Uruguay is not on most traveler’s top 10 list or even likely the country they first think of when they think of South America. This tiny nation (about the size of Oklahoma) is nestled between Brazil and Argentina, with a stunning Atlantic coastline of about 400 miles. Most of its residents live along that coast, while inland the land is given over to cattle ranching.
Half the population of 3.5 million Uruguayans live in Montevideo (a good place to fly in, as is Buenos Aires, a short ferry ride away). The other half are scattered along the southern coast in cities born of the influence of Portuguese and Spanish settlement, like Colonia del Sacramento (“Colonia” to the natives), as well as newer beach towns like Punta del Este (“Punta,” of course), which has been compared to Miami and labeled “the new St. Tropez.”
Those who do visit Uruguay usually go to enjoy the country’s natural beauty and friendly people. The value of the dollar makes it a great bargain as well. While Punta del Este’s prices can be as much as three times that of Montevideo during its busy season (late December to early January), it still beats out the price of a beach vacation in the United States or Europe. February is an ideal time to visit (remember the seasons are reversed from the United States). The weather is mild all year, but in February, there is almost guaranteed continual sunshine and cheaper prices.
Life for a Beach Bum
What makes life in Punta so attractive? It’s the perfect location for those who love nothing better than the hedonist lifestyle in a gorgeous natural setting. First let’s start with the daily schedule: Wake up in the early afternoon and enjoy breakfast at an outdoor café or around the pool. Spend the afternoon enjoying the beach (don’t forget the sunscreen), then have lunch around 5-6 pm. After lunch, take a stroll around town, do a little shopping for native crafts or designer clothes (your choice). About 8 pm, head back for a short nap (there’ll be a busy evening ahead). Plan for dinner out around 11 pm, where you’ll continue on to explore Punta’s nightlife. (Things don’t really get lively at the local hotspots until 2 am, and they keep on going until 6 am.) Fall into bed as the sun appears on the horizon, and sleep till early afternoon. Repeat.
Not all of Punta is surfers and party girls, however. The city is divided into neighborhoods along a span of about 20 miles. Central Punta (“Centro”) is the downtown area, situated between the Rio de la Plata and Atlantic Ocean. Toward the river is Playa Mansa, with gentle water and family friendly beach areas. Playa Brava is for surfers and the lively singles scene. Celebrity sightings and a huge influx of chi-chi Brazilians and Argentinians enhance the popularity of this beach area.
Just a few miles east of Punta del Este is La Barra de Maldonado (“La Barra”), a beach area with a more local crowd who go for the beach bars and excellent seafood restaurants. Look for the Buddha Bar and Tequila there, as well as Medialunas Calientitas, a bakery-cafe.
Downtown Punta del Este
Punta del Este’s downtown area is characterized by its urban quality, with designer shops, Art Deco hotels, and soaring skyscrapers. It’s Miami with a South American vibe, more relaxed with a European sophistication. In addition to any number of great seafood restaurants and clubs is the shopping district, centered around Avenida Gorlero. In particular look for these two spots:
Manos del Uruguay – This artisan co-op sells handcrafted clothing and famed Uruguayan wool sweaters.
Feri Hippie – Plaza Artigas’s popular “hippie market” boasts more than 200 stalls selling handmade arts and crafts, including jewelry. Look for hard carved wood sculptures, a local specialty.
Most travelers to Punta will stay in one of two types of accommodations, either casino mega-resorts or charming boutique hotels that capture the South American vibe. Travelers need to decide if they want a lively, one-stop-has-it-all environment (casino hotels) or a more laid back experience, often in tucked away hotels not directly located on the beach.
Among some of the most popular hotels are:
Conrad Resort and Casino – This massive hotel complex is a hubub of activity with partying, gambling, Las Vegas-style entertainment, pools, a spa, and restaurants on site.
Mantra Resort-Spa-Casino – Rooms are spacious, but the activity is hopping at this large casino hotel. There’s a ballroom, 2 restaurants, and 24-hour service. For those who can afford suites, fireplaces are included. Restaurant Zefferano serves stunning seafood in Mediterranean or Asian styles, using only local produce.
Awa Boutique + Design – This designer hotel offers minimalist rooms in a forested setting. It has its own pool and spa, along with a movie house. A short walk to the beach makes this an ideal combination for those looking for a quiet getaway once the partying is over.
Serena Hotel – This charming hotel features guesthouses with small-ish rooms, filled with local arts. The hotel’s ambiance is the creation of Argentinian designer Diego Balut.
Things to Do in Punta del Este
Punta is about its beaches, and real culture vultures will head to the capital city of Montevideo when looking for museums, music, or dance performances. With its easy access (a short drive or $7 bus ride away), those who hang in Punta come for the natural beauty. Top spots to visit while in Punta del Este, Uruguay, include:
Dedos – Look for this stunning Playa Brava sculpture that looks like a gigantic hand arising from the sand.
Isla Gorrita – Pristine, deserted beaches and an 18th century fort provide travelers with plenty of activity.
Isla Lobos – For nature (particularly animal) lovers, this large colony of sea lions is sure to captivate.
Museo del Mar – It seems appropriate that the only museum in the area would be one dedicated to all things related to the sea. Located in La Barra, travelers can explore what creatures they share the water with here.
For those looking for a good day trip, an hour’s drive from Punta is Pinapolis, a beautiful resort town constructed in the late 1800s with a Belle Epoque style that evokes the Cote d’Azur. While there, ride the lift to Templo de San Antonio for its stunning views of the surrounding area or visit the nature reserve at Cerro Pan de Azucar.
Some love Rio de Janeiro, some Buenos Aires. For those who love the natural world of white sand beaches, stunning sunsets, and fresh seafood, there’s no better place to hang than Punta del Este, Uruguay.