The one thing Uruguayans will tell you is that they’re not anything like their porteño (people from Buenos Aires) cousins across the water. Where Argentines can be brassy and sometimes arrogant, Uruguayans tend to be more humble and relaxed. Where the former have always been a regional superpower, the latter have always lived in the shadow of one. Those jokes about Punta del Este being a suburb of Buenos Aires don’t go down so well on this side of the border. There are plenty of similarities, though: the near-universal appreciation for the arts, the Italian influence and the gaucho (cowboy) heritage.
Uruguayans like to take it easy and pride themselves on being laid back. Sunday’s the day for family and friends, to throw half a cow on the parrilla (grill), and to sit back and sip some maté (a bitter ritual tea). The population is well educated, and the gap between rich and poor is much less pronounced than in most other Latin American countries.
With 3.4 million people, Uruguay is South America’s smallest Spanish-speaking country. The population is predominately white (87.7%), with smaller percentages self-identifying as black (4.6%) or indigenous (2.4%). The average life expectancy (77.4 years) is one of Latin America’s highest. The literacy rate is also high, at 98.5%, while population growth is a slow 0.27%. Population density is roughly 19 people per square kilometer.
Uruguay has more self-professed atheists and agnostics per capita (17%) than any other Latin American country. Some 47% identify themselves as Roman Catholic, with 11% claiming affiliation with other Christian denominations. There’s a small Jewish minority, numbering around 20,000.
Uruguayans, like just about all Latin Americans, are crazy about fútbol (soccer). Uruguay has won the World Cup twice, including the first tournament, played in Montevideo in 1930. The national team (known commonly as La Celeste) has continued to excel periodically at the international level, winning the 2011 Copa America, appearing in the 2014 World Cup, and placing second only to Brazil in the South American qualifying rounds for the 2018 World Cup.
The most notable teams are Montevideo-based Nacional and Peñarol. If you go to a match between these two, sit on the sidelines, not behind the goal, unless you’re up for some serious rowdiness.
Asociación Uruguayo de Fútbol (www.auf.org.uy), in Montevideo, can provide information on matches and venues.
Despite its small population, Uruguay has an impressive literary and artistic tradition. Major Uruguayan writers include poet Ida Vitale (winner of the prestigious Cervantes Literature Prize in 2018), Juana de Ibarbourou, Juan Carlos Onetti, Mario Benedetti, Delmira Agustini, Eduardo Galeano and Cristina Peri Rossi. Theater and film are also popular, with director/screenwriter Beatriz Flores Silva and playwright Mauricio Rosencof among the Uruguayan artists who have achieved international recognition. The country’s most famous philosopher and essayist is José Enrique Rodó, whose 1900 essay Ariel, contrasting North American and Latin American civilizations, is a classic of the country’s literature.
Uruguay's most renowned painters include Juan Manuel Blanes, Pedro Figari and Joaquín Torres García, each of whom has a museum dedicated to their works in Montevideo. Other noteworthy figures include painter Petrona Viera, associated with Uruguay's early 20th-century Planismo movement, sculptor José Belloni, whose life-size bronzes can be seen in Montevideo’s parks, and award-winning digital artist Agustina Casas Sere-Leguizamon.
Tango is big in Montevideo – Uruguayans claim tango legend Carlos Gardel as a native son, and one of the best-known tangos, ‘La Cumparsita,’ was composed by Uruguayan Gerardo Matos Rodríguez. During Carnaval, Montevideo’s streets reverberate to the energetic drumbeats of candombe, an African-derived rhythm brought to Uruguay by slaves from 1750 onwards, and to the sounds of murgas, satirical musical-theater groups who perform throughout the city. On the contemporary scene, several Uruguayan musicians have won a following on both sides of the Río de la Plata, including Malena Muyala, Laura Canoura, Buitres, La Vela Puerca and No Te Va Gustar.
Though one of South America’s smallest countries, Uruguay is not so small by European standards. Its area of 176,215 sq km is greater than England and Wales combined, or slightly bigger than the US state of Florida.
Uruguay’s two main ranges of interior hills are the Cuchilla de Haedo, west of Tacuarembó, and the Cuchilla Grande, south of Melo; neither exceeds 500m in height. West of Montevideo the terrain is more level. The Río Negro flowing through the center of the country forms a natural dividing line between north and south. The Atlantic coast has impressive beaches, dunes, headlands and lagoons. Uruguay’s grasslands and forests resemble those of Argentina’s pampas or southern Brazil, and patches of palm savanna persist in the east, along the Brazilian border.
The country is rich in birdlife, especially in the coastal lagoons of Rocha department. Most large land animals have disappeared, but the occasional ñandú (rhea) still races across northwestern Uruguay’s grasslands. Whales, fur seals and sea lions are common along the coast.