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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
[Photo by ©istockphoto.com/Guilherme Luce]