Art, Soccer, and Steak: The Fascinating Culture of Uruguay
What’s your first thought when you hear of Uruguay? If you’re a soccer lover, it’s probably Luis Suárez, Diego Forlán, or Diego Godín. If you’re a foodie, it’s most likely Uruguay’s signature BBQs or asados.
Regarding outstanding musicians from Uruguay, Jorge Drexler might come to mind. If you are an architecture enthusiast, you might think of Carlos Páez Vilaró or Punta del Este’s puente ondulante. Or, if your main interest is literature, you might mention Mario Benedetti.
As you can imagine, Uruguay has an abundance of interesting things to offer—among talented personalities and gorgeous locations—to everyone who visits this hidden jewel in South America.
Join me as I cover Uruguay’s marvels and tell you why you will love visiting!
Did you know that Uruguay is the smallest Spanish-speaking country in South America? With an area of only 69,898 sq miles (181,034 sq km), Uruguay is roughly the size of Oklahoma (the 20th biggest state in the US).
The country’s official name, República Oriental del Uruguay (“The Eastern Republic of Uruguay”), is a result of its geographical location—southeast of South America.
Uruguayans divide their country into 19 departments and 125 municipalities.
The five most populated departments in Uruguay are:
- Montevideo (capital)
There are about 3.2 million Uruguayans in the country and around the world—about 630,000 left the country in 2019. The only department with more than a million people is Montevideo. Canelones has approximately 500,000 inhabitants, and the rest of the departments have less than 150,000.
Uruguay’s climate comprises hot summers in January, with temperatures from 62.6 °F (17 °C) to 82.4 °F (28 °C), and mild winters in the middle of the year—with temperatures from 42.8 °F (6 °C) to 57.2 °F (14 °C).
The Uruguayan currency has been the Uruguayan Peso since 1993 (44 Uruguayan Pesos are equivalent to 1 USD).
FUN FACT! Argentinians refer to Uruguay as la provincia 25 (the 25th province), given that both countries share characteristics in common, such as their accent, and their love for steak and soccer.
The Spanish empire discovered and conquered Uruguay, as it happened with every other Latin American country. In 1527, Sebastián Gaboto settled near La Plata river. With this, Spaniards started imposing their culture and customs over the Uruguayan tribes that used to live there. After fighting against the Portuguese over control, they finally established Montevideo on Christmas Eve 1726.
On August 25th 1825, Uruguay declared itself independent from the Spanish kingdom. Spain finally recognized this in 1870. Only 7 years later they became one of the first countries in Latin America to offer a free and laic education in schools.
Uruguay is a country with a high percentage of atheists and has no official religion. Only 38% of the population is Catholic, 21% is atheist, and 17% has no religion.
In 1973, Uruguay suffered a dictatorship which José María Bordaberry conducted in the South American country. Thankfully, by the end of 1980 they returned to a full democracy.
Uruguay’s culture makes it one of the most mesmerizing South American countries.
Daring to summarize Uruguayan culture in three words, these would be:
Have you ever heard the term charrúa? Charrúas were the first known inhabitants of most of Uruguay’s territory. They are almost extinct today, as 90% of the current Uruguayan population descended from Spaniards and Italians (such as Mario Benedetti, for example). The other 4% consider themselves indigenous or mestizos, and 5% identify themselves as of African descent.
Uruguay has many different traditional festivals all throughout the year.
Here are a few of them:
Carnival’s Inaugural Parade
In the fourth week of January, Uruguay kick starts the year with the Carnival’s Inaugural Parade (El desfile inaugural del carnaval), which is the longest parade in the world. This carnival takes 41 days in total and it celebrates Uruguay’s mixture of ethnicities. It ends in the first week of March.
Parade of Calls
February brings the Parade of Calls (El desfile de Llamadas), which celebrates the afro descendant culture in Uruguay on the first Thursday and Friday of the month. They also have the National Folk Festival (El festival nacional del folclor).
Gaucha Nation Festival
In March, as autumn starts in Uruguay, locals celebrate the Gaucha Nation Festival (El festival de la patria gaucha) during the first week of March. You can ride horses alongside other traditional gaucho activities.
National Festival of Chocolate
In the winter, you get to dance and listen to traditional folk music and enjoy the best Uruguayan chocolate (originated from Swiss chocolate) at the National Festival of Chocolate (El festival nacional del chocolate)—which people celebrate in the city of Colonia.
August 24th sees Montevideo go back in time as Nostalgia Night (La noche de la nostalgia) invades every place with nocturnal activity. Uruguayans get together and dance to those “old but gold” tunes you don’t get to hear very often anymore.
The Immigrant’s Fest
As flowers bloom on every field in Uruguay during spring in November, they celebrate The Immigrant’s Fest (La fiesta del inmigrante)—a multicultural event to celebrate immigrants. In 2019, Uruguay had 81,482 immigrants who represented 2.35% of the country’s total population.
As the summer starts in December, there are three awesome festivals to celebrate:
- Spectacle fair (Feria del espectáculo)
- Riviera week (Semana de la Riviera)
- End of the year in Harbor’s market (Fin de año en el mercado del puerto)
They are all a great way to say goodbye to the year and keep on enjoying the nice Uruguayan summer.
Spain and Italy made their way into Uruguayan culture, as well as its cuisine.
The most popular dish in Uruguay might be the BBQ (el asado o la parrillada) which Uruguayans cook with wood instead of charcoal.
Chivito is Uruguay’s national dish, which is a sandwich with mozzarella cheese, steak, ham, pancetta, bell peppers, lettuce, tomato, boiled eggs, and mayonnaise. People serve it with a side dish of fries and it is a true delight!
You can also find the famous choripán (a Spanish word that combines the words chorizo and pan). Uruguayans prepare it with bread, lettuce, tomato, and chorizo.
The last sandwich we talk about here is The Olympic Sandwich (El sándwich olímpico). This funny-named sandwich is similar to a chivito, and has almost every ingredient but steak, the other difference is that this is a triple sándwich.
Uruguayans also eat panchos (their own version of hot dogs), pasta and pizza. Uruguayans’ most popular dessert, just like for Argentinians, is alfajores—which are a special kind of cookie sandwich, often covered in chocolate with dulce de leche in between the cookies.
The Soccer Phenomenon in Uruguay
We’ve established that Uruguay has a really strong soccer culture, but have you ever heard about el maracanazo? For the 1950 World Cup Final, Uruguay and Brazil played in the Maracaná stadium, on Brazilian soil. Everybody thought Brazil would conquer their first (at the time) World Cup, but instead, Uruguay beat the Brazilians and took the trophy home.
Soccer is a phenomenon in Uruguay not because it’s common but because the country has a small population and yet it manages to be home to elite players such as Luis Suárez, Diego Forlán, and Diego Godín, amongst many others. Countries such as Guatemala, which have nearly six times the population of Uruguay, have never been able to reach the World Cup. This characteristic makes Uruguay a well-respected rival in international soccer.
In addition, Uruguay was the first World Cup winner in 1930. Twenty years later, they conquered their second and last World Cup. Until 1978, Uruguay was the only Spanish-speaking country with a World Cup in their hands. Then, Argentina conquered that trophy at home the same year.
3 Places to Visit in Uruguay
Even if Uruguay is not a big country, it has a myriad of wonderful sites to visit. Starting with Mano de Punta del Este, which is a mesmerizing monument on the incomparable beach of Punta del Este.
Colonia del Sacramento is a beautiful place right next to Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital. It is a UNESCO world heritage site because of being an ancient, historical, colonial neighborhood.
If you feel like surfing you can visit La Pedrera beach, which offers a beautiful blue atlantic ocean. It is not as modern as the big cities in Uruguay, though.
If you go to Uruguay’s capital and learn about soccer, you have got to visit El Centenario—a 91-year-old stadium with capacity for 60,000 people—which still hosts soccer matches today. The soccer culture in Uruguay is really strong, so it might be an exciting and unique experience.
Practice Your Spanish Before Going to Uruguay
Visiting Montevideo, the Centenario stadium, eating chivitos, and being part of the longest parade in the world sound like a very special treat. But before booking your flight to go and wonder about all the magic that Uruguay has to offer, learn some Spanish, in order to visit the country much more independently! Sign up for a free Spanish class now!
If you’re still not convinced to visit Uruguay, Spanish will come in handy anyways, since you’ll travel much easier to any other Spanish-speaking country and improve your cognition and decision-making abilities.
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