Big skies of Uruguay’s interior; the country is sandwiched between the once-powerful Argentina and muscular Brazil. :: ANDREW FORBES
The trees provided welcome shade, while the warm breeze carried the scent of the towering eucalyptus, wood smoke, and just a hint of marijuana. Despite being summer in South America, fire wood, piled up for sale, lined the road running from Colonia del Sacramento to the nearby sandy shores on the gulf of the Rio de la Plata. In Uruguay there’s probably no better way to enjoy a summer weekend than with a relaxed Uruguayan meal, prepared over a wood-fired barbecue.
Beyond the trees are the dark waters of the Río de la Plata estuary, considered the widest in the world, dividing Argentina and its capital Buenos Aires to the west and Uruguay and its opposite capital, to the east. Along these shores of the Atlantic is where most of Uruguay’s towns are found, including Carmelo to the north, and Colonia del Sacramento a little further south and of course the capital, Montevideo, all essential elements of any visit.
Colonia del Sacramento is noted for its romantic seventeenth century historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is a popular weekend destination for residents from Buenos Aires arriving on the fast ferry.
Built by the Portuguese to challenge the dominance of the Argentinian capital, Colonia reflects the colourful European colonial history of Uruguay. Now the well preserved old town makes for an enjoyable place to stay in a B&B, shop in trendy, quirky boutiques and enjoy alfresco meals on terraces, listening to local performing musicians and singers. It is undoubtedly ‘touristy’ but an ideal start to a Uruguay holiday.
For a glimpse of a privileged South American lifestyle, head up to Carmelo, home to some of Uruguay’s most sophisticated wineries, ranches and golf courses. Even on a budget one can easily travel the route 21, on the regular coach service that connects Montevideo, Colonia and Carmelo. However on arrival, it’s worth eating in at least one of the posh wineries. The stunning Narbona winery and farm, for example, has a splendid restaurant serving classic Argentinian and Uruguayan dishes and offers wine tastings in its newly renovated, glamorous bodega. There is also beautifully appointed accommodation in the Wine Lodge, part of the Relais & Châteaux network, decorated with the unique style and vintage chic aesthetic one often sees across Uruguay.
Such is the draw of this upscale corner of the country that Four Seasons has also opened an expansive resort offering breathtaking accommodation in private villa bungalows set among eucalyptus trees and vineyards that reach down to the banks of the Río. The resort’s signature restaurant, ‘Pura’, is where you’ll find innovative interpretations of national dishes including a classic Uruguayan barbecue.
Before finding my way to the sheltered shores of the Río, I had started my fortnight visit not at Uruguay’s gleaming new airport, but instead at its ‘Gotham City’-style passenger ferry terminal in Montevideo. The dark imposing port building seemed like a set from a film noir, and a dramatic contrast to my journey on the huge and sparklingly new ‘Francisco’ Buquebus ferry from the dynamic capital of Buenos Aires. The impeccably clean vessel, said to be the world’s fastest ferry, had whisked me and some 1000 fellow passengers at speeds of over 100 kilometres per hour for the three-hour trip across the vast expanse where the earthy coloured waters of the Uruguay and Paraná rivers mix with the Atlantic ocean.
Montevideo, that more than half of Uruguay’s 3.3 million inhabitants call home, is embracing its democratic stability. Its crumbling old town, with romantically decrepit colonial buildings are beginning to be renovated. International hotel groups are investing, including the French Sofitel group which has renovated the belle époque Carrasco Casino, in the capital’s fashionable western suburb, into a stunning five-star resort and spa, one of the finest in South America.
Yet despite this renewed investment in Montevideo, arriving at its peaceful port and understated old town after the aggressive urban attitude of Buenos Aires felt somehow like an anti-climax. My day of arrival, 10 December, 2013 was truly historic for Uruguay.
José Mijica, the President of this modest South American nation, the second smallest on the southern continent by size, has attracted headlines for his unconventional leadership style. He prefers a modest one-bedroom rural home outside the capital of Montevideo rather than the Presidential Palace; and he reportedly donates up to ninety per cent of his monthly salary to charities. The politician was a former guerrilla who fought against the 1970s military dictatorship and in the past has been repeatedly shot by police and also imprisoned.
Now this once active dissident is the country’s peaceful, democratic leader. It’s a story worthy of a movie; yet somehow not out of place within the extraordinary modern history of South America.
Mijica’s contradictory background is a colourful metaphor for the unique personality of Uruguay. During my stay I grew to adore this tranquil, traditional, yet thoroughly modern country: its simplicity, its understated elegance and its innovative mixture of chic contemporary and old world design. At times it felt like being in a 1950s film. Vintage cars and trucks travel the almost empty roads; people dress in muted tones, without any signs of extravagance, and speak and behave in a modest, slightly introverted manner - there are few signs of the ‘Latin’ style so often associated with this continent.
The relatively young nation of La República Oriental del Uruguay is sandwiched between the once powerful Argentina, still a major source of foreign visitors, and Brazil, its other muscular neighbour, buoyed by a new self-confidence and economic power. Little wonder that Uruguay seems at first to have a reserved personality.
Yet since Brazil will host the football World Cup this year and the Olympics in 2016, it seems assured that Uruguay’s time has come to shine internationally - with many commentators saying Uruguay is the destination to watch for 2014.
The apparent old-fashioned lifestyle of Uruguay doesn’t seem to extend to social attitudes or policies however. My arrival in December last year coincided with Uruguay becoming the first nation in the world to legalise the sale, cultivation, and distribution of cannabis. And earlier in 2013 its parliament passed a bill legalising same sex marriage. So there’s an intriguing mix of anachronistic, old world, backwater charm and 21st century modernity that runs throughout the country.
Also, it’s fair to say that Uruguay hasn’t turned its back on luxury either - it’s just more subtle and less pervasive in everyday life.
The country is once again a popular playground for the wealthy elite of Argentina and Brazil, who together with other international affluent travellers have transformed part of the beautiful Atlantic coast and the town of Punta del Este, and its more chic neighbour, José Ignacio, into South America’s most desirable and fashionable resorts.
It is a decadent mix of the hedonism of Miami Beach, the sophistication of the Côte d’Azur and the ostentatious bling of Spain’s Costa del Sol. New upscale luxury hotels, beach resorts, and boutique winery ranches are continuing to open, as Uruguay embraces its emerging status in international tourism.
But probably the best way to experience Uruguay is with friends over a simple barbecue, enjoying the comforting warm sea breeze, a juicy steak, a cold beer and maybe, if you’re a resident and care for it, a relaxing smoke of marijuana.