Although almost the smallest country in South America, Uruguay clearly has a big heart when it comes to gay visitors. Bordering Brazil to the north and Argentina to the west, Uruguay survived competition from Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro to become the preferred hot spot for gay vacationers from South America and now around the world.
With a land mass of only 175 square kilometers and a national population of 3.5 million people, nearly fifty percent of whom live in the capital, Montevideo, beautiful sandy beaches and hills inland, Uruguay offers a variety of holiday activities to this new wave of tourists.
Five years ago this month in 2003, the federal government passed a law that protects members of sexual minorities from physical and print homophobic abuse. This was followed in November 2007 with the recognition of same-sex civil unions at national level – the first country in South America to authorize gay unions. The age of legal consent is eighteen and homosexual acts in public are still gloomy, but the overall attitude in Uruguay is very gay.
The cities of Montevideo and Colonia plus the coastal resort of Punta del Este — Star of the Gold Coast — are the places where most of the gay-friendly and affluent businesses can be found. Although the Punta del Este Riviera is little known to North Americans, it has the power of the stars and rivals many other established gay destinations among smart gay jets looking for something a little different from the norm.
This small country has honestly earned its nickname Uru-Gay and your first visit will give you an opportunity to find out how this happened.
The capital, Montevideo, is rich in 18th-century Spanish history, when it was founded as a military fortress, and Ciudad Vieja – the Old Town — offers many examples of the original buildings erected by the first settlers. This is the most modern neighborhood of the city and comes to life after dark as the entertainment center of Montevideo. Among this historic neighborhood may be found the recent completion of the Sexual Diversity Park and the Gay and Lesbian Persecution Monument, opened in February 2005 in recognition of the persecution of gay and lesbian Nazis. It is located on Via Via, between Plaza de la Constitutio and Plaza Independencia. It is the first such monument in South America and only the fourth in the world after Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco. It was a great achievement that made the local gay community extremely proud to launch yet another demonstration of gay-friendly Uru-Gay people. Not surprisingly, you will also find many bars, restaurants and shops around the park.
Throughout the Old Town along cobblestone streets and amidst beautiful parks and beaches, there are many historic sites that provide hours of pleasure in walking and of course gastronomic temptations. The Port Market is a collection of sidewalk restaurants, bars and cafes offering local culinary specialties and wines. One local custom that is always sure to be a treat is Medio y Medio — a free glass of local champagne and wine (red or white) — to enjoy as you browse the menu. Of course, Uruguay is known for La Parrilla — local grilled meats — accompanied by a great variety of local vegetable dishes to complement your meal. You will also be pleasantly surprised by how good and cheap local wines turn out to be with a little advice from your waiter.
Next to the port market is the Perez Castellano pedestrian street, which allows you to enjoy the sights and shops without the noisy traffic and travel back in time through this old Spanish village in peace and quiet. Outside the Old Town, 18 de Julio Street celebrates Uruguay's Independence Day. It is a very long drive through the heart of Montevideo and almost every major attraction is close to this street. It is lined with parks, landscapes, monuments and breathtaking architectural examples of Bell and Art Deco buildings. The city of Montevideo publishes a very good hiking map that will allow you to see everything in just a few quiet days of walking and stopping to enjoy the sights.
At Plaza Independence Square in the heart of the city is the Placid Salvo gay bar and, by chance, the Canadian Embassy. Although gay bars in Montevideo do not open very late at night, the maple leaf flag flies on the edge of this playground 24/7! The other gay bar Cain — the oldest gay bar in town — is located at Cerro Largo 1833 in Arenal Grande. This bar is located in a huge heritage building and has many levels with three dance floors and is most popular with locals and visitors. Although there are only two gay bars in the city, there are numerous gay friendly establishments that you can also enjoy with a mix of straight, gay, bisexual and transgender patrons. Get ready for interesting times late at night in the early morning in this bustling city.
Of course, every city in the Southern Hemisphere bordering the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a large river mouth on the other should have some spectacular beaches and Montevideo is no exception. Close to the city center is Playa Ramirez and a short bus or taxi ride will take you to Playa Pochitos or Playa Malvinas. Pack a lot of sun lotion as the rays are very strong here and there is very little cloud cover in the winter months and the temperature is in the mid 30s. However, you will find plenty of beach bars and sidewalk cafes if you need to find some shade and refreshment.
Shopping in Montevideo offers a great variety of choices and prices are very low compared to Canadian prices. There are large chain stores, small boutiques, local craft shops, markets and of course leather factories. Make sure your plastic is ready for a heavy hit, as there will be many irresistible must-have items to discover as you stroll the charming city streets.
Finding gay accommodation in Montevideo is a challenge, but the La Puerto Negra Hostel is a charming gay bed and breakfast located within walking distance of the city center and the Old Town. The rooms are large, the historic building is charming and the prices are very reasonable. Otherwise, the choice is very gay and most room rates in Montevideo are very affordable, depending on your choice of accommodation style and location.
Outside of Montevideo, the small town of Colonia is just a short two-and-a-half hour bus ride and will provide a complete change of pace from the big city. Here you will find Portuguese-style architecture and cobblestone streets reminiscent of Lisbon, Portugal. The winding streets and colored houses are arranged in a pattern different from most Spanish colonial cities, and a delight to explore. The historic district, Barrio Historica, on a small peninsula flowing into the river, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995. The town's history dates back to 1745 and you can see the historic bridge built at that time, Fara El Faro, built in 1857, or visit the Sunday Market in Plaza Mayor. A day or two in Colonia is the perfect way to see the other side of Uruguay's unique attraction and history. The city produces a large range of local textiles and has a free trade area that raises the already low prices.
Traveling northeast about 140 kilometers from Montevideo takes you to the high-quality resort town of Punte del Este on the Atlantic coast. This small coastal city with just over ten thousand inhabitants swells to a seasonal population of about one million people in the months of December to February. The beautiful beaches, casinos and entertainments attract many recurring visitors and new users, making sure that the South American Riviera is not missed. The gay community is growing and now includes hotels, bars, restaurants and shops for a complete gay vacation experience. The beaches here offer everything from sailing the Atlantic breeze through calm waters to relaxing and sunshine or surfing the waves. No trip to Uruguay is complete without a visit to Punta del Este and Monte Carlo style fun!
For a small country, you will be amazed at how much Uru-Gay has to offer and what an undiscovered and undiscovered gay vacation site you have found.
There is also a very experienced GLBT travel company specializing in Uruguay gay vacations, but headquartered in the United States, and they can be found on gay-uruguay.com, providing vacation assistance anywhere in this small country with the big game welcome. They can arrange accommodations, tours, and special activities to fit your personal idea of a perfect gay vacation.
Take a unique break in the Southern Hemisphere this winter and find out why everyone is talking about one of the smallest countries in South America with the biggest heart and welcome to gay vacationers.