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Uruguay: Untouched by Time

Visit Uruguay for Authentic South American Culture

by Mary Ann Anderson

Yuuum! Taste this cheese!" offered Amy, a young journalist from Toronto, before she nibbled away at another bite of white cheddar. "I don't think I've ever had cheese that tasted salty, sweet, and tangy all at the same time. This is the best I've ever had!"

The cheese was exceptionally good, its intensely buttery and spicy flavor unlike any domesticated brand found on the grocery shelves of America. But perhaps that's because it's locally handmade at Narbona winery on the outskirts of Carmelo, on Uruguay's western river coast.

Uruguay Landscape

The second smallest nation on the South American continent, the pint-sized Uruguay, a relatively undiscovered destination for Americans, lies in the central to southern coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. Its neighbor to the north is Brazil, while it bridges with Argentina to the west and south. Uruguay's population, which numbers around four million, thanks to its open-door immigration policy, is steeped with European ancestry, with nearly everyone descended from Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.

The capital of this diminutive country is Montevideo, where most of the residents live, and which is home to Carnaval, a spirited festival of costumed drummers and street entertainers that takes place on the Monday and Tuesday immediately preceding Ash Wednesday.
Any time of the year is great for a visit to Uruguay, as it's never too hot or too cold, although high winds, seasoned with the purest of air, sometimes ride in from the Atlantic and mingle with breezes scented with peppery eucalyptus and pine.

While just a few thousand feet of the ancient waters of the Rio de la Plata separate the western edge of Uruguay from Argentina, the two countries are nothing if not worlds apart. While Argentina is fast, popping, and sizzling with energy, Uruguay offers a quiet, laid back strength that pulses with tranquility and solitude amidst the muffled sounds of the South American forest or the clatter of an old pickup truck, its bed overloaded with fruit, as it winds its way down a dirt road bound for the farmers market or a roadside stand.

Uruguay's natural beauty is quite unexpected, and the tapestry of its coast along the Rio de la Plata - known in English as the "river of silver" - is embroidered with a cache of surprises: tiny villages brimming over with antiques and artwork, bicycle and walking trails that reveal the hushed splendor of the countryside, wineries that produce aromatic and flavorful wines, and even a casino or two complete with the "ka-ching-ka-ching-ka-ching" of slot machines.

The river, running 220 miles along Uruguay's fertile coastal lowlands, is the widest in the world. An ecologist's dream, it is stunning in its simplistic beauty. Its silty waters are paint-brushed and swirled with cinnamon, gingerbread, and pumpkin, and here and there the ebb and flow of the currents carve a scattered archipelago of rich, green islands and sea-polished sandbars. A mélange of water birds dance and skitter on the river's edge, their stilted legs holding strong against the tide. The river leads to several small villages that are worth exploring, including tree-infused, well-shaded Colonia.

Marked by a lighthouse whose cupola defines the harbor, Colonia, dating back to the 15th century, is an amalgamation of narrow cobblestone and brick streets, antique and curio shops whose open doorways jangle with the lullaby of homemade wind chimes, and lively restaurants and bistros painted anywhere from shocking pink to canary yellow.

Colonia tells the story of Uruguay, its fight for independence from Spain and Portugal, and its deep maritime links to the past. With its colonial architecture and profusion of vibrant flowers - a variety of hibiscus, fuchsia-tipped four o'clocks, and scarlet-dipped geraniums line the streets - exploring its Old World ruins, harbors, and churches is an exercise in both romance and history.

If Uruguay in itself is an ecologist's dream, then the village of Carmelo, just across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires, is an antique car collector's dream. Preservation of classic automobiles from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s seems to be a pastime here, and it's entertaining in and of itself just to search out the old cars on the town's colorful squares. But Carmelo's real intrigue is that the town was once a center for bandits and smugglers, which only somehow seems fitting that it now houses one of the area's glittering casinos.

Carmelo

Carmelo is also becoming a center for wine. The climate, with its cool evenings and warm days, is perfect for growing grapes, and the boutique wine industry - and in some cases, as with Narbona, the cheese industry - has really exploded over the past few years. With the backdrop of vineyards heavy with chardonnay and Shiraz grapes dappling the sun-baked hillsides around the town, you might want to sample a glass of vino at one of the local restaurants.

These small villages and the entire coast of Uruguay are idyllic for long bicycling or hiking jaunts. In the summer, you can pedal or walk past mosaic pastures of sunflowers and fields of ripening corn that are brightly woven against the gossamer-blue sky. Since there is little or no traffic - except the occasional rattle of a horse and cart as it hobbles down the terra cotta clay roads - listen carefully, for in the distance, the forest trembles with the calls of exotic birds. This is the essence of Uruguay and what she has to offer.

Of course, you need a place to stay as you explore Uruguay. Accommodations run the gamut on the coast, but with the American dollar at a premium, you can pamper yourself at a full-service resort and spa like the Four Seasons, which is set directly on the Rio de la Plata.

The Four Seasons is the quintessential South American experience. Set deeply amid tall pines and fragrant eucalyptus, the woods are also stippled with an occasional Paradiso tree, its branches thick with birds and blossoms. The vast acreage of the Four Seasons, with its world-class (and toe-curling!) spa, golf course that seems destined to be one of the world's best, and back-to-nature outdoor showers, is the perfect place for learning about more about local birds, trees, and flowers. Drawing luminaries such as Robert Duvall, the resort is a great home base for exploring Uruguay's river coast.

As you traverse Uruguay's tranquil, green pastures and rural com-munities, you realize there are still places that are untouched and undeciphered by humans. And right now, it's not a bad place to be.

IF YOU GO...


For more information, visit www.turismodeluruguay.com.

Contact the Four Seasons by visiting the website at www.fourseasons.com or calling reservations toll-free at (800) 332-3442.

Contact American Airlines, which offers excellent fares and schedules through Buenos Aires, by visiting the website at www.aa.com or by calling toll-free at (800) 433-7300.

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