Discovering the north of Uruguay

Inner beauty

Uruguay’s interior is full of history, as well as a varied and low-key charm

Sometimes significant discoveries are made by mistake.

José Suárez was a Brazilian labourer who migrated to Uruguay at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In Brazil he had worked in a gold mine; in Uruguay he tended cattle near a settlement called Corrales in the northern department of Rivera. From time to time he found flecks of gold in streams and collected them in a bottle which he kept in his shack. It was the year 1830.

One night thieves broke into his modest home in the hope of finding valuables and went through his belongings, assaulting the poor labourer. They found little that interested them and finally left with little more than Suárez’s horse, knocking over and breaking the bottle of gold as they left.

After the attack Suarez summoned help. When his neighbours arrived they could not believe their eyes. The floor was covered in specks of gold. The thieves had left without noticing what was in the broken bottle. Soon word got out. Men arrived to pan for gold, armed with shovels, sometimes dynamite.

In the decades that followed, mining companies from Spain, France and Britain arrived. If never a veritable El Dorado, foreign mining companies would routinely exaggerate finds in remote corners of the world like Uruguay in order to raise more capital in Europe. Still, profits from the Uruguayan gold rush paid for a sumptuous mansion at Cuñapirú for the Marquis de Malherbe, a principal shareholder of the Franco-Uruguayan Gold Mining Company. An elaborate system of cables, towers and pulleys was put in place to transport rocks from the various mines for processing. The cables only functioned for five years. Some of the towers are still standing, as is Malherbe’s house, with its once-grand reception rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms and servants’ quarters. It is now home to bats and wild horses.

The under-populated interior of Uruguay (some 92% of its inhabitants live in urban areas) is full of legends, memories and – if you care to believe in them – ghosts. In Valle Edén, a little south of Tacuarembó, a museum makes the case that Carlos Gardel, the most celebrated tango singer of them all, was born in Uruguay. But this is disputed: others believe he was born in France.

Whatever the truth, Gardel came into the world in 1890 or thereabouts, at a time when the figure most associated with the Uruguayan campo was exiting from the scene. Uruguay’s gauchos (the term is also associated with Argentina, of course, as well as the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul) are sometimes referred to as a kind of Latin version of the North American cowboy.

But there are differences: From the earliest days of Spanish settlement adventurous youths, fleeing criminals, freed slaves and deserting soldiers disappeared into the largely lawless countryside. They tamed wild horses to ride, and slaughtered cattle that roamed the interior of the country which belong to no-one and everyone, catching their prey with lassoes and distinctive boleadoras, three balls connected by leather straps that would trap an animal by disabling its hind legs.

In the early years the men mixed with indigenous native-American women. Gauchos would congregate at pulperías, a mixture of drinking den and general store. In reality as as well as in the popular imagination, fights would often break out. A gaucho would resolutely defended his honour with his facón (knife) which he kept with him at all times.

The division of Uruguay into rural estates spelled the beginning of the end for the gaucho. Labourers were hired to mark and herd cattle on behalf of the estancieros (estate owners). The gaucho was, in effect, corralled by laws and the widespread introduction of private property. Some resigned themselves to working on the estates. Others refused to give up their nomadic existence and were pursued, often arbitrarily, by the authorities. The last traditional gauchos sought refuge in the hilly country to the south of the Río Negro in the departments of Cerro Largo and Treinta y Tres. But as the era of civil war in Uruguay dew to an end, their days were numbered.

Uruguay's Interior: Six of the best

Crowd pleaser: Colonia del Sacramento is an easy day trip from Montevideo or Buenos Aires; as a result it can be packed during the day at weekends. It comes into its own, though, on a summer night when its antique street lamps illuminate cobbled alleyways and quiet squares. Not a lot has happened here since the Portuguese founded the town in 1680 as a rival to Buenos Aires. Streets like the quaint Calle de los Suspiros, with its row of colonial cottages, are a total contrast with the Argentine capital just an hour away. Find time to visit the Portuguese Museum which has an excellent collection of colonial furniture. But the biggest pleasure is just to stroll through the narrow streets; shopping for crafts is also good here. The town has generally high levels of accommodation and dining options. One of the longest established hotels is the pleasant El Mirador, some six blocks from the port; The best hotel in western Uruguay is undoubtedly the Four Seasons resort at Carmelo, some 45 minutes drive from Colonia (

Off the beaten track: Near to the point where the Río Negro meets the Río Uruguay, Villa Soriano is the country's oldest European settlement, dating back to 1624. Little more than a village, some 1200 people call Villa Soriano home; many of these earn a living from fishing. There is little to do here other than to stroll around the quiet streets, visit the old colonial church, one of the first built in Uruguay, and walk along the pleasant wooden jetty. In summer, the loudest sound may be the chirping of crickets. Villa Soriano is connected by local bus to the regional centre of Mercedes, 45 km away.

Something wild: Quebrada de los Cuervos. Near the town of Treinta y Tres, this is a canyon surrounded by dense forest, 12 km long and over 100 metres deep in places. Subtropical plants prosper in microclimate at the bottom of the gorge. Check out Expedición Uruguay's 2-day camping trip (

For art’s sake: San Gregorio de Polanco in the department of Tacuarembó is a resort with a difference. On the northern bank of the Rincón del Bonete (man-made) lake and surrounded by copses of pine trees, you have the choice between swimming from its pleasant beaches or admiring the murals painted in 1993 on many of the town’s buildings by artists from the country’s Fine Arts Academy, among others. Some have deteriorated but the effect is still bold and unusual. Perhaps fortunately, tourism in the town has subsided somewhat from its rather frenetic peak in the mid 1990s.

Back at the ranch: short breaks on Uruguay’s estancias (cattle ranches) give a glimpse of the traditions of rural life. It is usually possible to borrow a horse to explore the property with one of the ranch hands. Expect to eat a lot of barbecued meat. Generally, these are good options for families. Note that many estancias (such as the partly colonial San Pedro de Timote in the department of Florida, 160 km from Montevideo, are run essentially as country house hotels. You can obtain a leaflet with a full list of options from the tourist information office in Montevideo (see Fast Facts) or check out

Water world: Uruguay lies on massive reserves of water. The same water table that produces Salus, Nativa and other local brands of mineral water is also responsible for the thermal springs (termas) in the departments of Paysandú and Salto. Water temperatures typically range from 34°C to 46°C. There are six main commercial thermal springs and the offer is similar at each one: hotel and often camping facilities, outdoor and indoor pools, all set in green parkland. At the Termas de Salto Grande, the Hotel Horacio Quiroga has 80 pleasant guest rooms and 3 thermal swimming pools for the exclusive use of residents (

A note about this feature: Background for the story of José Suárez and the Marquis de Malherbe is drawn from El Norte profundo, an account of a drive across northern Uruguay by Argentine writer Carlos María Domínguez, published by Ediciones de la Banda Oriental (2004). It's highly recommended if you read Spanish.

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