National Geographic : 1948 Nov
The Purple Land of Uruguay BY LUIS MARDEN With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author S OME three-quarters of a century ago, W. H. Hudson rode the rolling plains of Uruguay and later described them in his unforgettable novel The Purple Land. The Uruguay he saw was a trackless and fenceless land of cattle ranches. Vast estancias receded into the purple land of distance. To day, this smallest republic of South America has become the most densely populated. Yet the traveler can still ride for miles in the interior without seeing a house or a human being. Smaller ranches predominate now, though there are plenty of big ones left. Agriculture grows increasingly important, but 80 percent of the land is still given over to the cattle industry. A professor of geography at the University of Uruguay told me: "Don't forget, our smallness is in great part relative. You could put Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland inside Uruguay and still have plenty of room left over. We look small on the map because maps of this hemisphere use a smaller scale than those of Europe, and also because of our tremendous neighbors." Two Great River Systems South of the Amazon Basin, the green conti nent of South America swings inward from the Atlantic and spills its water mainly into two great river systems: the Parana-Paraguay and the Uruguay. Winding southward for more than a thou sand miles, the brown and blue waters drain half a continent and rush together at last to emerge, wide and red, as the Rio de la Plata river, bay, or estuary-the geographers are still arguing about it (map, page 625). On the left bank of the Plata lies the heart shaped Republic of Uruguay, neatly spanning five degrees of latitude on the map. From its position the country was long called the Banda Oriental-the Eastern Shore of the Rio de la Plata. Even today Uruguayans like to be called Orientales. The little country on the Plata has been a leader in broadening educational opportunity. All schooling is free, and a Uruguayan citizen may progress from primary grades to a uni versity degree without spending a cent, even for books. Uruguay enacted the first 8-hour day in South America during World War I. Old age pensions were established later. The State also issues insurance and operates the railroads. In addition to private broadcasting stations, a Government transmitter in Montevideo plays popular and serious music almost con tinuously, without commercials. Thus the listener may choose between Beethoven and an ode to hair tonic. One night I sat on the terrace of a Monte video club with my geographer friend, Prof. Juan Lagomarsino. Across the indentation of the city's harbor we could see the low outline of the hill that gives the capital its name. Only 450 feet high, El Cerro, the Hill, looks much higher in this flat region and must have been a prominent landmark when, in 1520, according to the story, one of Magellan's sailors first cried, "I see a hill!" (Monte vid' eu). (Page 654.) Paris, not New York, was the model for Montevideo. From the roof terrace we looked down on the spacious avenues and palm shaded squares of the capital (page 631). Sidewalk cafes line the main thoroughfare, Eighteenth of July Avenue, and many statues and public monuments increase the resem blance to the French capital. Though tall office and apartment buildings rise above the downtown area, most buildings in this city of 800,000 are low, and we could see over them to the broad muddy background of the Rio de la Plata. The "unlovely red billows" of the Plata have the quick, restless chop of enclosed waters, rather than the slow swell of the open sea. What Is the Rio de la Plata? As we sat over coffee I asked, "Well, Pro fessor, what is it? Bay, estuary, or river?" I had always called the Plata an estuary. The Professor's face lighted up. "Ah, that is the question. It fulfills some of the condi tions of each. According to international law, it is a river; rivers of course belong to the countries on their banks. "If it is a river, then it is the world's widest-137 miles." Sketching rapidly in my notebook, the Pro fessor continued: "At first glance, you might think it an estuary; but it does not fulfill all the requirements of an estuary to the exact geographer.