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Uruguay decision to legalise marijuana may boost tourism, but there''s plenty more to draw visitors to this languid country.
If the party folk of Punta del Este had had their way, it might have been cocaine, or ecstasy, or some other all-night “upper” that got the go-ahead from the government. But hippie (or gaucho) wisdom has prevailed, and Uruguay’s senators yesterday approved the legal production, retail and controlled consumption of a far mellower drug, marijuana – or porro, as it is known on both sides of the River Plate. The law currently covers Uruguayan nationals only, so tourists will not be allowed to indulge, in theory at least.
There’s something pleasantly dopey and languid about Uruguay. A small “buffer” state between Argentina and Brazil, it’s ideal for a traveller seeking some peace after a stay in Buenos Aires. Montevideo is a small and walkable city, and away from the capital are laid-back estancias, colonial towns and tannat (a red-wine grape) vineyards. These are all smaller, more serene versions of everything you find in Argentina, with the added advantage of being much closer to each other. The Atlantic coast is washed by warmer, clearer seas than farther south and the beaches can be idyllic – as long as you know where to go.
The resort town of Punta del Este first came to the world’s attention when it hosted the 1961 Inter-American Alliance for Progress conference, attended by one Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The conference HQ, the Hotel San Rafael, is still there, surrounded by scores of less august tower-bock hotels.
With SUV-loads of rich Argentines descending in January and February, Punta proper is probably best avoided. Twenty-two miles east of the town, José Ignacio has become a poseurs’ paradise.
A luxury beach bungalow complex, Bahía Vik – owned by the same company – is due to open in January 2014. Inland, the five-bedroom Finca La Anita is an opportunity to try the cuisine of the acclaimed Argentine chef Francis Mallmann and stay on a lovely “rustic chic” ranch.
Farther along the coast, in La Paloma and La Pedrera, you might actually meet some Uruguayans who aren’t barmen or waiters. Cabo Polonio, with its shifting sand dunes and sea-lion colony, is a world away, and good for camping.
Inland, Uruguay’s undulating pampas are dotted with working estancias, many of which are open to visitors either for lunch – inevitably an asado (barbecue) – or as hotels. Agricultural towns such as Tacuarembó and Treinta y Tres are good bases for riding and birding holidays.
Tour operators can organise rides that link the coast to the interior, with stops at estancias such as El Sauce and El Charabón, passing through rarely visited protected areas such as the Santa Teresa National Park. Along the River Plate, the former Portuguese outpost of Colonia de Sacramento (served by hydrofoil from Buenos Aires) is a natural entry point for visits to Uruguay’s tannat vineyards or for a drive up the Río Uruguay to see the remains of the old meatpacking plant at Fray Bentos.
Few people visit Montevideo, but it has a bustling market in the port, fine steakhouses and old cafés and half a dozen good museums – including the excellent Museum of Carnival – and is ringed by the calm waters of the River Plate. It’s walkable and generally very safe. In March 2013, the spa hotel Sofitel Montevideo opened in a beautiful listed building; the opening, in early 2014, of Oliva Luxury will give the city a five-star boutique hotel.
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