I've Been Totally Wrong About Uruguay

Sitting beneath the canopy of a chic new restaurant overlooking the rambla, a jazzy cumba on the sound system softly keeping time with the ebb and flow of the waves beyond, I nurse a cold mojito and watch the sun slowly drop into the vast Atlantic Ocean.

I have to admit that I’ve been totally wrong about Uruguay. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I do…I figured it would be just another South American country struggling to catch up to the First World. I could not have been more mistaken. In many ways, Uruguay is more developed, more civilized and more advanced than the countries to its north. Pride is apparent and a squeaky clean affluence is everywhere.

For instance, just now, a giant SUV with a teenage boy at the helm rolls by, music blaring…I call it “happy music,” nice and light, none of that gangster stuff. He stops at the crosswalk to let two blond teenage girls and their mother pass by, loaded with shopping bags from Gucci and Ferragamo. These are just the bags I can see.

Sure, this is Punta del Este, where the moneyed set and celebrities come to show off their taut and tanned bikini bodies during the South American summer months of January and February, but I’ve been all over the country by now — to the big city and the small towns and to even the wild west beach frontier of Rocha, as far as the Brazilian border. And everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve seen this same politeness, this same quiet confidence and civility.

Everyone, it seems, knows that Uruguay is onto something. They’ve got it figured out.

Yep, spirits are high here. And why not? Uruguay is one of the most economically developed countries in the hemisphere (one of only two countries that did not go into recession as a result of the late-2000s financial crisis.) People have good jobs, and income levels are well-distributed, which means crime is low and personal safety is high. The government is stable to the point of boredom.

And it’s clean. This may be what surprises me the most, having traveled Latin America for more than a decade now. I don’t know of another country where the city streets and highways, the shops and restaurants, the rivers, oceans, beaches are as tidy and attractive as they are here. Pride does that, and Uruguayans have a lot to be proud of.

Is it any wonder that locals who once left the country in search of opportunities overseas are now returning home? It’s also easy to understand why Uruguay is becoming ever more popular with foreign retirees, especially since they can live well here without breaking the bank.

Don’t get me wrong, Uruguay is not the least-expensive place on the planet. It’s a First-World country, after all. But still, expats say they live well here for $2,000 to $4,000 a month. And that includes costs for a first-rate health care plan. (Just $75 a month covers everything, one 60-something expat told me.)

To truly get away from it all in Uruguay, you head east from Montevideo along the coast to the department of Rocha. Here you’ll find some of South America’s most beautiful…and last, vast stretches…of undeveloped beaches. Yet you’re still within three hours of the international airport in Montevideo. And you’re just an hour, mas o menos, from trendy, celeb-friendly Punta del Este with its all-night discos and sparkling casinos.

There are, of course, some notable destinations along this coast. You just can’t keep a good thing to yourself these days, and more and more summer vacationers are coming to Rocha every year. The largest towns of note are La Paloma and La Pedrera — and they’re but a few blocks of shops and restaurants. And the farther-flung hamlets of Barra de Valizas, Aguas Dulce, and Punta del Diablo attract a crowd looking for an even-more laid-back experience, with a bohemian informality that’s distinctly South American. (Uruguayans have an easy charm and a knack for low-budget creativity, and Rocha’s villages are so nonchalantly thrown together, in fact, that part-time chefs open restaurants in garages, lean-tos or on the front porches of village homes.)

Summertime — January and February in particular — is definitely where it’s at. In Punta del Diablo, especially, young people of all nationalities throng the tiny village center with its hostels and makeshift cafes. To finance their travels, some sell jewelry, wind chimes and smoking paraphernalia or take performance art to the limits. (One acrobatically inclined fellow spent hours balancing on his head on a wooden box atop a spindly chair.)

Temporary nightclubs that spring up here and there don’t even open until 3.00 a.m. and party-goers straggle home long after the sun comes up. Handwritten posters advertise trips to nearby Cabo Polonia and its sea lion colonies, about half a mile off the point.

If you were to live in one of these small towns, it might be a lonely winter. However, some people, like expat Brian Meissner, who built and operates the most popular boutique hostel (my room has a private bath, fireplace and balcony) in Punta del Diablo, says winter is a good time to stoke the fireplace and take long walks on a beach you have all to yourself.

“You can pretty much do what you want to do in the winter,” he says, “because nobody else is really around.”

By the way, should you want to give it a test-drive, rental prices in Rocha are very affordable. As elsewhere along the coast, you’ll pay less during the low season and you can negotiate a low year-long lease. A good house, with two or three bedrooms should go for $600 to $700 a month on a long-term lease. A contract for several months just for the low season can be negotiated for even less. And should you want to buy, you’ll find prices more affordable in Rocha than any other part of coastal Uruguay. I found a 6,000-square-foot lot positioned in such a way that you get wowsa views of the ocean from both front and back, priced at just $48,000.


Suzan Haskins
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning