By Suzan Haskins
One of the attractions of many Latin American countries is the European feel. In a recent story in International Living Suzan Haskins gave her impressions of the Montevideo area. Some excerpts:
Sipping a cappuccino at a small table in a shady plaza outside my hotel, I’m reminded of days and evenings spent in similar sidewalk cafés in Europe. Stately 19th-century neo-classical and baroque-style buildings with wrought-iron balconies line the square. Curtains wave gaily through massive wood-framed windows.
Across the street, the famous 18 de Julio Avenue—and another shady plaza—are rimmed with shops selling clothes, housewares and electronics, currency exchange outlets, and even more sidewalk cafés offering pastas, pizzas, and chivitos. (A chivito is akin to a Philly cheesesteak, piled high with ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese, a fried egg, slathered with sauce, and all atop a bed of French fries. Take that, dear arteries!)
On the Waterfront
I was just getting started on my expedition to Uruguay’s coastal cities and towns, but already I could understand why so many expats living in this country say it offers the best quality of life in Latin America.
The drive along the rambla (shoreline road) from the airport takes you past chalet style homes with tidy manicured yards on the outskirts, giving way to stylized high rise condo buildings as you near the city.
Just before sunrise, joggers and dog walkers were about their morning rituals. Silver streaks of light crisscrossed the massive body of water next to which Montevideo sits.
Is it an ocean? A river? A little of both, it seems. About midway between west and east on Uruguay’s southern coast, Montevideo hugs the bank where the Río de la Plata rushes out to the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly half of Uruguay’s total population of 3.5 million people live here, in the country’s capital, making for a manageable, not-too-big and not-too-small city.
While Montevideo’s seven-mile coastline is not technically “oceanfront,” it looks like the ocean. Beaches are wide and sandy and waves and tides come in and out. During my visit—at the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer—beaches were thick with sunbathers and water lovers.
I took a bus to the pretty Plaza Independencia, with its massive statuary tribute to national hero José Artigas. From here, you can easily walk from one end of Ciudad Vieja—Montevideo’s oldest neighborhood, founded in 1726—to the other in about 30 minutes via the pedestrian walkway called Calle Sarandí.
Ciudad Vieja’s architecture is a reminder of the city’s colonial past. (The Portuguese, Spanish, French, and British all tried to stake a claim here at one time or another.) Many of the old buildings, especially along Calle Sarandí, have been renovated in recent years.
Despite the aesthetic appeal of Ciudad Vieja, most expats I met in Montevideo prefer living in the trendy neighborhoods of Pocitos and Punta Carretas. I could understand why. Both border the city’s best beaches, and Pocitos, especially, has an urban neighborhood feel.
“Pocitos reminds me of the Riviera or Italy or elsewhere in Europe,” says Doug Wayne, a U.S. expat who has lived all over the world but moved to Uruguay nearly three years ago. “It’s completely self-contained, with little shops and restaurants and its own nightlife. There are shady little parks and we’re right next to the water. You can walk everywhere; you don’t need a car.”
Costa de Oro: Best Beach Buys
Leaving Montevideo behind, the Costa de Oro, or “Golden Coast,” is so named for the golden-sand beaches that begin just 22 miles outside the city and extend along the coast for about 30 miles. Still technically “ocean” but part of the Río de la Plata estuary, you wouldn’t know by looking at it. The water is blue and the beaches rival anything you’ll find on either U.S. coast.
Called balnearios in Uruguay, the small seaside towns here are clean, shady, and quiet, with tall sycamores and pines growing right up to the edges of rolling sand dunes spotted with grassy tufts that give way to wide, sandy beaches.
As an expat friend who lives in Uruguay told me, “The people are friendly and welcoming, especially in the small towns. Like any small Midwestern town, you’ll find a Main Street lined with shops and safe, quiet neighborhoods of neat, tidy houses.”
Round the bend on the coastal road and your first glimpse of Piriápolis may have you feeling that you’ve entered another place and time altogether. Not technically part of the Costa de Oro, this is also the only place in Uruguay where rolling hills, dotted with small farms, meet the ocean.
“When you travel along the rambla and see pastureland on the left and ocean on the right,” says Sharon Rhodes, who moved to Piriápolis from Corning, New York, with her husband Gerry, “and this beautiful hillside with little buildings tumbling down the side, it reminds you of a little Greek village.”
Just 50 miles from downtown Montevideo, the seaside town of Piriápolis was Uruguay’s first seashore resort, founded in 1893—almost 15 years before Punta del Este, just 30 minutes away.
Even though its wintertime population of 8,000 swells to four times that in the summer, Piriápolis has never achieved the kind of international acclaim Punta del Este has. Its laidback languor is part of its charm, however. Front and center on the rambla, the massive Belle Epoque-style Hotel Argentino, built in 1930, calls to mind a gentler time and sets the tone for this town.
While summertime Piriápolis is lively with vacationers who come to enjoy the waterfront boardwalk, busy seafood restaurants, casinos, and, of course, the beaches and marinas, I can imagine wintertime here as the best of all seasons. You would have the beach and rambla practically to yourself and could linger with friends over coffee or cocktails at a cozy oceanfront café.
“Uruguayans are very tolerant and inclusive,” one expat told me. “I’ve always been uncomfortable in other Latin American countries where there is a distinction between, for instance, the wealthy foreigners and the poor servers. There really isn’t a class division here…and that adds to my quality of life.”