The one thing Uruguayans will tell you is that they’re not anything like their porteño 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 heritage.
Uruguayans like to take it easy and pride themselves on being the opposite of the hotheaded Latino type. Sunday’s the day for family and friends, to throw half a cow on the parrilla, and to sit back and sip some mate. 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 (88%), with 8% mestizo (people with mixed Spanish and indigenous blood) and 4% black. Indigenous peoples are practically nonexistent. The average life expectancy (77 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. 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. Major contemporary writers include Juan Carlos Onetti, Mario Benedetti and Eduardo Galeano. Theater is also popular and playwrights like Mauricio Rosencof are prominent.
Uruguay's most renowned painters are Juan Manuel Blanes, Pedro Figari and Joaquín Torres García, each of whom has a museum dedicated to their works in Montevideo. Sculptors include José Belloni, whose life-size bronzes can be seen in Montevideo’s parks.
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 rock bands have won a following on both sides of the Río de la Plata, including Buitres, La Vela Puerca and No Te Va Gustar.