I just spent two weeks in Uruguay. It occurred to me that others might enjoy a perspective on the country.
Let me state to begin with that I REALLY like Uruguay, and I really like the people of Uruguay, so in no way should anything I write be construed as an attack on the country or it's people, just my American observations of what it was like to be there. I am still considering it as a place to potentially relocate for a year or more.
To simplify things, I am breaking this up into a few major categories. I think it will be easier to follow that way. Let's begin:
Economics: Uruguay is a 'middle-class' country off the tip of Brasil and across the river from Argentina. Unlike it's neighbors, the majority of citizens fall into the middle class whereas the countries around it tend to have small classes of rather wealthy people and lots of poor. As a country Uruguay has minimal resources, with the most useful being it is farm and ranchland, primarily the latter. The country itself is about the size of North Dakota, and mostly as flat as Iowa or Illinois. Prime farmland here is about as expensive as that in the US, ranchland goes cheaper if you want to own cows. Housing tends to be smaller in size overall, generally constructed of concrete, and a bit more affordable than the US. Food costs are similar, and eating out costs easily what it costs in the US. Imported goods are taxed heavily, and cost quite a bit more than stuff here in the US.
Politics: Uruguay is mostly socialist, with a large part of the population somehow tied to the government for income, being directly employed, or peripherally employed such as working for the state-owned gas stations, etc.
Retail: You will find only a few malls in the country, and they do not really come close to US megamalls. Most retail is small shopekeepers. There are few chains there, and the food at McD's which I tried one morening early before a land hunt, sucks.
Current economy: It apperas to be thriving, and while the country suffered in 2001 with the US and the rest of the world, it appears to be doing just fine during this downturn. Appearances may be deceiving however as we all know. When I went out for a day to Punte del Este, the Riviera of South America, it seemed there was plenty of 2nd home real estate for rent or for sale. Overbuilt? Who knows. Either way, though both Uruguay and Argentina speak spanish and used to be 'close neighbors', after a dispute over a Uruguayan paper mill built a few years ago upriver, uruguay has been cozying up to Brasil more of late.
Affordability: Being in Uruguay is like being here in the states -- it is not cheap. International Living magazine has been touting it as an affordable place to retire. They are doing people a disservice. Sure you can buy a nice house near or on the beach for less than the US, but everything else will cost you the same or more. Private Healthcare may be cheaper, but if you are in Social Security/Medicare, you would most likely have a hard time buying that HC due to age/rate costs, and the public system is just 'ok' from what I hear.
The roads: Infrastructure is not anywhere near as well kept up as in the states. Driving the city of Montevideo is like driving thru any industrial part of any large city, lost of bumps, potholes, etc. They have some tollway roads that are in great shape and not expensive, but the lesser roads are like driving the 'blue highways' of America -- narrower two-lane roads. Once you leave the capital and the roads alongthe coast, you would swear you are in the middle of Iowa somewhere.
The drivers: Driving is not an experience, or an adventure, it is a way of life! Lane lines are for suggestion only, turn signals are rarely used, speed limits generally not enforced, but I did get nailed for forgetting to turn my lights on. A propina to the local gendarme got me off, but I was fortunate to have a local in the care to translate for me. People drive fast, close, and chaotically. They are a bit more restrained than the Argentines, and somewhat like the Spanish in Spain. However nice and mellow these people are, they get out their aggressions behind the wheel. And like in the other countries I just metioned, the motos (motorcycles) are completely insane. The cut lanes, split lanes at stops, dart out in front of faster moving traffis, and generally remind me of annoying big flies waiting to get slammed down. It seems the smaller the bike, the louder they are thru muffler mods. Maybe that is their way of tried to be noticed by the insane drivers in the cars. Either way, if you would not be comfortable driving a taxi in New York you would be nervous in Uruguay. Personally I find this kind of driving loads of fun. Oh yes, and gas is very expensive compared to the US.
The airport: We came in at the old airport, and left thru the new airport that was open two days upon our departure. It is BIG, with lost of open space. Few services are provided outside the gate area, and the gate are has lost of duty-free shopping. The big thing here is everything takes FOREVER to get done. Seriously. If you are flying out, you would be best advised to leave three hours for the airport. No kidding. Maybe they will shake things out over time in the new facility, but it makes Holiday travel in the US look like the rule there. And after the recent goofball who tried to blow his ass up on landing here, we went thru pat downs etc. I am okay with that as they really try to be reasonable rapid and more expeditious about that part than the TSA here.
Weather: Think North Carolina and you have it down. Summer sun here is HOT and you can burn easily even in indirect sun shining off the water (I did). There is generally a breeze of some sort blowing. Prime season for summer is January/February when the Argentines and Brasilians all go to Punte. Winter arrely will get down to freezing.
Safety: Compared to most SA countries this is a very safe place. Sure they have property crime (as you will see by bars on lots of house windows and rolling shutters) and some robbery/assault type crime, but otherwise it is considered one of the safest places around. Living in the capital of Montevideo would be much like living in NYC without the murder rate. Stay inthe better areas and use common sense and you will be fine, go to the lesser areas and you will be relieved of your wallet.
Food: The fresh stuff is really fresh, the influence is mostly italian, and the fare is very similar to what you might get here in the states. the national sandwich appears to be a chivito, which is a large bun with a thin steak, some ham, melted cheese, edd, ground olives, some peppers and occasionally some onions. It is delicious. Uruguay is beef country, and the beef is good.
The people: generally quite friendly, though I am told they are very family focused. Thus, as an outsider I hear it could be harder to make friends as everyone is family focused. Not like you would be purposely excluded, just that with life revolving around extended families (seems everyoen is related to or knows everyone else there) you would possibly be the odd one out. We had no problems with anyone, and everyone wwas quite helpful. I spoke at random with various people and was never rebuffed or ignored. In general the appearance of the people tends to be very european and not so hispanic. an average American will blend in here quite well if they speak the language. and clothing/size (physically)-size, the people look just as pudgey as Americans do and dress similarly.
The language: Spanish with some portuguese influence and various regional changes. the -ll- pronounced el-yay in mexican spanish becomes an shhh sound. a few words change a bit as well. my spanish is not that good, and between the pronunciation changes and the speed of speech (yes, they speak rather rapidly here) picking up words can be hard depending on who is doing the speaking. one waitress, who by looks appeared to have come from th north of the country, spoke with such a strong accent and so rapidly I barely understood a word she said. most people I could get the gist of what they were saying by catching 1-2 out of every 5 words or so.
The wrap-up: If you were looking for a spanish-speaking miniaturized version of the US, this would be an ideal country. It's not perfect, no place is, but the food is good and safe, the people are friendly and safe, the laws are not as oppresive as the US, and the beaches are nice. You won't find it too much cheaper than living here in the US, but you might find it more interesting.