Small-Town Latin American Life in Uruguay

The Uruguayan seaside town of Carmelo is a popular resort and boating center, situated next to one of Uruguay’s great wine-producing regions. It stands out because it’s the country’s lowest-cost resort option…with respect to cost of living as well as properties.

Carmelo is the only seashore resort in Uruguay that retains the low prices of Uruguay’s rural “interior”, while providing some resort-style amenities. And the market for a single home starts at about $45,000, if you’re willing to do a little work.

Founded in the early 1800s, Carmelo lies at a point where the creek known as Las Vacas joins the Uruguay River (or Río de la Plata, as it’s called from this point downstream), about 155 miles from Montevideo. So Carmelo’s not really on the sea, but rather on a wide section of the river.

In fact, it’s just a two-hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires…a beautiful voyage that winds its way through the scenic river delta before arriving at its destination.

The average summertime high here (December to March) is a pleasant 77 F, although I’ve seen it get into the 90s. Summer brings only occasional rainfall.

Carmelo is divided into two major areas by Las Vacas creek; the downtown sector, and the beach resort. The bridge that connects the two halves is the type that rotates on a central pedestal, so that ships can pass into the creek.

On the “resort” side, Carmelo is known for its fine, sandy beaches…especially the well-known Playa Seré. And to compliment the beaches, you’ll also find a host of open-air restaurants, most of which are grilling meats on their wood-fired parrillas.

Here you’ll also find Carmelo’s classic old-fashioned Casino hotel, an establishment that will take you back to the turn of the last century, with its high ceilings, huge reception/social area, and elegant restaurant.

In this area, you’ll also find extensive marina facilities, a yacht club (hosting one of the area’s best restaurants), and an old traditional rowing and athletic club; a common feature of Uruguay’s river cities.

On the town side of the creek, you’ll find a small, pleasant city with a couple of nice town squares, and all the city services you’d need. Here too, are a fair number of restaurants and eateries, as well as banks, downtown shopping and all of the practical things you need a city for.

I find Carmelo to be a neighborly place…and I think it would be a nice, friendly city to live in. The people all seem to know each other, and they go about their day at the typical, easygoing, Uruguayan pace. As in most small towns, it seems crime is not an issue.

Carmelo’s not rich, and it’s not poor. I’d call it a working-class town that enjoys the added benefits of being a tourist destination.

A city of masonry homes in the colonial style, I didn’t find any part of the town that was completely upscale and restored…but neither did I find a section that was totally run-down. It seems that every neighborhood had a few homes that were beautifully restored, among others that were still awaiting the paintbrush.

On the property front, I found a three-bedroom casa antigua, right in the town center, about three blocks from the main square. With almost 1,800 square feet, it had a garage and a courtyard, but needed some fixing-up inside. The asking price was $45,000. A four-bedroom colonial-style home in Centro with an interior patio was going for $55,000.

Out near the beaches, a two-bedroom house (60s vintage) will start at about $80,000, and I found a 2,700-square-foot store in town for only $70,000.

And prices in the shops and restaurants were markedly less than you’ll find in the more famous Uruguayan destinations, including nearby Colonia.

Carmelo does not have the gleaming towers or hot nightlife of Punta del Este, or the stately 17th-century architecture of Colonia. But if you want to enjoy some resort-style amenities with the prices of rural Uruguay, then Carmelo is the place to be.

Editor’s Note: Uruguay easily made it into the Top 10 of International Living’s just-released 2011 Global Retirement Index. You can subscribe to the IL magazine here and get instant access to the September issue and IL’s Annual Global Retirement Index.

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