A peaceful, laidback destination with a long history of liberalism (Uruguay was the first country to fully legalize marijuana) this pint-sized nation finds itself squeezed between Brazil and Argentina, and is often overshadowed by its heavyweight neighbours. However, as Uruguay has come to appreciate its subtle charms and small-scale attractions, so too have travellers.

Veer off the Gringo Trail and into Uruguay, and you will be pleasantly surprised. Considering its size, the country boasts an astonishing variety of diversions. Its windswept Atlantic coastline features dunes, lagoons and perfect surf; visitors can hop between hip beach resorts, clustered around the chic Punta del Este, abscond to sleepy fishing villages or take wildlife excursions to see penguins, sea lions and whales. The interior is equally rewarding. Journey up the Rio de la Plata and discover charming colonial towns, thermal springs and working haciendas, which offer an authentic taste of traditional gaucho life.

The jewel in Uruguay’s crown, though, is the capital, Montevideo. Punching well above its weight culturally and economically, this buzzing metropolis is classified as a Beta World City and is considered the most gay-friendly city in Latin America. Montevideo is a handsome place of stunning architecture, breezy promenades and sandy beaches. It’s also home to the world’s longest carnival, a heady six-week street party that puts other South American cities to shame.

Sleepy Colonia del Sacramento is another gem. Situated on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, opposite Buenos Aires, this amorous city offers enchanting cobbled streets, leafy plazas and 18th-century Portuguese architecture. It’s unflappably laidback, but for something even cooler head to Cabo Polonio, an off-grid eco-resort founded by hippies and fishermen, where the stresses of modern life ebb away and there’s time to appreciate nature and likeminded people.

All things considered, Uruguay should be treated like one of its famous beefsteaks; take your time over it, savour it and when you’re done, come back for more. You’ll never get your fill.

Area:

176,215 sq km (68,037 sq miles).

Population:

3,444,071 (UN estimate 2016).

Population density:

19 per sq km.

Capital:

Montevideo.

Government:

Republic.

Head of state:

President Tabaré Vázquez since 2015.

Head of government:

President Tabaré Vázquez since 2015.

Electricity:

220 volts AC, 50Hz. European-style plugs (two round pins) and Australian-style plugs (three flat, angled pins) are used.