Initially, Uruguay was not high on the list when planning our month long South American trip. But reading that Uruguay is the least corrupt country in Latin America, ranked first in the region for democracy, peace, quality of living, e-Government, freedom of press, size of the middle class, prosperity and security, it was an easy decision to include it in our itinerary.
We allocated 5 days, 4 nights in our itinerary for Uruguay, splitting the time equally between the Uruguay capital city Montevideo, and Punta del Este, the beach resort town complete with casinos, beaches, yachts and lots of tourists. We enjoyed all the historical site in the capital city and it was easy to get around. But Punta del Este wowed us, and exceeded our expectation.
The unspoiled Uruguayan peninsula of Punta del Este is all heavenly beaches, exotic sophistication, beautiful people and an ardent night scene. Punta del Este is sometimes called the “Monaco of South America”. North American tourists are few, as most tend to limit their visit to Montevideo as part of their South America cruise itinerary. There are some European tourists, but by far most tourists originate from neighboring Argentina and Brazil, to get some nice fun in the sun. The busy season is from early December to end of February, the school vacation period.
Punta del Este is expensive, usually about 50% more expensive than other areas of Uruguay, if not more. There are amazing restaurants, luxury high rises, name brand hotels, and a number of interesting sights.
We kept to our budget by renting a car from Montevideo, driving 2 hours to Punta del Este, staying at a guest house run by a German expat couple, with parking included for our rental car. Because Punta del Este has over 32 km of heavenly beaches, it was easy to enjoy a picnic lunch on a beach while people watching, or alone on a quiet beach with a picnic dinner while waiting for the gorgeous sunset.
On the first day, we basically beach-hopped with our car, stopping whenever we see interesting scenes. Attractive beaches are dotted along the coast either side of Punta del Este. The beaches on the west side are busier party beaches compared to the quieter beaches on the east side. Except for the busy beaches at the tip of the peninsula, close to the city center, street parking was relatively easy to find. We stopped at beaches full of sun bathers, beaches with big waves for surfers, beaches full of families, beaches with rocky outcrops to explores, secluded beaches, and beaches with rich and glamorous people. Last but not least, we stopped for lunch at a wonderful nude beach with a smart restaurant right on the beach serving delicious burgers, sandwiches, beer and wine.
Besides beach hopping, we visited the pretty la Candelaria Church, and El Faro (Lighthouse) nearby. You cannot go up this lighthouse, but it is a cute structure for a nice walk around.
We continued our exploration to La Barra, a village located a few kilometers from Punta del Este. We stopped by this funky shop that sells not only interesting tourist souvenirs but also marijuana products. Uruguay is the first country in the world to legalize marijuana. Driving another 8 km east we reached another village called Jose Ignacio. Here there is a nice lighthouse where one can climb to the top for expansive views.
As we continued east, just outside Jose Ignacio, we came upon the Laguna Garzon Bridge, famous for its unusual circular shape.
It was designed by renowned Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly. It was designed in a circular shape to force drivers to slow down, and allows for pedestrian access along the one-way circular route.
On our second day, we woke up early for a chance to capture a nice photo at the most famous image of Punta del Este, “The Hand “, which is a giant hand sculpture on the sands of Brava Beach.
This has been standing here since the summer of 1982, when the Chilean artist Mario Irrazábal was invited to take part in the 1st International Meeting of Modern Sculpture in the Open Air held in the City of Punta del Este. During that summer, the seafront turned into a kind of outdoor workshop where artists from various countries gathered and began to give shape to what they had in mind. Today, the hand of this Chilean friend has become an icon for this city. It is on every tourists’ list for a photo at this spot so we had to forfeit some sleep for a chance to take a good photo without the crowds.
Then we visited Casapueblo, a building constructed by the Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. It is located in Punta Ballena, 13 kilometres from Punta del Este. It was originally a summer house and workshop of the artist. It now houses a museum, an art gallery, a cafeteria and a hotel. It was the permanent residence of its creator, where he worked and spent his last days. As the museum is perched in a secluded cliff overlooking Atlantic Ocean, the sunset view is spectacular.
After this visit, we headed back to our guest house to change our clothes in order to experience the city’s night life. As it turned out, the city center was lively even during early evening due to a cultural show and a food & wine tasting expo. The streets were busy with both cars and pedestrians. As Uruguay is getting ready for their annual Carnival, the clubs in Punta del Este were all rehearsing for this most important competition. We were treated to their dancing, music, and drumming through several of the main streets. What a festive end to our short, but invigorating visit to this Latin American city.