Pristine beaches, world-class wineries and exclusive parties might not be what first come to mind when you picture Uruguay, but this small country-nestled on the coast between Argentina and Brazil-packs a punch. While coastal Uruguay may not be familiar to many American travelers, it is the summer destination for travelers in the southern cone of South America, and makes the perfect winter destination for us northerners.
Miles of coastline, gently rolling hills, and picturesque seaside villages set the stage for one of the season’s trendiest locations, where bars, restaurants, and casinos are packed and the nightlife rivals that of Buenos Aires. Looking for a more serene experience? Visit outside of the months of December through February, though expect cooler temperatures and significantly less people. No matter the time of year, coastal Uruguay offers endless natural beauty while still providing the amenities for an upscale getaway.
PUNTA DEL ESTE
Just a few hours east from the capital of Montevideo, the action centers on the coast, with Punta del Este and its neighboring villages serving as the hub. For the last decade or so this area has served a glitzy escape for the wealthy of Argentina and Brazil during the summer months (winter in the Northern Hemisphere)—a sort of Hamptons for the Buenos Aires set. This coastal city has a Miami vibe about it, with tall buildings, luxury yachts in the harbor, and bronzed bodies languishing on the shore.
The town of Punta itself sits on a peninsula, with the western shoreline referred to as Playa Mansa, and the eastern Playa Brava. During the day, head to the Brava side for great people watching and bigger waves, but don’t miss the sunset on the Mansa side—it’s a South American tradition to clap as the sun goes down. Take a walk through town on Avenida Golero for cafés, restaurants and designer shopping, and be sure to pop in for ice cream at Gelateria Arlecchino (facebook.com/gelateria.arlecchino), which always has a line of families until well into the night. Head down to the Punta marina to see the gigantic sea lions waiting for a treat from the fish mongers next to some of the world’s most luxurious yachts. Here you can take a boat to the nearby Isla Gorriti, a beautiful pine-covered island with a great restaurant just off of Playa Mansa. By night, the harbor’s Moby Dick bar (mobydick.com.uy) is a guaranteed good time for drinks and reggaetón music no matter the time of year.
Some of the best places to stay are the in private houses or apartments rented out for the season, accessible via the on- line booking service Airbnb (airbnb.com), though beware that accommodations for the summer months book out far in advance. Reserve a first-line condo overlooking the shore on either side, or one of the tasteful mansions in the neighbor- hoods of La Barra or Manantiales further down the coast.
If you prefer a hotel, you can’t beat the shoreline location of the iconic Conrad Resort & Casino (fivestaralliance.com), which has a popular on-site casino and nightclub with a trendy beach bar, Ovo (ovo.com.uy), that’s the place to see and be seen during the season. For a more relaxing stay, the luxurious Fasano Hotel (fasano.com.br) a few miles outside of town offers uber-modern bungalows set in the rolling hills.
Driving east from Punta del Este you’ll pass a series of small beach hamlets, each one more beautiful than the last, until you reach Jose Ignacio. The picturesque seaside village sits on a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic, and has the upscale nautical vibe you’d expect from the jet set’s favorite beach town. Rustic chic houses and the requisite lighthouse sit along a grid of dirt roads flanked on either side by the endless shoreline, and the days are spent eating, drinking, and worshipping the sun.
The most popular spot in town hands-down is La Huella (paradorlahuella.com), a beachside eatery on sands of the Playa Brava known for its grilled seafood. The lines will be long and the prices high, but many deem it worth it to be seen eating with the likes of Hollywood celebs and polo stars. Well-hidden up the road from Jose Ignacio is the charming Marismo (restaurantmarismo.com), an al fresco restaurant in the pines lit by candlelight that serves seafood and slow-braised lamb. Pop in for coffee at Mutate in the village center, a beautiful café with well-curated selection of clothing, vintage collectibles, and homewares that makes you feel like you’re at your most stylish friend’s house.
It’s no surprise that Playa Vik is one of the buzziest hotels in town. It’s hard to miss its sleek Carlos Ott-designed architecture, almost like a modern ship’s hull of steel and glass set on the shore. The infinity pool mirrors the ocean in front and each suite has expansive views. Financier and art collector Alexander Vik is the owner, and he has recently opened the newest outpost of the Vik Retreats (vikretreats.com) in the village, Bahia Vik, a series of rustic bungalows set in the dunes. To experience the Uruguayan countryside instead, the Vik’s third hotel, Estancia Vik, is worth a visit. Located a mile inland from Jose Ignacio, the estate boasts a well-stocked wine cellar, professional polo field, and rooms decorated by Uruguayan artists.
If you prefer to head west along the coast from Montevideo, check out the province of Colonia. Located where the massive Rio de la Plata meets the Atlantic Ocean, Colonia sits just two hours from Montevideo and across the river from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, the tiny town of Colonia del Sacramento is the oldest town in Uruguay and its historic charm has been preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The historic city center, or Barrio Historico, is marked by the old town gate called the Puerta de la Ciudadela and houses a warren of cobblestone streets, small plazas, and leafy sycamores. Spend the day wandering around this incredibly picturesque jewel box of Spanish and Portuguese colonial architecture, and be sure not to miss the sunset along the river.
Colonia’s proximity to Argentina draws plenty of Argentine visitors looking for a luxurious weekend escape, and there is no better way to do so than by visiting a winery. Dotted in the countryside outside of the village and along the way to the nearby town of Carmelo, located about an hour north along the coast, you can find wineries making some of the finest wine in South America.
The signature wine of Uruguay is Tannat, a red grape imported from south- western France that has done well in the rolling hills of Colonia. Try a glass at the Narbona Wine Lodge (narbona.com.uy), an incredible estate and winery that is a must-see if you’re in the area. The original farm and wine cellar date back to 1909, when Juan de Narbona started one of the first wineries in the country. Now the expansive property produces various types of Tannat wine along with Sauvingon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Be sure to pop into the artisanal grocery store on-site for house-made cheeses, jams, ice cream, and the ever-popular South American obsession, dulce de leche. Part of the draw of the estate is the beautiful décor, as the owners have used their own antique dec- orations and impeccable taste to create a dreamlike property in the countryside, which you can enjoy to the fullest by staying in one of their five exclusive rooms in the estate’s boutique hotel.
When you’ve tired of touring the vineyards (or perhaps had one glass too many!) head to the gorgeous Casa Chic (casa-chic.com) for a five-star experience in a rural setting. Made up of bungalows set among the pine trees, this is rustic chic at its best. Take in the views from the panoramic pool, enjoy dinner in the impeccably decorated restaurant, or visit the on-site olive orchard and vineyard.