The gorgeous 340km sweep of beaches, dunes, forests and lagoons stretching northeast from Montevideo to the Brazilian border is one of Uruguay’s national treasures. Still largely unknown except to Uruguayans and their immediate neighbors, this region lies nearly dormant for 10 months of each year, then explodes with summer activity from Christmas to Carnaval. For sheer fun-in-the-sun energy, there’s nothing like peak season, but if you can make it here slightly off-season (in March or the first three weeks of December), you’ll experience its beauty for half the price.

Near the Brazilian border, abandoned hilltop fortresses and shipwrecks offer mute testimony to the era when Spain and Portugal struggled for control of the continent. Where lookouts once scanned the wide horizon for invading forces, a new wave of invaders has taken hold, from binocular-wielding whale watchers in Cabo Polonio to camera-toting paparazzi in Punta del Este.