URUGUAY: FROM GAUCHOS AND MATE, THROUGH PORTUNOL CARNIVAL, TO PUNTA DEL ESTE CHIC
What does a South American “safe haven” look like? Seek no further than Uruguay, a tiny nation comprising slightly over three million people, sheltered by a temperate climate, and ensconced in the protective hold of a stable democracy and a solid economy. The Eastern Republic of Uruguay was named after the river that runs along its western border with Argentina, and until two hundred years ago, the two countries had indeed formed part of the unified Eastern Province. In the Guarani language – spoken by the indigenous peoples that used to dwell across the better part of South America – the name Uruguay translates as “the river of painted birds.”
Since the first moments of its discovery by the Europeans, Uruguay had been subject to competing claims by Portugal and Spain over settlements and cities developed over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Likewise, in the decades of the wars of independence in the early nineteenth century, Brazil and Argentina both sought to add Uruguay to their territories. Uruguay was recognized as an independent and sovereign state in 1828. With the proclamation of its first constitution in 1830, the new state was officially named as the Eastern State of Uruguay. Its capital, Montevideo, distinguishes itself as the second city in the world by the number of Art Deco buildings, right behind Paris. In 1930, Uruguay played host for the Soccer World Cup and snagged away the title of the first winner of that celebrated championship. Montevideo and Uruguay also excel as the biggest world consumers of whiskey and mate. Another interesting oddity from Montevideo’s lively history: the Punta Carretas shopping center was a prison transformed into a leisure hall.
Montevideo stands out as one of the few world cities that has a low degree of air pollution. This fortunate distinction can be attributed to its particular geographic location as well as to the visionary pioneers who designed the city’s green areas over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Uruguayan capital gets fresh air from the winds coming from the coast and sweeping over its streets, but its lungs are in fact made of over eight square miles of parks and gardens, strategically distributed all over the city and its environs, in addition to thousands of trees planted along the sidewalks of its streets and avenues. Likewise, the city’s main artery is the quayside, stretching all along its southern shore, where people go to work out, meditate, meet with friends, or just contemplate the sea. Extending over more than 12 miles, the quayside not only frames but also defines the city. One of the architectural landmarks of Montevideo and a hub for social encounters and economic activity is the Mercado Agricola, the produce and food market enclosed within a majestic temple of Uruguayan agricultural production and food industry.
The other facet of Uruguayan economy is best represented by the beach resort of Punta del Este, better known as the St Tropez of South America, Uruguay’s Riviera, or Amalfi and Monte Carlo combined. Situated at the spot where the Rio de la Plata joins the Atlantic Ocean, the city of Punta del Este ranks as a major destination in South America for its sunny beaches, summer houses, posh retreats, or permanent relocation. The earliest historical records about Punta del Este go back to the maps that Amerigo Vespucci dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici charting out his passage in 1502. Commanding a Portuguese fleet that was exploring Brazilian lands, he reached the coast of present-day Punta del Este and continued farther south. The real colonizer of the Rio de la Plata was Juan Díaz Solís, who sailed into its waters naming them Mar Dulce (Sweet Sea) and on 20 January 1516 reached the Island of Lobos, which he baptized as the Island of San Sebastián de Cádiz. On 2 February 1516, Solis discovered the bay of Punta del Este, and named it Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria (Our Lady of Candelaria). After his death and upon the return of his expedition to Spain, the first goods were exported from Uruguay to Europe: sea lions’ fur. Another famous voyager who sailed along the coast of Punta del Este was Ferdinand Magellan, whose expedition towards the Moluccas was the first voyage around the earth confirming that our planet is round. Explorers serving the Spanish and Portuguese crown were not the only ones travelling the Uruguayan waters. The English pirate Francis Drake, in the service of the British crown, reached the Rio de la Plata on 19 April 1578 and was the second man to achieve the feat of circumnavigation of the Earth’s oceans. Other celebrated voyagers and visitors to the Uruguayan coast included Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton in 1808, Charles Darwin on board the Beagle in 1833, and Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1837. In the course of the nineteenth century, Punta del Este developed a reputation as an elite resort town and a fashionable spa. The twentieth-century Punta del Este, a resort-city hybrid, offers the visitors an exciting alternative to the typical modern city: its beautiful landscapes cradle spacious beaches, distinguished for their natural exotic beauty and environmental intactness. Punta del Este equals tourism, security, high quality of life, culture, arts, history, lush natural and man-made beauty, and a variety of sports – surfing, kite-flying, windsurfing, fishing, kayaking, triathlon, etc. Punta del Este is also one of the major cruiser ports in South America. Everything that the city has to offer and display is accompanied by professionally conceived city tours, with guides and abundant information for tourists and professionals attending numerous conferences and congresses in all sorts of fields. The versatile and multi-faceted nature of this city-resort attracts and seduces families seeking entertainment, professional artists, wealthy entrepreneurs, international movie stars and super models, all of them converging in Punta del Este for its luxury boutiques and cafes, the picturesque hustle and bustle of the port and marinas speckled with yachts and fishing boats, the live music and street artists, etc. It is worth pointing out that the beauty of this magical city does not dim out with the end of the summer, but, on the contrary, the mild Uruguayan winter provides further opportunities to explore the dazzling gems of the Uruguayan countryside.
The gaucho, the typical inhabitant of the Uruguayan countryside ever since the late seventeenth century, has enjoyed the legendary nomadic lifestyle, in rugged solitude, without a stable home or work. The origins of the gaucho can be linked back to the specific political, social and economic conditions of the Eastern Province: vast stretches of unpopulated land, with ample abundance of untamed livestock, which was used for cattle farming. The gaucho does not correspond to any single ethnic type, but is the product of miscegenation in the region of the Rio de la Plata. He lived from odd jobs and smuggling skins and cattle. For all his tasks, the gaucho relied on his horse. Horses were introduced by the Europeans at the end of the sixteenth century, and thence emerged the typical local breed in Uruguay, “the creole horse.” Those are relatively small horses with a slow trot, but with an impressive ability to maintain a steady trot over a long time, running on little food and against adverse weather conditions. The horse was the gaucho’s faithful partner in all the fieldwork, and in battles, also his recreation and transportation. The horse and the gaucho made up a functional unit. A gaucho without a horse was not worth his name. This historical tradition is nowadays reflected in the majority of Uruguayan ranches that specialize in horses. The visitors can interact with and mount the ranch horses in various serene spots across the Uruguayan countryside. Horseback riding has also been established as a pleasurable pastime and a mode of healing – equine therapy.
In a similar fashion, the mate has been known as a loyal companion to the gaucho as well as the modern Uruguayan. The mate is an infusion of Guarani origin, bitter in taste, prepared from the leaves of the yerba mate tree. It is considered an authentic national drink. The word itself, “mate,” derives from the Quechua word “mati” that signifies “pumpkin.” The conquistadors used this word to refer to what the Guarani people called “caiguá,” which means “what belongs to yerba,” or “from yerba.” Even though it can be savored in any context, the yerba mate is a beverage that should be shared in a circle, as an occasion for getting together and socializing. The yerba mate drinking customs feature lots of rituals that go beyond mere beverage consumption, but establish an interactive exchange between the one who prepares it and the one who takes it. As proof of the centrality of mate’s place in Uruguayan culture, a lively repertoire of slang idiomatic expressions has developed around the magical word/concept. Thus, if you wish to express forgiveness, invite the guilty party for a mate con café. When you mean marriage, brew some mate con miel. As sign of acceptance, take mate con cedrón. If you have to make it clear that somebody’s visit is undesirable, bring out mate con ombú. Mate hirviendo (piping-hot mate) is the unmistakable sign of hatred. And when you need to send someone away to drink at another place, serve some mate lavado (mate brewed from overused leaves).
Given that the majority of the Uruguayan population comes from European stock, primarily Spain and Italy, Uruguayan Spanish features considerable Italian influence. Cocoliche is still spoken as a creole mixture of Spanish and Italian, whereas in the northern regions close to the border with Brazil, a fusion dialect known as Portuñol is in wide use, blending Spanish and Portuguese. The spirit of Uruguayan culture, composed of contrasting and warring elements, and yet blended neatly into a harmonious whole, can be captured most effectively in the course of three distinctive national ceremonies. The merienda teatime with yerba mate, and the asado barbecues, combine the strong, pungent flavors of local cuisine with the imperative for social bonding and communication across food preparation and sharing. Uruguayan carnivals stir up the settled Argentinian influences of gaucho culture, stomping and thumping with the Brazilian impact of the candombe folkloric percussion street bands of around fortyish musicians who pound their barrel-shaped drums in echoes of the music created by the Uruguayan Black population in the nineteenth century. Ultimately, the national passion for soccer, or football, has acted as a fabled and legendary glue sustaining cohesion and binding together this minuscule nation of immigrants into a tight-knit family, all mutually responsible for each other’s safety and success. This feeling extends from the miraculous triumph over Brazil at the World Cup in 1950, through improvised kids’ practice matches in the streets, to one of the most efficient social security and welfare system in South America. Uruguay is all for one, one for all.
Folleto informativo emitido por la Dirección General de Turismo del Departamento de Maldonado.
Museo del Gaucho y de la Moneda.
Uruguay Visión 2011. Ministerio de Turismo y Deporte.
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