Punta del Este’s spectacular water views and pretty beaches make it a hot destination for the rich and famous from nearby Montevideo and Buenos Aires.
We awoke to the sound of our cruise ship dropping her anchor into the gorgeous harbour of Punta del Este at the southernmost tip of Uruguay. As we pulled the drapes open and stepped onto our balcony, all we could see were sand dunes, beautiful beaches and expensive-looking condominiums hugging the shoreline. If we hadn’t just double-checked our itinerary, we could have sworn that we were looking at the ritzy art-deco community of Miami’s South Beach or somewhere on the exclusive shores of the French Riviera.
Located on a small peninsula where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Rio de la Plata some 85 miles (140 km) east of the nation’s capital of Montevideo, Punta del Este sits on 31 miles (50 Km) of breathtaking waterfront. Before it was discovered by South America’s glitterati, the series of small towns that became Punta del Este were nothing more than tiny fishing villages with pretty coves, beautiful beaches and spectacular water views.
Today, Punta is a sizzling hot vacation spot for the rich and famous from Montevideo and Buenos Aires who flock here from November to March. Many of them live in expensive condos that ring the coast, and some even arrive by private yachts which they tie up at the Puerto Punta del Este yacht club near the town’s gastronomical zone of trendy restaurants and bars.
Since Punta and the surrounding region are easy to navigate, we decided to wander around in our own rental car (US$75 per day). Our first stop was the Faro de Punta del Este, the town’s 45-metre high light house built in the mid-1880s which is one of the few remaining historical buildings left in the city. It sits across the street from the Victorian-style Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria, an old but pretty church painted sky-blue and snow-white.
The port of Punta del Este is just down the street from the church, and that’s where we found fishing boats unloading and cleaning their daily catch, including Corvina, Bratola and Raya. As the fisherman filleted the fish, huge “sea wolves” (sea lions) bobbed up and down in the harbour next to the pier, anxiously waiting for the fishermen to throw them scraps. If you get to the pier before noon like we did, you’ll get a close-up look at the local community of sea wolves and save yourself the cost of the eight-km boat trip to the nearby Isla de Lobos (Sea Wolf Island).
Instead of going to Isla de Lobos, we took the 15-minute ferry across the harbour to Isla Gorriti, a beautiful public park with pretty beaches, a forest of marine pines, a lighthouse, and the remains of several historical buildings. The island also provides a spectacular view of Punta’s pretty skyline and its sensational beaches, which are usually filled with bikini-clad senoritas, vacationing families and vendors hawking beachwear, sodas and beer.
After spending some time shopping at the chic outlets on Gorleo Avenue and in the street market of Plaza Artigas, we walked over to Brava Beach to see La Mano (The Hand). A sculpture by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal, La Mano depicts five human fingers partially emerging from sand, and it has become the city’s most recognizable landmark since it was created in 1981.
As we were getting hungry, we got back in the car and headed 25 km east along the coast to the quaint village of Jose Ignacio. This small seaside-town sits on a beautiful expanse of beach on the Atlantic Ocean, and has recently become the “in place” for the rich and famous who want to escape the busy streets and beaches of Punta del Este. While there, we had a delicious lunch of chilled carrot soup and grilled Corvina fish at a wonderful restaurant called “Parador La Huella,” which sits on a sand dune overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The restaurant and its location were featured in an episode of travel writer Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” television show.
We decided to make our final stop of the day at the Casapueblo in Puerto Ballena, just a few kilometers west of Punta del Este.
The Casapueblo is a stunningly beautiful hotel that sits on the western edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Its organic design by Uruguayan artist Carlos Paez Vilaro evokes the modernista style of Barcelona’s Antoni Gaudi, and features a white-washed façade of terraced apartments, gothic-looking spires, a rabbit-warren of hallways and staircases, and varying shapes of balconies and windows. It also has a museum that is open to the public, and like the hotel, provides spectacular views of the sunset.
By now, it was almost time to return to our ship for the overnight voyage up the Rio de la Plata and our next port of call in the bustling city of Montevideo. We were looking forward to seeing the nation’s capital tomorrow, but for now we just wanted to savour our final few minutes soaking in the spectacular scenery of the sizzling seaside village of Punta del Este.