Uruguay, South America’s 2nd smallest country, is engaging and not what I expected. Its name means “river of the painted bird” in Guarani, one of the native groups. The indigenes, however, were the brave, outsider-hating Charrúas. They learned to ride horses and would charge sword-wielding Spaniards with strapped stones. Those still alive were massacred by the early 18th century.
Uruguay is a land of crops and cattle. The big activities for tourists include horse-riding and visiting estancias, large cattle ranches. Wine-tasting tours are becoming common, and the best local varietal is terrific Tannat. When you dine in restaurants, the locals at nearby tables will probably be devouring huge steaks. All of South Uruguay is on the Río de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean. At this time of year, beach time is important to much of the population and the resort town of Punta del Este is solidly booked. Unlike its northern neighbor, Brazil, which gets far more attention, Uruguay’s 3.4 million people are largely the descendants of Italians and other Europeans. There are many Italian restaurants around and pizza is common. It’s a family oriented culture and Ruth and I saw many large families.
Uruguayans are open-minded. This was the first country in the world to legalize marijuana and the first Latin American country to permit same-sex couple adoption. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2013. When it comes to news, Uruguay has not generally had a lot of international attention with one important exception that I’ll write about later.
There’s a lot of graffiti. We were often stopped on streets, especially in tourist areas, and warned to be alert to avoid street crime. It drove Ruth & me crazy that streets were often without signs naming them. Good restaurants didn’t open until 8 pm. Many men walk around cuddling maté cups. Sports are avidly followed. Carnival is on many minds and not just at Mardi Gras time. Citizens seem passionate and a lot of the graffiti is political. General Gregorio Alvarez, a brutal dictator, became president in 1981. Democracy was restored in 1985. In 2009 Alvarez was sentenced to 25 years in prison where he died last week at the age of 91. Ruth & I never went anywhere without seeing police groups patrolling the streets. Casinos are common.
Would I return? Yes.