Living in Uruguay – Retiring near the ocean in José Ignacio

Our series continues with a US art dealer on retiring to José Ignacio, renovating a property, Uruguay healthcare, making friends & much more.
By Karen A Higgs
josé ignacio uruguay
Last updated on July 27, 2023
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Karen is a former gallery owner from Shelter Island in New York. She and her husband retired to the department of Maldonado on the Uruguay coast, inland from the international hotspot of José Ignacio, in 2021.

Karen and her husband found the “ideal home” that they described to me during an online relocation consultation with Guru’Guay in 2020. It’s a ‘chacra marítima’—or seaside ranch—several kilometres in from the ocean.

As the third of a series on Living in Uruguay (as a foreigner), Karen A Higgs, CEO of Guru’Guay, talks to Karen about what it’s like living in José Ignacio, Uruguay. We discuss renovating a new home, the Uruguay healthcare system, whether it’s been easy to make friends and how it is to negotiate day-to-day life when you’re still learning Spanish.

Don’t miss the full interview above as we go into much more detail. This article has been edited for brevity and clarity. And don’t miss the rest of our series on Living in Uruguay (as a foreigner).

Moving to Uruguay

Karen Higgs: Okay, so I’m here with Karen, who is from the States. Karen, tell me where you’re from and when you moved to Uruguay.

Karen: Hi, I’m from New York. I’m a born and raised New Yorker, and I first came to Uruguay in 2004 and I moved here with my husband in 2021. We both always imagined living in another country, and we both had places that we had travelled that we liked. But I don’t think anything really compared to the relationship that I had developed over the years of coming to Uruguay.

I came here ten different times over 18 years prior to moving here, So I was pretty familiar with the general area in which we now live, which is the department of Maldonado. Specifically in the area of the beach communities that sort of stretch from Punta del Este to José Ignacio.

Uruguay sort of hit all the right notes for us. We did some further research, starting with talking to you, and we decided it was going to be the right place for us. But in my heart I felt it from the first time I came here.

Life in Uruguay – the pros and the cons

Karen Higgs: Can we get an idea of your typical week?

Karen: You know, it’s still sort of defining itself because the first year that we were here, we spent our time doing all the things to become residents. And we were taking Spanish class five days a week and we were looking for a home and then we found one and we decided to buy something that needed to be remodelled.

So we spent the second year doing the remodel. We needed a new roof, we needed new floors. The house had been habited up until recently, but it was in disrepair. And so about six months ago, we finally moved into the main house and started real life. And, you know, in the time that we were doing all the other things, like many magical things happened, like we started making friends, we started having a social life here.

And I built a garden. And Victor, my husband, built a music studio. And so we were sort of laying out, you know, sort of the map of what our life is going to look like.

We go to the gym and we go for beautiful walks on the country roads that we live on or we go to the beach and we, you know, do things.

There’s only a very small amount of things that we would be doing on a day to day basis in the States that we don’t do here. It’s a similar kind of life just in a very different place.

Karen Higgs: What has surprised you about life in Uruguay? Maybe that you didn’t expect?

Karen: I think that I’m surprised by how patient and cooperative and generous the people are on a day to day basis of getting things done in life. We come upon challenges all the time and it’s beyond language. I mean, language definitely is a factor, but we assume things are done the same way and that has nothing to do with language.

The first time you go into a hardware store and you see that first you have to talk to one person and then you have to go someplace else to get it written up. And then you go to a third place to pay, and then you have to go to a fourth place to take your package away. And you just bought four light bulbs.

It’s crazy. But it’s the way it’s done here. And it’s done here in all the different stores. And it’s done that way for a reason. And it’s not my job to question the reason, which, by the way, is one of the most important things that we came here with.

In the forefront is that we are not here to change Uruguay. We are here for Uruguay to change us. We want to be part of the community.

I mean, no place is perfect, but things work here very nicely.

I come from fast paced New York where people can be friendly and helpful, but they don’t have a lot of patience and they don’t have a lot of time. And the quality of life here, I think, is better in some part because of that part of life here that people are not so harried, not so impatient, and don’t have that “time is money” attitude.

It’s very different. And for all the time that I came here prior I was here as a tourist. I was here on vacation. So I just was not having the same kinds of experiences. When you’re in an Antel [the national telephone company] office trying to get your phone to work properly… I could have sat and had a conversation with the two people that worked there for a half an hour. They were so sweet and so helpful, and they didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak enough Spanish, but we got through it all and they were generous with their time and they were not impatient with us. And I could rattle off a hundred examples like that.

Karen Higgs: What’s frustrating in Uruguay?

Karen: There’s only one thing that we talk about regularly that is disappointing. And that’s that there’s very little diversity here in the people. The people are largely Uruguayan or Argentinean. Plus a handful of expats. So there are no ethnic restaurants here to speak of. And the ones there are, are not staffed by people from the country the food is meant to come from. So, you know, there’s no great Asian or Mexican food. We miss Indian food, we miss spicy food.

And I’m not saying there’s not great food in Uruguay. The style of cooking and the quality of food here is very, very good. And over all my times coming here, I was so over the moon with the food here. But now that I’m here for two and a half years, I’m like, I really want curry.

In the video Karen H shares with Karen B about spicy food options in Montevideo

Karen Higgs: So you did mention making friends. How easy is it to make friends?

Karen: Remarkably easy. We happened to have a great connector right in our midst. Someone that you connected us to [see Guru’Guay’s top picks or book a consultation for even more contacts]. So I guess that makes you the great connector. And then if you’re socially inclined, which I am, you sort of network out from there.

We made friends easier and faster here than I did when I moved to California. It’s really been phenomenal. We have friends from Uruguay and Argentina and from numerous places in Europe and then a couple of other Americans that we like very much and Canadians.

Karen shares more in our video about the closest friendships she’s formed

How a foreigner living in Uruguay deals with language barriers

Karen Higgs: You guys renovated a house. How easy has it been to manage with, you know, not perfectly fluent Spanish?

Karen: Well, we have a perfectly fluent English architect. I don’t know how we would have done it without him. Our contractor spoke decent English. I wouldn’t say he was fluent, but we had a pretty good rapport with him. And then the “jefe” [boss] of our crew, who was Brazilian, we were able to communicate with him pretty well.

You know, Google Translate works for everybody. I mean, we’ve had carpenters and electricians come here and they pull out their phone and they talk into Google Translate and we get the job done.

We want to be fluent because we want to have real relationships with local people and not just superficial ones.

But where we live, because it is so international here [in José Ignacio], English is the international language. Like it or not. Especially in season (it’s a little different off season) in every restaurant, every market, there’s someone who works in the establishment who speaks English.

However, I go to a bakery at least once a week. The three girls behind the counter are lovely and it took me almost half a year before I realised that all three of them speak English! I would cobble together my sentences, my requests, and they would very politely serve me and speak in Spanish. And then one day, I walked in and another English speaker was in there and I was like, Wait a second?

Health care in Uruguay

Karen Higgs: Can you share about your experience of health care in Uruguay?

Karen: I have two chronic illnesses that are not particularly serious, but I take medication for. So I needed to get that squared away very quickly so that I could get my prescriptions refilled. I came with a three month supply when I first arrived, so I was under the gun and we were able to get coverage in Montevideo very, very quickly and it was insanely affordable by the standards that we were used to in the States.

We joined a mutualista [health care provider] which is one of the biggest ones, from what I understand. It was institutional, but it was fine. And like the things we needed to get done, we got done right. I was able to get my prescriptions filled and I didn’t feel like it was being done without care.

I had to see specialists and review the reasons for my needs, and I felt very confident that we were getting adequate health care. I say adequate not as a negative. I wasn’t looking deeper at that point. I didn’t have any urgency, and at that point I still had health care in the United States. So I was not very concerned. The cost was about sixty dollars per person per month.

But once we decided where we were going to be living and moving out of Montevideo, we had to look more seriously for what was going to be our long term situation. We wanted to make sure we were going to have care as we got older and if or when our needs became more serious. And so we did our research.

We joined a mutualista out here [in the department of Maldonado]. The older you are, the more expensive it becomes to step in. We were turned down from a couple because of our age. But we found something that we thought was extremely well priced, especially given the service we have received. The cost is about 250 dollars a month.

The mutualista has a hospital that is the anchor for the service and many of the doctors we see are through the hospital. But if something your need is not at the hospital, they go outside and this is all included in your monthly payment.

We also opted for what I would call ‘concierge service’. I don’t think that that is the word that they use, but that would be the equivalent in the States. So we have a WhatsApp number that we write into to tell them what kind of an appointment we need, what our reason is, whether it’s a referral or if it’s a new symptom. And we generally can get an appointment within a matter of a few days.

And when things are urgent, you have—and I don’t mean urgent, like where you need an ambulance, but where you have something acute—they might have a tele-med person, or doctor, call you right away to determine what is needed. We’ve had a number of minor things that we’ve really needed health care for through this, including when my husband got COVID. He was very sick with COVID and we had house calls twice during his two weeks of being in bed with COVID, and our monthly cost is $250 each for our service. And that includes kind of everything. I mean, there are some very minor co-pays that come into play.

But when I say minor, I mean I was having really, really bad pain in my neck. And they did an MRI and I think my co-pay was like $15. You know, they also did an X-ray, which there was no co-pay. And when you go and I went to see a neurologist and there was no co-pay, you know, these are all things that are all included.

Advice from a foreigner living in Uruguay

Karen Higgs: If there was one piece of advice that you would give someone moving here, what would it be?

Karen: The piece of advice I would give would be to pack better for what you think your long term needs are going to be. It’s the personal things. Not the things that you can’t find here. It’s things that you miss—the things that you want around you. Everybody’s been making fun of me. On this last trip, I brought my juicer back with me.

In our rapid fire round, Karen shares her immediate thoughts on:

  • The cost of living…
  • As a vegetarian…
  • Uruguay wine…
  • I wish I had known before I moved here…
  • The biggest difference between my life before and now…

HUGE THANKS to Ka Boltax

Useful links

Watch the Living in Uruguay (as a foreigner) series

José Ignacio, Uruguay: Tiny town turned world’s hot beach spot

José Ignacio – a billionaire playground with valet parking signs in the sand

Relocation consulting with Guru’Guay

Karen and her husband did two consultations with Guru’Guay. The first was in 2020 to confirm their suitability for life in Uruguay (for their peace of mind) and put the building blocks in place for a smooth landing, including those all-important local contacts. The second was a customised orientation a month after arrival.

Find the consultation that suits you

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