Uruguay, meaning ‘River of the Painted Birds’ in Guaraní, is a land of rolling hills, best explored on horseback, or by staying at the many estancias that have opened their doors to visitors.
It also has its feet in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the best ways to arrive is by ferry across the shipping lanes of the Río de la Plata. Montevideo, the capital and main port, is refurbishing its historical centre to match the smart seaside neighbourhoods, but its atmosphere is far removed from the cattle ranches of the interior.
West of Montevideo is Colonia del Sacramento, a former smuggling town turned gambling centre, and a little colonial treasure where racehorses take their exercise on the beach. Up the Río Uruguay there are pleasant towns, some with bridges to Argentina, some with thermal hot springs. Also by the river is Fray Bentos, the town that lent its name to corned beef for generations, now home to an industrial museum.
Each summer, millions of holidaymakers flock to Punta del Este, one of the most famous resorts on the continent, but if crowds are not your cup of mate (the universal beverage), go out of season. Alternatively, venture up the Atlantic coast towards Brazil for emptier beaches and fishing villages, sea lions, penguins and the occasional old fortress. And anywhere you go, take your binoculars because the birdwatching is excellent.