Nestled between Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay often gets overlooked as a bicycle touring destination. With its long coastline, verdant interior and colonial history, this laidback South American country will certainly please. Guest bloggers Eva Pfarrwaller and Miguel Anjo tell us more about the wonders of bicycle touring in Uruguay.
Reason #1: The Maté Way of Life
Maté drinking is more than a pastime in Uruguay, it’s a cultural ritual and a way of life. At the end of the day, people get out in their car, drive around town (usually very slowly), and stop somewhere (in a park, or by the river) to sit and drink maté and talk with friends or family.
People are very relaxed, very friendly and helpful. Outside of the touristy, glitzy areas around Punta del Este, they mostly drive incredibly old cars – exhibiting a flashy new car doesn’t seem to play an important role in society. The whole country seems to move at the pace of a village, and to the cycle traveller this has something very relaxing and soothing – you automatically slow down and enjoy the moment.
Asados are as much part of the Uruguayan way of life as maté is: Families and friends get together for the whole day to grill meat, eat and talk. A true Uruguayan asado is not to be missed and is best experienced with locals, who know how to choose the right cuts and how to grill the meat – very slowly. The result is excellent – tender, tasty beef – among the best we’ve ever eaten. But for the hungry cyclist without much time to spare, there’s chivito, a meat-filled hot sandwich or Uruguay’s national fast-food.
Typical evening in Mercedes, Uruguay: slow vehicles and Maté drinking next to the car.
Reason #2: Free camping is as easy as it can get
Free camping is widely accepted, be it in public parks, on beaches, next to gas stations, or on other public land. No need to hunt for hidden spots out of sight – just ask around and people will point you in the right direction, or ask a park guardian or a policeman.
Most public parks have tables and barbeques, sometimes even toilets and electricity. Plus, Uruguay is a very safe country, so you can sleep without worrying about being attacked or robbed.
And if you need a hot shower before setting up your tent in the park, don’t hesitate to ask around: we have been able to get free showers at sports centres or yacht clubs by asking at the tourist information office.
The public park in the small town of José Enrique Rodó, where we set up our tent later in the evening. We were free to use the tables, electricity, and toilets.
Reason #3: Horses and the gaucho culture
If you like watching horses, then Uruguay is for you. Gaucho culture is strong and horses are still used for everyday farm work. Horse-drawn carts are a common sight in the countryside as well as in towns.
Horses graze by the roadside, sometimes running free. And as a cycle traveller you have a good chance of finding yourself in the middle of a traditional gaucho event.
We cycled right into this gaucho meeting in Puntas de Valdéz.
Reason #4: Quirky colonial towns (and other quirky stuff)
Living in Switzerland, we found ourselves naturally drawn towards the town named “Nueva Helvecia”. It was founded by emigrants from Switzerland (as well as Germany and Austria), and although most of the inhabitants of today have probably never been to the country of their ancestors, they continue to cultivate Swiss traditions. Thus, you can find a rifle club (such as those that are very common in Switzerland), a chalet-style entrance to the town, and you can even eat fondue.
But there’s other interesting (and sometimes slightly quirky) stuff to be found. We really liked our visit and guided tour to the Fray Bentos industrial heritage site, an old meat preserves factory.
And if you fancy old VW Beetles (and other cars that you would only find in an automobile museum back home), or even an airplane runway on a road – you’ll find it all in Uruguay.
Funny, kitsch, quirky? Anyway, we enjoyed visiting this town founded by Swiss emigrants.
Reason #5: It’s (almost) flat
The highest point of Uruguay is just a bit over 500 metres altitude. Needless to say, it’s reasonably flat and there are no steep climbs to speak of.
But don’t expect it to be flat as a pancake, it’s more like undulating green hills – a constant up and down. Certainly, Uruguay lacks the natural beauty of more mountainous countries (i.e. most other South American countries), and the flatness can get a bit boring.
This being said, we think that one doesn’t go cycle touring in Uruguay because of the beauty of the roads, but because of the stops (reasons #1 to 4 should explain it all). And it’s because of this that we think that Uruguay deserves better than just being a transit country for travellers heading from Brazil to Argentina (or vice-versa). It’s a relaxing place to spend time in – physically and mentally.
Typical Uruguayan scenery on the road..
About the authors
Eva (from Switzerland) and Miguel (from Portugal) love cycling and travelling. After one year backpacking around the world in 2009-2010 and numerous short cycling trips in Switzerland and around, they left their home again in 2016 for another year off, this time on their recumbent bicycles.
They have cycled from Switzerland to Portugal, and crossed South America from east to west. When they are not travelling, they are cycling every day around their hometown Geneva. They also give some of their time to the local cyclists’ association, trying to get more people on a bicycle.
Follow their adventures on their blog: www.nextstopwhere.com