Tiny Uruguay Offers Lots to See and Do

uruguayMany visitors to the South American country of Uruguay are surprised to learn how small it is: 90th in the world in size. They’re equally surprised — and delighted — to find a wide choice of things to see and do in an area about the size of Oklahoma.

Tucked between much larger Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay doesn’t attract as many visitors as its better-known neighbors. But those who go there usually leave happy that they sought out the miniscule nation.

Begin with the climate. Because Uruguay is located below the equator, seasons are opposite to those in the United States. Winters (June to September) are cool but rarely cold, and snow is equally rare. Summer days (December to March) are pleasantly warm.

Uruguay’s size also provides another benefit: It’s possible to enjoy the attractions without having to travel far. For example, you can take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean in the morning and enjoy sightseeing in the capital city of Montevideo later that day. Or combine the charm of lovely Colonia del Sacramento with a visit to a vast estancia (ranch), where gauchos live much the same way as their ancestors did.

Most people begin their visit in Montevideo, where about one-third of Uruguay’s 3.4 million inhabitants live. In many ways that metropolis resembles the great cities of Europe, with buildings copied after the architecture of Spain and Italy – a reminder that many inhabitants are descendants of immigrants from those countries.

Influences of Spain remain from when settlers from that country began to arrive early in the 17th century. Later the region came under the control of Brazil, and Uruguay gained its independence in 1828.

The fight for freedom is recalled in Montevideo at Plaza Independencia (Independence Square), a park that separates the old section of the city from its commercial district. A statue honors Gen. Jose Artigas, who led Uruguay’s fight for independence. A stroll through the old section recalls the colonial era, with narrow cobblestone streets that have changed little over time.

One focal point in the old neighborhood is the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market), a wrought-iron structure originally occupied by stalls selling meat, fish, vegetables and fruit. Today the building is filled with bustling seafood restaurants and small parrilladas (barbeque stands), where meats are grilled over open fires.

Other centers of activity are inviting sand beaches that line the Rio de la Plata, the broad river that separates Uruguay from Argentina and is known as „the river as wide as an ocean.“ Beaches along the Montevideo waterfront are frequented by city residents throughout summer and on weekends at other times of the year.

As inviting as they are, the riverfront beaches can’t compete with the coastline just outside the city. There, a 140-mile stretch of Atlantic Ocean beaches is lined by inviting resorts. Most popular is Punte del Este, a resort town where world-famous celebrities gather. It’s a place of stately mansions and high-rise condominiums lined up along a narrow peninsula.

Other cities and towns in Uruguay also are worth a visit for a variety of reasons. Colonia del Sacramento, which was founded in 1680, has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its historic district contains narrow cobblestone streets that lead past old houses topped by red-tile roofs and sporting ornately decorated windows. The Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Whispers ) is lined by colorful gardens and tiny cafes.

Visitors to the village of Punta del Diablo (Point of the Devil) find more magnificent white-sand beaches. They’re a contrast to the narrow dirt streets that fan out in all directions from the town’s central square.

Not far from the village is the Santa Teresa National Park, which encompasses still more attractive beaches, a nature reserve and the Fortaleza de Santa Teresa, a mid-18th-century military fortification. Construction began in 1762 by settlers from Portugal; then it was finished by the Spanish over the next three years. The massive walls of the fortification measure more than 4 feet thick and in places are over 30 feet high.

Outside of the cities and away from the coastline, Uruguay presents a very different picture — an area of low rolling hills and grass-covered plains. That’s where an introduction to another colorful chapter of history awaits visitors who go to an estancia.

Raising cattle on expansive ranches in the great plains of Uruguay has been an important part of the country’s life since its earliest days. That’s why there are at least twice as many cows in the country as there are people.

The first gauchos were skilled horsemen who lived outdoors and made their living rounding up lost animals for ranchers. Over time, as the country became more developed, their way of life had to change. They still find and retrieve errant cattle and also brand them, mend fences and take care of the numerous other chores that are required at the ranches. While their lives have been transformed, they continue to cling proudly to their colorful past by wearing the same distinctive clothing they did when they roamed the plains. That includes a wide-brimmed hat to provide protection from the sun, a wool poncho, loose baggy pants and knee-high leather boots.

The setting at an estancia is very different from the sophisticated atmosphere of Montevideo or the scene on a sun-baked beach along the ocean coastline. It’s the variety in such a small area that makes a visit to the country big in terms of enjoyment.

WHEN YOU GO

For more information about Uruguay visit the Ministry of Tourism website at www.turismo.gub.uy/index.php.

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