While living in Uruguay we’ve had the opportunity to host several visitors. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately!) they usually only stay for a few days and we are faced with the challenge of showing them as much of Uruguay as possible without spending days in a car. Although Uruguay is a relatively small country, there are quite a few interesting things to see and do, depending on how much time you have.
For visitors on a tight schedule, I recommend a one-day self-guided flexible tour that hits a few of the highlights. It’s basically a loop along the coast heading east from Montevideo, a short jaunt up the Atlantic coast, and then returning to Montevideo on an interior route. Some refer to this itinerary as the "Gringo Trail" but it's really a good way to see both countryside and coast in just a few hours. You can leave Montevideo mid-morning and be back by evening, just in time for a quick rest before catching dinner. I’ve provided a map and outlined the points of interest below:
Depart Montevideo heading east along the famous waterfront street the Rambla past the suburb of Carrasco, following signs to the airport to connect to the “Interbalnearia” (inter-beach resort) highway marked as IB, which hugs the coast as you head east toward Punta del Este. Depending on your timing and interests, there are a few things to do along the way:
El Aguila – About 40kms from downtown Montevideo, just before you arrive at the resort town of Atlantida you will see a small sign marked “El Aguila” (the eagle) to the right of the highway. It’s worth a brief visit to this former beach house commissioned by a magnate from Buenos Aires and built in the shape of an eagle’s head. You’ll also have a nice view of the beach. It’s three blocks off the main road.
Atlantida – Previously a summer resort town, Atlantida is now a year-round residential area. There are some interesting buildings high above the beach and the town is a good point to grab coffee or a bite to eat. If you're short on time don't feel compelled to stop here.
Winery “Vinedo de los Vientos” - About 4kms on the other (inland) side of the IB from Atlantida along Route 11, you’ll find this charming winery (bodega). They don’t offer tours, but you can stop to buy their wines. They also organize tasting meals with advance notice.
Junk Shops – Along the coastal route you’ll see numerous “junk” stores selling salvaged items and antiques. Don’t hesitate to stop and walk around – you might find a hidden treasure.
Heading another 56kms along the coast route brings you to Piriapolis, which was essentially the first major beach resort in Uruguay. It’s a bit off the main road, but offers a nice waterfront promenade as well as shops and restaurants. I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to visit, but if you are in need of a stop to stretch or eat, this is a good option.
The scenery really gets impressive as you approach Punta Ballena (Whale Point) – Do not miss this. There is a scenic viewpoint which is good for a few photos, but just after the viewpoint you should take the road out to the point, following the signs to Casapueblo. Continue to the end of the point, where you are likely to find a few vendors selling touristy items. But the real treat is the view – to the west look back at the coastline you just travelled, and to the east take in the high-rises of Punta del Este.
As you return from the point you will pass Casapueblo – An architecturally stunning building clinging to the steep hillside above the water. The organic exterior style painted a brilliant white has the effect of a giant outdoor sculpture, which seems appropriate as it was built by the famous artist Carlos Paéz Valaró. There is a museum and café on site. Please note this is also a functioning hotel with a full service restaurant, so you won't have unrestricted access unless you are a registered guest.
Punta del Este – Your experience of the famous “Punta” will depend largely on the time of year. If you happen to visit during the summer high season (mid-December through early March), you may find yourself complaining about traffic and crowds, including limited availability at restaurants (think about making a reservation ahead of time). Outside of the peak months you are likely to have more than enough space and may even find Punta to be a relaxed sleepy town.
From Punta Ballena you’ll enter Punta del Este on Route 10, making your way along extensive Playa Mansa (essentially "Gentle Beach" due to the lack of significant waves) to the port area, where you’ll find numerous restaurants. I particularly like the Yacht Club or Boca Chica, but there are many choices. You can also take a walk around the marina area, where you may see some sea lions resting on the docks. For shopping you’ll want to visit the central part of the peninsula between streets (calles) 27 and 31, and along streets 20 and 22.
Continue driving around the point on Rambla General Artigas, which will give you a stunning view of the water and some of the older houses that until the 1960s were part a sleepy fishing village and low key summer resort.
Los Dedos (The Fingers) – This is an obligatory stop for most tourists who want a photo in front of (or on top of) the work of Chilean artist Mario Irrazábal, which was installed on the beach in 1982. You’re unlikely to be alone, but in any case it’s a brief stop and you’ll have something to post on social media. This is also where you´ll have a good view of Playa Brava, which is open to the ocean and therefore has bigger waves and sand dunes.
Leave Punta del Este on Route 10 heading toward Jose Ignacio and the Uruguayan department (state) of Rocha. You’ll now officially be travelling along the Southern Atlantic coast. Cross the roller coaster bridge to La Barra, a smaller beach town with a bohemian vibe (not a bad stop to eat or shop in some of the galleries) and continue another 20kms or so to Jose Ignacio, a sleepy fishing village now known as favorite destination for the rich, hip, and laid-back. If you are up for it, climb to the top of the historic lighthouse for stunning views.
One of the iconic restaurants in Jose Ignacio is La Huella, located right on the beach. It’s a good but pricey option and nearly impossible to get a table without a reservation in the summer. I personally prefer some of the other restaurants in town, which may or may not be open depending on the season.
When you leave Jose Ignacio, cross the coastal road and head into the interior on Camino Sainz Martines to connect to Route 9. Here is where you’ll get more impressions of the rolling countryside of interior Uruguay – with plenty of cows and horses in sight. After about 10kms you’ll come to Route 9 where you’ll take a left toward Montevideo.
After just a few kilometers on the left you’ll see a stone fence and sign for O’33, an estate which produces delicious olive oils and recently-opened an architecturally stunning winery on site. It’s best to arrange a tour in advance, but you can also stop by and hope that one of the staff members will offer to show you around. You can taste and purchase olive oils and wines.
It may be late afternoon by this time, and depending on your schedule you may want to head directly back to Montevideo on route 9, which connects back to the IB at Pan de Azucar. Or you may want to consider a stop at the Viña Eden Winery and Pueblo Eden. To arrive at the bodega and town of Eden, you will take Route 12 north from Route 9, about 35kms west of O’33 estate. Be on the lookout for the turnoff, as the signs are quite small. The winery offers stunning views of the countryside, a restaurant, and tasting tours. Make reservations in advance if you want to dine or take a tour – I also just bring people here to appreciate the modern architecture in a wonderful natural setting.
Pueblo Eden is a town lost in time and is typical of a remote Uruguayan village. There are a few places to grab a bite, including the famous rustic restaurant “La Posta de Viamaca”, where you’ll need reservations.
A few things to note:
The main roads/highways in Uruguay have toll booths, so it’s best to carry a few hundred pesos in cash with you.
You can also do this circuit in reverse, and if you time it right you can watch the sunset from Punta Ballena, or specifically in Casapueblo, which boasts the best sunset view in Uruguay.
If you don’t have access to a car, there are numerous car rental companies available. And when you pay with a foreign credit card, you won’t be charged the VAT (value added tax), or IVA in Spanish.
LGBT travellers should expect a welcoming experience throughout Uruguay! Rainbow rating 5 of 5: 🌈🌈🌈🌈 🌈