We always love a roadtrip, so for our first visit to Uruguay it made complete sense to explore the country by car. Despite the slightly rough terrain, Uruguay is perfect for a roadtrip. Small and safe with lots of different corners to explore. (You can read more about this in my post about driving conditions in Uruguay.)
Here’s an overview of our 2 week itinerary, starting and finishing in historic Colonia del Sacramento. The itinerary includes a stay at a traditional Estancia in Florida, the rugged scenery of Lavalleja, the costal towns of Rocha, Uruguayan’s prime beach resorts and finally the capital, Montevideo.
Starting point Buenos Aires
Given its proximity to Uruguay we decided to start our trip in Buenos Aires, a place we had always wanted to visit. But there was also a practical consideration, as flight connections to Buenos Aires worked out slightly better for us than Montevideo. We arrived on one of the first flights on Norwegian’s new low cost route from Gatwick to Buenos Aires – a very positive experience despite a whole bunch of hiccups during the booking process, but that’s a different story.
We spent two full days exploring the capital of Argentina, largely on foot. Wandering from barrio to barrio we got to visit the colourful and football-mad neighbourhood of La Boca, the historic district of San Telmo, the busy Microcentro, marvel at the wealth in Recoleta and relax in quirky Palermo. I’ve written a special blog post about our walking tour of Buenos Aires, with a detailed two day itinerary..
World Heritage Site Colonia del Sacramento
From Buenos Aires we caught the ferry to Colonia del Sacramento, the UNESCO world heritage coastal town and a popular entry point to Uruguay. Instead of the number one carrier Buquebus we chose to travel on the low cost alternative Colonia Express. The booking process for a non-South American proved a little tricky, so in the end I pre-booked our tickets through directferries.com. The ferry to Colonia takes c. 1 hour – all in all a smooth and straight forward experience.
Colonia’s old town is a pretty little place, the cobble-stoned streets largely car free. As a popular day trip destination from Argentina perhaps a little touristy, but nonetheless charming and relaxing. Apart from a climb up the historic lighthouse there’s not a lot to do in Colonia, other than stroll around the maze of alleyways, eat yourself through the numerous restaurants and relax over some coffee or wine in one of the many bars and cafes.
After a few hectic days in Buenos Aires, Colonia is a wonderful place to recharge batteries and a great introduction to the Uruguayan, slower pace of life.
One point to note is that Colonia takes cobble stones to a new level, and I would recommend decent footwear for your stroll through the old town. For travellers with children, this is an occasion where carrier trumps pushchair!
The restaurant options in Colonia are endless, but one of our favourite places to eat was actually a little hole-in-the-wall take away place. Los Farolitos serves up delicious panchos, milanesas and chivitos – we went back there more than once!
Stay on a traditional Uruguayan Estancia
After a couple of days chilling in Colonia, we picked up our hired car and headed northwards towards the small town of Florida. 200km west of Colonia, Florida is best known as the setting of the Declaration of Independence in 1825.
From there we headed to our next stop on our itinerary, a working ranch half an hour drive from Florida. Every visit to Uruguay should include a stay at a traditional Estancia, where you can experience life on a working farm first hand.
We spent a couple of days at Estancia Hosteria El Ceibo, a relatively small farm dozens of cattle, sheep, chickens, several horses and three friendly dogs. The owners Camen and Joselo are lovely and immediately welcomed us into their family. There are only five guest rooms, so even when fully booked a stay at El Ceibo remains a calm and personal experience. Visitors come here from all over the world and spend their days exploring the land, hiking to the rock pool nearby, horse riding, and relaxing on the Estancia. All food is freshly prepared, home cooked and absolutely delicious. Joselo ensures every guest gets to experience a traditional Uruguayan asado, it was fantastic.
The rugged landscape of Lavalleja
From Florida, we headed to the department of Lavalleja, known for its rugged, hilly landscape. The capital of the region is Minas, a small town with a pretty little square, a couple of hours drive via Ruta 12.
We stayed in the village of Villa Serrana, less a traditional village, more a collection of individual B&Bs, holiday homes and restaurants dotted along the hillside. We particularly enjoyed Parrillada y Pizzeria ¨Venite a Casa¨ – a tiny home-style restaurant overlooking the hills.
From Villa Serrana it’s only a short drive to Parque del Salto al Penitente, a national park with a beautiful waterfall, hiking, zip line, horse riding and lots more. South of Minas is San Francisco de la Sierra, a holiday park / farm with outdoor and indoor swimming pool and lots of children’s activities.
The La Rocha coast
Having explored the inland it was time to head to the coast for the second part of our 2 week itinerary.
Our next stop was La Pedrera, a small coastal resort in the Rocha department. Each of the little towns and villages along the Uruguayan coast has their own distinct vibe. La Pedrera is down to earth, relaxed and still retains a distinct ‘hippie’ feel. Its neighbour La Paloma is a little more touristy and not quite as charming as La Pedrera, but has a nice beach, tourist information, several bars and a pretty lighthouse.
We stayed at Pueblo Barrancas, a holiday park of tents and chalets built directly onto the dunes. It was one of our favourite places. Rather than the pricier thatched chalets, we chose one of the army-style tents, equipped with bathroom, comfortable bed, fridge, patio and hammock. The tent was surprisingly cosy and sufficiently spacious for the three of us.
The beach is only a few steps away and it’s a 20 minute beach walk to La Pedrera town. The communal area at Pueblo Barrancas centres on a wonderful swimming pool. The restaurant is amazing, with some of the ingredients home grown on the grounds – we ate there twice and both times the food was super fresh and delicious.
Uruguay’s prime beach resorts
From La Pedrera we headed westwards to the chic coastal town of José Ignacio. Now a celebrity hotspot with fancy holiday homes and guesthouses, the old fishing village José Ignacio still manages to retain some of its original character. The beach around the iconic lighthouse is stunning and worth a stop, even if only for a couple of hours.
Our next stop was Uruguay’s most popular beach resort, Punta del Este. Known as the ‘Monaco of the South’, Punta del Este is Uruguay’s second city and the most important beach resort of South America. There are two main beaches on each side of the peninsula where Rio de la Plata meets the Atlantic: Brava Beach to the east is a popular surf spot and crowded with Argentinean tourists. Mansa Beach has calmer waters and tends to be favoured by Uruguayan locals. Punta del Este offers everything you expect from a beach resort: souvenir sellers, restaurants, shops and casinos.
El Pinar, an unexpected highlight
The final stop of our 2 week roadtrip was El Pinar, a small beach town a few miles east of Montevideo. El Pinar turned out to be the perfect base for our final few days, with a beautiful beach, plenty of restaurants and a decent selection of shops.
We stayed at the wonderful guesthouse Posada El Bambu. As soon as you step foot into Adriana and Omar’s home you’re transported into an oasis of colour, art and happiness. Both owners being talented artists, the house and garden are stuffed to the brim with quirky artefacts, water features and colourful glass installations – it’s absolutely wonderful and it’s impossible not to sink into one of the comfy chairs, sit back and relax. Adriana and Omar are the perfect hosts, looking after their guests with incredible warmth and attention to detail.
Uruguay’s capital Montevideo
Driving into Montevideo is straight-forward and parking easily available. As we visited over the Easter holidays, most of Montevideo was shut during our stay – it still makes me laugh that Uruguayans call the Easter holidays ‘Tourism Week’, an irony so very typical for laid back Uruguay.
Nonetheless we were able to stroll around the old town and marvel at the iconic Plaza del Indepencia, connecting Ciudad Vieja with downtown Montevideo. Luckily the famous Mercado del Puerto with its numerous parilla food stalls was also open for business.
Given it’s a capital city, Montevideo has a very calm and relaxed feel. Bustling antique markets, impromptu tango performances, grand architecture and tasty street food are all ingredients of its charming vibe and unique character.
The Tristán Narvaja feria is another highlight – there’s nothing you can’t find on this market sprawling the streets around Tristán Narvaja every Sunday. For football fans, a visit of the Estadio Centenario where the first FIFA world cup final was played in 1930 is a must.
Semana Criolla, Gaucho week in Montevideo
Every Easter week, Uruguayans from all over the country travel to Montevideo to visit Semana Criolla, or Gaucho Week. This traditional festival is all about celebrating rural gaucho culture. With rodeo contests every day, markets and plenty of food, Semana Criolla is a quintessential Uruguayan spectacle.
The few foreign tourists that make it to the festival stand out as the only visitors not dressed in traditional gaucho attire.
The festival takes place at Rural del Prado, in the northeast of Montevideo a 15 minute drive from the old town, and it’s easy to buy a day ticket at the entrance.
Completing the circle
Our 2 week roadtrip finished where it started, in Colonia del Sacramento, where we dropped off the hired car and caught the ferry back to Buenos Aires for our return flight home.