“How much time should we spend visiting your country?” I asked the young lady from Uruguay as we sat beside the pool at a hotel in Paraguay.
“It is a very small country. You could see everything in three days” she replied.
Uruguay is small. In fact, it is the smallest country in South America. With a population of just over three million people it is about the same size as Mississippi. And, with half of the country’s population living in the capitol city of Montevideo, the countryside and beach towns are very sparsely populated.
“There is not much to do in Uruguay” she continued. “The beaches are nice, the food is good, and there are a few nice cities, but Uruguay doesn’t have the dramatic landscapes and the adventure of the rest of South America. Uruguay is more European. Most of my friends find Uruguay to be pretty boring” she said.
“I don’t think that you will spend a lot of time in my country” the young woman said as she offered us a list of sites to see and the names of a few restaurants to visit.
With that advice, and knowing that we enjoy traveling slowly, we planned to spend about a week traveling through Uruguay on our way to Buenos Aries.
We arrived in Uruguay at the border town of Salto and rented a car for our driving tour of the country. We drove across the interior of the country and made our way to the northern Atlantic coast. We then spent a week driving south along the coast exploring the quaint beach towns and a few bustling cities.
By the end of the week we had slowly fallen in love with this quiet and peaceful country. Maybe it was the people, who were extremely hospitable and helpful. Maybe it was the culture which was relaxed and slow. Or, maybe it was the natural beauty of vast open spaces and unpopulated beaches. Regardless, we were not ready to leave.
Tucked in among it’s much larger neighbors, Uruguay is almost a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. I began to wonder if the young lady we met was purposefully discouraging international visitors in order to keep it hidden.
At the end of the week we decided to stay longer. We made our way to the capitol, Montevideo, and booked a second week long stay. There was so much more that we wanted to explore.
Montevideo is a bustling and modern capitol city. It is perfect for a refreshing walk along the beach or a relaxing stroll among colonial buildings. The restaurants are world class with excellent food, and the shopping malls are modern, elegant, bustling, and filled with luxury goods. Uruguay is also known for it's steaks and barbecue, or parrillada as it is called, and it's cuisine did not disappoint.
The Rambla is the city’s most prominent feature and is a twenty two kilometer beachfront boardwalk with restaurants, high rise condos, and activities like kite surfing, rollerblading, exercise stations. We enjoyed a long nighttime stroll on the Rambla as the lights of the city lit up the skyline and people of all ages took the opportunity to be outside.
The Plaza de la Independencia serves as a main square located in the center of the city. It is surrounded by tall commercial buildings and museums. Unlike most South American plazas, a Catholic Church was not located on the main square. The Teatre Solis is the cultural center of the country and holds that place of honor. While Uruguay’s larger neighbor, Argentina, claims the Tango, it was actually created in Uruguay at the site of the Tango Museum, also located on the plaza.
Towering above the plaza is the Palacio Salvo, which has been described as a lighthouse on top of a high rise building. It is one of the main landmarks of the city and was originally designed as a hotel. On a tour of the building we had a view of the entire city.
Carrasco is a barrio or neighborhood in Montevideo along the city’s coastline. It is the city’s most exclusive suburb and is home to a large and elegant casino resort. After touring the Carrasco Lawn Tennis Club, we could easily see ourselves enjoying this lifestyle settling down in this area.
As our infatuation with Uruguay grew, we began to research the benefits of retiring here. The lifestyle in Uruguay can best be described as healthy and stress free, or as the locals say, “tranquillo”. In Montevideo this can be seen everywhere. People sit along the river staring at the sea or enjoying the beach. Coffee shops and outdoor cafes are numerous. Everyone seems relaxed. Fitness buffs can be seen running, skating, or exercising at the outdoor gyms which the city maintains along the waterfront. Nobody seems to be in a rush.
Uruguay is free from most natural disasters. It is one of the few places in South America free from earthquakes and volcanoes. The climate is mild and adds to the laid back lifestyle. Summer high temperatures occasionally reach the 80s, and winter is short and freezing temperatures are rare.
What we found attractive is that Uruguay is one of the most stable and liberal countries in the world. Uruguay is a place where people believe in democracy and trust their government. Corruption is rare and not tolerated. Income inequality is not great and healthcare and higher education are universal and free to all citizens. Doing the math, we determined that we could actually live a luxurious lifestyle in Uruguay on just what we spend on insurance in the U.S.
Uruguay is also one of the world’s most liberal democracies. It is socially progressive and was the first country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage and to legalize marijuana. It allows foreigners to apply for citizenship and to immediately participate in the generous healthcare system. It allows foreigners to open bank accounts and own property with the same rights as citizens. It is also one of the easiest countries in which to acquire residence. Known as “the Switzerland of South America” Uruguay has secretive and secure banking laws.
Montevideo feels more European than South American. Most of the population claims European descent, mostly from Spanish and Italian immigrants. France, Germany, and Britain account for much of the rest. Authentic Italian restaurants are plentiful.
Uruguay is not the least expensive country in South America. But, most of the expats who have relocated there claim a dramatic increase in the quality of everyday living. A couple can live in Montevideo with good healthcare on $2,000 a month. The cost of living is lower than in the U.S. A furnished two-bedroom, ocean-view apartment in the nicest neighborhoods, with every amenity including utilities, can be had for as little as $800 a month. Violent crime is very rare.
The city has good public transportation, with buses costing about $1 a ride. Taxis around town generally run between $5 and $10. Uber and other ride share services are also available.
All in all we spent a week living in and walking around Montevideo. We fell in love with the calm, easygoing lifestyle, and the blend of European culture with a South American twist. The writer David Finzer once described Uruguay as "Eisenhower's America with English subtitles" and in many ways Uruguay is reminisscent of a simpler time of life in the 1950's. Having unexpectedly fallen in love with Uruguay, we will definitely be back!