(CNN) -- When I told friends that my husband and I were going to visit Uruguay, the first question was usually, "Why?" I had been to Uruguay before so the answer came easy: "The people, the food and the beaches."
Cabo Polonio is a remote outpost surrounded by miles of secluded windswept sand dunes.
People who know anything about this small country across the Rio de la Plata from Argentina usually know of a few major spots: the capital, Montevideo, the historic town of Colonia and the ritzy beach town of Punta del Este. I had been to the top three, but this trip I wanted to find out what was along the coast. What we found was spectacular.
We decided to reserve a car, buy a map and see where we ended up. Upon arrival in Montevideo we went to the tourist office. Most of their information was in Spanish, but we did find a couple good maps: one showing the coastal route, the other suggesting surf sights. After consulting the maps we planned to make a run to the farthest place we wanted to see then work our way back to Montevideo. Although we stopped at just about every beach town during our drive -- and one was just as breathtaking as the next -- the following places have at least the basic amenities a typical tourist would need.
Destination uno was Punta del Diablo. The road was well-paved, clearly marked and empty. Taking us less time than we anticipated, we were in Punta del Diablo three and a half hours later. We were surprised at how isolated this former fishing village felt after the relatively short drive. The beaches were practically empty, extremely beautiful and stretched on for miles. As we would come to excitedly learn, this is the norm for coastal Uruguay. Here there are no typical hotels or large buildings monopolizing the sea view. Wooden cabins and dirt roads populate this village. Punta del Diablo is postcard perfect.
But we weren't totally alone -- the surfers are already here. On the main beach the waves are big and the laid back crowd sits for hours watching the surfers hang ten. There was a beach and a rocky point stretching out to sea. Across a sand dune was another beach where the calm water is perfect for swimming. Most visitors here rent one of the ocean-view cabins. There were a few, and I emphasize few, restaurants and stores lining the entrance to Punta del Diablo. It's a good idea to bring a good book for the day and a flashlight to see at night. There aren't any street lights.
Destination numero dos was Cabo Polonio. This remote outpost surrounded by miles of secluded windswept sand dunes was second to none. Getting to Cabo Polonio was half the fun. We were flagged down along route 10 on the way to Cabo Polonio by one of several businesses that, for a fee of about $6 per person, provide parking for your vehicle and transportation to the town.
You cannot drive to this beach town yourself. Then again who has ever heard of a paradise that allows cars? We arrived by monster truck in a jolting ride over massive sand dunes to the middle of ... well, the middle of a community with no electricity or running water.
There are shacks or "cabanas" scattered around the dunes. The beach is endless, isolated and everywhere. You can walk down this wide beach for miles or just sit alone on top of a sand dune and contemplate the beauty. There was a simple hotel, cabanas for rent, a few restaurants and stalls selling local art. For some, the rustic accommodation and the stars are enough. We looked at the hotel and had lunch at the restaurant, but like many visitors we decided to visit for the day.
Driving back into civilization we stopped in Jose Ignacio. Arriving in Jose Ignacio there was a change in atmosphere and attitude. The buildings are modern and the streets are paved. We headed to the beach where there was a chic restaurant and lounge chairs for rent in the sand. The beach was wide and good for swimming.
The locals say this is how the popular Punta del Este (to the south) was before the building boom. Freshly painted stucco homes and shops line the streets of this quaint town. There are a couple of hotels and houses to rent for steeper prices than some of the more remote coastal enclaves.
Heading west from Jose Ignacio we went through La Barra, which appears to be an extension of Punta del Este. La Barra is a good place to stop for lunch or spend the night if you want to keep away from the Punta del Este crowds.
We passed over a beautiful hanging bridge, but it was really the sculpture of a hand reaching up from the sand that told us we had arrived at the "Pearl of Uruguay." The sculpture is the symbol of Punta del Este. In the morning you can enjoy a beach on the Rio de la Plata and in the afternoon plant your umbrella on a beach on the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic side of Punta del Este is where you will find a lot of water sports, since the wind and the waves can get rough.
This city is built for tourists. There are a lot of high rises, where foreigners have purchased summer homes. International hotels and Rodeo Drive-style shopping await visitors to Punta del Este. The good news: you don't have to be wealthy to enjoy these beautiful beaches and there are restaurants and accommodations for everyone's price range. With its close proximity to Montevideo -- an hour and a half -- it is no wonder Punta del Este is a popular choice. It's also a comfortable home base for day trips in the area.
Our last stop before Montevideo was Piriapolis. Just 20 minutes west of Punta del Este, this beach community had an old-time feel. My husband said it reminded him of Asbury Park, a quaint beach town on the Jersey Shore that was a popular family destination until the 1970s. It was no surprise when we heard Piriapolis was the pre- Punta del Este vacation spot of choice. The proximity to Montevideo and the long white beach makes it an obvious choice for an easy getaway.
But Punta del Este offers a lot more sea-view real estate, so it is no wonder the building boom moved west of Piriapolis. Piriapolis seems to have retained that laid-back small beach town charm. No surprise that we found another wonderfully white soft sand beach here. In Piriapolis you can actually walk along the beach on a nice pedestrian path with pretty green hills behind it. For a bird's eye view, walk to the port and take the chair lift to the top of San Antonio Hill. Unlike Punta del Este, the fancy factor is not high, but you will find decent places to eat and sleep.
If you haven't had enough sand and sea by the time you return to the capital, no worries -- there's a nice beach not far from downtown.