Although it is almost the smallest country in South America, Uruguay obviously has a big heart when it comes to gay visitors. Bordered by Brazil to the north and Argentina to the west Uruguay has survived the competition from Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro to become the preferred hot spot for gay vacationers from South America and now from around the world.
With a land mass of only 175 square kilometres and a national population of 3.5 million residents of whom almost fifty percent live in the capital city of Montevideo, beautiful sandy beaches and rolling hills in the interior, 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 protecting members of sexual minorities from physical and printed homophobic abuse. This was followed in November 2007 with the recognition of same-sex civil unions at the national level—the first country in South America to allow gay unions. The age of legal consent is eighteen and homosexual acts in public are still frowned upon but the overall attitude in Uruguay is very gay-friendly.
The cities of Montevideo and Colonia plus the coastal resort of Punta del Este—Star of the Golden Coast—are where most of the gay and gay-friendly businesses can be found. Although the riviera of Punta del Este is little-known to North Americans it has star-pulling power and rivals many other established gay destinations amongst the smart gay jet-set who are seeking somewhere a little bit different from the norm.
This small country has honestly earned its nickname of Uru-Gay and the first time you visit will enable you to understand how this came about.
The capital city, Montevideo, is rich in 18th century Spanish history when it was founded as a military stronghold and the Ciudad Vieja—Old City—offers many examples of the original buildings erected by the first settlers. This is the trendiest neighbourhood of the city and comes alive after dark as the entertainment hub of Montevideo. Amongst this historic neighbourhood one can also find a recent addition of the Park Of Sexual Diversity and The Gay and Lesbian Persecution Monument inaugurated in February 2005 in recognition of gay and lesbian Nazi persecution. It is located on Policia Vieja St., between Plaza de la Constitución and Plaza Independencia. This is the first monument of its kind in South America and only the fourth in the world after Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco. This was a major accomplishment which the local gay community is extremely proud of initiating and another demonstration of the gay-friendly Uru-Gay people. Not surprisingly here you will also find many gay and gay-friendly bars, restaurants and shops surrounding the park.
Throughout the Old City along cobbled streets and amongst beautiful parks and plazas there are many historic sights providing hours of walking pleasure and of course gastronomic delights. The Port Market is a collection of restaurants, bars and sidewalk cafes offering local culinary specialties and wines. One local custom which is always sure to please is Medio y Medio—a complimentary glass of local champagne and wine(red or white)—to enjoy as you peruse the menu. Of course Uruguay is renowned for La Parrilla—local meats on the barbecue grill—accompanied by a wide variety of locally grown vegetable side dishes to complement your meal. You will also be pleasantly surprised at how good and inexpensive the local wines prove to be with a little advice from your waiter.
Beside the Port Market is the Perez Castellano pedestrian street which allows you to enjoy the sights and shops without any noisy traffic and journey back in time through this old Spanish settlement in peace and quiet. Outside of the Old City the 18 de Julio Street commemorates Uruguayan Independence Day. It is a very long promenade through the heart of Montevideo and almost every major attraction is close to this street. It is lined with parks, plazas, monuments and breathtaking architectural examples of belle epoque and art deco buildings. The City of Montevideo publishes a very good map with a walking tour route that will allow you to see everything in just a couple of leisurely days walking and stopping to enjoy the sights.
At the Plaza Independence Square in the heart of the city is the Placid Salvo gay bar and coincidentally also the Canadian Embassy. Although the gay bars in Montevideo do not open until very late at night the maple leaf flag is flying on the edge of this plaza 24/7! The other gay bar Cain—the oldest gay bar in the city—is located at Cerro Largo 1833 at Arenal Grande. This bar is located in an enormous heritage building and has multi-levels with three dance floors and is the most popular with locals and visitors. Although there are only two gay bars in the city there is a multitude of gay friendly establishments to also enjoy with a mixture of straight, gay, bisexual and transgendered patrons. Be prepared for interesting times late at night until early in the morning in this vibrant city.
Of course any city in the southern hemisphere bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a large river estuary on the other side is bound to have some spectacular beaches and Montevideo is no exception. Close to the city centre is Playa Ramirez and a short bus or taxi ride will take you to Playa Pocitos or Playa Malvin. Pack plenty of sun tan lotion as the rays here are very strong and during the winter months there is very little cloud cover and the temperature averages the low thirties. However, you will find plenty of beach bars and sidewalk cafes should you need to find some shade and refreshments.
Shopping in Montevideo offers a wide variety of choices and the prices are very low compared to Canadian prices. There are major chain stores, small boutiques, local craft stores, 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 that you will discover as you stroll along the charming city streets.
Finding gay accommodations in Montevideo is a challenge but the hostal La Puerto Negra is a charming gay bed and breakfast located in a residential neighbourhood within walking distance of the city centre and Old City. The rooms are large, the historic building is charming and the rates are very reasonable. Otherwise the choices are very gay-friendly 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 cobbled streets reminiscent of Lisbon, Portugal. Winding streets and colorful houses are laid out in a pattern different from most Spanish colonial cities, and a delight to explore. The historic quarter, Barrio Historica, on a small peninsula jutting out into the river, was named a World Heritage Site in 1995. The town’s history dates back to 1745 and you can see an historic drawbridge built at that time, the El Faro lighthouse built in 1857, or visit the Sunday market in Plaza Mayor. A day or two in Colonia is a perfect way to see another side of Uruguay’s unique appeal and history. The town produces a great array of local textiles and has a free trade zone enhancing the already low prices.
Travelling north east for about 140 kilometres from Montevideo brings you to the upscale resort town of Punte del Este on the Atlantic coast. This small coastal town of just over ten thousand residents swells to a seasonal population of about one million people during the months of December to February. The beautiful beaches, casinos and entertainment attract many repeat visitors and newcomers alike who are making this the Riviera of South America not to be missed. The gay community is growing and now includes hotels, bars, restaurants and stores for a complete gay holiday experience. The beaches here offer everything from sailing in the Atlantic breezes on the calm waters to relaxing and suntanning or surfing on the waves. No trip to Uruguay is complete without a visit to Punta del Este and the Monte Carlo style fun!
For a small country you will be amazed at how much Uru-Gay has to offer and what an unspoiled and undiscovered gay vacation playground you have found.
There is also a very experienced GLBT tour company specialising in gay vacations in Uruguay but headquartered in the United States and they can be found at gay-uruguay.com providing assistance with a vacation anywhere in this small country with the big gay welcome mat. They can arrange accommodations, tours and special activities to suite your personal idea of a perfect gay holiday.
This winter treat yourself to a unique vacation in the southern hemisphere and find out why everyone is talking about one of the smallest countries in South America with the biggest heart and welcome for gay vacationers.