Why do I like countries carrying names starting with the letter “U”? I don’t really know, but it looks as if Uruguay is going to be Uzbekistan all over again. It’s a surprisingly interesting country.
Starting my visit in the little town of “Colonia del Sacramento” (or: simply “Colonia”), I quickly was intrigued how engaging the tree lined alleys and avenues looked. Walking the in the shadowy streets, enjoying the fresh air and savouring irresistible local specialties, such as sweet pizza (comes with mozzarella, coconut and chocolate toppings!), made me stay longer than planned.
The small town of Colonia was founded in 1680. Its historical quarter (“Barrio Histórico”) is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wandering around the cobble streets, there is a sight which I found quite unique so far on my travel. A few cars here an there, seemingly abandoned for years, provide a photogenic touch throughout this barrio.
Uruguay is not really the focus of gringo tourists, probably due to the bad publicity in guidebooks, which claim that this country is on the pricey side. By comparing prices with Argentina, where I just stayed, shows a different picture: The hostel prices – for example – in Patagonia and Buenos Aires (Argentina) range between 45 and 60 Argentinean Pesos (US $13 to 18) per night in a dormitory room.
Here in Uruguay, the prices for the same service range between 300 to 450 Uruguayan Pesos – also US $13 to 18. As for food and transport, their prices are the same as well. Either Argentina has had a terrible inflation recently or the guide books about Uruguay are wrong on that topic.
Having this false reputation, certain nationalities do seem to avoid traveling to this country. A lot of backpackers – me included – noticed the absence of the Dutch and Israeli tourists. On the other hand, there are a too many Swiss tourists here – more than usual. No wonder, Uruguay has a significant Swiss heritage. Heck, there is even a town called “Nueva Helvecia” (sometimes referred to as “Nueva Suiza”). Finding a cheese fondue is no problem in any city here. Sometimes, this country is called “South American’s Switzerland” – not for landscape, but for political freedom and government stability. It is scoring in the 23rd position among the 30 countries considered to be “Full Democracies”.
The fact that this small nation is located geographically in between the two superpowers, Brazil and Argentina, does remind me a bit of the situation back home. Fighting against interests of the surrounding big nations does create a general atmosphere of debate and consensus, which is particular. People are proud of their country and don’t want to be mistaken for their big neighbours, nor do they want to be compared to them. Sounds a bit like Switzerland, as well. Am I really surprised how quick and well I get along with the Uruguayans?
On the other hand, this country is flat as anything. No big mountains in sight, which means that hiking adventures will probably more be sort of a Sunday afternoon stroll. To complicate things, a lot of information about sights in this country is plain misleading.
Tourist books, such as the “Lonely Planet” put emphasis on detailing Uruguayan beach cities. They neglect entirely the numerous national parks in the back country. I guess that Thomas Kohnstamm – the infamous travel writer who never visited a certain place about which he wrote a travel guide – must have been the author of the Uruguay chapter in the “South America on a shoestring” (Lonely Planet) guide book. Although there seems to be a new, dedicated “Uruguay” guide book from that company, it really is just a collection of some Uruguay-related pages from their “Argentina” guidebook (!) – compiled together with a massive reference about Buenos Aires (Argentina).
Truly, for the first time, I feel cheated about the money spent for a guide book. And I would be throwing this paperback without hesitation into the nearest rubbish bin, if it wasn’t for my handwritten annotations contained therein. The Uruguayan guy in our hostel in Puerto Natales (Chile) did help me to write down many corrections, additions and first-hand hints and tips about places to visit in his country.
Although my next stop is the city of Montevideo, I hope to be able to travel at least some of the places I was suggested to. A bit short on time, I will try to explore as much as new ground as possible after seeing the capital city. Feel free to come back and discover with me a lesser known Uruguay in the next couple of days. And maybe you’ll find out, why I love countrys starting with the letter “U”…