When a 30-something professional from Chicago decided to fly to Uruguay for her two-week vacation after finding my blog, I realized something was going on. My blog, Guru’Guay, had power.
Not only was I responsible for attracting English-speaking travelers to my adopted home, they were coming off-season and venturing into the tourist-starved parts of the country I was reporting on.
For over a century, Uruguay, a nation of three million people, has been THE holiday destination for its outsized neighbors—Argentina and Brazil—seeking sun, sand, and safety. Despite that, when I started writing the blog in 2013 there was very little traveler-friendly information online.
I landed in Uruguay with my family in 2000 and I fell in love immediately. The people, the architecture, the rich culture, the deserted beaches and countryside, the wine…oh, and the beef.
I was communications director of an international nonprofit and spent a lot of time in airports. Inevitably fellow travelers would ask me why a British woman was living so far off the beaten path, and evidently my enthusiasm for my new home was contagious.
After one airport conversation, a headhunter even wrote me. Did I want to promote Uruguay with expats looking for a new destination? Thanks a lot, I said, but I already have a full-time job.
But the nonprofit sector can be a grind, and by 2009 I was burned out. My family opened a tiny guesthouse in Montevideo’s Old City and a year later, when we finally had enough reviews to get a Booking.com ranking, we were number one in the entire city, beating the five-star hotels. What was our secret? Information.
Guests told me that it was virtually impossible to find reliable, up-to-date information online. They had a choice of just two guidebooks, one of which relegated Uruguay to a chapter in the guide to Argentina (ouch!).
My information—based on my personal experience and what I loved—was shared in a little booklet and made our guests’ stays unforgettable.
At the same time, I had found my own travel guru. Matt Landau was the creator of The Vacation Rental Show. Matt encouraged vacation rental owners with great content about their locale to share it online.
Maybe only 2% of the people that read it would end up staying with you, but I had been involved in the free software movement and liked the concept.
I started Guru’Guay in late 2013 and it quickly garnered interest. By 2015, travelers, potential travelers, and local expats were accessing almost 250,000 pages and I got my first coverage in the press and on radio.
We continued to grow, publishing guidebooks based on the blog as a way to make money (it wasn’t my style to use ads). The books proved so popular that they have been sponsored by the Uruguay Ministry of Tourism, the government of Montevideo, and The Vacation Rental Show.
I say “we continued to grow” because by now the business is making enough money that I have a small virtual team working with me.
2020 was supposed to be our year. In fact, it started off with the Guru’Guay blog and guides recommended in the New York Times and ended with a story in National Geographic Traveller (UK). But we all know what happened to the international travel business.
Uruguay closed its borders on March 13 with the announcement of the first cases of coronavirus. After a few weeks in shock wondering what to do, I realized it was not time to worry about the business but to worry about our readers in Uruguay, most of whom are foreigners. There were also travelers who found themselves stranded here. We set to work producing explanatory videos for those people.
We explained how the coronavirus app—which the government produced in a record five days—worked. Guru’Guay also runs a friendly expat Facebook group, Discover Uruguay.
I wanted to make sure members who don’t speak Spanish well felt taken care of. Tens of people quickly volunteered as interpreters for medical emergencies.
Incredibly, despite bordering Brazil, Uruguay had an exemplary response with very few cases for the first eight months of the pandemic. I was tired of seeing New Zealand as the sole poster child in the press. Where was Uruguay?
In April 2020, I published a piece called “There’s no place I’d rather be in a pandemic than Uruguay.” The Uruguayan media picked it up and it went viral. People told me how it made them cry and opened their eyes to what a remarkable society they have created over the last 150 years.
Considered an expert on Uruguay in the English language media, I am in a unique position to get the word out. Around the same time, I sent a brief to a contact at Reuters. A month later, their article on Uruguay’s response to COVID followed my outline to the T.
And the country gave back. Uruguay’s century-old broadsheet, El Pais, gave me the entire back page over eight editions to write a feature series on foreigners—our readers—stranded in Uruguay in a pandemic.
The government of Montevideo contracted me to appear on radio, piquing Uruguayans own curiosity to experience their capital like a (foreign) tourist. [Note: daily COVID cases were in single digits at the time.]
So, despite the unforeseen setbacks of the pandemic, our little blog has gone from strength to strength and even helped make a difference in people’s lives at a time when they needed it most. I guess we’ll see where that takes Guru’Guay.