Uruguay is known as a predominantly flat country where ranching reigns supreme. It’s also notable for its virtually unspoiled coast, its high standard of living, and its socially liberal record in recent decades.
Since we’re convinced the second-smallest country in South America deserves a lot more publicity, in this article we’ll cover the items that set Uruguay apart from its neighboring countries — and one or two that it shares with them.
Shall we start?
First things first
We wanted to outline a few basic features that Uruguay is known for, so those of you who are not familiar with the country at all will find out what’s what.
1. A tiny country?
Fine, Uruguay may seem pocket-sized, but that’s because its two neighbors (Brazil and Argentina) and the whole of South America are huge. In fact, as you can see above, its territory fits four European countries easily. Uruguay is the 89th-smallest country on Earth, which means 100+ others are tinier.
Population-wise, Uruguay is indeed less impressive. At about 3.5 million people, it ranks 132nd among 195 nations.
2. A disputed territory
While nowadays South American nations get along with each other pretty well, the region was a powder keg for much of the 19th century. Uruguay was no exception: upon independence from Spain, it formed the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata with Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay.
Mere five years later, Brazil (by then still a Portuguese colony) annexed it as its southernmost province. Only after a 3-year-long war would Uruguay finally gain its independence. But there was more to it: rival factions supported by foreign powers fought a bloody civil war between 1839 and 1851.
3. Italian immigration
Uruguay received a consistent influx of Italians between the 1840s and the 1960s. Estimates vary widely, yet between 40% and half of the country’s population descends from Italians. That’s likely the largest percentage overall (behind Italy, obvs).
Their legacy goes far beyond that, though. From the way Uruguayans speak Spanish to the modernization of the country’s economy and developments in the visual arts, Italians had their hand in the very creation of Uruguay as we know it.
A popular mid-century saying described Uruguay as la vaca y el puerto (i.e. “the cow and the port”). Indeed, flat prairies, which are ideal for raising livestock, cover basically the entire territory. Uruguay’s highest point is a mere 513 m (1,683 ft) tall!
Today, while the country’s economy relies heavily on services, tourism, and finances, it still ranks 8th for beef exports among all nations, which is amazing given its size.
5. High standard of living
At around $16,000, Uruguay’s GDP per capita is the highest in Latin America. The country’s also among the least unequal in a region where income gaps are astonishing.
In addition to that, the state offers free universal healthcare and education up to college. In 2009, the government started a program that gave a laptop with internet connections to every schoolkid in the country. This is the closest South America ever got to a social democracy!
6. Liberal attitudes
This might’ve been a long time coming. After all, like the majority of Latin American countries, Uruguay had a military historically involved in civilian affairs and used to be a deeply Catholic nation. Now, however, over a third of Uruguayans identify as irreligious.
Partly because of that, the left-wing Presidents that governed the country between 2005 and 2020 didn’t face strong opposition to implement a series of groundbreaking laws (for the regional context). It legalized same-sex marriage in 2007, abortions in 2012 (second only to Cuba), and became the first country to legalize — and nationalize! — cannabis in 2013.
Uruguay got most of its power from renewable sources quite before it was cool: for decades, the binational hydroelectric plant on the border with Argentina (pictured above) and those on the Río Negro generated around half of its electricity.
Yet for the last 10+ years, it has invested massively in solar and wind energy and is currently almost 100% carbon-free when it comes to electricity generation. Way to go!
Fun fact: Uruguay’s official name is “Oriental Republic of Uruguay”. Why? The country lies on the eastern bank of the Uruguay River!
Uruguay is known for its stunning cities
(Or — apart from its capital — towns, to be more accurate)
Apart from really tiny nations, Uruguay has one of the largest concentrations of people living in its capital. Greater Montevideo is home to about 40% of the country’s population — it’s the one and only center of the Uruguayan civilization, so to speak.
Montevideo is entirely rimmed by the Rambla, a promenade along the Río de la Plata, which, at 22 km (14 mi), is possibly the longest sidewalk on the planet. With its spacious streets, characteristic sea air, charming cafés, and green plazas, Montevideo is a delightful place.
Parque Rodó, named after writer José Enrique Rodó is both a nice park and a lovely neighborhood. So is Pocitos, the poshest district in town facing the namesake beach. But the Ciudad Vieja, or Old Town, is where the heart of Montevideo is.
9. Punta del Este
Uruguay’s Río de la Plata coastline is scattered with rocky capes, many of which are called puntas (meaning “tips”). Punta del Este, or the easternmost tip, conventionally marks the point in which the Río meets the Atlantic.
Its golden sands have long been where the country’s rich and famous chose to build their beach houses. Punta does have options for every pocket, though — unless one of the casinos in town wipes you out, of course.
(*The Río de la Plata is either an immense bay or the widest river mouth in the world, depending on your source.)
10. Colonia del Sacramento
Established in 1680, quaint Colonia is one of the things Uruguay is known for and a must-see. One of the country’s oldest towns, it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, thanks to its mix of Portuguese and Spanish colonial with neoclassical architecture.
Typical cities settled by the Spanish across the Americas favored a strict grid street plan. Colonia’s historic quarter, first developed as a fort-town by the Portuguese, has a far more organic layout instead, which turns wandering around through its narrow cobbled streets into a surprising and magical stroll.
It has a fascinating culture too
As a largely urban country, Uruguay is known for its sophisticated culture. Yet it preserves some of the heritage from its colonial past hidden in plain sight.
Though overwhelmingly white, Uruguay has a sizable minority of African descent concentrated in Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja. They’ve been responsible for keeping this contagious rhythm alive from the colonial era.
Nowadays, candombe is usually played around Carnival. And its importance transcends its own cultural and historical significance: tango reportedly shares a common origin with candombe.
12. The art of Joaquín Torres García
A multimedia artist, teacher, writer, and theorist, Torres García was a polymath, or someone who’s gifted at way more subjects than an ordinary person. Born in Montevideo, he was reborn an artist in Catalonia, where he went on to collaborate with Gaudí on the stained glass windows of the Sagrada Familia.
Aged 60, JTG moved back to his homeland and never stopped working. He lived there until his death in 1949, upon which his widow founded Museo Torres García, one of Montevideo’s main museums.
13. Uruguayan soccer
Uruguay won (and hosted) the first FIFA World Cup ever in 1930. In 1950, it won again at a brand-new Maracanã Stadium, inflicting on Brazilians a major trauma that only the epic defeat at the hands of Germans in 2014 would eclipse.
Since then, the national football team’s best performances have been three fourth places in 1954, 1970, and 2010. But Uruguay still exports talented players like Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani, and Diego Forlán, as soccer remains the most popular sport in the country.
In Punta Ballena, about 20 minutes away from Punta del Este, the most unusual building in Uruguay overhangs the sea. Artist Carlos Páez Vilaró’s self-designed home and studio could almost have been a Gaudí work — if he’d been born in Santorini!
The 13-story house was 36 years in the making and houses a museum, an art gallery, a café, and a hotel dotted with balconies looking onto the ocean. Watching the sunset there is truly an unforgettable experience.
15. Beach houses with first names
Apparently, this peculiar habit is owed to immigrants from the Basque Country in Spain, who were once one of biggest diaspora communities in Uruguay.
Anything goes when it comes to naming houses, so you’ll see suggestive ones like Tango, pretentiously posh ones like Summerwind, and even witty ones like Cualquiera (i.e. “Whatever”).
Fun fact: At 4.5 to 6 minutes, Uruguay’s is the longest national anthem out there!
Uruguay is known for a mouthwatering cuisine
Don’t let the Uruguay’s size fool you. You’ll eat really well when you visit.
Honestly, if you haven’t been to South America, I suspect you’ve never been to an actual barbecue either. Both Argentinians and Uruguayans, take asados, as they call them, very seriously.
Chunks of beef as large as infants, paired with chorizos (a type of sausage), ribs, and often offal are grilled for hours, then topped with herb-based chimichurri sauce.
Beef galore isn’t the only overindulgent thing about the cuisine of Uruguay. The country’s national dish is this enormous and delicious sandwich, in which steak, cheese, mayo, tomatoes, olives, bacon, eggs, and ham (phew!) mingle together seamlessly. Not for the faint of heart, though!
18. Dulce de leche
The origins of dulce de leche are obscure, so it could have been born in Uruguay, actually. Yet one thing is certain: Uruguayans’ passion for the milk-based confection attests to their Latin Americanness. Dulce de leche is beloved across borders as a filling for all kinds of pastries or simply as a standalone dessert.
Tannat is a wine grape that Basque immigrants introduced in Uruguay somewhere around the 1870s. It adapted so well to the local terroir that it went on to become the country’s national grape. Today, most of the great wine bottled there is a blend between Tannat and small amounts of Pinot noir or Merlot.
The department of Canelones that almost entirely surrounds Montevideo is Uruguay’s winemaking region par excellence. That means the best Tannat available nationwide will be less than an hour’s drive away at all times.
The national drink of Uruguay is another devotion the country shares with the entire Río de la Plata basin, which is located between northeastern Argentina and southernmost Brazil and also includes Paraguay. Native yerba mate makes a bitter herbal tea that locals carry everywhere in their thermoses.
Plus, you can get a ferry across the Río de La Plata from either Montevideo or Colonia straight to Buenos Aires and vice-versa. (But Montevideo’s Carrasco International Airport, designed by starchitect Rafael Viñoly, is extremely modern and comfortable in case you’re wondering.)
Before you take off, though, don’t forget to leave some room in your luggage for wine and dulce de leche. I’m sure you won’t regret it!