Lola Méndez | Special to USA TODAY
- Uruguay reopened its borders to foreigners, just in time for the beginning of its summer season.
- Masks are mandatory indoors and on public transportation.
- Tourists can enjoy watersports on the beautiful beaches, or visit waterfalls and hot springs inland.
Uruguay’s 410 miles of coastline are perfect for windsurfing, paddleboarding and surfing. Inland, there are waterfalls, hot springs and natural swimming holes. What’s not to love?
After 20 months, Uruguay reopened its borders to foreigners Nov. 1, just in time for the beginning of summer in this coastal gem south of the equator.
Seventy-seven percent of the population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, as of Dec. 30, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The tiny South American country never had a mandatory lockdown; instead, there were occupancy restrictions.
►Traveling south? Here are the travel restrictions across Central and South America due to COVID-19
►Mexico: What it’s like to travel to Los Cabos?
Masks are mandatory indoors and on public transportation. To enter Uruguay, foreigners must have health insurance and a negative PCR test (minors under 6 are exempt), fill out an Affidavit of Health and be fully vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a level 3 travel health notice, suggesting travelers be fully vaccinated before traveling to Uruguay.
Where to stay in Uruguay?
Upon arriving in Uruguay, you should rent a car at the airport and drive east to Maldonado on the coastal route along the Rambla, the longest continuous sidewalk in the world.
I recommend staying at BigBang Nature Stays, an eco-conscious, family-owned property nestled in a remote stretch of Uruguay’s 410-mile-long coastline in Sauce de Portezuelo.
The deserted beach is full of sand dunes and peppered with canvas dome guestrooms that embody Uruguayan barefoot luxury. The domes are equipped with a fireplace, bathroom with a rainfall shower, kitchenette and cloud-like king-size beds. The photo headrests of Uruguayan flora were taken by the owners’ young daughter, adding to the charm. At dusk, dip into the outdoor plunge wood-fire hot tub on the beach.
Ready for some adventure? Here are my Uruguay recommendations:
If you dare to bare it all, drive 15 minutes east from BigBang to Uruguay’s nudist beach, Chihuahua.
If you prefer to stay in your swimwear, you can head out to Punta del Este, about a 30-minute drive from BigBang. Start your day in the sun on Playa Brava in front of the famed La Mano sculpture created by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal to warn beachgoers of the strong current in the Atlantic Ocean.
In the late afternoon, you can take a 10-minute walk across the peninsula to Playa Mansa and relax in the calm waters of the Río de la Plata. (It’s the perfect spot to watch the sunset – you won’t regret it.)
If you’re still craving more sun and sand, take a ferry to Isla Gorriti off the coast of Playa Mansa and spend the day on the lush island or book a tour to Isla de Lobos in the Atlantic Ocean to visit the largest colony of sea lions and fur seals in the southern hemisphere.
Watersport lovers will want to book surfing lessons along the Atlantic coast between Punta del Este and La Barra.
In the Arroyo Maldonado river, there are group stand-up paddleboard (SUP) excursions, SUP yoga and kite surfing lessons. Farther east in Rocha are wild untouched beaches with long stretches of sand. Stay at least one night in the Cabo Polonio, La Pedrera and Punta del Diablo balnearios (resort towns).
More than beaches …
After you’ve had your share of the beach, head inland to see what else Uruguay’s waterways have to offer. In Villa Serrana, Lavalleja, visit the Salto del Penitente waterfall, the Laguna de los Cuervos and the Baño de la India swimming hole.
In the north of Uruguay, Lunarejo, Rivera, has the country’s most beautiful waterfalls. Visit:
- Cascada Grande del Arroyo Laureles, the tallest waterfall in the country at 21 meters.
- The Cascada del Indio, with a rock that looks like a Charrúa warrior.
- Sendero Cueva del Indio where you can walk behind the waterfall.
Finally, enjoy the natural hot springs in Salto. Stay at Hotel Horacio Quiroga, named after the famous Uruguayan author, and enjoy on-site hot springs, water slides, lazy river and hydrotherapy circuit.
En route to the airport, stop in Colonia del Sacramento for lunch. The historic riverside town is quite picturesque and has one of my favorite faros (lighthouses) in the country. The lighthouse juts out of the ruins of an old convent, making for a striking juxtaposition and a reminder that this progressive country has had the separation of church and state for more than a century.