Uruguay - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Uruguay: the Bradt Travel Guide

The wars of independence

Spain’s colonies were never allowed to develop, other than as sources of raw materials, but a criollo (native-born) middle class did grow up and was increasingly able to run its own affairs. Spain allied itself with Napoleon’s France, and in June 1806 British forces captured Buenos Aires; the royalist forces proved to be useless, but the British were driven out in August by the naval officer Santiago Liniers, who landed with troops and militia forces from Montevideo. The British, once reinforced, crossed the Plate, capturing Maldonado and then Montevideo after a fierce battle on 3 February 1807. In July they again attacked Buenos Aires, defeated Liniers but failed to occupy the city at once; when they did attack they met fierce resistance in which half the British forces were either killed or wounded. The British withdrew to Montevideo, abandoning that as well in September 1807 after a peaceful occupation.

In 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain and forced King Carlos IV to abdicate, putting his brother on the throne instead. The Governor of Montevideo, Francisco Javier de Elío, pressured Liniers (now Viceroy of the Plate, but French-born) to declare his loyalty to the Spanish crown, but Liniers issued an ambiguous statement. Accused of complicity with Napoleon by Elío and the cabildo (council) of Buenos Aires, he summoned Elío to Buenos Aires, replacing him with Juan Ángel de Michelena. The citizens of Montevideo backed Elío and called for a cabildo abierto (open council), held on 21 September 1808; Michelena fled and a royalist Junta (ruling council) was set up, a crucial phase in the Banda Oriental’s development of an identity separate to Buenos Aires. Only in May 1810 did the criollo people of Buenos Aires set up an autonomous Junta, forcing the viceroy to move to Montevideo.

A certain José Gervasio Artigas, who had fought under Liniers in Buenos Aires and then in the defence of statue of general artigas montevideo uruguay by jess kraft shutterstockMontevideo where he was wounded and captured, went in the opposite direction, deserting from the army and heading for Buenos Aires in February 1811 to join the movement for independence of the Banda Oriental from Spanish rule, which had begun with the Grito de Asencio (the ‘Cry of Asencio’) (27 February 1811), and the capture of Mercedes and Santo Domingo de Soriano the next day. He returned in April with around 180 men, defeating Spanish forces at the Battle of Las Piedras in May and besieging Montevideo. Threatened by armies from both Buenos Aires and Brazil, he led perhaps 10,000 soldiers and civilians across the Río Uruguay from Salto in the so-called Exodo del Pueblo Oriental (Exodus of the Eastern People); having regrouped, he returned in 1812 to beat the Spanish at El Cerrito and was acclaimed as leader of the Orientales in December. In January 1813 a congress in Buenos Aires claimed independence for the whole of the Spanish viceroyalty; in April a meeting of the Orientales (presided over by Artigas) at Tres Cruces accepted this but with conditions (known as the ‘Instrucciones del Año XIII’) specifying autonomy for the provinces within a federation and the separation of the three branches of government. In 1814 an army from Buenos Aires drove the Spanish from Montevideo, and was in turn driven out in 1815 by Oriental forces under Fructuoso Rivera, securing the autonomy of the Provincia Oriental at the Battle of Guayabos. Artigas attended the congress in Concepción del Uruguay (in present-day Argentina) at which the provinces of the Banda Oriental, Córdoba, Corrientes, Entre Ríos, Misiones and Santa Fe declared their independence from Spain and formed the Liga Federal (Federal League), in opposition above all to Buenos Aires, which saw itself as capital of the United Provinces of the Plate. With the tacit backing of Buenos Aires, a Portuguese army invaded, capturing Montevideo in January 1817; Artigas held the interior of the country for the next three years, but his federalist allies, the Governors of Santa Fe and Entre Ríos, came to an agreement with Buenos Aires and abandoned him. In 1820 he was defeated by the Portuguese at Tacuarembó and went into exile in Paraguay, staying there until his death in 1850.

(Picture: A statue of General Artigas, Montevideo © Jess Kraft, Shutterstock)

The Brazilians were welcomed as protection from the domination of Buenos Aires; in 1821 the Congreso Cisplatina in Montevideo voted for the incorporation of the province within the Portuguese Empire (and thus from 1822 the independent Brazil). However, the United Provinces of the River Plate now backed the Orientals (led by Rivera and Juan Antonio Lavalleja) in an independence struggle; the Cruzada Libertadora (Crusade of Liberation) began on 19 April 1825 when 33 Orientals (the famous Treinta y Tres Orientales or 33 Easterners) led by Juan Antonio Lavalleja landed at the Playa de la Agraciada; the next day they joined up with Rivera (although accounts vary as to how willing Rivera was to ally himself with Lavalleja – one version has him being captured and forced to sign on pain of death). In June 1825 a provisional government was formed in Florida, where on 25 August a congress of deputies of the Provincia Oriental voted this time for independence within the United Provinces. Brazil went to war with the United Provinces, blockading the ports of Montevideo and Buenos Aires, but was hampered by internal revolts in raising a decent army. After Lavalleja’s victory at Sarandí in October 1825 the Argentines joined the war against Brazil and eventually peace and Uruguayan independence were mediated by the British diplomat Lord John Ponsonby, Britain being anxious to create a buffer state between Argentina and Brazil to secure its trade interests in the region. The war ended in August 1828 and an Asamblea Constituyente y Legislativa (constituent and legislative assembly) met to draw up a constitution, approved in September 1829 and sworn nationwide on 18 July 1830. It created a democratic republic now known as the República Oriental del Uruguay (Oriental Republic of Uruguay).

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Uruguay: the Bradt Travel Guide

arequita hill lavalleja uruguay by marquicio pagola shutterstockArequita Hill, Lavalleja © Marquicio Pagola, Shutterstock


While not the flat pampas of popular imagination, most of Uruguay is nevertheless grassland, and remarkably unforested – despite plentiful water resources and seemingly suitable sheltered locations, natural forest covers only 3½% of the country’s area. About 3% more has been planted with trees, most noticeably eucalyptus in the west of the country to feed pulp mills, but also pine, especially around Rivera. In addition large areas along the coasts were planted with pines around a century ago to control the sand dunes and make the area fit for development.



It has to be said that native mammals are not exactly thick on the ground – sometimes it seems as if the European boar (Sus scrofa) and hare (Lepus europaeus) are the most common animals, together with the introduced axis deer (Axis axis) and fallow deer (Dama dama). However, you may see skunks (Conepatus chinga) and the weasel-like lesser grisón (Galictis cuja).


roseate spoonbill platalea ajaja argentina by agustin esmoris shutterstockRoseate spoonbill (Platalea Ajaja) © Agustin Esmoris, Shutterstock

Uruguay is home to a huge variety of birds relative to its area, with 459 species, a quarter of the total in Brazil (whose area is 48 times larger) and 40% of those in Argentina (16 times larger). The greatest number of species (311) are found in the Bañados del Este, the wetlands along the Atlantic coast.

Reptiles and amphibians

There are over 100 reptiles and amphibians, including around 35 species of snakes, notably the crossed pit viper (crucero, víbora de la cruz or yarará; Bothrops alternatus), up to 1.4m in length, regarded as the most dangerous snake in Uruguay, although its bite rarely kills (and it plays an important role in controlling rodents). A smaller relative is the yara (B. pubescens). The cascabel (vibora de cascabel; Crotalus durissus terrificus) is almost as long at 1.3m, and is very rare, only being found in northeastern Uruguay. The coral snake (vibora de coral; Micrurus altirostris) is smaller and has its fangs set at the rear of its jaw, so that it’s virtually incapable of poisoning a human. There are other smaller snakes, especially on the islands of the Río Uruguay, where the yellow anaconda (Eunectes notaeus) may also be found. This is also where the broad-snouted caiman (yacaré; Caiman latirostris), a small alligator, thrives.


There are over 400 species of fish in Uruguay – saltwater, freshwater and those in the Río de la Plata which can’t quite make up their minds, such as sharks, sea bass (corvina) and rays, including the catchily named Plate skate (Atlantoraja platana), fanskates (Sympterygia spp) and sandskates (Psammobatis spp). There are over 20 species of pejerrey (silverside or silvermelt) of several genera, including the freshwater silverside (Odontesthes bonariensis) and the Río Negro basin silverside (O. humensis). Sharks in particular, such as the hammerhead shark (tiburón martillo; Sphyrna spp) and the vitamin or glass-snouted shark (tiburón vitamínico or trompa de cristal; Galeorhinus galeus), come to breed in the estuary of the Plate, where the Brazil and Malvinas/Falklands currents meet rivers bearing silt from the interior of the continent, stirring up a very nutritious soup. Other sea fish that you may at least find in restaurants include the brótola (Urophycis brasiliensis) and sea bream (sargo; Diplodus argenteus).

People and culture

Abridged from the Culture section in Uruguay: the Bradt Travel Guide

Uruguay’s population is close to 3.5 million, almost all on the coast and littoral and overwhelmingly urban, with 43% of the population living in Montevideo. As a largely secular urbanised society, it’s no surprise that population growth is low (the lowest in South America, at 0.466%) but that life expectancy is high, at 76½ years.

The indigenous population has been essentially wiped out, although 8% of the population are mestizo (of mixed European and native descent). African slaves were brought in considerable numbers but have now been largely assimilated – just 4% of Uruguayans are black, but 10% of Uruguayans (over 13% of those under 20) claim to be afrodescendiente, although many are broadly indistinguishable from the bulk of the populace. The Afro-Uruguayan cultural influence is, however, far stronger than this would lead you to expect, with candombé drumming and carnaval in general a key part of Uruguayan identity throughout the population. However, 56% of Afro-Uruguayan children live below the poverty line, and the average black wage is 70% of the average white wage; in Montevideo, the Afro-Uruguayan areas of Barrio Sur and Palermo are clearly deprived and run-down, if with pockets of trendiness.

Most Uruguayans are in fact of Spanish and Italian stock – the first mass immigration, from c1824, was of French Basques, followed by their Spanish relatives. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was an exodus from southern Italy to Uruguay (as well as to Argentina and the United States) which has left pizza and pasta as omnipresent menu items and Italian words (and gestures) as distinctively Uruguayan aspects of the Spanish language. More Spaniards (especially Basques) arrived after 1936, fleeing Franco’s fascists.

You might think there is also a substantial population of Chinese and Koreans in Montevideo, but the groups of men you see hanging around are mainly crew from fishing and cruise ships. Nevertheless there are a few Chinese and Korean restaurants in the city.

As a small country, Uruguay has one iconic national painter (Joaquín Torres García), one national composer (Eduardo Fabini), one national novelist (Juan Carlos Onetti) and even one national philosopher (Carlos Vaz Ferreira) – but in fact this belies the range and quantity of cultural activity. There’s a profusion of artists, writers and musicians, some living and working abroad, and architecture in particular is currently bringing the country worldwide recognition.

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