Uruguay is a small country nestled between Argentina and Brazil. It boasts a beautiful coastline along the Atlantic with beaches, sand dunes, and the occasional clear blue lagoon. Most of the interior of Uruguay is a rolling grassland, spotted with deer, wildcats, and an array of exotic birds. The people of Uruguay are known for their gaucho culture, which is responsible for the variety of mouth-watering barbeque dishes that are common in the country. A cruise to Uruguay should also make a mandatory stop to take in a performance of the tango, that most passionate of Latin dances.
Treasured Uruguay Environment
Uruguay is in the admirable position of being one the least polluted countries in South America. This does not mean there are not threats on the horizon. Uruguay is currently suffering a problem with air pollution; the country’s populated cities experience pollution from Uruguay’s own industries as a developing country as well as a sizeable energy plant on the Brazilian border. These industries, especially mining and meatpacking are threatening clean water sources. Currently 98% of the population has access to clean water, which is one of the highest percentages in South and Central America.
In the arena of wildlife, 11 bird species and 5 mammal species are endangered, and the glaucous macaw has become extinct. However, Uruguay has a system of protected areas and a management plan in place to protect those endangered species.
Uruguay’s native people are known as the Charrua. This tribe was made up of nomadic fisher-gatherers who did not build permanent structures, and lived instead in tents.
Juan Diaz de Solis of Spain “discovered” Uruguay in 1515, and sailed up the Rio de la Plata. He never returned, and is believed to have been killed by the Charrua.
The Charrua remained sovereign in the region until Spain began to bring in cattle in 1606 and the Portuguese settled in Colonia de Sacramento in 1680. The Charrua began to be eliminated slaughter or integration into the colonial regime. The last indigenous people were massacred in 1831 at Salsipuedes Creek (which literally translates to "get-out-if-you-can"). These last survivors were invited to a peaceful meeting and then ambushed by a company led by Bernabe Riviera. (Riviera’s descendant Fructuoso Rivera was recently elected president of Uruguay.) Only four Charrua escaped the slaughter, and were taken to France to be put on display. There is now a monument in Montevideo, Uruguay for Tacuabe, the last of the Charruas.
Uruguay: After Colonization
Uruguay was zone of contention between Spain and Portugal. Spain asserted their dominance by founding the capital of Montevideo, which became a military stronghold and a port town to compete with Brazil’s Buenos Aires. Spain officially took control from Portugal in 1778. The Spanish crown’s reign in the South American country was short-lived, as Uruguay revolted from its colonizer in 1811. The following years were characterized by power struggles and contention: Brazil conquered Uruguay in 1817, independence regained in 1825, civil war from 1839-51, and war with neighboring Paraguay in 1865 with armed intervention from Argentina and Brazil.
In 1903, President José Batlle y Ordóñez set up a stable state prosperous from meat exports, which he ran for over 20 years. Economic decline and political infighting ensued, and a military coup instated a violent military dictatorship in 1973.
After 12 years of terror and fear tactics, the military allowed elections to take place and a civilian government took power in Uruguay. Contemporary presidents have had to deal with inflation and a deep national debt; tourism dropped a debilitating 90% in 2002 after Argentina’s economy crashed. In 2004, the country’s left won their first national victory with the election of Tabaré Vázquez.
Uruguay is currently a presidential representative democratic republic with the classic three branches of Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary; the Judiciary branch is separate from the other two. Uruguay consists of 19 departments who are governed by municipal governments.
Uruguay’s culture is significantly influenced by the gaucho (cowboy) tradition. Cattle ranching has been pervasive in the country since colonial times, and its rural roots and traditions remain important to the national identity. Beautifully crafted leather goods have come out of this lifestyle as well.
Much of Uruguay’s art depicts the romantic gaucho lifestyle. Most popular Uruguayan art depicts local lifestyle; including a genre consisting solely of life in Montevideo.
Music in this country is dominated by a love for the tango, which is known as the most passionate Latin dance. A cruise to Uruguay should include some exposure to this beautiful art form. Folk music also can be heard throughout Uruguay.
Travelers to Uruguay will find the locals nursing an obsession with football (soccer). The country has won two Olympic gold medals in the sport, as well as the first-ever World Cup. Football games can be seen being played across the country in stadiums, playing fields, yards, and in the street.
Geographical Exploration on a Uruguay Cruise
Uruguay borders the Atlantic Ocean between Argentina and Brazil, and is about the size of the U.S. state of Washington.
Most of the country is characterized by a rolling plain that fades in the Rio de la Plata. A tour to Uruguay will most likely visit this river’s impressive estuary that opens into the ocean. The highest point in the country, Mount Cathedral, stands at only 1,683 feet.
The coast of Uruguay, along its southern flank, is narrow and marshy, with some spectacular lagoons dotting its expanse. A cruise to Uruguay will reveal some beautiful beaches interspersed with gentle sand dunes. The capital city of Montevideo sits on the banks of the Rio de la Plata where it opens out onto the coast.
Water is the dominant feature of Uruguay; travelers will find lakes and lagoons scattered across the landscape. The Rio Uruguay flows along the Argentinean border and joins the Rio de la Plata on its way to the sea. This river has some low banks that make it prone to flooding during the rainy season. The Rio Negro is Uruguay’s longest river, and crosses the whole of the country.
Half of Uruguay’s population lives in its capital city, and a total of 80% of the population is classified as urban. Rural life generally includes sheep and cattle ranching.
Travelers to Uruguay may be pleased to find that the country has a fairly uniform climate across its landscape; surprises are infrequent. However, the seasons here are definitely pronounced. Summer and autumn are beautiful times to visit Uruguay, as summers are warm and autumns are mild. The average temperature range is a pleasant 70-80F in the summers, and even warmer on the coast.
Winter cools the country down, with temperatures between 50 and 60F. Spring is cool as well, and usually damp and windy, although there is no pronounced rainy season in Uruguay. Overall, a Uruguayan cruise will see beautiful weather no matter the season.
Uruguay’s rolling savannahs are home to several species of mammals. Some common ones that travelers to Uruguay may see are the pampas and Guazauvirá deer, and the capybara, which is actually a large rodent. Armadillos slowly roam the plains, and wildcats are found in the hillier regions. Foxes can sometimes be seen darting through the tall grasses.
Uruguay’s skies are full of more common birds such as owl, hummingbirds, and cardinals, as well as more majestic ones like white herons, cranes, and flamingos.
Endangered birds, that travelers should consider themselves very lucky to see, are the ochre-breasted pipit, yellow cardinal, the beautiful saffron-cowled blackbird, and the greater rhea.
Caimans lie snoozing in the upper part of the Uruguay River, and tortoises and lizards are also found throughout the country. There are a few species of venomous species, but these are rare. A Uruguayan cruise should provide the opportunity to visit the country’s network of parks where many of these animals are protected.
The Gaucho Diet
Uruguay’s culinary scene is dominated by European influences, especially Mediterranean. Uruguayans are also very fond of beef, which is unsurprising due to catte ranching’s role in the country.
Churrasco is a very common dish that travelers should expect to run into; it is a grilled steak. Asado, the Uruguayan barbeque, is said to be some of the best barbeque in the world. Chivitos are hot steak sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, bacon, eggs, and cheese. Most of these dishes are cooked over an open-pit barbeque that is typical of Uruguay.
Travelers interested in sampling desserts will quickly find that dulce de leche (sweet milk) is the main ingredient in everything from cakes and cookies to pancakes. Alfajor is made of dulce de leche sandwiched between two shortbread cookies.
A cruise to Uruguay will almost certainly offer the chance to try mate, which is a hot drink of yerba mate twigs and leaves that is sipped through a metal straw. Travelers will find mate offered to them everywhere in Uruguay.
Uruguay Culinary Traditions Estancias to Wine Country
Uruguay is a country with an abundance of cuisine and national dishes. Despite being one of the smallest countries in South America Uruguay holds its own in terms of culinary traditions.
One of Uruguay's main exports is beef farmed on the estancias, ranches, of the inland interior region. As well as producing high quality meat for the rest of the world Uruguayans consume a lot of meat, particularly beef, and the country has one of the highest consumption rates per capita in the world.
A popular way to eat meat is an asado. Asado is barbecued meat which is cooked on an open grill or parrilla. Some common meals cooked in this way are churrasco, grilled steak, and parrillada, grilled beef platter.
Beef production has played a large role in Uruguayan culture. In the eighteenth century the gauchos lived by hunting wild cattle on horseback in the pampas, grasslands, of Uruguay. With the advent of commercial cattle ranching the gauchos became attached to the estancias, ranch settlements. Although their nomadic way of life has now passed into folklore the gauchos are a symbol of cultural and national identity in Uruguay.
When European immigrants flocked to Uruguay in the nineteenth century they brought their culinary traditions with them. Pastas, pizzas, sausages and a range of desserts common to Europe pay homage to this immigrant ancestry. Faina, an Italian flatbread made from chickpea flour is very popular as an appetizer or to accompany pizza. Look out for meals with the word caballo in the description. This is a general term for dishes where one part of a meal sits on top of another. Pizza and faina served together is often called pizza a caballo which translates as horseback pizza, another reference to the gaucho lifestyle.
When desserts are served they are likely to involve the South America sweet treat dulche de leche. This is a sauce made by slowly heating sweetened milk and sugar. This paste is used to flavour cakes, ice cream, to make flan or just to spread on breads. Look out for alfajores; two cookies with dulche de leche sandwiched between them.
Something very prevalent in Uruguay is the drinking of Mate. Mate is a traditional infused drink made from the yerba mate (mate herb). The dried, loose leaves of the herb are ground and placed in a traditional cup, also called a mate. The tea is sipped through a bombilla, a straw made of metal which filters the tea as it is drunk. Hot water is added until the leaves are used up. Yerba mate contains a wide range of vitamins and nutrients and is drunk to detoxify, stimulate, energise and to boost immunity.
When it comes to something a little stronger in a beverage Uruguay has a distinctive culture of wine making which has only recently penetrated the export market and is still relatively unknown. The tannat grape thrives in the clay-loam soil of Uruguay as it does in the south-west of France. Uruguayan tannat wine is soft and fruity. Merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are also commonly grown varieties. Most of the wine growing regions of Uruguay are located outside of Montevideo capital city across Montevideo, San Jose and Canelones. Since wines produced in Uruguay come from small, family run wineries the quality is high and winemakers aim to create distinctive wines rather than mass produce a certain flavour.
The Uruguayan Wine Tourism Association has information about touring the wineries around Montevideo or you can head to the Mercado del Puerto and have a glass of something local with your asado. Cheers!