Montevideo, the capitol of Uruguay, is what some of my friends call “a toy city.” Although it contains over 1.5 million people, I understand this as there are not that many tall buildings, and most of those are eight story hundred+ year old office buildings downtown and around Plaza Independencia. It does give an impression of a city you could pack away into a basket and set beside the sofa when you are done playing with it. But there are some tall modern buildings down near the Rambla, which runs along the Rio de la Plata, on the south side of the city (a river so wide that we think of it as the ocean, although knowing that somewhere on the far side is Argentina).
The World Trade Center in Pocitos near the Rambla consists of four (soon to be five) very tall buildings full of modern offices, and due to some legal arrangement with the country, these are free trade zones and tend to attract some of the major international businesses which have a location in Uruguay. I teach in the WTC, and my students are accountants. I have always thought of this as a dry, dusty word, but I now know better, as these three humorous, vibrant individuals enrich my life every time I spend an hour with them.
Except now I am trembling in my boots because Valentina, my young adviser on all things Uruguayan, informed me yesterday that she was sending me back to the USA because after 15 months in her country I am unaware of something very very important: bizcochos. Finally we established that I have indeed sampled them, and have been negligently calling them “those bread things.” In order to avoid a major trauma and losing all my new friends and hard-won Spanish vocabulary, I swore I would immediately purchase some on the way home and eat them with coffee that very afternoon.
And I will never forget that according to Valentina: “In the afternoon everyone’s eating bizcochos. Bizcochos are Uruguay. They melt in your mouth.” On the way home I got four each of a selection of sugared ones, ones with cheese inside, ones with ham inside, ones with pudding inside, and an onion flavored one that the bakery man insisted I try and would not be sorry. He was right, I was not sorry.
John Hamilton, a 48 year old pastor from the state of Kentucky in the US, has been in Uruguay with his family for the last 12 years and takes time out of a busy schedule to share his experience and advice on how to approach the life here.
I am originally from Kentucky, right in the heart of the Bluegrass state. In those days young men my age played basketball, explored the rural creeks and caves, and spent many hours working on beautiful horse farms as needed to pay for gas, car insurance, and college.
While I was born and raised in Kentucky, my parents were not. My father came from Syracuse and my mother from a far away mysterious land called Uruguay.
And that is where my Uruguay connection began.
Several years out of College, I found myself working full time as a Youth Pastor in a local church on the west side of Jacksonville, Florida, with a pull towards Latin America. It made sense. My wife, Lisa, was born in Michigan, but lived in Bogotá, Columbia, from the age of two. Her family invited us down to work with teenagers through a local church on the north side of the city.
I thought to myself that Colombia would be a terrific launching pad for Uruguay, helping me to master the language and culture for a couple of years. Two years turned into ten. We invested ourselves in teenagers, prisoners, and young parents during an exciting, challenging, and ultimately extremely fulfilling decade from 1993 to 2003.
In 2002, the Uruguayan economy had suffered a dramatic setback, which actually opened the door for us to come. The US dollar was trading at 27 to 1 and lunch at La Passiva was less than 100 pesos. It seemed cheaper to eat out with dollars than to cook at home. We brought our Labrador and three small children and rented a lovely home in Carrasco for U$S700 (“seven hundred US dollars“) a month, now the price of a room in many parts of the city.
The changes were significant. I thought my previous visits, reading, and study had informed me well about life here, but head knowledge and actual living experience is different.
We found Uruguay and Colombia to be almost polar opposites in many ways. The differences were rich, but challenging. My family, completely fluent in Spanish, struggled with the local dialect. We did not anticipate the small town feel of the capital city, nor the reluctance of people to drive short distances for a visit.
However, we loved the way you can pay all your bills at the Abitab or enjoy a leisurely lunch without worrying about traffic on the way to the next appointment.
We enjoyed the simplicity of the food offerings, although we missed international flavors, and the myriad fruits and vegetables we were accustomed to in Colombia.
Colombians in general are extremely proactive in pursuing improvement and change. Uruguayans in general seem to be much more willing to move with the natural flow. We struggled at first to adapt to the slower, small town feel, but quickly learned to appreciate the commitment to sunsets, long walks, weekends off and spontaneous asados among friends.
We have made Montevideo our home. Our girls have moved on to university and beyond in the States, but carry Uruguay in their hearts. Our son Josh was only four when we came and his blood runs Celeste Blue. My family tree runs back to 1885 in Uruguay and 1820 in Argentina so I have found a deeper understanding of my family of origin.
We have hosted many friends and facilitated the integration of many expats who have stayed from three to five years or longer. We feel this is our home and plan to stay.
For ten years, I have served Christ Church and the wider community as Pastor, Chaplain, and Protestant Priest. It has never been easy, but good things in life require hard work and effort. Many hundreds of people have passed through our home and church and most have moved on in the transitory way of the eastern side of the city, but we have had the beautiful opportunity to form lifelong friendships with people from every continent, dozens of countries while helping and being helped all along the way.
My advice to expats looking to retire is to be cautious. Costs have exploded and personal security is an issue. Regional crisis will reach us. But when you find friends, they will be always loyal and helpful. The fresh air and love of nature, the local produce and the richness of blended generations and cultures is delightful and perhaps, relatively unique. However, many people, my family included have been negatively impacted by asthmatic allergies leading to chronic bronchitis in the winters due to the overexposure to damp, moldy environments. If any one issue pushes towards a move away when our retirement approaches, it will be my pursuit of a drier climate where I can breathe in the winter months without inhalers, air purifiers and dehumidifiers.
Schooling: The schooling options are increasingly almost prohibitively expensive. Public education is strong in some aspects, but not nearly all students aspire to University even in private school. 50% of kids will not go beyond 10th grade in the pubic schools here. Some will go on to trade schools, and many do not even aspire to University. Most expats have a lifestyle and cultural experience that would be difficult to replicate for their kids without including a basic University degree…my opinion. A challenge for bringing your older expat kids to Uruguay is that some of the major private schools are not too welcoming of foreign kids so it can be a real challenge to break in socially. Expat kids (we like Third Culture Kids) need to discover and develop a talent that helps them have their own identity. Young children can adapt, but adolescents and teens are in for a tough time to break into the closed social dynamics of many private schools.
A bright spot is that teachers tend to be very loving, affirming and available to help students who want to be helped. Social life here (as everywhere) for teens really depends entirely on having a circle of friends to hang out with. Schooling issues and challenges for the children are probably primary reasons why families choose to leave in spite of other benefits they are experiencing.
All things considered, twelve years into our adventure, I would say that we have grown to appreciate Uruguay, but it is the deep friendships that keep us here. So lower your expectations, slow down, walk, breathe, cook over an open fire and invite some folks over…meaningful friendships are just waiting for you!
So as to become more familiar with possible places to live, Edy Kizaki and her family have stayed in Pocitos, Buceo and Punta Gorda. Edy also teaches in the Old City, Pocitos, and Carrasco and so has become familiar with those neighborhoods too. Others frequented by expats are Punta Carretas (more upscale) and Centro.
Living in Montevideo – Exploring 3 Neighborhoods by Edy Kizaki
One of my biggest pleasures this first year living here in Montevideo has been riding the bus, because I don’t have to worry about driving and while sitting next to the window I’m always watching as the streets and shops pass by. The buses are slow and local so I can let the sights flow past and each little shop is unique but also there are types of shops like the butcher shop (carnicería), flower shop (tienda de flores), fruit and vegetable shop (tienda de fruta y verdura), furniture stores (muebles), restaurants (restaurantes), coffee houses (cafes), bakery (panadería), etc.
Because condominium buildings, single-family homes and commercial shops are all mixed together along the streets every neighborhood is walkable and has its own character. Living directly along a main street will be noisy due to traffic, but the plentiful trees seem to cushion the streets and provide a peaceful buffer, to a certain extent. Note that across from a park will occasionally be quite noisy since events tend to go late into the night. I prefer a side street when choosing a living place, but it may not be the first consideration.
The first three months that I lived in Montevideo (I arrived here before my family followed me down, because I got a job and I had a time deadline to be here by the middle of April) what I decided to do since I was on my own with our family dog was to live in three different short-term AirBnB rentals which I did. (Actually regarding AirBnB I had some negative as well as positive experiences with it, which will have to be another blog. There seems to be a tendency for the landlord to make claims after you move out, such as something is missing when it isn’t. So use caution. Your main tool is the reviews, which you can only do for a few days after the end of your stay, so you have to be on top of it.)
However living in the three different neighborhoods I believe was a wise move. It got me familiar with neighborhood styles in the city, as well as three unique places to live, so that I got a better sense of the type of environments available here. The neighborhood (barrio) I lived in first is called Buceo and it’s just to the east of Montevideo Shopping which is at the east end of Pocitos neighborhood. Buceo is the next neighborhood over, still on the Rambla and it’s very centrally located and a great neighborhood. It has a small feria which is a street market. I’ve forgotten the day now but I think it was on Saturday mornings and it’s just next to the wall of the British Cemetary off Rivera. There is also the Night Market.
Next, I rented a room in the house of a lady who is Uruguayan. She puts rooms on AirBnB. She’s a psychologist here in Montevideo, a lovely lady with fairly limited English but still good. This was more a regular family house away from the center of the town, in Punta Gorda. She had a pool in the backyard, but because it was winter I didn’t utilize that. It had a green little backyard which the dog appreciated. She also has a huge orange tom cat called Willy Wonka. Punta Gorda was the name of the neighborhood and it’s farther out along Rivera toward Carrasco, so you’ll be taking a bus about 20 minutes more to get downtown. It does still have a small shopping area with a wine shop, a pharmacy, a supermarket, a butcher, a pasta shop, and a bakery, and it has its own feria once a week. However, it’s also quite near Portones shopping mall on Avineda Italia in Carrasco which is very very large and has almost anything you can imagine.
Third, I lived on Avenida Brasil, down a couple blocks from the Rambla and that was a wonderful place to live. Steve and Daniel arrived in Montevideo from the states just after I moved there. We were lucky enough to have a building with a kind of a small gym, pool and spa (which was not mentioned in the blurb about the place) and it had 24 hour concierge so we got familiar with how doormen operate here, which was useful. That neighborhood has excellent shopping, a great many high quality shops and services. Tienda Inglesa is there, a small one, and (it means English shop but basically it’s a supermarket which has a lot of imported foods as well as all the staples. There’s a big one in Montevideo Shopping, and there are large ones elsewhere, one is in Carassco at Portones Shopping) the small one which is over in Avanida Brasil is a good one for daily needs, although without the huge inventory of the larger ones. Some of my Uruguayan friends say that they only trust the fish from Tienda Inglesa or the feria but not most supermarkets.
There’s also one of the nicest cake shops I’ve experienced on Avanida Brasil, and there really are great cake shops here in Montevideo. There are two fantastic butchers, there are several antique shops, there’s a small auction house, there’s a Pilates studio, banks, bike shops, toy shops, stationary shops, casual restaurants and sports bars, and many many many many many other businesses which make it a fantastic neighborhood to live in, and very very walkable.
After those three temporary rentals we did arrange to get a long-term rental apartment. That in and of itself is a subject that I should address because there are certain things you have to know before you attempt to do so, but that will be in a future blog.
In terms of discussing neighborhoods I’ll just say that the fourth location was in Pocitos again, but this time near the intersection of Rivera and Julio Cesar and that it is a one year rental with two bedrooms and two baths on the fifth floor of a new building. It has a relatively large terrace and quite small rooms but still decent, and we’ve been enjoying the location very much. It’s useful to be near so much (being right off Rivera we have access to lots of buses which go direct to all the places we want to go, whereas Avenida Brasil was off the main route so you have to transfer) Now we go shopping very close to home, one to two blocks in either direction leads us to butcher shops, outside vegetable stands, clothing shops, stationary shops, etc. etc., and then Tienda Inglisa is only about four blocks away in Montevideo shopping.
interview some experts on the school situation here soon. My own son goes to Colegio Paulo Freire with a kindergarten, primary and secondary schools all nearly in the same place near Parque Batlle.
If you are planning to get residency for your children, they are required to be in school and homeschooling them is not accepted for this requirement. Public schools seem to be half day, until noon. More on this later.
(Note: please let me know if you have other school recommendations or experience, we can add it for the resource value.)
Ex-Pats and Locals. Who they are and what they have to say about Uruguay.