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August 17, 2015

Uruguay’s capital is well situated for daylong excursions to a surprisingly varied collection of places. Within two hours of Montevideo, you can sample wines from a growing number of quality producers, sunbathe on the beach with Argentinean soap stars and Brazilian models, or stroll historic cobbled streets and climb century-old lighthouses. It’s not even necessary to rent a car: Uruguay’s excellent buses run often, are clean, comfortable and cheap, and some even offer free wifi. Here are three day trips from Montevideo worth a separate excursion.

Colonia del Sacramento

This UNESCO World Heritage Site can easily be explored in an afternoon, making it the perfect day trip destination. Colonia (full name: Colonia del Sacramento) is a small town bursting with charm, from its historic city center to its chilled-out riverside bars. It was founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, and the cobbled streets of the Barrio Histórico are fully stocked with Instagram-worthy colonial buildings. The 19th century lighthouse is a landmark—you can climb up for views over the water—as is the Iglesia Matriz, which lays claim to being the oldest church in Uruguay. Explore on foot, or rent a bicycle or golf cart to cruise the streets, stopping in the local shops and restaurants and pausing to take photos of the architecture. End the day at one of the many cozy waterfront cafes with a cold Pilsen, watching the sunset over the river.

Punta del Este

Punta del Este, or “Punta,” is a playground for the rich and famous—it’s basically the Hamptons of South America. During the height of summer (January and February here), Brazilians and Argentineans flock to the beautiful beaches of this coastal city, just a couple of hours’ drive from Montevideo. At night, the clubs and bars cater to these high rollers (the Argentinean beer Quilmes is sold everywhere), who party until the wee hours before grabbing a short nap, then spend the rest of the day recovering on the beach. A day trip here in the high season means celeb-spotting on the beach, taking the requisite selfie with the “hand in the sand” (a giant statue of five fingers that look like they’re reaching out of the sand), and going for a long, boozy lunch in the uber-trendy neighborhood of La Barra. If you’re here in the low season, the beaches will be much emptier, the shops will have sales, and you can relax and enjoy the ocean without the mass of glistening, bronzing bodies.

Bodega Bouza Winery

Uruguay a wine destination? It’s happening. The country is home to several hundred boutique wineries, and the international wine community is starting to take notice of the bottles they produce. Just a 20-minute drive northwest of Montevideo, the family-run Bodega Bouza offers tours of its vineyards, tastings that come with plenty of information on viniculture in Uruguay, and a stellar restaurant with multi-course lunches and dinners complete with wine pairings. Bouza produces a number of the varietals for which Uruguay is building a reputation—don’t miss the tannat and the albariño, at least to start.

Nell McShane Wulfhart is based in Uruguay, and writes about South America for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @nellmwulfhart.

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