Uruguay: a fantastic, surprising, and super easy country to visit. It truly is often overlooked, squeezed between two very large neighbors. I am shocked that more people don’t make it past the “two hours in Montevideo” day trip by ferry from Buenos Aires. I happily opted out of this inadequate initiation to the country, and with the help of some local Uruguayans I learned much of the spirit of Colonia del Sacramento, Montevideo, and Punta del Este.
Uruguay is really small; you can drive through the whole country in 6 or so hours. It’s size makes more sense in Europe than it does in the mammoth continent of South America. It has a population of about 3 million, with half living in the capital city of Montevideo. Another 1 million or so are living abroad, with people leaving the country particularly after the economic crisis in the early 2000s. They’ve recovered amazingly since then, and have a stable currency, unemployment at only 7%, and their last president made incredible social reforms such as legalizing abortion, gay marriage, and marijuana. Also, the Uruguayan coast has some of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen.
They have much in common with Argentina – tango, futebol, dulce de leche, their funky Castellano accent (think “Uruguajo” or “jo” and “ejja” instead of “yo” an “ella”), capital cities peppered with European architecture, and most importantly, maté. Maté in Uruguay is always consumed hot and pure (unlike in Argentina, where some put sugar, and in Paraguay, where it’s drunk cold, or tereré). Maté, for those of who you have never tried it, is purchased as loose leaves and drunk out of a maté cup and metal straw that prevents the leaves from coming up with the liquid. A maté cup is always accompanied by a thermos filled with hot water so that you can pour just enough at a time for one sip. The taste is, in a word, acquired. It’s like green tea except extremely bitter and highly caffeinated. I tried maté multiple times, and unfortunately I still couldn’t get through the bitterness to enjoy it. I was however, fascinated by how ingrained in the culture maté is. Maté goes with people to work, to school, to the car, to the beach, to a bar, on their bike, to walk the dog, to the mall. Drinking maté is a social activity and is meant to be shared. The joke is that Uruguayans have developed a special muscle on their forearm to hold the thermos while they also hold the maté cup.
Despite being South American, Uruguayans look more European than anything else. They, like the Argentinians, are descendants largely of the Spanish and Italians. The indigenous population, which was only nomadic in the area, was completely wiped out by the Europeans, and so no one in the country has indigenous ancestry. There’s no real reason why Uruguay would dislike Argentina, but some locals told me that it’s probably because they have so much in common but that most people attribute the cultural similarities only to their bigger neighbor that feels they do everything better. Uruguayans are really relaxed people, and they say that they don’t necessarily not like Argentina – it’s more that they don’t like Buenos Aires, with whom they don’t share that perceived Porteño sense of superiority.
Through couchsurfing I stayed on a traditional campo, or farm, just outside of Colonia del Sacramento. My host was a young guy who helps run his family business, which is auctions of cows, property, and home furnishings. Colonia is a beautiful, old town. It’s also really small, and due to the nature of my host’s family business, he seemed to know everybody. In just a few hours he stopped to quickly greet and chat with dozens of people who came up to him. Although Colonia is along the coast, I was able to get a small glimpse of the “other half” of Uruguay, north of the Rio Negro river, which I’ve been told culturally is like an entirely different country. It’s gaucho country, where most people are cattle farmers, some whom have never traveled outside of Uruguay.
Montevideo, as people often say, is not the most exciting city, especially in January, the month when people go away on summer vacation. It does have a gorgeous rambla, or boulevard, along the coast that cross the entire city. You can easily walk or bike along the rambla and see beaches on one side and the city skyline on the other. What made my time in Montevideo so special were my hosts. I couchsurfed in a house near the beach and was able to experience what life was like for four 20-somethings born and raised in Montevideo.
Punta del Este is Uruguay’s ritzy summer vacation town that touches the Atlantic Ocean, and is also known as the “Hamptons of South America.” Although I stayed at a hostel in Punta del Este, I basically had a couchsurfing experience, for the hostel’s owner was a young local who drove us to see the best beaches and have the best views for sunsets. Our group was comprised of 3 Uruguayans, 2 Argentinians, and 1 Paraguyan. I loved being away from the classic backpacker crowd and experiencing summer vacation through the eyes of the neighboring foreigners.
I’m a huge believer in couchsurfing – staying with locals who open their homes to foreigners in a wonderful and organic form of cultural exchange. It’s not just a free place to stay; it’s about sharing your world. Couchsurfing and spending time with the “less obvious” tourists ended up being the best decisions I made in Uruguay. It was so refreshing to get away from the gringo tour group mentality, and to even step away from the traditional backpacker lifestyle that you find in hostels. Traveling is about balancing your experiences. It’s about seeing the world not only with other people but through the lives of others – it’s only then that you can understand where you’ve just traveled from.