Uruguay is a small, mostly agricultural country tucked between the South American behemoths Brazil and Argentina. Its long, mostly sandy coastline, shared by the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean, its moderate temperatures, and a stable economy have made Uruguay one of the delights of South American tourism.
The capital, Montevideo, is a fusion of colonial architectural styles. A recently reconditioned Ciudad Vieja (old town) adds to the attraction of Uruguay's only large city, where over 40% of the country's population resides. The Mercado del Puerto (port market) has restaurants, market stalls, street entertainment, shops, and like most places along the coast, is only a short stroll away from a sandy beach.
It's the beach that attracts thousands of visitors each year, mostly from Argentina. Punte del Este, on the Atlantic coast, draws an international crowd that have made the beaches, casinos, yacht clubs, and holiday homes of this stunning locale the places to be in the southern hemisphere summer.
The river coast west of Montevideo is a little quieter but still has nice sand beaches and a more traditional colonial look. Colonia del Sacramento and Mercedes are the most inviting.
Inland are the haciendas that produce the livestock and feed crops that are the heart of the Uruguayan economy. Farmhouse and cottage rentals in the rolling countryside have provided a relaxing alternative to the busy beaches for many residents and international visitors.
The current political and economic stability Uruguay enjoys had been won over generations of conflict. From the beginning, external forces determined the fate of the Banda Oriental, as the territory east of the Rio de la Plata was called by the Spanish.
Native resistance to Spanish explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries and a lack of immediately productive resources kept area undeveloped until the Portuguese founded Colonia on the east bank of the Rio de la Plata to challenge the Spanish trading center at Buenos Aires across the river. Spain countered with a settlement at Montevideo.
Later, contention over the Banda Oriental shifted to the Spanish colony to the south, Argentina, and the Portuguese colony, Brazil, to the north.
South American independence movements in the early 1800s eventually extracted freedom from European colonial nations, and in 1828 a peace treaty to limit the expansion of Brazil to the south recognized Uruguayan independence primarily to serve as a buffer state between its huge neighbors.
Revolutions and counterrevolutions dominated the 19th century in Uruguay as they did in much of the Americas. Early 20th century experiments in social policy created social services unknown in South America and laid a foundation for both conservative backlash and liberal reaction.
Corruption, dictatorship, and an urban guerilla movement led the country to a repressive military rule in the early 1970s that ended in 1985 with the restoration of civilian government and political amnesty for the military.
Today's democratic government, firmly underscored by constitutional amendment in 1996, rides a balance of party coalitions and remains a strong advocate for constitutional democracy and individual liberties. Membership in the Southern Cone Common Market (MERCOSUR) has solidified trade relationships with neighbor markets and given Uruguay a larger voice in regional trade decisions.
Good infrastructure, a buoyant tourism industry, and consistent economic policies combine to make Uruguay one of today's best places to visit on the South American continent.