Backpacking in Uruguay on a Gap Year

Countries  »  Uruguay

Uruguay is a small nation on the South Atlantic coast of South America. It borders Brazil and Argentina and is sometimes referred to as the ‘Belgium of South America,’ not for its waffles, handmade chocolates and mussels, but for its social policy and stance on human rights. Often overlooked thanks to its proximity to Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay has steadily been building its reputation as a must-visit destination on any trip to South America, thanks to its clean, uncrowded beaches, striking mountain scenery, and cosmopolitan cities.

It’s also incredibly safe and considered one of the most socially progressive countries in the world, meaning everybody will feel welcome on a gap year in Uruguay.

Since the crash of the peso around the turn of the Millennium, Uruguay has become very affordable and has quickly turned into a popular destination for gap year travellers and backpackers.

In an early episode of The Simpsons, Homer Simpson once giggled about there being a country called “You are gay.” This is, needless to say, a faux-pas! The correct pronunciation of Uruguay is “Oo-roo-GWY!” Many uruguayan locals are laid back, friendly and up for a joke, but the chances are they’ve heard that one before. In short, it's probably best to find yourself another ice-breaker!

Cities in Uruguay

Your first stop when backpacking in Uruguay will likely be capital city Montevideo. Home to almost half of Uruguay’s population, it’s an unabashedly eclectic city sporting varied architecture, public performance spaces, pavement bars and cafes, modern shopping malls and skyscrapers, and exclusive beach communities.

Head to Teatro Solís, an impressive open-air performance space, or to Mercado del Puerto, an old port market building alive with street musicians, artists, and steak restaurants, before spending an afternoon sightseeing around historic buildings and a selection of excellent museums. As night falls you can choose anywhere from centuries-old taverns to modern cocktail bars to party the night away.

Elsewhere, no backpacking trip to Uruguay is complete without visiting the quaint and colourful cobbled streets of Colonia del Sacramento to the south west, and the resort city of Punta del Este to the south, home to surfing beaches and nonstop nightlife.

Countryside in Uruguay

Now we’re talking! While Uruguay doesn’t have the famous natural sights of its neighbours, there’s plenty to reward you for venturing outside of the cities.

The South Atlantic coast of Uruguay is home to captivating array of wildlife, especially sea birds, including eagles, pelicans, and condors. Head further east towards Punta del Este to find deserted beaches and rustic hamlets. Resorts and luxury hotels are opening fast, so discover the region before it’s too late.

You can also embark on a hot spring crawl along the Uruguay River (Río Uruguay), or see the centre of the country on horseback, its large grasslands tailor-made for epic adventure. You might even spot some roaming capybara, if you’re lucky.

Top Experiences in Uruguay

Carnaval, Montevideo

Rio Carnival might be more famous, but Montevideo Carnival is not quite like anything you’ve seen before. Lasting for 40 nights, a lack of crowds and less focus on choreography make it feel truly authentic, with wooden seats set up on the roadside and available for only a few dollars.

Historic Quarter, Colonia del Sacramento

Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Barrio Histórico dates back to 1680 and offers a peaceful retreat from the hubbub of Montevideo. Stroll around the cobbled streets and admire the colonial houses, before retiring to watch the sun set over the Rio de la Plata with a beer in hand.

Punta del Diablo

This popular summer getaway for locals has become a favourite of backpackers in Uruguay. While that means there are plenty of places to drink and play on the beach, the town still retains a relaxed atmosphere, especially in the town’s sandy plaza.

Chihuahua Beach, Punta del Este

Punta del Este is like a glamorous alternative to the above, populated by local celebrities and other wealthy types enjoying the top class beaches. Chihuahua Beach, just outside the city, is much quieter, and perfect for a spot of skinny-dipping.

Palacio Salvo, Montevideo

Even if you’ve got no interest in history or architecture, the 26-storey Palacio Salvo is worth gawping at. It was the tallest building in South America when it was built in 1927, and its alien lighthouse styling is still incredibly impressive today.