South America travel is full of heavy hitters. Peru has Machu Picchu. Ecuador is home to the Galapagos Islands. Chile lays claim to Easter Island and famously, Torres Del Paine. Argentina has Perito Moreno Glacier and Iguazu Falls. Then there’s all of Patagonia, the Amazon rainforest, and a bevy of vivacious capital cities. Admittedly, Uruguay is not a place that shouts out with superlatives. And that’s exactly why we love it.

But Uruguay is still a mystery to many travelers. Here, Extraordinary Journeys South America specialists Emma Fritz and Olivia Schellenberg explain what makes Uruguay such a special travel destination.

“Dunes, wave breaks, windswept rolling hills, vineyards, and bucolic landscapes—Uruguay is romantic and a breath of fresh air when contrasted against its dramatic South American neighbors,” Emma describes. “It’s no wonder why this country has produced so many artists. Come for the beaches, the wine, the food, the art; stay for the lessons in simple living.”

“Uruguay is not a destination for list checkers, and that’s exactly why we love it,” adds Olivia. “There are no ‘wonders of the world’ or dramatic landscapes in Uruguay. The country is made up of lovely, laid-back places that delight in their slow pace and understated charm.”

Uruguay is off the beaten path (actually)

Few places truly merit this oft-overused statement, but Uruguay is one of them. It’s no stranger to visitors from neighboring countries, but the small country is less frequented by North American travelers. You’re far more likely to see folks from nearby Buenos Aires visiting for the weekend than crowds of English-speaking tour groups. It’s a refreshing opportunity to feel a little out of place.

“Uruguay sits nestled between Argentina and Brazil, which beckon to tourists with their dramatic landscapes and boisterous cultures,” Olivia points out. “Uruguay is humble, quietly confident, and happy to let its neighbors relish in the spotlight.”

If the weight of Anthony Bourdain’s opinion carries any currency, he once said: “Welcome to the tiny, overlooked but enchanted land of Uruguay, one of my favorite places to visit and easily one of the top underappreciated travel destinations on earth. It has beautiful beaches, breathtaking countryside, and a capital that evokes old Havana or Buenos Aires—but without the crowds.”

Despite largely flying under the radar, Uruguay is easily accessed via South American capitals, which makes the journey from the United States straightforward. Montevideo’s airport receives direct flights from Buenos Aires (Argentina), Santiago (Chile), Lima (Peru), and Sao Paolo (Brazil)—and Miami (though not daily.) Punta del Este also has a small airport. By water, a ferry runs daily between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and Buenos Aires and Colonia del Sacramento.

Uruguay is an ideal place for slow travel

A man admires the sunset in Colonia, Uruguay
Sunset in Colonia | Image credit: Bjorn Snelders

How often do you need a vacation from your vacation? Uruguay’s relaxed attitudes and laid-back nature means travel here is about as stress-free as it comes.

Cities and regions of interest are no more than a few hours apart by vehicle, so you won’t be making early morning trips to the airport to catch a flight. Your pace of travel is dictated by your ambitions; visit as few or as many towns as you like; fill your days with activities—or leave time for slow rituals like lazy picnics in wine country or sharing mate on the beach as the sun sets.

“My favorite memories in Uruguay are joyously simple,” reflects Olivia. “They include savoring a glass of wine in a sidewalk cafe in Colonia while listening to an accordion player in the nearby plaza, watching the sunset from Playa Mansa in Punta del Este, with soccer balls flying around as kids practiced the national sport, and sipping mate and people watching on Montevideo’s boardwalk along the Rio de le Plata.”

Fun fact: Slow travel is one of Extraordinary Journeys’ travel trends for 2024.

Uruguay is a safe and easy place for a road trip

Image credit: Bjorn Snelders

Uruguay is South America’s second-smallest country—about the size of Washington state. Most of the destinations popularly visited by travelers are coastal, or just inland. You won’t typically spend more than two or three hours going between places (unless making leisurely stops, which we highly encourage), making the country ideal road trip territory. Highways and roads in Uruguay are well-maintained and signed, so self-driving is easy and safe. However, if you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, your Extraordinary Journeys luxury Uruguay vacation can be navigated with a private driver.

Uruguay has superb beaches

Image credit: Bjorn Snelders

If you want to log some quality beach time in South America, consider Uruguay. West of Montevideo, on the Atlantic Coast, are the country’s premier beach destinations: Punta Del Este and José Ignacio. The names may be unfamiliar, but these two enclaves have been attracting jetsetters for decades—and they could not be more different. Each offers panoramic sunsets, superb sand, and surf breaks, but you can think of José Ignacio as barefoot-luxe, akin to the Hamptons and Montauk; Punta del Este feels more like Miami Beach or St. Tropez. The question is, do you want to pack heels or sandals?

“South America attracts adventurous travelers. People who want to climb Machu Picchu, who want to explore the wilds of Patagonia, or venture into the Amazon,” Olivia remarks. “Although rewarding, these trips are often action-packed and quick-paced. We want your vacation to feel like one, which is why we love finishing South America itineraries with a few days on the laid-back beaches of José Ignacio.”

Uruguay is a cultural melting pot to be enjoyed

Image credit: Bjorn Snelders

Many cultures have left fingerprints on Uruguay. Pre-colonially, Charrua and Guarani indigenous peoples made a home here. Europeans arrived in the 1500s, and in 1680 Portuguese settlers established Colonia. The territory traded hands, becoming a Spanish possession until it was established as an independent country in 1828. Uruguay’s modern history includes a civic dictatorship (mid-1980’s), from which the country emerged as one of the most liberal and stable democracies in Latin America.

Today, this melting pot of culture expresses in many ways that travelers can appreciate during a luxury Uruguay vacation. Old World European influences are worn visibly in crumbling fort walls and in colonial facades. Visitors can taste it in tannin wines, made with grapes that can be traced to Jesuit settlers. And they can dance to it, too. During the world’s longest carnival celebrations where streets reverberate with Afro-Uruguayan candombe rhythms or while admiring a tango performance (in tango’s contested birthplace).

“Uruguay’s small stature and history of cultural fusions have created an incredibly tolerant and welcoming people today,” notes Emma. “This can be felt throughout the country, from the center of the capital city to the rural reaches of an estancia.”

Uruguay is a foodie paradise

A man tends to asado at Sacromonte Landscape Hotel
Image credit: Tali Kimelman

Pack an appetite and loose-fitting pants when traveling to Uruguay. A country where the population of cows almost matches people, it’s a carnivore’s dream—seafood and asado (grilled meat) are cornerstones. It’s no coincidence that Francis Mallman, the legendary cooking-with-fire chef, has two restaurants in Uruguay. Gourmet, multi-course meals aside, save some room for chivitio (the national dish of Uruguay—a beefsteak sandwich ), and sticky dulce de leche.

Move a bit inland from Uruguay’s coast to find a pastoral heartland. Not all crops thrive in these thin volcanic soils—but grapes certainly do. Wine lovers will appreciate the burgeoning wine scene, which continues to elevate the global profile of Uruguayan wines, even if production is entirely eclipsed (in volume) by Chile and Argentina. Uruguay’s signature wine is tannat; a punchy, full-bodied red high in tannins that pairs well with rich dishes like steak, bratwurst, pork, and cheese. The country has a host of destination resorts—from working estancias to wine lodges—so food-curious travelers can truly eat their way through Uruguay.

Another tradition visitors should experience is mate (pronounced “mah-tay”). More than a drink, this beverage is a ritual woven into the social fabric of Uruguay.

“Mate is a national obsession in Uruguay. Hot water is poured from a thermos into a gourd of loose-leaf tea,” explains Olivia. “Uruguayans are known for always having their mate gourd and thermos in-hand. Sometimes they even defy the laws of physics for the sake of their mate. I’ve seen a cyclist with the gourd in one hand, and a thermos in the other. If you haven’t tried mate by the end of your trip to Uruguay, you’ve done something wrong!” she jokes.

Uruguay has a world-class art scene

Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Atchugarry

Uruguay’s buzzy and productive art scene lies at the intersection of liberalism, economic and political stability, creativity, and inspiration. A high quality of life buoyed by strong social systems (healthcare, education) that give Uruguayans a well of creative energy to tap into. Uruguay’s humble landscapes and escapist enclaves seed artistic ideas and, in turn, foster community. The country attracts poets, painters, sculptors, architects, and creative mavericks of all stripes—from food to fashion to hoteliers. Art is found in galleries and museums, but less formally, too. Street art, sculpture gardens, and installations (like La Mano de Punta del Este) add visual excitement to public spaces and the outdoors.

In Montevideo, the National Museum of Visual Arts is a good place to get oriented, while SUBTE delves into contemporary art. Reach way back into history for a deeper appreciation of Latin artifacts at the Pre-Columbian and Indigenous Art Museum. Constructed in neoclassical style, with a handsome portico of pillars and a spectacular solar pediment, Teatro Solís is just as memorable for its architectural grandeur as the live performances hosted on its stages. Fun fact: Thanks to it rich literary history, Montevideo is included UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

In the boho-luxe beach town of José Ignacio, art isn’t just the stuff they hang on walls. Billionaire Alexander Vik, a financier and art collector has three luxury hotels here (Playa Vik, Bahia Vik, Estancia Vik), chock full of international and Uruguayan art. Even the pools are a work of art—embedded with underwater light installations that depict star constellations. Peppered through town are artist ateliers and small galleries majoring in contemporary and Latin American art. You’ll also find a James Turrell Skyspace, Ta Khut, which is open to the public.

Just down the coast, in Punta Del Este, traditional and contemporary galleries and museums mingle. Don’t miss the sculpture garden at the Atchugarry Museum of Contemporary Art, and viewing contemporary Latin and European works at the Ralli Museum. A visit to Casapueblo, which evokes the white stucco architecture of Greece, lends a look inside the world of Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. Punta del Este also hosts ESTE ART international fair each January.

Explore Uruguay on a map


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Colonia del Sacramento

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José Ignacio

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Punta del Este

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Uruguayan Wine Country

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