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Wedged like a grape between Brazil’s gargantuan thumb and Argentina’s long forefinger, Uruguay has always been something of an underdog. Yet after two centuries living in the shadow of its neighbors, South America’s smallest country is finally getting a little well-deserved recognition. Progressive, stable, safe and culturally sophisticated, Uruguay offers visitors opportunities to experience everyday ‘not-made-for-tourists’ moments, whether caught in a cow-and-gaucho traffic jam on a dirt road to nowhere or strolling with mate-toting locals along Montevideo’s beachfront.

Short-term visitors will find plenty to keep them busy in cosmopolitan Montevideo, picturesque Colonia and party-till-you-drop Punta del Este. But it pays to dig deeper. Go wildlife watching along the Atlantic coast, hot-spring-hopping up the Río Uruguay, or horseback riding under the big sky of Uruguay’s interior, where vast fields spread out like oceans.

Often called the Switzerland of South America, Uruguay remains a country of relative peace and prosperity in a sometimes-troubled region. It's one of Latin America's most secular countries, with legalized same-sex civil unions, a high literacy rate, a strong independent press and low levels of corruption.

Flanked by Brazil and Argentina, tiny Uruguay shares with its bigger neighbours a love of football (the first World Cup took place here in 1930), gaucho culture (horsemen, cattle ranches and big open skies) and surf-pounded beaches, several of which have gained an international reputation as the hot spot du jour.

Montevideo, The nation’s capital and home to nearly half of Uruguay’s population, Montevideo is a vibrant, eclectic place with a rich cultural life. Stretching 20km from east to west, the city wears many faces, from its industrial port to the exclusive beachside suburb of Carrasco near the airport. In the historic downtown business district, art deco and neoclassical buildings jostle for space alongside grimy, worn-out skyscrapers that appear airlifted from Havana or Ceauşescu’s Romania, while to the southeast the shopping malls and modern high-rises of beach communities such as Punta Carretas and Pocitos bear more resemblance to Miami or Copacabana. Music, theater and the arts are alive and well here – from elegant older theaters and cozy little tango bars to modern beachfront discos – and there’s a strong international flavor, thanks to the many foreign cultural centers and Montevideo’s status as administrative headquarters for Mercosur, South America’s leading trading bloc.

Montevideo lies almost directly across the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires. For many visitors, the most intriguing area is the Ciudad Vieja, the formerly walled colonial grid straddling the western tip of a peninsula between the sheltered port and the wide-open river. Just east of the old town gate, the Centro (downtown) begins at Plaza Independencia, surrounded by historic buildings of the republican era. Av 18 de Julio, downtown Montevideo’s commercial thoroughfare, runs east past Plaza del Entrevero, Plaza Cagancha and the Intendencia (town hall) towards Tres Cruces bus terminal, where it changes name to Av Italia and continues east towards Carrasco International Airport and the Interbalnearia highway to Punta del Este.

Westward across the harbor, 132m Cerro de Montevideo was a landmark for early navigators and still offers outstanding views of the city. Eastward, the Rambla hugs Montevideo’s scenic waterfront, snaking past attractive Parque Rodó and through a series of sprawling residential beach suburbs – Punta Carretas, Pocitos, Buceo and Carrasco – that are very popular with the capital’s residents in summer and on evenings and weekends.

Punta del Este, OK, here’s the plan: tan it, wax it, buff it at the gym, then plonk it on the beach at ‘Punta.’ Once you’re done there, go out and shake it at one of the town’s famous clubs.

Punta del Este – with its many beaches, elegant seaside homes, yacht harbor, high-rise apartment buildings, pricey hotels and glitzy restaurants – is one of South America’s most glamorous resorts and easily the most expensive place in Uruguay. Extremely popular with Argentines and Brazilians, Punta suffered a period of decline during the Uruguayan and Argentine recessions, but has come back with a vengeance.

Celebrity watchers have a full-time job here. Punta is teeming with big names, and local gossipmongers keep regular tabs on who’s been sighted where. Surrounding towns caught up in the whole Punta mystique include the famed club zone of La Barra to the east and Punta Ballena to the west.

Punta itself is relatively small, confined to a narrow peninsula that officially divides the Río de la Plata from the Atlantic Ocean. The town has two separate grids: north of a constricted isthmus, just east of the yacht harbor, is the high-rise hotel zone; the southern area is largely residential. Street signs bear both names and numbers, though locals refer to most streets only by their number. An exception is Av Juan Gorlero (Calle 22), the main commercial street, universally referred to as just ‘Gorlero’ (not to be confused with Calle 19, Comodoro Gorlero).

Rambla Claudio Williman and Rambla Lorenzo Batlle Pacheco are coastal thoroughfares that converge at the top of the isthmus from northwest and northeast, respectively. Locations along the Ramblas are usually identified by numbered paradas (bus stops, marked with signs along the waterfront). 



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