Where to stay
L’Auberge Outside the cluttered high-rise centre of the city, this elegant hotel, more Belgian than French in style, is a reminder of the Old World. Tea with waffles, chocolate sauce, cream and dulce de leche in manicured gardens are an unexpected treat. Doubles from £95. Punta del Este, 00 598 424 888 88, laubergehotel.com
Chez Silvia Bistro Suite & Cabañas Silvia Esquivel trained as an architect, and her house is a homage to beautiful wooden furniture and objects. From £130 half-board for two. (See also Where to Eat.) Oceania del Polonia, Rocha, 00 598 447 056 92, chez-silvia-suite-bistro-caban.webnode.com.uy
Cumbres Art and Spa This has panoramic views, and is a quirky, luxurious country-house hotel owned by a Croatian who can’t kick the collecting habit – anything from keys to dolls. Doubles from £130. Punta del Este, 00 598 425 786 89, cumbres.com.uy
Esplendor This newly renovated townhouse hotel has an indoor pool and mini spa where you can chill out. Doubles from £75. Montevideo, 00 598 290 019 00, esplendormontevideo.com
Estancia Vik and Playa Vik Two contrasting art hotels in the same area – one on a 1,500 hectare ranch, the other overlooking a dreamy bay. Every room has the signature of a Uruguayan artist – Pablo Atchugarry’s bronze door stands at the entrance of Playa Vik and his Carrara marble sculpture is in the foyer of the Estancia. The cooking is ideally suited to each venue – not trying to impress, but doing everything right. From £180 in the low season. José Ignacio, 00 598 94 605 212, estanciavik.com
My Suites Smart, modern concept hotel and wine bar with a welcome wine tasting for guests. Doubles from £105. Montevideo, 00 598 271 234 34, mysuites.com.uy
Posada Nativos This is a quirky, self-built hotel, with some very personal touches – one of the basins is recycled from a tractor. Design conscious, but relaxed. (See also Where to Eat.) About £70, half-board. Punta del Diablo, 00 598 447 721 61, nativos.com.uy
The currency in Uruguay is the peso (£1 = $U31). Visas are not required for British passport holders. ATMs are widely available, and credit cards are accepted in better hotels and restaurants. Uruguay is two hours behind the UK. Summer runs from December to March, with temperatures of around 21°C to 28°C. Cooler, wetter weather between April and November can see temperatures fall to around 11°C.
Tam Airlines (http://tamairlines.com) flies daily between London and Montevideo via São Paulo, and three times weekly between London and Montevideo via Rio de Janeiro.
Uruguay Natural (turismo.gub.uy) is the country’s official tourist website, and a useful resource for information on tours, independent travelling, weather, news, sightseeing and accommodation. It’s available in Spanish and Portuguese – use Google translate for a rough idea.
Journey Latin America (0208 747 8315, journeylatinamerica.co.uk) specialises in tailor-made and group tours to South America. It offers seven days in Uruguay which includes stays in rural estancias and time by the beach in José Ignacio. It costs from £2,344pp, including flights from London Heathrow, transfers, excursions and daily breakfast.
The Shipyard by Juan Carlos Onetti is the most famous novel by the ‘Graham Greene of Uruguay’. Onetti, a journalist and novelist, won the Premio Cervantes, Spain’s highest literary prize, in 1980. English translations of his work are available to buy online.
Where to eat
Prices quoted are per person with wine, unless otherwise stated.
Chez Silvia Bistro Suite Oceania de Polonia Isolated and romantic beachside spot that cossets guests with food and drink. From £130 halfboard for two. (See also Where to Stay.) Oceania del Polonia, Rocha, 00 598 447 056 92, chez-silvia-suite-bistro-caban.webnode.com.uy
Corchos Café and Wine Bar This smart little wine bar in the Ciudad Vieja district is run by an enthusiast who knows his country’s wines inside out. Reliable food too. Wines from about £2 per glass. Montevideo, 00 598 291 720 51, corchos.com.uy
El Garzón The best restaurant in Uruguay – even though the chef is from Argentina. This is Francis Mallmann’s temple to flame-cooking. From £65. Garzón, 00 598 4410 2811, restaurantegarzon.com
Facal The oldest café-brasserie in the capital. Its dulce de leche ice cream is fabulous, but you can also try sucking on a maté. About £3 for coffee and cake. Montevideo, 00 598 290 877 41
Francis Old-fashioned restaurant with local wines and a parrilla served at the table. About £55. Montevideo, 00 598 271 186 03, francis.com.uy
Huella This is on Playa Brava beach, at the country’s most fashionable resort town. It serves little empanadas as a taster, and excellent fish. From £20. José Ignacio, 00 598 448 622 79, paradorlahuella.com
Posada Nativos Home cooking and rooms with a view of the sea. Great empanadas, grilled fish and wild mushrooms. £70 half-board. (See also Where to Stay.) Punta del Diablo, 00 598 447 721 61, nativos.com.uy
Sacramento Try the fresh escabeche of Uruguayan sturgeon. About £25. Montevideo, 00 598 271 002 45, sacramento.com.uy
- Roasted (over an open fire) meat.
- Jelly palm fruit, used in desserts, drinks and preserves.
- Not so much a burger as an easy way to scoff steak, bacon, ham, cheese and egg in a single bun.
- Dulce de leche
- Soft milk caramel made by reducing milk andsugar to a sticky brown mass.
- A flat fish common in spring.
- General term for the food – mainly meat – barbecued over the embers of a wood fire.
- A catch-all term for the parrilla experience which involves sampling several kinds of meat and sausage.
- A popular fish that is dipped in flour and fried until crisp.
- Hammerhead shark.
- Torta frita
- A snack made from fried flour-and-water dough.
Food and Travel Review
When he isn’t selling Warhols, Chelsea gallery owner Martin Summers runs a B&B in Garzón, a Uruguayan village of 200 inhabitants. Summers is typical of the region’s cosmopolitan flavour. The restaurant next door belongs to Francis Mallmann, Argentina’s favourite TV chef. Norwegian entrepreneur Alex Vik turned his estancia (ranch) into an art hotel and then hired Carlos Ott – designer of Montevideo airport – to create another on the beach at José Ignacio. Silvia Esquivel, meanwhile, abandoned her architecture career in Paris to open a chic bistro with rooms among the sand dunes at nearby Oceanía del Polonio.
They are the avant-garde discovering this South American republic sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina. Uruguay is a nation of full and part-time immigrants. Eduardo Vigliardo owns a posada (guest house) at Punta del Diablo; his roots trail back to Naples. Montevideo restaurateur Alberto Latarowski is half Polish. Sculptor Pablo Atchugarry’s antecedents were Basque. Nueva Helvecia (New Switzerland), near the River Plate, began as a Swiss community – and still makes a local version of gruyère cheese.
Other visitors are more transient. Cruise ships call at Montevideo for a day. Passengers disembark. They go to the Mercado del Puerto and feast on beef or lamb grilled over charred wood embers – an occasion known as a parrillada. Parrilla refers to the iron bars on which the parrillero barbecues his meat. (The grilled morsels are known as asado.) Gaucho farmers claim – at least, the purists do – that it tastes better with the hide or fleece left on the carcass. A choice morsel, nonato, is the tender flesh of a stillborn calf.
Going for a parrillada today sidesteps such atavistic origins, but it doesn’t lack for drama. It has its own glossary of joints, offal and sausages. Sweet and spicy morcillas (blood sausage) or chorizos recall Spanish roots. Mollejas (sweetbreads) are a delicacy. Ternera, just past the veal stage, is distinct from slow-grown, three-year-old beef; both are offered in a bewildering array of cuts.
Anthony Bourdain, he of Kitchen Confidential, describes the experience as ‘Meatopia’. With four head of cattle to every Uruguayan, he has a point. Tag on chivitos, the national dish – minute steak in a bap, plus bacon, ham, cheese, egg and ‘stuff’ – and it’s easy to think Uruguayans are pure protein junkies.
Applying the same logic, it’s reasonable to describe the landscape as flat. The country has no mountains. Its coastline buffers the Atlantic with sweeps of sand-backed beaches. Inland, fenced pastures give way to palm forests and eucalyptus plantations. It does have a few hills, however. Montevideo (in Spanish the name means ‘hill six from east to west’) takes its name from the bump overlooking the River Plate. Cerro Pan de Azúcar, by the town of Piriàpolis, is the third-highest point in Uruguay, but doesn’t compare with Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain.
Neither Uruguay’s scenery nor its eating habits are as predictable as they at first seem, though. Lagoons (except for the Laguna Negra, known as the Lake of the Dead) teem with fish. In spring, golden daisies line the highways and purple sea-fig flowers speckle the sands. Hummingbirds suck nectar from the bright red blossoms of the ceibo, Uruguay’s national tree.
Near the brackish waters of the lagoon at José Ignacio – a fashionable beachside resort – is Estancia Vik, an art hotel managed by Agustin Leone. The chef Marcelo Betancourt broils the salt-marsh Merino lamb that graze outside the guests’ rooms. Betancourt used to play lead guitar in a band, but he discovered that he preferred cooking and opened a restaurant in Montevideo. Getting through to Uruguayans turned out to be harder than he expected: ‘They are very traditional,’ he says.
‘I would cook shrimp or risotto for them and they’d say “Okay”, but when I made asado it was “Wow!”’
Here, he has learnt that simple can be as challenging as cuttingedge. ‘The goal is to get the most out of the produce, not the sauce or the garnish – good meat, good fish and good salt.’ On the coast at nearby San Carlos he has persuaded a friend to produce sea salt for him. Added at the last moment, it lifts the flavour of crisp cutlets seasoned with oregano and thyme from the garden.
Garzón, 30km from José Ignacio, used to be a thriving village on the main line from Montevideo to the regional capital of Rocha. Then the railway shut down and the main A9 highway going to Brazil bypassed it. The population dwindled to 150.
That was before Francis Mallmann chose to open a destination restaurant, El Garzón, here. Since then, it has become a hideaway for the discreetly rich. Obsessed with flame cooking techniques, Mallmann has studied wood, iron, flame, smoke and what temperature best suits which piece of meat or fish. He bakes sweet potatoes in ash and grills rösti on the parrilla. As part of the 2012 Punta del Este Food and Wine Festival, he roasted two-dozen sheep – either split open and fastened to makeshift crosses in the village’s main street, or buried with hot stones.
When Betancourt wants fish he simply waits for a text from the fishermen supplying him and goes to collect it. At Huella restaurant, on the beach at José Ignacio, it’s even easier – it almost jumps out of the water onto the plate. In summer, people queue for prawns with garlic and chilli, baby octopus in salsa criolla, best-ever fried calamari, sushi or fillets of the local favourite, brótola, similar to hake.
The bistro belonging to Silvia Esquivel and her partner Horacio Acardi is on a beach too, at the bottom of a track and along a duckboard path, but they don’t have to fight off travellers. There are, says Silvia, other people living at Oceanía del Polonio, but their homes are invisible among the acacia scrub in the sands.
For lunch, after the caipirinhas, she serves tiny quiches, fried mussels and lenguado, a flatfish akin to Dover sole. Her oil comes from Agroland, a company that has planted several thousand acres of olives and almonds on an estate near Garzón. To drink, she opens a bottle of spritzy Verde Virgen from Pisano, a winery in Canelones that has been in the same family for five generations.
Silvia’s house is made of wood, and it’s beautiful. There are wooden houses like this along the coast at Cabo Polonio too; some neat, some ramshackle and some cobbled together. Until the 1990s, Cabo Polonio was a fishing village, with a plant where sea-lion meat and skins were processed. When it shut down, the backpackers moved in and created a colony.
The sea lions have stayed, sluggish males lounging on rocks below the lighthouse, females marooned on an island off the coast. Marco, who owns the Posada Mariemar, says that his father worked at the factory. The pelts fetched most of the money, but nothing went to waste. He remembers eating the meat, dark red and sweet. The lobos (Spanish for sea wolves, as they’re known here) aren’t on his menu – they’re a protected species. Instead he fries sea-lettuce fritters and hammerhead shark steaks.
Guide books describe Uruguay as a ‘pocket republic’. Perhaps it is. It’s also larger than England, Wales and Northern Ireland put together. Outside of Montevideo it musters about two million inhabitants. That’s a lot of elbow room. Valizas Creek forms an umbilical cord between the sea and Laguna de Castillos, creating a curious natural frontier. On one side, forests of jelly palm (butiá) – some of the trees are hundreds of years old – grow. On the other, not one. Clusters of butiá’s red fruit, boiled and pulped, are used to make syrups, fruit cheese like membrillo, ice cream and cordials. Silvia spoons butiancello over the ice cream that she serves with a peach-and-tangerine crumble.
At Punta del Diablo, close to the Brazilian border, Eduardo Vigliola, the owner of Posada Nativos hotel and restaurant, concocts his own vermouth with it. ‘When you cook,’ he says, ‘you are cooking for your happiness.’ He forages and pickles wild mushrooms too. Hongo delicioso is, he says, his favourite. ‘They start appearing in autumn and need cold nights with warm days.’ His recipe: two parts mushrooms and two parts oil to one of vinegar with a bay leaf. Seasoning is simple, but he is coy about the tricks that make it, in his opinion, the best escabeche (marinade) around.
Colonia del Sacramento is a seven-hour drive across the country. A World Heritage site, it’s a short ferry hop across the Uruguay River from here to Argentina. Bodega Bernardi, just outside the town, is a family-owned winery that has operated since 1892. Its cement vats and 3,000-litre barrels – still in use – belong to an all-but-vanished era. The tannat it bottles has a harsh, almost aggressive taste to match. It is unlike wine that most Europeans would recognise. The oaked grappa is something else, mellow and fragrant, and an echo of the Bernardi family’s origins in Trentino, Italy.
What malbec is to Argentina, tannat is to Uruguay. The best vineyards are in Canelones, a department stretching into Montevideo’s northern suburbs. Winemakers like Bouza, Antigua Bodega Stagnari, Pisano and Carrau have learnt how to tame the tannins and smooth the rough edges of this variety.
Juan Vasquez, at wine bar Corchos in Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja (old town), has a weakness for Pagos de Atlántida. Made on an estate five miles from Rio de la Plata, and oaked for 18 months, it has an inky violet hue, tasting of concentrated blackberries and crushed seeds. It’s a wine tailor-made to accompany asado.
A few blocks away, in the Plaza Independencia, a man in a dark suit walks past the Palacio Salvo, hugging a thermos. Minutes later there’s another, then another. Given that the building looks like a rocket ship dreamt up by a Flash Gordon illustrator, it’s not hard to imagine them as undercover men in black. They’re not.
The hot water in those thermos flasks lubricates a passion for maté. This is a ritual that crosses social caste and age in Uruguay. Lovers on the Rambla Presidente Wilson share maté, sucking the liquid through an ornate silver-plated straw. Gauchos break from herding cattle for a quick suck. Ministers sharpen their speeches by savouring the bitter green herb. President José Mujica sips it in public. Yerba maté, a kind of holly leaf, supposedly cures indigestion, aids concentration, increases energy and lowers cholesterol. Because the plant is particularly high in antioxidants, it is said to boast cancer-fighting properties. It’s dried, chopped and packed in a hollowed calabash. Enough hot water is poured on to form a froth, then the concoction is imbibed through the bombilla, a tube with a flat, perforated spoon at its base to prevent the herb from clogging it. If you want to know why Uruguayans seem so laidback, look no further.
A few kilometres from Punta del Este – a kind of Torremolinos and Marbella squeezed onto a peninsula – sculptor Pablo Atchugarry has his studio. His sculptures in white Carrara marble stand like starched, carelessly folded napkins, each one different from the next. Were it possible to unfold them, each would be featureless.
In the wide expanses of Uruguay too, it’s the subtle shifts in vista that matter. This is not the Pampas, nor is it Patagonia, or the Amazon. At heart, it’s a rural European space inhabited not by people, but by horses, cattle and sheep.
Barra de Valizas dunes are a well-known natural sight – rightly so. Stunningly beautiful scenery. Off Highway 9 beyond Cabo de Polonia.
Cabo de Polonio A lovely, rather hippyish colony on a national reserve that can be reached by an eight kilometre truck ride across scrub and an enormous empty beach. Stop here for a while and live the good life.
Casapueblo This fantastic whitewashed gallery and residence was created by the artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. It’s like Santorini on a few too many matés. Don’t miss it. Punta Ballena, nr Maldonado town
Colonia del Sacramento A 45-minute ferry ride from Buenos Aires, this old fortress is a Unesco World Heritage site. Remember to sample the grappa and fine wines from local winery Bernardi. bodegabernardi.com
Pablo Atchugarry’s workshop and sculpture park is in a fine location and lets you admire striking modern sculpture on an 80-hectare estate. Near Punta del Este, fundacionpabloatchugarry.org
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