Uruguayans like to tell a certain joke about their country: they say that if the world would end today, people would still be able to live in Uruguay for another 20 years. The point, in case you didn't get it, is that Uruguay seems a little behind the times.
I'm not sure I agree though. I think there is something old-fashioned about a lot of countries—not just Uruguay. When you live in places like Pakistan or Nigeria, like I have, there are many things you have to do the old-fashioned way because in some ways, modernity has not yet arrived. Uruguay, however, is not particularly backwards, poor, or undeveloped. But I have to admit that Uruguay feels, in a rather charming way, as if the fast-paced globalized world is far, far away.
Having had a few years to reflect on my life in Uruguay (I lived there 2010-2012), I think the best things in Uruguay are the food and drinks, the beaches, the safety and egalitarianism, the gaucho culture, and the old-fashioned charm. As for the "cons", I was not happy with the hours they keep, the sleepiness during wintertime, the deteriorating security situation, and the remoteness of the country.
1. FOOD & DRINK
I have to start with how great the food and drinks are in Uruguay. Not because I’m a foodie (I’m not), but because everyone I know raved about the quality of the beef there. I’m a vegan now so it’s a little bit hard to imagine, but my husband and I would go out for steak several times a week.
Rib eye, tenderloin, lady steak; Uruguayans produce and prepare all types of beef exceptionally well. Typical side-dishes include French fries, sweet potatoes, green salad, and chimichurri.
For the more adventurous meat eater it’s definitely worth trying mollejas, or sweetbread (glands!), which is grilled to crispy perfection and served with lemon slices.
Uruguayan wine is also excellent. My husband and I would drink at least a liter of red wine or rose when we went out. There are some delicious local red wines made of the rare tannat grape, and plenty of other delicious, unpretentious wines including a sparkling rose (“medio y medio”) they export to other beachy places like Miami.
Uruguayan wineries are also really fun to visit. Most are just a short drive from Montevideo, like Juanicó and Bouza. You'll find affordable, high-quality wine and great food in a charming, stylish setting. And because Uruguay is kinda off the beaten path, wineries are not overrun by tourists!
THE CON: The only problem with Uruguay’s dining-out culture is how late it starts. Restaurants don’t open until 7:30 PM, and if you show up around that time you’ll be the only one there until ten. In weekends it’s even worse: people show up for dinner closer to midnight.
And don’t even get me started on the nightlife! There are many clubs where you can dance all night long, but the problem is that Uruguayans don’t even show up until two in the morning. There was a club on my way to work and I regularly saw drunken party-goers leave the place at eight in the morning (on my way to work).
2. BEACH LIFE
The next best feature of life in Uruguay is definitely its location on the ocean. Montevideo is right on the coast, and you can see and access the beach from almost anywhere. The other great thing is that nobody has built or otherwise claimed (and ruined) the beach: it’s a public space for everyone to enjoy.
The view of the ocean is especially nice if you like to go on walks or runs. I used to run on the Ramblas and along various beaches countless times, and I certainly wasn’t the only person there: the running community seemed to be a growing in Montevideo.
However, the best beaches for swimming are located outside of town. It’s not that the city beaches are dirty, but I was a little bit suspicious of the water quality because they are near Montevideo’s industrial port. My favorite beaches outside of Montevideo are:
- Punta del Este: I’m starting with "Punta" not because I loved it the most, but because it’s kind of famous. Rich Argentinians flock to this beach town every year, driving up the prices multiple times over (I paid about 10 dollars for a piece of cheesecake once). In the summer, it's a great party town with clubs, casinos, racetracks and everything else you can imagine yet it still feels quiet and relaxing. During the time I lived in Uruguay several major celebrities visited Punta, including Jennifer Lopez, who shot a music video on the beach.
- Jose Ignacio: Talking about celebrities, Shakira preferred a little beach town called Jose Ignacio. I heard she even owned a summerhouse there and I met someone later (in Pakistan) who confirmed this rumor by showing me pictures of himself with Shakira on the beach there. Even quieter and more rustic, this beach town is just to chill out (and it has a beach bar with really good food).
· Punta del Diablo: For a more down-to-earth experience, I rented a small beach house in Punta del Diablo once. It’s a small fishing village with a hippie vibe. I loved it.
· Cabo Polonio: If you really want to be off the grid, try Cabo Polonio. I heard it’s not easy to get there: you need a four-wheel drive or use local transport. I've never been there myself, but my husband went and told me there are no amenities, like electricity or plumbing.
· Glamping: A personal favorite of mine is Pueblo Barrancas, an Eco Resort where you can “glamp” in a yurt, cabana, or military tent next to the beach. It was very new back in 2010, so everything was in mint condition. They had an excellent restaurant on site, although opening times were very irregular.
THE CON: The only problem with all these amazing beach options is the seasonality of it all. High season in Uruguay runs from mid-December to mid-February, which is when thousands of locals and foreigners descend on the beaches all at once. Most Uruguayans take the summer off to go to the beach, which means that it is busy everywhere and prices are high.
This also means that you really have to book your trip (way) in advance because everything gets booked quickly, especially in Punta del Este. In all other seasons besides summer, everything tourist-related in Uruguay is closed and Punta del Este becomes a ghost town.
3. SAFETY, EQUALITY AND NO CORRUPTION
I usually felt safe and secure in Uruguay. There’s not a whole lot of crime, and people are generally nice and helpful. It’s relatively easy to work there, too, because Uruguayans care about transparency and hate corruption. Uruguay is also the most egalitarian society I've ever seen.
As far as I can tell, nobody is above the law in Uruguay, or has an excessive amount of power or wealth. For years now, the main political party is the socialist party, which is run by a bunch of old idealists who fought the dictatorship in the 1970s. Former President Jose Mujica–an ex-guerilla fighter who has never worn a tie in his life–had no possessions other than a small farm and an old car. Current president Tabaré Vasquez is a physician who continues to work in his medical practice part-time.
THE CON: Unfortunately, the security situation in Uruguay seemed to be deteriorated during the time I lived there. Several bad incidents happened. Once, a man on a scooter robbed one of my embassy colleagues on the street; he pulled on her purse so hard that he broke her hand.
I also had a scary experience myself. One day we were with a group of people from the embassy when we accidentally drove through an unfamiliar neighborhood. Our car–a Volkswagen Touareg with diplomatic plates–immediately attracted the attention of a group of men. They approached our car from all sides in an attempt to stop us. If my husband hadn’t kept the car moving at a steady pace I don’t know what would have happened, but I guess we would have been robbed or carjacked.
4. IT’S GAUCHO LAND!
The thing that really distinguishes Uruguay from other countries is the “gaucho culture” (okay, you may be able to find something similar in neighboring country Argentina, but let’s not talk about that right now). If you really want to experience this part of Uruguay you should visit the annual rodeo festival during the Rural del Prado, which is like an agricultural fair.
Another option, which is probably even more fun, is to explore the rural areas. Because there are many attractive beach destinations in Uruguay few tourists and expats visit the inland to see the rolling hills and green forests. To be honest, in two years time we only made one such trip.
The one time we really experienced non-coastal Uruguay, we drove up to a town called Tacuarembó and stayed at an luxurious converted farm (“Estancia La Corona”) in the woods. Everything about it was great. We had the entire place to ourselves, the food was delicious, there was a hot tub, and could take the horses and ride them anywhere!
I actually made a humorous Youtube video about our trip to Tacuarembó and Rivera that, somewhat surprisingly, received quite a number of views (I don't think it's possible to watch it inside the US because of the music I used).
THE CON: Frankly speaking, when I lived in Uruguay I frequently wished I lived in Argentina instead. I figured Argentina had all the same great things (good steak, wine, nature) and was a lot more dynamic. Then again, diplomats who lived in Argentina told me that they really disliked the traffic in Buenos Aires, and some mentioned that working was difficult because of government corruption.
Uruguayans probably find it insulting that I preferred Argentina over their lovely and stable country, but even they can’t deny that Argentina is much better for things like shopping, eating out (in terms of variety), and sightseeing. In fact, Uruguayans visit Buenos Aires all the time to do those things, as it's only a short ferry-ride away.
Conversely, Argentinians flock to Uruguay's beaches en masse and envy Uruguay's economic stability; plenty of rich Argentinians reportedly keep their money in Uruguayan banks.
I'd like to add that the cities in Uruguay are far from clean. When I lived in Montevideo, there were lots of informal waste collectors rooting through people’s trash, hauling away their finds by horse-drawn carts. Government garbage collectors were on strike all the time, and trash piled up all over town. Also, dogs do their business anywhere in the street, which doesn’t help matters.
5. OLD-FASHIONED CHARM
In my view, the Western world hasn’t had its way with Uruguay yet. The country is quiet and feels authentic. There are hardly any shopping malls or other signs of hyper-commerce. Stores are closed for most of the weekend. I tried to go shopping downtown on a Saturday once (Once! While I love shopping!) only to find that the stores were only open in the morning.
Uruguayans have several unique traditions, like a yearly comedy festival called “murga” (see picture). Most Uruguayans I knew preferred to spend their time with their family, eating out during the weekend and going to the beach in the summer. There didn't seem to be much variety in what people did, but everyone seemed content.
Life in the capital city Montevideo literally stops in the summer, as everyone takes off for vacation. Uruguayans who can afford it own a summerhouse along the coast where they take their whole family. Without exaggeration, very little happens work-wise between December and March/April. It’s nice to slow down for once.
THE CON: While I lived in Uruguay, I could never quite shake the feeling that I was isolated from the rest of the world. I was only 25 at the time and even though I had a full-time job I was frequently bored. Especially in the winter, it seemed as if there was absolutely nothing to do anywhere.
What’s worse, as an expat who only just learned how to speak Spanish, I was disappointed that Montevideo had no expat community to speak of. Actually, it was difficult to find any English speakers at all in Uruguay. In many other countries I've lived you can pretend to “take a break” simply by hanging out with other Americans or expats and reflect on the local culture, but in Uruguay you pretty much have to adapt, learn how to speak Spanish (their version, which is influenced by Portuguese, Guaraní and Italian). There is nothing wrong with that per se, but it made me feel homesick more often than when I lived in other places.
For full disclosure: when people ask me how I liked living in Uruguay, I often tell them that I didn’t love it. I tell them that there isn't much to do, there are few young people, and it doesn't feel like a dynamic place. Even Uruguayans acknowledge that Uruguay is mainly a nice place for retirees, while educated young people leave Uruguay to work and live overseas.
Writing this, however, helps me remember all the great experiences I’ve had in Uruguay; I learned to speak Spanish, made some great friends, and saw lots of interesting and beautiful places. It was easy to move around and to work with people, and I learned a lot from being in a totally different part of the world than where I was born (Europe). Both for tourism and work, I guess I have to admit that Uruguay is a great place!