There's a new setting for getting your fruits and grains -- with milk -- in Philadelphia.Ready for takeoff URUGUAYA day at Bikini Beach requires some yerba maté tea in a cup, a thermos of hot water for replenishing the tea, and a hat to protect the beachgoer from the scorching sun.URUGUAYGLOBE PHOTOS/JACOB SILBERBERG
Carlos Páez Vilaró, the Uruguayan painter-sculptor, created Casapueblo Hotel outside Punta del Este. Below, La Quebrada del Castillo, a tourist ranch, offers glimpses of traditional gaucho life.GLOBE PHOTOS/JACOB SILBERBERG
CABO POLONIA, Uruguay -- The sand dunes rose just past the tall pine trees, near the end of a snaking, bumpy path cleared for jeeps and horses.
I took in the view, gazing past protected greenery toward the sea lion colony on the rocky shoreline, though my knuckles were white from gripping my seat and I was praying not to topple off the half-century-old jeep I shared with some Argentine beachgoers.
Despite a four-year economic recession, most of Uruguay's roadways are modern and palm-lined. But this 5½-mile-long sandy path is intentionally impassable, except by cattle and a fleet of four-wheel-drive vehicles that rumble along, skirting the water's edge as they approach this isolated Atlantic beach.
Splendidly absent on the waterfront, and in the ramshackle fishing village, are the high-rise condominiums and gaudy casinos of Punta del Este, the famed Uruguayan Riviera where we had just spent several days serenaded by lounge singers and rubbing shoulders with some of Latin America's elite. The view alone, of a glistening ocean interrupted by a solitary town building, a lighthouse crowned in red and white, merited the long bus ride and off-road odyssey to Cabo Polonia.
As North Americans fleeing a snowy winter streamed into Argentina in February, we followed the annual Argentine exodus to its little eastern neighbor, where low crime, stable politics, and toasty Atlantic waters have created a tourist haven practically unknown in the United States.
''It's important Americans begin to understand that Latin America is more than just Mexico," Martin J. Silverstein, the US ambassador to Uruguay, said in an interview.
Punta del Este, the Argentines' favored spot, is more South Beach than South America. But trips just westerly to Montevideo, Uruguay's riverside capital, to ocean beaches, and to a sprawling rural spa revealed a country perfect for travelers seeking lively Latin American culture untainted by tourist hordes or developing-world discomforts.
Though we encountered almost none of our countrymen during our trip, we were up to our noses in Argentines, who apparently discovered Uruguay, and started buying it up, long ago. Punta del Este, 2½ hours from Montevideo, draws so many Argentines that newsstands sell ''La Nacíon," the Argentine daily; Argentine cellular phones get perfect reception; and an Argentine consulate operates all summer.
None of that is surprising. The Argentine economic crisis strengthened the US dollar in Buenos Aires, pleasing US visitors. But it increased crime and kidnapping, swelling the crowds streaming east across Río de la Plata to where many already owned real estate or rented hotel rooms at the Conrad Punta del Este Resort & Casino. Recently, Uruguay began expanding its leading airport, where buses depart directly to Punta del Este.
''It's safer than Argentina," said Mario Iocco, 54, an Argentine. ''Everything in Argentina is corrupt now."
Visitors from the United States feel similarly at home here, as we did when our bus cruised smoothly past empty coastal landscape and arrived at perhaps the brightest beachfront strip on the continent. The 40-mile-long, immaculately landscaped Punta del Este is dotted with tall buildings and billboards promising yet more developments; at night, the peninsula glows in artificial light.
My last trips to the region were to Central America, and immediately I lamented that Uruguay lacked the same sense of adventure. So, we did the town. In pricey restaurants, we heard singers crooning in Italian or imitating Sinatra to the delight of diners sitting for absurdly late-night feasts. On the main drag, we chatted up Latin American shoppers fingering $3,000 boots at boutiques. There's a street named Miami.
We stayed at the Tanger Hotel, recommended in Lonely Planet's ''Argentina, Uruguay & Paraguay" guidebook, which devotes 568 pages to Argentina and just 69 to Uruguay. It turned out to be among the least ritzy hotels on the strip, and because Uruguayan law spares foreigners the 14 percent sales tax on hotel rooms, our stay was certainly affordable.
Beyond shopping and sunbathing, the strip's entertainment includes three casinos, rock and jazz concerts, and Afro-Uruguayan drumming during Uruguay's two-month-long late-winter Carnival, considered the longest worldwide.
Day trips to nearby beaches are quick and cheap. At the aptly named Bikini Beach, locals sell surfing lessons and foreign talent scouts comb for potential swimsuit models. The beaches are packed in high season, starting in January, when Federico Getano, 24, a pancho (hot dog) salesman at Bikini, sells up to 100 a day. In February, we found plenty of space to lay out a towel, but hotel rooms were still scarce.
Lately, Uruguay has enjoyed an unusual burst of publicity. The inauguration in March of the country's first socialist president, Tabaré Vázquez, 65, a physician, attracted global attention. Still, the orderly nation remains ignored by US jet-setters. At the helpful municipal tourist office, opposite the Tanger Hotel, Maria Rosa said Argentines and Brazilians are 90 percent of all tourists.
There are barriers to US travel, which in part explain Uruguay's anonymity. Nonstop flights to Montevideo started only in February, and only from New York. There is little English spoken; even tourist materials are printed in Spanish only. Mostly, though, it is simply an unknown getaway.
Our advice: At some point, escape Punta del Este. Our first day trip -- on a public bus to a short hike along Punta Ballena, a cactus-lined promontory overlooking downtown Punta del Este -- provided uncluttered ocean views, as hang gliders floated overhead and the bleached spires of Casa Pueblo poked into the seascape.
Casa Pueblo is an artist's residence, studio, and museum, part Mediterranean villa, part fantasy castle. It was there we finally encountered US travelers, Peter Stuart, 65, and his wife, Karin, 63, leaving the Museo-Taller de Casapueblo.
''It's the country between two countries -- it has no reputation," said Peter Stuart, a lawyer from Mystic, Conn., who was visiting for a wedding. ''It's a well-kept secret." The Stuarts were lingering in a shaded stairwell on the grounds of the bamboo-roofed museum, which began as a tin-roofed hut in 1958 and now includes a luxury hotel, with pools on terraces built atop sloping cliffs.
Casa Pueblo is close enough to the Punta del Este downtown for easy access to the beach and nightlife, but pleasantly removed from the relentless hustle of sunbathers and motorists. For true isolation, however, visitors should seek out Cabo Polonia, a four-hour ride from Punta del Este.
We paid $4 for a round-trip fare to the beach and sea lion colony, climbing into the jeep's modified flat bed, determined not to shriek in front of the Argentines who helped us buy tickets.
At the beach, rickety shacks serve as shelter for the local fishing community. Still, visitors do not go hungry during their daylong stay. The Hosteria La Perla, a 12-room inn where we dined with the Argentines, prepared grilled brótola, a white fish served in cream sauce, and cold beer on a patio just yards from crashing waves.
''Punta del Este is for going out and shopping," said Florencia Martinéz, 27, an Argentine living in Montevideo who was guiding six Argentine friends. ''Here, you rest."
The tiny peninsula has warm water, a relentless surf, and sea lions lounging on boulders, as if also on vacation from Punta del Este, or desk jobs in Buenos Aires or Boston. The sand dunes are part of a national park, and Hosteria La Perla hosts horseback riding trips.
The interior of Uruguay is less developed than the coast, with mostly low-lying grassland where sheep and cattle graze before they end up in heaping platters of asado, the ubiquitous Uruguayan barbecue. With only 3.4 million people, much of the country is uninhabited.
That isolation has helped preserve the gaucho, or cowboy, culture, which Uruguay shares with Argentina, along with tango and asado. For sure, parts of gaucho life have disappeared. Gene Skowronski, 60, of Derby, Conn., came to Uruguay in the Peace Corps in the 1970s and remembers riding trains with gauchos who smoked tobacco from corn husks and roasted lambs over coals in open pits.
''It was so magical," Skowronski said, as headed to his first Peace Corps reunion.
Today, gauchos are hard to find. We headed to La Quebrada del Castillo, though skeptical about a dude ranch built on hilly terrain unsuitable for raising cattle. Our introduction was inauspicious; the $30 car trip started two hours late and had us stuffed in the back seat of a pickup truck, which stopped to unload lumber, get gas, buy vegetables, and transfer us to a
After four years in operation, La Quebrada owner Juan Waroquiers, 55, has perfected his rural resort, melding Uruguayan culture with a bizarre medley of adventure tourism, meditation, and luxury. Built on 1,853 acres, La Quebrada is a working farm where laborers cultivate corn, beets, and peaches, and raise 30 chickens, two dairy cows, and 60 cattle just 40 miles from Punta del Este. Wild turkeys and partridges roam the hills, and Waroquiers is planning a 10-acre bow-and-arrow boar-hunting zone.
The lodge's six rooms are heated by wood-burning stoves in winter, and the lodge offers wireless Internet, a small movie theater, and a shallow pool overlooking a eucalyptus grove and 5,000 beehives where farmhands collect honey. The building is heated using 24 solar panels and a wind turbine. Guests ride horses, fish in a private lake, and drive ATVs across the unsteady landscape.
It is crowded during the non-beach season, starting in March, but apparently locals are unimpressed.
''The Uruguayans call this garbage," Waroquiers said, pointing to his hills and scattered trees. ''For me, it's paradise."
At La Quebrada, I resisted an offer to go rappelling or off-roading. Instead, I lounged by the open fire with Robert Guerriro, 35, the ranch's gaucho, who wore black boots, bombachas, the traditional gaucho pants, and a red beret.
Guerriro patiently roasted the parrillada, a combination of meats, which he served on a wood table. We drank Uruguayan tannat wine from a cellar Guerriro built, and ate salsa and fresh bread with endless servings of ribs.
Preparing for our return to Montevideo, and a long trip home, we took a slow horseback ride across the Sierras de Garzón, then ate dessert in hammocks, listening to quiet chirping and the pacifying whir of the wind turbine as a storm slowly approached.
Benjamin Gedan is a freelance writer in Providence.