It's a quarter past six in Punta del Este, and the last pinkish rays of sun light the tip of the peninsula where the Río de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean meet. There is something particularly beguiling about visiting a place where you used to live. In some ways you're seeing it for the first time as a stranger might, but unlike a stranger you recognize the subtlest details. Although I've arrived long before peak season, booking a room was not easy. So, lesson one when visiting Punta del Este: Plan ahead. It's worth the effort.
Live Hotel Boutique
Of all the accommodation choices Punta del Este has to offer, I am glad to find this cozy, recently opened hotel. Located in the quiet residential neighborhood of San Rafael, Live Hotel stands out for its intimate atmosphere, with natural environs and a Nordic-influenced aesthetic that prizes simplicity and raw materials. I'm staying in a Garden Villa with my own semi-private garden, and as soon as I enter the room I understand why this is an adults-only hotel: The peaceful getaway has been created to guarantee a totally relaxing stay, from the comfort of a fluffy bed to the laid-back attitude toward getting up early (not to mention the hydromassage tub inside the room). As I step outside, the view of the tall, mossy trees rewards me. Although it feels I'm a million miles away from the beach, in fact I'm close enough to everything, including a restaurant circuit that beckons me to explore it.
Av. La Paloma & De los Eucaliptus, San Rafael, Punta del Este. +598 42 49 2949; livehotel.com.uy
The Restaurant Circuit
This neighborhood has plenty of restaurants, including the popular La Bourgogne, by renowned French chef Jean-Paul Bondoux. In La Bourgogne's garden you can try super-fresh, high-quality ingredients sourced from the chef's own organic farms. The menu combines the best of the Burgundy region with the finest local cuisine. If you want to experience the entire chef's repertoire, order the degustation menu.
Following the culinary trail along the beautiful Pedragosa Sierra avenue, you'll find L'Incanto, a casual Italian restaurant where you can dine alfresco and take in a stunning garden view. The serene Floreal is steps away, offering a wide selection of wines and a European-influenced menu.
La Bourgogne, Pedragosa Sierra & Av. del Mar, Punta del Este. +598 42 48 2007; Facebook
L'Incanto, Av. Pedragosa Sierra & La Paloma, Punta del Este. +598 42 49 3939; Facebook
Floreal, Av. Pedragosa Sierra s/n, Punta del Este. +598 42 48 3241; floreal.com.uy
It's early in the morning and a longtime friend has offered to guide me through Punta del Este. As we reminisce about old times, Daniela drives me to the Río de la Plata, or Mansa, side, where a few swimmers are getting ready to take a dip in the gentle waters. The rambla stretches all the way to Playa Brava, where the Atlantic point hosts windier beaches with rougher waters. We pass by an image of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria and one of the popular surfing spots, El Emir. Daniela tells me that a few weeks ago during a violent storm, the virgin was torn by the fierce Atlantic waters and later rescued by a fisherman. As I recall the powerful cracks of thunder of past winters, it isn't hard for me to imagine the scene.
We keep driving and go by the famous sculpture of the giant hands rising from the sand (Los Dedos). On the inland side, huge hotel towers and buildings seem to have grown right out of the sidewalks. We then find Playa la Olla, a more untouched beach where I used to spend long, relaxing afternoons.
A few minutes away from downtown, across the undulating bridge, is La Barra. During high season its streets are filled with bronzed socialites and crowds of sun worshippers heading to Playa Bikini in the nearby town of Manantiales. If you feel like grabbing a bite, stop into Pico Alto in La Barra for a slice of pizza in a laid-back place. Although it can be jam-packed with excessively swanky walkers, this area is steps from the beach and home quirky antiques shops and bistros. Some shops worth visiting include Manos del Uruguay, offering knit garments by Uruguayan craftspeople, and Juan Cosas Viejas, an antiques shop filled with unusual restored furniture and decorative objects. Keep driving along the Ruta 10 (to Km 163.5) in Manantiales and you'll find Roberta Roller Rabbit, a favorite stop for dresses, tunics and more in playful and often floral prints.
Manos del Uruguay, Ruta 10 & Los Remansos, La Barra, Punta del Este. manos.com.uy
Juan Cosas Viejas, Ruta 10 Km 160, La Barra, Punta del Este. Facebook
Roberta Roller Rabbit, Ruta 10 Km 163.5, Manantiales, Punta del Este. +598 42 77 4663; Facebook
I remember sitting on the back of a green motorcycle as it sped toward the village of Jose Ignacio. It was 2001, probably a low-season weekday. As I looked at the horizon, a mirage effect made the whole scene pleasantly unreal. Arriving in this small town has always been sort of magical, with its iconic lighthouse and plaza, the lonely shops selling pasqualinas, and the closed-up residences with outstanding views. Today it is a site for jet-setters from around the world. What used to be a quiet fishing village is now brimming with boutique hotels, supermodels and Latin American pop stars. Its upscale culinary scene features restaurants such as La Caracola, a beach club on a small island from the owner of the popular La Huella, and Marismo and La Susana, two top-ranked eateries always bustling on hot summer days. Aside from its restaurants, Jose Ignacio offers an activity for every kind of traveler: Art galleries and design shops for the aesthetes, gauchos offering horseback riding excursions for the equestrians and a yoga studio for vinyasa practitioners.
La Caracola, Jose Ignacio. +598 94 22 3015; paradorlacaracola.com
Parador La Huella, Playa Brava, Calle de los Cisnes, Jose Ignacio. +598 44 86 2279; paradorlahuella.com
Marismo, Ruta 10 Km 185, Jose Ignacio. +598 44 86 2273; restaurantmarismo.com
La Susana, Ruta 10 Km 182.5, Jose Ignacio. +598 95 19 2555; lasusana.com
The Shack Yoga, Camino Sainz Martínez & Los Biguá, Jose Ignacio. +598 95 90 5444; theshackyoga.com
Galería del Paso
After spending endless hours on the beach you may want to get a fix of culture by visiting an intimate gallery at Manantiales. Galería del Paso was founded 18 years ago and houses a comprehensive array of Latin American artists. Check out the works of celebrated Uruguayan artists Nelson Ramos and Ernesto Vila, as well as a wide selection of art reflecting the contemporary Latin American scene. Show openings, which run from December to February, take place every Friday. Galería del Paso is one of the few spaces that remains open the whole year. Hopefully you'll be lucky enough to meet Silvia or Joaquín and get a guided tour of the gallery.
Ruta 10 Km 164, Manantiales. +598 42 77 5860; galeriadelpaseo.com
There's no better way to end a long and exciting day than with a fabulous bottle of wine, an indulgent meal and good company. As soon as we enter O'Farrell, Pamela greets us with a smile. She and her husband, Hubert, an Argentine restaurateur and chef, run one of finest restaurants in Manantiales. It's a casually elegant space, and we pick a table close to the open-air terrace, peeking at the red sofas, local wood and unique textiles. I order a glass of Oveja Negra sauvignon blanc and kick off the meal with artichoke and mascarpone ravioli with truffle oil, pine nuts and Grana Padano cheese, followed by wood-grilled rack of lamb and mashed local squash. The personalized service is led by the friendly couple in charge, who make a point to greet customers between dashes to the terrace to pluck aromatic herbs from their organic garden. Our savory journey ends with a green apple strudel paired with Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream.
Calle El Manantial & Ruta 10 (Km 164.5), Manantiales, Punta del Este. +598 42 77 4331; ofarrellrestaurant.com
If this is your last day in the coastal town of Punta del Este, you can keep touring around the east side and visit Museo – Taller de Casapueblo in Punta Ballena, artist Carlos Páez Vilaró's gallery, workshop and hotel). Or you can have a drink at the hilltop Cumbres Hotel and be amazed by the jaw-dropping view of the Laguna del Sauce. You can browse the latest fashion trends and wander the artisans' fair (at Gorlero and Calle 20). Or you can just relax and walk along the fishing port. If you're ambitious, you can do all of the above.
Museo – Taller de Casa Pueblo, Punta Ballena. +598 42 57 8041; carlospaezvilaro.com.uy
Cumbres Hotel, National Route No. 12 Km 3.5, Laguna del Sauce, Punta Ballena. +598 42 57 8689; cumbres.com.uy
Strolling Along the Rambla Artigas
I've learned to take it easy on the last day of a trip, and nothing seems better than sauntering down the promenade. The Rambla Artigas surrounds the entire port and borders both the Río de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean. In the morning you can rent a boat or fish off the dock, and come nightfall the scene is illuminated with restaurants and bustling crowds. One favorite eatery among locals is Lo de Tere, offering fresh seafood dishes, and Moby Dick, a longstanding bar that attracts an eclectic mix of locals and tourists.
Lo de Tere, Rambla Artigas & Calle 21, Punta del Este. +598 42 44 0492; lodetere.com
Moby Dick, Rambla Artigas 650, Punta del Este. +598 42 44 1240; Facebook
Watching the Sun Fall
The exact tip of the peninsula has a mystifying sort of vibe. Some call it point zero; it is where you can see both the river and the sea. During summer the moon rises from the Atlantic and the sun sets on the Río de la Plata. In my opinion there's no better place to catch a sunset than in this corner of the planet. The sun paints the sky in reds and pinks and the silence fills the vacuity of the open sea. We wait, gazing at the last rays of fiery light as they disappear below the horizon. As soon as they're gone, a cool breeze picks up, inviting us to leave.