In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize cannabis. Old news, I know. Chances are, though, you haven’t had the opportunity to visit the land of the damned, or as I like to call it, my birthplace. So if you’re thinking of taking a gander down south to enjoy the sweet, sweet smell of legal green, here’s what you should know.
How was cannabis legalized? An awesome president!
Legalization came about under the country’s last president, Jose “Pepe” Mujica, an ex-urban guerrilla who spent 13 years in prison under Uruguay’s military dictatorship. So if you’re wondering how a tiny little country shunned the international drug laws of the UN and implemented a futuristic law that only today’s youth understand, it’s because the 80-year-old socialist president isn’t afraid of a bunch of neurotic bureaucrats who still believe their highly ineffective war on drugs is the only way.
Pepe made it legal for Uruguay’s citizens to grow up to six plants in their homes and form private growing clubs with up to 99 plants. He also passed a distribution law in which Uruguayans would be able to purchase up to 40 grams a month from pharmacies. Last week, Uruguay granted licenses to two companies, Symbiosys and Iccorp, to grow cannabis for this commercial distribution—the first government-sanctioned marijuana farms! What a time to be alive!
What exactly is meant by “legalization,” and what does it mean for tourists?
Understand this first: Uruguay is nothing like Amsterdam. There are no coffee shops, and purchasing from dealers is still highly illegal. The only way you’ll likely get your hands on some good green is by befriending locals. Don’t worry, though, Uruguay has some of the nicest people in the entire world. And now it has some excellent weed, too. Rodrigo, a 26-year old native to Punta del Esta, says, “The only thing that changed is in the quality of the weed we’re smoking. It’s comparable to Canada’s!”
So how has this new law impacted tourism? Maxi, a 24-year old Montevideo resident, sheds some light on that: “If a tourist wanted to legally get some marijuana, someone would have to gift it to him. Although it’s much easier now. Almost every young person is growing now, myself included. The police have always been relaxed about it, since consumption has always been legal, but now that production is legal, too, people are smoking in the streets. You can smoke and drink anywhere in Uruguay, well, except the places that you can’t.” Yeah, Maxi smoked earlier that day, but what he meant was that you can smoke cannabis anywhere you can smoke cigarettes—on the beach, at the park, on the sidewalks, on your balcony, etc.
Where to go for the English-speaking tourists?
You’re going to want to go to either the capital city of Montevideo or Punta del Este.
Montevideo is a little rough around the edges, but it’s easy to get around because a lot of people speak English there. You’ll find English speakers all over the Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), but you’ll find lots of youth at Playa de los Pocitos (Pocitos beach), the Parque Rodó (a really unassuming amusement park where you will find the best churros in the world) or Punta Carretas (where the shopping mall and bus terminal are). Here are some local hot spots in Montevideo:
- For drinking: Café Bar Fenix, a hipster-friendly retro bar, or Choperia Mastra Pocitos, where you will find good local brews
- For dancing: El Pony Pisador and Buda
- For Chivitos (the best stoner meal you will ever have): Clyde’s or La Paisiva
Punta Del Este is where you’ll find a big city feel in Uruguay. It’s been put on the map by lots of celebrity sightings which, unfortunately, means it’s been overrun by tourists. But head over to Playa Brava with some dry vermouth, and you’ll be sure to meet a bunch of surfers. Extra points if you actually try surfing!
Pretty much everywhere in Punta Del Este is upscale and tourist-infested, but it’s got a good night scene and pretty sweet beach bars, so when you do find your connection, you can dance the night away with sand in your toes and good smoke in your lungs. But make sure to check out these spots:
- Go to La Balconada beach in La Paloma to watch the sun set on the forest-on-the-beach and applaud with the locals
- Go to Jose Ignacio if you want to rub elbows with celebrities
- Check out the Conrad Casino and talk to the friendly bartenders
Where to go for Spanish-speaking tourists?
The more adventurous can head into Cabo Polonio, a sleepy little beach town that you can only access by foot. The use of technology is almost non-existent and cannabis is enjoyed just as liberally as their yerba mate. The people here are generous, friendly and aggressively liberal-minded. With the discovery of such a unique Latin American paradise, however, the town fills up during high season (December to February), and their little population of about 50 explodes into the thousands. So try and get in there early to enjoy an emptier beach and happier locals.
I would also recommend you hit up Punta del Diablo and check out Playa Grande before it gets overrun by private developments. Maxi recalls, “I used to go there with my uncles a lot when I was younger. The locals have been growing since the 1970s, and they don’t mind sharing.”
One last thing...
Uruguay has been pretty much hidden from world politics and placed center stage after the legalization. So keep in mind they are not used to massive amounts of tourists, so be respectful, learn some things about their culture, and it wouldn’t hurt to learn some Spanish. It’s an amazing little country with so many beautiful things to experience other than great cannabis. So if it’s the weed that brings you there, try to enjoy the other great things about Uruguay that nobody talks about. My little country has amazing beaches, super-friendly and educated people (education is free for everyone) and an incredibly liberal mindset. It’s one of the world’s best kept secrets, and I guarantee you will fall in love.