Uruguay is the only country whose English name has the same letter three times in its first five. It is the second smallest South American country after Suriname, named after the Uruguay River, which means ‘river of the painted birds’ in Guarani. It keeps track of every single one of its cattle which is an impressive feat considering the ratio is four to one, with 12 million cattle to 3 million people. There are also over 9 million sheep that live here.
It is also a country for the liberals to embrace. As the least corrupt country in Latin America, it is ranked first on indicators representing democracy, peace, quality of life, press freedom, prosperity and security amongst others. Every schoolchild was provided with free Internet and Wi-Fi resulting in an almost 100% literacy rate.
Abortion was legalised in 2007 making it the only country to legalise abortion in Latin America except for Cuba. Same-sex marriage was legalised before the UK, as the 20th country to do so in 2013. In 1913 they made a law that women could seek a divorce, in stark contrast, Chile legalised divorce in 2004.
Uruguay is losing its religion with only 46% of the population describing themselves as Catholic. The national anthem lasts more than five minutes, making it the world’s longest in performance duration.
Uruguay’s president from 2010-2015 made headlines for being, well, a nice guy. This was necessary after the military dictatorship that ended in 1985. He was had also put in jail for 14 years for opposing the former dictatorship and has been shot six times.
Jose ‘Pepe’ Mujica gave away 90% of his salary and lived in a one-storey building outside Montevideo, forgoing the presidential palace. He was amazed at people’s amazement at his life and told the BBC: “All I do is live like the majority of my people.”
He also legalised marijuana although this only officially came into effect in 2017 and the cannabis will come from state-controlled fields. There is a cap of 40 grams per month. He did this because he didn’t want his people ‘at the mercy of drug traffickers.’ Lessons to be learned by the rest of the world? Tabare Vazquez has succeeded him.
Colonia del Sacramento
We were still hungover when we arrived at Colonia. CDS is a former Portuguese smuggling post but is none the worse for it. It’s a very charming place and tourists love it. The Spanish, of course, captured it in the late 17th century, which is why it isn’t Portuguese speaking.
People seem to be very enchanted by Colonia, I think we were too hungover to appreciate it fully, we only stayed for a day before moving on to the capital.
Montevideo is where a third of the Uruguayan population lives. It is compact for a capital and feels safe, just like the rest of the country. We spent a pleasant enough day there but it certainly wasn’t a big draw for me.
I had missed calls on my phone from my mum and it turned out that her cousin had died in a road accident whilst on his bike. I was very sad for her and I lay awake that night thinking about how sad she must be and listening to this stupid fly buzzing around the room which was really annoying.
After Monte, we headed to Punta del Este, which was our final Uruguayan stop before we headed to Brazil, which was a considerably different vibe to sleepy Uruguay.
Punta del Este
Punta del Este is a beach resort for rich people essentially, however, we were there out of season and it was very quiet and pleasant. There is only one tourist attraction in Punta and that is La Mano en la Arena or hand in the sand. It is basically an Iron sculpture on the beach and it features in every picture of PDE ever taken. It won a prize in an art competition once and it has basked in that glory ever since.
Steph and I used our time there to drink at the Irish pub, and that’s pretty much all we did.
I did discover that there is a place called Fray Bentos in Uruguay. The main industry of Fray Bentos is meat processing and they made corned beef there in 1899 for the UK. Baxter’s now owns it. The Uruguayan part of the history of the Fray Bentos brand is not mentioned on their website and I think that is a damned shame.
Unsurprisingly, we quickly got bored and decided that we wanted to move on. There was a direct bus to Brazil about twice a week but we didn’t want to wait.
We decided to cross the border crossing ourselves so we got a bus to Chuy on the border and walked across a dusty road past lorries to get our exit stamp. Then we had to wait around before getting a bus to the border office on the Brazilian side. It was getting dark at this point. As border crossings go I do not rate this one – in hindsight, I would get one of the twice/thrice weekly buses straight from PDE to Florianopolis.