For many European visitors, there’s something strangely familiar about the landscape of Uruguay. Largely devoted to agriculture, the green countryside is dotted with sheep and cows. As far back as 1868 – when the British built a railway connecting the capital, Montevideo, with the countryside – Hereford and shorthorn cattle were reared in Uruguay.
It is a land of rolling hills and verdant pastures, best explored on horseback like a true gaucho, or by staying at one of the many colonial estancias that have opened their doors to visitors. Relax and adopt the lifestyle of the countryside or take part in the daily work of the ranch – you can do as much or as little as you like.
You’ll taste the colonial flavour as soon as you set foot in the country. Colonia del Sacramento, a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires, was founded by Portuguese settlers in 1680. It is one of the finest remnants of colonial architecture in this part of the continent – a well-preserved historical gem on a small peninsula jutting into the Río de la Plata.
In the capital Montevideo, things are a little more multicultural. Buildings in a riot of architectural styles – Spanish, French, Italian, English and Art Deco – line the streets. Mercado del Puerto, the 19th-century market building near the docks, is a carnivore’s dream – dozens of restaurants sizzle and steam with tray after tray of succulent and delicious asado (grilled meat), the staple diet of most Uruguayans.
Escape the cities and the giant barbecue and drive along the spectacular coast stretching east of Montevideo, a conveyor belt of small bays, beaches and promontories set among hills and woods. Stop off at the resort of Punta del Este – a favourite sun-and-sea spot with the international elite. Further east still, the population dwindles and you’ll find quiet lagoons where you can kayak through still waters to a soundtrack of chirruping birds.
For a classic road adventure, choose Route 7 towards Melo, heart of cattle-ranching country. For most of its length the road runs through the Cuchilla Grande – a range of soft, curving hills – and past fragrant vineyards and orchards up to the Brazilian border.