After our stay at Iguazú, we flew to Montevideo, Uruguay, and made the 90-minute drive to Punta del Este, a coastal resort town that serves as a playground and summer escape for well-to-do Porteños and Brazilians. Sadly, gray skies and rain followed us to Uruguay. We also visited in the off-season, which meant that many condos were still shut for the season and the streets and beaches were bare. Consequently, the visit felt a little lackluster for me, but we had plenty to see and do, and having been there, I can imagine what a fun and lively place Punta del Este is come summertime. (If you have plans to visit Punta del Este in-season, you’ll be able to fly directly into town, but because we traveled there during a slow time of year, flights were limited and we had to fly into the capital city instead. If you do have to fly into Montevideo, don’t stress—it’s a bright, clean, and super-efficient airport, which I really appreciated after all the traveling and flying we’d done.) Here are a few spots to hit if you’re heading to Punta del Este, starting with where to stay.
The Grand Hotel Punta del Este
The Grand Hotel opened just a year ago in what is ostensibly one of the city’s best settings for beachgoers. It overlooks Brava Beach from across a smooth stretch of highway, and because regulations prevent buildings from going up directly on the beach, views of Playa Brava from the hotel are panoramic and completely unobstructed. Guests can simply stroll out the front door and across the street to the beach, which is wide, soft, and strewn with pretty shells. It’s that easy! The hotel was designed to resemble a ship heading out to sea, so rooms in its “bow” section have extra-wide windows and the most beautiful views. Its interiors are minimalist, modern, and light-filled, and it has a signature restaurant, a lobby café and bar, a spa, gym, and indoor pool, and an outdoor pool and deck.
I met this sweet old guy on the beach. He wasn’t alone—his owner was a few steps ahead, waiting for him to wrap up his beach walk.
“La Mano” Sculpture
If you like art, there are lots of ways to see and experience it in and around Punta del Este. Closest to The Grand is “La Mano,” the famous sculpture by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázzabal of an open hand protruding from the sand. It’s a popular selfie spot, so if you want a pic without people in it, you’ll have to patient.
Fundación Pablo Atchugarry
A 30-minute drive northeast of The Grand, along Route 104, you’ll find the Fundación Pablo Atchugarry, site of a gallery and sculpture park and the studio of the Uruguayan sculptor. Atchugarry can sometimes be found working away in his studio, but even when he’s not there (he was in Italy shopping for marble at the time of our visit), a walk around his whimsical sculpture park and contemporary gallery are well worth a visit. You might even see some in-progress marble sculptures outside the studio, awaiting the return of the artist and his chisel.
The foundation’s gallery houses works by other artists, in various mediums. These pieces—made by pinning hundreds of pieces of brightly colored string taut against a canvas—were my favorite, as they appeared to change color as you walked past them.
To catch the best sunsets in Punta del Este, head to Casapueblo, a 30-minute drive northwest of The Grand, on Punta Ballena. The quirky, cliffside structure is the home and studio of the late artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, and now, a hotel. At Casapueblo, you can catch a short documentary about the artist’s life and work and shop for prints and other colorful pieces of art, but come time for sunset, its oceanview café’s patio and the home’s terraces are the place to be. There, you can sip espresso and snack on sandwiches—or, better yet, share a bottle of local wine—while you watch the glowing sun dip below the horizon. The spectacle comes complete with a recorded narration by the late Vilaró.
That tiny dot above is a pair of kayakers. Two if by sea, indeed.
For every glitzy high-rise condo, luxury hotel, and brand-name shop Punta del Este has to offer, the posh but laid-back neighboring beach town of José Ignacio answers with a quaint beach cottage, hole-in-the-wall restaurant, or local-owned design boutique. To experience the best of both worlds, I recommend spending at least a couple of nights in both towns, and José Ignacio has plenty of excellent hotels and inns to choose from. (That includes three Vik hotels—Bahia Vik, Playa Vik, and, my favorite, Estancia Vik—a brand known for its highly individualized design and discreet, thoughtful service.) Even if you don’t stay in José Ignacio, do not head home without at least making the drive there for dinner (or any meal) and drinks at La Huella. The beachfront restaurant and bar is the epitome of barefoot elegance, and its astonishingly good food and wine is outshone only by the beautiful patrons who flock there to enjoy it. Our group cozied up at a table by a window, warmed by a softly humming space heater as sheets of gray, chilly rain came down outside. Feeling wine-weary, full, and warm at the end of our long, luxurious lunch (our starters are pictured below), peeling ourselves out of our seats proved to be a painful process. If you want to check out La Huella, be sure to call ahead (as in months) to make sure the restaurant will be open while you’re in town, and to make a reservation. And trust me: It’s so worth the wait.
And Estancia Vik…
As you can see, Vik’s pool game is pretty strong. We visited all three hotels, and each property’s pool was sleek, sexy, and blended right into the landscape.
Alto de la Ballena
Another special experience to be had in Punta del Este is a visit to Alto de la Ballena, a winery in the hills of Maldonado, just north of town. Visits are by appointment only, but taking the time to book means sitting in the winery’s alfresco hilltop tasting room, sipping merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Rosé, and Tannat and nibbling locally made cheese while drinking in views of the beautiful hills below. Alto de la Ballena’s wines aren’t yet available via retail in the U.S. (a select few restaurants offer it on their menus), so be sure to bring cash, as you’ll want to bring several bottles home.
Finally, though I don’t have photos of my meal there, I highly recommend having dinner at Lo de Tere back in Punta del Este. The restaurant is located just across the street from the water, and the food is thoughtfully prepared using locally sourced ingredients and fish. Compared to many restaurants and bars in the area, Lo de Tere is much more old world, with bow-tied servers and antique-style furnishings. But like so much of what Punta del Este has to offer, I promise, you won’t want to miss it.
Have you been to Punta del Este? I’d love to know what some of your favorite spots are!