PUNTA DEL ESTE, URUGUAY — Before we arrived in this elegant beach resort that occupies a peninsula between the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean, we were told “Punta isn’t Uruguay.”
Well, if this isn’t Uruguay, it must be paradise — one that features a forest of luxury condos that stretch along the Rio de la Plata beach road and is filled with stylish streets that sport monikers like Miami and Biarritz. Oh, and we arrived JUST after the departure of the “supermodels,” a seasonal (January) phenomenon that gives Punta its nickname, the “St. Tropez of Uruguay.”
We quickly wanted to know more about Punta and spent one long afternoon wandering through Beverley Hills, a park-like neighbourhood dotted with palatial summer homes, before reaching our ultimate destination, the world-class Ralli Museum.
The Ralli houses a permanent collection of South American art, plus a delightful array of Salvador Dali sculptures, which are highlighted by special exhibits from luminaries like Marc Chagall. One of the world’s five Ralli Museums, Punta’s mimics a particularly large and lavish Spanish hacienda.
Above: Kids play on Punta's famous “hand” sculpture by Chilean Mario Irararrazbal that dominates one of its many beaches.
Art, we discovered, may be everywhere in Punta, but beaches — river or ocean, your choice — steal the show.
“They envy us our beaches,” confided a Uruguayan friend — by “they” she meant Argentinians, with whom Uruguayans share a longstanding but friendly rivalry.
Punta boasts over 32 kms of sandy shoreline, which features piers reminiscent of Old Europe. They are complemented by glittering casinos and wellness spas like the one at our hotel, the Barradas Parque, which specializes not only in exotic Amazonian oils but also in designer CBD and other cannabis-based treatments. Alone among South American nations, Uruguay has legalized cannabis (only for its citizens), a move that reflects this country’s liberal attitude.
The Barradas Parque sits 200 metres from the glittering Rio de la Plata and Facundo, the genial young man we befriended at the reception desk, was eager to tell us about the hotel’s “British” style.
Turns out contemporary English designer Christian Guy designed the furniture. Facundo — “please call me Facu” — also explained that Barradas Parque is "an experience rather than a hotel” and its name honours modernist Uruguayan artist Rafael Barradas, a student of Picasso.
Left: Punta's harbour dotted with colourful boats. Right: Town's Ralli Musseum is world class.
One of his works hangs in the lobby, alongside bright prints of English folks enjoying days at the beach in what seems like the late 1940s. Splashes of antiques — found by scouring auctions all over Uruguay — complement the decor. In summer, Facu explains, well-known Uruguayan writers come to discuss various topics and artists launch vernissages at sold-out evenings. Like the Ralli Museum, all events are free and very popular.
Drawn to the lobby bookcase, I spot dozens of English paperbacks. Picking up a tattered Agatha Christie, I warm to its title: Destination Unknown. Sort of like us in this corner of Uruguay.
Seduced by Punta’s mood of elegant relaxation, transfixed by its sunsets, we soon conclude that, like Bogart in Casablanca, we have been misinformed. We are in Uruguay. The tell-tale clue? The traditional herbal beverage yerba maté, of course. Everywhere we look, vacationing families can be seen indulging in the ritual beverage, pouring portions of herbal tea from large thermoses into small gourds, then sipping, chatting, sipping, laughing.
Maté is also on offer at our hotel’s lavish buffet breakfasts, but a few sips convince us that it must be an acquired taste. Gingerly I ask musician friend Gustavo Bulgach about the appeal of his morning ritual. Gustavo’s answer booms, even over email: “Bitterness!!! Gets you up in a few sips and no hang ups. Also, a perfect excuse to spend time with people.” Understood.
One warm February evening we walked over to Club de Pesca, an old-fashioned eatery overlooking the glass-blue Rio de la Plata. At 8 o’clock, there were very few customers — Uruguayans tend to dine around 10 p.m. Grateful for the views, for our “quiet night and quiet stars,” we smile as our waiter serves generous platters of the best sole we’ve ever tasted, homemade papas fritas, beautifully fresh-squeezed orange juice and, for dessert, creamy, traditional flan.
Above: Punta's sunsets are some of the most romantic in Latin America.
Punta offers many nightlife choices — clubs, casinos, discos, popular DJs, flashier dining, and depending on the time of year (high season, December-January), the super-rich return on their yachts or occupy those mysterious empty houses. Supermodels appear — Naomi Campbell for one — and March witnesses Formula E racers tearing around the flat, curved streets of this town of less than 10,000.
In fact, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson and other world leaders may have first put Punta on the map when they attended a meeting here that resulted in the forming of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
We later hired a taxi to take us to Casapueblo, a blindingly white art gallery in nearby Punta Ballena, the former home of multi-talented Uruguayan artist Carlos Paez Vilaro. His son was one of the lucky survivors of the 1972 rugby team plane crash in the high Andes. That story made headlines around the world, inspiring at least two movies and several books. The story of their reunion — Paez never gave up the search for his child — makes a touching climax to a visit to this cliffside gallery/museum.
We also took a rollercoaster-like bridge to La Barra, an old fishing town, and were seriously tempted by a boat tour to Isla de Lobos and its sea lions. But sleepy days in Punta are made for relaxing.
“There’s so much oxygen in the air!” exclaimed Veronica, a new friend from Montevideo. So, we lingered over breakfast in the hotel garden, listening to the birds, took in an Amazonian massage and in late afternoon headed to town for espressos and ice cream.
On the Atlantic side, we saw surfers — Uruguayans rank among the world’s best — riding their boards on rolling white caps and witnessed kids cheerfully climbing the famous “hand” sculpture by Chilean Mario Irararrazbal. The hand signals danger — rough Atlantic waters — but climbing kids are oblivious.
Giant fingers emerging from the sand; sport and culture everywhere you look; an abundance of oxygen, yerba maté — these are among the pleasures in this quirky, elegant beach destination. Not Uruguay? Don’t you believe it.