Discover Uruguay, South America’s Smaller Gem

South America shines in the winter sun Uruguary is its warm heart. Looking at the map, there seems little reason to head to this classic buffer state, sandwiched between the beachside delights of Brazil and Argentina’s steak-and-style swagger.  But it is the way that this fiercely independent nation, whose spirit is epitomised in its fanatically followed football team, combines the best of its neighbours in a far more easily digestible package that makes it irresistible.  If you want a short, sharp hit of the best of Latin America then you’ve come to the right place.

Uruguay has traditionally been known for one place – the ritzy seaside town of Punta del Este.  But while the rabid nightlife, driven by the party crowd from Buenos Aires – a ferry ride or drive from Uruguary’s coast – sees whole suburbs devoted to bass – booming clubs, there are less big and brash pleasures to be if you follow the sandy strip north-east.  Soon you’ll come to Jose Ignacio and to Casa Suaya (www.casasuaya .com) a chic and secretive resort owned by LA restaurateur Adolfo Suaya.  There’s not much to the town but the sea and the beach, so it’s perfect for quietly luxuriating, chewing on plenty of Uruguayan steak and drinking excellent wine from around the region.

Many hotels are open year-round at budget rates, so you come in the June to December low season for great deals and bracing walks along the beach.  Mid-December to February is the busiest time of the year, and many hotels will insist on a three-night minimum stay.  In Punta del Este, this may be a week or more.  If you want to come for New Year you’ll need to book several months in advance.

Uruguayans are locked in a perpetual rivalry with their larger neighbour to the south, Argentina.  Quietly yet confidently, every local you meet will tell you that they produce the better beef, more beautiful people and delight in their World Cup advances.  You can get better beef in Uruguay and Argentina’s gauchos – cowboys, aren’t a patch on Uruguay’s.

Montevideo has a museum dedicated to their culture and lifestyle.  Inland Uruguay feels like one big cattle farm and there are several boutique country house hotels making the most of the laid-back rural setting.  That said, the horses you’ll meet at Estancia Vik will be well underneath polo players.  This gorgeous Spanish style estancia is set in thousands of acres of ocean-front land.

If you are after a more authentic ranch experience, head to El Charabon (www.elcharabon .com), inland close to the town of Rocha.  This working cattle and forestry ranch brings agrotourism to Uruguay, with horse-riding, bird-watching and hiking in the nearby Sierra de los Rocha hills.  Horse rides on deserted because are a speciality.

For a small country, Uruguay offers a lot of variety.  True, you won’t find virgin rainforest or dramatic Andean backdrops here but away from the endless sand of the north-east coast there’s plenty for history buffs to get their teeth into.  A short ferry ride from Buenos Aires, and the best way to get a taster of the country, is the centuries-old fortified town of Colonia del Sacramento.

Charles Darwin passed through here on his way to the Galapagos Islands and immortality and found the place caught up in a war.  This shouldn’t  have come as a surprise – ownership of the town has changed hands a dozen times since 1680.  Colonia’s well-preserved ramparts and beautiful old streets have seen it made a Unesco World Heritage Site, and it deserves more than the day trip it often gets. Casa de las Limoneres is a gorgeous farmhouse close to the town and the River Plate set in rolling countryside.

Those who venture further inland will find a familiar name hiding a gruesome past.  For many, the name Fray Gentos will instantly summon up the smell of pies and corned beef in tin cans, and it was in the sleepy Uruguayan town of the same name that the ancestors of many of the cows you’ll see in the country mooed their last.

The enormous abattoir-cum-factory here, owned by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, it is now a mothballed but the tour around it, run by proud and enthusiastic locals, is an essential part of coming to Uruguay.   You can stock up on corned beef-themed souvenirs for your friends too.

Back in the capital, Montevideo, which you’ll pass through a few times while touring the country, you can reflect on this little-visited gem in a parrilla (steak restaurant) in the wrought-iron Mercado del Puerto.  Chances are the local party crowed will be alongside you if you’ve left it late enough.