Karen Chapman knows Latin America better than most, but her first visit to Uruguay proves eye-opening.

It might be something of a cliché but having recently spent ten days travelling around Uruguay I have to say that I agree with what many people have said to me about the country, which is that it’s the ‘hidden gem’ of South America.

The often-overlooked country is not on many people’s South American bucket list, and, while I have been travelling to the region for more than 20 years, I’ve long been ashamed to say I had never ventured to Uruguay – not even on an easy day trip from Buenos Aires.

As I landed in Uruguay at the start of my trip, I really wasn’t sure what impressions I would take away with me at the end of my journey, I had no strong opinions on the country and feared I may well come away rather underwhelmed by it.

In comparison to other Latin America countries, it’s true that Uruguay doesn’t have any real standout ‘wow’ sites of note – no largest waterfalls, longest river, vast glaciers or incredibly impressive ancient ruins. It does, however, have so much else to recommend it.

What I discovered in Uruguay was a people passionate about their country and what they do – and with an eagerness to share this with visitors from abroad. The driver-guide who accompanied me loves leading groups around the country on cycle and horse-riding tours and has set up a horse sanctuary on his farmland, with plans to create a glamping site for visitors.

At the Olivos de los Animas, an olive plantation set amongst countryside of rugged beauty, I met Martin, who oversees this emerging plantation of 24,000 vines. He greeted us with such warmth and kindness and shared with us his passion for the olive oil industry, one which has recently started emerging in the country. At the Alto de la Ballena winery, meanwhile, I had the pleasure of being hosted for a vineyard tour and tasting by its charismatic owner Paula, who, together with her husband, set up the business with zero wine industry experience.

They have created a wonderful boutique winery and it was evident just how much these entrepreneurs love their country and are always thinking of new ways in which to encourage people to come and discover its many wonders. What also appealed to me about Uruguay was its wide-open landscapes, undulating countryside and wild, long stretches of beaches that go as far as the eye can see. I felt a wonderful set of calm wandering out from Estancia Vik, with views of lagoons, horses grazing amongst the pastures and birdlife flitting amongst the reeds.

The great thing is that you don’t need to dash around hopping on and off planes to experience what Uruguay has to offer. You can enjoy so much just being driven around (or driving yourself; it’s a wonderful place for self-drives) and taking time out to enjoy a variety of activities, including horse riding with gauchos, mountain biking, paddle boarding, hiking and wine tasting. What is more, all of this can be done in comfort as the country has some excellent accommodation choices – from the stylish Vik properties, with their luxurious surrounds and unique works of arts, to the cosy boho-chic posadas of hip beach town, Jose Ignacio and unique wine properties, such as Sacramonte Wine Lodge with just five private cabins set amongst vast swathes of vineyards, and Posada AguaVerde. The latter even has a suite where you will find a four-poster bed set amongst hundreds of bottles of wine and two vast wine vats.

So, how did I feel when I left Uruguay? I was wondering how soon I might be able to return…

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