jose ignacio uruguay la padrera travel vacation beaches best locations surprised
Playa Jose Ignacio, Uruguay. (Graciela Cattarosi)

Uruguay’s Best Beaches

If you want to lounge on an empty beach for hours, consider one of these trips.

jose ignacio uruguay la padrera travel vacation beaches best locations surprised
Megan Miller

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If you’re looking for white-knuckle South American adventure, stop reading now. Uruguay isn’t Peru or Chile, and it isn’t trying to be. But if you want to lounge on an empty beach for hours, have the best sandwich on the continent, or surf little-known breaks, consider one of these off-the-beaten-path trips.

Play Gaucho

colonia del sacramento
Colonia del Sacramento. (Kastianz)

A good Uruguayan itinerary includes asados, plenty of wine, and wide-open country. El Galope, a 12-acre ranch near the town of Colonia del Sacramento, has all three—and you won’t have to battle throngs of tourists to enjoy them. Just hop a one-hour ferry from Buenos Aires (from $60) or a two-hour bus from Montevideo ($9 from the Tres Cruces terminal; El Galope will pick you up in Colonia del Sacramento). The ranch ­offers five rustic guest rooms and hardy criollo horses that you can take galloping across the rolling hills. Save a day to ride the ranch’s beat-up (but safe) mountain bikes three miles to Colonia Suiza. The town is home to Carro Damole, a food truck that serves up a perfect $5 chivito, Uruguay’s national sandwich of ham, beef, fried eggs, olives, and pickled vegetables.

Ride Away

la padrera uruguay beaches trips locations
La Pedrera's busy season. (Getty Images)

La Pedrera is a sleepy fishing village most of the year, but each winter its main street—a dirt road called Avenida Principal—becomes a Coachella-like mecca for Uruguay’s hipsters. Stay in town at boutique hotel ­Brisas (doubles from $190), or bunk down in nearby Punta Rubia at the funky Parque Reserva, a small ­resort with a zip line and a flock of peacocks (doubles from $130). Rent a board from Punto Limite Surf Shop and hit El ­Barco, a right break with waves typically over six feet, or grab a lesson with La Pedrera Surfing School ($30 per day; 011-598-9978-0887). Then take a siesta and head to the oceanside patio at farm-to-table Olinda for a big South American steak.

Go Dark

Cabo Polonio uruguay beaches
Cabo Polonio. (Luis César Tejo)

Cabo Polonio is about as lo-fi as they come: there’s no cell service, and it’s entirely off the grid. The village (pop. 95) lies on Uruguay’s southeastern coast in a national park with no roads, piped water, or wired electricity. You have to take a 4×4 to get there ($8 round-trip from the edge of the preserve), but the hassle is worth it for the sweeping ocean vistas dotted with kaleido­scopic wood, stucco, and glass beach shacks, which are occupied by the town’s hippie residents. Stay at ­Hostel Rosa, a three-room guesthouse that also serves as the ­local ­library (doubles from $50). By day the town is idyllic: you can roam the coast in search of sea lions and penguins. At night it reverts to another century as candles and oil lamps ­illuminate the buildings. Order the ultrafresh ceviche at Lo de Dani, then head to Joselo’s, an open-air bar where you’ll listen to acoustic sets and learn to drink like a local. Bring a headlamp: navigating the pitch-black dunes en route to your bed could get hairy.

From Outside Magazine, Feb 2014 Lead Photo: Graciela Cattarosi

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