The Four Faces of Uruguay: Interior, the Littoral, Greater Montevideo, and the Coast

Every region of Uruguay has its own unique charms. Many travelers are attracted by the beaches of Uruguay's Gold Coast, not to mention its nightlife that rivals that of Las Vegas. Others seek the inland alluvial plains and gentle canoeing waters of the Rio Negro, where time seems to stand still. Some of Uruguay's historic ranches, or estancias, have opened their doors to visitors wishing to experience the gaucho lifestyle which has shaped so much of Uruguayan culture. For those seeking a faster pace, history comes alive with a vibrant Latin beat in cosmopolitan Montevideo.

The Interior
This is by far the largest and least populated of Uruguay's geographic regions, encompassing all the area from Uruguay's northernmost tip in Artigas, southeast as far as Treinta y Tres and Lavelleja, and west as far as the eastern halves of Paysandu, Soriano, and Rio Negro. Amid these plains and rolling hills beats the heart of Uruguay's gaucho heritage.

Cattle and sheep ranching dominate Uruguay's interior, as they have for centuries. Sheep ranching is more common on relatively small estancias in the west and south, while cattle ranching stretches across vast regions in the north and east.

Some older estancias, especially in the middle of the plains and higher in the hill country, have converted to inns. A few, such as the historic Posta del Chuy, have given shelter to passing travelers since they were first built. A few estancias offer horseback tours, while other working estancias allow tourists to stay and participate in the true gaucho lifestyle.

The Littoral
This narrow strip of land stretches west from Montevideo along the Rio de la Plata and the Uruguay River to the Argentinian border. With its rich agricultural soils, it is home to historic farms, many of which still produce the same dairy, wheat, wines, and citrus crops they have for centuries.

The dairy region of Colonia Department was originally settled by the Swiss. Today it is famous for its cheeses, wines, and dulce de leche, a delectable blend of sweetened milk and caramel which has become one of Uruguay's most famous exports.

The historic quarter of the city of Colonia del Sacramento, which was originally founded by the Portuguese in 1680, has been declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Another historic landmark in the region is the city of Mercedes, where Jose Gervasio Artigas first declared Uruguay's revolt against Spanish rule in 1811. He would later become the father of Uruguayan independence.

The Mocona Falls can be found where the Uruguay River splits in half as it passes between Argentina and Brazil. Further east, ecotourism is popular along the alluvial plains of the Uruguay River and its tributaries. Salto and Peysandu, the northernmost departments of the Littoral, are home to Guaviyu, Almiron, and other famous hot springs resorts.

Greater Montevideo
The southern part of Uruguay is dominated by the Rio de la Plata, a broad estuary river which opens into the South Atlantic. Just inside the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean next to a perfect natural harbor, lies Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay. This cosmopolitan city, closer to the South Pole than any capital city outside Australia and New Zealand, is home to nearly half of Uruguay's population.

Montevideo is a crossroads of time and space, a vibrant blend of the historic and the new. The Ciudad Vieja and nearby Plaza Independencia preserve a rich architectural heritage which dates back to Montevideo's original purpose as a fortified military stronghold in the early 18th century. To this day, the financial district of Montevideo, including its national bank and its stock exchange, is still centered in the Old City.

The Coast
East of Montevideo, the Atlantic coastal plain turns sandy, with long marshes alongside numerous small lakes and shallow lagoons. Many small seaside towns in the region are charmingly unspoiled.

Punta del Este is the crown jewel of the Uruguayan Gold Coast. Tourists come to Punta del Este for its nautical sports and ocean sports fishing, especially at La Barra. For those who prefer less strenuous activities, Artigas Square is known for its handicraft market. The rest of Gorlero Avenue is packed with restaurants, commercial galleries, and the casinos for which Punta del Este is famous.

Although the temperatures of Uruguay's Riviera may be a bit chilly for some tastes, there is no shortage of scenic coasts and beaches. Some are open to the rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean, while others are sheltered. Every beach along the Punta del Este peninsula is accessible to the public.

The white walls of Casapueblo, which hugs the slopes of Punta Ballena, has become an icon of Punta del Este. This living artwork of a building took 36 years for Carlos Paez Vilaro to complete. Inside the amazing architecture, the building holds a collection of Vilaro's sculptures, paintings, and ceramics. Today, Casapueblo serves as a combination hotel, art gallery, and music hall.

Lobos Island and Gorriti Island are both fairly close to Punta del Este. Gorriti Island is known for its watersports and beaches, and is a popular port for local boats and ships. Lobos Island is home to a colony of sea lions.