Uruguay – canyon and coast

While I’ve written two previous editions of the Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay and gone to just about every town and sight of any significance, there was one that had eluded me – the Quebrada de los Cuervos, a small national park in the northeast of the country. It’s not a huge canyon, but it’s known for preserving dense (if very low) subtropical forest of a kind that’s mostly only found across the border in Brazil. It’s been protected for a long time, but I was surprised to find that the loop path really is pretty rough – rocky and with steep climbs and descents – and definitely not for everyone. Still, it’s well organised, with maps, signs and rangers leading walks, and it’s easy to get to the main viewpoint without tackling the rough path. I saw a few lagartos (halfway between a lizard and an iguana) and plenty of the vultures that give the place its name (cuervo or crow being the local name for a vulture); there were plenty of other birds about, but I didn’t actually set eye on them. I also found a nice new guesthouse in the area that I didn’t know about, so it was worth the detour.

To get here, I’d spent ten days making my way along the coast from Montevideo to the Brazilian border – it’s well known that Uruguay has fantastic beaches while northern Argentina has none, and as you move north they become emptier and emptier until you find vast swathes of totally empty sand. I hiked from Cabo Polonio to Barra de Valizas and Aguas Dulces and only passed a couple of other people, as well as quite a few dead seals, a turtle shell, a dead penguin and a live but very tired and confused one.

 There are considerable differences between the various beach resorts which take a bit of pinning down (they’re not entirely fixed, either – La Paloma used to be overrun with partying youngsters in high season, but they are now moving on). One thing that is common is for a resort to be on a headland, with a Brava (Wild) and Mansa (Calm) side, with surfers on one and families on the other. It’s also worth mentioning that, as you go further northeast towards Brazil, that there are many lagoons and other wetlands that are a haven for birds and a heaven for birdwatchers (the western fringe of the country, along the Río Uruguay, is similar, and indeed the whole country offers wonderful birding).

 Close to Montevideo, the beach settlements have largely been absorbed by the city; the first that really has its own identity is Atlántida, an hour from the capital, which has a couple of strange buildings (one in the shape of an eagle’s head, another like an ocean liner) and is strongly identified with candombe drumming at Carnaval season.


 After this, there’s a slight gap until you reach Piriápolis in Maldonado department – this was laid out on alchemical principles by the rather odd Francisco Piria (there’s more on him in the book, obviously) and in the 1920s boasted the largest hotel in South America. It all fell apart somewhat after Piria’s death and is now a fairly quiet family-oriented resort; you can visit the ‘castles’ of Piria and his disciple Humberto Pittamiglio and hike up Cerro Pan de Azúcar for great views (especially if you continue upwards inside the giant concrete cross).

 The heart of Uruguay’s holiday territory is the Punta del Este area, which is where things get complicated. Punta itself is a mini-Miami with lots of tower blocks, which is packed with Argentines in January; there’s a high-octane blingy vibe, with amazingly expensive fashion shops and restaurants. It’s very much a see-and-be-seen, conspicuous expenditure locale. Sensible people stay elsewhere, for instance in the arty suburbs of La Barra and Manantiales, and the real big spenders stay in luxury villas further along the coast (but still drive into Punta at midnight for dinner and dancing). The end of this strip is the former fishing village of José Ignacio, which is where those Argentines who are truly wealthy and don’t need to show off about it gather – everyone can hang out on the beach and everyone is the same in shorts and flip-flops. Even so, there are some legendary restaurants hidden in the pine-forests nearby, where you dine by candlelight wrapped in blankets.

 It should also be said Ruta 10, the main road along the coast, is discontinuous, so to continue northeastwards you have to go inland and take Ruta 9 into Rocha department. South of the city of Rocha is La Paloma, a spacious, purpose-built resort that was very popular with students and school-leavers for a while – up to 20,000 would come for New Year and early January, a dozen or more renting a house together but sleeping very little, with huge discos raving away until the morning – until the authorities forced the discos to move further from the centre and the party animals began to go elsewhere (Punta del Diablo, below, for one). It’s still growing fast, now spreading several kilometres into the forest to the west.

 Just a few kilometres to the northeast, its little sister La Pedrera is a place that I just love, for some reason that I can’t put my finger on – I’m not at all a beach person, but there’s something elemental and Cornish about the Atlantic weather, and it’s very close to nature, with lots of noisy birds, and lagartos (like mini-iguanas) popping out of the undergrowth. And here, and in José Ignacio and Punta del Diablo, minimalist white-cube houses are being built in the dunes which I find very attractive (they also sit well with the Deco houses which are quite common in Uruguay).  It’s a bohemian arty sort of place which is famed for its carnaval parade.

 Continuing northeast, there are miles and miles of empty beaches (with a few tentative attempts at development) until you reach the legendary Cabo Polonio. There’s no road or mains services here (other than power for the lighthouse) – you arrive on the back of a four-wheel-drive truck, and there are a few generators and solar panels, which nowadays even provide a few hours of wi-fi in some hostels. The lighthouse is surrounded by a rag-tag sprawl of squatters’ shacks, basically, some of which are now hostels and guesthouses, and there are cafés serving fresh seafood and seaweed fritters, but the idea is just to hang out on empty beaches, strum a guitar and smoke some weed when it gets dark, and feel the stresses and strains of urban life melt away. In other words, it’s not for everyone.

 From here I walked onwards along the (reasonably firm, and totally empty) beaches to Barra de Valizas (reached by a short ferry ride, costing £1) and Aguas Dulces, two small beach villages that are reached by road and mains electricity and so don’t have the allure of Cabo Polonio. Nevertheless, Barra de Valizas in particular is very popular with creative types from Montevideo.

 There’s another great swathe of emptiness before you reach Punta del Diablo, a little fishing village that’s become another chic resort for those with money, as well as for die-hard surfers. It’s popular with Brazilians and other foreigners, so the season starts in November, whereas purely Uruguayan/Argentine resorts see no action until late December. In fact it was generally very hard, updating a guidebook in late November, to tell which bars and restaurants would actually open again – but not here.


 I was also tracking the opening times for post and phone offices, which are more limited than they used to be, in particular with post offices no longer opening on Saturdays – if this is the only effect of economic slow-down they are indeed fortunate, compared to the decade of ever more vicious cuts we’ve endured in Britain. We now have a broken country and the results that we have seen from that – a bit superficial, I know, but if Brexit ever really does happen I’ll write more about this.

In my post on the last edition of the Bradt guide to Uruguay, I mentioned that a new bus terminal had appeared in Paysandú (it’s clearly under the same management as the one in Salto, with the same excellent website and departure screens, for instance). The one planned for Tacuarembó hasn’t been built, but the current one is fine for now. It turns out that there is a project for the main town of each department to have a terminal, rather than scattered offices, so others have appeared in Rocha, Chuy (another town in Rocha department, as it happens) and Trinidad, and one is under construction in Treinta y Tres, although it’s not sure that that one will open in 2020. They’re pretty decent, mostly with wifi and free toilets, and thankfully they have avoided the problem I’ve mentioned before with new high-speed railway stations that are so far from the centre that you lose all the time gained on the train just in getting to and from the stations. These are all a 15 to 20-minute walk from the centre, which isn’t too bad.

 Another change is that zoos, which imprisoned large raptors and animals in tiny cages, are being not just modernised but reformed as Bio Parques, with larger enclosures housing species that don’t seem to suffer so much in captivity – ñandues (the South American ostrich), capybaras (the world’s largest rodent), geese and ducks and so on – they’re very popular family destinations and are definitely an improvement on the previous situation.

Updating Uruguay again

I’m now researching the fourth edition of the Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay, and I’ve just left Montevideo after a week in the city (also visiting a few adjacent towns and wineries) – I’ve always liked it, but as soon as I arrived I could see that it’s improved in various ways, there’s craft beer all over the place, there are recycling bins, there’s a bike-sharing system and lots of new bike lanes [and outside Montevideo, lots of new wind turbines]. Marijuana is also now legal, but in fact it’s much less visible (smellable) than in Vancouver and many cities on the West Coast of the US. And WhatsApp is compulsory, which is a bloody pain if you have big fat fingers like me. I do have it on my laptop now, but the phone still has to be connected.

 And the Uruguayans have suddenly (in the six years since I was last here) become the most-tattooed people on earth.







 I was immensely impressed when I first came here, ten years ago, by a coffeetable book on the traditional boliches of Montevideo (Boliches montevideanos, Bares y Cafés en la memoria de la ciudad – now out of print, alas), bars that were originally shops and still play an important rôle in their communities. I listed quite a few in the Bradt guide, and most are still more or less viable, although many now open only in the evenings – opening hours are tricky here, as many city centre restaurants open for lunch only. In fact Café Gourmand, a superb American-French brunch spot, only opens Friday to Sunday, but they spend several days more on cooking and baking, as well as sourcing local supplies.

 There’s actually been a gastronomic revolution in the last couple of years, especially in the barrios of Ciudad Vieja and Cordón – this has been driven by markets as well as restaurants and cafés, with the Mercado Agricola, the Mercado Ferrando and now most recently the Mercado del Inmigrante (formerly the Mercado de la Abundancia) all transformed into gastronomic hubs, with delis, craft-beer bars, artisan coffee outets, and restaurants offering sushi, poke, felafel, you name it, as well as local specialities such as chivitos.

 Meanwhile, at the end of a dead-end street, behind an anonymous housefront (ok there is a sign), I found one of Montevideo’s first microbreweries, Shelter – a lovely friendly place with good beer and pizza, and surprisingly, a live podcast being recorded on gangster/noir films, with clips (no idea how that worked on the podcast) of Le Samurai and The Big Lebowski…. My Red Oak, a red ale matured in oak barrels, was fantastic – to be honest it’s more effective than oaking a wine. Mostly though, I have to stress that this craft beer is in no way ‘real ale’, it’s not live beer served by handpump or gravity, but something that tastes a bit pasteurised.

 Otherwise, I didn’t expect to find many new tourist sights in Montevideo, but I did come across the Holocaust Memorial while cycling along the Rambla (the busy 22km-long waterfront path) – it’s impressive, a long wall (symbolising the Jewish people), broken in two, where you cross by the Bridge of Doubt to leave by the Stairs of Hope. Then, as I arrived in Piriápolis, the small beach resort that was my first stop after leaving Montevideo, I saw a sign to the Castillo Pittamiglio and remembered that I’d vaguely heard about it last time I was here but not had time to follow it up. This time, I was able to get back to visit it, and while in no way a major destination, it’s quite fun to see – built in 1956, it’s like a Lego castle, almost two-dimensional, but with space inside for some interesting displays on the alchemical symbolism behind both Piria’s and Pittamiglio’s construction projects. I could go into detail, but it’s easier to read up on them all in the book.

 So, two surfer dudes decide to leave the city and create a boutique hotel by the beach – and you know what? it worked. There’s clearly some family money involved (I met both sets of parents on consecutive days) but Casa Flor is absolutely delightful, a little haven from the craziness of summers in Punta del Este, the beach resort just to the west. It was Karen Higgs (from Wales, living in Montevideo for a couple of decades and publishing all kinds of great tourist information at Guru’guay) who hooked me up with Juan and Alfonso, and she also sent me to Soledad at Chacrita del Sur (she’s very keen for me to use the hashtag #chacritadelsur), in the wine country just north of the capital – for years I’ve been banging on about how strange it is that there’s no accommodation at the wineries and people have to drive out from Montevideo, and now here it is, a delightful spot for a leisurely visit to some amazing wineries. As at the Castillo Pittamiglio and Casa Flor, I really appreciated the birdlife – there are just so many birds here, not particularly afraid of humans and busy getting on with their birdy lives – such a contrast to our sad denuded northern climes.








I am trying to use a credit card more consistently to pay for food and accommodation – it’s really most gratifying to see that foreign cards are automatically recognised and the VAT is deducted. A very practical way to encourage tourism. I usually have a huge stash of US dollars in cash and just change them, but the VAT savings are too good to miss.

 Tomorrow (Sunday 24 November 2019, for those visiting from the future) the second round of Uruguay’s presidential election will take place – it looks as if the centre-right will take over from the leftist Frente Amplio alliance after three five-year terms (although probably without an overall majority), and it’s probably about time. Bad things tend to happen when parties stay in power for too long – New Labour started well but ended up taking us to war in Iraq, and as for the present mob of Conservatives supposedly running the UK, words fail me. But luckily we too have elections in a few weeks.

Uruguay updated

The brand-new third edition of my Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay has just landed on my desk, and it looks great! This is one of the four guidebooks I’m still actively involved with (Uruguay and Georgia for Bradt, Romania and Wales for the Rough Guides), and as all four of them are in theory on a three-year updating cycle it’s clear that I can’t just do one update per year. This year I did Wales in the spring (well, two chapters of it – see here) and am off now in the autumn to do Georgia – but I decided that I didn’t want to go to Uruguay as well, so Bradt found the estimable Sean Connolly to step in for this edition. He’s added an interesting new box on border disputes (p.355) and new material on nature reserves in the far north-west. I’m grateful to him for doing such a thorough job, as updaters can sometime be a bit shy.

Looking at the proofs a couple of months ago, I was amazed by how well I could visualise almost everywhere – it was like a tour of the country in three days. No need for virtual reality headsets! And it is a lovely country, I really enjoyed my virtual visit. It was also interesting how many typos there were in the previous edition – clearly it was finished in a bit of a rush. This one is much better.

So what’s new? The world’s only 3D meat museum, it seems (in Montevideo, page 141). And on the same page, the Museo Andes 1972, telling the story of the October 1972 plane crash high in the Andes and the 72-day struggle to survive of the Uruguayan rugby players and others on board. There are also lots of new hostels – the Hostel Punta Ballena Bar (p.214) seems particularly good, while the marijuana-themed THC Hostel (p.234) may be of interest to some – Uruguay has legalised marijuana for residents, but is keen not to encourage marijuana tourism. In the Colonia area, just across the estuary from Buenos Aires, La Posadita de la Plaza (p.288) seems very interesting, and there are lots of niche gourmet places outside Colonia such as Le Moment Posada Boutique (p.290). There are also new nature reserves in the far northwest of the country, a new bus terminal in Paysandú and one under construction in Tacuarembó.

A few things have come up since we finished editing – from next year Norwegian will be flying from London to Buenos Aires – this will probably become the cheapest route to Uruguay. And, less importantly, in the world of soccer, Manchester United defender Guillermo Varela has rejoined Peñarol in Montevideo, and Gus Poyet resigned a few weeks ago as manager of Shanghai Shenhua. Edinson Cavani, until now the star striker at Paris St-Germain, is having to adjust to playing alongside Brazilian superstar Neymar.

And it seems that I have written an e-book (my first!) on Montevideo – actually it’s just the Montevideo text (and a bit more) from the previous edition of Uruguay, but it may be useful to somebody. It actually came out in 2014, so I assume a new edition will be out before too long.