I’ve wanted to see Uruguay for at least twenty years. I’m not sure why. Maybe just because it seems so… different. Uruguay. How many other countries can you think of where nearly half the letters are a ‘U’? It’s fun just to say it. Clearly they do their own thing down there. Uruguay is in it’s own little world… forgotten, unknown, peaceful. I finally made the trip with my family last week, and Uruguay didn’t let me down. Here is Uruguay with kids:
How To Fit In
If you ever go to Uruguay, there are just two things you need to do to fit right in like a local. First, forget everything you thought you knew about Latin America. Need a minute? No problemo, we have time.
Ok, Good? Now, second, get yourself one of these. And don’t let go of it until you go back home:
That is Yerba Mate, a bitter herbal tea in a cup made out of a gourd with a metal straw. Uruguayans drink this all the time, everywhere, no matter what they’re doing. They always have a mate in one hand, and a thermos with hot water tucked in their armpit – leaving the other hand free to go about their business. The whole country works with just one hand. I think it’s the reason they kiss each other on the cheek, rather than shaking hands when they greet each other.
Yerba Mate has been sipped in these parts since pre-hispanic days. We may go crazy about coffee in the United States, but Yerba Mate in Uruguay is like a whole-nother level. They even have a museum with some of the more important mate gourds in the country’s history:
Ok, enough about yerba mate. You get the picture. Just be sure to pick up your gourd and straw and a small thermos, or you might get a few odd stares from the locals.
Uruguay With Kids
Uruguay, it turns out, is a surprisingly safe, tranquil, low-key place. They’re highly educated, and super-polite people. I can’t tell you how many times I saw two cars stuck at a four-way intersection because each driver was insisting the other go first. (With only one hand on the wheel, of course). I mean we’re talking Canadian-level politeness. It’s the kind of place you might want to take your kids to show them what polite people are really like.
Uruguay is a wide-open country, with a lot of cows, and not too many people. There’s only 3.5 million people in the whole country, and the biggest city, Montevideo, has about a third of them. The cows, on the other hand, are everywhere else.
That includes the dinner plate. Uruguayans eat more beef than anyone else on the planet. What’s great about it though is that most of the beef in Uruguay is grass-fed. Oh, and it’s cheap as hell. Where else can you take out your entire family to a prime cut of grass-fed beef with a bottle of Uruguay’s local Tannat wine for only about $60? At these prices, the kids can come too!
I’m not sure if I necessarily like grass fed beef better than corn-fed feed lot beef… they’re different. Grass-fed beef has awesome flavor, but is also tougher. But at home, it’s so damn expensive. In Uruguay, it’s what’s for dinner.
Uruguay is the kind of place you take your kids to show them what polite people are really like
But maybe when you’re in Uruguay with kids you don’t want to eat at a white tablecloth every night. You can go for the local fast food instead. This what they eat: a heart-attack on a sandwich:
That’s called a “chivito”. It has beef, ham, bacon, egg, cheese, mayo, plus a very thin strip of lettuce and tomato – which is probably thrown on more as a joke than anything else. Chivitos are everywhere.
Beyond that, Uruguayans don’t eat much that doesn’t involve beef (except maybe pasta). After all, they have to do something with all those cows.
Oh, they do know how to make pastries too. You can imagine what our kids thought of this place:
Here’s the best Uruguayan pastry. It’s called an alfajor, and it will change your life:
And, I suppose, the coffee in Uruguay is pretty spectacular too. They just don’t drink it very much because they don’t usually have a free hand available to hold a coffee cup.
Uruguay has three major tourist locations: Montevideo (the capital), Colonia, and the beaches around Punta del Este. You can easily see all three in a week, with time leftover for a stay on an estancia (a cattle ranch), where you will eat more beef.
We started our trip in Colonia, on Uruguay’s west coast after crossing the River Plate on a boat from Argentina. Colonia is a 17th century colonial town, sort of like Yorktown in Virginia or Salem, MA, except that everyone is polite and there is really great steak.
Unfortunately, we caught bad weather, and walked around in the rain for a couple of hours. Tough to take good pictures of a place in the rain, so here’s a stock photo of Colonia, so you get the idea:
Our kids love to walk around cities and towns to see sights. In just a couple of hours, you can see just about all streets in Colonia. If you have good weather, there are plenty of outdoor cafes where you could easily lose track of the rest of your day.
We spent three nights in Montevideo. We actually had two free adjoining hotel rooms for three nights, thanks to my credit card churning. But you can get a mid-class hotel for $100 – $150 a night, or an AirBnb for under $100.
Montevideo is a small port city. It is completely walkable (which my kids love), and quite safe. Drivers aren’t rude at all – they’re quite polite, remember? The center of life is a pedestrian street and the plaza. Here is a view from the plaza:
This is officially my favorite building…. like, ever. This is the elegant Palacio Salvo on Montevideo’s main plaza. Is that a rocket ship on top?
We had two full days in Montevideo, which was more than enough time to see all the sights we wanted to see. And we weren’t too tired to go out for a good steak dinner at night either.
On Wednesdays, several museums offer free admission, so that was our museum day. We saw a couple of small historic museums where we learned about Uruguay’s past. The Museo del Gaucho had a great interactive room, where you can act like a banker. (Banking is big in Uruguay). Both kids got to learn how a typewriter works (remember those?).
Later, they learned how to push people into bad loans – a real interactive banking exhibit (kidding).
We also got a free tour of the impressive Solis theater. Uruguay is big on fine arts.
I regret that we didn’t get to see a show in that theater. They offer frequent shows at very reasonable prices (think $10), and they even have a “kids” season for a couple of months each year. Going to a show here would be a great thing to do in Uruguay with kids.
But what we liked best about Montevideo was just the vibe. No, not some kind of Vegas vibe – it’s just the opposite. Montevideo is low-key, family-friendly, and quiet. It is the Minnesota of Latin America – without the snow. Even on weekday afternoons, the parks and plazas fill with people just enjoying the sun and sipping their yerba mate. People here are not in a rush.
But after two days in Montevideo, we were ready to hit the beach.
Punta del Este
Uruguay’s beaches are probably the best reason to go. From Montevideo east to the Brazilian border, the coast is full of scenic Atlantic beaches, many completely empty. The crown jewel of the coast is Punta del Este.
If you’re a celebrity or a paparazzi, you’re probably familiar with “Punta”. It’s a beach resort for the rich and famous, and it is easily the most expensive place in Uruguay. But, if you go in the shoulder seasons (November-December or March), you can still act like a celebrity but pay like a penny-pincher (and without the paparazzi).
I’m a penny-pincher and a celebrity in my own mind, so that’s what we did. We stayed in an AirBnb for under $100 per night, about 100 meters from the beach. The kids love the beach, so we pretty much just parked it on the sand for three days, with our camera ready in case we saw any celebrities (again, kidding).
In the U.S. summer, it is winter in Uruguay, which means it’s too cold for the beach. So Uruguay is really a U.S. winter destination. While the beaches are not world-class, they are very nice (similar to beaches in South Carolina, for example), and very family friendly.
Uruguay is expensive by Latin American standards, but still cheaper than most vacation destinations in the U.S. Not including our hotels, our week in Uruguay with kids cost about $100 per day, including food, entertainment, and transportation. We ate out at restaurants most of the time. Decent hotels or AirBnBs cost another $100 or so.
We went in November. If you go during the peak summer season (Christmas through Februrary), you can expect prices to be higher.
Uruguay is this odd place at the end of the world that marches to its own drummer. It is Latin America, but also has a heavy dose of Europe and even a touch of Norman Rockwell America. My wife and I really liked Uruguay… I mean we really liked it. So much, that we’re scheming to spend a couple of years there in the somewhat distant future – without the kids. We’ll be back.