5 Rules for a Uruguayan Adventure
By Chelsea Kim
I bet you’re asking yourself, “Uruguay? Where is that and what could you possibly be doing there?” You’re not alone. Reactions range from “huh?” to “South America, is that safe?”
So, let’s start with a couple key facts:
1. I live by a motto attributed to Marilyn Monroe: “Ever notice ‘what the hell’ is always the right decision?” If you met me in business, you’d swear this travel adventurer wasn’t the same person who went toe-to-toe negotiating revenue and contracts with big business. Most people have no idea this part of my life exists. Follow me on Instagram and I appear to live a whimsical #travellife. In my day to day, I’m super Type A and slightly OCD. Long story short, I like to do crazy things on spontaneous whims.
2. I love wine. I have lived in many wine regions from California to Germany. I volunteered at a winery in Northern California to learn and participated in harvest, sorting, crushing, processing, and bottling. I currently have a 50 bottle, thermoelectric wine cooler stuffed to the gills.
This brings us to our country du jour: a new world, up-and-coming wine exporter coupled with a travel suggestion.
South America is my newest continent to explore after last year’s trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos. Oh hello, Uruguay – a country I couldn’t locate on a map for a million dollars until last week, known for Tannat, a French varietal flourishing in the terroir (I told you I’m a wine snob).
My previously mentioned, adventure seeker bestie announced on December 11 that Uruguay would be her February 3 birthday trip. In true ‘what the hell’ fashion, I asked, “What’s the airport code and what dates are we going?” My flight was booked within 15 hours after I walked away. The Type A planner in me told my friend I was too overwhelmed with work and life to research a trip - between holidays, work, and end of fiscal year revenue goals looming, I was lucky I wasn’t wearing my pants inside-out and remembered to shower at least once a week.
With no more direction than the intention of drinking wine and horseback riding, I packed a backpack and headed to my business attire office wearing a sweatshirt, fleece lined tights under skinny jeans, a ski coat (it was a balmy 24°F the day we flew out), gloves, and sweet electric blue hiking shoes - does this explain my level of ready for vacation? – to work a full day before going to the airport.
The only thing I did for this trip was book a rental car at the request of the birthday girl. My friend’s license expired on her birthday, so she sent me the links and everything – the woman is a saint.
Rule #1: RENT A CAR. You will miss out on everything without one. Uruguay has great public transportation but catching buses makes you stick to a schedule, walk in the heat, and spend more time moving around the country than enjoying it. Also, use Waze to navigate. Speed traps are no joke here.
We rented the cheapest car available, a Nissan Versa - no wheel drive, sedan, decent trunk space. It had a CD player…we had no CDs.
Rule #2: If you are a nervous driver, get AWD. You will sleep soundly and thank me later. If you live dangerously like me, go for cheap and brave the unpaved roads with sinkhole-sized potholes #budgettravel.
First stop, wine. Vina Eden and Bodega Garzon are new, high production wineries in the Maldonado Department. Scenic, beautiful, and worth the drive. Vina Eden will activate its wind farm at the end of February 2019, which will make them 100 percent sustainable while Bodega Garzon has fully operational wind farms along with nine man-made lakes collecting rain run-off for watering the vineyards.
The Vina Eden tour is short and not worth the money, but definitely plan lunch and a tasting. The view is spectacular; the Asado is amazing (a typical Uruguayan dish mixed meats and sausages that come on a grill to the table with roasted potatoes and other veggies).
Tour Bodega Garzon: we did the last tour at 6 p.m. and ended up on a private tour through the vineyards and winery closing with a full tasting (including snacks) as we looked at a double rainbow over the vineyard. Eat lunch prior to the tasting at their onsite restaurant – one word: yum.
Note: This is a meat lover’s paradise. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you will struggle to survive. Uruguay has more cattle than people and they don’t just export them.
Rule #3: Eat. Uruguay has a ZERO tolerance for drinking and driving. No 0.08 BAC, I mean 0.0000 BAC. Watch your intake and obey the traffic laws.
Next stop, beach. La Barra is the poor man’s Punta del Este and the beggar’s Jose Ignacio. It is between the major tourist locations, so it’s not overrun but it’s close enough for good food and fun. We stayed at a hotel called Posada de los Pajaros in an oceanfront room for our first two nights in Uruguay - coming from the frozen, polar vortex tundra, this was just what we needed to defrost our bones and relax. Located immediately across the street from a beach, this is a steal. Be sure to wear sunscreen and re-apply frequently. Uruguay is very close to the equator. Even island-born girls like me turn to cooked lobsters in under an hour – rookie mistake, I have the horrific burns and tan lines to tell the tale.
Venture to Jose Ignacio for dinner, but make reservations during high season (end of December through early February for beach, and wine harvest from February through March). You’ll wait 30 minutes with a reservation, but it’s better than three hours without a reservation - refer back to Rule #3: Eat. The food is this country is simple, yet mind-blowing and representative of the Spanish, Portuguese and Italian communities that emigrated to Uruguay.
Moving on from the worst sunburn of my life, our hotel concierge found two estancias (ranches) at our request since hotel for the first two nights and two vineyards was as far as this trip got planned:
- One was upscale, $230 a night per person (not room) for dinner, breakfast, and lunch including a horseback riding tour.
- One was “rustic,” $65 a night per person for breakfast and a horseback riding tour.
Rule #4: When in Uruguay, go traditional. Experience the local culture versus the engineered resort version and talk to people, learn.
We couldn’t get the estancia on the phone to verify and reserve the room so we started the two-hour drive with hope and a prayer. About halfway there, the owner answered the phone to confirm she had a room for one night only. She needed to go to Castillos (a Uruguayan city) and would be leaving now, but staff was there and would expect us. She informed us the venue was truly local, and no one else spoke English.
Note: My Spanish ended in 4th grade counting to 10. My friend studied 4 years of French. But what’s life without a little miming?
Things have a strange way of working out. We arrived at Guardia del Monte, danced our way into our room, then stumbled on a courtyard garden straight out of a fairytale. There was one other guest that night, a native Uruguayan horse photographer who spoke perfect English – talk about miracles – and it was her birthday the following weekend. We enjoyed home -cooked meals by candlelight, a magical night watching fireflies and staring at the brilliant stars, discovering chickens roosting in trees, waking to cows and roosters at sunrise, and a morning horseback ride I will remember forever. We ended up becoming great adventurers, horseback riding and hiking the ranch as our new friend filled us in on the history of the area and translated our guide’s ruminations.
Following the estancia, we drove clear across the country (5 hours) from the Brazilian border to the Argentina divide, ending in Colonia del Sacramento (Colonia for short). With views of Buenos Aires across the river border, Colonia was a Portuguese settlement holding beautiful ruins and history. I did a 30-minute Google search to figure out why we came here, then took us on a 45-minute walking tour of the old city. It was fast, interesting, and all we needed of the quaint area. Staying at Posada Boutique Las Terrazas, we were a 10-minute walk from the main plaza. If you find yourself in Colonia, stay there and enjoy complimentary Yerba Matte (a local tea drink) in the garden; house made liquors of dulce de leche, limoncello, and cafe; and an included breakfast buffet. The staff is accommodating and kind.
Fun Fact: Uruguay is a long-standing cattle country. They previously did not know how to cure and store the meat so they skinned the animals for leather then left the meat to be eaten by animals or rot. Buenos Aires received its name for being the “good air” upwind of Uruguay.
The adventure continued to Canelones (yes, like the rolled pasta dish). This is the main wine country for Uruguay. Wineries have been functioning for over a century in the area, but only in the last 20 years has Uruguay started producing “premium” wines worthy of export and notice. There is an intriguing history of war, reparations by the French, and table wine.
Rule #5: Bring extra luggage. If you like wine, don’t be like me buying suitcases (yes, plural) to bring back inexpensive, amazing cases of wine. With editing and extreme restraint, we ended up with only 24 bottles to pack away on the trip home. Highlight of my trip.
Shipping to the U.S. from Uruguay is nearly impossible. Also, most wineries are family-owned, small, and require 24-hour advance booking to taste and tour. They are not set up for tourism.
The piece de resistance of Canelones is Posada Pizzorno, a three-room hotel onsite at Pizzorno Family Estates. This was a recommendation by our contact at Bodega Marichal, and it tied for top location with our ethereal estacion. The only reason this vineyard home was available is because it opened two months ago. Literally overlooking the vineyards, we wandered through the vines at sunset and ate handfuls of grapes. The table wine grape is large and similar to what you’d find in our grocery stores. It’s sweet and tastes more like lychee than grape. If you eat wine grapes from the vine, you truly understand how a drink made with a single ingredient can be dynamic with diverse flavors and subtlety.
Regarding safety, South America in general has stability issues but Uruguay is quite safe. There is some crime and issues in Montevideo, but Colonia, La Barra, and all of Rocha are very safe. Canalones is all family-owned vineyards, so there’s typically no one there that shouldn’t be. We went out at all hours to explore. I never felt unsafe.
Uruguay is truly a wonder and inspiration. From leather exporter to grass-fed meat exporter to wine producer, this country has continued to reinvent itself adapting to the changes in culture and time.
The economy is extremely stable using local currency (Uruguayan pesos) or the USD. It’s perfect for an affordable adventure destination or indulgent holiday spot for South American aristocrats. You can travel with children (I’d recommend slightly more planning), organize a romantic getaway, plan a friends’ trip, or escape on a solo retreat. There is something for everyone in this country.
Born on O‘ahu, Chelsea is a self-professed travel junkie based in Manhattan. When she's not trotting the globe, she serves as a technical account manager, consultant and corporate trainer. Her wanderlust passion has taken her to 36 countries, 42 states, 4/7 man-made world wonders and one natural world wonder. Chelsea's favorite destinations thus far have been Cuba and Jordan; her dream destinations include completing her list of world wonders, Antartica, Bolivia, Patagonia, the Brazilian rainforest and Lebanon. Follow her on IG @talesofmissadventure.