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February 27, 2018, Uruguay

The wonders of Uruguay

Wu Shangyuan finds out why this South American country may have more to offer travellers than meets the eye

Wu Shangyuan

NESTLED between South America’s two biggest countries, Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay may be small in comparison, but packs a punch for tourists.

From the glitzy resort of Punta del Este to the European-style capital of Montevideo, the country easily offers tourists a delightfully packed itinerary.

The coastal city of Punta del Este, often referred to as the St Tropez of South America, has long been a playground of the rich and famous.

Its yacht-filled marina, milliondollar homes, party-town atmosphere, miles of sandy beaches and breathtaking ocean views draw plenty of famous people, including model Naomi Campbell and singer Shakira, as well as nearly 700,000 foreign tourists a year.

Immediately after our mid-day arrival, my travel partner and I headed straight to the beaches that span both sides of this city, which lies on a peninsula at the extreme south-east of the country between the Atlantic Ocean and River Plate.

We were greeted by Playa Brava’s most famous sculpture — five larger-than-life fingers, aptly named “La Mano” or the hand, which rise from the sand and loom above revellers, offering a unique warning against the beach’s rough waves.

Playa Brava, located on the ocean side of the peninsula, is best enjoyed in the day.

This white sand beach that faces the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean plays host to sunbathers and surfers, both local and foreign.

In the evening, the tamer beach of Playa Mansa offers a peaceful boardwalk experience.

A stroll towards the tip of the peninsula presents a stunning view of the sunset against the many expensive yachts moored at the marina.

When night falls, however, the party starts. The locals may not have access to the glamorous private parties of the uber-rich in Punta del Este and the nearby beach town of La Barra, but the ingenious among them have created their own version of a vibrant nightlife.

With their cars parked by the boardwalk, a favourite activity of the locals is to pump up the volume on their car stereos, leave the doors open as they sip their mate drinks (a regional tea-like beverage) and wait for others to party and dance with them — something we gladly did.

Animal kingdom

Wildlife lovers can get a unique adventure on Isla de Lobos.

This small island just 8km off the coast is home to one of the largest colonies of sea lions and South American fur seals in the Western Hemisphere — more than 250,000 of the animals reside there.

And the best part? You get to swim with them.

My travel partner and I have been on many wildlife excursions in South America, including at the famed Galápagos Islands, but we had never had an experience quite like this.

Even before the boat neared the island, our guide was already urging us to look out for the animals.

It wasn’t long before we realised that our eyes had been playing tricks on us — what we thought were dark ripples of waves in the horizon were in fact sea lions and fur seals jetting through the water a distance from our boat.

As the island pulled into view, so did the thousands of sea lions and fur seals that it housed.

They occupied every single inch of the rocky outcrops, some lazing on top of one another, others scrambling up from the water after a spirited swim. It was a jaw-dropping sight.

Our guide handed us our snorkels and nudged us to the side of the boat. Taking a good breath in, we jumped.

The animals came towards our small group, bobbing up and down in the water, as curious about us as we were about them. And boy, did they come heartstoppingly close.

Occasionally, our outstretched paddling arms would sweep across their bodies as they swam playfully around us, catching us by surprise.

And then, for a split second, they would surface and look curiously at us, before disappearing back into the waves. What a priceless experience.

Fascinating building

From a high of swimming with sea lions and fur seals, consider a more laidback, but just as rewarding, visit to Casapueblo in Maldonado, 18km from Punta del Este.

The building is an iconic work by Uruguayan painter and sculptor Carlos Páez Vilaró and took him 36 years to build.

Its white façade is whimsical and made to look like the mud nests of the region’s native hornero bird.

Today, it is a museum, art gallery and hotel.

The rooms facing the ocean house the artworks of the late Vilaró and offer a perfect vantage point for sunrise and sunset.

Exploring the capital

Uruguay was once colonised by the Europeans and around 90 per cent of the population today is of European descent.

The country’s rich history and urban life is best captured in its capital city, Montevideo.

The Montevideo Metropolitan Cathedral is a neo-classical beauty built in the 18th century, and art deco structures, built in the 1920s and 1930s during the city’s social and economic boom, pepper the downtown core.

Begin your city tour at the main square of Plaza Independencia, a large open space lined with palm trees and with the Artigas Mausoleum at its centre, a monument housing the remains of José Artigas, often referred to as the father of Uruguayan independence.

On one side of the plaza lies the bustling commercial street of Avenida 18 de Julio; on the other is the Puerta de la Ciudadela, or gateway to the citadel, marking the beginning of the Ciudad Vieja or old city.

The shop-lined main street of the old city, with colonial buildings dating back to the 1800s and now selling crafts, antiques, books and speciality coffees, is a pleasant walk-through.

It ends with Mercado del Puerto, famous for its offerings of traditional Uruguayan food and beverages.

Be sure to settle down here for a parrillada feast, a proud regional dish of grilled meats, featuring adventurous options like pig intestines, kidneys and blood sausages.

Washing down the generous platter with drink, we reminisced about the best moments of our trip, from sand and sea to city and urbanity.

To the Asian tourist, Uruguay could well be South America’s best-kept secret.

GUIDELINES

We flew from Singapore to Montevideo on British Airways, with stopovers in London and Madrid.

- Montevideo also has its fair share of beaches. Head to the coastal avenue, or Rambla, for a view of all 13km of it.

- Visit one of the oldest towns in Uruguay, Colonia del Sacramento. Its historic quarter is a Unesco World Heritage Site and the cobblestone streets were built by the Portuguese in the 17th century. From Buenos Aires in Argentina, it is a 50km ferry ride away.

Parrillada often comes as shareable plates, so get your meat-loving buddies together for a treat.

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