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Though it doesn't have all the dramatic scenery its neighbours have, Uruguay does boast 320 km (200 mi) worth of beaches on the Atlantic. And it is these beaches which Uruguay has tactfully fashioned into attractive destinations for tourists. The picturesque waterside capital, Montevideo, is an obvious destination, with its colonial architecture, modern downtown area and fine beaches. But travellers will find a trip to Uruguay warrants excursions to its many other highlights, from the elegant old Portuguese fortress town Colonia del Sacramento, to Parque Santa Teresa, the popular national park that straddles the border with Brazil.
The only documented inhabitants of Uruguay before European colonization of the area were the Charrua, a small tribe driven south by the Guaraní of Paraguay. There have also been identified examples of ancient rock art, at locations such as Chamangá, and elsewhere.
The Spanish arrived in the territory of present-day Uruguay in 1516, but the people's fierce resistance to conquest, combined with the absence of gold and silver, limited settlement in the region during the 16th and 17th centuries. Uruguay became a zone of contention between the Spanish and the Portuguese empires. The first permanent settlement on the territory of present-day Uruguay was founded by the Spanish in 1624 at Soriano on the Río Negro. In 1669-71, the Portuguese built a fort at Colonia del Sacramento. Spanish colonization increased as Spain sought to limit Portugal's expansion of Brazil's frontiers. Montevideo was founded by the Spanish in the early 18th century as a military stronghold.
In 1811, José Gervasio Artigas, who became Uruguay's national hero, launched a successful revolt against Spain, defeating them on May 18. The Portuguese forces, thanks to their numerical and material superiority, occupied Montevideo on January 20, 1817, and finally after a struggle for three years in the countryside, defeated Artigas. In 1821, the Provincia Oriental del Río de la Plata (present-day Uruguay), was annexed by Brazil.
Only in 1828 the Treaty of Montevideo, fostered by the United Kingdom, gave birth to Uruguay as an independent state.
The 19th century under a series of elected and appointed presidents saw interventions by and conflicts with neighboring states, political and economic fluctuations, and large inflows of immigrants, mostly from Europe. Between 1839 and 1852 the Guerra Grande (Uruguayan Civil War) occured, between the conservatives and liberals.
José Batlle y Ordóñez, president from 1903 to 1907 and again from 1911 to 1915, set the pattern for Uruguay's modern political development. He established widespread political, social, and economic reforms such as a welfare program, government participation in many facets of the economy.
In 1930, Uruguay was chosen as the site of the first Football World Cup. Although the field was much smaller than the competitions of today, the event provided national pride when the home team won the tournament over their neighbors Argentina.
Uruguay began having economic problems in the 1950s, which included inflation, mass unemployment, and a steep drop in the standard of living for Uruguayan workers. This led to student militancy and labor unrest. The military seized power in 1973and in 1984, massive protests against the dictatorship broke out. National elections were held in 1984; Julio María Sanguinetti won the presidency and, following the brief interim Presidency of Rafael Addiego Bruno, served from 1985 to 1990. Sanguinetti's economic reforms, focusing on the attraction of foreign trade and capital, achieved some success and stabilized the economy. In the 1994 elections, former President Sanguinetti won a new term, which ran from 1995 until March 2000.
Jorge Batlle became president in 2000 and his five-year term was marked by economic recession and uncertainty, first with the 1999 devaluation of the Brazilian real, then with the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease (aftosa) in Uruguay's key beef sector in 2001, and finally with the political and economic collapse of Argentina.
Uruguay shares international borders with Argentina and Brazil. At 176,214 km2, Uruguay is the second smallest sovereign nation in South America (after Suriname) and the third smallest territory (French Guiana is the smallest). The landscape features mostly rolling plains and low hill ranges (cuchillas) with a fertile coastal lowland. A dense fluvial network covers the country, consisting of four river basins or deltas; the Río de la Plata, the Uruguay River, the Laguna Merín and the Río Negro. The major internal river is the Río Negro ('black river'). Several lagoons are found along the Atlantic coast. The highest point in the country is the Cerro Catedral whose peak reaches to 514 metres in the Sierra Carapé hill range. To the southwest is the Río de Plata, the estuary of the Uruguay River which forms the western border, and the Paraná River. Uruguay has 660 km of coastline. There are nine 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.
Administratively, Uruguay consists of 19 departments. These can be grouped into 4 regions based on social and geographic factors.
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Colonia del Sacramento is probably the single most visited place in Uruguay and it is not difficult to tell why. Although many tourists go here, the place hasn't lost anything of its colonial (what's in a name?) charm at all. Especially during early morning and late afternoon when the day visitors are leaving, the town is given back to its locals. The town can easily be visited in a day, even from Buenos Aires which is just a short boat ride away. The historic quarter of the city is placed on the Unesco World Heritage List, the only one in Uruguay.
Uruguay doesn't come to mind as a first class beach holiday but, although not as popular and impressive as nearby Brazil, there are very nice and trendy beaches along the southern coastline, where the South Atlantic Ocean meets the Rio de la Plata. The most famous one is Punta del Este about an hour and half east of the capital Montevideo, the Monaco of South America with casinos, yachts and great nightlife and snobbish people (well, not all of course).
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Argentina may be famous for its large rache style places, called estancias, Uruguay at least equals its neighbour and the positive side is that is a lot less touristy when you go away from the coastline and into the interior of this small South American country. Of course, the locals say that their beef is the best and in fact, it exports huge amounts of first class beef to almost anywhere in the world. On some estancias people may get a taste of this hard but 'romantic' life style and the quietness and gently rolling hills will give you the feeling you are away from it all. Horseriding and helping on the estancias are just a few activities here.
Uruguay enjoys a pleasantly warm climate but has distinct season regarding temperatures. The summermonths of November to April are warm, sometimes hot, with temperatures around 28 °C to 30 °C during the day on average and around 18 °C at night. During the wintermonths of June to September temperatures average between 15 °C and 20 °C during the day, dropping around or just below 10 °C at night.
Uruguay's rainfall is spread out throughout the year quite evenly, averaging around 80 mm a month. The autumn months of March and April are just a little wetter. In general, the north and northwest are somewhat warmer in all months and have slightly more rainfall as well.
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Uruguay's primary airport is Montevideo-Carrasco International Airport (MVD), which serves flights to and from North and Central America, the rest of South America, and Spain. PLUNA Airlines (website in Spanish) is the national airline, and operates flights to Asuncion, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Córdoba, Curitiba, Florianópolis, Foz do Iguacu, Porto Alegre, Punta del Este, Bariloche, Rosario and Santiago de Chile. Several other airlines have destinations throughout South America as well, and to cities like Miami, Panama City and Madrid.
Arriving in Carrasco International Airport, tourists will have to choose a way to transfer to the city. The choices are many: for those seeking an economical choice, the best option is the bus (Omnibus). For tourists traveling accompanied the most used is the taxi. The price of trip depends on the destination point and is defined in the airport or you can book online. For example from the airport to downtown is about US$35-50.
The airport at Punta del Este serves quite a few destinations to neighbouring countries as well.
Uruguay can be reached by bus from both Brazil and Argentina.
Most used crossing is between Chuy and Chui, border is at the main street in this twin town. Other crossings are Rio Branco - Jaguarao, Isidoro Noblia - Acegua, Rivera - Santana do Livramento, Artigas - Quarai, and Bella Union - Barra do Quarai. Direct buses travel between Montevideo and Porto Alegre (12 hours), Florianopolis (19 hours) and Curitiba (24 hours).
There are boat connections between Uruguay and Argentina from several places. Boats to Uruguay leave from Buenos Aires or Tigre, just to the north and make the journey to Colonia del Sacramento (also good for daytrips!), the capital Montevideo and a few smaller places like Carmelo. One of the operators is Buquebus.
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There are no scheduled domestic flights except the stop in Montevideo from Punta del Este to Brazil, but Aeromas has charter flights to several destinations.
There are no passenger services within the country.
Roads in Uruguay are generally in a good condition and outside Montevideo it is rarely busy on the roads. Major roads connect all cities and towns along the coast and the interior. Renting a car is possible at the international airport in Montevideo, as well as downtown, and in other notable cities and towns, including Punta del Este, Colonia and a few places more to the north and interior. Traffic drives on the right and you need an international driving permit.
Uruguay has an extensive bus network. The main companies include Copsa and Cot which serve all major cities and towns on at least a daily basis. On the Tres Cruces website you can find more information about bus companies, schedules and prices.
River Uruguay is navigable from Colonia to Salto, and the Río Negro is navigable as far as the port of Mercedes. You need to charter boats though, as there are no scheduled domestic passenger ferries in Uruguay.
Holders of passports (or MERCOSUR ID cards) from the following countries can enter without a visa: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, South Korea, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Ecuador, El Salvador, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, New Zealand, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Dominican Republic, Czech Republic, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Seychelles, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, Venezuela. Travellers from other countries should contact the local consular section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But usually Uruguay has its borders open to tourists and visitors from all countries and it is quite easy to get in or out.
See also Money Matters
The currency is the Uruguayan Peso (Ur$). Banknote values are five, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000. There are coins of 50 centavos, one, two, five and 10 pesos.
Related article: Spanish: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases
Spanish is the official language of Uruguay.
Although most Uruguayans have studied English at school, they do not actually speak or use it. However, some Uruguayans have studied English at private institutes, so they can speak it well. Outside Montevideo, Colonia and Punta del Este there are few English speakers. In most tourist spots (shopping centers and in Punta del Este) there is someone who is proficient in English and upscale restaurants and those that cater to tourists often have someone in the staff that speaks English. In practice, knowledge of basic Spanish is indispensable for independent travel in Uruguay.
Portuñol (or Brasilero) is a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish used near the Brazilian border.
Uruguayan cuisine is typical for temperate countries, high on butter, fat, and grains, low on spice. It has an important Italian influence due to the strong Italian inmigration.
Empanadas (hand-sized meat or cheese pies) make an excellent portable, inexpensive, and delicious snack or lunch. You can find them easily at many corner bakeries.
Uruguay has traditionally been a ranching country, with cattle outnumbering people more than two-to-one, and therefore features excellent (and affordable) steaks. One dish that should not be missed is chivito, a heart-attack-on-a-platter sandwich (some guidebooks call it a "cholesterol bomb") that is made of a combination of grilled tenderloin steak, tomato, lettuce, onion, eggs (hard-boiled and then sliced), ham, bacon, mozzarella cheese and mayonnaise and fries.
Asado is a typical Uruguayan barbeque, consisting of a variety of grilled meats (beef short ribs, sausage, blood sausage and sweetbreads and other offal) over wood coals.
For desserts, dulce de leche, a kind of caramel, is found in all manner of confections, from ice cream to alfajores (dulce de leche-filled cookie sandwiches), or Ricardito, a famous Uruguayan dessert (available in all supermarkets).
For nature lovers, birdwatchers, and those seeking a respite from the fast-paced world, there are many "estancias" in serene and peaceful environments, surrounded by many species of native and migrating birds, which offer a unique opportunity to reconnect with nature.
There are many more beach houses to rent along the coast than actual hotel rooms. They are plentiful, and outside the high season affordable. During the first two weeks of January it's impossible to find anything, every cottage and hotel room is booked months in advance.
Yerba Mate is widely drunk on the streets, but can hardly be ordered in restaurants, as young and old go around with their own cup and thermos bottle on the street there would likely not be anyone ordering it in a café or restaurant if they would offer it.
Uruguay is also acquiring a reputation for its fine wines, especially those made from the Tannat grape.
Alcohol is relatively inexpensive. Beer often come in large, 1l bottles that can go for as low as UYU50. The two brands found everywhere are Pilsen and Patricia, Zillertal being a distant third. Imports are available too but other Uruguayan brands probably exist but are hard to find.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Uruguay. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Uruguay) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Uruguay. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Historically, Uruguay has enjoyed a very low rate of violent crime compared to its neighbors. However, this does not mean that Uruguay is crime free. The major differences are that most Uruguayan crimes are either nonconfrontational or do not involve the gratuitous use of firearms. Montevideo in particular has seen its crime rate gradually rise since the severe 2001-2002 financial crisis, and now has moderately high levels of theft, burglary, and robbery. Fortunately, Punta del Este and most rural areas continue to enjoy relatively low crime levels. As long as you take basic precautions in Montevideo (i.e., use a money belt and/or hotel safe for valuables, look alert, and keep out of obvious slums), you will have a very safe trip.
Cannabis is one of the most widely used drugs in the country and legal as well. Uruguay is the first country in the world where the sale, growth and distribution of cannabis is legal.
See also International Telephone Calls
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