The next time you head overseas, you might want to think about what more you can get from your vacation besides sightseeing and a great tan. Whether it be chic collectibles that would make fabulous Christmas gifts later in the year, or that new French lotion that isn’t sold stateside, sometimes you need to think outside the box and seize the opportunity to benefit from a place with different cultures, laws, and (especially) prices. Specifically, medical tourism is becoming more and more popular as people are realizing they can fly to their destination, have the procedure, and enjoy a vacation as well – all for less than the cost of doing it at home.
Now before you protest over untrained doctors and low-quality facilities, know that in many cases this is simply untrue. Many popular destinations for medical procedures, such as Thailand, Costa Rica, and Mexico, can boast U.S.-trained doctors, high-end facilities, and legitimate business practices at a fraction of the cost of the U.S. On our trip to Bali last year, my boyfriend Carsten needed an emergency root canal. Though scared of dentists and even more terrified of dentists in Indonesia, he had little choice but to go. Instead of the nightmare he had imagined, he had an American-trained Indonesian dentist that spoke perfect English, immaculate offices, and most importantly, zero pain. He had a root canal plus cleaning for only $200 – it would have cost us 10x that here at home.
On my last trip to Curacao I stocked up on my birth control, which is sold there in pharmacies and available, at a low cost, without a prescription. My prescription Retin-A that at $100/tube I can no longer afford without health insurance? Found it in Uruguay for $15 over the counter. While I’m sure my med school friends (and the customs authorities?) would object, think about how much you are paying here for your medical costs and what you are really getting for that money. $500 for an emergency room visit for a bee sting? Exactly my point. The next time you need that tooth pulled or even that boob enhanced, why not turn it into a real getaway and still save yourself money.
1. The people. Uruguayans are officially the nicest people on the planet. If they are annoyed by the legions of tourists that invade their country every year, they sure aren’t showing it. From sales clerks to fashion designers, waitresses to construction workers – everywhere we went we were greeted with smiling faces and helpful directions. Unlike many South Americans, Uruguayans are not prone to be loud or dramatic and are generally laid-back, down-to-earth people. And did I mention nice?
2. The beach. Uruguay is blessed with one looooong unending beach as its sandy coastline extends uninterrupted from the Rio Plata to Brazil. And with the government banning building on the beach itself, this means the beach will remain accessible and enjoyable for everyone despite the new developments popping up like crazy.
3. The unique mix. Where else can you find a South American destination that feels decidedly European, but with the sprawling, big-sky feeling of the American midwest? A big bonus: no American tourists (besides the lone travel blogger)!
4. The antiques. And by “antiques” I mean that the entire country feels like it’s left over from another era – in the best way possible. Whether you are on the coast a la the Hamptons in the 1960s, in the rustic colonial town of Colonia that seems to be frozen in time, or enjoying the 1890s Parisian-style buildings of Montevideo, Uruguay is full of beauty, charm, and romance. Dream of owning a colonial home? Vintage cars your thing? Uruguay is the place – especially for those for whom restoration isn’t a dirty word but a fantasy. I dream of scouring the villages and countryside for antiques, hardware, and tiling… preferably in a baby blue vintage Fiat 500.
5. The opportunities. Savvy investors worldwide now have Uruguay on their radar. It offers First World ammenities at Third World prices, has good infrastructure and little corruption, fantastic housing bargains, and an enjoyable climate. For more details check out International Living, Escape Artist, and Ola Uruguay.
Debating on whether to make the trek to this tiny coastal village? Do it – it is definitely worth the trip. A scenic 2 hour drive along the coast from Punta del Este will get you to the entrance of the national park that houses Cabo Polonio. The only access to the village – for residents and visitors alike – is by military all-terrain vehicles that leave frequently throughout the day. We enjoyed the bumpy half-hour ride through the sand dunes and along the beach and got to the town a little before sunset, free to explore until the last departure. The village is made up of a few hundred shacks placed haphazardly on the peninsula with dirt roads and stray dogs running between them. From what I understand, almost none of the residents have the legal right to live on the land as it is a nature preserve, but they seem to have formed a tight-knit and enjoyable community nonetheless.
Feel like a longer getaway? There are plenty of rooms to rent – especially in the off-season – and we were quoted $50 for 4 people. Five-star accommodations they are not: the town does not have electricity or running water, and food can be purchased from the town general store. Activities include long hikes through the dunes and watching the sea lions gather on the beach (although there weren’t too many this time of year). While this is definitely not the destination for everyone, I loved its romantic, hippy charm. This is where to go to enjoy the beach and the surfer-vibe, to be barefoot and wind-beaten, enjoy a cup of mate, and forget the rest of the world.
In the States we are often so desperate for a sense of history and culture, and yet everywhere you turn in Uruguay is another example of beautiful old architecture – without anyone to see it! Nowhere is this more evident than in the sleepy coastal town of Piriapolis. Quite empty during our visit, its grand name hints at its grand history: developed around the 1920s by Francisco Piria, it was the original “it” resort destination in Uruguay before Punta del Este. With its wide beach promenade and Belle Epoque-era buildings, it was known as the Cannes of South America. Even more interesting: Piria was an alchemist who designed the town based on precise geometric principles to properly align energies. Or something like that. While I didn’t feel “reenergized,” I did enjoy the palatial Argentino Hotel, a throwback to a much more glamourous time.
A Dutch man we met who lives in the area wrinkled his nose at the mention of Maldonado. “Terribly mediocre” is how he described it. I beg to differ. Maldonado offered charming bakeries, the best cortado of the trip, and a liveliness lacking in the off-season resort areas. In a cobblestoned plaza in Rocha we feasted on pork chops and homemade pizza and were suddenly joined by a party of 30 locals on their lunch break, passing around whiskey and laughing as they waited for their steaks. In San Carlos we were given the opportunity to tour a beautiful old building in the midst of restoration by extremely friendly and talkative construction workers.
While it never fails to surprise me how differently people view the ideal vacation, in my opinion it is worth it to explore the less beaten path. Yes, we saw average people milling about what would most likely be called average towns, but the chance to see how people across the planet choose to live their lives – without having to cater to outsiders – is thrilling. And often photogenic!
We stopped in the town of Jose Ignacio on our way up the coast, a beach town with dirt roads between luxurious homes of the jet set. Its strict building regulations have allowed it to remain quaint – the Cape Cod to Punta del Este’s Miami Beach – and at this time of year, quiet. We just had to stop by beach restaurant/lounge La Huella to check out where Richard Gere had dined the week before, but it was while wandering the town’s paths that Mutate caught my eye.
Part bar, part restaurant, and part living room of an eccentric aunt, Mutate is a must if you are in the area. Previously the residence of owner Ignacio Ruibal, he was encouraged by friends to open the quirky yet stylish interior to the public. I fell in love with the eclectic decor: a hodgepodge of seating areas in midcentury modern meets rustic granny chic with ample light and a laidback vibe. It also features a clothing and accessories boutique by the same name that blends seamlessly with the decor.
I’ve quickly noticed what a strange place Uruguay is. Half of the population lives in Montevideo and the rest is scattered about the country the size of Iowa, living in small rural villages in the pampas or in towns along the coast. If you are anyone but an American tourist you might have heard of Punta del Este, the ritzy beach resort 2 hours outside of Montevideo. Argentinians, Brazilians, and Europeans flock to the area for fun in the sun during their summer when literally every hotel, house, hostel, and fishing shack is rented. For the other 9 months of the year, it is practically empty – they even turn off the stop lights in town.
Now this is great if you are, say, a writer in need of silence and long stretches of abandoned beach, or considering retirement (like my parents), but personally I found it a little strange. Some creative travel writers in my pre-trip reading described the area as resorting back to “sleepy fishing villages” in the off-season. Well, as far as I can tell, the only “villages” left are comprised of mammoth 10-bedroom vacation homes and sleek (but empty) cafe-lounges serving $15 burgers. My parents know a European couple who are the ONLY people living in their 12-story luxury condominium once the summer has ended… all a little too close to The Shining for me!
While we continued our search for a more authentic Uruguayan experience, we did manage to suffer through the glorious weather and peaceful beaches! And we even saw some sea lions – or as I like to call them, the “Bullmastiff of the Sea” – huge blubber blobs roaring and slobbering as they lazily await their daily treat from the fishmongers in the harbor.