Ruta 10, Uruguay
California has Highway 1. In Uruguay, the classic beach road trip is along Ruta 10. The 100-mile, two-lane stretch of blacktop begins in Punta del Este, the notorious playground for Latin America's rich and beautiful, and then winds through the golden beaches and vast pampas along the country's southern coast. Every few miles there's a dirt-road spur that leads to a different stretch of beach or funky fishing village.
You can camp almost anywhere, and every little town has a range of accommodations, from cheap hostels to luxury hotels; the restaurants serve fresh fish and pasture-fed beef. The locals are friendly, the water is warm, and the waves are mellow and fun. My friend Yancy Caldwell and I rented a Toyota Corolla, crammed our surfboards in the backseat, and hit the road.
There are stretches of coastline in Uruguay where you say to yourself, "This must be what California was like 50 years ago." Low-key bars serve cold beer out of coolers on the sand by the dunes; horseback riders trot between small towns along the beach. Vintage cars, such as an old VW van, are everywhere — so much so that being on Ruta 10 feels like driving through a classic car show.
A highlight of the road trip is renting a beach shack in Cabo Polonio, an isolated fishing village inhabited by hippies, fishermen, artists, and other off-the-grid weirdos — think of it as Uruguay's version of Key West, circa 1960. It's pretty rustic: There are few amenities, and you'll find all your supplies — firewood, wine, and fresh bread — at a small general store. By day we surfed a fun beach break, explored the dunes, and drank beer with the locals at a bar on the beach. Once the sun went down, a canopy of stars, a roaring bonfire, and the sounds of waves crashing in the distance were our main source of entertainment.
To get to Cabo Polonio you take a four-wheel drive or hike four miles across the dunes from the main road. There's no electricity, and only a few of the houses have running water. But the beaches are among the most beautiful in Uruguay. And the tourists are just as interesting as the locals: One evening at a beach-shack bar, we met an architect from Sweden, a singer from Peru, a dancer from Brazil, and a couple of surfers from Chile.
Uruguay's surf isn't world-class, but you'll find plenty of good waves along the southern coast. Around sunset, fishermen sell the day's catch directly from their boats. (You can build a bonfire on the beach to cook your dinner.) Stay at the Playa VIK José Ignacio or Miradores de Laguna Garzón — a pair of elegant boutique hotels where rooms start at about $180 per night.
Beyond the seafood, Uruguay's lush pampas produce some of the world's tastiest beef. Ruta 10 is dotted with barbecue joints known as asados, where fresh meat of all types is cooked on giant open-flame grills. Beef this good doesn't need much — just some sea salt and vinegary chimichurri, and maybe some baked beans and potato wedges.
One more bit of local flavor, if you're inclined: Just hours after landing in the Uruguayan capital, we found ourselves sitting at an outdoor table at a crowded bar on Bulevar España, with three beautiful women and a bearded guy who was busying himself by rolling a large joint from the pile of homegrown weed serving as our group's centerpiece. There's nothing nefarious going on: Marijuana use has been legal in Uruguay since December 2013, and on a Saturday night in Montevideo, the stuff is everywhere.
Getting there: A nine-hour direct flight to Montevideo from Miami.