Uruguay trip report
Weather: My arrival was essentially late spring. It was raining the day I arrived (lightly), there was a tropical depression/large thunderstorm on the 3rd day with driving high speed wind and rain, and it was raining heavily the day I left, but otherwise the weather was a very pleasant and dry feeling 70 to 75 F throughout my 2 week visit. My understanding is that it doesn’t get much hotter (max 32 C or 80s F) nor much colder (50 F lows).
Environment/Countryside: I didn’t extensively travel outside of Montevideo and Punta del Este, but the flight in showed a lot of grassland around these two areas. This grassland was interestingly broken up by just about perfectly square blocks of trees; driving around it does appear these are tree farms as the spacing seems extraordinarily regular – the trees are also not fruit or nut producing. From the road, there are hilly areas around which there appear to be more normal tree growth as might be seen near the Sugar Loaf development. The coast alternates between long sandy beaches and rocks – depending on the shelter vs. the prevailing tide. Between PdE and Montevideo – there are at least 2 largish rivers emptying into the sea. We did get severely bitten by mosquitoes – not clear if this was due to the particular place we were in, the area of PdE we were in, carelessness, or some combination of factors, but between very skittish mosquitoes (they were very cagey) and pretty uniformly severe reactions to the bites (which came in clusters), all of us were sporting over a dozen bites despite having nailed only 20 or so mosquitoes in the house over a 9 day span. The local stores did have a wide array of insect repellant, so my suspicion is that we were simply ill prepared.
People: Uruguay is very Caucasian. Not Nordic, but Spanish/Italian Caucasian with the prominent noses and all. I did see a few African phenotypes, but they were quite rare. I did also see a few Asians, but again quite uncommon. Corn-yellow blondes were also fairly uncommon (though more common than Asians) if you exclude the bottle types.
Language: Spanish first, with a smattering of Portuguese (on menus). The Spanish used in Uruguay is distinctive: they pronounce the ‘Y’ or ‘LL’ sounds with a ‘zh’ sound rather than ‘ye’ sound – so ello (him) is pronounced eh-zho rather than eh-yo. Only a small fraction of restaurants had English menus – generally the ones best qualifying as tourist traps.
Culture: Uruguay is very calm. I did not see a single instance of people arguing loudly, much less a fight or some other form of emotional/physical violence. I did walk extensively throughout several of the poorer areas of Montevideo so this impression isn’t just the outcome of hanging out in tourist areas.
Uruguay also seems to be very law abiding, and the people were uniformly very, very nice. The malls had security, and there might be a shoplifting problem (very heavy RFID tagging), but there weren’t security guards with machine guns as might be seen in Brazil. Police also weren’t very ubiquitous. There is, for example, jaywalking but very little trash type litter and not much speeding. English is not very common at all, but having a high school level of Spanish is more than enough to get around as a visitor. The pattern of movement is similar to Spain: dinner starts at 8 pm, with generally few people until 10-ish. Going out involves a midnight start ending in the 2 to 4 am period (or later). At 8pm or 10 pm, it is common to see entire families out and about – from babies in strollers to pre-kindergarten kids walking with their families. The bars I went to didn’t fill up until past 10pm.
Economy and infrastructure: Uruguay is what I would term a growing 2nd world nation. It is still clearly poor – the infrastructure even in the wealthier areas is decent and usable but nothing like what you would see in a 1st world nation, but at the same time the people all seem healthy and well fed though not fat.
Sidewalks: In Montevideo, the sidewalks tend to be a sort of corrugated tile. By and large, the state of this tile is good: 90% functional coverage. The remaining 10% tends to be concentrated in front of construction sites or in extremely heavily trafficked areas. It does seem like the upkeep of sidewalks is a function of the property owner as opposed to the government, though I do not in fact know. Punta del Este (PdE from now on) sidewalks are more typical of what you might see in the US – but only along major roads, with sidewalks mostly nonexistent elsewhere.
Roads: Montevideo and major areas of Punta del Este have very good roads; as you go into less trafficked areas outside the cities, you can expect anything from tank trap potholed dirt roads to city level off peak pavement (i.e. paved but not smooth). In PdE, interestingly enough, the largest houses had the worst roads. I spent 9 days in Punta del Este, and the remainder in Montevideo. The 2 areas are about 100 km apart, and the highway had 2 toll stops with each one costing 55 Uruguayan pesos (UY$ from now on). Highway maximum speed was 110 km/hr, with 60 km/hr for more heavily populated areas and 90 km/hr more typical. The roads are relatively low regulation; most intersections in Montevideo and PdE are unregulated (i.e. no stop signs or traffic lights). Major intersections in PdE are European style roundabouts with traffic lights only on major roads – these were almost all off because of low season. In Montevideo, only really major intersections are roundabouts, most large/heavy trafficked ones being controlled by traffic lights. Drivers are generally quite genial although the taxi drivers were notably aggressive. Cars on the road tended to be what we would call compacts and subcompacts in the US – Renault, Ford, Chevrolet, Hyundai, Honda, Geely were all seen. There are a few large US style SUVs and trucks – particularly in PdE, with PdE also having large numbers of Vespa-like motor scooters. You can rent cars, bicycles, and scooters, but you have to have a motorcycle license in order to rent a scooter. Gasoline is fairly expensive, 20 liters = 5+ gallons = 600 UY$ = US$30+, and all gas stations are full service. Regular gasoline is ‘super’.
Public Transportation: There is a very extensive bus system in Montevideo, less so in PdE. In Independence Plaza, you can sit and watch literally 50 buses pass by in 1 hour. I didn’t ride any this time, but it is a common and heavily utilized resource as evidenced by the sizable population (5+) standing at most city bus stops passed. A top of the line Mercedes cab from the airport to downtown Montevideo costs 1100 UY$, the return was to be discounted 30% but a normal cab coming back cost 680 UY$.
Mobile talk and data: There is full 3G coverage in all the areas I visited as well as good mobile data. Cost was $25 for 1Gb for data, $12 for voice only via Movistar - both including the initial SIM purchase. The 1Gb lasted the full 2 weeks I was there with some unspecified remainder.
Jobs: Montevideo has a cruise ship terminal, so there is a significant amount of tourist dollars coming in. In addition, Punta del Este is a major tourist destination. According to one lawyer, PdE is 50% Argentinean, 30% Uruguayan, and 5% American – remainder being European, Brazilian, etc. Farming is clearly a major other business in Uruguay. I did not see much else in terms of light or heavy industry. Not sure what other primary revenue generators might be – there are plenty of shops, restaurants, and the like.
Mail: PdE doesn’t have house numbers. Literally each building has a name, and addresses consist of the street name plus building name plus city/township. Montevideo does have street numbers, but again most addresses still include the building name and/or intersection. One person in PdE told of a wedding invitation from the US that took 5 months to arrive. There are Correos Uruguay offices in both PdE and Montevideo; a post card stamp to the US costs 30 UY$
Customs and immigration: very circumspect. 30 seconds to get your passport stamped, a couple minutes to run through a scanning machine (which ignored the bit of food I had), and that was it. In contrast my 5 am arrival in Miami saw me standing 30 minutes while the couple in front of me (in the US citizen, not US resident or visitor line) get the full 10 finger + retinal scan treatment.
Food: As was noted by others, Uruguayan food is bland. Did I say bland? I meant BLAND. Not poor quality – in fact the beef and chicken was equal or better to what I normally buy in the US. Flank steak in a large store in PdE was 224 UY$ per kilo = US$6/lb in the US – slightly cheaper but higher quality. Ground beef was as low as 114 UY$ per kilo = US$2.59/lb. Vegetables were generally expensive – an 8 pack of beefsteak type tomatoes was 190 UY$ = not much cheaper than the meat. Broccoli and Cauliflower were cheaper – in the 30 UY$ per head, but were yellowed/browned. A single clove of garlic was 12 UY$. Eggs were really impressive: a bit small by US standards but brown and with blindingly orange yolks. In the US this would mean free range, but I think in Uruguay this is primarily due to higher quality feed and/or lack of industrial farming.
In both PdE and Montevideo, expect most food to be – to many Americans – completely unspiced. On restaurant tables, you’ll see a salt shaker – no pepper. At sandwich places, you’ll see a mayo squeeze bottle, and some will have ketchup. Very few will have mustard. I did look extensively for more spiced/ethnic dishes – they do exist but require significant effort. The restaurant with the closest to American palate taste served Thai, Indian, Chinese, and Brazilian dishes and was in Montevideo. Nothing comparable was found in PdE. The most common restaurants serve Pizza, Chivitos, and Milanesas.
A chivito is kind of the Uruguayan national dish – essentially a pounded sirloin (they sometimes say Filet, but I have my doubts) steak in a roll. Comun means more or less straight, Canadiense means with ham, olives, fried or sliced boiled egg, mayo and pickle. In PdE a chivito comun will set you back 200 UY$ and up, a canadiense will cost 300 UY$ and up – both without accompaniments but very possibly with a 30+ UY$ seating fee per person. In contrast in Montevideo a comun will be 150 UY$ with fries and a canadiense will be 220 UY$ with fries.
A milanesa is a pounded chicken breast, breaded and fried. Think German schnitzel.
Pizza is European style: low sauce, low toppings, thin crust.
More formal dishes might include a full steak, rotisserie chicken, broiled seafood, etc. A visit to the Mercado del Puerto – the heart of the cruise ship terminal tourist trap – saw us ordering a 3x parrilla (i.e. barbecue, the other common category of food in restaurants). However, the blood sausage, the beef kidney, and tripe did not go over well with the others, and the meat was very, very well done. We left full though for $100/3 people meal. Local wine cost around 250 UY$ in a restaurant.
Generally in PdE, a dinner for 3 would be 2500 UY$, similar for tourist traps in Montevideo, but 2/3rds or half that for a regular place. The best restaurants in PdE and Montevideo weren’t much more, mostly due to 120 UY$ seating fees per person.
A mall fast food set of 4 tacos, 2 drinks would be 350 UY$.
Seafood was shrimp, oysters, squid, and grilled fish – again fine ingredients but bland. The best of the bunch were an (apparently to locals) heavily spiced ancho chile and garlic chipirones en arroz (baby squid on rice) dish which to my tastes was very good, but not in the least strongly flavored.
Meals generally don’t have much vegetables; it generally consisted of a slice of tomato and/or a single leaf of lettuce on a chivito, or a double tablespoon worth of broccoli or whatever. Garnishings were similarly sparse. Arugula – while large leaves – was excellent in flavor and not notably more expensive. Given the meat/agriculture focus, the lack of leafy vegetables would make it seem more a Uruguayan dietary result than any fundamental lack of capability, but may also be perhaps a seasonal outcome.
Drinks: A Coca Cola costs about as much as a beer (60 UY$). Mixed drinks: a caipiroska – a variant of the Brazilian Caipirinha – which is sugar cane rum, sugar, limes, and ice, with the roska signifying vodka instead of rum – costs around 120 to 160 UY$. Most other drinks are less, and it doesn’t take much to become a valued customer. The 2nd night I visited a bar, I and my friend were both gifted a drink as we were about to leave – after we had already paid. Didn’t really need it – he especially – but it was a nice gesture.
Casinos: both Montevideo and PdE have a significant number of casinos. They could be stand alone, part of a hotel, or even attached to a shopping center. All the machines are quite new – easily on par with what you see in Las Vegas (i.e. 5 line, LED/LCD, animation, etc). Basic credit was US$0.10. Most casinos have both an ATM and a change place, and most were UY$ although a few were US$ only. Exchange rate at this time was right under 20 UY$ to 1 US$
TV: the cable channels held a wide assortment of US movies, many dubbed in Spanish, US TV programs – generally in English, and local Spanish language programs. There were also Deutsch Weld, CNN, and the like. Radio holds 1 English song channel – which would be switched to whenever the servers in a restaurant figured out we were American – and a lot of Latin music which amusingly would regularly interject a rap song.
Some notes on both areas:
PdE: very beach front resort-ey. Keeping in mind again that we had arrived just before peak tourist season – which runs from December 15 to around the end of February – the town was dead. I believe the year round population of PdE is 10,000 people, with another 70K in nearby Maldonado, but we were told that PdE gets something like 1.5 million visitors a month at peak. More than half the restaurants were closed. PdE has a number of different areas, but for tourists the 2 that matter are La Barra and the peninsula/coast of PdE. La Barra looks like a nicer, cleaner Venice beach – just a strip of shops and eateries with a few restaurants and houses extending no more than 6 blocks inland. The peninsula of PdE is the core tourist area with an assortment of older (I’d guess 20+ year) mid rise (4 to 10 story) apartments and houses; west of the peninsula is the prime beachfront with the Conrad hotel and a series of mostly brand spanking new 10+ story condo developments. East of the peninsula, there are also condos but these are more ‘homey’ as opposed to glitzy Miami style and are mid-rise.
There is a massive property bubble going on there – I didn’t spend the time to see how close it is to bursting, but there are more real estate offices (inmobiliaria) than restaurants or stores, perhaps more than both. Several of the peninsula mini-malls (essentially the first floor of a multi-level office building) were 90% real estate offices. The new high rise condo costs are US$300K to $800K and up, fancy houses can be up to US$1.5M or more. Less fancy condos and houses can be as low as $150K. January condo rental costs are twice February, with most places not even being available out of season. The fanciest house we saw (and we drove literally all over PdE) had the ugliest potholed road and was also across the street/ a stone’s throw from the worst shantytown (small, tin roof hatching, but the people there didn’t look particularly downtrodden or angry).
The ocean in PdE is blue as opposed to Montevideo’s (very) brown, with the coast west of the peninsula being peaceful and swimmable vs. a high chop, rocky coast east of the peninsula. Overall PdE is very peaceful (at least in the off season), very clean, and rather boring if you aren’t a surfer/hard core beach bunny.
Again, there are many areas of the city, but the ones relevant to a visitor would be the oceanfront. Pocitos and Punta Carretas are among the nicer parts of town, with small colonies of very fancy parts going east from there. The coast east of the Port is filled wall to wall with condos until you get fairly far away, and has a nice boardwalk for most of that length. Main tourist areas are near the Port – due to the cruise ships – with locals and Argentineans visiting Pocitos and Punta Carretas to shop. As noted above, the water is very brown due to several large rivers dumping dirt into the ocean.
The government/downtown area of Montevideo is much less clean than the PdE – not filthy but much more clearly a poor urban area. The worst parts of town do have the usual city accoutrements: discarded rags of clothes here and there, some streets smelling like they’ve been used as latrines, but in general I had no sense of danger or displacement anywhere in the Centro area. Sunday, for example, saw the Centro being nearly completely empty from 12 noon until 7 pm. There is graffiti – more so in downtown Centro than anywhere else, but it seems mostly to be artistic, political statements, or amateurs rather than gang tags.
Housing in Montevideo is much more affordable – in line with the lowest end of PdE.
Residency requirements are straightforward: You must stay in Uruguay for at least 50% of the time during your 1 year to 18 month application period. Expect around $2K in fees if you get a lawyer. You must have your own physical address, but do not need to buy. Once residency is granted, you need to renew once every 3 years. One lawyer felt it was necessary to maintain the 50% occupancy, the other did not (visit once a year).
Citizenship is more involved. You must maintain the above 50% for 5 years, 3 if you have family ties (i.e. wife or relatives). Proof of ‘involvement in Uruguay’ must be provided – phone bills, doctor visits, involvement in community activities, etc. I did not get the sense this was a formality, nor did I get the sense that this is a barrier unless you really aren’t staying for 50% of the time.
Taxation: Foreigners gaining residency get 5 years exemption from Uruguay taxes. Once that runs out, there is a tax of 12% on dividend and interest income worldwide if said income is not already taxed.
I asked both lawyers if the above taxation and citizenship/residency requirements (they are relatively new) is due to internal or external factors, and both responded that these were due to Uruguay responding to international (i.e. US) pressure, and were the minimum steps necessary to avoid ‘black’ or tax haven status. I understood this to mean that it was unlikely to get more stringent. Both also noted that the residency/citizenship requirements were to keep out drug dealers and so forth – seems perfectly reasonable.
Overall the impression I get from Uruguay is a growing, healthy and prosperous nation with an emphasis on personal liberties. On TV was a movie about a lesbian couple, I saw a small plaza dedicated to sexual freedom of expression, and of course Uruguay permits abortion and is close to legalizing marijuana. I did see a church with Abortion is Murder signs on it (in Spanish). I didn’t actually witness any marijuana usage, though I did see a couple possible – very different from SF where I can’t walk 3 blocks without getting a whiff of skunk perfume. On the road, I did see a number of policemen, but never a single person getting a ticket. I did see once a roadside inspection where cars were being randomly waved to stop, but it was outside the airport so it is unclear if this is common or airport related.