Update for 2019: It's not easy to find comfortable accommodations in Tacuarembo, Uruguay, during the Patria Gaucha festival (annually in February or March). However, this year I discovered a few options. The new Hotel Boutique Del Fraile is located in town, and just a few blocks from the main festival venue. It's clean and serves a very good breakfast. Somewhat outside of town, Hotel Fordt City is actually part of an eclectic complex which includes an antique car museum.
If you have the time, you should also visit Valle Eden, a historic pueblo and train stop that includes a museum dedicated to Carlos Gardel, the (confirmed) Uruguayan composer who wrote the now-famous tango "La Cumparsita." The Posada Valle Eden offers accommodations, a restaurant, and a botanical museum in a remote setting. Valle Eden is a 30 minute drive from Tacuarembo.
Original Post: People tend to think of Uruguay as a small country, which is fair when compared to its neighbors and the giants of North America. But when you set out on a 900 km (560 mile) weekend road trip with a couple of Uruguayan friends, the endless rolling hills and open sky seem to belong to a much larger country. In fact, our road trip took us straight north from Montevideo to gaucho country, a large region extending across parts of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
For one week every year, Uruguay hosts one of the largest celebrations of gaucho culture. Although there are important differences, think of gauchos as cowboys or ranchers. This lifestyle is largely intact...you still see gauchos on horseback going about their daily lives in many parts of Uruguay.
The Patria Gaucha festival, which celebrates all things gaucho, takes place in Tacuarembó, a pleasant town with a population of over 50,000. The city fills with visitors who come to see a range of events, including concerts, dances, and livestock competitions. Most of the fun happens in a fairground surrounding a small lake (Laguna de las Lavanderas). For weeks prior to the festival, workers construct replicas of historic buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. People are dressed in traditional attire as they lead their horses through the venue. Everything gaucho is on display from boinas (a wool or cotton cap) to horse tackle. It's a celebration of culture on a very impressive scale.
One of the biggest events of the week is the parade, when over 4,000 participants ride on horseback through the town. We snagged a perfect viewing spot at a lovely shop café De Vera just as the big event began. I'm not a huge fan of parades, but I have to say that this is something not to be missed – a truly unique cultural experience. Riders range in age from children to octogenarians, all dressed traditionally and yelling "Viva la patria!" (long live the homeland).
Because the trip was somewhat last-minute, we were unable to find accommodations in Tacuarembó. This nearest hotel room was in San Gregorio de Polanco, a 1.5 hour drive away. This turned out to be one of the most interesting parts of the weekend. San Gregorio is located 30 minutes from the main highway, basically at the end of a rural road. During the summer months, it's popular with tourists due to its location on the Rincón del Bonete lake, the largest freshwater body in Uruguay. The rest of the year it returns to being a sleepy town of 1,500 inhabitants. We happened to arrive in the low season.
San Gregorio is magical. Residents smile and greet you kindly on the street. People gather in groups to chat, play music and sing. We happened upon a group of young men playing samba drums while one of their friends danced. It's like going back in time. And this pueblo pintado (painted town) has a wonderful tradition of painting murals and frescos on the exterior walls of buildings. They are everywhere and of various styles – it adds a truly whimsical air to the town. Most accommodations in town are basic, but I would highly recommend a stay at the Bali Boutique Hotel. We had a wonderful visit with the owners.
On the road between Montevideo and Tacuarembó you'll have the opportunity to visit towns like Florida and Durazno, and historical locations like Paso de los Toros. You can easily make a day trip of the drive.