Situated between two powerhouse tourism destination countries on everybody’s list is little Uruguay. They are on the UN Security Council (bet you didn’t know that!) We have heard so much about Punta del Este for beaches and always wanted to combine that with a trip down there, so we do! We wake up while it is still dark in Buenos Aires (see articles from the first two legs of the trip, Buenos Aires and Mendoza) and head to the number one way to get to Uruguay, the Buque Bus fast ferry. Very comfortable, especially as I accidentally booked business class, and 2 hours (of sleep) later we are in Montevideo!
We are on the (literally, exactly) 24 hour plan in Montevideo, ahead of hitting Punta del Este. Checked into Axsur Design Hotel in Ciudad Vieja, the old city. The hotel is cheap, but actually very nice. We walk around the old town a bit, the architecture is amazing similar to Buenos Aires San Telmo area, Havana, San Juan, etc.
We head to Mercado del Puerto, the port market and find a half dozen full open air mini restaurants, all counter seats surrounding HUGE Asado pits. Asado is part of the national identity of Uruguay, like slow cooked bbq in the south and a braai in South Africa. It is done with a side area of vertical wood burning, then they scrape the embers that drop out under the rest of the grill where the meat is to cook on a fairly low heat. Suckling pig (tender meat, crispy skin, perfect) and verduro brazier (translated is vegetable bra, but just means a load of grilled vegetables) is off the charts, ridiculously good.
Nearby is the hop on hop off bus tour, which we love to do in general, but for 24 hours in a sprawling city, it is a must. Not amazing tour, but worthwhile to see the whole city in a few hours. We hop off two miles from hotel on the rambla (beach side road that spans the majority of the city) to walk a while and catch the sunset.
We hit dinner at Bar Tinkal to meet my boss’s daughter Jenni who happened to be there for a few days en route from Punta del Este to Patagonia on during her gap year before college. I am jealous. We order the main Uruguayan specialty, Chivito, and although it means little goat (and in Argentina it would actually mean grilled young goat meat), in Uruguay it’s a sandwich with thin cut filet mignon, bacon, jamon serrano, mozzarella, grilled egg, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo on a roll. No goat, but amazing how all the flavors blend together in each bite! We wash it down with Uruguayan Tannat wine, their national grape. No Mendoza Malbec, but it will do! Jenni is 17 or 18 so she doesn’t partake of the wine (in case her dad reads this…)
We take a walk after dinner and see many groups of people drinking out of a gourd via a stainless/silver straw with a thermos. They pass the gourd around, refilling it with hot water in-between. They are drinking Maté and it is apparently a way of life in Uruguay! Seems similar to passing around a joint (so I’ve heard), but just caffeine and conversation…
We pick up SIXT rental car in the morning to hit Punta del Este. It is 90 minutes away, but you want a car to explore the area. At $120/day, it is ridiculously priced, but that is apparently a Uruguay thing, still unexplained
We arrive at the Hotel Concorde, which is in a surprisingly dilapidated area close to THE POINT (aka La Punta), the end of the peninsula where the brava (waves) and mansa (calm) sides meet. Hotel is affordable and nice enough though, but we realize later that it would likely be better to stay higher up on either the mansa or brava side, per your taste in ocean as there is literally no beach this far down (just rocks).
We hit Lo de Tere for dinner, which many say is the best in town, we agree. Amazing steak (sirloin cut), more flavorful than Argentinian beef I think, which the waiter is thrilled to hear from me. We have some Argentinian Malbec (definitely better than Tannat, sorry…). Salads and vegetable sides cost the same as the steak or fish entrees, I am told it is just easier to get the latter here, so steak and fish it is!
We wake up and walk to the port to get a boat to Gorriti island. Boats leave every 30 minutes and after a short 10 minute ride, we are there. We head straight for the amazing Honda beach, the drop off is steep, but the water is beautiful and calm and they have chairs and umbrellas for rent. Paradise! There is only one restaurant on the island and it is right here, so you know it is going to suck. But it doesn’t. The chivito is even better than the Bar Tinkal! And I see licuados on the menu too, which are blended fruit shakes. I ask them to make it with rum. They are confused, but they make it and I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t permanent addition to the menu by now! We laze away the day there.
Time to clean up and jump in car to hit legendary Casapueblo for sundowners. $20 cover, but it is what it is. Reminds us of Gaudi architecture (La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona), amazing. 9 floors are built into the cliff going down to the beach. We order some Rosé and take pictures and selfies like everybody else. It is a gorgeous setting and when the sun finally drops the last bit beyond the horizon, EVERYBODY starts clapping, hooting, and hollering to celebrate. Quite the festive scene, a must do!
We hit the Punta outpost of El Palenque (the stall we hit in Montevideo). Tire de Asado (short rib cut) doesn’t disappoint, but the guy next to me takes down the biggest rib eye I have ever seen. We order one of the best Uruguayan tannat to give it one last try. It was good, but still no Argentinian Malbec, sorry Uruguay!
Next day was a huge rain storm, not much to do, so I check out the local winery, Alto de la Ballena. Paula gave me the short tour and we started my solo tasting. But we keep getting interrupted. First a group of 5 Brazilians, so we start over. Then 2 New Yorkers, so we continue. Then another local group. Paula quickly loses control as everybody is at a different point and people are starting to pour for themselves when she turns her back even for a second! Fun times, a great way to spend a rainy day, and actually good wine so I buy some for the dinner I am late to…
My friend Courtney I play squash with connected me with her college squash teammate Sofia who is from Montevideo, but is vacationing in Punta coincidentally, and they invite us over for an Asado as they say there is nothing like a home made Asado. Amazing process (and results!) slow cooking the sweetbreads, chorizo, pork loin and Tire de Asado! If you can find a connection like this, accept, it is always nice to learn about a country by visiting with locals, especially over a meal!
The next morning is the last day in Punta del Este, so I quickly walk to the Playa de Los Dedos, aka “hand in the sand”, which is the iconic giant sculpture of fingers coming out of the sand. Very cool pics to be had here!
We then get in car for the hour drive to Parador la Huella. This place is clearly the boozy brunch spot to beat near Punta, so don’t forget the reservations! The restaurant has a buzz about it, everybody is there in large, loud, boisterous groups, all looking to have a great time. This is a “best of meal” to be sure with grilled calamari, greek salad, grilled sea bass, pizza (small, thin, artisan). Desserts are ridiculous, we settle on the chocolate volcano. Drinks were equally amazing, including the frozen mint drink (they were out!!!), a caiproska Mediterranean (their take on a caipirinha), and of course rosè. We spend a few hours there, then continue the fun down on the beach. It is so nice we didn’t even make it to another restaurant in the area for dinner, but Chowhound and locals say these are musts, so I am including them anyway. If you hit them, let me know! Marismo (set outdoors in the woods, looks amazing), Nam (similar), and Jardin de Sarava (on the beach).
Then into the rental car back to the airport for the flight out. So sad to leave an extraordinary country. Stay tuned for the final article on Florianopolis, Brazil on the road trip that just will not end!
Have you been to Uruguay? Share with us in the comments.