It’s been said that Antoine Griezmann, Barcelona striker and 2018 FIFA World Cup winner with France, is the most Uruguayan of the French people. As he himself has acknowledged more than once, the close fraternal ties he has cemented, throughout his career, with Uruguayan coaches and players such as Martín Lasarte, Carlos Bueno, Diego Godín and José María Giménez have been decisive in his professional development, and even in the formation of his personality. Everyone in Uruguay fondly remembers the press conference after the World Cup final in Russia, when, with the blue and white flag wrapped around his shoulders, he uttered a “Uruguay, nomá” (probably the most characteristic cheering motto in our country, meaning roughly “Uruguay, hell, yeah!”) that greatly touched Uruguayan people. But much more than those nice gestures, it’s his adoption of one of our most deeply rooted traditions what makes Uruguayans have a soft spot for the French player: his genuine passion for “mate”.
This herbal infusion, probably Uruguay’s most distinctive hallmark, is a long-established tradition that the inhabitants of this country proudly display wherever they are: both within borders and abroad. Uruguayans do cherish their traditions—whether it’s mate, asado, soccer, folkloric music or countryside culture, they are all zealously preserved and respected.
Let’s go over some of them.
Uruguayan traditions: the “mate”
A number of historians have agreed that the origin of “mate” dates back to pre-colonial times. Back then, Guaraní natives consumed a herb infusion out of a gourd cup, which is the actual “mate”. This practice was quickly adopted by the European colonizers and later by their descendants, already born in American territory. Eventually, it became a custom that today is shared by several countries.
But in relation to the number of inhabitants, Uruguay is the country that consumes the most “mate” herb. And that’s everywhere to be seen. Men, women, young people and adults, all of them with a thermos under their arm and a “mate” in their hand– that’s probably the most typical image around here. The “rounds of mate” –a group of persons who share a “mate” cup while having a nice talk– are very much part of the country’s idiosyncrasy, a country that can hardly be conceived without this tradition.
The “mate” herb has beneficial properties to health– for example, it’s a good antioxidant and depurative, in addition to providing vitamins, iron, magnesium and potassium. But for Uruguayans, “mate” is much more than a beneficial drink—it’s a social behavior. Uruguayan anthropologist and poet Daniel Vidart says that “mate is society and sociability, a practice that congregates men and arouses wills, a stockyard of human trust in midst of an unpleasant and hostile world.”
If you want to buy a “mate” and a “bombilla” (sort of metal straw used to drink the infusion from the gourd cup), our recommendation would be to visit the “Mercado de los Artesanos” (Arts & Crafts Market). There you will find several stalls selling all you need to drink “mate” as Uruguayans do. And since you are there, you can grab the opportunity to buy some other souvenirs from your visit to Montevideo.
Uruguayan traditions: El asado (The roast)
The “asado” –-usually beef meat, but not only, grilled over wood embers– is a core part of the Uruguayan identity. In fact, Uruguay is the country with the highest consumption of meat in the world: 132 pounds per person per year.
Short ribs are probably the most common beef cut for grilling. However, the options are very varied– virtually any part of the heifer or steer can be grilled. In addition, people usually grill other meat products along with the beef, such as sausages and blood sausages, made of beef and pork. To go with the meat, lettuce and tomato salad and “Russian salad” (potato and carrot with peas and mayonnaise) are usually served; French fries and baked potatoes are also among the favorites. But don’t fail to try the grilled vegetables– peppers, for example, or potatoes and sweet potatoes wrapped in foil and cooked on the embers. The provolone cheese melted is another not-to-be-missed recommendation!
Grilling meat is a tradition passed down from generation to generation. Uruguayan families usually have an “official” grill chef that knows exactly how everyone likes their beef: well-done, medium or rare, and receives the customary “round of applause for the grill chef” when everyone finally sits down at the table. Houses usually have a barbecue where to grill meat on weekends or whenever you find an excuse to gather with family or friends.
Eating “asado” in a grill restaurant
However, eating “asado” is not restricted to the family sphere. All Uruguayan cities, even the tiniest, can boast of having a grill restaurant. In Montevideo, you can’t fail to go to the traditional Mercado del Puerto (Port Market)— it’s almost a mandatory stop. El Palenque, chosen by Bloomberg as one of the 30 best places in the world to eat meat, is located within its premises. La Estacada, a hidden venue in the middle of the city, a few meters away from the Punta Carretas Lighthouse, is another interesting option, as well as Lo de Silverio, in the Villa Dolores district, which is often attended by renowned Uruguayan musicians.
In these restaurants, and others of the sort, the “asado” is done on a grill installed inside the premises, within sight of the customers. The waiters will always consult the clients about how they like their meat– while there are those who love munching on a rare juicy steak, others prefer it medium done, and there are even those who like their beef to be served almost burned. After all, everyone is entitled to their own taste.
Uruguayan traditions: soccer
No one in the world (nor in Uruguay) can explain how a country of just over three million people has managed to have such a glorious history in the world’s most popular sport.
What made “la celeste” (as Uruguayans affectionately call their national team) succeed in winning two World Championships, two Olympic Games and fifteen American Cups? How does this small nation manage to produce footballers who are among the best in the world? Players like Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani or Diego Godin.
One possible explanation is that, for Uruguayans, soccer is not just a sport—it’s a long-established tradition deeply rooted in our culture, and as such has greatly contributed to the development of our country’s personality. The so-called “garra charrúa” (an idiosyncratic kind of bravery), which knew its peak in the 1950 World Cup final win over Brazil in the Maracaná Stadium, goes beyond the mere sporting field. It’s a metaphor of how Uruguayans move forward, even in the most unfavorable circumstances (and sometimes precisely because of them), making every effort and more.
Every young person in Uruguay plays soccer at some point during their childhood– at school, in a club, in a field near their home or on the beach. Everyone, boys and girls, have kicked a ball at some time in their lives, and many of them have continued to play it over the years. Almost every day of the week (but especially on weekends) there usually are matches and championships between teams of high school or university students, office mates, and even school parents’ groups — thousands and thousands of fans running after the ball.
Uruguayan soccer history
Soccer’s most iconic spot in Uruguay is the “Estadio Centenario”, which was built to serve as the playing venue of the First World Cup held in 1930, and later was declared as a monument of world football by FIFA. Under one of its grandstands is located a museum devoted to the century-long history of the national team and the Uruguayan clubs. More than 30,000 square feet to learn about this fascinating history, including objects that belonged to the 1924 and 1928 Olympic champion teams, as well as to José Nasazzi and Obdulio Varela, captains of the winning teams that lift the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, respectively. This is a good starting point to try and understand the extraordinary relationship between Uruguayans and football.
Uruguayan traditions: folk music
“Tango” and “candombe” are probably the musical rhythms more easily identified with Uruguay abroad. But within borders, other music styles are also heard, creating a soundtrack to the country that may surprise many a foreign visitor.
Rhythms such as the milonga, chamarrita, cielito, vidalita and ranchera developed as a mixture of the musical traditions brought by the European immigrants and certain regional aspects. The unmistakable sound of the classical guitar is prominent in these rhythms, that are mostly heard outside Montevideo, i.e. in the countryside.
Many of these songs speak of the traditions of the countryside, and of the life of its people. Folk music events are usually held in small towns located inland. Uruguay’s great outdoors has a thriving folk music community which you can’t fail to learn about.
Uruguayan folk music has historically produced great performers and composers who managed to gain international recognition—figures such as Alfredo Zitarrosa, “Los Olimareños” duo (José Luis “Pepe” Guerra and Braulio López), José Carbajal “el Sabalero”, and Aníbal Sampayo, toured America and Europe playing and spreading Uruguayan popular and folk music.
Today, Uruguayan folklore has widely known and cherished figures such as Héctor Numa Moraes and the Larbanois – Carrero duo (made up of Eduardo Larbanois and Mario Carrero), but new voices have also joined this close knitted community– the “Copla Alta” duo, the “Matices” band and the “Ricacosa” quartet have joined forces to keep this long-established tradition alive.
Listening to Uruguayan folklore
If you want to know what Uruguayan folk music sounds like or buy a record, you can go to the “Ayuí Discos” label store. Located at the entrance of the El Galpón Theatre, in downtown Montevideo, it has one of the largest and most exhaustive catalogs of Uruguayan musicians.
Uruguayan traditions: countryside culture
Ever since the first cattle were introduced in Uruguay in the 17th century, the countryside has been both the economic engine of the country and the place where the national identity was forged. Semi nomads, skilled horsemen and guardians of the rural customs and traditions, the “gauchos” (sort of local cowboys) were in charge of the cattle, thus having a crucial role in this historical process. Nowadays, the traditional “gaucho” has given way to the “paisano” (people born and raised in the country), who fondly preserves the culture of the countryside.
This culture is especially influenced by the distinctive relationship between man and horse. You will discover that horses are much more than working animals around here. The so-called “jineteadas” are very common in the countryside—a feat in which the horse rider must remain mounted on a wild horse, which, in turn, tries to get rid of the said rider. “Raid” competitions are also frequently held—it’s an endurance ride testing the stamina and the capabilities of both rider and horse.
Naturally, music is deeply ingrained in this rural culture. It’s here where folk music has its natural space, but this is also the environment where the art of the so-called “payada” is developed—an improvised story in verse, accompanied by a guitar, in which the “payador” (the performer) tells amusing and compelling stories about the countryside. Many times, these “payadas” are a sort of freestyle battle between two performers who compete against each other trying to better themselves (and their rival) in originality, in a dispute enthusiastically celebrated by their audience.
You can bring back home some typical souvenir such as a “poncho” (a warm outer garment without sleeves), a knife with a carved handle, a beret or a belt. “Costumbres Uruguayas” is a shop located in the Carrasco district where you will find these and other items that, once back at home, will make you feel closer to this land and its traditions.
not to be missed
These traditions are cherished every day, all over the country. Uruguayans are proud of their customs, and grab the chance to passionately follow them wherever they are and whenever they can. Nevertheless, there are certain events that celebrate them in a specific way.
National Festival of “Mate” – San José
Every year, between February and March, the “maragatos” (the name given to the people from the department of San Jose) organize the “National Festival of “Mate”. Among other attractions, there’s an Arts & Crafts market where you can buy your own “mate” cup– the variety of shapes, colors, and materials is endless. In addition, there are various activities such as folkloric dance contests and “gaucho” parades on horseback through the city. While in the evening, there are heavily attended musical shows.
Grilled hide-on meat Festival – Lascano, Rocha
Even though its official name is “Regional Festival of Integration”, it’s commonly known as the “Grilled hide-on meat Festival”. The inhabitants of Lascano proudly boasts of being the capital of the grilled hide-on meat. Unlike the traditional “asado”, in this case almost the whole animal is placed on the grill (usually heifer, but can also be lamb or pork) without removing the hide. The grilling takes several hours– depending on the size of the piece, it can take up to 8 or 9 hours. But this type of cooking renders the meat incredibly tasty and tender. The wait is definitely worth it.
During the festival (which takes place every year between the end of March and the beginning of April), this dish is the central theme. But you can also try other foods typical of the area. In the evening there are lively shows, mainly of folk music.
Soccer at Estadio Centenario – Montevideo
Even if you’re not a fan of soccer, if you’re lucky enough to be in Montevideo when the Uruguayan national team plays at home, don’t fail to go to the Estadio Centenario. It’s an electrifying experience that will surely give you goosebumps– a fantastic party, sky-blue all around, that gets going when people start to arrive in the surroundings of the stadium, long before the referee blows the starting whistle.
If the national team is not playing, but you are a devoted soccer fan anyway, try and watch a Peñarol or Nacional match at home. Nacional’s stadium –called “Gran Parque Central” (Great Central Park)—is a landmark located near downtown Montevideo. Actually, the first match ever in the World Cup match was played there in 1930. Peñarol’s stadium — called Champion of the Century–, meanwhile, is located on the outskirts of Montevideo, a short distance from the Carrasco airport. Inaugurated in 2016, it’s the most state-of-the-art stadium in the country.
National Festival of Folklore – Durazno
Every February, the city of Durazno hosts the country’s most important folk music contest. Many of the musicians and singers that participate in this competition achieve the exposure they needed to gain greater success at a national level. But there are also very well-known artists who are the main attraction to the Festival. At the same time, next to the festival site, a “gaucho” gathering is held with equestrian activities as its core.
Patria Gaucha Festival – Tacuarembó
There’s no better place to learn about how the “gauchos” used to live in Uruguay, what their customs were and what kind of activities they carried out, than the Patria Gaucha Festival that is celebrated every first weekend in March. Dozens of “aparcerías” –traditional groups and societies that zealously preserve the traditions of the countryside– recreate the life of the “gauchos” and the places where they lived and developed their activities. This get-together takes place in a natural environment, all around the “Laguna de las Lavanderas” (Washerwomen’s Lagoon) in Tacuarembó city. In addition, there are musical shows with local and regional artists.
Cover photo: Eduardo Amorim