What Should I Know About Uruguay?

Brendan McGuigan

Uruguay is a small country in South America. It covers 68,000 square miles (176,200 sq. km), making it a bit smaller than the state of Missouri. It shares borders with Argentina and Brazil, and has coastline along the Atlantic Ocean.

The Charrua Indians put up a fierce fight against the Conquistadors in the 16th Century.
The Charrua Indians put up a fierce fight against the Conquistadors in the 16th Century.

If Uruguay was settled in the distant past, all signs of this habitation have since been swallowed by the jungle. The first known inhabitants of the region were the Charrua Indians, who immigrated to the area from the north after being forced out by the Guarani.

In the early-16th century the Spanish arrived in Uruguay. For the first century conquest was limited, because the Charrua put up a fierce fight against the Conquistadors, and the region had little of interest to the Spanish. By the early 17th century, the Spanish had established a limited colony in Uruguay, based mostly around the farming of cattle. Spain continued to develop the area, creating more outposts, in an attempt to stop Portugal from pushing the borders of Brazil further south. Throughout the 18th century Uruguay continued to be an important battlefield between the Portuguese and the Spanish, and later the British.

In 1811 there was a revolt against Spain, effectively ending Spanish control of the region. Ten years later Portugal annexed the territory as a part of Brazil. In 1825 the region again revolted, declaring independence and joining with Argentina in an alliance to hold Brazil at bay. The alliance fought Brazil for nearly two years before finally making peace by treaty in 1828, at which point Uruguay was formally recognized as a sovereign nation.

Following a military coup in 1838, the country plunged into civil war. The civil war would eventually bring Argentina, Britain, and France into it, eventually coming to an end in 1852 after more than a decade of heavy fighting and a nine year siege on the city of Montevideo.

Peace was short-lived, however, with a new conflict beginning, this time aimed at neighboring Paraguay, only three years after the end of the previous civil war. By the early 1860s the war had peaked, with Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina all battling Paraguay. By the end of the conflict the region was weary with war, and came to a relatively peaceful accord.

For the rest of the century Uruguay would enjoy peace and growth, with an influx of immigrants, and a massive expansion of the agricultural sector. Uruguay continued to experience growth for the first half of the 20th century, before the economy finally slowed in the 1950s.

In the 1960s violence began to break out in the cities, destabilizing the government substantially. By the late 1960s the president had declared a state of emergency, and the military seized power in 1973. A military junta continued to run the country until 1984, when popular protests and demonstrations convinced the military to return the country to civilian control. Free elections were held that year, and power transitioned peacefully. For the next 15 years the country continued to stabilize, the economy recovered, and democratic reforms continued to push through. In 1999 the country saw a severe downturn in most economic sectors. Since 2003 the national economic policy has shifted away from privatization, and undertaken massive overhauls to try to stabilize the economy again, so far with limited success.

Uruguay features beautiful beaches, cowboy country, an amazing capital city, and some fascinating little villages. Since the economic downturn the country has become incredibly affordable, and tourism has been increasing over the past few years. Ruins from the colonial era are some of the big attractions here, with national parks like Santa Teresa showcasing forts and barracks from the wartime era. Beaches are all over the coast, as well, from the international Punta del Este, sometimes called the capital of the Uruguayan Riviera, to Punta del Diablo, it’s nearly-perfect opposite.

Flights arrive daily in Montevideo from other South American countries, and a few more international hubs. Overland travel is also possible from Brazil and Argentina, as is travel by hydrofoil or ferry between Montevideo and Brazil.

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