By Briana Seftel
If Uruguay isn't on your radar, it should be. One South America's hidden gems, Uruguay is an old-fashioned country with a refreshingly modern outlook. Declared an independent country in 1825, the country still retains its colonial charm from Spanish and Portuguese settlers. Its miles of pristine coastline is a haven for sun worshippers, while gourmands will take pleasure in the traditional barbecue and local wine. Here are ten facts about Uruguay to get you excited!
1. It is South America's second-smallest country
Dwarfed by Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is South America's second-smallest country after Suriname. The country lies along the Atlantic Ocean and has a warm, temperate climate year-round. High season runs in the summer from December to February, while the rest of the year remains blissfully uncrowded.
2. ...and the safest
Uruguay is Latin America's safest country with low crime, political stability and a high quality of life. It's also extremely progressive; Montevideo is a consistently ranked one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in South America, and the country became the first in the world to fully legalize the production and sale of marijuana for recreational use.
3. Travel back in time in Colonia del Sacramento
Founded by the Portuguese in 1680, Colonia del Sacramento is a riverside city and UNESCO World Heritage Site. After entering by a drawbridge, wander its cobblestone, tree-lined streets and feel transported back in time. Don't miss the city's iconic landmark, a lighthouse set atop the ruins of a 17th-century convent. At the top, you can look out towards the city and the river, and maybe even see Buenos Aires in the distance!
7. Its wine country is blossoming
It may not have the international recognition of Argentina and Chile, but Uruguay can certainly hold its own when it comes to wine. Wine production, spread throughout the country, was started in the late 1800s by Italian and Spanish immigrants. Today, many of Uruguay's wineries are small, family-owned operations producing high-quality reds and whites. Travelers can discover several wineries along Caminos del Vino (Wine Roads) and in the old town of Carmelo.
4. Red meat is widely consumed
Like its neighbor Argentina, Uruguay is fanatical about meat. The country consumes more meat than most other countries, so if you're a carnivore, you'll be very happy here. Gaucho culture is alive and well in Uruguay, and it's recommended you visit or stay at a traditional estancia (ranch). There's nothing quite long a leisurely Sunday feast set amongst the grassy plains of the countryside.
You can also visit a parrilla (steakhouse) in all major cities, where you'll be faced with a mountain of meat grilled right before you! In Montevideo, head to Mercado del Puerto, a popular food market packed with steakhouses.
8. Soccer is a national pastime
Soccer (known as "futbol") is the pride and joy of Uruguay. The Uruguayan national team has won the FIFA World Cup twice and has won the Copa América more than any other South American country. Two of its most famous players today, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, play for FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively. If you're in Montevideo, catch a game at Estadio Centenario, a stadium that was the site of the first FIFA World Cup in 1930.
5. It has one of the best Carnivals in the world
The event to end all events in Uruguay is Carnaval. Taking place just before the start of Lent, Uruguay's carnival is reputed to be the longest in the world, lasting a whopping 40 days! The main festivities take place in Montevideo and include parades, costumes and outdoor theater. What truly sets Uruguayan carnival apart is candombe, a folkloric music started by African slaves in the 17th century.
6. Montevideo is an extremely liveable capital
Montevideo is as relaxed as it gets. The slow-paced capital seamlessly blends colonial charm and modern innovation. To see Montevideo of the past, start your sightseeing at Palacio Salvo in the heart of Old Town, where you can also check out the beautiful interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral. At Plaza Independencia, see the confluence of old and new and admire the statue of José Artigas, the country’s revolutionary hero. Get a taste of beachside bliss on the 19-mile long promenade known as La Rambla, where you'll see Uruguayans of all ages playing soccer, sharing mate and just soaking in the sun.
9. It's home to the "Hamptons of South America"
Known as the "Hamptons of South America," Punta del Este is located on the southern coast where the Río de la Plata meets the Atlantic. The city turns into a luxurious paradise in the summer and is a favorite destination for wealthy Uruguayans, Brazilians and Argentinians. Among its ritzy resorts and restaurants, you'll find miles of unspoiled sandy beaches. Worth a day trip from Punta del Este is Piriápolis, a small city founded in 1890 by a wealthy local businessman.
10. Go off the grid in Cabo Polonio
Uruguay's coast isn't all glitz and glamour. If you're looking to go off the grid, head to Cabo Polonio, a tiny hamlet with no roads, running water or electricity. With the lighthouse as your North Star, explore the sand dunes, wide beaches and local handicrafts that make this town truly special. You can also say hello to the colony of sea lions!