All eyes will be on Brazil in 2014 as the South American nation hosts the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1950. While we understand the compulsion to book a ticket and fly down to Rio to join the party – and Brazil does know how to party – we'll have to stop you right there and ask you to consider the crowds and the prices that such an anticipated event inevitably draws (a quick look for Rio hotels during World Cup time reveals a starting rate of $700 per night).
There is an alternative, and its just a little further down the Atlantic Coast: Uruguay. South America's second-smallest nation offers a more relaxing vibe and affordable prices. And don't worry, if you have your heart set on following the World Cup action, you won't miss out: Uruguay is tipped to do well next year, so there will be no lack of opportunity to follow the competition.
Here are some of the best reasons to consider making a trip to Uruguay next year:
Filled with art deco and neoclassical architecture, and relatively few skyscraping buildings, Uruguay's capital city, Montevideo, feels preserved in a glorious past. Visit elegant theaters, tango halls, and the city's numerous small art galleries, or while away hours sipping a cortado (an espresso with milk) at classic cafés such as Roldo's, which has been in business since 1886. You can also find good four-star hotels for less than $150 per night; including the Pocitos Plaza Hotel in the upscale Pocitos beach neighborhood; the Don Boutique Hotel in the Old City, steps from the port terminal for boats to and from Buenos Aires; and the Cala di Volpe, where all rooms have ocean views.
Two hours west of Montevideo, the Barrio Histórico of Colonia de Sacramento is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The historic quarter is lined with cobblestone streets laid out in an arrangement that is irregular yet conducive to aimless strolling. While this little town is near-irresistible, be warned that its proximity (just a one-hour boat trip) to Buenos Aires tends to draw crowds of Argentinian tourists.
While Punta del Este is the most famous Uruguayan beach resort, the emphasis here is bars, clubs, and parties – and not relaxation. Earlier this year we made a few suggestions for more laid-back beaches; from José Ignacio, up the coast to La Rocha. The largely undeveloped, bohemian La Pedrera is perfect for surfers and beach bums, and Punta del Diablo, further up the east coast, is a village with white-sand beaches, a national park, sea turtle center, 18th-century Portuguese fortress, and no high-rise buildings. If you visit Punta del Diablo during World Cup season (the Southern Hemisphere's winter) you should manage to avoid the crowds of Brazilian and Argentine tourists that pack the village in the summer.
Uruguay's old ranches, or, estancias, are opening up to tourists by offering accommodations – and insight into the lives of the gauchos who work on them. Overnight prices vary wildly from budget to luxe. Near Tacuarembó, in western Uruguay, Yvytu Itaty hosts overnight visitors in simple, solar-powered accommodations and invites guests to participate in the daily routines of this working ranch. You'll also get to spend your day riding horses and swimming in the river. Home-cooked meals are included and rates start at around $70 per night. There is no public transportation to the estancia, so call in advance for driving directions or to arrange pickup from Tacuarembó’s bus station ($50).
Off-the-Grid Beach Towns
Perched atop a windswept peninsula and bordered by sand dunes and the Atlantic ocean, no roads leads to Cabo Polonio. To get there from the highway (around four miles away) you'll need to walk, saddle up a horse, or find a 4x4 vehicle that can traverse the dunes. Once there, you'll find no electricity or running water besides a few places with generators or wind power. Which is, perhaps, what makes this remote beach village in southeastern Uruguay so appealing.
Most visitors rent homes from locals – you can find information at the village's website – but there are a few hostels and guesthouses too, such as Cabo Polonio Hostel, which overlooks the beach (contact for rates and availability).