What is Uruguay like? 20 things you should know about this country 

Once people learn I travelled to Uruguay, their next question is what is Uruguay like? 

That’s why I prepared a list with the top 20 things you should know about this small South American nation before travelling to Uruguay. 

What is Uruguay like in 2024?

I travelled to Uruguay in 2024 as part of my 1-year long travels through South and Central America. Like many of you, I did not know much about this small South American nation. I knew that Uruguay is the safest country in South America and has been constantly ranked number 1 for safety for several years. Apart from this, I did not know much. 

In 2024, Uruguay is an excellent travel destination in South America. The Uruguayans are the most welcoming and friendly people in South America. 

As you navigate the country, you will notice that Uruguay welcomes many other Latin American nationals, including Cubans, Chileans, and Argentinians to work and study in their small, welcoming country. This surprised me because I did not expect Uruguay to be such a desired destination for work and study. 

Uruguay is aka the Switzerland of South America

Uruguay is often referred to as the Switzerland of South America because compared to its neighbours, it scores quite well in economic development, job opportunities and study options. 

For example, the country provides free education to nationals in South America although they are not citizens of Uruguay. While in the country, I met Chileans who moved to Uruguay to complete university studies. 

However, Uruguay was nicknamed the Switzerland of South America for other reasons too. One of them is that this country is the most expensive in Latin America. 

Indeed, I noticed that everything costs much more in Uruguay than elsewhere in South America. Perhaps the next most costly region in South America is Patagonia. But still, Uruguay has areas that can easily beat Patagonia when it comes to high costs. I will talk in more detail about my expenses in Uruguay down below.

Punta del Este, the South American version of Miami

What is Uruguay like? 20 things you should know about Uruguay before visiting the country 

After travelling around this beautiful country for 2,5 weeks, I think this is the top thing everyone should know about Uruguay before coming here.  

1. Safety matters.

Safety is one of the most important aspects travellers pay attention to, especially when you are a solo female traveller. Travelling to a safe place means less to worry about. 

So what is Uruguay like when it comes to safety? As this report suggests, Uruguay is the safest country in South America. 

I must say this is not an exaggeration at all. I even saw cars with windows down parked on the street. You don’t even see this in most parts of Europe. 

I travelled to a few places in Uruguay, but I must say that some of the places I found the safest were Colonia, Punta del Este and Cabo Polonio. 

Safety in hostels

In hostels, people don’t tend to lock up their items. In fact, in remote places like Cabo Polonio, hostels provide only one place to charge your phone and laptop. So most of us would leave our items there and come back after a few hours. 

Everyone assured me it was safe to leave your stuff to charge and go away for a few hours. Travelling through other countries in South America, you are usually told not to leave your stuff unattended. In Uruguay, I did exactly the other way around and it was perfectly safe to do so. 

Perhaps one of the few places which seemed less safe according to Uruguayan standards were some neighbourhoods in Montevideo. However, I never got that far from the city centre, and from what I experienced in the historic centre of Montevideo, the city felt safe enough for me. 

Of course, one always needs to pay more attention in crowded places, but I never felt the pressure to take care of my belongings the way I felt in other countries in South America. 

Safety at the beach

I went to the beach in Colonia and found the entire experience super safe. Uruguay and Costa Rica were the only countries in Latin America where I felt it was safe enough to leave my stuff on the beach and go swim. 

In conclusion, Uruguay is the safest country I travelled to in South America, particularly for solo female travellers. In some regards, the country seems even safer than some places in Europe. 

2. Uruguay is a quiet holiday alternative to Brazil and Argentina

If you are looking for a quieter holiday alternative in South America, Uruguay can be one of your options. 

Arriving in Uruguay from Brazil felt like you would slow down. Everything in Uruguay is smaller and quieter but not boring. People go out, to the beach, which seemed to be the preferred pastime for most Uruguayans. But everything tends to happen on a smaller scale and at a slower pace. 

From what I noticed, Uruguyans are more laid back than their bigger neighbours Argentina and Brazil. There is no wonder their favourite word is tranqui, a short version for tranquila, as in take it slow. 

Personally, I loved this Uruguayan mantra. Everyone in Uruguay is so in tune with this feeling of not worrying so much and slowing down. 

3. Uruguayans are one of the most friendly nations in South America

After a full year of travelling through South America, I cannot say anything negative about any nation in South America. 

Everyone is so welcoming, and willing to help and chat with you that honestly, I wished we had this brought back to Europe where people seem to have grown more distant than ever. 

Yet, I must say that Uruguayans are among the most friendly nations I came across in South America. They are always willing to help and share tips with you about their country. Always with a smile on their face, when are talking to you. 

I made so many Uruguayan friends in a matter of days because everyone was so chatty and ready to answer my questions. 

So if you have a hard time bonding with people on your travels, I suggest visiting Uruguay. It will be easier to make new friends in the country because the people here are so welcoming and friendly. 

4. A true mate culture

There are only a few South American nations that share their love for mate: Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay. Although I got to try mate for the first time in Paraguay, the mate culture is well spread in Uruguay and Argentina too. Plus, I would say is even more stronger here than in Paraguay. 

If you want to experience this unique drink, you must visit Uruguay. People literally carry their cups with them everywhere. I was surprised that in some places it was easier to find hot water for your mate than regular drinking water.

When it comes to mate, I believe it is one of those things that you either like or don’t. There is no middle way. It has a unique taste, some might say it is way too bitter. Nevertheless, it is something you must experience if you ever travel to this part of the world as it is what makes unique countries like Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay. 

Buenos Aires

5. Buenos Aires is only a quick ferry ride away

Uruguay is only 1 hour away from Buenos Aires (by ferry), making it the best destination for a quick escapade to the most beautiful city in South America (this is exclusively my opinion). 

You can easily travel to Buenos Aires from Uruguay. You need to travel to Colonia, pop on a ferry and you will be in Buenos Aires in no time. If you don’t have time to visit other places in Argentina, I suggest you make some time for Buenos Aires, which I found to have the most impressive architecture in the whole of South America. 

There are also bus services operating between the two countries, but it takes considerably longer. Therefore, your best bet is the ferry.

6. Stress-free border crossing process

I must confess entering Uruguay and leaving the country was one of the smoothest processes I had to go through while travelling through South America. I entered the country from Brazil and left for Argentina. 

When you cross the border via Brazil is by bus (unless you fly from Brazil). In this case, the driver deals with the passport checks. You need to hand him your passport and he will return it to you once the checks have been completed. 

You will need to go through passport checks when you exit Uruguay too. If you take the ferry, this happens before boarding the boat. All in all, I found the experience stress-free and enjoyed the entire process because everyone was so friendly. 

7. The Uruguayan cuisine has so much in common with the Argentinian cuisine

The Uruguayan cuisine is quite similar to the Argentinian cuisine, meaning that most of the food here is meat-based. Beef steak is by far the most popular dish, although you can choose between chicken and fish options too. The Uruguyans are also obsessed with their mate. The famous Argentinian drink has a special place in this country too and everyone drinks it all day long. 

If you are vegetarian you might have a difficult time as the food in Uruguay and beyond is pretty much meat-based. Nevertheless, it is tasty and worth trying. 

Steak is very popular in Uruguay too

8. Uruguay has a strong football culture

I’m sure that true football fans already know more about Uruguay football players than I will ever know. But it was interesting to see how much people care about football in this country. 

Teenagers play football, people talk about football matches on the street. Matters change when Uruguay plays against some other team because regular life stops everywhere in the country during the match. 

People here truly support their teams and are passionate about how Uruguay performs in every football match. For someone with an interest in this sport, visiting Uruguay during a football championship can be as fascinating as attending a live football match between the best teams in the world. 

9. Uruguay and Argentina share a very similar culture

Uruguay and Argentina have a lot in common. They share common passions and the same interest in football. Both countries have similar cuisines, both countries love mate and even speak Spanish with the same accent.  

People from the two countries often cross the border to visit friends, family etc. Some of them even told me they think of each other as being cousins. 

As I mentioned, I was told there isn’t much difference between the Uruguayan and Argentinian accents. In fact, most of the time even they cannot tell the difference unless the person confirms whether they are from Argentina or Uruguay. 

10. Uruguay is the most expensive country in Latin America

Based on my experience travelling through South America, Uruguay is the most expensive country in the region. Prices here can easily be compared to Europe. 

Tip for budget travellers: A popular time for local holidays in Uruguay is the first 2 weeks in January when accommodation prices get doubled. 

Therefore, avoid travelling to Uruguay in January because everything from accommodation to food can cost you double around this time of the year. 

To give you an idea, popular destinations like Punta del Este or Cabo Polonio can charge you up to £40 for a bunk bed in a hostel whereas a cooked meal can cost you around £20. 

I was shocked when I realised how much I had to pay for accommodation and food during high season in Uruguay. Just a few days after the price in my hostel dropped to half, which is still expensive for this part of the world but it wasn’t nearly as expensive as it was during the high season. 

Because Uruguay is considerably more expensive than all the other countries in the region, it is often referred to as the Switzerland of South America. 

11. The roads are less busy than elsewhere in South America

Those who travelled to South America know how busy the roads can get there. You can easily spend a few hours in traffic. If there is a car crash you, could be stuck on the road for a while. 

Fortunately, the traffic in Uruguay seems way less busy than in other places, making the country a good option for a road trip. 

Saying this though, the country has good public transport, and you can reach most of the tourist destinations by bus. 

Still, some prefer the flexibility that comes with having a car. Therefore, it might be useful to know that I found Uruguay to have far less traffic compared to other countries in South America.  

12.No ATM withdrawal fees for international cards

The majority of countries in South America charge foreign cards a withdrawal fee. While Argentina might lead here, currently the country charges a $10 fee per transaction, one could argue that Colombia is more affordable as they only charge around $5. 

Uruguay was one of the few countries in South America (alongside Brazil) where my foreign card was not charged a withdrawal fee. Although you can pay by card in most places, it is good to know that should you need cash, the country will not charge your international card a fee. 

It might help to know that my visa card from Revolut worked better than my master card from Monzo. I don’t know if the country prefers Visa over Master cards, but this is what worked in my case. 

Also, I cannot confirm that all ATMs in Uruguay apply the same policy. Yet, the ATM I used in Cabo Polonia definitely was foreign card friendly. 

13. Good discounts if you eat out and pay by card

I was surprised to discover that Uruguay encourages people to eat out by offering a 20% discount if you pay by card. I thought the initiative was very much welcomed, considering the country is not one of the most affordable in the region. 

This is some sort of counter-trend here in South America because most countries usually encourage people to do it the other way around. Paying in cash is much more widespread and popular than card payments. 

Other freebies I noticed in Uruguay and was grateful for: 

Uruguay has free public toilets everywhere, which are clean and have everything they need. You will always find them on the beach, in popular tourist destinations. Not many countries in South America provide this to tourists for free. 

Cabo Polonia is a very popular holiday destination in Uruguay

14. Uruguay is the preferred holiday destination for many rich Argentinians and Brazilians

I was surprised to see so many Brazilians and Argentinians in Uruguay. They prefer this little nation to spend quality time with their loved ones and recharge batteries away from the hustle and bustle of the Brazilian beaches. 

One will also notice that these people drive expensive cars, dine in expensive restaurants and even enjoy time on a yacht. They are not your regular backpacker traveller. 

15. The local carnival in Montevideo is so much fun

Most of you know about the carnival in Rio. The truth is carnivals are being organised across all of South America in February. 

From the more famous Barranquilla Carnaval in Colombia to the less-known carnival in Montevideo, February is a month of celebration across South American nations. 

If you are in Montevideo around Carnaval time ( in February), make sure you go. It is one of the most important celebrations in the country. 

Although it is much smaller and less spectacular than the carnival in Rio, the carnival in Montevideo will captivate you. It is a huge street party during which you can enjoy the effort of everyone coming together to deliver the best show. 

The carnival is a time of pure joy, dance, music and perhaps too much alcohol. It seems more intimate because usually there are mostly locals attending it. Yet, it is definitely worth a couple of hours of your time.  

16. Uruguay is one of the most developed countries in South America

Although the majority of the South American nations are still referred to as developing countries, in my opinion, Uruguay is far ahead. 

Even in terms of diplomatic ties, Uruguay has one of the best agreements with Australia, the UK etc, so Uruguayans can access work and travel programmes relatively easily compared to other South American countries. 

Therefore, being a Uruguayan passport holder has many benefits. I met several Uruguayans taking advantage of these benefits by moving abroad to work, travel, live somewhere else etc. 

17. Uruguay is an inclusive nation

Although it is one of the smallest countries in South America, Uruguay is super inclusive. I met many Argentinian, Cuban, Chilean nationals etc. who lived in Uruguay because they had a better job and university perspectives here. 

In Uruguay, the high education system is free, both for citizens and other nationals. I met people from Chile who moved to Uruguay to study because going to university in Uruguay was free compared to Chile, where the person would have been charged an expensive tuition fee.

Furthermore, many Argentinians moved to Uruguay for work because they received better salaries here than in their home country.   

After having several conversations with foreigners living in Uruguay, I realised that for some people, this country is their version of the American dream. A place that provides them with better opportunities to develop, earn money and help their families back home. 

18. Uruguayans have Italian roots

I met an impressive number of Uruguayans who have Italian roots. I guess you would expect people in South America to have many links to Europe given the history of colonization and mass migration during the 2 World Wars. Yet, I would have expected most of them would have Spanish and Portuguese backgrounds rather than Italian. 

19. Tattoos are a big thing in Uruguay.

There is a strong culture of Tattoos in countries like Argentina, Brazil etc. Uruguay shares the same passion for tattoos with its neighbouring countries. Therefore, you will notice tattoo studios everywhere in Uruguay. 

If you are into tattoos, South America is one of the best places you can get your next tattoo. Many people get tattooed here because it is also much more affordable than elsewhere. 

20. Going to the beach is the favourite pastime in Uruguay

 A typical Uruguayan is someone who holds his mate in one hand and his beach chair in the other hand. That’s what will forever stick with me when I remember Uruguayans. 

I noticed that going to the beach is a fundamental part of every Uruguayan’s routine. Therefore, next time you meet someone from Uruguay consider these things. Invite them to the beach, and you will have the best time enjoying each other’s company while sipping on some mate. 

There you have it. I hope the 20 things listed in this blog post manage to answer what is Uruguay like for those of you who plan to plan to visit the country any time soon. If you have any other questions, please use the comments box to ask them. I will do my best to provide you with an answer.  

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