Uruguay: 10 great reasons to visit a South American treasure

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2016.

CNN  — 

Sandwiched between two Latin American travel powerhouses, laid-back Uruguay is one of the continent’s most inviting secrets.

Often overlooked by visitors making a beeline for neighboring Brazil or Argentina, that’s likely to change since Lonely Planet named it a top destination for 2016.

And while some might struggle to locate Uruguay (population 3.4 million) on a map or name its river-facing capital, Montevideo, its dynamic coastline, extended carnival season and UNESCO cultural heritage status make it a prime Latin American vacation spot.

Here are 10 reasons to visit Uruguay:

1. Atlantic beaches

The pounding heart of Uruguay’s summer scene, Punta del Este and satellite towns La Barra, Manantiales and Jose Ignacio are go-to beach destinations along the country’s Atlantic coast.

With the ocean lapping at one side of the Punta del Este peninsula and the Rio de la Plata on the other, high-rise hotels attract a glitzy Miami-style crowd.

Hipper beach bums in search of a relaxed experience head east to boho bolthole Jose Ignacio, a fishing village where Latin America’s extremely wealthy pitch up in private mansions every January.

Norwegian hotelier Alex Vik has constructed three lodgings here, including the lovely Estancia Vik.

Accessing beaches such as Cabo Polonio and Punta del Diablo further north recently became a lot easier, with the opening of the circular Garzon Lake Bridge in December.

2. Newly designated heritage site

While the city of Colonia del Sacramento’s historic quarter received UNESCO’s seal of approval 20 years ago, Uruguay added a second accolade in 2015 – for a meat packer.

The 263 hectares encompassing Paisaje Industrial Fray Bentos (Fray Bentos Industrial Landscape) illustrate the entire meatpacking process and provide “evidence of the interchange of human values between European society and the South American population of the 19th and 20th century,” according to UNESCO.

The meat production plant turned museum received UNESCO cultural and industrial heritage status in July 2015.

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3. Montevideo

Montevideo might be the world’s most chilled-out capital, thanks to Uruguayans’ casual attitude toward life.

Home to about half the country’s population, the pace is sedate here, where colonial architecture rubs shoulders with low-rise skyscrapers and 15 miles of beach-side rambla.

A walkable city, musts include picturesque Ciudad Vieja and Barrio Sur neighborhoods and the fun if sometimes overrun Mercado del Puerto market, while a smattering of bronze founding fathers stand to attention in leafy plazas.

4. Meat and greet

A prime beef exporter – and consumer at 81.5 kilos (about 180 pounds) a person a year – it’s clear Uruguayans take asado (barbecue) just as seriously as their Argentine neighbors.

Grass-fed cattle is the norm, with an abundance of lush pastures ending up as chivito (a stacked steak sandwich) or pamplona (fillet stuffed with cheese and red bell peppers then wrapped in bacon).

Uruguay’s fare also has a foothold on the haute cuisine map: Parador La Huella in Jose Ignacio and La Bourgogne in Punta del Este are featured in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 list.

In addition, top Argentine restaurateur Francis Mallmann, recently seen in Chef’s Table, runs an establishment in tiny rural village Garzon.

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5. Carnaval

Rio de Janeiro doesn’t hold an exclusive on Carnaval.

Uruguay’s two-month celebration, which starts mid-January, is largely based on candombe, dance and rhythms devised by African slaves in the 19th century.

Drums played by a 50-strong cuerda group and energetic dancing are at the heart of every street party, a more grassroots affair than its Brazilian cousin.

6. Wine country

Fruity, tannin-high Tannat is Uruguay’s star grape and though the wine industry is small at 70 million liters (comparable to a single mid-size Argentine winery’s production), it’s blossoming.

With four key regions dotted along the coastline, you can easily sample Tannat in vineyards.

Numerous producers wine and dine the public in glorious settings, including Bodega Bouza in Canelones, which has picked up numerous trophies for its Albarino and Tannat.

Olive oil and winemaker Bodega Garzon near Jose Ignacio is set to open the first LEED-certified winery outside the United States in 2016.

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7. Colonia del Sacramento

Founded by the Portuguese in 1680, this sleepy riverside town is one of Uruguay’s oldest – travel is pure time warp in Colonia del Sacramento.

A 17th-century convent, lighthouse and drawbridge form the heart of the UNESCO-protected Barrio Historico, while vintage automobiles lining quaint cobbled streets offer up a Havana-esque ambience.

8. Carmelo

While laid back towns are de rigueur in Uruguay, Carmelo takes relaxing to a heightened level of chic.

Located upriver and surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, visitors are entertained by water sports, golf, horse racing and polo.

Regarding upmarket lodgings, Hyatt recently took charge of prime riverside real estate, rebranding the Four Seasons as Carmelo Resort & Spa.

Narbona Wine Lodge offers a great boho experience in a five-bedroom converted farmhouse overlooking Tannat vineyards.

You can also pitch up in a glamping tent at Posada Campo Tinto.

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9. Outdoor adventure

Whether you take to the skies or the water, Uruguay’s underpopulated landscape means you might be the only one taking on the waves at Punta del Diablo.

From trekking with gauchos in Tacuarembo to kitesurfing at Laguna Garzon or hot air ballooning over vineyards, the outdoors is there for the taking.

10. Marijuana

You can buy, sell and grow marijuana – if you’re Uruguayan. But it’s not all harsh tokes for visiting weed smokers.

Decriminalized since 1974 and legalized in 2013, Uruguay’s marijuana law is progressive and while it’s illegal for visitors to purchase pot, they can certainly accept gifts or share a fat one with a Uruguayan friend.

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Sorrel Moseley-Williams is a British journalist based in Buenos Aires.