Uruguay is divided into four regions based on the geographic features of the areas and the trade or social factors present within them. The four regions are the interior, the littoral, Greater Montevideo and the coast.
The interior region is mainly used as farmland by cattle and sheep ranches called estancias which produce beef, hides and wool. Ranch workers called gauchos spend their days on horseback to do the work of the estancias. The gaucho way of life is a symbol of traditional Uruguay and harks back to the time when gauchos roamed the land and lived off the wild cattle they caught. Famous mainstays of the gaucho culture include asado, barbecued meat, and mate, an infused drink made from the yerba mate (mate herb).
As settlements and ranches increased in size and number across the interior of Uruguay the gauchos became attached to ranches and their itinerant way of life passed into legend. The word estancia itself implies permanence and retaining a fixed position.
There are many touristic facilities that allow visitors to experience the gaucho lifestyle from hunting expeditions, short horse riding trips to full ranch experiences. There are different options from trying out the working life on a ranch to choices for those who want a luxury ranch experience with less hard work and more relaxation! The Estancia la Paz and Estancia el Ceibo both offer the combination of hotel accommodation and ranch themed outdoor activities like horse riding and fishing. Panagea Estancia in Tacuarembó provides an experience centered more around the working farm including activities like herding cattle.
West of Montevideo along the Rio de la Plata is the littoral region. This region is made up of the departments of San Jose and Colonia. Northwards along the Uruguay River the western portions of the departments of Soriano, Rio Negro and Paysandu form the rest of the littoral.
Fertile land in the littoral makes conditions ideal for crop production. Citrus and wheat crops are grown in this area but the region is more famous for dairy produce; milk, cheese, butter and dulche de leche produced in the department of Colonia. There are many small stores where tourists can sample and purchase speciality cheeses of the region. One of the most popular varieties is Colonia cheese. When Swiss colonists migrated to Uruguay they settled in the city of Nueva Helvecia and the queso colonia was created in this city. Also look out for Provolone, this cheese is a favourite for a melted accompaniment to an asado.
The Colonia capital, Colonia del Sacramento, is the oldest town in Uruguay. It was founded by the Portuguese in 1680 and the historic quarter of the City of Colonia del Sacramento is now a UNESCO World Heritage Centre with over three centuries of Spanish and Portuguese history being evident in its buildings and structures.
The region of Greater Montevideo encompasses the department of Montevideo, the department of Canelones and the eastern part of the department of San Jose.
Montevideo contains the old city, Ciudad Vieja, the remaining part of the early settlement where many buildings of historical interest can be seen as well as landmarks and remaining portions of the old city wall that once defended Montevideo from invasion.
Montevideo has a plentiful supply of bars, nightclubs and restaurants. A wealth of tango bars and clubs celebrating the Uruguayan style of tango as well as other forms of dancing are never more than a few steps away. It is also a great place to sign up for tours. Many street performances and photo opportunities centre around the Mercado del Puerto, a popular place to get an asado.
Punta Carretas at Jose Ellauri 350 is a former prison now made into a large shopping complex with restaurants and a cinema. There are other malls around the city but if you are looking for crafts and traditional gifts then head to the Plaza Independencia for leather, textiles and wood crafts that reflect the rural heritage of Uruguay. Plaza Independencia is also home to several important buildings including the Solis Theatre and the Artigas Mausoleum.
The costal areas of Pocitos and Punta Carretas provide opportunities for beach activities in this area of Uruguay.
East of Montevideo along the Rio de la Plata lie the departments of Canelones, Maldonado and Rocha which make up the region known as the coast. The most famous area of this region is Punta del Este in Maldonado department.
Punta del Este is a high end tourist resort offering hotels, restaurants, casinos, beach activities and water sports. Some beaches have calm waves and some have stronger waves, the split between the two is marked by the Monumento al Ahogado (Monument to the drowned). This sculpture depicts five fingers rising from the sand. It is situated on Parada 4 at Brava Beach and is a well known landmark of Punta del Este and Uruguay itself.
Whilst hot spots like La Barra ooze glamour and high lifestyle it is possible to escape to the quieter areas such as Jose Ignacio and La Paloma. Punta del Diablo is another popular choice featuring beach front bars, good surf and a relaxed atmosphere.