Punta del Diablo, La Paloma, La Pedrera and Punta del Este all get excellent surfing waves, while Cabo Polonio and the coastal lagoons of Rocha department are great for whale- and bird-watching, respectively. Punta del Este’s beach scene is more upmarket, with activities such as parasailing, windsurfing and jet skiing.

Horseback riding is very popular in the interior and can be arranged on most tourist estancias (ranches).

Worth a Trip: Uruguay’s Off-the-Beaten-Track Nature Preserves

Uruguay’s vast open spaces are a naturalist’s dream. The Uruguayan government has designated several natural areas for protection under its SNAP program (Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas; www.mvotma.gub.uy/portal/snap). Funding remains minimal and tourist infrastructure rudimentary, but intrepid travelers will be rewarded for seeking out these little-visited spots. Valle del Lunarejo and Quebrada de los Cuervos are the two preserves that best capture the spirit of Uruguay’s wild gaucho country. Other SNAP preserves along the Atlantic coast include Cabo Polonio, Cerro Verde and Laguna de Rocha.

Quebrada de los Cuervos

This small hidden canyon cuts through the rolling hill country 40km northwest of Treinta y Tres (325km northeast of Montevideo), providing an unexpectedly moist and cool habitat for a variety of plants and birds. There are two self-guided hiking trails: a 2½-hour loop through the canyon (UR$50 park admission fee required), and a privately owned trail to the Cascada de Olivera waterfall just outside the park (30 minutes each way, UR$30).

A perfect base for exploring this region is Cañada del Brujo, a rustic hostel in an old schoolhouse 8km from the park and 14km from Ruta 8. Hostel owner Pablo Rado leads hikes (UR$300) and horseback rides (UR$500) to the nearby Salto del Brujo waterfall and enjoys introducing guests to the joys of gaucho life: drinking mate, eating simple meals cooked on the woodstove and watching spectacular sunsets under the big sky. With advance notice, he can provide transportation to the hostel from Treinta y Tres or from the highway turnoff at Km 306.7 on Ruta 8.

Nuñez (nunez.com.uy) and EGA (www.ega.com.uy) run frequent buses from Montevideo to Treinta y Tres (UR$581, 4¼ hours).

Valle del Lunarejo

This gorgeous valley, 95km north of Tacuarembó, is a place of marvelous peace and isolation, with birds and rushing water providing the only soundtrack.

Visitors can spend the night at enchanting Posada Lunarejo, a restored 1880 building 2km off the main road, 3km from the river and a few steps from a bird colony teeming with garzas (cranes) and espátulas rosadas (roseate spoonbills). The posada organizes nearby hikes and horseback rides.

CUT (www.cutcorporacion.com.uy) offers the most convenient bus schedule to Valle del Lunarejo on its daily Montevideo–Tacuarembó–Artigas bus, leaving Montevideo at noon (UR$1006, 6½ hours) and leaving Tacuarembó at 5:10pm (UR$171, 1¼ hours). Posada Lunarejo can meet your bus if you call ahead.