Guru’Guay thanks Canelones-based real estate developers Balsa & Asociados for making this article possible. Until now the Uruguayan department of Canelones has had no visibility internationally in English. Together Guru’Guay and Balsa are working to put Canelones on the map with a series demonstrating why this part of Uruguay is an unexpectedly interesting place to live, work and visit. Guru’Guay’s opinions are always our own.
Guru’Guay talks to a British-born economist about what attracted him as an expat in Uruguay to the gated communities of Canelones in 2019. Alexis discusses the pros and cons of living outside the capital, a typical week for the parents, education options for the children and the cost of living. He also touches on living next door to baby owls and the starry skies.
Watch the interview in full online. This article has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Economist, Alexis Ferrand, was born in the UK but spent his childhood in Uruguay where his parents who both have roots in South America live. He returned to the UK for university and stayed for nearly three decades, primarily in London and Newcastle. Specialising in emerging markets he also lived in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Pakistan. In 2017, the family, which by then included two small children, decided to move back to Uruguay in search of a better quality of life. After two years in the capital, they moved to Camino de los Horneros, an area of gated communities close by the international airport in the department of Canelones.
When you came back to Uruguay why did you choose Camino de los Horneros as home?
I came back with my wife and young family, attracted by the quality of life that Uruguay offers. We initially moved to the coastal part of Montevideo into an apartment.
We actually landed on Camino de los Horneros in Canelones by chance. We went for a weekend drive with the kids and discovered this new world that I’d heard of, but hadn’t seen. When I used to come here as a kid it was farmland.
The decision to move to Canelones was economic because you get a lot more for your money. We wanted a location east of Montevideo near the airport. We love that it is safe for our kids. They can play on the street and you don’t have to worry about cars. And it’s just very pleasant.
In my ideal world, I would live downtown in a nice apartment and have a rural place outside the city. Which is what Uruguay offers, right? That urban vibe and that rural vibe are both really attractive. But when reality means you have to choose, I chose campo (countryside) but I can be in Montevideo downtown in 20-40 minutes and at the airport in ten minutes.
We bought land and started building in 2018 and moved in early 2019 when the children were five and three.
What surprised you about moving to Canelones that maybe you wouldn’t have expected?
I do need to add 20 minutes to my journey to town, but that’s me being spoiled. In Uruguay we are used to commuting times that are quite short. I’ve lived in other cities where travel time under an hour was good.
Public offices—where you renew your driver’s licence or sort out taxes for example—and banks are smaller than in the city so you get served more quickly. It’s not that I need to go there often, but when you’ve moved countries, it’s surprising how much time you have to spend on these stupid things.
What was a bad thing that surprised you?
People in Montevideo are less likely to come to visit. You need to go and see them. Say, if Karen has to come all the way to Canelones she’ll see it as “going out of town”, whereas Alexis going to see Karen downtown would be, well, a bit of a hike but “normal”. It’s relative.
That makes going out less spontaneous. Though there are increasing offers around—a funky Mediterranean restaurant has opened up just down the road and there’s a foodcourt about two kilometres away. Some of the neighbourhoods offer a late night minibus service from Carrasco, so you can get the minibus back, but it does need to be a bit more planned.
When you came back to Uruguay, you lived in Montevideo before moving out to Canelones. What would you say are the major differences between living in Montevideo to living in Canelones?
I lived in Malvin, which is a suburban part of Montevideo, which is fairly close to downtown. But then you look at the price of a house and you think “my kidney’s not worth that”. We could only afford an apartment there, not a house. So that’s why we made the choice. What I like about Malvin is I could walk to the shops. Buses run every five minutes—not just once an hour. Everything was potentially walking distance, or public transport distance. A car wasn’t essential in Malvin—it was a ‘nice to have’. I did have a car, but I didn’t use it so much.
The one thing I wish were better here in Canelones is to use a car less. I would like to cycle or walk here. It’s being talked about and I think it’s coming, but the infrastructure is behind the curve. Malvin is obviously a hundred year old neighbourhood and we are living in a ten year old neighbourhood.
What I love is I can go for a walk in my neighbourhood and there are baby owls on the corner, woodpeckers, and occasionally you see hares. I like being close to nature. If you want quiet and tranquillity, a sense of safety and being close to beaches, Canelones is definitely much more practical.
If you want cultural activities on your doorstep and public transport, Montevideo is obviously better. I do park and drive a lot, but I have to drive five minutes and then get the bus.
Why did you choose to live in a gated community?
So there’s two safety aspects. There’s general safety and there’s child safety.
I don’t think Uruguay is an unsafe country generally. It is safer than pretty much anywhere else that I’ve lived but some of my neighbours have more concerns of personal safety. These are neighbourhoods where people are buying that kind of safety.
I don’t think there has ever been a theft here. I wouldn’t worry if I forgot to lock my door. I certainly never lock the car.
The communities have safety barriers at the entrance, which I’m not necessarily a fan of. I don’t think it’s ideal for society to have barriers between us.
For me and us personally, it’s more about our kids—they can go out the front door and I don’t need to think where they’ve gone. The cars here will see kids and drive slowly. Most people have kids of their own. So in a whole neighbourhood of 280 houses I know my kids are safe—if something happens, someone will give me a call and it won’t be serious. It’s very liberating to have a five or six year old girl or boy walk out the door and not worry about them.
Could you take me through a typical week for your children?
So my children go to school a couple miles away. There are two or three bilingual schools within two or three kilometres. If you go a little bit further, there’s the German school, which is near the airport. And if you go slightly further to the edge of Montevideo, there’s quite a few more schools that are bilingual or high quality private schools. There are public school options in the area. We’ve chosen the primary school that’s nearest because we like what they offer. There are quite a lot of families whose children attend those two or three schools and so you can share the school-run. As you have got to go drive, it’s nice to share that load. It also builds relationships with people.
The kids go to school from eight till four. There are lots of after-school activities. Baby football is big for boys and increasingly for girls.
The cost of a bilingual, full-day school is about 30,000-45,000 pesos a month, going up gradually as the children get older. There are discounts for families so we pay 72,000 pesos per month for two. They don’t charge for the summer months of January and February though there is an annual enrollment fee.
We are members of a local club that organises after-school activities for kids, from ballet to judo, and even a free summer camp. There’s an outdoor pool, golf course and a sauna. You get a discount if you’re a member of a gated community and the cost is about 150-175 US dollars per family. If you play golf or you have kids it is definitely a great deal. [Alexis goes into more detail on video]
What about a typical weekday for the adults of the family?
I mostly work from home. My one consideration in buying land here was, is there fibre optic? I need a good internet connection and there is. You obviously have more space because it’s cheaper land. So you tend to be able to have a bit more space for a home office.
My typical day is mostly dropping off kids and working from home with maybe a meeting once a week in town. When I travel, the airport’s just a ten minutes drive. I can even take the community mini bus there.
My partner works in town two or three times a week. She takes the car because she usually has meetings in multiple places. If you have meetings in one place, the bus works well. If you’re moving around then the benefit of the bus versus car varies.
At peak hour local roads can get quite busy. If you’re commuting at eight in the morning, all the people who live along the Ciudad de la Costa—a built-up area beyond Montevideo—will be going into town and it can be quite busy. The rest of the time, it’s not really an issue. You avoid rush-hour by leaving half an hour later and by then traffic is better.
Regarding shopping, there are an increasing number of shops locally. We have a small supermarket very close by, which supplies a surprisingly good range of things and is not overpriced. You won’t get such a big range, but you will get at least two or three choices of most things that you need. There’s also a hairdresser, dentist and a restaurant.
All the supermarket chains as well as banks and a lot of the facilities like car service are within a five kilometre radius.
The amount of services in your area that have arrived in the last year or two has really improved.
It has. We’re on the edge of Ciudad de la Costa, to the south of the intercoastal highway (IB), which has developed a lot in the last twenty years.
On our side of the IB, now we have a big supermarket, two or three car dealers and two banks.
There are also two private bilingual schools. The Ivy Thomas school, which is a Uruguayan bilingual school, takes children from three up to eight or nine years old. Each year they add a grade and will go up to twelve. They haven’t yet committed to doing secondary school. There’s also an Argentine bilingual school starting.
So if somebody had a secondary school age child, they would have to travel to a school that’s about at least 15-20 minutes drive away.
Yes, yes. They’d have to. The closest would be the German school, which is a trilingual school. The other bilingual schools in Carrasco are 25 minutes away.
And public schools around there?
There’s a small junior school nearby, but the main ones are in Ciudad de la Costa. (Alexis says none of his neighbours send their children to state school)
Where is your favourite place to go and hang out?
Weekends or sometimes during the week, we meet up with friends in Montevideo. The easiest place to eat out is the restaurant beside the supermarket. It’s changed in the last year and went from really bad to really, really good. There’s a set lunch menu, you can have brunch there and it has its own bakery selling sourdough bread. It’s very tempting because it’s literally three minutes away. For lunch (no wine) the cost per head is about 400 to 700 pesos.
The other nice thing is the beach is very nearby. A beach like El Pinar is 10 minutes away. Sometimes we go in the morning to the beach, then have lunch. It’s very pleasant, especially in summer.
A lot of people dream about moving to another country. What would you say to somebody about your decision to move to Uruguay and this gated community?
If you’re coming from a big European or North American city and you’re happy to live in Uruguay, it’s a no brainer, because you can get a lot more for your money. You can have a very good quality of life that would be quite hard to afford in Europe or North America.
A lot of my neighbours are from the wealthier parts of Montevideo. They’ve traded their house for an apartment in Montevideo and have bought a house with a big garden here.
Uruguay is famous for being ‘tranqui’—tranquil and relaxing. You definitely get ‘tranqui’ here, but you’re not completely isolated. In London it took me an hour and a half to get anywhere. Here I can be downtown in the theatre in forty minutes, and I can be in the cinema in fifteen minutes, and I can be having a beer with friends in ten.
The full moons are amazing and the starry nights are beautiful here. It’s hard to get that balance elsewhere.
Find out more
- about Canelones
- about what it’s like to build in these gated communities (I’m documenting the process through off-the-cuff videos here)
This series is sponsored by
Huge thanks to Alexis Ferrand and family for so generously sharing their experience living in the Camino de los Horneros area of Canelones.
Also to Balsa & Asociados for their support of Guru’Guay series on Canelones for an international audience. This conversation was part of the research for that series.