Destination at a glance: Uruguay

Often called the Switzerland of South America, Uruguay remains a country of relative peace and prosperity in a sometimes-troubled region. It's one of Latin America's most secular countries, with legalised same-sex civil unions, a high literacy rate, a strong independent press and low levels of corruption.

Flanked by Brazil and Argentina, tiny Uruguay shares with its bigger neighbours a love of football (the first World Cup took place here in 1930), gaucho culture (horsemen, cattle ranches and big open skies) and surf-pounded beaches, several of which have gained an international reputation as the hot spot du jour.

BEST TIME TO VISIT
December to March (summer)

TOP THINGS TO SEE
Montevideo, Uruguay's culturally rich capital with 19th-century neoclassical buildings and a photogenic Old Town
• The picturesque cobblestone streets of Colonia del Sacramento, beautifully set above the Río de la Plata
• Cabo Polonio, a fishing village that attracts a staggering amount of wildlife – sea lions, seals and penguins, with whales spotted offshore
• The stretch of beaches, surfi ng-fishing villages and parks along the Atlantic Coast

TOP THINGS TO DO
• Discover Uruguay's cowboy culture at the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha (March) in Tacuarembó, featuring rodeos, parades and folk music
• Join the international party crowd at the dance clubs in Punta del Este
• Catch the ferry for a memorable jaunt to Buenos Aires
• Enjoy a soak in the thermal baths of Termas de Dayman
• Feast on steak at a parrilla (steakhouse) inside Montevideo's Mercado del Puerto

GETTING UNDER THE SKIN
Read Tree of Red Stars by Tessa Bidal, a moving coming-of-age story in a time of political upheaval
Listen to the talented singer-songwriter and Academy Award winner Jorge Drexler
Watch Stranded, the powerful documentary that brings together the 16 survivors of the infamous 1972 plane crash who spent 72 days in the Andes
Eat huge steaks cooked over a sizzling barbecue, followed by chaja (a meringue and ice cream concoction)
Drink maté, the smooth tea made from the leaves of yerba maté, sometimes served in a hollow gourd with bomba (metal straw)

IN A WORD
Hola (Hello)

TRADEMARKS
Football (soccer); military dictators; beach resorts; beef; tango; gauchos (cowboys)

RANDOM FACT
Gnocchi is traditionally eaten on the 29th day of each month – a custom referencing both Uruguay's Italian heritage and earlier days of hardship when potatoes and flour were all that remained by month's end.