Uruguay officially known as the Oriental Republic of Uruguay and sometimes called the Eastern Republic of Uruguay (República Oriental del Uruguay), is a country in the south-eastern part of South America. It is home to approximately 3.3 million people, of whom approximately 1.8 million live in the capital Montevideo and its surrounding metropolitan area. With an area of approximately 176,000 square kilometres (68,000 sq mi), Uruguay is the second-smallest nation in South America by area.
Colonia del Sacramento is among the oldest European settlements in the country and was founded by the Portuguese in 1680. Montevideo was founded by the Spanish in the early 18th century as a military stronghold. Uruguay won its independence between 1811 and 1828, following a four-way struggle amongst Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Brazil. It is a democratic constitutional republic, with a president who is both head of state and head of government.
The Uruguayan landscape is made up mostly of rolling plains and low hill ranges (cuchillas) with very fertile coastal land. Uruguay’s coastline is 660 km (410 mi) long. The country has abundant waterways, lakes and dams, consisting of 4 river basins i.e. the Río de la Plata, the Uruguay River, the Laguna Merín and the Río Negro. The biggest inland river is the Río Negro (‘Black River’) with several of the largest lagoons along the Atlantic coast.
The highest point in the country is the Cerro Catedral at 514 meters (1,686 ft). To the southwest is the Río de Plata, the estuary of the Uruguay River which forms the western border, and the Paraná River.
Montevideo is the southernmost capital city in the Americas, and the third most southerly in the world (only Canberra and Wellington are further south).
There are ten national parks in Uruguay: Five in the wetland areas of the east, three in the central hill country, and one in the west along the Rio Uruguay. The flora of Uruguay is made up of 2500 species distributed among 150 native and foreign biological families. Approximately 80% of Uruguay is prairie, therefore, the main plants are grasses. Forested areas contain a mix of hardwoods and softwoods as well as eucalyptus. “Ceibo” or Erythrina crista is the national flower in Uruguay.
Located entirely within a temperate zone, Uruguay has a climate that is relatively mild and fairly uniform nationwide. Most of the rain falls in autumn into winter and summers rainfall is generally low. The average annual rainfall is generally more than 100 cm. As would be expected with its abundance of water, high humidity and fog are common, especially in the winter months. Strong winds and rapid changes in weather are quite common as there is no mountain range to act as a weather barrier. Severe cold in winter is virtually unknown. Midwinter, which would be July, has temperatures varying from 9 – 12 degrees Celsius and summer average temperatures are around 26 – 28, with the occasional highs in the mid-30-degree range.
Uruguayan Spanish has some modifications due to the considerable number of Italian immigrants. Immigrants used to speak a mixture of Italian and Spanish known as ‘cocoliche’ and some of the words are still commonly used by the population. English is common in the business world and its study has risen significantly in recent years, especially among the young. The children now have to learn English at schools and many take private classes as well. Other languages include Portuguese and Portuñol (a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese). Both are spoken in the northern regions near the Brazilian border.
Uruguayan culture is strongly European and its influences from southern Europe are particularly important. The tradition of the gaucho has been an important element in the art and folklore of both Uruguay and Argentina
Beef is fundamental to Uruguayan cuisine, and the country is one of the world’s top consumers of red meat per capita. Asado, a kind of barbecued beef, is the national dish in Uruguay, and other popular foods include beef platters, chivito (steak sandwiches), pasta, barbecued kidneys, and sausages.
Locally produced soft drinks, beer, and wine are commonly served, as is clericó, a mixture of fruit juice and wine. Uruguay and Argentina share a national drink called mate. Grappamiel (es), made with alcohol and honey, is served in the cold mornings of autumn and winter to warm up the body. Often locals can be seen carrying leather cases containing a thermos of hot water, the traditional hollowed gourd called a mate or guampa, a metal straw called a bombilla, and the dried yerba mate leaves. Sweet treats, including flans with dulce de leche and alfajores (shortbread cookies), are favourites for desserts or afternoon snacks.
Other popular Uruguayan dishes include morcilla dulce (a type of blood sausage cooked with ground orange fruit, orange peel, and walnuts), chorizo, milanesa (a breaded veal cutlet similar to the Austrian Wienerschnitzel), snacks such as olímpicos (club sandwiches), húngaras (spicy sausage in a hot dog roll), and masas surtidas (bite-sized pastries).
Telecommunication in Uruguay is more developed than in most other Latin American countries, being the first country in the Americas to achieve complete digital telephony coverage in 1997. Now we have fibre optic lines at very inexpensive rates.
Education in Uruguay is compulsory for 14 years, starting at the age of 4. The system is divided into six levels of education: early childhood (3–5 years); primary (6–11 years); basic secondary (12–14 years); upper secondary (15–17 years); higher education (18 and up); and post-graduate education. Although it’s always said that education is free, this is not quite the case. Every residential household, whether they have children or not, pays a yearly fee (which is minimal) towards education. So yes, parents do not pay a monthly fee but the population contribute by way of yearly taxes. Rural residences are exempt from this tax. If your child attends a private school, you do pay a monthly fee as well as the yearly tax towards education.
Uruguay is part of the One Laptop Per Child project, and in 2009 became the first country in the world to provide a laptop for every primary school student, as part of the Plan Ceibal. Over the 2007–2009 period, 362,000 pupils and 18,000 teachers were involved in the scheme; around 70% of the laptops were given to children who did not have computers at home. The OLPC programme represents less than 5% of the country’s education budget. This project is still on-going and seems to be very successful.
Surfaced roads connect Montevideo to the other urban centres in the country, the main highways leading to the border and neighbouring cities. Numerous unpaved roads connect farms and small towns. Overland trade has increased significantly since the Mercosur Agreement (Southern Common Market) was put in place in the 1990s. The Surfaced roads connecting the larger cities are well maintained as they are mainly tolled roads and the unpaved roads are also kept in good shape and very driveable.