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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Uruguay is the second smallest country in South America after Suriname. About half of its population of 3.5 million live in the capital city of Montevideo and its metropolitan area. The country is located on the east side of the continent along the Atlantic Ocean. It borders Brazil to the north, and Argentina to the west and southwest. The nation’s official name is the Oriental Republic of Uruguay as it is east of the Uruguay River and the Rio de la Plata or River Plate that separate it from Argentina. Uruguay means “river where the painted birds live” in the Guarani indigenous language. There are many other interesting facts about Uruguay.

Geography and climate

Most of the country consists of plains and rolling hills. Four river basins empty into the Atlantic. The highest mountain is the rocky and treeless Cerro Catedral, or Cathedral Hill, at an altitude of just 1,685 feet. An ongoing border dispute with Brazil relating to islands and waterways on the northern coast has not affected diplomatic relations between the two countries. About 89 per cent of arable land is used for cattle and sheep and 7 per cent is under crop. Uruguay has a temperate climate with few extremes. A lack of mountains makes it windy, especially in winter and spring, and the weather can be quite changeable. Storms are common in summer.


The Guarani and the Charrua are the indigenous people of Uruguay. The Spanish settled in the area in the 16th century and the Portuguese in the 17th, setting off various disputes between the two groups. The country gained its independence from Spain in the 1820s. By the 1830s, the Charrua had integrated with the Spanish and the Guarani, or been killed. Two parties that fought an ongoing battle from the late 1830s to 1870 were the Colorados, or the Reds, representing Montevideo business interests and the Blancos, or the Whites, who looked after the agricultural community. Members were identified by the color of their armbands; the city group initially wore blue armbands but changed to red as blue faded in the sun. Despite the fighting, tens of thousands of Europeans migrated to Uruguay during this period, banks opened, rail and canals were built, and exports rose, assisted by the natural harbor.

A group called the Tupamaros started robbing banks and shops in the early 1960s to give to the poorer neighborhoods. The US Office of Public Safety assisted local police who were allegedly taught how to torture suspects. Finally the army defeated the Tupamaros and another group, the Movement of National Liberation, in the 1970s. Uruguay had the highest per capita number of political prisoners of any country at that time. The torture continued until military rule ended in 1984 and various economic and social reforms were introduced.


About 88 per cent of Uruguay’s population are European, mainly Spanish and Italian, but from many other countries too. A further 6 per cent are Mestizo, or of mixed European and Amerindian heritage, 4 per cent are of African descent, and 2 per cent of Asian background. About 54 per cent are Roman Catholic, 11 per cent are Protestant, 9 per cent are believers without affiliation, and 26 per cent have no religion. Uruguay is South America’s most secular country and the majority of the population are regarded as not being strongly religious. Uruguay has a high literacy rate at 97 per cent and has a large urban middle class. About 600,000 people emigrated during the country’s dark days in the 1970s and 1980s.


Uruguayans eat a lot of meat. The national dishes are a beef platter called ‘parrillada’ and a large steak sandwich known as ‘chivito.’ Pasta is also very popular. ‘Grappamiel,’ made of alcohol and honey, is the national drink. The Guarani indigenous language is one of the official languages, along with Spanish, and is spoken by 88 per cent of residents. Half of the rural population speak only Guarani. It is the only indigenous language in the Americas where nearly all speakers are not indigenous. Uruguay hosted the first Football World Cup in 1930, beating Argentina in the final, and won it again in 1950.


Economic reforms from the mid 1980s led to a boom in the 1990s. However, the Uruguay economy slowed due to a devaluation of the Brazilian real in 1999, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001, and the collapse of the Argentinian economy in 2002. Unemployment peaked at almost 20 per cent, and nearly 40 per cent of people lived in poverty. Reform slowed and people opposed plans to privatize the state petroleum and water companies. The economy bounced back with growth reaching 7 per cent in 2006. Uruguay is regarded as safe and attractive for investors and more economically developed than most Latin American countries. It became the first computer software exporter in Latin America in 2005. Estancia tourism or agritourism is a new industry that has grown rapidly in recent years.

Government and politics

The two parties engaged in many battles in the 19th century are still slugging it out today in parliament. The Partido Colorado has been the ruling party for most of the country’s history. Partido Blanco has only been in power twice. The left-wing Broad Front, made up of various socialists, communists, democrats and former Tupamaros, won the 2004 elections. Colorado was a distant third with just 10 per cent of the vote. Transparency International regards Uruguay as Latin America’s least corrupt country. It has freer political and labor conditions than most Latin American countries and in 2007 was the first to legalize civil unions between different and same sex couples after five years together. The country was ranked 23rd on the 2008 democracy index, a measure of political freedom, and first in Latin America.

Transport and communication

Most passenger and freight movement in Uruguay is by road, although only 10 per cent are paved, including the highways and other roads between urban centers. The rail network was bought from Britain after World War II but has fallen out of use, except between Montevideo and San Jose, a distance of 60 miles. A hydrofoil operates between Montevideo and Buenos Aires in Argentina on the other side of the Rio de la Plata. Uruguay has over 115 mobile phones per 100 persons and one million internet users. The phone system is fully digitized and several attempts to privatize it have failed.