A lot of people dream about it: getting away from it all. Going to live somewhere simpler, maybe warmer, possibly cheaper, or just exotic. Beautiful beaches, great art and music and culture, gorgeous women; or just the chance to travel and totally change your surroundings.
Photo Kseniya Ragozina / Getty Images
I did it, about twelve years ago. And since that time I’ve had all kinds of people asking me about what it’s like to be an “expat”, living as a North American down in South America. If you do things right, it can be great. But in all the years I’ve been here I’ve also seen a lot of people move down here, struggle with problems they hadn’t imagined, and then finally leave back for home.
So how do you do it right?
In some ways, it might be easier than you think, while in other ways harder. Usually, the parts people assume would be difficult are not that hard, but it’s the more abstract stuff that can trip you up. So, here’s what you need to know if you want to escape to South America:
1. Make Sure you Pick the Right Place
There’s a lot of countries to choose from. So what you’ll want to consider are things like how good the local economy is (stronger economies means products won’t be as cheap, but really poor economies means it’ll be very hard to get basic products and services), how stable the government is (Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, etc. are a disaster, while countries like Uruguay and Chile are very stable), what the crime rates are like, what the weather is like, what the local culture is like, and how easy it is to move.
I strongly recommend Uruguay, which I’ll be using as our case study.
Uruguay has a strong economy, so prices tend to be higher than in other Latin-American countries, but you can get a lot of the goods and services you might be used to in North America or Europe. The government is very stable, there’s no danger of any kind of insurgency or revolution, and crime rates are among the lowest of the entire continent. The weather is not quite as hot as Brazil, but you get ‘summer weather’ about 8 months a year, and even in winter it never gets down to freezing, and there are great beaches if you’re into that. The local culture is very European in style, well-educated, and very modern. The politics skew strongly to the left (they have legalized marijuana, gay marriage, and abortion; and Uruguay is the only South American country that isn’t strongly religious), but you don’t get the kind of ultra-Marxist crackpot governments that you see in Venezuela or Argentina. And getting residency here is easy, though it involves a good deal of paperwork.
2. You Shouldn’t Try to Make it Just Like Home
Life here will be different than in your hometown. If your whole point was to go somewhere different, you shouldn’t forget that the second you arrive. I’ve seen a lot of expats move here and end up living in little McMansions in suburbs or even private estates full of foreigners, and generally not interacting at all with the local scene. That’s a big mistake. Focus on how this place is not like the ‘old country’ and you’ll be miserable; focus on what’s great about it and you’ll do fine.
Get into the differences. Embrace the local food, the local ways of doing things, live downtown in local neighborhoods, and keep treating it like an adventure. I live in a house that looks nothing like a North American house would, right in the heart of the city. I’m about six blocks from the city center in one direction, about six block from the beach in the other direction. I can walk to almost anything I need, and buses and taxis are reliable and cheap here, so I don’t need a car. There are a dozen great local eateries within a three block radius of my place, and old-fashioned bakeries, laundries, corner stores, even a local barber. Every Friday the street across from my block turns into a farmer’s market. Every weekend the local bar puts soccer matches on the TV, and the local Carnival drummers come out onto the street to practice. You wouldn’t get any of that living in some expat enclave.
3. You Don’t Need to Speak Spanish, Though You Probably Should
If you choose to live in one of the better-educated countries (like Uruguay) and in a larger city, you won’t actually need to learn Spanish. Countries like Uruguay are full of people who speak at least a little English, and their tourist-economies are set up so that they facilitate the non-Spanish-speaker. I know people who’ve lived here for years and have little to no Spanish at all.
On the other hand, by not even trying to pick up the native tongue, you are potentially cutting yourself off from a whole bunch of situations that otherwise make life both easier and more pleasant: making significant friendships with locals, attending cultural events, and generally getting around without concern. You don’t have to start out speaking perfect Spanish, but if you make the effort to learn, there’s nothing like immersion to help you learn quickly. If you plan to be here long-term, put yourself in situations where you have to learn more of the language; it’s harder in the short run but a lot better in the long run.
4. Some Things are Much Cheaper, Some More Expensive, Some Don’t Exist
Beer costs less than $2 a liter. A bottle of really good wine can be as cheap as $5. A night at the movies for two might run you $20 tops. An amazing steak dinner can be yours for around $10, and a really top quality meal at a high-end restaurant for two might cost $35. A filling bar meal could go for $5. You can get straight across town in a cab for $18. Anything locally made, or any service, will be way cheaper here than in most cities in North America. You can get superfast unlimited internet (we’re talking 50+ Mbps) for $30 a month and wi-fi is plentiful.
On the other hand, electronics and appliances will easily cost twice as much. Cars are absurdly expensive. And there’s a 60% tariff on most imports, so between that and shipping expect to pay twice the ticket price on anything you order online. Some of the things you might be used to from home (baked beans, sriracha sauce, ales, KFC, chinese/thai/indian/vietnamese restaurants) just don’t exist here. There’s McDonalds and BK and Subway, but don’t expect any other familiar fast foods. No Starbucks either, but the cafes here are so awesome you won’t miss it.
5. Real Estate is Cheap
It used to be even cheaper. Property values have been steadily rising for the last decade. But you can still buy property, in the city or the country, for a really amazing value. I live in a two-bedroom house (in a decent downtown neighborhood) that cost $80,000. Before that, I rented a seventh floor massive two-bedroom, two-living-room, two bathroom (with jacuzzi) high-rise apartment in the heart of downtown for about $600 a month (it would be a bit more expensive now). You have to shop around a bit, because prices for buying and renting can vary wildly, but generally this is a great place to get real estate.
6. Having a Family Here Can be Trickier
Uruguay is a great place for kids, and children can generally adapt to new environments faster than adults. I know some expat kids who speak perfect Spanish while their parents barely manage to string together a sentence. But the public education system is crap, and a good private school can cost about $1,000 a month. The public health care is also crap, and decent private health care costs about $65 a month per person. Homeschooling is technically illegal, but I know of expat parents who homeschool their kids and as long as the kids are actually getting an education the government doesn’t seem to notice or care.
7. Government Efficiency and Customer Service Don’t Exist
Speaking of government, expect long waiting periods, lines, ridiculous paperwork, and terrible service at almost all government offices. The more you can avoid dealing with the government here the better, but unfortunately you’ll have to do so on many occasions, and when you do you have to just accept that the service will make your local DMV look like a model of efficiency in comparison. What’s worse, private businesses aren’t much better: like in some European countries, the idea of American-style ‘customer service’ is not a concept South American businesses really understand. Be prepared for surly waiters, supermarkets with only one till open even in the peak hours, pharmacies that make you deal with three different people to get some aspirin, and lots of places where the employees act like they’re doing you a favor by even letting you speak with them.
8. Don’t Plan to Earn Your Living Here
Unless you’re one of those hippies who doesn’t mind living on ramen noodles while earning a pittance teaching English to locals, there aren’t very good prospects for foreigners to actually work here. Even very skilled jobs will pay a tiny fraction of what you’d earn in North America. And generally, starting your own business isn’t much better: you’ll go broke paying taxes while drowning in red tape. If you come to live here, you’ll want to be getting income from outside: living from a pension or investments, or doing some kind of job online (like, say, being a writer for a political website…). There are always exceptions of course, in very specialized fields or really clever business plans, but for the most part people I’ve met who expected to earn a good living actually doing something here ended up disappointed.
9. Build a Social Network Quickly
One of the biggest differences between people who make it here and people who don’t is in having a social network. Get in touch with other expats. Join a soccer club, or if you’re fancy the golf/tennis/yacht clubs. Connect to a local church if you’re religious; or become a Freemason (there’s a great English Lodge here, and we’re always looking for new or joining members). Take classes or volunteer. There’s tons of options; Uruguayans are a club-joining people, and you’re likely to find a club for just about any interest. Be sure to try to make friends and contacts wherever you go. When you first get here, you’ll feel very isolated, and if you don’t reach out and build a new social network, you’re not likely to have a good experience.
10. Make a Plan to Stick Around for at Least Two Years
You can’t expect to move down here and get used to everything overnight. The first couple of years are by far the hardest, and there’s bound to be times in that early period where you’ll strongly question whether you made the right choice. So try to make a commitment to staying at least that long, because if you don’t you won’t be giving it a fair shot. A lot of the things you aren’t sure about are likely to resolve themselves after a while, if you’re really meant for expat living; and by your third year you’ll be way more used to how things are done around here, and you’ll feel more at home.
Those are the main points to keep in mind. Feel free to ask any questions you like in the comments below! I’ll try my best to answer them.
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.
Click through the gallery below to see some of the sights in Uruguay.
BeachThis is not one of the prettiest beaches in the country, believe it or not; it's just the one that happens to be six blocks from my house.
Downtown MontevideoSource: The Couch Sessions
Montevideo's Old CitySource: Slightly Astray
Uruguay HomesWhy try to live in an American-style house in the suburbs when you can live in a house like these?
Local BakeryYou could live two doors down from this.
Food & DrinkLocal bars serve cheap beer, great food, and excellent coffee.
Farmer's MarketIn Montevideo, you don't go to the Farmer's Market, the Farmer's Market comes to you.
Source: Fotos de Montevideo
BBQA typical Uruguayan “parrilla” BBQ restaurant. You can get a large steak with fries or salad for about $10. The beef is some of the tastiest in the world.
Source: Matador Network
SoccerYou can watch a soccer game in the Estadio Centenario, where the very first World Cup was held (and won by Uruguay).
CarnavalMontevideo has the longest Carnaval season in the world: it lasts 40 days. Brazil's only lasts six.
Source: Noticas de Cruceros