Uruguay: The Switzerland of Latin America

One of the oldest democracies in Latin America, Uruguay sports more than 400 miles of beaches, undulating terrain, and a temperate climate with a moderately cold winter.

With 99-percent literacy—as reported by the United Nations Development Program—Uruguay's population is among the world's most educated, and the new center-left government has equipped each elementary school student with a computer.

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A favorite with tourists from neighboring Argentina and Brazil, more and more Americans and Europeans are trotting to this temperate haven, and cruise ships may be seen navigating Rio de la Plata, a wide estuary which merges with the Atlantic Ocean.

American baby-boomers and retirees from other countries are increasingly purchasing properties in some of Uruguay's most desirable areas, including the numerous beach towns extending from the capital, Montevideo, to the border with Brazil on the north.

Montevideo's architecture is awe-inspiring. Like the country's population itself, Uruguayan buildings have several European origins as well as local roots. The renown school of architecture of the national university is Alma matter to designers such as Carlos Ott who built the flagship burj-al-arab hotel in Dubai, and the telecommunications tower in Montevideo (Torre Antel).

European-style cafes, pizzerias, and churrasquerias (steak houses) line the sidewalks along with numerous local and international stores selling every conceivable item. First-world shopping malls (with first-world prices) are located a short bus ride from downtown.

The country has a varied cuisine with numerous Latin American and European influences, but it's most noted by the world-famous wide selection of grass-fed cow beef. Vegetarian dishes are also readily available in many restaurants. Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, a strict vegetarian recently in tour in Uruguay, reportedly hired the local chef that prepared his vegetarian dishes for the rest of his tour.

A wide variety of addictive French pastries abound throughout the city.

Public transportation is plentiful both within Montevideo and to destinations throughout the country. Terminal Tres Cruces, a 20-30 minutes bus ride from central Plaza Independencia, is a hub with hundreds daily bus departures and arrivals. Some buses—certainly not all of them—are state-of-the-art with choice of regular- or bed-seats for long rides, a few crossing over neighboring countries.

Savings Strategy: Food: Look for hamburger trucks. They vary in quality and taste but are always affordable. A complete burger comes with ham and cheese and choice of several toppings (between $2-3.50). All street food vendors are inspected by city authorities.

If you have cooking facilities look for ferias—street markets—, which sale everything from all kind of cheeses, fish, and vegetables, to clothing, antiques and paraphernalia of all sorts. Of particular note is the Sunday feria on Tristan Narvaja which spans about a kilometer, located off main avenue 18 de Julio near the national university (Universidad de la Republica).

Lodging: If you are traveling on a low budget find a pension. Though offering no frills they are cheaper than the hostels. You'd be hard-pressed to find a pension with Wi-Fi as most hostels have, but you can always find a McDonald's, Burger King, or several local restaurants with fast internet access, in addition to various cyber cafes.

If your budget allows it you can rent apartments by the week on either central or beachfront locations.

Like in most countries, tap water. Albeit safe, city water is heavily chlorinated, even though I've seen several travelers drink it with no problem (I guess they've tasted worse). But there is good bottled mineral water available everywhere.

Prices of everything cover the entire range so you have to shop for good deals.

Recommendations: Spend time in Ciudad Vieja, the old section of Montevideo, as well as in the rest of the capital (in Ciudad Vieja there are several tourist guides). Eat a good chivito, a tender steak sandwich that comes in many varieties and in some eateries they even serve veggie ones. Take a stroll by la rambla, the water front. Take a trip either to the east, where you can find world-class Punta del Este resort as well as many other less expensive but not less enjoyable beach destinations. Or/also south to Colonia del Sacramento, a colonial city built by the Spaniards from where you may cross the Uruguay river to Buenos Aires.

Tours to estancias (ranches) in the country's interior are gaining popularity and provide a different flavor than the more well traveled destinations.

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(Photo: Wagner Rios)

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