Just across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires lies the second-smallest nation in South America. But while Uruguay is a little place, it certainly makes a big impression. With an impressive living standard, high literacy rate, large urban middle class, and excellent social services -- including the best medical care system in South America -- it has become a model for other developing countries in the region. Despite its homogeneous population (mostly of European descent), Uruguay reveals splendid contrasts. This is a land of dusty colonial towns and sparkling beach resorts, of rough-and-ready gauchos and subtle artists and festive plazas. Uruguay is a place where soccer (fútbol) is worshipped without reserve, where the sun shines brightly and the air stays warm, where few question the dignity of their homeland. And despite the economic troubles of recent years, Uruguay remains a proud and peaceful nation.
Porteños (as residents of Buenos Aires are called) take the ferry over to Montevideo for the day to shop and to dine. Montevideo is the cultural heartland of Uruguay, a vibrant city where you can discover the bold accomplishments of Uruguay music, art, and literature. Outside the capital, pastureland and rolling hills draw your attention to a softer, quieter life. But this rural lifestyle stops at the coast, where world-class resorts centered around glitzy Punta del Este lure the continent's rich and famous. Porteños by the thousands descend on Punta during summer weekends. For a grander, quieter side trip, consider lovely Colonia del Sacramento, a UNESCO World Heritage City, only an hour away from Buenos Aires.