Squeezed between Argentina and Brazil and shaped a bit like a football, Uruguay doesn’t feature on your average South American checklist. But with its progressive politics, sizzling asado culture and some of the best beaches on the continent, we think it should.

From off-grid hippie enclaves (note: cannabis was legalised here in 2014) to chic celebrity hangouts to riotous party towns, there’s a beach here for everyone. It would take a while to cover every stretch of sand along Uruguay’s largely unspoilt 660km coastline, so we’ve selected five beach towns that we think make Uruguay a strong contender for best beach destination in South America.

For remote relaxation: Cabo Polonio

Without roads or electricity, and with a population of about eighty, Cabo Polonio is the place to go for a proper escape from civilization. The Cabo Polonio experience begins with the journey – whether you pay someone with a rowing boat to take you there, ride a horse along the beach, hike for 7km over the rolling dunes or hop in a 4X4 from the national park entrance.

There are only a few rustic places to stay here (the boasts a pedal-powered washing machine) and some tin-roofed restaurants fire up the asado during the summer. Don’t expect anything to “do” in Cabo Polonio, other than lie in a hammock, drink beer, and pay a visit to the talkative sea lions who hang out near the 120-year-old lighthouse. The hardest decision you’ll make is whether you should ever leave.

Cabo Polonia, UruguayImage by  on Flickr ()

For chilled out chic: La Pedrera

About a hundred years ago, the Arrarte family built a beach hut on this peaceful stretch of coast – comprising two sandy beaches separated by a rocky headland – and a few of their friends followed suit. Today, this is one of Uruguay’s emerging chic holiday towns, which some compare to what Jose Ignacio was like before it became popular among the holidaying millionaire set.

Expect a gorgeous, wave-lapped beach (with a black, rusted shipwreck – Cathay VIII – on the western side), dusty lanes criss-crossing the town and a few ramshackled bars and restaurants serving fresh grilled seafood.

For something special, has lovely cabañas-on-stilts, dotted around a sloping forest just off the beach; it may be 2km west of town, but the moonlit walk home along the beach is unforgettable.

For night owls: Punta del Este

If you know somebody who has travelled to Uruguay and likes to party, there’s a fair chance they made a beeline for Punta del Este. Situated on a narrow peninsula, the town nicknamed the “Miami of South America” is the stark opposite of Uruguay’s laidback persona – high-rise, brash and expensive.

But for all its sins, Punta del Este has some of Uruguay’s best beaches and offers the most raucous night out in the country. Wide, sandy Playa Mansa is a prime sunbathing spot lapped by gentle waves, while choppier Playa Brava is worth a visit to check out (and be photographed beside) the famous Hand in the Sand sculpture.

In the evening, seasoned revellers will make for the club hubs of La Barra to the east or Punta Ballena to the west.

Punta del Este, Hand sculture, Uruguay / CC0

For glitz and glamour: Jose Ignacio

Equally as chic as neighbouring Punta del Este, only without the behemoth tower blocks that line the beach there, Jose Ignacio has recently transformed from a humble fishing village to become one of the most fashionable holidaying destinations in Latin America.

In the summer months you’ll be sunbathing on the sandy beach alongside bronzed millionaires, supermodels and celebrities – and you’ll pay for the privilege to stay in one of the elegant guesthouses or the futuristic, waterfront Vik Hotel.

Still, the village retains hints of its old charm and is a good option for a day trip, if you can find a parking spot alongside the sports cars.

For the surf: Punta del Diablo

Its name translates as “Devil’s Point”, but there’s nothing frightening about this remote surfing town near the Brazilian border. During the low season, this has a similar somnolent vibe to Cabo Polonio – populated by dreadlocked locals and knackered dogs – and offers reliably great surfing throughout the year on the central Playa Pescadores.

During the summer months the 1500-strong population bulges to 20,000 as backpackers and a hedonistic student party crowd descends – mostly from Brazil and Argentina – onto the wide, sun-drenched beaches. For community-spirited accommodation just off Playa Grande, Rosi and Martin’s labyrinthine is a charming option.

Punta del Diablo, Uruguay, beach destinationImage by  on Flickr ()

Explore more of Uruguay with the Rough Guide to South America on a BudgetCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.