Uruguay: South America's best-kept secret?

Montevideo; credit: Productora Aguaclara, Uruguayan ministry of tourism Expats are increasingly attracted to the charms of Montevideo

After a decades-long pause, expatriates from rich countries are again arriving in Uruguay.

In 2009, for the first time in 44 years, the country saw a positive migration influx, while the number of applicants who got residence permits has tripled in only four years.

Immigration to Uruguay

  • 3,825 residence permits were awarded in 2009, compared with 1,216 in 2005
  • 50% of new legal residents come from Argentina and Brazil
  • 288 Americans obtained their residence in 2009
  • Europeans make 15% of new residents, with Germans and Spaniards leading the pack

Source: Uruguayan Office of Migration

Although most of the new legal residents come from neighbouring countries (half from Argentina and Brazil), the number of American and European applicants is also growing.

And even though the figures remain small, the arrival of hundreds of people from the northern hemisphere is starting to be noticed in this country of 3.3 million.

"If you look south of the US, Uruguay stands out for its clean water, good and healthy food, a good educational system, and good infrastructure, both in terms of roads and of internet access," Ronald Yoder, an American who just settled in the country, told the BBC.

Mr Yoder came to Uruguay in 2009, after Casey Research, an American investing newsletter he reads, rated the country as a good place to live in and invest.

This 64-year-old entrepreneur and investor decided to move to Piriapolis, a seaside resort situated an hour's drive from the capital, Montevideo.

Start Quote

If more people knew that life here was so pleasant, they would come in hordes. I hope the secret doesn't leak or everyone will come ”

End Quote Paul Elberse Dutch expat

For Paco Bermejo, a 44-year-old Spanish entrepreneur who came to Montevideo with his family last March to start a garden centre and landscaping business "in Uruguay, you feel optimistic about the future, something you don't find in Europe anymore".

"You get a better quality of life, more safety, easy-going people and good weather," he adds.

Michael Brown was transferred to Uruguay from California in 2005, and when it was time to go back, he decided to stay.

"You get good food, good wine, nice people, plus there is no rush-hour traffic, and I can get by speaking almost no Spanish at all," he told the BBC. ­­­­

On the map

This new trend is a result of a combination of elements, said Carlos Flanagans, director of consular affairs at the ministry of foreign affairs.

"Uruguay is a politically stable country, it is one of the few Latin American countries that was not affected by the economic crisis, and investors see it as an attractive option. Plus, in 2008, a pioneering migration law was passed that gives immigrants the same rights and opportunities that nationals have," he explains.

Juan Fischer, a local immigration and relocation lawyer, believes the economic crisis and tax increases in the US have made more Americans look overseas, "and that has translated into more people coming here".

Flea market in Montevideo's Old City Expats say they get a better quality of life in the Uruguayan capital

On the phone from Las Vegas, where he was a speaker at the International Living Conference, Dr Fischer told the BBC that this organisation, which promotes relocation abroad, has put Uruguay on the map.

"Since 2005, Uruguay has been increasingly promoted as a place to live and retire. They all look for better quality of living at a lower cost.

"Uruguay looks attractive to them because it is a safe place. Also, they can better blend in compared to other Latin American countries, because our population is of European descent and we have got a large middle class," he adds.

The vast majority of Uruguay's population is of European descent, hundreds of thousands having arrived between the 1880s and the 1950s.

Then, economic downturns and a military government (between 1973 and 1985) turned Uruguay into a country of emigrants.

Now, it is quite easy for new immigrants to get a Uruguayan residence permit, Dr Fischer says.

"They are not required to invest or to buy property here. They just need to prove a monthly income of $650 (£413), which is not much for most foreigners; they need a certificate of good conduct and a birth certificate too."

Paul Elberse, a Dutch financial professional who came to Uruguay with his wife and children in 2002 for work reasons and decided to stay, says he does not understand why so few people come to live here.

"If more people knew that life here was so pleasant, they would come in hordes. I hope the secret doesn't leak or everyone will come," he half-jokes.

But Mr Yoder believes the word about Uruguay has already got out.

"When you find something good you tell other people about it. A lot of us are telling friends to come and visit. It [has become] a trend, and it is definitely a growing one," he said.

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