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Whenever I spend a lot of time in a country, I like to visit a smaller neighboring country to the northeast. From Thailand I went to Laos, from India to Bangladesh, and now from Argentina I visited Uruguay. It’s important to take these side trips to get a better perspective on the culture of your primary travel destination. These countries give a better basis for comparison than your home country, so they can reveal a lot. Then, on returning to the larger country, you feel in some way like you are coming home. Also, you get another passport stamp. Actually, that’s really the first reason anyone goes to these secondary countries. Bonus points if most people can’t locate the country on a map. Any traveler who says otherwise is lying.

Along with my vacationing friend from the U.S., I went to Uruguay for a few days to get my stamp, and see a few places too. We traveled to Montevideo and Colonia, two of the country’s three destinations of any note. From the first day in the capital of Montevideo, the difference between Uruguay and Argentina was clear. Whereas in Argentina, people frequently drink mate, in Uruguay they simply never stop drinking it. Mate (MAH-tay) is sort of like tea, except instead of a tea cup they use a dried out gourd, instead of sipping they drink it through a filtered metal straw, and instead of steeping with a tea bag they stuff the gourd nearly to the brim with yerba leaves. The preparation and drinking ritual is often communal, performed among friends, say, sitting in a circle in a park. One person fills the gourd with hot water, passes to someone to drink it dry, then it returns to the water-filler. The taste is very bitter and it has some mysterious chemical properties. It looks like it should be illegal.

The phenomenon is quite apparent in Argentina, particularly away from the city. But in Uruguay it looks like an obsession. Everywhere in Montevideo, people walk around with their gourd in hand and a thermos of hot water cradled in their elbows. One arm devoted to mate, they must do anything else with a single hand. Or, they can buy a special leather shoulder bag, sold all over, designed specifically to carry this mate paraphernalia. I know what you’re thinking—a Uruguayan walking the streets of Seattle would certainly think it strange how all the people are attached to little paper coffee cups. But at least we don’t have to carry our own hot water supply.

The other area in which Uruguay has Argentina clearly beat is in cobblestone streets. In the world of contemporary urban and travel fashion, cobblestone is in. Whatever city had the foresight centuries ago to build streets out of little stones and then the self-discipline to not pave them over in all those bumpy years is reaping the rewards today. “A charming neighborhood of cobblestone streets” is a guide book cliché and a visitors’ delight. Why we love them so much I’m not sure, but it’s probably because cobblestone has some vague European connotation, and Europe has a vague cultural connotation, and we want something cultural when we travel. They also satisfy another travel criteria: authenticity. No city fakes its cobblestones.

On the cobblestone scale, the town of Colonia, Uruguay is second to none. Sure, the old quarter of the city has a small maze of streets paved entirely with old stones. But what sets Colonia apart is its occasional blocks of streets made of large, irregularly shaped rocks that seem to have been dropped at random. They rise and fall unpredictably with occasional gaping holes. These streets are closed to cars, and walking on them without hiking boots is a bit difficult as well. Leisurely strolls turn into focused treks. Women do not wear heals in Colonia. If cobblestone streets are good, then rock streets must be better. It’s all part of the charm.

Colonia has had a long time to age this charm. It was founded as a Portuguese colony in 1680 as a staging ground for smuggling goods in and out of the renegade Spanish port of Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires was having a slow start. The Spanish crown required trade to go through the west coast of the continent, routed through Lima, which was closer to the silver mines of Bolivia and the Andes. In fact, Argentina hardly mattered at all to Spain because it had no silver. This did not deter its early settlers. Like Greenland and Rome, Georgia, Argentina first gave itself a misleading name, derived from the Latin word for silver, “argentum.” Buenos Aires also sits on the wide mouth of the Rio de la Plata, or “Silver River.” The names may have only fooled people for so long, but Buenos Aires was still a good location for a port handling the area’s non-mineral riches. But without approval from Europe, it was a stealthy port of smugglers. Colonia, a short sail away, was the Portuguese attempt to get in on the action.

With its colonial architecture largely preserved, and frequent ferry service to Buenos Aires, Colonia is now a popular tourist destination for weekending Argentines or stamp-seeking travelers. Buenos Aires has roots going back several centuries, but for the most part the city is just 150 years old, and its architecture much younger. The original area of Colonia looks a lot like it did 300 years ago. You can tell by those cobblestones. It’s the oldest place I’ve seen on this trip, which along with its smallness made for a very nice change of pace.

The nation of Uruguay was founded as a buffer zone between the frequently skirmishing Spanish Argentina and Portuguese Brazil. You may not expect a buffer zone country to have much of a culture or identity, or to deliver much more than a passport stamp. But Uruguay has its own quirks and charms well past its border guards. I won’t say it’s worth a trip of it’s own, but if you find yourself in the neighborhood, you should definitely cross over to see.

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