Lonely Planet says, “Well, somebody let the cat out of the bag. Uruguay used to be South America’s best-kept secret, with a handful of Argentines, Brazilians, Chileans and non–South Americans in the know popping in to enjoy the pristine beaches, the atmospheric cities, the huge steaks and the happening nightlife. Then the peso crashed, the place became a whole lot more affordable and people got curious. They came, loved it and went back home to tell their friends. Who came, loved it and went back home to tell their friends.”
If your general knowledge of South America consists of recognizing that Rio de Janeiro is there, then you’re in for a surprise with little Uruguay.
Uruguay, which is an indigenous Charrua Indian term meaning River of Birds, is the second smallest sovereign country in South America (after Suriname), sandwiched in between giant Brazil to the north and giant Argentina to the west and south. But for such a small country, it has a very big coastline– some 300-plus miles (500 km) of white sandy beach that is occasionally interrupted by dunes, pine, acacia and eucalyptus trees. Equivalent in size to England, it is the massiveness of the surrounding countries that make it seem so small.
The population of Uruguay is primarily of European descent, mostly a Spanish-Italian mix. The people are generally quiet, friendly, and well-educated– without the sizzle you expect to find in more famous South American places like the cities of Buenos Aires or Rio.
Along the country’s southern border is the wide estuary of the Rio de la Plata, on the east is the Atlantic Ocean. Its capital city, Montevideo, is home to almost 50% of the nation’s population, a modern city with a historical old town that dates back to colonial times. Surrounding the whole city lies an uninterrupted stretch of –you guessed it– white sandy beach.
The beaches to the east of Montevideo run up towards the Brazilian border. With its low forested hills, sheltered bays, lagoons and surf-washed sand, this area is known as the Uruguayan Riviera and boasts some of the continent’s most popular seaside resorts. From Montevideo to internationally famed Punta del Este (East Point) this coast is fairly well developed and is known as the Costa de Oro.
Our destination is Punta del Este, a city built on a small peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, with a calm bay on its western side, perfect for swimming, and especially friendly to children. Running to the east of Punta is the wilder Atlantic coast with beautiful wetlands and abundant bird life — a place where locals go to escape the crowds. Large forests of eucalyptus, pine and mimosa trees lie on the edge of the city, fragrant and cool, their sweet and tart aromas mingling with the sea air.
Often referred to as the St. Tropez or Monte Carlo of South America, Punta del Este is a full fledged world class resort, 86 miles (139km) from Montevideo, and from December to April (summertime in Uruguay) this resort town rocks. Indeed, Punta del Este is one of the most sophisticated beach destinations in the world. A year-round destination, it has the reputation for allowing you to be “as you are” –but with class.
Punta, as the city is fondly called, has long been a favorite getaway of the South American rich and famous. The 19th-century lifestyle is still lived by these people today, who travel accompanied by personal hairdressers, pets and servants, and may very well own one of the estates on the “rich” part of the peninsula. Again according to Lonely Planet, “Celebrity-watchers have a full-time job here. Punta is teeming with big names. Early sightings in 2008 included Ralph Lauren, soccer star Zinedine Zidane and Metallica’s lead singer James Hetfield. And then of course there’s the ongoing speculation about when exactly Shakira will marry at her nearby estancia…”
The peninsula’s most famous landmark, which has become a symbol for Punta del Este since its completion in 1982, is the Monumento al Ahogado (Monument to the Drowned), a sculpture of five fingers partially submerged in sand, located on Parada 4 at Brava Beach. It is colloquially referred to as either Monumento los Dedos (Monument of the Fingers) or La Mano (The Hand). When you see The Hand, you know you’re in Punta!
Besides its miles of great swimming and sunning beaches, Punta is wonderful for water sports, from surfing to yachting and fishing. There is a sophisticated marina and a number of yacht and fishing clubs, with yachting regattas, off-shore racing, etc. Punta del Este is spotlighted in nautical sports, being a designated port for the world circumnavigation competition, in motor sports with formula auto racing as well as other sports with a great number of tournament and events.
If you’re more of a landlubber, tennis, golf and polo, musical and cultural shows, nightclubs and the excitement of the casino tables and first-run movies are also available. For gourmet eating, the doors are open to a culinary paradise, because world wide cuisine is available at its best– notwithstanding Uruguay’s reputation as a beef-eating paradise.
Uruguayan cuisine is traditionally based on its European roots, in particular, Mediterranean food from Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, but also from countries such as Germany and Britain, along with African and indigenous mixtures. Many foods from those countries such as pasta, sausages, and desserts are common in the nation’s diet. The Uruguayan barbecue, asado, is one of the most exquisite and famous in the world.
Approximately 90% of Uruguay’s grassy interior is used for cattle and sheep grazing, and they eat a LOT of beef in Uruguay, in all its forms, with nearly every meal. Most of the restaurants in Uruguay are grillrooms, called parrilladas. Favourite beef dishes include asado, which is barbecued beef; asado de tira, which is barbecued ribs; pulpa, which is boneless beef; lomo, which is fillet steak; and bife de chorrizo, which is rump steak. (If you prefer lean meat, ask for asado flaco.)
If you are adventurous, try morcilla dulce, a sweet black sausage made from blood, orange peel and walnuts. You will also find different kinds of seafood easily available, including squid (calamari), shark and mussels.
And if you’re a dessert maven you must try the excellent ice cream, and especially don’t miss “chaja“, a sponge cake filled with cream, jam and peaches that came highly recommended by a reader of InsideTheGate.com. Put your diet on hold while you’re visiting Punta– you’re on vacation!
There are charming corners, within or beyond the peninsula, international restaurants and places for a simple but tasty meal. Attractions also include enchanting bars, pastry shops, tea salons, 24-hour supermarkets as well as shopping streets with stores open all night.
And opportunities to shop for the latest European couture are everywhere in the city, which especially in the summertime is filled with well-groomed tourists. Come with a lightly packed suitcase and take advantage of the wonderful deals you’ll find to return home with a full one!
Like to dance? Then brush up on your tango and join the locals at any of the nightclubs. Punta del Este is a nightlife hotspot, and the tango is a favorite throughout Uruguay– with its own local variations. But don’t expect an early night, because discos and clubs in this glamourous resort rarely even get going before 2 AM. In fact, as astutely pointed out by About.com, all of Punta del Este is geared to vactioners who get a late morning start. Hotel dining rooms and services may be open before noon, but the rest of the city may not be. Dinners are late, at 10 PM or later, and discos go until dawn, allowing revelers to see the sun both rise and set over water.
While you explore this glamorous city and its surroundings, a good place to stay is at the Interval International-affiliated Rincon del Este, a seaside resort in the midst of an aged forest only 500 meters from Cantegril Country Golf Club.
Located in an upscale neighborhood less than 1/3 mile (500 meters) from the Golf Cantegril Country Club. Rincon del Este occupies a 4.2-acre (1.7-hectare) tract that includes a nine-hole putting green, and Rincon Club members and guests enjoy direct access to the Golf Cantegril course, as well as discounts and other benefits there.
In addition, the resort’s staff organizes a full schedule of social events on the off chance that you should find yourself with nothing to do (fat chance!), and will help you book a variety of tours and excursions– on horseback, by bicycle, or on foot.
This resort also offers a bar and restaurant, an indoor heated pool in addition to the outdoor pool, tennis and paddle courts, a fitness room, sauna, whirlpool, reading and relaxation room, game room, meeting room, and art gallery. It has a central direct-dial telephone system in all units, fax capability, satellite dishes, closed-circuit television, in-unit safes, and emergency generators.
Other services offered at the resort includes babysitting, cosmetology and massage, housekeeping, laundry, security, and room service.
Surprised? You had no idea that such a sophisticated resort existed in South America outside of Rio and Buenos Aires?
Clue: Punta is better! Don’t miss out.
Some Web sites to explore for more information:
- http://www.visit-uruguay.com/ –In English
- http://www.puntaweb.com/ –English version
- http://www.vivapunta.com/en/contenido/fotos/index.html –Pictures of Punta del Este
- http://www.uruguaychamber.com/ –The Chamber of Commerce site from the USA
- http://www.lonelyplanet.com/dest/sam/uru.htm –The Lonely Planet guide
- http://www.embassy.org/uruguay/ –The Uruguayan Embassy Website
Originally published in the former timeshare publication The Timeshare Beat's "Resort in the Spotlight" column. Reprinted with permission, with some minor revisions/updates. Note that the nearly identical story posted at UruguayTourism.blogspot.com in 2007 is an unauthorized and unattributed copy of the original article that was posted in The Timeshare Beat.
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