A backpackers guide to beach hopping along the Uruguay coastline

A seven day Uruguay itinerary taking in the best of the gorgeous coastal areas and beaches

Uruguay may be one of the smallest South American countries but it’s still around the size of Wales and England combined. The entire coastline of Uruguay is 660km long.

Surfboards for hire on the beach at Playa El Barco, Uruguay
Playa El Barco

Landing at Colonia del Sacremento on the ferry from Argentina and travelling as far as Punta del Diablo in the east makes for a perfect one week trip and covers 470 of those kilometres. Where you stop along the way is up to you! Buses are frequent, rarely full and run to schedule. You can do a figure of eight along the coastline as I did, or exit Uruguay at the Chuy border crossing into Brazil.

Just be aware if you are crossing from Argentina, Uruguay is a lot more expensive. Food in particular is not cheap and many items cost twice as much as in Argentina. Dorm beds cost anything from US$10 to US$20 a night.

Here’s where I visited on my one week coastal tour of Uruguay.

Colonia del Sacremento

After a short hop across the River Plata from Buenos Aires, an overnight to explore this old fortress town is the obvious first stop. Hostels are plentiful and I stayed at the peaceful Hostel Celestino, helpfully just two blocks from the ferry port.

 

The old town is just minutes from the port too and the best way to access it is through the old town gate or Cuidadela. The drawbridge, wooden planks and stone archway is an atmospheric introduction to the cobbled streets and shady squares, founded in 1680 by the Portuguese. By 1777 after numerous battles with the Spanish, each wanting control of the vital trade (and smuggling) route into Buenos Aires, a treaty was signed giving control to the latter.

Several cute boutique shops and cafes line the streets, with colourful houses and flower filled trees setting the scene perfectly. I found Calle de los Suspiros (street of sighs) just off the waterfront – a picturesque example of the tile and stucco colonial houses of the town’s past.

La Paloma

As I was going to be returning along the same route in a week’s time, I decided to move as far east in one day as possible.

I needed to be back in Colonia de Valadense (just an hour away from Colonia del Sacremento) for a two week Workaway or volunteering stint with a family originally from Chicago.

If you’ve never heard of Workaway, have a look here to find out what it’s all about.Or read some of my previous posts about volunteering with local families on my travels, from helping ata butterfly farm in Belize to making jam in Hobart, Tasmania.

La Paloma seemed a good destination to head for first, being six hours away past Montevideo, the Uruguay capital, where I planned to return to before my Workaway. I changed buses at Tres Cruces, the bus terminal some 5km from the old town and had a quick look around the shopping centre upstairs from the bus station.

By 5pm I’d arrived at the beach town of La Paloma. This was my first introduction to the summer beach scene in Uruguay. Apparently for two months each year beach town populations swell, grocery stores and bars open, campsites fill up and the beaches are packed. Once the season ends, all but one grocery shop remains open, beach houses are shuttered, campsites close and the streets and beaches are empty.

Punto del Este is a high end beach resort, considered the most luxurious beach town in Uruguay. But there are numerous relaxed beach towns along the coast which are swamped by Argentinian and Brazilian backpackers who arrive in droves. Despite hostel beds being a staggering £8 – £18 a night, every hostel I stayed at was almost full.

La Paloma is one such town. I stayed one night and enjoyed a long walk along the beach in the evening, then a walk around the eastern shoreline in the morning. I also paid 30 pesos to climb the 147 steps of the lighthouse. What a fantastic view from the top and I particularly enjoyed the last section – 29 rungs up a vertical iron stepladder.

With another day it would have been nice to cycle out to nearby surf town La Pedrera or loop through the forest to nearby Laguna de Rocha.

Punta del Diablo

I needed to keep moving though and a three hour bus journey took me to Punta del Diablo, the furthest point east I was planning to reach. I was here because I wanted to cycle to Santa Teresa national park, an army administered park a few kilometres away. Read about my day in Santa Teresa exploring the beaches, fortress and gardens in the park here. This was definitely a highlight of my coastal travels in Uruguay!

Punta del Diablo itself needs to be seen to be believed. Far more hippy than La Paloma, it was a vast hodgepodge of all types of beach shacks, each built on their own small square plot of land. From wooden cabins to thatched cottages and converted rusting old school buses to shipping containers, just wandering the sandy lanes was a tourist attraction in itself.

As with all the coastal towns in Uruguay that I visited, the beaches were spectacular. Punta means a geographical point, usually meaning the towns have beaches both to the east and to the west of a rocky point. Playa de la Viuda (Widows Beach) was my favourite here, backed by sand dunes and virtually deserted once I moved away from the town end.

In the afternoons the lanes by the point are filled with stalls run by dreadlocked travellers, many living out of beat up VW combis. They were all selling similar wares – woven bracelets, crocheted dreamcatchers and small pieces of artwork.

Don’t miss the small marketplace or Feria de Artesanos. In between the stalls selling magnets, keyrings and crocheted headbands a couple of kiosks offer fish empanadas. Mine was deep fried while I waited and I’ve never tasted anything so delicious.

Piriapolis and Cerro Pan de Azucar

As soon as I heard there was a ‘mountain’ to climb I was on my way to Piriapolis. Uruguays third highest peak is little more than a hill at 389m – in fact the highest peak in Uruguay is only 513m. But it was there and you can climb it, so I did!

I caught the coach along the highway to the small town of Pan de Azucar (meaning sugar loaf) in English, then picked up local bus 27 down to Piriapolis. The bus went straight past the entrance to the Flora and Fauna Reserve at the foot of Pan de Azucar hill, where I’d be returning to tomorrow.

I decided to stay a little out of town at a new hostel (only open a month!) run by Gloria and Willie who gave me a fabulous welcome when I arrived. Willie showed me his vegetable garden, full of green peppers, tomatoes and chillies, as well as an old Royal Enfield motorcycle he’d lovingly restored. The perfectly named Mar y Campo (sea and country) hostel was my favourite hostel of the whole trip and I immediately decided to stay an extra night.

Climbing Cerro Pan de Azucar the next day proved simple. It’s free entry to the Reserva de Flora y Fauna where there’s a small zoo with some miserable looking jaguars in small pens and happy looking carpinchos swimming around in their large lake.

Climbers need to sign in at the climbers hut, receive a short lecture about safety on the trail, then off you go! The ranger told me it was an hour to the top and forty minutes down but I made it up in 35 minutes easily. It’s non stop climbing on a rocky path, needing hands as well as sturdy legs most of the time.

Once at the top there’s a 35m high cement cross that you can also climb up, with great views from the top.

After the climb and a wander around the Reserve, I walked back along the road for a quick visit to Piria Castle. It’s free entry to this museum in the former residence of town founder, Mr Piria. There were some great old black and white photographs of the town as well as a small art exhibition. The town was founded as a tourist resort in 1890, before tourism was known of. The Gran Hotel Piriapolis opened soon after with architecture and furniture shipped in from Italy.

My stay in Piriapolis was topped off by a night out with Gloria and two Argentinian boys who had followed me from my hostel in Punta del Diablo. I was also destined to bump into them on a free walking tour in Montevideo two days later! We went to a relaxed beach bar just out of town to see a band and drink a few craft ales. The Spicy Red was definitely too spicy for me but I enjoyed the Amber American Ale very much.

Montevideo

Last stop, the capital. I had just one day left of my week itinerary along the Uruguay coastline. I couldn’t miss out the capital city!

Arriving into Tres Cruces again, I stayed at a hostel just a few blocks away. It was cheaper than previous hostels, at £8 a night but without breakfast being included. I didn’t mind that as it was a perfect chance to write another guest blog post for The Breakfast Page, a foodie blog dedicated to all things brunch and breakfast, that I’ve written for before. Have a look at my Medialunas in Montevideo post here and you can also find my other breakfast posts there, including a review of brunch in the Ukraine capital of Kiev.

That afternoon I headed to the Museum of Modern Art, which had been recommended for its unique building – it’s housed in an old prison with the individual exhibitions in each cell. Then I walked over to the impressive marble legislature and finished my day with an empanada (cheese and olives, mmm, delicious) and several craft ales at a bar inside the Mercado Agricola. This is nothing like farmers market if that’s what you’re thinking – it’s a collection of boutique style shops, from leather goods to health foods, and with three or four fruit and vegetable shops all doing a roaring trade.

There’s a good food court here as well as a stone baked pizza place. But my top tip is the little corner bar selling craft ales, each pint accompanied by a pot of salted peanuts. There’s a taster rack of any four beers but I stuck to half pints and tried the honey ale and the orange ale. Both were delicious.

The next day I had time for a walking tour in the old town before catching my bus to Colonia de Valdense, where hopefully my new Workaway family would be waiting.

There was a good turnout for the tour at the old city gate, or Cuidadela, and we were split into English and Spanish groups, with guide Juan Pablo getting nineteen Europeans and Americans. We had a great three hour tour starting with Artiga’s ashes beneath Independence Square and finishing with a taster of local spirit Honey Grappa in a square near the foodie heaven of Puerto de Frutos. Artiga is the father of Uruguay, most South American countries have one, who was responsible for freeing Uruguay from the Spanish conquerers. He died in exile in Paraguay and later his ashes were returned to Montevideo.

I was sad not to see more of Montevideo. The beaches are meant to be fantastic and the 22km long Las Ramblas, the longest continuous sidewalk in the world, is a must see. But now it was time to head east, ready for my fortnight in an off-grid cabin, helping out Ashley and Patrick around their nine acre property.

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