You’ll find everything from ritzy beach towns to chic yet earthy settlements on a road trip from Punta Ballena to José Ignacio. TNS
The former home of artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, now a labyrinthine museum and hotel called Casapueblo, has a way of confusing visitors.
Perhaps it’s the Gaudí-esque architecture and Santorini colour palette that make you believe, for a fleeting moment, that you’re far away on some Mediterranean shore when you’re really in Uruguay.
This stretch of the Uruguayan coast from Punta Ballena to José Ignacio often confounds those who expect South America to be undeveloped, underprivileged or troubled. Here, it’s none of those things.
I’ve lived in South America for half a decade and, over the years, heard countless tales of the ritzy beaches that curve along the Atlantic east of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.
Why, I wondered, had so many South Americans made the continent’s second-smallest nation their summer playground? And why were an increasing number of US celebrities following suit?
The intrigue festered until I finally booked a flight to see for myself.
The road east of Casapueblo skirts an endless gold-sand beach all the way to the coast’s largest resort town, Punta del Este, where even The Trump Organization is aiming to get in on the action in 2020 with a 25-story, 156-condominium Trump Tower.
With pulsing beach bars and glassine apartment blocks fronting the emerald sea, it’s easy to see why Punta del Este has built a reputation as the Miami of South America.
Its star power is so strong that Brazilian supermodels and Argentine movie stars flock here as much to relax in their seafront condos as to be captured by paparazzi doing so.
La Barra, with its white-washed homes draped in bougainvillea, is the next resort as I continue eastward.
Thirty years ago, this coastline had little more than a few humble fishing villages.
Now, thanks to new bridges that leapfrog its myriad lagoons, development has crept ever farther from Montevideo with investors (mostly from Argentina and Brazil) capitalising on Uruguay’s perennial stability in a rocky region.
Nowhere is this development more apparent than José Ignacio, where beachfront properties sell in the millions of dollars.
José Ignacio manages to be moneyed without ever feeling snobby or staid. Shabby chic is the overarching aesthetic.
There are no shopping malls, nightclubs or condos.
The roads are largely unpaved, the cottages are unassuming, and it’s perfectly fine to walk barefoot into the town’s most popular eatery, La Huella — that is, assuming you’ve made your reservation weeks in advance.
This air of carefree elegance has led stars such as Shakira to purchase a home here, while big-name US visitors include Mark Zuckerberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and Katy Perry, who can stroll the wind-whipped beach in relative obscurity.
If there’s one person responsible for placing José Ignacio on the international tourist map its Norwegian-Uruguayan businessman Alexander Vik and his American wife, Carrie.
The pair has opened three design hotels in and around José Ignacio.
From the patios of the Vik properties to the open-air cafes such as Solera in town, everyone in José Ignacio seems to be dressed in flowing white linen and tossing back glasses of grape as if to coax the setting sun into lingering a few minutes longer.
There are four cows for every human in Uruguay, which is a good thing because the population eats more beef per capita than anywhere else on Earth.
Perhaps that’s why one of the world’s most famous grill masters, Francis Mallmann, has built a home, hotel and restaurant in the five-block cow town of Pueblo Garzón.
Sure, Punta del Este may have been a bit flashy, but on the whole, this moneyed Uruguayan coast had managed to temper its good fortune in such a way that even a humble freelance journalist could feel welcomed to the party.
And isn’t that what we all crave? To feel like a celebrity even when we’re driving barefoot down dirt roads covered in sand.
Tribune News Service
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