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The Breakdown: Uruguay – Montevideo, Salto and Colonia del Sacramento

Exchange Rate: Canadian $1 = 20.5 UYU (Uruguayan Peso)

Would you put Uruguay in your top 25 list of countries to visit? Yeah, I didn’t think so. And of course, neither did we. It wasn’t until we found out about Argentina’s way out of control reciprocity fees for landing at it’s airports ($75 each), that humble Uruguay won a place on our travel itinerary.

By landing in Montevideo, and making our way into Argentina by land, we saved ourselves $150 AND got to explore a new country (even if it wasn’t one we’d planned on visiting in the first place).

Welcome to Uruguay

Needless to say, we had zero expectations of the country, except to assume that it would be much like the rest of South America. What we discovered however, surprised us. While Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Colombia, all had in common, a certain grittiness, Uruguay on the other hand was clean, safe and decidedly middle class. One might even say boring.

Boring, as in, the most interesting thing about our time there, was trying to understand the whole mate and gourd thing. Everyone walks around with a wooden gourd filled with mate, silver straw and thermos of hot water. Everyone does it. Everywhere. Seriously.

Do you think the guy on the left is looking longingly at the mate gourd?

Do you think the guy on the left is looking longingly at the mate gourd?

I wouldn’t recommend a trip to just Uruguay alone. Especially since Rio de Janeiro has far superior beaches, Buenos Aires is awash in glorious buildings and Peru’s culture is more solidly gripping. No, you don’t go to Uruguay for these things. You go to Uruguay for the same reason that Argentinians and Chileans go to Uruguay. You go because the country is a welcome respite from the class tensions and favelas of Brazil, and the increasing politicial and economic tensions of Argentina.

You go, because Uruguay is nice.

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(Update: Apparently, since January 7th, 2013, reciprocity fees must be paid at ALL entry points into Argentina, whether by land, sea or air. Details here.)

What We Did
We flew from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Montevideo and spent a few days wandering the peaceful streets of the Uruguayan capital. In truth, there wasn’t much to do, except hang out at the hostel, take a stroll through the Old City and partake of Uruguay’s absolutely fantastic parilla at the touristy El Mercado del Puerto.

Montevideo's Beach

Montevideo’s Beach

Old City Architecture

Old City Architecture

A few days in Montevideo was plenty of time though, so we soon headed north to Salto, Uruguay’s 3rd largest city (population 104,000). We spent a super relaxing day at the Daymán Hot Springs Resort, before crossing into Concordia on the Argentinian side of the border.

The Rio Uruguay

The Rio Uruguay

We ended up visiting Uruguay one last time on a day trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento, but in hindsight, wished we’d saved our pesos for the Argentinian side of the border.

We spent a total of $531.49 over our 6 days in Uruguay. This worked out to $88.58 per day, and included all accommodation, meal, transport and entertainment costs, except for our flight from Sao Paulo to Montevideo.

Looking at these numbers now, it seems strange to me that our costs were so easily under our $100 per day spending goal. Uruguay sure felt more expensive when we were visiting. Compared to Brazil, where we spent $102 per day, Uruguay should’ve felt like a bargain, but somehow it didn’t.

Thinking about it more, I realize that it’s because we didn’t DO anything in Uruguay. There were no tours to take, no admissions to pay, no dramatic sights to see – all of the almost $90 of spending was on basic day to day expenses, with a whopping 42% of the budget spent on meals alone. We didn’t even have a private room in Montevideo, but slept in separate dorm rooms!

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Uruguay Budget

A cost that isn’t included on our budget breakdown, and should be, is the cost of international ATM transaction fees. In every other country around the world, we were able to avoid these fees because of the type of bank account we have, but in Uruguay, they added an extra amount onto the actual withdrawal amount. It didn’t matter if we were banking in the same bank or not, there was no way to avoid the extra fee. A fact that was super frustrating and annoying.

All of the gory details of our Uruguay budget can be found on the Budget Your Trip website here.

Food and Drink
People rave about the parilla in Argentina and the churrascaria in Brazil, but for us, Uruguay had the best meat in South America hands down. And why not? With a population of 3 million people, acres of fertile grazing land and 9 million cattle, it’s a breeze to get the best cuts.

We had parilla 3 separate times in Uruguay and every single bite was mouth-wateringly delicious, soft and flavourful. Ok, so red meat 3 times in 6 days is probably a bit much, but it was just so darn tasty…and I’m pretty sure we won’t be visiting Uruguay again any time soon.

Of course, steak isn’t the cheapest thing to eat on a daily basis. And for this, the Uruguayans have come up with a solution called the chivito. Comprised of layers of steak, ham, bacon and various other meats and vegetables, it’s a worthy alternative to an asado, and much more affordable.

Heart attack on a plate

Heart attack on a plate

Travel Tip
If you’re planning on ferrying across the Rio Uruguay from Salto in Uruguay to Concordia in Argentina, make sure you arrive well before the stated departure time. We arrived 30 minutes before the boat was set to depart, but this wasn’t early enough. I guess the ticket agent didn’t feel like staying until the end. Details about ferry times and other ways to get between the 2 cities can be found here.

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Attraction Tip
Normally, I don’t recommend touristy sites, but I’m making an exception for Montevideo’s El Mercado del Puerto, because the meat was simply extraordinary. By far, the best food we had amongst all the notable steak countries we visited.

Parilla at the Mercado del Puerto

Parilla at the Mercado del Puerto

When you walk into the Mercado, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices, but I’m guessing you could sit at pretty much any of the restaurants and get a good meal. That’s what we did.

I asked the owner to recommend a cut for me, and right away he suggested something I’d never heard of – the “picanha.” It turned out to be the piece right above the tail of the cow, and it’s covered with a thick layer of fat which makes the steak supremely luscious and juicy.

Perfectly grilled picanha

Perfectly grilled picanha

When in Uruguay
Duh. This is a no-brainer. When in Uruguay, walk around with a wooden gourd filled with yerba mate in one hand, and a thermos of hot water in the other. Drink it through the silver coloured straw everywhere you go, and make sure you share it with your friends. Or any other strangers you might want to make friends with. 😉

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Totally agree about the meat at the Mercado. The beef in Argentina was actually a disappointment after Uruguay! But I was told that they are now factory farming their cattle in Argentina and using the land to grow soy beans for the Chinese. I thought Montevideo was a pleasant place to rest up.

    August 15, 2013
    • That picanha was so scrumptious , we almost stayed in Montevideo an extra day just to eat more! That is sad news about Argentina, but explains why the beef was so below expectation there. 🙁

      August 17, 2013
  2. The pic of the Parilla at the Mercado del Puerto is making me very very hungry 🙂

    August 16, 2013
    • Don’t even talk to me about steaks, when you had a 60 gram truffle to eat all week!!! 😉

      August 17, 2013
  3. You’re right. Most people don’t entertain Uruguay as a travel destination in South America. I sure haven’t had it on my list. But, maybe it deserves a chance 🙂

    August 17, 2013
    • I think it’s great for a little rest break to escape the rest of South America (if that makes any sense), but I’m not really sure that it justifies spending dollars just to go there…unless of course, you’re after the most delicious asado there! 🙂

      August 17, 2013
      • 🙂 I am contemplating travel to Argentina next year (Buenos Aires/northern Argentina), and might add a few days in Uruguay to the trip.

        August 22, 2013
        • Amazing! We really enjoyed the north of Argentina (Salta, Cafayate) much more than BA…and def head into Uruguay and partake in their delicious steaks. Worth the trip!! 😉

          August 26, 2013
  4. My husband and I spent the last month in Montevideo (we’re in BsAs now) and felt the same way – like there wasn’t really much to do. We left right before the start of opera season, which is too bad, because I’m sure the Teatro Solis would be a fun place to go see a show, but other than that, it’s just as you say. Eat asado, drink mate, not much else. I’m sure that the spring and summer would be nice there, just to chill out on the beach.

    August 21, 2013
    • I sure do miss the Uruguyan asado though. It was beyond divine. The meat in Buenos Aires just did not come close…are you finding it that way?

      September 14, 2013
      • So far, unfortunately. I haven’t tried too hard to find a good parilla yet though, so maybe I’ll find someone to change my mind 🙂

        September 16, 2013
  5. Ah, that’s a shame Uruguay didn’t show its colours for you. We spent Christmas and New Year + a month in Uruguay and it was one of our favourite places (pre-kids and pre-blogging days for us, in 2006), there was a lot of atmosphere, fireworks in the streets, sharing BBQ’s (yes and Mate) with strangers, lazy days on the beach, we particularly enjoyed a little place called Cabo Polonio which is well off the beaten track. We were lucky to have been visiting a friend who has lived his whole life there and must have taken us to all the right places, I can well imagine we would have had a similar experience to you without him.

    January 26, 2014
    • For sure, having a local makes such a big difference to a trip! A Uruguayan friend in Canada told us to visit Cabo Polonio (said it was pure bliss), but unfortunately we were there in the wrong season. It was just starting to turn to winter (which also may have had an impact).

      I had a look at your blog and I am seriously impressed. Working, traveling, raising 2 kids AND keeping up with a blog all at the same time? Wow! I can barely keep up with my blog!

      January 27, 2014
      • Thanks for your reply, yes life got much busier with the kids, we are fortunate to still be able to travel a lot, it can be hard work but it’s always worth it.

        January 29, 2014
  6. Paola #

    You missed the real beaches in Uruguay. They are located in Rocha and Maldonado, if you didn’t go to the east you didn’t go to the beach. Montevideo’s beaches are on The River Plate not on the Atlantic Ocean! You shouldn’t say that Rio de Janeiro has better beaches if you skipped the east side of Uruguay

    December 28, 2014
    • Hi Paola, yes unfortunately we were in Uruguay in winter, so there was not much point in going to the beach! A Uruguayan friend had suggested Cabo Polonia, but it was simply not the right time.

      But lol, I have a hard time believing that Uruguayan beaches are better than Rio’s. Rio’s harbour is after all, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, and has been immortalized in songs and movies. I guess I will have to head back to Uruguay one day and judge for myself! 😉

      December 29, 2014

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