toasted roll, it’s worth it. Just be prepared to spend a little extra.
2. Surf towns become ghost towns in the off season.
It’s impossible to go to Uruguay without meeting a surfer or two (or several hundred). Most rave about beach towns like La Pedrera and Punta del Diablo but fail to mention just how desolate these surf spots get between April and November. This may appeal to die-hard wave chasers who want the swells all to themselves, but it isn’t ideal if you expect to see signs of life on land. Bohemian beach towns like José Ignacio are also closed for business until the first of December; you might find only one restaurant open in November. Luckily, anyone else who’s around will be dining there also.
3. Dinner starts no sooner than 9:00 PM.
I made the mistake of going for dinner around 8:00 PM when I first arrived in Montevideo. Safe to say that throughout our meal my travel companion and I were the only ones at the popular restaurant our concierge recommended until just before we paid the bill. Our waitress explained that locals drink tea around 7:00 PM, pushing dinner as far back as 11:00 PM. Of course, it’s also customary to stay out until well into the next morning, so get ready for some long nights.
4. Buenos Aires is a short ferry ride away.
It takes about an hour to get to Buenos Aires from the cobblestoned center of UNESCO World Heritage site Colonia del Sacramento on the Buquebus ferry. That said, you can also depart from Montevideo or Punta del Este, though those journeys are closer to two and five hours, respectively. No matter the route, it’s way too easy to get to Argentina from Uruguay to pass up the opportunity.
5. The beaches are beautiful, but the water is cold.
Most of the beaches in Uruguay sit on the southern Atlantic Ocean, which is not known for its balmy waters. Others are situated on the Rio de la Plata, which is famous for being the widest river in the world but certainly not the most swimmable. Both are great for refreshing dips on hot days, but you’ll definitely want to wear a wetsuit if you plan on surfing or spending any substantial amount of time in the water.
6. You can get a mean burn after only a few minutes of sun exposure.
You’ll learn this the hard way should you opt to go sans sunscreen, even for only a few blocks. Given the South Pole’s thinning ozone layer, any sun time at all justifies a slathering of at least SPF 50, unless you prefer the backs of your legs lobster-red. Always, always wear your sunscreen.
7. Bus travel is cheap, convenient, and comfortable.
Buses are hands down the best way to get between cities in Uruguay. Long-distance bus operators like COT come equipped with wifi, air conditioning, and reasonably clean bathrooms. For the most part, buses even arrive on schedule.
8. But taxis can be a huge rip-off.
Whether you’re being overcharged or given questionable change, taxis are not always the most cost-effective way of getting around in Uruguay. They’re perfectly fine for quick trips around town but should be avoided at all costs for longer travel. Uber provides reliable service within the city of Montevideo.
9. English isn’t as widely spoken as advertised.
While planning my trip, I was assured by every website I visited that my lack of Spanish would not be a problem in Uruguay. Unsurprisingly, the internet lied. Sure, plenty of people speak English, but those people don’t necessarily work in hospitality. It’s always important to attempt the local language, but learning a little Spanish is a necessity in Uruguay.
10. Restaurants cater almost exclusively to carnivores.
Beef represents four out of the five food groups in Uruguay. Pork represents the fifth. Enjoying smokey asado or spicy choripan is one of the best ways to get to know the country, which doesn’t go particularly easy on vegetarians. If you don’t eat meat, you’ll probably survive mainly on sides, or seafood if your diet allows. Faina bread, made with chickpea flour, is another filling alternative.
11. Uruguay is more than its coast. Go north and stay overnight on an estancia.
Gaucho culture is huge in Uruguay, making it a great place to live out your cowboy fantasies. There are ranches throughout the country’s interior where guests can ride horses, learn cattle-herding techniques, and enjoy being off the grid. Do yourself a favor and book an overnight at an estancia; then enjoy the memory on your return flight when you check “yes” next to the livestock encounters question on your customs form.