South American swiss… Uruguay
Katie Liddell shares her experience of Uruguay and why it is so commonly referred to as the ‘Switzerland of South America’.
Of all the places to be while Andy Murray was fighting for the Wimbledon Championship, a remote beach in Uruguay surrounded by miles of sand dunes was not ideal. I had waited so many years to see a fellow Brit in the final and now I would miss all the drama of the battle between Murray and Federer. However, Uruguay surprised me yet again as the faultless mobile phone coverage allowed continuous game-by-game updates via text message from friends and family on ‘Wimbledon duty’.
I had travelled widely in South America but never to Uruguay, and the small, modest country continued to overturn all the stereotypes I thought were true about the continent. Firstly, the infrastructure is a dream – none of the pot-holed roads of Bolivia or inefficiency of Peru – and I can vouch that the phone reception in even the most remote corner of the country is excellent. Uruguay is known as the Switzerland of South America and its calm efficiency sets it apart from its hot-blooded Latin neighbours.
So there I was, on an enormous expanse of white sandy beach, near the small fishing village of Cabo Polonio in south-east Uruguay, when I learnt that Murray sadly didn’t win Wimbledon. There was no time to dwell on the sorry state of British tennis though, as I was told that round the headland there might be some sea lions and that we have to leave time for a lunch of freshly-caught fish.
Despite being the most developed South American country, Uruguay is a well-kept secret among tourists. Fashionable Argentinians flock to the trendy beach resort of Punta del Este for New Year parties and Brazilians head south to escape the heat. It surprised me that in a country that seems more European than Latin, there were few Europeans – except in Nueva Helvecia, a Swiss colony where the descendants of immigrants still make cheese.
Uruguay does have some similarities to its neighbours, particularly Argentina. The wide grassy plains of the Pampas stretch north from the Plate river and are perfect for a few days’ relaxing on an estancia, riding with the gauchos and sampling locally-produced wines. Montevideo, the capital, is a cosmopolitan, modern city, where you can take in a tango show, enjoy the steak and red wine famous in that region, and of course visit the Estadio Centenario football stadium where Uruguay was crowned winner of the first World Cup tournament.
Colonia del Sacramento is the jewel of Uruguay. The oldest city in the country, it was founded by Portuguese colonialists and also spent time under Spanish rule. The picturesque cobbled streets with colonial houses now converted into luxury hotels overlook the Plate river and Buenos Aires is just a one-hour ferry ride away.
Uruguay might not catch the attention of many tourists, but it is the ideal way to combine South American experiences with European standards.