Time to find out all about Uruguay, a country the size of England and Wales, tucked away between Argentina and Brazil with a population of just over three million people. It’s still relatively off the beaten track for travellers – primarily in my experience working in tourism here since 2010 due to a lack of good up-to-date information in English. Uruguay’s not easy to get a handle on. You need to spend time and learn about the history and the culture. This is your starting point. And don’t miss the extensive section on society and culture in the Guru’Guay guide to Montevideo.
Once you’re done here, find out more about Uruguay as a holiday destination in our Travel section.
Uruguay is No. 1
For such a small country, Uruguay has a surprising number of outstanding achievements. Let’s name just a few…
- Uruguay has the world’s cleanest air
- Uruguay is a green energy world leader
- Uruguay is the fairest country in the Americas according to the Americas Social Inclusion Index
- Uruguay is the most gay-friendly country in Latin America
- Uruguay is the only nation in the world where all school children have a laptop as part of national policy
- Uruguay’s national soccer team is the world’s most successful international side
- leading classical music duo Igudesman & Joo to conclude that “Uruguay is the best country!!!!”
A pioneer in progressive social reform
Perhaps it is not really SO surprising that Uruguay has so many talented folks when you look back at their recent history.Free primary school education has been compulsory for almost 150 years. The university system is still free.
Women had the vote before many European countries (in 1917). Divorce was legalised in 1907. Compare that with neighbours Argentina and Chile which did not legalise until 1987 and 2004 respectively (really!) . There was a complete separation of church and state in 1917.
Uruguay regularly tops The Economist’s Democracy Index. Since the index started in 2006, Uruguay’s score has improved consistently every year. In 2021, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2020, ranked Uruguay the most democratic country in the Latin American and Caribbean region.
Uruguay has a stable economy in an often volatile region. Since the 1990s, Uruguayans have consistently voted in national referenda to keep their public utilities state-run.
Uruguayan solidarity and tolerance
Most Uruguayans are fine with a simple life. Give them a good asado and a whisky and they’ll not want for more cosmopolitan tastes. To my mind they are remarkable for their general preference for spending time with family and friends and lack of interest in material things. The gap between rich and poor is not in your face (this is where you may want to read my article about glitzy Punta del Este).
- The story of the survivors of the 1972 Andes disaster reflects Uruguayan values of solidarity, teamwork and friendship.
- How many other nations would have elected a president like ex-guerrilla José Mujica?
- How Mick Jagger got to experience Real Uruguay
- 7 things I love about daily life in Uruguay
- 7 things that frustrate me about daily life in Uruguay
- 10 reasons I love living in Uruguay: By a Uruguayan
- Montevideo Tales #12 this dialogue between two old ladies in the Old City feels so Uruguayan
Uruguay does not have the dramatic scenery of Chile or Bolivia. But it does have outstanding art-deco architecture, white unspoiled ocean and river beaches which breathe an air of nostalgia from the 1950s and 60s and peaceful countryside.
It is very easy to get around by car (throw away the GPS, it’s just not necessary) and public transport is cheap and very good.
Uruguayans speak Spanish. The accent tends to be similar to Argentina though there are variations depending on where the person is from. People from Montevideo and Buenos Aires have a similar accent when they speak Spanish. As an English-speaker you can be forgiven for thinking that they sound exactly the same. But some words and expressions are a dead give-away that the person you are speaking to is a Uruguayan. Here are some Expressions you’ll only here in Uruguay
Music and culture
One of the most exciting reasons to visit Uruguay is for music and culture. Check out how I helped a music journalist from Austin, Texas discover the Montevideo live music scene, but not before you listen to 5 essential Uruguayan albums and see my Uruguay rock and pop tasters. For folk music check out Alfredo Zitarrosa, who took Uruguayan folk and made it cool in the 1960s, and Ana Prada, the face of modern Uruguayan folk. She’s played SXSW in the past.
Did you know the world’s most famous tango was composed in Uruguay? Uruguay is also a great place to learn to dance tango. The tango milonga—or dance scene—is frequented by small groups of mainly locals. So when they see a new face, people will come up to you to find out what you are doing there and to ask you to dance. So friendly compared to the competitive atmosphere of tango in Buenos Aires. There is also a lot more space on the dance floor. So Uruguay is definitely the place to learn to dance tango.
Uruguay has the world’s longest carnival. How come you’ve never heard about it, right? This is just one of those things that mean that there’s so much that’s unknown about Uruguay. The two most well-known carnivals are in Artigas in the North and Montevideo. Montevideo’s carnival goes on for 40 days from late January and, depending on the weather, the first days of March. Together with a handful of enthusiastic Argentine and Brazilian visitors, you’ll get to experience one of the most authentic carnivals in the world. Because of the lack of tourists, events are never too crowded and it’s a totally local experience.
Don’t worry if you can’t make it to Uruguay for carnival. You can experience carnival spectacles on the street as candombe drumming groups rehearse and murga groups hold shows in theatres year round. Learn more about candombe – a unique drumming and dance form and an essential part of Uruguayan culture and society. Candombe is part of popular music with many of Uruguay’s most famous artists such as Jaime Roos and Mateo using candombe as an essential part of their music.
Uruguay produces around ten films a year. They have been typically slow-burners but in recent years the heat has been turned up with lush modern dramas like Los Modernos (filmed in black and white, a total ode to the beauty of Montevideo) and the satirical comedy, Clever, about a martial art’s teacher’s quest deep into the interior of Uruguay in search of an artist to pimp his 80s corvette. Here are five other Uruguayan films you must see. Throughout the pandemic, the film industry has been thriving as Uruguay is a safe venue for film-makers from all over the world.
Trivia: Evil Dead (2013) director, Fede Alvarez is from Uruguay. In 2009 he made a rock video, called Panic Attack, depicting an alien attack on the capital of Uruguay replete with special effects. The video which was made for just 300 dollars became the talk of the internet and thirty days later, Fede was in Hollywood.