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Looking to visit one new country next year? Make it Uruguay, South America’s most underrated destination

Much smaller than neighbouring Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay sits humbly on the east coast of South America, quietly doing its thing. But it’s this under-the-radar status that means only travellers in the know seek out its charms. In the last few years, travel to Uruguay has been increasing in popularity with small fishing villages being transformed into luxury beach destinations, but don’t worry, plenty of pretty, rural spots remain.

punta del diablo uruguay travel
Punta del Diablo on Uruguay's east coast

During four months in South America I spent nearly two weeks travelling through Uruguay starting in the countries capital, Montevideo, and it was here that I first noticed people walking the streets, drinking from small round cups with metal straws. What they were drinking turned out to be Maté, a traditional South American drink brewed from leaves of the yerba mate plant. Uruguayans drink more Maté than any other South American country, it’s high in caffeine and is said to have energising properties. To find out more about the history of Mate there’s an section all about it at the Museo del Gaucho y la Moneda in Montevideo. As well as museums, the capital city is full of elaborate and ornate buildings so I’d recommend doing a self guided walking tour that takes in the pretty Palacio Salvo and many of the cities plazas, it’s easy to walk the city and see the main sights within a couple of hours. If you walk past street side stalls selling food, look out for Choripán, a small grilled chorizo baguette that comes with chimichurri or small pastries filled with meat or cheese, called empanadas. Both options are delicious and very cheap, perfect if you’re on a budget.

uruguayan flag in montevideo
Uruguayan flag in Montevideo

When beach life calls, a journey along the coast leads to the ‘St Tropez of Latin America’; Punta del Este. It’s here, Uruguayans come to holiday, with upscale restaurants and swish hotels drawing in the crowds. I didn’t love Punta del Este, preferring more relaxed beachside towns, but it was good to see the place for myself and spend a few days relaxing. There’s a great hand sculpture, designed by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal, bursting out of the sand on the Brava side of the beach, and don’t miss fresh seafood down by the harbour.

giant hand in sand in punta del este uruguay
Mario Irarrázabal's giant hand sculpture

My favourite place in Uruguay is the sleepy yet colourful fishing town of Punta del Diablo, just two and a half hours along the wild coast from Punta del Este. This quiet town is easily explored on foot and it’s here that I spent the majority of my time in Uruguay, staying in a very cool tree-house type hostel with an ex-sports journalist and his wife who'd escaped city life. There are lots of hidden and secluded bays in Punta del Diablo where I swam in the cool sea each day plus there's some epic waves, making it a great spot for surfers. I felt like I had the town pretty much to myself and spent lazy days on the beach, walking and taking photos of the bright houses that lined narrow roads.

purple house punta del diablo
One of the many bright houses in Punta del Diablo

From Punta del Diablo it’s easy enough to continue up the coast and head into Brazil where you can find the world's longest beach—Praia do Cassino beach—but if you don’t have time for long bus journeys a flight from Montevideo would make more sense.

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