Punta del Este, Uruguay's favourite beach resort

A resort for all seasons?

Punta del Este is thriving, but what can it do to extend its short summer season?

Punta del Este is the country's – and arguably, the continent's – most prestigious resort, attracting a core clientele of fashionable and wealthy holidaymakers from business, political and show-business circles in Buenos Aires.

The town's permanent population of a little over 15,000 swells to as many as 250,000 in January and February, with Argentine visitors in the majority, followed by Brazilians. Domestic Uruguayan tourism tends to be concentrated in March at the tail-end of the summer. Europeans and North Americans are also starting to discover Punta del Este, but in absolute terms their numbers – though rising – are still low.

For the rest of the year Punta del Este (or "Punta" to its regular visitors) is very quiet and most hotels and restaurants close their doors until the resort stirs again in December.

According to Edgar Feredjian, director of the Conrad Resort & Casino, his property has made successful efforts to draw business to Punta de Este in the shoulder and low seasons.

"When we opened in 1997 our first priority was getting the hotel running to the standards our guests expert. But we also wanted to devise ways of shortening the low season. Part of our strategy was to attract more conventions and business meetings. We also hold concerts at the property five or six times a year, which give visitors a specific reason to make the trip," says Mr Feredjian.

Bob Dylan and Latin crooner Julio Iglesias have performed at the Conrad recently. Catwalk and celebrity shows broadcast from the hotel are a staple of the programming of Buenos Aires television stations during the summer months. Year in, year out, the dominant January image is that of ageing Argentine model agency mogul Pancho Dotto dressed head to toe in white with a young protégée on either arm. At such times, fashionable Punta becomes something of an irony-free zone.

Meanwhile, Uruguay's tourism authority has built whale-watching platforms on the coast between Punta del Este and the Brazilian border, and promoted the hinterland as a location for ornithologists, to draw in more visitors out of season. A Jewish film festival is now in its seventh year.

The "punta" of Punta del Este is a narrow peninsula jutting out into the South Atlantic, with a much-photographed lighthouse close to its tip and a marina on its sheltered, western flank. A landmark "wavy" bridge (characteristically likened in verse by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to the curves of a woman's breasts) connects the town with neighbouring La Barra, where much of the resort's nightlife is located. Behind the high-rise coastal strip either side of the peninsula summer houses nestle among woods of pine and eucalyptus.

"The town is safe and beautiful, and has excellent beaches. Visitors love it here," says Mr Feredjian.

Everyone seemingly wants a piece of the Punta action. Such is the demand for space, hoteliers such as Brazil's Fasano are setting up in Punta del Este in secondary locations away from the shore that would raise eyebrows in a less confident resort. And nowhere else in Uruguay could a wine merchant – Vinos del Mundo, in this case – hope to sell a bottle of admittedly sublime French wine for in excess of US$1000 (a Château Lafite Rothschild 1999 for US$1155, since you ask).

Meanwhile, the Colombian singer Shakira has a ranch close to the resort and her arrival by private jet has marked the unofficial opening of Punta's season over the last couple of years – at least for the Uruguayan press.

British novelist Martin Amis has a home in the über-chic enclave and one-time fishing village of José Ignacio, just east of Punta del Este (his wife is of Uruguayan descent). Ralph Lauren, Mick Jagger and Naomi Campbell have all vacationed here. Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis and Kevin Bacon holidayed (separately) in and around Punta del Este in January.

Many of the estimated 300 Americans who settle in Uruguay each year invest in Punta and its environs. The town has a solid expat community which enjoys the peace and quiet, and rather bracing weather, when the tourists have packed their bags.

But visitors cruising the empty seaside promenade in the winter can hardly fail to notice the rows of virtually empty apartment blocks. Could they one day be filled by students? Currently there are few further education courses available in the town apart from physical education.

"The town is likely to continue to grow, although plans to site a fully-fledged university campus here appear premature" says Martin Egozcue, an economist who lives in Punta del Este. "More visitors are choosing to come in the spring, and the new local airport has provided a boost. But setting up a tax-free zone near the town would be a real spur to the year-round development of the community."

Factfile: Getting there

Bus: You can get to Punta del Este by bus from Montevideo's Tres Cruces bus terminal. There are departures every 15 minutes during the day in season. The bus terminal in Punta is next to the ocean and across the road from the Monument to the Drowned, a sculpture of five fingers partly submerged in the sand by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal.

Plane: There are direct flights from the Aeroparque airport in Buenos Aires. See the Getting to Uruguay and Getting around Uruguay chapters for more details. There are no regular flights from Montevideo.

Car: Allow 90 minutes from Montevideo by car outside peak times. There are two stretches of toll motorway; cars are charge $90 in all for the journey. For a scenic alternative to the motorway you can take Route 12 through the hills to Minas and from there connect to Route 8 to Montevideo. Access to Route 12 is well signposted at a large roundabout just beyond Punta Ballena as you exit Punta del Este.

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