Travel Blog: Uruguay from Sacramento to Punta Del Este

P1000849Before the hubby and I embarked on our trip to Uruguay I had no expectations of the country, it having been largely off my radar.

What I encountered was a laid back, chilled country with a European vibe, but whose own culture isn’t immediately obvious.

Unlike its neighbours, Uruguay, which has a population of around 3.4 million, politically speaking, has been a very stable country for many years.

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Former Uruguayan Prime Minister José Alberto “Pepe” Mujica Cordano.

Former Uruguayan Prime Minister José Alberto “Pepe” Mujica Cordano is somewhat a legend in these parts. An older gentleman, who while in power snubbed the official presidential palace preferring his humble flat instead, gave around 90% of his earnings to charity and saw through the banning of smoking in public places, and legalising abortion and gay civil partnerships. He also rolled out a scheme to give all students a free laptop. In fact, education and healthcare is free in Uruguay and English is taught in schools. During the ten days spent in Uruguay I encountered a lot more Uruguayans who spoke English than in neighbouring Argentina.

Quaint Colonia del Sacramento

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We entered Uruguay via a three-hour ferry from Buenos Aires (£30 per person; ferries can be booked here) to Colonia del Sacramento, a city in southwestern Uruguay.

Sacramento is a gorgeous, quaint village straight out of a picture book. Cobbled streets lead you around the tiny town where’s there’s not much to do apart from eat, sleep and watch beautiful sunsets.  And here that is basically what we did for two days.

Notes for fellow travellers

Coming from BA the ferry doesn’t leave you enough time to enjoy Sacramento and return or move onto somewhere else. It says it takes three hours but it left an hour late so it’s more like four, though a faster ferry is available at an additional cost. The ferry is big and comfortable and the seats by the windows have plug sockets if you can nab one.

In hindsight I’d stay for one night to enjoy the lovely restaurants and drink in the bars, but leave in the afternoon the next day. Walking around the village only takes about an hour and a half. There’s a little church and some small museums and a lighthouse you can climb.

Accommodation isn’t cheap and it gets booked up quickly because it’s so small. When we booked on booking.com accommodation in the area was 98% full! So we were forced to pay more than we would have liked for a place I wouldn’t recommend.

Deserted Montevideo

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From Colonia we hopped on a comfortable air conditioned bus, complete with wifi (£7 via COT, can be booked at the bus station) to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital and largest city.

We arrived, dropped our stuff off at the hotel and went for a walk around the city. I’d heard Montevideo was like a smaller Buenos Aires, with a similar culture (apparently locals claim tango was born here and not in Buenos Aires), but easy to explore on foot.

The day we arrived the place was deserted.  Everything was closed bar the odd cafe and the supermarket. It was like something out of the film 28 Days Later. The square, peculiarly, however, was awash with pink confetti that cleaners tried in vain to clear up as the wind blew back up into their faces.

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Confetti in the square.

We had no idea what was going on.

The next day was very similar. There were only a few more shops and cafés open and some tourists walking around. We found out later via a strained conversation in Spanish with the receptionist of our hotel that two days prior was the carnival and now everything was shut for two days holidays. Great.

Obviously this affected my view of Montevideo, but my opinion is the city pales in comparison to Buenos Aires. It has similar French inspired architecture except in Montevideo most buildings are crumbling at the seams, many are completely abandoned. The city looks to be in need of a serious cash injection.

Walking along the promenade you’ll find row upon row of run down housing estates.

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Compared to Buenos Aires, Montevideo has a distinctly unsafe feel. Perhaps this is due to the eerie emptiness of the city, coupled with its abandoned and rundown buildings.

On our second night in the city we walked in the dark to what the receptionist said was a carnival in a downtown park. This was a forty minute walk down a long dark street where only every now and then the odd person would appear making us feel a bit less uneasy.

Tips for fellow travellers

Two nights is probably more than enough in Montevideo. Or maybe more if you come for the festival which happens at the beginning of February. Here is a good blog to find out more about the city and when the festival is on.

Party town Punta Del Este

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Another two and half hour bus ride brought us to the ‘exclusive’ beach resort of Punta Del Este.

Apparently celebrities hit the shore here and neighbouring La Barra at the end of December and January. The place is replete with fancy real estate that is apparently mostly owned by rich Argentines, and even more is under construction. You can’t move for towering blocks of condos. Donald Trump is even building a Trump Tower and there’s a huge Conrad hotel that has a massive club that attracts popular DJs, or so I’m told.

You’ll also spot topless men and scantily clad women running up and down the promenade trying to keep their perfect figures in check.

The prices of accommodation are reflected in the exclusivity of the place. We stayed in an AirBnb a 25-minute walk from Downtown where everyone goes out to eat and drink at night and it cost £77 a night. Not cheap!

There’s an abundance of beaches all at walking distance, though we found Playa Mansa (on the right-hand side of the peninsular, If I am correct) to have jelly fish. Both I and my husband unwittingly touched one in the sea which was enough to put us off. However, Play Brava (on the other side) has much rougher water and very strong wind, but no jelly fish as far as we could make out.

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A lovely church in Punta Del Este.

We also experienced some confusion about hiring deck chairs and umbrellas. All the ones on the beach belong to hotels so you can’t actually rent them. After having four very painful conversations in Spanish I managed to find someone who could understand my pidgin Spanish and would rent us some chairs. The wind was so strong laying on a towel was out of the question unless we wanted to get buried in sand.

Going out in downtown was good. Everyone tends to go out about 10 for dinner – there are loads of nice options – and then to the late bars for drinks. Things finish up past 5am.

One night we decided to go to La Barra because we heard it was like Puerto Banús in Marbella. The taxi journey there from Downtown Punta Del Este was longer than expected and cost £17! And when we arrived it was very quickly clear that there was no party to be had. We spotted only families eating at casual restaurants. Perplexed, we went for a drink at a bar, convinced the 90-year-old (looking) taxi driver had dropped us off at the wrong place.

However, a chat with the owner of the bar, who spoke very good English, revealed that La Barra is only happening during the last week of December through to January. If you want a party now you have to go to Downtown Punta Del Este. He couldn’t hide his amusement when we told him that’s where we’d just come from…via taxi. ‘Pheew, that must have a cost a lot,’ he said shaking his head and rubbing his chin. ‘But hey, you’re from London everything’s expensive there.’ Yeah, that doesn’t make us feel better!

Back to downtown Punta it was.

Punta is nice, but I much preferred Punta Del Diablo which you can read about in my next blog.

But if you do go to Punta Del Este look out for the sea lions around the harbour. Here’s one beauty chilling out as tourists snap pictures of him.

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