Updated on June 13, 2010
10 Tips for an American in Uruguay
I have stated this before, but will shamefully admit once again that before Sand and I left for Uruguay, I did not research about Uruguay or what it would be like. I did read the Uruguay section in Lonely Planet, but really it just doesn’t count.
Luckily for me, Sand loves to read online and researches Everything. So, I benefited greatly from his vast amounts of knowledge about Uruguayan customs and have compiled a list of the tips he told me before we left that Lonely Planet never could have mentioned.
1. Waste baskets next to the toilet: The Uruguayan plumbing system is not what you are used to at home. The plumbing is not nearly as good nor is it well suited for traditional American uses; this means whenever there is a garbage can next to the toilet, all of your paper goes in there.
A note for women: I am not really sure about tampons, but my general thoughts about tampons is that they should go into the waste basket as well. If the plumbing cannot take thin paper, then it probably can’t take denser cotton.
2. Mate: The national drink of Uruguay is yerba mate. Enjoying this tea is definitely an acquired taste so many people do not like it at first, but it may seem like every Uruguayan does. It is not uncommon to see Uruguayans walking, driving, talking, biking, or doing anything else with a mate and termos. Uruguay is well known for drinking mate, especially in public (which you are less likely to see in Argentina). Sharing mate is a great way to get to know locals or put a smile on any Uruguayan’s face that sees a gringo drinking it.
Also mate is not sold in any restaurants, so if you would like to try some in Uruguay you are better off going to a street vendor to find a mate and bombilla and then to the grocery store, or mate store, to purchase some yerba. If you would like to try it in weaker amounts, Tazo tea makes a version of yerba mate that comes in a regular teabag…
3. Uruguayans speak castellano: Even if you have learned some Spanish in the US, you probably have not learned castellano if you were not taught by an Uruguayan. Basically, the difference is any word that would normally have the “y” sound in it, is pronounced with a “sh” sound instead. This includes words with “ll” and “y” but can also include others. This phenomenon is more thoroughly explained here by Sand.
4. Meat: Uruguayans eat a lot of meat here and because Argentina and Uruguay have some of the best meat in South America it is quite abundant here. This may be some bad news for vegetarians as finding salads is fairly difficult in restaurants and once you find them, they tend to be lettuce, tomato slices, and onions lined up in rows. I highly suggest bringing some vitamins, or finding a taste for mate as it seems to be somewhat like a liquid salad.
5. La Rambla: The sea is very important to Uruguayans, and all coastal cities and towns have a rambla. Ramblas are walkways along the beach where no one builds restaurants, or arcades, or anything that you would think of on an American boardwalk. The Rambla is kind of sacred and on any weekend with nice weather, this is where you will find nearly all the locals.
6. Uruguay is a very relaxed country. This characteristic can be both a good and bad thing for Americans visiting. It is really nice to not feel rushed everywhere and to not have people behind you looking grumpy at the supermarket because you don’t yet know the Uruguayan bills. But this can also be bad because the relaxed atmosphere carries over into every part of life. Generally, Uruguayans do not eat breakfast, or if they do it’s at around 10 am, they then have lunch at around 2, and can have dinner as late as 11 or 12 pm.
This can be really frustrating if you are used to eating at 8 am, noon and 6 pm because you may not find many restaurants open. Or, if they are open they will probably not be ready to serve any food so you will be waiting a while. It is also not uncommon to go to a friendly restaurant and wait over an hour for your meal. This country is just really relaxed.
7. Uruguayans use US dollars. Although the national currency in Uruguay is the peso Uruguayans also use the American dollar, especially for larger purchases. The Uruguayan economy recessed fairly badly in the 80’s and to help pull the nation up out of the recession stores began accepting only US dollars for expensive purchases. We have come across prices in US dollars for items from refrigerators to hair straighteners, but most of your everyday items and food expenses can be paid in pesos.
8. Uruguay is a very masculine country. What I mean by this is that it is not uncommon for a woman to walk down the street and get looks, whistles, comments from passing men. Although this might anger many American women I don’t believe the comments are meant to be demeaning. I almost feel like the looks and sexy comments said to women are more meant to be praise, especially as not all women are whistled at here.
9. I think many Uruguayans are overly paranoid. Sand and I have run into many Uruguayans who have told us how to stay safe in Montevideo and not to go out after dark, and where the dangerous parts of the city are. The thing is, there really is not all that much crime in Uruguay. Especially not violent crime.
In Punta del Diablo, Uruguay Sand and I have heard many stories of thieves who broke into an empty cabana to party or stole someone’s unmonitored purse, but we have not heard accounts of violent crime. The most we have heard of crimes with personal contact is where a traveler is walking around Montevideo and a group of children surrounds the traveler and the children distract the traveler while one child takes a wallet or money belt. I am not saying be dumb in Uruguay and flaunt your cash or expensive electronics, I am just saying that some of the warnings that you may receive from Uruguayans should be taken with a grain of salt.
10. This last one is only for women: Tampons do not come with applicators here. The only ones that are readily found are the o.b. brand that does not have applicators, so if this is a major problem for you, you may want to consider bringing a supply.
Honestly, if you are reading this post then you are doing more research into going to Uruguay than I did myself, but I guess I am trying to compensate. Good luck in your travels!