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Uruguay may be a small country but it is big on personality. Well-known as one of the liberal Latin American countries, it also ranks highly for freedom of the press, resilience of the government and even per capita wealth. Little wonder, then, that Uruguay is sometimes referred to as the “Switzerland of South America”.
This is particularly notable bearing in mind Uruguay’s chequered past, where its territory has been repeatedly fought over by the Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilians and Argentinians among others.
Uruguay finally declared independence in August 1825 and today offers a relatively high standard of living, together with large swathes of beautiful natural habitat filled with wildlife. Indeed, even the name “Uruguay” is believed to mean “river of the colourful birds”.
Uruguay’s climate is quite unique. Unlike many of its neighbours, Uruguay is characterised by gentle rolling plains and low hills rather than the monumental mountains to be found elsewhere. This geography has two distinct impacts on the Uruguayan climate.
Firstly, this even altitude means a far more moderate temperature is to be found than in more mountainous neighbours. While seasonal fluctuations in temperature are experienced, snow is almost unheard of in Uruguay.
Secondly, the lack of mountains means there is little to block strong winds. As a result Uruguay is not only known for its occasionally strong winds, but also the way in which climatic changes can occur rapidly. The winds blowing off the Argentine pampas can turn an otherwise warm and sunny day to a bracing chill in minutes.
January marks the height of summer in Uruguay, where temperatures sit comfortably in the upper 20’s, sometimes nudging 30’C. Autumn is almost as pleasant, as the temperatures moderate slightly before winter rolls in. July marks the mid-point of Uruguay’s winter, with temperatures typically hovering around 12’C for some weeks, before Spring finally makes itself felt.
While the odd chill can flow in on the winds, overall Uruguay is known for its pleasant year-round climate which makes visiting, or even relocating to, Uruguay a very tempting opportunity.
The first-known culture in Uruguay are the native Charrua people. However “modern” Uruguay’s story really begins in the 1500s with the arrival of colonists from Spain and Portugal, who brought Western farming practices and Spanish culture to Uruguay.
However this was far from the end of the story; as Spain finally pulled out of Uruguay – and the remaining population envisaged independence – so Argentina and Brazil both laid claims to the land. Tensions led to the Argentine-Brazilian War of 1813, which resulted in stalemate before a tactical retreat was negotiated by the British government.
Today, in contrast to many South American countries, with their proud heritage of native tribes, the vast majority of Uruguayans trace their ancestry back to European origins. Additionally, due to the range of countries which have impacted Uruguay’s culture, today one can find traces of Italian, British and Portuguese culture sitting alongside the dominant Spanish elements.
Perhaps it is this great mixture of cultures living cheek-by-jowl which has led to a far more liberal and accepting culture than is found in many other Latin American countries. Indeed, Uruguay gave women the vote some years before France, while cannabis use is legal for Uruguayan citizens. Same-sex marriage and abortions are also legal in Uruguay; unusual for traditional Spanish colonies with their traditional Roman Catholic faith.
Two of the most over-riding aspects of Uruguay’s culture are football and farming. Despite its diminutive size as South America’s second smallest country Uruguay has developed world-wide acclaim for their football (soccer) skills. Indeed Uruguay took part in the world’s very first international football tournament and since then has won the FIFA World Cup twice.
In terms of farming Uruguay is one of the world’s largest producers of soybeans, horse meat and beef. Indeed, there are more cattle on a per capita basis in Uruguay than anywhere else in the world.
Lastly it is interesting to note that Uruguay maintains one of the “greenest” economies in the world, with an estimated 95% of their electricity supply coming from renewable resources.
With Uruguay’s Spanish heritage it is little surprise that her official language is Spanish. As with some other ex-Spanish colonies, however, the Uruguayans have made the language their own, introducing a number of unique accents and words.
As a result it may take time for experienced Spanish speakers to pick up on Uruguay’s unique version on the language. This is especially so near to the Brazilian border where a unique mixture of Portuguese and Spanish is spoken; a language known as “Portunol”.
For English-speakers you will find yourself well serviced in the capital Montevideo, as well as the more popular tourist areas. However in more rural areas it will generally be necessary to dust off that school-child Spanish. Fortunately the Uruguayans are known for their friendly attitude towards foreigners, and your stuttering attempts at speaking the language will likely be met with equal amounts of encouragement and good-humour.
As with many other South American countries the most ubiquitous form of transport in Uruguay are public buses. The service is reliable, the network is extensive and the prices are more than reasonable. That said, be aware that buses can be busy, resulting frequently in “standing room only”. For this reason it is often wise to book bus tickets in advance for longer trips, in order to be certain of comfortable seat.
While Uruguay does not maintain a passenger rail service, an alternative solution for those who would rather avoid buses comes in the form of local taxis. These are generally regarded as a safe method of transportation, with almost all taxis prominently displaying their meters. Unlike some other countries, where hailing a taxi can feel like running the gauntlet, it is therefore an entirely less intimidating prospect in Uruguay.
Visitors planning to make use of local taxis should take note that it is normal for surcharges to be added for baggage, so choose your belongings carefully to avoid an unpleasant surprise. Also please be aware that as in some other countries the rates tend to go up after dark and on weekends, so the same journey can cost different amounts, depending on the time and day of travel.
Alternatively it is reasonably easy to drive oneself in Uruguay. Most Western visitors will be able to drive on their native driving license; there is no need to apply for an International Driving Permit or exchange your license for the local equivalent. Note that driving in Uruguay, however, isn’t cheap. Fuel, for one thing, can be surprisingly pricey. The benefit of this is that major roads in Uruguay are generally quite empty and, thanks to their lack of use, are maintained in good condition.
If you opt to hire or buy a car in Uruguay there are a few rules that you should be aware of. Firstly it is a legal requirement to keep your headlights on and to drive at all times with both hands on the steering wheel. This means no fiddling with the radio or air-conditioning, and certainly no texting. All passengers must wear a seat belt and each vehicle must by law carry a first aid kit.
It is interesting to note that virtually every service station in Uruguay is “full service” so you will need enough basic Spanish to communicate with the attendant on arrival.
Lastly visitors keen on driving in Uruguay should note that as of 2016, the Uruguayan police force have introduced a zero-tolerance approach to drink driving. The police can and do pull over drivers to breathalyse them, so don’t be tempted to take any chances.
On the one hand Uruguay’s healthcare system follows the model used by most other countries; a somewhat understaffed and overstrained public healthcare network, operating alongside a premium private healthcare system.
Expats living and working in Uruguay can gain access to the public healthcare system if they are in possession of an ID card. Visitors, however, will need to pay for their care, whether they opt for the lower-cost public route or for a private facility.
What is perhaps rather unusual is that access to private medical facilities can be gained through a number of avenues. Firstly, of course, one can pay out-of-pocket for care, though be aware that private care in Uruguay tends to be very expensive. The second option is of course to invest in a travel insurance or expat healthcare policy.
However it is the third route which makes Uruguay unusual. Private hospitals and clinics in Uruguay operate what is known as a “mutualista” – essentially a medical mutual fund. One pays a fixed monthly sum into the program, and then gains discounted access to private medical care as required.
Note that mutualistas operate on a co-payment system, so while any treatment you need will be discounted, it will still require some form of “top-up”. Additionally, of course, mutualistas only gain you access to treatment in Uruguay, thus offering lower levels of overall protection than one might with a fully-featured expat health policy.
In truth, most expats and tourists opt to “jump the queues” found in most public facilities, and instead opt for either a mutualista or expat healthcare policy. In this way they can gain access to private facilities. Not only are the queues shorter, but English-speaking doctors are also far more prevalent in the private sector. Indeed, for English-speaking expats the British Hospital in Montevideo is considered the “gold standard” of care in the country.
In terms of the risks that visitors face there is good news and bad. Uruguay’s largely temperate climate means that it is not malarial. Equally a small number of Dengue Fever outbreaks have been experienced recently. For this reason mosquito avoidance should be considered a critical element of travel in Uruguay.
Alongside this risk, medical authorities currently recommend vaccinations for Tetanus and Hepatitis A. Note, however, that the vaccination recommendations change regularly so we would advise expats and travellers alike to check the latest advice with their GP some 6-8 weeks before the expected date of travel.
As with many ex-Spanish colonies, the monetary unit in Uruguay is the “Peso”. This is further divided into one hundred “Centavos”.
Accessing Uruguayan Pesos is rarely a problem; many banks will exchange currency for you, or ATMs may be used. Many of the teller machines found in Uruguay willingly accept debit cards and credit cards from around the world, and credit cards are widely accepted in shops, restaurants and hotels.
It is worth mentioning when discussing money in Uruguay that many expats are surprised at the costs of many items here. While locally-produced items such as Uruguayan meat and vegetables are very reasonably priced, many imported goods are hit with sizeable duties on arrival. As a result purchasing items such as technology (cell phones, laptops etc.) and motor vehicles can be surprisingly expensive.
For such a culturally-developed country it should come as no surprise that Uruguay’s schooling system also stands among the best in South America. Literacy rates are impressively high and pupils at public schools generally receive a comparatively high quality of tuition. That said, expat parents should be aware that while both public schools and universities are free to attend, lessons are generally taught in Spanish.
For this reason many expat parents rely on the surprisingly diverse range of international private schools to be found in and around Montevideo. Notable examples of private schools with strong reputations among expats include the Uruguayan American School, St David’s School and The British School.
One of the best reasons to visit Uruguay as a tourist is the incredible food on offer, which puts many of its neighbours to shame. That said, this is not a country where vegetarians will find it easy, as many common dishes are heavy on the meat.
This should come as no surprise, with Uruguay’s global strength in the production of beef, lamb and pork, not to mention its long coastline providing a mouth-watering selection of seafood. Uruguay is notable for being one of the top consumers of red meat in the world.
In general the Uruguayan menu has been described as “high on butter and meat, but low on spices”.
If you consider yourself a barbecue aficionado then you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven when sampling the national dish. Known as “Asado” this dish is essentially a vast plate of barbecued meats, typically including beef, ribs and sausages.
Also popular is “Chivito” – a large steak sandwich which may be supplemented with anything from bacon, to cheese, to fried eggs or salad. It is the ultimate “take away” food for a hearty day of exploring Uruguay.
Unique to Uruguay is the “Morcilla Dulce”, a food stuff made from dried blood combined with citrus peel and nuts to give it more texture and complexity. This may or may not be served as part of your Asado.
It is interesting to note that the long-term Italian expat community have also had an impact on the cuisine of Uruguay. Pizza and pasta are commonly-observed fair on restaurant menus across the country.
One of the most ubiquitous desserts comes in the form of “Dulce de Leche”, literally meaning “sweet of milk”. Here sweetened milk is gently heated, leading to it thickening and changing colour. In appearance one can think of a thick caramel milkshake. This sweet, sticky liquid is used in many forms, such as for filling pastries, gluing together wafers or just eaten plain with a spoon.
The national drink of Uruguay is “Mate”, made from the leaves of the Yerba Mate plant. Interestingly this drink is rarely available from cafes and restaurants, and is more likely to be home-brewed. Most commonly drunk out of a hollow gourd, through a metal straw, Mate is considered a social drink to share with friends and work colleagues. As a result you should be duly flattered if offered any by an associate.
Lastly no discussion of Uruguay’s cuisine would be complete without a mention of their exceptional wine industry, which is growing at break-neck speed. If you enjoy your wines you could do a lot worse than sampling some of the local produce, which is both reasonably-priced and full of character.
Uruguay is an intriguing country from a safety perspective. Generally-speaking it is quite a safe country with lower crime rates than many other South American countries. Note, however, that such accolades are comparative, and crime still exists, especially in Montevideo. Here bag snatches and pick-pocketing are experienced with frustrating regularity, though violent crime is far less common.
Drivers should also take care when parking overnight in Montevideo as cars are regularly broken into after dark. If possible, seek out car parks with security or park your vehicle in a garage for safety.
What makes Uruguay such a fascinating country is that alongside this generally law-abiding population, the country also boasts one of the largest prison populations anywhere in the world. Here human rights violations are reputedly commonplace, and suspects may be held indefinitely without charge. This is perhaps not the image many of us have of any otherwise liberal and relatively wealthy country.
The truth is, therefore, that visitors will want to be certain to avoid such a situation at all costs. This means, for example, avoiding the intake of alcohol before driving. Additionally, while Uruguay’s tolerance of cannabis use has led to it being seen as a utopian ideal by some people, the reality is that drug-use applies only to Uruguayan citizens. Visitors found in possession receive an altogether response.
Uruguay benefits from a tempting combination of stunning beach resorts, together with historic architecture. With such a long and illustrious history there really is something for everyone in Uruguay; from upmarket seaside resorts to sleepy coves, from mega fortresses to cobbled colonial towns. Read on for some of the top places to visit while you’re in Uruguay…
Colonia del Sacramento represents one of the best-preserved colonial towns in South America. Originally founded by Portuguese settlers in 1680, today the UNESCO-listed historic quarter provides a glimpse of days gone by. Interestingly it’s not just the town itself which is notable; Colonia del Sacramento is also based on a small peninsula in the river, making for some incredible views. Visit to stroll around the historic landscape, amble along cobbled roads, and browse the traditional arts for sale here.
It would be difficult to imagine such a contrast to Sacremento’s subtle charm. Punto del Este is a modern beach resort; in essence Uruguay’s answer to San Tropez. From stunning beaches to top-class restaurants, from hotels to water sports, it’s little wonder that “Punta” has become known as the “Monaco of South America”. If you fancy putting your feet up, and topping up the tan with a cocktail then Punta del Este is the place to be.
If you tire of the glitz and glamour of Punta del Este then Punta del Diablo represents an entirely more laid-back beach resort. A popular backpacker destination, the relaxed atmosphere and sleepy “fishing village” feel present a perfect opportunity to kick back and relax with a cold beer.
This pentagonal fortress was built by the Portuguese in 1762. Today a trip here allows one to sample yet more of Uruguay’s colonial history. The views from the top of the fortifications are exceptional; however it’s not just the huge fortress itself which is a draw. Santa Teresa is also based within a beautiful protected park, offering tempting hiking opportunities. There is also a beautiful beach just next door too, if you fancy relaxing at the end of your exertions.
In 1972 a plane carrying Uruguayan high school children crashed on route to Chile. Astonishingly, 16 of those on the plane survived 72 days in freezing Andean conditions to arrive home safely.
This museum tells the story of the crash, and the battle for survival. Far from the depressing experience you might be expecting, visitors report a fascinating, sensitive and even inspiring message of courage and survival in the face of adversity. Little wonder that it is one of the highest-rated tourist sites in all of Uruguay according to Trip Advisor.
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