Uruguay – Punta del Este, where the rich and famous play
After a short stay in Montevideo we drove 150 km east to visit Punta del Este, a famous resort town known as the Riviera or Monaco of South America. It is so well known that the entire coast is now referred to by this name. Well to do Uruguayans, Argentinians and Brazilians made this place a summer playground where the South American elite play. They are lured to this sun drenched peninsula by the promise of beaches, water sports, restaurants, nightlife, race track, food festivals and luxury accommodation.
Of course I had to sink my toes in that warm golden sand.
The drive along the Ruta Interbalnearia highway was very pleasant, meandering along the sea-like Rio Plata with its iron rich water. Once it gets closer to the peninsula it becomes Rambla Routa 10 continuing east, then it wraps around the peninsula before veering north along the Atlantic coast. Located in the department (like province) of Maldonado in south east Uruguay Punta sits on a narrow peninsula at the point where Rio Plata ends and the Atlantic Ocean begins and is surrounded miles and miles of golden sandy beaches.
Although they call it the Monaco of South America I found it to be more casual than other rivieras in Europe and elsewhere. Perhaps this is because of the Latin culture that tends to be warm, unpretentious and easy going. They embrace life, are not afraid of food as we tend to be and are very inclusive. All these qualities are reflected in how they vacation, casually, informally and literally bare foot.
The high season is rather short, summer months are January and February and the population increases exponentially during the high season. We visited in March when things were beginning to slow down, condos buildings were emptying of the summer crowds and the beaches were not as busy as they would be in season. The weather was still wonderfully warm and sunny and the shoulder months of October November or March and April are probably a wonderful time to be there if you want to avoid crowds and pay less for the experience.
There are two main beaches in Punta del Este: Playa Brava on the Atlantic with big waves and rough water and Playa Mansa on the rio de la Plata where the waters are shallow and calm.
Just to the north of Punta lies trendy La Barra with shops, restaurants, a couple of surfers beaches (Montoya and Bikini) and a famous “wave” bridge known as the La Barra bridge (see below).
From there chic seems to travel north to small fishing villages turned chic resorts favoured by the bohemian and artistic crowds, notably Jose Ignacio, a sleepy fishermen’s village turned chic beach town where South American in the know go.
My toes in the sand notion did not work out as well. The sand was so burning hot that it was unbearable to step bare foot on it and I reluctantly put on my Prada sandals to walk on the golden sand.
A signature sculpture on the Brava beach depicts fingers emerging out of the sand, known as Los Dedos (the fingers) or La Mano en la Arena (the hand in the sand) of Punta del Este. The sculpture was created by a Chilean artist, Mario Irarrazaba, as a depiction of a drowning hand intended as warning to swimmer in this rough, volatile beach.
La Barra Bridge (aka Maldonado bridge)
Another attraction is the unique La Barra bridge, built over the Arroyo Maldonado stream to resemble a wave. It feels like a roller coaster when you cross it, especially if you, well, put the pedal to the metal. The unique construction is called stressed ribbon bridge, meaning the support cables are embedded in the concrete.
The shoreline is dotted with modern architecture apartment buildings, all with large balconies overlooking the water. I saw beautiful terraced apartments, each with its own pool over the roof of the apartment below cascade down the hill across from Mansa beach. Real estate houses such as Sotheby’s and Christy’s opened offices here to service they high power cliental of their firms.
Food revolves around seafood and there are a number of restaurants that came highly recommended but my visit was too short to try them. My hunch is that you would find great food at some of the high end hotels as well. With the time constraints of our visit, we had lunch near the beach consisting of a delicious white fish in a creamy sauce and Italian style cassata ice cream for dessert. A glass of Montes Toscanini Reserva Sauvignon Blanc balanced the main course nicely.
If you go off season you may wish to coincide your stay with the Punta del Este Food and Wine Festival, taking place over a four weekends in October and November. A select group of food and wine professional, foodies and food and wine enthusiasts from Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Spain and the USA gather to show their gastronomic expertise and explore new trends. The festival takes place in local hotels along the beautiful peninsula.
Shopping – Avenida gorlero
The place to shop is the palm tree lined Avenida Gorlero (aka 22nd street) running north and south on the peninsula. Shopping, theatre, art galleries, restaurants and cafes line this avenue making it the center of social life when not on the beach. At the center of the avenue is Plaza de los Artesanos (aka Artegas square) where artists and artisans sell paintings, ceramics, jewelry and more. Oh, if I had more time…
Casa Pueblo (in Punta Ballena) and the Sunset Ritual
On the way back we stopped at Punta Ballena, a neighbouring community to the west where one gorgeous villa after another is built into the hillside over the sea. Although hidden from plain view from the road, we saw enough to say these homes were simply stunning in terms of architecture and view. It would have been interesting to view these homes from the water. Nearby we stopped at the famous Casapueblo, a surrealistic structure that was once a home of a famous Uruguayan artist Carlos Paez Vilaro. The artist’s son was one of the survivors of the plane crash in the Chilean Andes that was made into the feature film “Alive”.
The rambling structure was first built by the artist as a studio and living quarters but in the course of a few decades he expanded it with the help of neighbours and friends. Without an overarching architectural plan Casapueblo developed into the sprawling “living sculpture” it is known for today, asymmetrical, storybook-like structure cascading down from the top of the hill down to the shore of the Rio Plata. Casapueblo is now a museum, hotel, restaurant and art gallery featuring the artist’s work.
The artist died there at 90 but not before he created a magic that continues to this day. Sunsets are legendary from the peninsula and as a tribute to the sun he installed an outdoor sound system that plays a recorded theme of the Spanish guitar of Joaquim Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the artist’s own voice reciting an ode to the sun to the tune of the music. The ritual is precisely timed to end at the exact moment when the sun sinks below the horizon to the emotional cheers of the visitors. Every evening at sunset the hotel holds this Sunset Ritual that attracts guests and many visitors who come especially to participate in this ceremony and sip a glass of champagne while watching the sun descend into the horizon.
I hope this post got you interested in a place you may have never heard of or considered before. Punta del Este is a place I plan to return to for an an extended stay one of these days. So many places, so little time.
Title image credit: Serena Hotel, Punta del Este