Uruguay: the spectacular country you know nothing about

Uruguay is one of the smallest countries in Latin America. And, scrambled between two giants, Brazil and Argentina, is often overlooked. But despite its small size, Uruguay is one of the most prosperous nations in the region and one of the most progressive countries in the world.

First things first - let’s do some fact checking.

Uruguay is actually the second smallest country in South America, only behind Suriname. The population of 3.42 million is concentrated mostly around Montevideo, the capital, whose metropolitan area is home to 1.8 million people.

The Portuguese (not the Spanish!) established the first European colony in Uruguay. In 1680, Colonia del Sacramento was one of the first European colonies in the continent. Uruguay would only become independent in 1828, after a 17 year war between Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Brazil. It remained under strong foreign influence during the 19th century. Jump to 2017, and it ranks first in Latin America in democracy and peace.

Today, most of Uruguay’s population (88%) traces its origin to either Spain or Italy (which is why Uruguayan Spanish absorbed Italian words). A lot of the original population actually came from other colonies, like Argentina and Brazil - and history seems to be repeating itself. 50% of all new residents come from these two countries. Even though Uruguay experienced a bad recession in the late 90s and early 2000s, it was the only Latin American country with positive indicators between 2007 and 2009. Since then, the economy has grown steadily: unemployment decreased and the GDP is still growing at a rate of 4% a year. Uruguay is the third best country in South America in terms of HDI and GDP growth; and the second best in economic freedom and income equality.

Why is Uruguay enjoying this prosperity?

One of the reasons for this steady growth and new-found stability is Uruguay’s varied economy. It’s the first exporter of software in the region, but it’s also a world leader in several agricultural goods: rice, soybeans and malt. Products from animal origin, like frozen beef, combed wool and milk play an important role as well. Plus, in a part of the world often plagued by corruption, Uruguay is notorious for the lack of it (fact - it ranks first in Latin America for the lack of corruption). This economic progress created a prosperous middle class truly unparalleled in South America.

Yet that’s not all that the economic progress sparked: Uruguay is highly ranked in innovation and infrastructure. Nowadays, it ranks first in Latin America in e-government, for example, and third-best for e-Participation in the world. The sustainable economy also helped to create a sustainable environment, and 95% of Uruguay’s electricity comes from renewable energy.

By now, you’re probably wondering how did all of this escape your radar. But we’ve already told you - Uruguay is often overlooked, apart from The Economist’s  2013 nod as “country of the year”. And just as its stunning economic progress was ignored, so were its socially progressive measures.

In 2013, Uruguay made marijuana completely legal. The production, sale and consumption of cannabis were all legalized - an uncommon stance in the continent. In the same year, it also legalized same-sex marriage and equal access to IVF. Both on a regional and global scale, Uruguay is a leader in protecting personal rights and promoting tolerance.

As for the arts, you might want to check out Casapueblo. It’s a house, a museum, a labyrinth and a hotel imagined by Carlos Páez Vilaró.

As of 2017, Uruguay has definitely stepped out of Argentina's shade. Montevideo is Buenos Aires' little brother who's making it on its own right - and stealing the spotlight.