Exploring Uruguay’s Central Farming Areas
We just returned from our fact-finding trip through the center of Uruguay, from Montevideo all the way into Brazil just across the border from Artigas, Uruguay. We have many things to relate to you, which will take a few newsletters to accomplish.
From the start, we faced a dilemma. Only one week to investigate Uruguay’s interior and too many choices. So we focused on two areas–the Tacaurembo Departamento, primarily the small town of San Gregorio de Polanco, and the Artigas Departamento, primarily the town of Artigas.
We talked to real estate agents, one contractor, and many locals. We did also pass through and stay over in a couple of other places and the interior of the country seemed pretty consistent insofar as the people and the land were concerned. But it is, after all, a very small country.
Overall our visit to Uruguay’s interior farmlands was like going back to small town America in the 40s. I hope those of you who are in small town America today will give us your comments whether you still see your town similarly. I haven’t seen, in years, what we found on this trip. Also, if you have something to add to anything posted here, please share it in comments.
First, on this trip I fell in love! Yes I did. With Uruguay. What a beautiful country! Like most people who come to Uruguay, I have spent time on the beaches from Atlantida to Chuy. But this was different. We went to see farmland—and farmers, if possible.
The beaches of Uruguay are fantastic. If you are a beach person, you will love Uruguay. But you really don’t have to give up the beach just because you leave the coast and go inland. The lakes area has abundant beaches. This is one of many miles of shoreline beach in Tacaurembo Departamento. As you might guess, since it is just now turning spring in the southern hemisphere, it is not warm enough yet for the beach crowd.
This writer is a country girl at heart and loved the interior. Not just the country itself, but the country people. I believe that if we ever did face a crisis, there would be safety in these places and neighbors would look out for each other.
As you can see, we are having some spring rains and overcast.
We saw a lot of cattle in the pastureland. Of course beef is one of the country’s primary exports. As stated on this site before, Uruguay is one country where I will eat beef. It is grass-raised without hormones or antibiotics—by law.
In all fairness, to be completely honest, the Uruguay government has now allowed Monsanto into the country to grow their genetically modified soy and corn. One Monsanto soy farmer tells us that his entire product goes to China and maybe it will help with their population problem. Perhaps the part about their population problem was a joke, I’m not sure. There are expats in the south who are establishing an organic farm. Monsanto moved in near them and they have their farm for sale and plan to move north for that reason.
On the first day of our return to Buenos Aires we had several calls from readers, anxious for a preview of what we learned. When I mentioned to one the Monsanto issue in the south, his response was “Well! That’s it for Uruguay!” I said “Well, if that turns you away from Uruguay, I think you’ll have to go to Europe where Monsanto has been evicted from some of those countries.”
We need to educate people, particularly those in public office. I hope the expats in Uruguay will take on that project—and do it very respectfully. One thing about these small countries is that you have access to the president himself, as well as the legislators. Therefore anyone with a cause that makes sense and can win respect should be able to have an influence. A couple of years ago the newspaper carried a story of one Uruguayan protestor against the arrival of genetically modified farming who handcuffed himself to a public building. I admire his dedication, and the fact that he is at least smart enough to understand the threat. But I think there are better ways and I would opt for education.
We carefully explored this issue in the areas we specifically investigated. They have no such problems. Also, to our surprise, the realtors and others seem aware of the GM issue and had a few negative comments of their own about it. At least we didn’t have to explain it to them.
All I can say about this issue is that life has problems and nothing is perfect. Not even Uruguay!
One thing that always impresses me, either negatively or positively, is the people. The people make a neighborhood what it is–or a city–or a country. I have heard in the past that Uruguay is an honest country. Of course, in any large city, you will find crime, and this is true in Montevideo. But I have seen signs of this honesty and neighborliness, even in the capitol. But it certainly is there in the back country. What caring people.
We also saw opportunity there.
One of the towns we investigated has not a single place where you could sit down in the morning and have coffee or even breakfast. There is a large restaurant down by one of the lakes that we drove to for lunch. I don’t know if they are open in the morning or not. But in the town proper, there is nothing like that. Not only that, the last day that we were there, we went to the one place we know that served a real meal (and the food was great too, by the way). They were having a birthday party for a local and they were not serving the public. If you were not invited to the party, you were out of luck–and it was a big party. They referred us across the street to a hamburger place but neither of us eats hamburgers. We ate some cheese and rice cakes and fruit in our hotel room.
So here may be a business opportunity for someone.
In my search for my morning coffee, I walked several blocks asking along the way if there was a place anywhere in town that serves coffee in the morning. Or breakfast. Finally I asked a woman passing by if she knew anywhere. She spoke NO English, I speak some Spanish and she insisted on walking about four blocks with me, asking everyone along the way if they knew a place that serves in the morning. She was NOT going to let me go without coffee. I kept telling her that it was not necessary for her to go with me, I can ask. She replied, in Spanish, “No, no, I will help you.” Finally one man told her there was a place 11 blocks down a street he pointed out to us and the only thing that stopped her from escorting me the entire 11 blocks was that I convinced her that I didn’t want to walk that far. Only then did she say okay.
This is just a taste of what we found all through the interior. In two different towns, I asked if they knew anyone I could pay to show us the town and the outlying areas. One of them was a contractor who came and spoke to us in English where we were eating in a restaurant (they love to practice their English). The other was the daughter of a real estate man in Artigas. We felt that a local could do the best job of that—better than we could, being complete strangers to the area. In both cases, the people I asked took us themselves, immediately, on the grand tour, and then refused pay. “No, no,” they said. “It is free!” The real estate man’s daughter did allow us to buy her lunch. And here she is! What a sweetheart.
This is your introduction into the interior. Next we will tell you what we learned about San Gregorio de Polanco, in the Tacaurembo Departamento.
One last note: If you think that you would like to consider the interior, we suggest you get started learning Spanish. You will find English speakers in Montevideo and along the coastal beach areas where English-speakers seem to love to settle. Atlantida and Punta del Este, for example, are awash with English-speakers. But in the interior they are pretty consistently speakers of Spanish only. There are some in the interior who speak English. Our little tour guide pictured above, is one of them. But it is not nearly as common as in the tourist areas of the Atlantic coast.
Don’t be discouraged. If I can do it, certainly you can. I would not give up the idea of going where I want to go because of language! It is just a matter of doing a little every day and you will get there. And besides–it is fun!
Next, if you are planning to head in our direction, once again we suggest that the tendency to procrastinate is our enemy. We are in Buenos Aires and the writing on the wall here is clear. Argentina is headed for another crisis. It is obvious in the rising prices and the dogs that sniffed my luggage at the border to be sure I was not absconding the country with dollars. I never knew that dollars had a particular smell, but apparently the president of Argentina thinks her dogs can detect them.
Argentina has instituted currency controls limiting what you can take out of the bank–and out of the country–particularly in dollars. For a vacation they will allow $100 US a day—and that’s it. How many of you could vacation in the U.S. for $100 a day? Consequently people here can’t go if their resources are all stored in Argentina.
This is one prime example of why we keep suggesting that our readers diversify outside their own country. Even former expats returning to the United States cannot get dollars and some have reported that the U.S. banks refused their Argentina pesos.
However, it is hard to get ahead of the Argentines. They diversify their assets in different countries, even in good times, and they are experts. They can tell you how to open a bank account in Uruguay–or in Switzerland–or in Singapore. Take your pick! They’ve been through this many times. I know we tend to laugh at these badly managed countries that we tend to call “banana republics.” But the fact is they are not behaving any differently from how politicians have behaved historically in bankrupt countries. When all other resources are exhausted, they look to their last possible store of wealth–their own citizens. We happen to believe that Argentina is not unique.
Argentina still has a ways to go yet before the next crisis. When it comes, it is very likely to affect Uruguay. It always does. Does that sound like scary news? Well, it all depends on how you look at it.
The Uruguay President Mujica has recognized–and stated–that the coming Argentina crisis has the potential to affect Uruguay. He is working to diversify Uruguay’s trading partners rather than be heavily dependent on any single country. Uruguay boasts that they now trade with 100 different trading partners and that Uruguay is the 5th most important exporter of beef. We think that’s a record to be proud of for such a small country.
However, Uruguay also depends heavily on tourists and most of them come from Argentina. There is a strong possibility the Argentines may not be vacationing so freely in the next few years, which is going to hurt Uruguay, in our opinion.
But remember! Crisis brings opportunity to those who are prepared. We think that there will be buying opportunities ahead for real estate, both in Uruguay and in beautiful Argentina. But you have to be in a country for a while to get familiar with it and to get the feel of things. It takes knowledge to make wise decisions. When we are unfamiliar with the area, we tend not to see the opportunities.
So hurry on down. We are looking forward to meeting you! Next week we will report on the lakes area and one of my favorite Uruguayan interior towns–San Gregorio, in the Tacuarembo Province.
Hasta luego, mis amigos!