At a GlanceUruguay is often referred to as the Switzerland of the South America due to its stable democracy and social benefits. It has low crime rates by South American standards, and is generally thought to be a great place to live.
The country is split into several regions. The Atlantic Coast is full of great beach resorts and the land crossing to Brazil, while the Rio de la Plata is home to the capital city of Montevideo and the gateway to Argentina. The Northern Interior is where you'll find the gaucho culture and citrus fields, and in the Central Interior is the hub for agriculture and the dams on the Rio Negro.
There are several options when it comes to transportation around the country of Uruguay. There is an extensive bus system that all operate out of Tres Cruces station. The buses are frequent, safe and very comfortable. Taxis are safe and fairly affordable as they all have meters and are fixed costs. If you get into a taxi without a meter, you may want to get out and find another taxi. To rent a car, most residents (including the US) only need their driver's license, passport and a credit card. Beware that gas is heavily taxed in Uruguay, and because of that the country is filled with fuel-efficient manual transmissions. Driving in Uruguay is similar to Europe, but with more roundabouts. Because of the prevalence of manual cars, many locals will jump the green light, so always stop at the yellow lights at an intersection.
The language of Uruguay is Spanish, and most do not use the English they learned in school. Outside Montevideo and Punta del Este, you'll be hard pressed to find an English speaker.
Top Tourist AttractionsUruguay's capital city, Montevideo, has plenty of sights to see and ways to fill the day. Wander Parliament Place and Independence Plaza, or take an adventure to the neighborhoods of Carrasco, Punta Gorda and Pocitos and stroll along the beaches and promenades. The city is littered with sections of old and new from the Puerta de la Ciudadela - the remnants of an old wall that once surrounded the city - all the way to the modern shops of Las Ramblas.
Another popular spot in Uruguay is the quiet, backpacker paradise of Punta del Diablo. While recent expansion has grown the area, most of it has stayed inland, leaving the coast to its peace and quiet it's known for. To avoid the crowds of tourists, visit Punta del Diablo during any time of the year outside of the winter. The first half of January, for example, has as many as 30,000 visitors up and down the beaches.
For the traveler who loves the animal kingdom, just north of La Paloma is Cabo Polonio. Here you can visit Uruguay's second largest sea lion colony. You'll find it near a fishing village surrounded by sand dunes. Declared a national park in 2009, this area is protected under Uruguay's SNAP program. Even though there have been a growing number of tourists to the area, Cabo Polonio is still one of the country's most rustic fishing villages. Keep in mind, this town has no banking and limited electricity.
Spanning across the Arroyo de las Vacas stream is the city of Carmelo. Founded in 1816 is a quiet town full of cobblestone streets and old homes. Add this city to your itinerary to enjoy the yachting, fishing and the Parana Delta. Just south of the arroyo is the pleasant getaway of Playa Sere. This beach is a great spot with a large park, open space, camping, swimming and casino.
Popular FoodsUruguayan cuisine is primarily Spanish with a influences of Italian thanks to the country's long history of Italian immigration. The meat lovers will find plenty of options at the public markets, but there are also plenty of options for vegetarians.
Specialty dishes you'll want to look for include empanadas, gramajo, locally sourced steaks, chivito, asado, and sneak a little dulce de leche for dessert.