For some reason, I am one of the few people I know who has been to Uruguay. On the odd occasion when I do meet someone who has visited, generally it has only been for a weekend and almost exclusively to the beach resort town of Punta del Este (or the new "it" spot a few miles away, Jose Ignacio), sometimes referred to as the Hamptons of South America for its celebrity crowd of actors, models, millionaires and Latin jetsetters. Having spent a week in Punta, frankly its reputation is a little overrated - but then again if you're in Buenos Aires in mid summer and need to get to the beach, it really is the best option. Obviously there is more to Uruguay that just one beach town, in fact the country has over 120 miles of Atlantic coastline boasting white sandy beaches, but its colonial cities, thermal hot springs, vineyards and charming capital city are also well worth a visit. Although it is now fall in Uruguay, the weather remains pleasant and you can still catch some rays and a day on the beach with temperatures hovering around the 70 to 75 degree mark.
The capital Montevideo is a relatively small city that you can cover most of on foot. It is considerably less expensive than comparable South American big cities and makes for a humble yet enticing first port of call. Visit Cuidad Veija (the old city), Plaza Independencia, The Artigas Mausoleum, the historic Fortaleza del Cerro, the El Prado neighborhood, El Mercado del Puerto (Port Market) and the antiques market in Plaza de la Constitución on Saturdays and on Sundays, the Parque Rodó fair. Montevideo's city beaches are rather appealing too. Most hotels here seem to have been built in the 1960s and '70s and lack architectural character. Even four-star hotels are under $100 a night. The centrally located Hotel Palacio (tel. +598/916-3612; www.hotelpalacio.com.uy) is housed in an older late 19th century building and offers small but cute double rooms priced from $22 to $24 per night. Even superior rooms only cost $25 to $28 per night for two people. The simple and basic two-star Hotel Florida (www.hotelflorida.com.uy) is housed in a hundred plus year-old building and double rooms here with private bathroom are a super low $19 per night. If youÂ?d like breakfast, that $2 more per person.
Within a half-hour drive of the capital is the Tannat wine region. Although less well known than its southern neighbor Argentina, Uruguay has a 250-year-old history of wine production with its sharp local grape Tannat, best tasted as a blend with cabernet sauvignon or cab franc. Visit-Uruguay Tours (www.visit-uruguay.com) offer half-day Tannat Trail wine tours visiting two vineyards (locations include Antigua Bodega Stagnari (www.antiguabodegastagnari.com.uy); Vina Varela Zarranz (www.varelazarranz.com); Bodegas Castillo Veijo (www.castilloviejo.com); Stagnori Vinos Finos (www.stagnari.com); Establecimiento Juanico (www.juanico.com); and Bodega Bouza (www.bodegabouza.com). The tours leave at 2pm daily from Cisplatina Travel Agency on Bulevar Espana, except Saturdays when they depart at 9am. Tours including tastings, transportation and English speaking guides cost $61 per person including taxes.
For a more colonial feel, visit the historic town of Colonia del Sacramento. This 17th century jewel is reminiscent of old Lisbon and is UNESCO World heritage listed. A sought after town for the filming of historical movies, it boasts windy cobble-stone streets, rustic stone walls, brightly colored traditional Portuguese houses and impressive public buildings. It is located 100 miles from Montevideo or an hour's ferry ride from Buenos Aires. A number of its hotels are located in the historic Barrio and are converted private homes. Among the most beautiful is the petite four-star Posada Plaza Mayor (tel. +598/522-3191; www.posadaplazamayor.com), a boutique property of only 14 rooms in a 19th century house built around a romantic floral courtyard and fountain. Double rooms here including breakfast are priced from around $100 per night. For almost half that price ($60) including breakfast, you can stay at the equally quaint three-star Posada del Angel (tel. +598/522-4602; www.posadadelangel.net), located across from the Rio de la Plata.
In the country's north lies the thermal hot springs area of Salto which consists of six different hot spring towns and resorts. Daymán Hot Spring resort is one the oldest and most established, known for providing therapeutic treatments for people with stress or rheumatic problems, neurological and skeletal muscle disorders. Located on the Daymán River with its fine sandy shores, five miles from the town of Salto, it is a particularly popular summer destination (December to February). The municipal hot springs consist of 11 pools with temperatures regulated according to the weather and the season. There are saunas, hydro jets, ozone pools and Swedish showers -- all of this for a paltry $2.50 entry fee. There are 40 or so hotels in the area, ranging from up-market properties to simple bungalows and serviced apartments. Most have their own thermal swimming and hydromassage pools plus spa services on the premises. The three-star La Posta del Daymán (www.lapostadeldayman.com) has double rooms with breakfast and dinner priced from $49 per night. The three-star Hotel Termal Kanarek (www.reservas.net/ssphtm/hotels_UY_STY.html) has comfortable cabins with their own thermal bathroom for four people priced from $53 per night. The four-star Solanas Termas del Dayman (www.termasdayman.com/solanas) has rooms equipped with kitchens priced from $60 per night, plus if you stay for seven nights, pay for only five.
A unique and refreshing way to see the country gaucho-style is on horseback. Hidden Trails (tel. 888/9-TRAILS; www.hiddentrails.com) offers a nine-day Laguna Negra Estancias ride though the country's beaches and grasslands. The trip departs regularly in the spring and fall seasons (from late February to mid April and again from mid October to late November) and is priced at $2,100 per person land-only (add $300 for single supplement) which includes horses (local Uruguayan Criollo breed ideally suited to the terrain.), guides, grooms, all meals, eight-nights accommodation, transport and taxes. The trip starts in Montevideo, then visits wine regions, the18th century Fortín de San Miguel, the Rocha province with its pristine beaches and network of lagoons, the Brazilian border town and beaches of Chuy, the hills of San Miguel, La Coronilla, Santa Teresa national park -- home to dolphins and shipwrecks, Don Bosco, Laguna Negra, El Sauce - authentic gaucho cattle stations, Cabo Polonio fishing village and UNESCO Biosphere Natural Reserve, El Charabón. Accommodations are in hotels, lodges and on cattle ranches and all meals are prepared with completely natural and fresh products of the region.
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