Squeezed between the colossuses of Argentina and Brazil, compact Uruguay (South America's second-smallest country) is politically and economically stable, peaceful and perfect for a self-drive adventure. Thanks to good roads, considerate drivers and – outside the peak holiday season – little traffic, you can explore its never-ending coastline and boundless pampas at your own pace.
Here are some of the highlights.
Maldonado’s surf …
Leave Montevideo’s Carrasco International Airport and head straight for the beach. An easy two-hour drive east will take you to laid-back La Barra and the retro-chic Casa Zinc, where you'll find six rooms decorated with vintage furniture and flea market finds. From here, spend a few days discovering deserted beaches, surfing Playa Bikini, dipping in to La Barra’s antique shops, perusing neighboring Manantiales’ design stores and dining at relaxed restaurants, such as the rustic El Chancho y La Coneja.
A ten-minute drive to the west, over the undulating bridge that spans the Rio Maldonado, is glitzy Punta del Este, where the skyscrapers resemble a mini Miami and the bars, clubs and beaches turn into the playground of wealthy Argentinians and Brazilians in December and January.
Just 30 minutes to the east is boho José Ignacio. There are no high-rise resorts, pumping nightclubs or shopping malls in this former fishing village, only sprawling beaches dotted with high-end homes, watched over by a quaint lighthouse. In high season, it becomes an under-the-radar celebrity haunt, thanks to its upscale boutiques, galleries and pop-up restaurants from celebrity chefs. The rest of the year, it’s a place to chill and feast on seafood – try the beachfront Parador La Huella.
… and turf
From Manantiales, head north to the Fundación Pablo Atchugarry, a sculpture park (located just ten minutes from the coast) created by one of Uruguay’s most renowned artists. If you’re lucky, you might catch Atchugarry chiseling away at one of his larger-than-life pieces.
Another 50 minutes northeast is the quiet village of Garzón, surrounded by serene pampas. It’s been transformed from a virtual ghost town into a foodie hotspot by Argentina’s legendary chef, fire master Francis Mallmann who converted its abandoned general store into an atmospheric restaurant-with-rooms, Restaurante Garzón. Even if you don’t stay overnight, eating here is worth the splurge. The menu focuses on regional produce and everything – from the salad with burnt oranges to a top-notch ribeye and even the cocktails – is created using crackling flames. Thanks to Mallmann's initiatives, contemporary galleries and creative spaces are springing up alongside other activities like horse riding, bird watching and biking.
A 30-minute drive from the village (which includes a stretch bouncing over winding dirt roads) takes you to a low-slung stone building, the state-of-the-art winery Bodega Garzón. Take a tour and tasting (remembering that Uruguay has a zero tolerance policy on drinking and driving so remember to have a designated driver), or eat in their farm-to-fork restaurant and drink in the views over the rolling vineyards from the terrace. At some point, be sure to try the Balasto, a blend using Uruguay’s signature grape, Tannat.
The relaxed capital
Then it’s back to Montevideo, a two-and-a-half-hour drive west along near-empty roads flanked with fields and grazing cattle until the capital appears on the horizon. (Fun fact: Uruguay has around four times as many cows as people.) Fringed by the calm waters of the Río de la Plata, this small and easily explored city was founded in 1726 by the Spanish and it still feels as much European as Latin American.
In the Ciudad Vieja, contemporary glass-walled skyscrapers sit shoulder-to-shoulder with art deco façades and grand colonial mansions. You can celebrate La Cumparsita, the world’s most famous tango song, at the Museo del Tango. located in the imposing Palacio Salvo on Plaza Independencia. The buzzy Mercado del Puerto close to the port is perfect for an unhurried lunch – perhaps octopus salad and just-caught corvina – at one of the open-sided restaurants that throng with a mix of locals and visitors at weekends.
Uruguay and Argentina may squabble over who invented tango, the best way to drink yerba mate or who makes the finest dulce de leche (an addictively sweet spread), but the infectious rhythms of the candombe drummers are uniquely Uruguayan, dating back to the mid-18th century and the arrival of African slaves. You can hear candombe around the port when there's a cruise ship in, or in the Palermo district when the candombe troupes, or comparsas, take to the streets at night to practice. The comparsas play a key role in Montevideo's colorful, 40-night Carnival (starting 24 January), parading in full costume during Las Llamadas.
Then make like the Montevideanos and head to the beach – Pocitos is one of the most popular – or stroll, jog or cycle along the Rambla, the promenade that snakes around 14 miles (23km) of the waterfront.
Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay’s oldest city, lies 112 miles (180km) to the west, across the broad sweep of the tea-colored Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Founded by Portuguese colonists in 1680, it passed between Portuguese and Spanish hands for decades. Today its postcard-perfect, UNESCO-protected Barrio Histórico is filled with pretty tree-shaded plazas lined with cafes perfect for people watching, and a riverfront promenade for front-row sunset views.
The four-room La Posadita de La Plaza on the main square makes a great base for exploring, and Eduardo Alvares Boszko – Brazilian photographer, collector and genial host – has filled his unique B&B with a quirky assortment of vintage objects from around the globe.
Explore the ruins of the seventeenth-century Convento de San Francisco, and then climb the 100 or so steps of its nineteenth-century lighthouse for stunning views. Be sure to stroll through the Portón de Campo the reconstructed eighteenth-century city gate with its wooden drawbridge, and make time for idle wandering along the car-free cobbled streets. Should you feel a bit peckish, indulge at the riverfront Charco Bistró, or head to La Bodeguita to try a chivito (Uruguayan meat-feast sandwich).
Make it happen
There are various rental car outlets at Montevideo’s Carrasco International Airport, including Avis, Budget and Hertz. Drivers need to be at least 23 years old and have held a full driving license for two years. Automatic cars can be requested and a GPS is recommended. For an extra charge, you can usually pick up in one city and drop off in another.
If you pay for your fuel with a foreign credit or debit card the 22% VAT will be deducted, currently up until 30 April 2019.
Sarah Gilbert traveled to Uruguay with support from Journey Latin America. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.