We traveled to Uruguay for the Christmas season in 2019 and left feeling relaxed. While more expensive for US Citizens than its neighbors due to its relative financial stability, it is still quite affordable, safe, and scenic!
For itinerary ideas on where to visit before Uruguay, please check out our post: Six Days in Southern Paraguay (and Iguazu Falls).
- In Uruguay, foreigners do not pay the IVA tax IF they pay with a foreign credit card. So, you can save a lot of money if you use a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Just be sure to look for the VISA sign before ordering food!
- For those times you do need cash, ATMs are notoriously temperamental in Uruguay. There are two main companies: RedBrau and BanRed. We eventually got BanRed ATMs to work for us after contacting our bank. There is a daily withdrawal limit of 5000 pesos or $300 USD (yes, you can get USD from many ATMs in Uruguay). We bank with TD Bank, who will reimburse foreign ATM fees with receipts; however, the downside of the ATMs in Uruguay is that the receipts do not indicate the fee just the total amount charged on the withdrawal.
- In restaurants, it is expected to tip your waiters 10% but it is not already included on the bill and it is considered rude for the waiter to ask for it. You need to tell them to manually add the “servicio.”
- For easy transport around town, Uber is available Montevideo.
Most hotels have outlets with 2-prong American fittings, but if you have an appliance that requires a grounded plug (like a laptop), be sure to bring a converter. We use a universal converter and have found it helpful no matter where we travel.
For bus travel in Uruguay, we recommend Agencia Central. It is easy to find and buy tickets online and this is one of the rare companies that offer e-tickets!
We felt very safe in Uruguay, in stark contrast to our visits to cities like Rio and Buenos Aires. Enjoy a night time walk through the beautiful Montevideo streets!
Uruguayans are VERY proud of their cows. Be sure to eat a lot of beef (if you’re into that sort of thing) and tell them all how good the beef takes in Uruguay. They will beam.
We are not a paid sponsor for this company or anything, but we have found Skyroam to be a very useful device while traveling abroad. This company provides internet service via satellite and has worked nearly everywhere we’ve traveled. They have daily and monthly plans, but also ways to pay per use. For our long term travel in South America, we paid $99/mo for unlimited service.
Our usual itinerary format isn’t appropriate for our visit to the Horatio Quiroga Thermal Resort in Salto Grande, Uruguay because resorts are for relaxing and living itinerary free!
However, below we offer tips on our experiences for those who wish to visit this area. Note that there are quite a few thermal resorts in the area; we just happened to choose this one.
Getting There: We were previously traveling in Paraguay, so we had to travel across Argentina to get to Uruguay. The best plan for us was to cross into Posadas, Argentina by train from Encarnacion, catch a night bus to Concordia, and then cross into Uruguay on a bus to Salto. This probably sounds complex but it was actually pretty simple.
We learned after arrival that the resort offers a free taxi to guests arriving at the Salto Bus Terminal, but we decided to ask the bus driver to let us off the bus early so we could walk the 2km to the resort because Salto Grande is on the route to the Salto Bus Terminal.
Food: We also learned upon arrival that there are not any places to purchase food in the area (we had rented a bungalow/cabin on the lake), but that there is a free bus to the city with supermarkets. In fact, there is a large supermarket called Ta-Ta in the Salto bus station. The lesson: take the bus all the way to Salto, load up on food, and take the free taxi to the resort!
Accommodations: We rented one of the bungalows on the lake, though the hotel also offers rooms in the main building. The cabins are about 1km away from the hotel. We do not regret our choice; the cabins were spacious and peaceful! The best part was the kitchen! If you’ve ever been on the road for a long time, you know how nice it is to be able to cook for yourself.
Resorting: The facilities of the resort are definitely off-putting at first. The buildings are clearly past their prime, BUT the pools at the hotel are very nice with a variety of temperatures and the WiFi is strong.
Your visit also includes access to the nearby water park (which is actually closer to the cabins than the hotel). The park features water slides, a wave pool, multiple pools of varying temperatures, and spa showers!
Beyond the thermal waters, your visit also includes bicycles, a fitness center, tennis courts, horseback riding, and evening activities.
For a very good price, you can also visit the spa for a massage or treatment.
We spent two nights here, which is about all the budget would allow (it’s not cheap), but are glad we did. We had originally planned to stay only one night, but to fully appreciate the experience, you really need two full days!
9:00am Enjoy the Resort
11:00am Check Out/Taxi (included in stay) to Bus Station
11:30pm Arrive at Bus Terminal/Lunch
1:00pm Bus to Montevideo
7:00pm Arrive in Montevideo/Uber to El Secreto Casa Art
When traversing countries, you always need to account for travel time and next on our list was Montevideo, a six hour bus ride away. So, we spent the morning getting the most out of our stay at the Horatio Quiroga Thermal Resort. Alternatively, you could spend the time in Salto, which boasts a handful of museums, including the former house of famous Uruguayan writer Horatio Quiroga.
If you arrive at the Salto Bus Terminal early, there are several really good restaurants, a grocery store, two ATMs, and a shopping mall nearby. Also…free WiFi!
Upon arrival in Montevideo, the capital and largest city in Uruguay, the bus station is significantly larger than Salto. We took an Uber to our hostel in old town. You can find the official pick up zone just past the taxis outside.
We stayed our first two nights at a cool, funky hostel called El Secreto Casa Art, which has very positive reviews online. However, it was VERY loud, there were a LOT of mosquitoes in our room all night, it was overpriced, the breakfast was just cereal and coffee, and the shared shower was pretty gross. So, we ultimately moved to a cheaper and more luxurious hotel to be discussed on Day 5 :).
I’m spending time reviewing them here because when we chose to leave the owner told Booking.com that we never showed up and we were therefore unable to leave an official review! We now know how the reviews are so good.
9:30am Walk to Palacio Legislativo
10:30am Tour of Palacio Legislativo
11:30am Uber Back to Independencia Plaza and Explore Area Museums/Lunch:
- Government House Museum
- Museo Histórico Cabildo de Montevideo
- Museo de Decorativa Artes/Palacio Tarranca
- Pre-Colombian and Indigenous Art Museum
- Late Lunch at the Mercado del Puerto
- Museo de las Migraciones
Prior to the start of this itinerary, we also went for a 3-4 mile run around old town and recommend it! We also love to walk, so after breakfast and showers, we walked to the Palacio Legislativo, where they give two tours in English each day. It was very interesting to learn about the Uruguayan government throughout history. Be sure to bring your passport and $3USD to pay for the tour!
After the tour, it was getting quite warm outside, so we caught an Uber back towards town to visit a few of Montevideo’s free museums! First, we explored the Independencia Plaza, a beautiful square with a statue featuring the mausoleum of General Artigas, a primary leader in the Uruguayan fight for independence. The plaza is also home to the Solis Theater, Palacio Salvo, and the Government House Museum.
We did not choose to visit the Palacio Salvo, but you can pay about 250 pesos a person to see the views from the top. We did enjoy visiting the small but historical Government House Museum, but pictures were not allowed!
The plaza marks the western boundary of old town, a beautiful collection of pedestrian streets, neoclassical architecture, small city parks, and museums! We only had enough time to visit the free museums, but there are MANY museums in the area.
Our next stop was the Museo Histórico Cabildo de Montevideo, the historical center for Uruguayan legislation. The museum itself is fairly small, but does offer some good English text and historical information.
Next, we visited the visually stunning Museo de Decorativa Artes/Palacio Tarranca. This former mansion is essentially a house museum dedicated to displaying typical decorative arts from the early 20th century.
By this point, we were definitely getting hungry, but decided to fit one more museum in before having a late lunch at the Mercado del Puerto.
Nearly everyone we met highly recommended a visit to the Pre-Colombian and Indigenous Art Museum, an incredibly comprehensive collection of indigenous artwork from around the world.
Finally, we were ready for lunch, but was lunch ready for us? The Mercado del Puerto is a very busy place famed for its barbecued meat restaurants. It’s particularly busy because it is located at the cruise ship port and everyone wants to get their lunch there while on shore excursions. It’s pretty impossible to photograph the hubbub of the market, so stay tuned for our video to really see it in action!
After getting lunch, we finished our day of learning at our favorite stop of the day, the Museo de las Migraciones. This tiny but friendly museum offers insights in the the comings and goings of the Uruguayan people.
9:00am Move to SmartHotel
2:00pm Christmas Eve Party
5:00pm Grocery Store Dinner
As previously mentioned, our first two nights were sub-optimal in the hostel so we found a great deal for a room at SmartHotel just two blocks from Independencia Plaza. This was a GREAT choice. We arrived at 8am and were allowed to check in as well as provided with some pretty stellar travel advice from Inez, the desk clerk , especially considering the holidays. The room was spacious, clean, and comfortable and the breakfast was DELICIOUS! We 100% recommend this hotel.
After settling in and having a superb breakfast in the jazzy hotel restaurant, we walked back to old town to rent bikes from Orange Bikes to go for a lengthy ride on La Rambla, the longest continuous sidewalk in the world! And yes, Orange Bikes is open on Christmas Eve. The woman was also friends with Inez and told us we could also just leave the bikes at the hotel and didn’t have to bring them back.
There are multiple great stopping points along La Rambla, including a few beaches if you’re up for a swim! We opted to ride out to the Montevideo Sign, then stop to view a few things on our way back. This itinerary moves westward.
Note: it’s a miracle there aren’t any people in the picture below. The sign is a very popular tourist attraction and when we arrived, there was a tour bus. There is also a man who will take your picture with a drone and sell them to you.
Just west of the sign, is Pocitos Beach, the largest of Montevideo’s beaches. It was crowded with people out enjoying their holiday.
And just past the beach, on the right is Pittamiglio Castle. We didn’t actually visit because it didn’t look open, but we understand there is a really interesting history to the place and a good restaurant inside.
At this point, we were hungry and decided to stop at a a beachside joint and totally lucked out when we found out it was self-service seafood! Yumm! Another option would be to bring a picnic. La Rambla was covered with folks enjoying siestas, cervezas, and snacks in the many shaded beach spots on the route.
Out final stop on La Rambla was the Punta Carretas Lighthouse. It’s an easy jaunt off the main road for some up close pictures, but there really isn’t much to do there.
The most important thing we learned about Montevideo is that Christmas Eve is a HUGE party day. Starting around noon, people begin having parties all over the city. Some are advertised online with a cover charge and some are personal family/friends parties. Inez, our desk clerk, found a few for us, but after our bike ride we were a little too tuckered for them and opted to have a quiet Christmas Eve to ourselves…well…”quiet” because the streets were boisterous all night long!
Side Note: There has been a tradition at the Mercado del Puerta for the past ten years or so of hosting a cider fight at noon on Christmas Eve, in which people spray cider all over each other. Inez warned us to stay away because it has just turned into an opportunity for phone theft and that sometimes people throw the entire glass bottles and visitors get hurt. It sounded like a lot of fun, but we opted out.
8:30am Pick Up for Day Trip to Punta del Este/Piriapolis
8:00pm Return to Lodging
9:00pm Dinner at Hotel (Set Menu)
We were surprised to discover that even though Montevideo tends to shut down on Christmas Day (after all the partying the night before), the coastal holiday towns are wide awake!
On Christmas, we scheduled a day trip tour to Punta del Este that also stopped in Piriapolis and Punta Ballena. If you want to visit these places with just a short amount of time, the day tour is your best bet. We priced rental cars and buses, but this tour was the best bang for our buck, especially given the exceptional tour guide.
The tour began with a hotel pickup and a ride along the coast of Montevideo while the guide provided interesting facts. The first stop was the top of the hill in Piriapolis for a view of the area and a visit to the small chapel on top.
Next, we continued eastward to Punta Ballena, home to the famous Casapueblo, a really cool adobe mansion built by famous Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilarós. We enjoyed this stop, but note that the tour does not include the admission price.
Finally, the tour gets you to Punta del Este, one of the most popular beach towns for both Uruguayans and Argentinians. This was where the tour really felt tour-y in that they dropped us off far from the sights at a specific restaurant they recommended. We, however, brought our own picnic lunch and enjoyed it on the docks with these cute napping sea lions.
After lunch, we were taken to explore Punta del Este a bit. It’s really a beach town with all the expected amenities: shops, ice cream parlors, beaches…but one of its most iconic sites is the statue, “Los Dedos” (the fingers).
We also got some delicious ice cream at a place called “freckles.”
After that, we drove the 2 hours or so back to Montevideo, though it took longer due to traffic and rain. We had already made reservations in our hotel for the set menu dinner because we had been warned nothing would be open on Christmas Day.
2:30pm Arrive in Colonia del Sacramento/Walk to B & D Burucuyá
3:30pm DIY Walking Tour and Various Museums
4:45pm Enjoy a Drink or Dinner Along the Riverfront
One cannot visit Uruguay and not stop in Colonia del Sacramento, an entire city named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can opt to visit as a day tour out of Montevideo or stay overnight as we did, and what we recommend.
The earliest bus we found going to Colonia didn’t leave until around noon, so we spent the morning at the fitness center in our hotel. Then, we took an Uber to the bus station and the short 2 hour bus on to Colonia.
Colonia lodging is not as cheap as Montevideo, but we managed to find a relatively inexpensive and sufficient hostel just outside of old town.
The most important thing to know about Colonia is that the hours are strange and you’ll need to take advantage of them. The museums (all included on the same ticket) are only open from 11:15am-4:45pm. AND some museums are open some days and not others. None of them take very long to visit (especially if you’re not fluent in Spanish), so we recommend getting your visits in on the afternoon you arrive.
As you walk the short distances between the museums, you’ll be able to enjoy the beautiful colonial architecture developed over time by both the Portuguese and Spanish who occupied this city over the years. The old town area is VERY small.
Once the museums shut down, there are multiple gastropubs and restaurants along the riverfront where you can enjoy a drink and or early dinner. However, note that many of the more formal restaurants (or at least their kitchens) close between 3:30pm and 8:00pm for siesta.
9:00am Run Along Rambla to Colonia Sign
5:00pm Return Bikes/Rest
Colonia does not wake up early. It’s the kind of place that forces you to relax, sleep in, move slowly. To take advantage of the morning, we enjoyed a run along the Rambla to see the Colonia sign.
After a lazy breakfast, we were ready to visit a few of the museums we missed the previous day. For a bit of fun, please also stop into the Museo del Humor! This quirky spot, just across from the Basilica, is an interactive museum filled with odd objects and led by a very strange costumed man. We had no idea what was happening, but we participated in two dance parties! The museum is donation based.
In the afternoon, we rented bikes from a vendor near the bus station. We had read about the Bernardi Winery and were excited to visit a short 7km bike ride away!
We actually arrived a little too early, so we took advantage of the opportunity to explore the nearby dirt roads for views of cattle and grapevines.
The winery itself was enchanting with free tour given by the great granddaughter of the original owner who explains about the most popular grape in Uruguay, the Tannat.
After our tasting, we rode back to town, explored a little on bike then returned to rest at our hostel. The winery owner had recommended her favorite place to eat, so we went to El Porton for delicious Uruguayan steaks.
From Colonia, we took a ferry across the Rio de la Plata to continue our travels in Buenos Aires, Argentina.