In the shadow of Jose Ignacio, the hottest beach destination in Uruguay, a small seaside town shines. Victoria Lewis spends an unforgettable day on the lesser-known shores of Punta del Este, taking in the best the country has to offer.
PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay – When people visit Punta del Este, it's often as a side trip from the fishing village-turned-celebrity hotspot Jose Ignacio, 40 minutes down the coast. And while I can't fault anyone for prioritizing the trendy destination — a magical place where days are spent wandering barefoot from beach to bar and back among seriously beautiful people — Punta del Este and the surrounding countryside are also worth a trip. The food is amazing, the wine is delicious, the art is great.
And you don't have to be a movie star or run a small European nation to get a table for lunch, though of course it never hurts.
Here's the agenda for a perfect day sampling a little bit of everything Punta does well.
It's hard to have a bad day when you wake up to a panoramic view of the Atlantic. At Grand Hotel, every room offers just that. Spend a few minutes reveling in the vista, then drag yourself from the ultra-soft bed to the decadent breakfast buffet. Should your morning start in the afternoon, you'll eat well at waffle time, which is exactly what it sounds like. Get hungry: It begins at 3 p.m.
Time for a visit to the hotel spa. Things get started later in this part of the world, so if you get up at a reasonable hour, you'll have time for a quick massage and a refreshing dip in the pool before starting your day.
If you're like me and prefer the ocean, it's just right across the street. I dashed over post-massage, still wearing my robe and slippers, and had the whole stretch of sand to myself.
Punta del Este is easy to navigate and even easier if you hire a driver. The hotel can set it up, but ask for Nicolas from Novo Turismo. He's an absolute gem.
Our first stop is a sculpture on the beach. Los Dedos (“the fingers”), a famous work by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal, is a favorite spot of selfie stick-wielding visitors. Embrace the moment and take a few selfies of your own (but do it without the stick, please).
Next stop is the fish market by the marina. It's a little smelly, but if you walk down the promenade, local fishermen will give you bits of fish (and a plastic bag to avoid getting guts on your hand) to to the sea lions that hang out in the water nearby. It's silly and fun and will fulfill your childhood fantasy of being a trainer at SeaWorld.
Then it's out to the countryside to visit the studio of local artist Pablo Atchugarry. The grounds include a sculpture park and two galleries showcasing his work and that of other Latin American artists. If you're lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of him working on one of his massive marble sculptures.
Head downtown for lunch at the delicious health food spot Tea for Three. If you've been hanging out in South America, you'll welcome the refreshing menu of fresh-pressed green juices, quinoa bowls, and veggie burgers. This may be the first and last time you'll see a salad offered as main course on your trip.
Not to be outdone by neighboring Argentina and Chile, Uruguay is finally entering the wine-making game. Punta del Este is home to several excellent new wineries, but the standout is Alto de la Ballena. Stop by their hilltop tasting room to try their delicious merlot, cabernet franc, and the typically Uruguayan tannat-viognier blend. A case makes a great souvenir. Just saying. (Here's my Popupla Love Letter to the winery.)
Leave enough time to drive back to the coast and find a seat on the terrace at Casapueblo before sunset. The sprawling museum/studio/hotel built by artist Carlos Paez Vilaro offers a notoriously spectacular view.
For a once-in-a-lifetime dinner, trek to chef Francis Mallmann's Garzon (one of Popupla's Most Romantic Hotels in the World). Sadly, so very sadly, the famed restaurant wasn't open when I visited, so we had delicious pasta and super-fresh seafood at nearby Lo de Tere. (How fresh? The fish market is across the street.)
Nicolas also suggested La Bourgogne for upscale French dining. If you're really craving French food, there's an entire street, Boulevard Gourmet, packed with many standout options.
Local night owls swear that Tequila (Calle 11, La Barra; +598-9594-0960) is the place to see and be seen — the building is a modeling agency by day and nightclub by night. But, after a full day, I was happy to head home and tuck myself into my oversize bed. After all, I had to rest up for tomorrow's dip in the beautiful sea.