Uruguayans call this area the Golden Coast. Whoever has seen a sunrise or a sunset on the River Plate will easily understand why.
Travelling along the River Plate from Montevideo to Punta del Este is a delightful experience. Water is so clear, and there are many pine tree forests along the road.
Beaches on the River Plate in Argentina normally have a "coffee-colored" water, while on the Uruguayan side they are nearly transparent. Why is this? Because 200 miles north of the River Plate, waters of the Uruguay River settle down at the Salto Grande dam, and are far clearer than the water of the Paraná River that enters into the River Plate on the Argentine side. And the Uruguay River feeds the Uruguayan side of the river.
Also, Montevideo is far nearer the sea than Buenos Aires, and clear water from the sea comes in when the tide is high. If you look at a map of the River Plate, you will easily understand what I am talking about. The nearer you get to the ocean, the water will be far clearer.
We have already spoken of the cities facing the Uruguay River (from north to south: Salto, Paysandu, Fray Bentos, and Mercedes). On the River Plate coast we have a number of tourist destinations: Carmelo, Colonia, Montevideo itself, Carrasco, Atlántida, Solymar, Piriápolis, Solanas, and Punta Ballena nearer to Punta del Este.
CARMELO: This small city was founded in 1816. The scenery here is the typical scenery of the Parana River Delta (although with clearer water), very similar to the Tigre in Buenos Aires. There are direct motorboat services from the port of Tigre in Buenos Aires, Argentina (the name of the company that offers this service is Cacciola) that come over here. Carmelo has very nice beaches, and Four Seasons Hotels has a comfortable resort in Carmelo with everything you would want to find. A beautiful golf course designed by American Golf Course Design combines the attractives of the Uruguayan countryside with the golf course, including challenging white sand bunkers and artificial lakes. The hotel has a beautiful swimming pool, tennis courts, and recreation activities. They also have a program of activities for children from 5 to 12 years old.
COLONIA: This city was declared Cultural Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO and is one of the historical treasures of Uruguay. I have been through this city many times on my way to Montevideo or Punta del Este, and did not have the slightest idea of the historical treasures I was missing. The colonial part of the city really deserves a visit. The city also has a bullring.
Colonia is also very near Montevideo (2 hours by bus). Travelling through the old city is really fantastic, and as I do not have photos of my own, I suggest you have a look at this link, where you will find some beautiful photos: http://www.guiacolonia.com.uy/Colonia/index.htm. Then click on "lugares" (places).
Colonia has amongst other things the oldest church in all Uruguay, cobblestone streets, colonial constructions, the ruins of the San Francisco Convent, and the Casa del Virrey (Spain's Governor's House). I suggest spending at least one full day to tour the city. There are at least five museums in Colonia that hide many historical treasures.
There are inexpensive 1-day tours from Buenos Aires, sold by Buquebus, that will take you all around, including an all-you-can-eat barbecue. And if you are staying at Montevideo, you are very near Colonia.
POCITOS: This is the tourist area of the city of Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital. It has its own skyline facing the River Plate, very nice beaches, and clear water. The Pocitos Plaza Hotel (12 floors with only 50 rooms) is conveniently located in a very nice panoramic area.
CARRASCO: Near the capital, next to the international airport, and facing the River Plate, it is a residential area.
ATLÁNTIDA: The most important beach between Montevideo and Piriápolis, located 28 miles to the east of Montevideo. It is a small village with a permanent population of 2,500 inhabitants. From here onwards you will see a number of beach resorts with pine tree forests, like Solymar, very near Atlántida.
PIRIÁPOLIS: The panoramic view of this beach is just beautiful. Although hills are low (maybe 1,500 feet tall) they are very near the sea, and form a very pleasant combination with the beaches and the sea.
This was the first beach resort in Uruguay, and it was founded by an Argentinian called Piria, so the town has this name in his honor (the city of Piria).
Prices are lower here than in Punta del Este, and homes and hotels are not as luxurious as in Punta del Este. There is a very nice coastal avenue or boulevard, and a chairlift to the nearby hills (remember, there are no high mountains in Uruguay).
WHAT TO SEE IN PIRIÁPOLIS:
As I have already mentioned, this city (Piriápolis) was set up by an Argentinian and was the first tourist resort in Uruguay. Most important works started in 1910, and the name of the city is in honor of its founder (Piriápolis = the city of Piria).
There are many attractions in the area, and these are some of them:
1) ARGENTINE EXPLANADE. Its construction started in 1910 and was inspired by European seaside resorts like Nice.
2) ARGENTINE HOTEL. Inspired by Italian palaces, it is 400 feet long along the street and 200 feet deep. It has 350 rooms for 900 people. Years ago it was the largest hotel in all South America. The Uruguayan government took it over in 1942. Recently it was privatized and refurbished.
3) PAN DE AZÚCAR (SUGAR LOAF) PARK. For the protection of fauna and flora. It may be visited from 7am to 7pm.
4) EL SAUCE LAGOON. It is the most important fresh water reserve in all the area. Has a surface of 12,500 acres and a depth that varies from 20 to 40 feet. Motor navigation and fishing are prohibited here. Water sports are allowed. You have the best view of this lagoon from Punta Ballena, near Punta del Este. You will see the Pan de Azucar mount in the background, behind the lagoon.
5) LA CASCADA PARK. A very nice 17 foot tall waterfall. There are campfires and an amphitheater.
6) And, of course, the chair lift.
As you may easily understand, there is a lot to see in Piriápolis. The city is very pleasant to walk around, and it is about 2 hours away from Montevideo and only half an hour away from Punta del Este. Prices here are substantially lower, so if you are a budget traveler, this is your choice.
SOLANAS: A very fashionable beach, preferred by teenagers and young people, near which is Chihuhua, a naturist beach, where you are not allowed to take photos without the consent of the person(s) involved. This beach (Solanas) normally is empty during the morning, and gets crowded in the afternoon. It is supposed to be a topless area, but don’t run any risks, watch what the people do, and don`t try to be smart...
PUNTA BALLENA: Here you have the most beautiful panoramic view of what they call the "costa de oro," or Golden Coast. You will see Mediterranean constructions, what seems to be the sea (remember, it is the River Plate—here it is nearly 200 miles wide), and the skyline of Punta del Este. Casa Pueblo with its beautiful constructions is in this area. And after that, already in
PUNTA DEL ESTE: A visit to the "Mansa" (mild) beach on the River Plate, the "Brava" (brave) beach on the sea, the port of Punta del Este, and a trip to the Isla de los Lobos (Seals Island) and a tour through the beautiful Cantegril Country Club, will complete this delightful visit to the Uruguayan beaches.
Did you ever imagine that there are so many beautiful spots in Uruguay? Enjoy your stay in Uruguay, but don't forget to visit Argentina, with its Iguazú Falls, the glaciers down south, the Andes, and many other prime attractions.