Postcard from… Montevideo

When I broke the news to friends and family that I was moving to Uruguay for work, the reaction of most people was “Uruwhere”? Some of the enlightened few could muster two words: “Punta” and “Este”; others were speechless.

Uruguay is less known than its more flamboyant neighbours, Argentina and Brazil. However, it is a hidden jewel in South America’s crown. Uruguay boasts a legally and socially stable environment, an open export-based economy, judicial security and a sound financial system. In short, if Buenos Aires can still be described as the Paris of South America, then Uruguay remains its Switzerland.

Montevideo, its capital, is located between Colonia, the oldest town in Uruguay, and Punte del Este, the playground of the international jet set. The capital is centred around its port and Ciudad Vieja (the old historical part of the city), a central point for economic activity and foreign trade.

The official seat of the Mercosur is a combination of colonial architecture and sandy beaches and said by some to be the city with the highest standard of living in Latin America. During summer, people take advantage of the good weather, relaxing on terraces, riding bikes on the Rambla and sun-bathing on Pocitos beach. Jogging is also a popular pastime and you can often see professional dog-walkers being walked by hoards of dogs along the Rambla.

I live and work in Carrasco, a leafy, family-oriented suburb that puts Wisteria Lane to shame. I can see the beach from the office with Montevideans flying kites (this is exceedingly popular), surfing and drinking mate on the Rambla. This is a far cry from the view of Tower 42 from my former office.

I work at CMS Bureau Francis Lefebvre Mercosur, a European firm based in Montevideo, which also has offices in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo. The Montevideo office has European-, Uruguayan-, Argentine- and Brazilian-qualified lawyers working together on local and cross-border commercial transactions.

Despite the downturn in 2002, triggered by the financial and economic situation of Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay’s GDP regained momentum between 2004-08 (albeit slowing down in 2009) and the country was not subject to the full wrath of the recent global recession. Considering the current climate, work is abundant and varied in this emerging market. Every day brings something different with a lot of travel for client work throughout the Mercosur – in particular, Brazil.

Montevideo is a laidback city with approximately 1.4 million inhabitants. Asados are a focal point and social life often orientates around different cuts of beef, chorizos, morcillas and mollejas in different people’s houses – every house seems to have an asado. To my delight, traditional food in Montevideo relies on meat, lots of cheese and dulce de leche: my staple lunch diet consists of the local specialty, the chivito, a sandwich with beef, bacon, ham, egg, olives, mayonnaise, tomato, lettuce and mozzarella … and a side of fries. I recommend the chivito canadiense at La Pasiva. The Puerto del Mercado is also a must for any self-respecting carnivore.

It’s true that if you’re looking for the bright lights of the big city, you might be more at home across the Rio del Plata in Buenos Aires. Furthermore, if you don’t eat meat, it can be a monotonous life of lettuce, although Namaste restaurant does a sterling job of catering for the vegetarian market.

Jose “Pepe” Mujica, probably Uruguay’s most well-known vegetarian, became its new president in March 2010. In a stance that may serve as an example to other fellow politicians, the guerilla-turned-statesman has shunned the presidential residence for his farmhouse in Rincon del Cerro, just outside Montevideo, where he grows flowers and vegetables. He has favoured his Chevrolet Corsa over an official service car and pledged to give 87 per cent of his 250,000 pesos salary, (c. £8,400) to a housing fund.

Borrowing the words of the Uruguayan electorate: “olé, olé, olé, Uruguay, Uruguay!”

Ngowari Adikibi is an associate in CMS Bureau Francis Lefebvre Mercosur’s Montevideo office.