Welcome to the tiny, overlooked but enchanted land of Uruguay, one of my favorite places to visit and easily one of the top underappreciated travel destinations on earth. It has beautiful beaches, breathtaking countryside, and a capital that evokes old Havana or Buenos Aires—but without the crowds.
It is, however, no country for vegetarians.
Everywhere you look, on parrillas (large iron grills)—the prominent cooking method of the region—vast wonderlands of meat and sausages cook slowly over wood coals. Salads are few and far between. Apparently, chicken is considered a vegetable.
Along the coast, various sea creatures join the mix—either on grills or in wood burning ovens. There’s something vaguely pyromaniacal about the Uruguayans. They like to burn stuff.
An important aspect of the country’s culture is its political history. Few countries hold democracy and the democratic process so dear. Uruguayans endured a long and particularly brutal military regime in which an appalling percentage of them were arrested, brutally interrogated, and tortured—the conditions of their imprisonment often designed by psychologists to break their minds and spirits. The government that finally emerged from those terrible years is unusually enlightened.
Marijuana is legal. Reproductive rights of women are protected. Gay marriage is the law of the land. And more than 90 percent of Uruguayans show up on Election Day and vote.
It is rated first among Latin American countries for its adherence to democratic principles and practices and for its relatively low rate of corruption.
Perhaps the recent memory of the absence of liberty makes a country hold the right to vote ever more dear.
Shockingly, however, many Uruguayans I speak to, when they ask me how I am enjoying my visit, respond to my gushing praise and enthusiasm with expressions of disbelief.
“Really?” they say. “Why?”
Perhaps living so close to the much larger Argentina and Brazil, Uruguayans have something of an inferiority complex. But the country is, in fact, quite wonderful. The people are wonderful. It is laid-back, beautiful, and a helluva lot of fun.
Go. Tell them.
Highlights from Uruguay episode on Explore Parts Unknown:
- A perfect day in Montevideo, Uruguay’s understated capital
- The history of the chivito, Uruguay’s national sandwich (and a recipe, too!)
- A love letter to ñoqui, a food so beloved Uruguayans celebrate it once a month
- An illustrated guide to preparing yerba mate, Uruguay’s ubiquitous tea
- Plus, our investigation—Where was tango legend Carlos Gardel really born?