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Home Uruguay Fast Facts A negative review of Uruguay

A negative review of Uruguay

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I read about you in the WSJ so checked out your site. Having spent a month fact finding in Uruguay last year, I was disappointed to see you spouting the same misinfo as everyone else about Uruguay. Have you even been there? Pathetic. Warren

Uruguay: As Seen In March, 2010

"Uruguay: Not as Advertised"

Report by Warren Woodward, April 2010

 For many years I have read about Uruguay, a country about the size of Arkansas located between Argentina and Brazil with a southern Atlantic ocean coastline. With stable and secret banking, one of South America’s highest standards of living, its longest life expectancy, lowest rates of crime and corruption, and supposedly good infrastructure, Uruguay has been called “The Switzerland of South America”. Recent writers have discontinued using that exaggerated moniker but many still recommend the country as a place to retire and invest. Live and Invest Overseas rated it #3 on their recent “10 Best Places to Retire” list.

Anticipating the strong possibility of a dollar meltdown and concomitant chaos in the U.S. at some point in the future, Josee and I spent the month of March, 2010 traveling in Uruguay to assess it as a possible place to diversify some money out of the U.S. in the form of a Uruguayan real estate investment which could also be used as a place to retire in our later years or bug out to if need be before that.

Because airfare was so expensive ($2,100 for the 2 of us, plus 4 days in transit for a round trip from Phoenix airport), we thought we should stay for a month in case we liked the country and needed time to actually buy a place. What a waste of time and money!

Both International Living and Live and Invest Overseas have misrepresented Uruguay. It is a third world country in which just about everything is more expensive than in the first world. With the exception of a few toll highways, most of the roads have potholes capable of swallowing motorcycles whole. Sidewalks almost everywhere are crumbling. Much of the place looked like no maintenance had been done in 50 years.

When we first saw the horse drawn carts at the small beach town we camped at, we thought they were quaint and just some locals taking it slow. When we continued to see the horse carts throughout the entire country, we realized people were using them out of economic necessity, not as a fun, laidback alternative to a car. With gas at $6.50 a gallon and cars at 2 to 3 times the price in the U.S., I guess horse power is to be expected. Even in the capitol city, Montevideo, we saw horse carts. Most of the ever-present dumpster scavengers there use them.

Overall, the country suffers from all the same ills to be found in most Latin American countries: litter everywhere (despite lots of human, as opposed to mechanized, street sweepers), noise, funky plumbing and wiring, too much stuff that doesn’t work, jerry-rigged this and mickey-moused that. And we are still trying to figure out where the thousands of people who visit the beaches during January and February go to the toilet because there aren't any public ones. If the country’s general prices were a quarter of what they are, a lot of these sorts of things could be overlooked. But to pay more than first world prices in a substandard setting is just plain stupid.

A couple examples: Our idea to travel with a cooler ended real quick when we consistently saw average sized coolers which would cost $40 in the U.S. going for $150. Food, both in the restaurants and the markets, was so expensive and mediocre that we actually lost weight! We kept asking Uruguayans we met how people could live since wages are nowhere near U.S. levels. No one could give us an explanation except to say it was hard. With minimum wage set at US$400 per month, it must be hard indeed for the average person. Ordinary hotels were close to $100 a night, and camping, which we also did, was not cheap at about $10 a night.

One interesting aspect of Uruguay is that all big ticket items -- real estate, vehicles, TVs, large appliances, etc. -- are priced in U.S. dollars, not Uruguayan pesos. Not there long enough to figure out why, I can only guess that it has to do with inflation of the peso. Whatever, whether in peso or dollars, we found that the hotel and restaurant prices quoted in Josee’s guidebook, which was printed only a year and a half prior to our trip, were all 50 to 100 percent higher at the time of our visit. And that was not because they “saw us coming”. Uruguayan culture is not a bargaining one. Prices are marked and that’s what people pay, just like in the U.S.

As beach and bodysurfing wave snobs, another minus for us was that the beaches, while plentiful and often pristine, were windswept and the waves wimpy and blown out. Additionally, the beach towns are mobbed during January and February then basically ghost towns for the rest of the year. Since we were there in March, many businesses were already closed. The remainder of the country, being pretty much endless pasture land, held little appeal.

I could not help but see the country’s problems as the result of its socialist policies. Many enterprises are state owned -- cement, railroads, banking, communications, oil refining, etc. As a result, most have about 3 times as many employees as they should and taxes are through the roof to pay for it all including the much-ballyhooed “free” health care. Income tax is not much of a factor but there is a 22% VAT on just about everything as well as import duties which double the price of just about everything since, in a country as small as this (3.5 million), just about everything is imported.

A consequence of taxes is of course people dodging taxes,. And so an alternative flea market style economy has developed. In her slide show, Josee has some photos of one that we went to in Montevideo. Billed in our guide book as the largest flea market in Latin America, the streets of an entire neighborhood were blocked off to vehicles and filled with vendors selling almost everything imaginable.

Other photos include some of the old vehicles still in service throughout the country. They do have new ones, mostly Chinese and European mini-cars not available in U.S., but the old ones were more photogenic. Our rental car, BTW, was the cheapest I could find by emailing about 2 dozen companies and it cost US$594 for 28 days. It was a 2009 Fiat Uno with a 1300cc motor, 5 speed manual, no air, no power steering, no air bags, and no chimes or idiot lights for not wearing your belt or for opening the door (which I found a welcome relief).

Driving was typical Latin style with what signs and road markings there were being just guidelines. Josee found it nerve-wracking, but I did all the driving and quite enjoyed and took advantage of the free flow of it all. What I did find nerve-wracking was the fact that almost every city and town intersection was unmarked as to Right Of Way, and the U.S. custom of yielding to those on your right did not apply. Making it more exciting was that most of these intersections were blind. Sometimes it was “understood” that the road I was on had ROW; other times it was anyone’s guess and a game of chicken.

Uruguay also has the distinction of having the worst route signage of any country I have visited. With no way to drive around towns, one is directed to the center of town and then not directed out. “Obvious” ways out never worked and we would usually spend about an hour driving in circles. Asking directions was generally a wasted effort since people who do not drive (the vast majority) are clueless.

Due to economic considerations there are lots of very small motorcycles and mopeds, often with the whole family on board (and don‘t miss the photo of the guy riding with one hand on the handlebar and the other holding a child!). Not being fans of mandatory helmet laws (or mandatory anything), Josee and I were pleased to see almost everyone outside of Montevideo, where there is a strong police presence, blowing off the country’s mandatory helmet law.

In fact, outside Montevideo the lack of police was a pleasant respite from the U.S. which, in case you have not noticed, has become a police state. In the 1,800 miles we drove around the country, I saw about 5 cops on the road and none of them were shooting radar or even had it in their cars.

Despite the lack of police we never felt unsafe at any time so there was probably some truth to the much-touted low crime rate of Uruguay. That said, there are bars on a lot of windows. I attributed that not to high crime, but to the lack of police. Also, bars are cheaper and more effective than alarm systems.

We met a few Uruguayans who had lived in the U.S. and spoke English. Once, while lost trying to get out of a town, we stopped at a “fruteria” (fruit, veggies, and maybe a few other things) to get a watermelon and the proprietor told us he’d been in the U.S illegally from 2001 to 2008 milking cows. The rest were all legal immigrants (and some had become U.S. citizens). One told us in no uncertain terms that investing in Uruguay would be a mistake, and that the country, in so many words, was a hopeless third world socialist basket case. He was married to a U.S. woman and owned a Mexican restaurant in Wisconsin. He was totally done with the litter and chaos (his words) of his country, and thought everyone should go live in the U.S. for 2 months to be trained in how to live.

As though it was not worth visiting, several of the local people we met wondered why we even came to Uruguay. That was something I have never experienced in other countries. While there is definitely national pride amongst Uruguayans, there is also a large number of people who leave to better their economic condition. As a result, the population grows slowly.

An anomaly in Uruguay is the beach resort of Punta del Este (East Point). Punta is where the wide mouth of the River Plata meets the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a narrow point and so has beaches facing both east and west, with high-rise condos in the middle and somewhat more “American style” suburbs inland from the point and at the very tip of the point. Punta has expensive fashion and other stores, and the whole place basically caters to South America’s rich and middle classes. I read a news report of the cops putting some aggressive panhandlers on a bus to Montevideo. That’s the kind of place it is.

Owning vacation rental apartments in Punta seems to be a way for Argentinians and Brazilians to hide money outside their countries and, when the condos sell, a false bill of sale understating the price is a common part of the transaction. The money that people get for their vacation rentals can only be made during the busy January and February tourist season, so rents then are astronomical. We saw US$25,000 for January and US$19,000 for February being asked for one luxury 3 BR ocean view condo.

We had a laugh visiting the nearby beach town of Jose Ignacio, billed in one of the Uruguay articles I read before the trip as the “epicenter of global hip”. The article was written in 2007. I guess you had to be there then. Supposedly U.S. actor Bruce Willis and Colombian singer Shakira have places there, but the town will need more than a few celebs for it to be the epicenter of anything, except possibly over-priced Uruguayan real estate.

Cheap R.E. was another thing Uruguay was supposed to have going for it, but prices have risen so much in the past couple of years that it is hard to say if R.E. is still a deal for flippers. Yes, some R.E. close to the beach is cheap compared to the U.S. but it is also important to consider that the lots and houses themselves are usually smaller and less well appointed -- dinky kitchens, mickey-moused hot water systems, no closets, no garage (this in a country where vehicles cost a fortune), and no central heat (this in a country where there’s no snow but winters do dip into the 30s).

International Living is currently calling the 120 mile coastline of Rocha, the area north of Punta Del Este that stretches to Brazil, the "next Punta Del Este". International Living urges readers to get in now before prices "skyrocket". We drove that coast and spent time there. For it to be anything like Punta the ramshackle towns there now would have to be bulldozed in their entirety, an unlikely prospect. Additionally, the condos are still going up in Punta. People who want the Punta lifestyle will most likely buy those.

Josee just read this over and said I was (surprise!) being a little too negative and that I should include some of the highlights of our trip like the cattle and sheep auction we stumbled on during our trip across the interior. Yes, the livestock auction, complete with iconic Uruguayan gauchos (cowboys), was a true slice of life and is well documented in her slide show. For me, a highlight was Los Surenos, a group singing Uruguayan songs in the street at the flea market. Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club have nothing on these guys. We stood there listening to them for some time and bought a handful of their homemade CDs for $5 a copy, probably the best deal in Uruguay. The hot springs in the western part of the country were nice. We soaked in several. And in four weeks we never saw anyone with their pants hanging off their ass. But none of those highlights justified the price of the trip. So enjoy Josee’s slide show and save yourself a trip to Uruguay.

A couple more things: Many Uruguayan people in all walks of life are addicted to mate (pronounced mah-tay), a low caffeine herbal tea. They cannot go anywhere without it and can be seen anywhere and everywhere clutching the cup (traditionally made from a hollow gourd) with a silver straw sticking out of it, along with a thermos of hot water (for continual cup refilling) stuck in the crook of their arm. At the beach, on the sidewalk, riding the moped -- thermos and cup go everywhere they do. Reminded us of babies who must have their bottle. You’ll see ’em in the slide show.

What you won’t see in the slide show are the worst mosquitoes I have ever experienced anywhere. Usually mosquitoes come out at dusk and the only place you might find them during the day is in a dense forest or jungle. When the wind blew the wrong way in Uruguay, the mosquitoes came out no matter where you were or what time of day it was. Once we stopped the car near the beach, not a tree in sight, 10+ mph wind, broad daylight, and in less than a minute were savagely attacked by swarms. This same scenario was played out over and over in situations where you’d never expect to find mosquitoes. They’d even bite Josee while she was jogging on the beach. Bad!

The trip was capped off with a $62 “airport tax” when we left, as well as airport security confiscating the food we had brought in our carry-on luggage for the 2 day trip back home. Every country I’ve been to cares only about the agricultural and food products you bring in, not what you take out. Uruguay, which did not check what we brought in, has it exactly and appropriately backwards.

At least we didn't have to take our shoes off and were treated with respect and kindness by the Uruguayan Air Force personnel who acted as airport security. On arrival back in the U.S. I was commanded, drill sergeant style, by a TSA martinet to take my shoes off. I sat on an empty table to do it and was ordered off. "Jesus Christ!" I muttered in frustration. "Watch your attitude!" was the next command barked. I remained silent but thought "Warrant-less searches. No shoes. No liquids. No sharp anything. Don't sit down.... Good Grief.... And now they're coming for our attitudes!"

Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 March 2011 10:02  

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