Move to Uruguay for the Best Quality of Life in Latin America

montevideo-cafe

Sipping a cappuccino at a small table in a shady plaza outside my hotel, I’m reminded of days and evenings spent in similar sidewalk cafés in Europe. Stately 19th-century neo-classical and baroque-style buildings with wrought-iron balconies line the square. Curtains wave gaily through massive wood-framed windows.

Across the street, the famous 18 de Julio Avenue—and another shady plaza—are rimmed with shops selling clothes, housewares and electronics, currency exchange outlets, and even more sidewalk cafés offering pastas, pizzas, and chivitos. (A chivito is akin to a Philly cheesesteak, piled high with ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese, a fried egg, slathered with sauce, and all atop a bed of French fries. Take that, dear arteries!)

I order another coffee and sit back to savor the moment—no need to rush. As in European cities or neighborhoods of Manhattan or Chicago, whatever I need or want can be had within these 10 square blocks of Montevideo.

Expats in Uruguay Say They Have the Best Quality of Life in Latin America

I was just getting started on my expedition to Uruguay’s coastal cities and towns, but already I could understand why so many expats living in this country say it offers the best quality of life in Latin America.

The drive along the rambla (shoreline road) from the airport takes you past chalet style homes with tidy manicured yards on the outskirts, giving way to stylized high rise condo buildings as you near the city.

Just before sunrise, joggers and dog walkers were about their morning rituals. Silver streaks of light crisscrossed the massive body of water next to which Montevideo sits. Is it an ocean? A river? A little of both, it seems. About midway between west and east on Uruguay’s southern coast, Montevideo hugs the bank where the Río de la Plata rushes out to the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly half of Uruguay’s total population of 3.5 million people live here, in the country’s capital, making for a manageable, not-too-big and not-too-small city.

While Montevideo’s seven-mile coastline is not technically “oceanfront,” it looks like the ocean. Beaches are wide and sandy and waves and tides come in and out. During my visit—at the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer—beaches were thick with sunbathers and water lovers.

The city itself is easy to navigate and public transportation is first-rate. Buses are new, clean, run consistently on time, and cost less than a dollar, in most cases, to get just about anywhere in the city. (Cross-country buses are equally clean, comfortable, inexpensive, and free WiFi-enabled.)

I took a bus to the pretty Plaza Independencia, with its massive statuary tribute to national hero José Artigas. From here, you can easily walk from one end of Ciudad Vieja—Montevideo’s oldest neighborhood, founded in 1726—to the other in about 30 minutes via the pedestrian walkway called Calle Sarandí.

But it will take hours if you pause to gawk, as I did, at the many gorgeous historical buildings. These include the Cabildo, the former government building, the Casa de Gobierno, where the current government meets, and the pristine Solís Theater, the oldest operating opera house in the Americas.

Ciudad Vieja’s architecture is a reminder of the city’s colonial past. (The Portuguese, Spanish, French, and British all tried to stake a claim here at one time or another.) Many of the old buildings, especially along Calle Sarandí, have been renovated in recent years.

Antique shops, art galleries, and boutiques occupy ground floors, with upper floors home to stylish one-of-a-kind apartments with shuttered windows and beckoning sunny balconies.

Go a few blocks either direction from Calle Sarandí, and you can find wonderful old buildings still in need of renovation. It’s a popular investment strategy to buy an entire building, restore it, and sell each unit separately.

If you’re interested in doing this, plan on spending $315 to $630 per square meter (about $30 to $60 per square foot) or even more—closer to $100 per square foot—for a high-end overhaul. Keep in mind that these costs will vary with the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Uruguayan peso, which is currently at a bit less than 20 pesos to one USD. (Real estate in Uruguay is typically priced in U.S. dollars.)

If you want to buy an already-renovated apartment in Ciudad Vieja, you’ll pay, on average, about $200 per square foot. Since they tend to be small, the total price won’t be exorbitant. For example, I saw a one-bedroom unit in a building constructed in 1861—it’s 645 square feet, and it comes with a garage. The asking price, fully furnished, is $123,000.

Despite the aesthetic appeal of Ciudad Vieja, most expats I met in Montevideo prefer living in the trendy neighborhoods of Pocitos and Punta Carretas. I could understand why. Both border the city’s best beaches, and Pocitos, especially, has an urban neighborhood feel.

“Pocitos reminds me of the Riviera or Italy or elsewhere in Europe,” says Doug Wayne, a U.S. expat who has lived all over the world but moved to Uruguay nearly three years ago. “It’s completely self-contained, with little shops and restaurants and its own nightlife. There are shady little parks and we’re right next to the water. You can walk everywhere; you don’t need a car.”

Pocitos is where the Friday “English” night takes place, bringing together expats and locals who want to practice their English. Pocitos is also where you’ll find lots of rental apartments. Most are smaller one-bedroom units that rent from $1,000 to $1,500 per month, but I found a 450-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment with great sea views, thanks to its ninth-floor location, renting for $600 per month.

Costa de Oro: Best Beach Buys

Leaving Montevideo behind, the Costa de Oro, or “Golden Coast,” is so named for the golden-sand beaches that begin just 22 miles outside the city and extend along the coast for about 30 miles. Still technically “ocean” but part of the Río de la Plata estuary, you wouldn’t know by looking at it. The water is blue and the beaches rival anything you’ll find on either U.S. coast.

Called balnearios in Uruguay, the small seaside towns here are clean, shady, and quiet, with tall sycamores and pines growing right up to the edges of rolling sand dunes spotted with grassy tufts that give way to wide, sandy beaches.

As an expat friend who lives in Uruguay told me, “The people are friendly and welcoming, especially in the small towns. Like any small Midwestern town, you’ll find a Main Street lined with shops and safe, quiet neighborhoods of neat, tidy houses.”

Long a popular vacation-home destination with middle-class Uruguayans, this stretch of coast is also attracting a growing number of foreign retirees for its affordability and proximity to Montevideo. Canadian expat Syd Blackwell came to Uruguay in 2006 for a two-week vacation with his wife, Gundy, and left as the owner of a large, four-bedroom home on a generous and lush, plant-filled lot with a swimming pool in the town of Atlántida.

“We’re happy we’re away from the city,” says Syd, “but 30 minutes by car and we can be there. You can get most of what you need here and there are good medical facilities.”

Named for the mythical continent of Atlantis, Atlántida is the largest town along the coast, with a permanent population of around 4,600 that grows to over 20,000 during the peak season.

La Floresta—also popular with expats—is just six miles farther east. In a stretch of a few blocks near the beach, you’ll find hardware shops and pharmacies and, of course, the requisite parrilladas (barbecue restaurants) with sidewalk seating. Close to the highway are modern supermarkets and medical clinics.

As for real estate prices, the Costa de Oro offers one of Uruguay’s best bargain areas. While it doesn’t have the glitz of Punta del Este, farther down the coast, neither does it have the higher price tag.

To rent a small two-bedroom, two-bathroom house on an annual basis you’ll pay, on average, $500 to $700 a month. A larger home, perhaps right on the rambla, rents for closer to $1,000 per month. A small “so-so” house would typically sell for around $80,000.

A large house with a good view and a swimming pool would go for closer to $200,000. In general, you can expect to pay between $75 and $100 per square foot. The highest demand is for homes on the south side of the coastal highway, within walking distance of shops and restaurants. But be aware that because of the transient nature of these coastal communities, many of the homes are built for summertime living only. While many have fireplaces, if you plan to live here year-round you may need to add insulation.

Pretty, Popular Piriápolis

Round the bend on the coastal road and your first glimpse of Piriápolis may have you feeling that you’ve entered another place and time altogether. Not technically part of the Costa de Oro, this is also the only place in Uruguay where rolling hills, dotted with small farms, meet the ocean.

“When you travel along the rambla and see pastureland on the left and ocean on the right,” says Sharon Rhodes, who moved to Piriápolis from Corning, New York, with her husband Gerry, “and this beautiful hillside with little buildings tumbling down the side, it reminds you of a little Greek village.”

Just 50 miles from downtown Montevideo, the seaside town of Piriápolis was Uruguay’s first seashore resort, founded in 1893—almost 15 years before Punta del Este, just 30 minutes away.

Even though its wintertime population of 8,000 swells to four times that in the summer, Piriápolis has never achieved the kind of international acclaim Punta del Este has. Its laidback languor is part of its charm, however. Front and center on the rambla, the massive Belle Epoque-style Hotel Argentino, built in 1930, calls to mind a gentler time and sets the tone for this town.

While summertime Piriápolis is lively with vacationers who come to enjoy the waterfront boardwalk, busy seafood restaurants, casinos, and, of course, the beaches and marinas, I can imagine wintertime here as the best of all seasons. You would have the beach and rambla practically to yourself and could linger with friends over coffee or cocktails at a cozy oceanfront café.

“There’s a large expat community here and once a month we get together for lunch,” says Sharon Rhodes’ husband, Gerry. “We’ve also made many Uruguayan friends from all walks of life… Everyone here is treated equally and that’s something we really appreciate.”

Lots of expats I met in Uruguay echoed that idea. Perhaps it is because, when you come down to it, every Uruguayan is an immigrant who can easily trace his or her family’s roots to countries like Spain, Italy, England, Germany, Ireland, and beyond.

“Uruguayans are very tolerant and inclusive,” one expat told me. “I’ve always been uncomfortable in other Latin American countries where there is a distinction between, for instance, the wealthy foreigners and the poor servers. There really isn’t a class division here…and that adds to my quality of life.”

There is much to like about Piriápolis, and it’s easy to understand its laid-back appeal. This area is generally more expensive than the Costa de Oro, but less expensive than Punta del Este. On the rambla in the heart of downtown, for example, a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment with a sea-view terrace is priced at just $120,000. In the Bella Vista neighborhood, a 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, two-bathroom home on a large lot right on the rambla, and also with sea views, is priced at $260,000.

Drive east from Piriápolis along the coastal road and just beyond Punta Colorada, the Río de la Plata gives way to the Atlantic Ocean and Uruguay’s already-tempting coastline becomes achingly irresistible. Rolling grassy dunes lead to rocky outcrops like Punta Ballena, where you can not only spot frolicking whales but also the Emerald City itself in the distance… the glittering and glamorous Punta del Este.

Punta del Este: South America’s Hottest Resort Destination

Punta del Este, Uruguay

©istockphoto.com/Guilherme Luce

No trip to Uruguay is complete without a stop in hip and happening Punta del Este. My visit, in late January, was at the height of the summer season, when vacationers arrive en masse to play, party, and take pleasure in the sunshine. No longer a river estuary, it’s officially all ocean here, and Punta del Este is a grownup resort town with miles of sandy beaches and blue waters, the country’s hottest nightclubs, best casinos and shows, and the highest concentration of fine restaurants.

If you’re Uruguayan, Argentine, Brazilian—or a celebrity from anywhere in the world—there is no place better to be seen than “Punta.” Property and rental prices are higher here than anywhere else in Uruguay, as is the cost of living. But expats here say they wouldn’t live anywhere else…

“Absolutely, the best quality of life is found in Punta del Este,” says Washington state transplant David Hammond, who has lived in Punta six years and gave me a tour of its many eclectic neighborhoods. Not all are wall-to-wall, chrome-and-glass high rises as are found on the tip of the peninsula. There are many shady, single-family residential neighborhoods, too.

Bill Tickle, a British expat who retired to Punta permanently with his wife in 2010, lives in the San Rafael neighborhood—cut straight from the cloth of gentrified Europe or Americana at its Norman Rockwell best. Quiet, tree-lined streets, tidy homes with perfectly clipped lawns… The only giveaway that you’re anywhere but is the cackle of parrots as they flit from tree to tree.

“Punta del Este is one of the best places in the world,” Bill says. “There’s a real sense of optimism here. People are working, they’re getting ahead, and the international community is attracting that type of person, too. They see opportunity.

“Punta del Este is clean, it’s safe, you can wear your best jewelry and drive an expensive car and have no fear of robbery or anything else. Plus, it works…electricity never goes off and everything is organized, including the town hall. It’s a comfortable place to come on holiday and a comfortable place to live…everything is here.

“How much you spend to live here will depend on your lifestyle. We do like to go to the port for dinner, which can be pricey, but we also go to the nearby town of Maldonado, where the food and drink are more reasonable.”

Reasonable. That word stuck with me, because so much about Uruguay is “reasonable”…the pace of life…the national penchant for tolerance and equality…the cost of organic foods, public transportation, health care…the optimism and, yes, the quality of life. It’s hard to name a place that provides more reasons to stay.

Affordable Cost of Living in Uruguay

While expats in Uruguay say living there is not rock-bottom cheap, they also say they wouldn’t consider living anywhere else.

Savings are huge, not just on public transport, but on big-ticket items like health care and health insurance, property taxes, and wine. (Maybe not big-ticket for you…try the local varietal, Tannat.)

If you own your own home or apartment and don’t have car-related costs, you can live comfortably in Montevideo on $2,000 a month. One expat couple, living in Montevideo’s upscale Pocitos neighborhood, say they spend $3,000 to $4,000 a month and don’t deny themselves anything.

Uruguay Offers Excellent Healthcare

One of the best things about Uruguay is the quality and affordability of health care and health insurance. Everyone is entitled to quality medical care via the national health care system, and this includes foreign residents. But most expats opt for private coverage through a private hospital or mutualista (health cooperative).

Montevideo’s British Hospital is one of the country’s best hospitals and has some stricter rules about age and existing conditions. But one expat couple reports that, despite pre-existing conditions, they pay just $1,700 per year for a policy through the British Hospital similar to one that cost $17,000 per year in the U.S.

Local mutualistas in smaller communities can cost even less and are usually not as strict about qualification requirements. Not a single expat we interviewed in Uruguay was unable to obtain coverage, despite preexisting conditions such as diabetes, heart issues…even cancer.

A 63-year-old man with high blood pressure, for example, has coverage from a local mutualista for just $70 per month—and that covers everything from check-ups to hospitalization to medications, with a small $6 co-pay for office visits. Andrea Cavallo of CCM Soluciones is a health-care facilitator in Uruguay who specializes in helping expats find the best health-care options.

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