Mapping our Field Trip to Uruguay.
Well, Uruguay, thanks for the good times.
True, it was sometimes challenging to tackle you without a guidebook, and the English-language travel media has skipped over you for the sexier-every-day Buenos Aires. (With one exception, that is.)
But hopefully our coverage can send some more steak-loving, beach-combing, wine-guzzling folks your way. You deserve 'em.
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Most of our tour through Uruguay was poorly timed: Montevideo was vacant for Holy Week, we missed the full moon party in Punta del Diablo and we were late for the season in Punta del Este.
By the time we showed up, just about everything was shut down. But rather than whine about our bad luck to our stone-faced hotel receptionist, we dug up an old review of what's worth checking out year-round in South America's South Beach.
The illustrious Matt Gross swung through Punta more than a year ago, but we figured the town's "most popular bakery," Medialunas Calentitas, would still be around. His description made it all the more enticing:
I ordered a quartet of their famous sticky-sweet croissants and a cortado (espresso with a little milk) for 95 pesos, and as I munched them outside at the surfer-chic picnic tables, latecomers cautiously approached the bakery, only to be turned away. For a moment, I felt like an insider.
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If there's any sign that Punta del Diablo is about to become an It spot for backpackers in South America, it's the supremely well-done Diablo Tranquilo Bar, right on the beach. The satellite food and booze spot for the hostel up the road, it's got great service, great design, a great menu and tons of cold beer. If that's not enough, did we mention it's right on the beach?
Though it's only been open for a few months, there really isn't anything bad to report. The place is simply one of the best hostel-affiliated bars we've ever seen--and we've done a lot of boozing at hostels.
Also worth checking out: the panoramic view of PdD from the third floor. Be sure to take your cocktail and that cute surfer chick from across the bar.
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In Punta del Diablo, the two biggest questions you'll face are "What should I get in my empanda?" and "Is it too early for a Patricia?" The answers: Fish and cheese and no, no it isn't.
The place to be is the no-name empanada shack just off the beach in front of the Cueva Luna bar. There are four tables, one guy taking orders and two ladies crankin' out super tasty pockets of golden fried goodness. The sweeping ocean view doesn't hurt either.
Our lunch of four empanadas and a big beer was just 190 pesos ($9). To help you find the no-name spot, we've marked it on our Uruguay Travel Map.
If you've ever been to Buenos Aires, you know about "Cena Shows." Basically, you pony up some US dollars for an all-inclusive dinner and tango show and they throw your taxi ride in for free. Touristy but cool, especially when they're pouring the wine like water.
Montevideo likes to brag that it too has tango. And at El Milongon you get more than just sexy dancing. They also bust out the candombe to put a bit of African drumming into your dinner.
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After a couple days in vacant-for-Holy-Week Montevideo, we were ready to hit the beach. And while we could've gone the easy route and skipped over to Punta del Este, we decided to get ambitious. So we loaded up the iPod and bought bus tickets for a five-hour haul out to Punta del Diablo, a village not far from the Brazilian border.
It's your standard sleepy fishing town--except people are sleepy because they were at the beachfront disco El Pico until 6 am. Most people visiting rent a cottage--which locals call cabanas--and stay for a week or more, self-catering their trip. We could stay only a couple days, so we shacked up at the Diablo Tranquilo hostel. (It's brand new and nice.)
Besides sitting on the beach and drinking big frosty bottles of Patricia beer, there's not much to do. And that's just fine.
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After a day and a night in Colonia, we'd seen about everything. The next morning we hopped a bus through the countryside to Montevideo, Uruguay's capital city of 1.5 million people.
We rolled into town during Holy Week, which we can tell you is about the worst time to check the place out: Everyone's fled for the beach. On the other hand, you'll have the town to yourself to check out the restaurant scene.
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Sometimes the guide books get it right, and sometimes they are off. In this feature, we will tell you what the guide pros said about a place and then give you our take.
Our rough guide to Argentina had but a few pages on Uruguay, but that's par for the course in guide book publishing. It did cover Colonia, though, and we took a tip for dinner. Here's what Rough Guides said about Sacramento:
Fabulous food in postmodern surroundings--and even a couple tables outside, weather permitting--includes juicy steak with potatoes and bacon, ultra-fresh salads and unforgettable desserts. Uruguayan wine served by the glass, charming service and live music on Friday and Saturday evening.
Just across the river from Buenos Aires, Colonia del Sacramento is one seriously picturesque tourist town. And like all tourist towns, it's complete with plenty of cozy places to stay, plenty of places to eat and packs of roving dogs. (Btw, it's a World Heritage Site if that's important to you.)
The "city" is a gentle introduction to Uruguay's slower pace and its lispy, looping Spanish. And if you haven't had a chance to hit the bank, no worries: Most places take Argentine pesos, Brazilian reals and US dollars.
There's not much to do besides just chill and take cool photos. Not that there's anything wrong with that!
If you can get to Buenos Aires, you can get to Uruguay. South America's second smallest country is just a quick boat trip across the Rio de la Plata, and if you're gonna go all that way to get to Argentina, you might as well check it out.
Besides, isn't BA supposed to be played out by now? Hardly anyone goes to Uruguay--besides Argentines, that is--so once you make the trip, you'll be the star of the cocktail party. Won't that be nice?