Often eclipsed by the alluring beaches of Punta del Este, the southwest region of Colonia just might be Uruguay’s best-kept secret. Luxury and authenticity coexist beautifully here, where the slow-paced river towns along the natural Río de la Plata border stretch from the cobblestoned streets of Colonia del Sacramento to the undulating winelands of Carmelo.

The Colonia region is anchored by the 17th century stronghold of Colonia del Sacramento, a hotly contested smuggling port turned resort town and agricultural trade epicenter. Renowned for its UNESCO listed Barrío Historico, Colonia del Sacramento is a potpourri of winding cobblestone pathways, colorful colonial houses, and historically rich sites reminiscent of old Lisbon. Wandering through its charming streets reveals not only an array of competing Spanish and Portuguese influence, but also a burgeoning food scene marked by an assortment of upscale micro-estancias and artisanal food shops. Sampling their gourmet Uruguayan fare of fresh ice cream, chivito asado sandwiches, and yerba mate promises a true taste of this city center.

Further north, the quaint town of Carmelo is an idyllic entrée to Uruguay’s unexpected natural beauty. The Argentinean elite have been flocking here for years to unwind along the town’s golden, riverfront beaches and bucolic vineyards, and it is only recently that international visitors have caught on to its allure. Carmelo was a village long before Uruguay earned its independence and remains one of the country’s oldest towns. Its rustic authenticity is steeped in a bygone romanticism, where friendly locals weave by on their bicycles and small parillas steakhouses line the main streets. Carmelo’s primary attraction, however, is its unspoiled countryside where visitors can set out on horseback through woodlands, cast their fishing rods into the Río de la Plata, try their hand at polo lessons, and tour the surrounding vineyards. This is one of the country’s best wine-producing regions, home to Uruguay’s signature Tannat wine, and no visit is complete without a gourmet wine and cheese picnic among its vineyards.