A Florida-sized nation of forests and pampas, Uruguay has contrived to avoid the boom-and-bust cycles of its neighbors so successfully that it has become known as the “Switzerland of South America.” Uruguay boomed during the 19th century as immigrants from Europe arrived to work in its meatpacking industry. With a vast, empty interior, plus a long coastline similar to the dune-edged shore of Cape Cod, the country is attracting major new international investment as a holiday destination. Aside from the appeal of its beaches, climate and nightlife, Punta del Este has always attracted affluent South Americans, because Uruguay allows nonresidents to hold offshore accounts in U.S. dollars — insurance against periodic economic crises and the roller-coaster values of the Argentine peso and Brazilian real — and to buy dollar-denominated real estate. A stylish but quiet place in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Punta del Este has become a small city, with a growing number of high-rise apartment buildings downtown. As a result, those in search of tranquility have been moving north along the coast to La Barra and José Ignacio or inland to the lush grasslands of gaucho country.
The small Atlantic beach town of José Ignacio has emerged as a discreetly glamorous destination. A simple, sand-in-your-shoes kind of place where everyone gets around on bicycles, it is a complete contrast to the Miami Beach-like style of nearby Punta del Este. The high-season crowd seems amused rather than impressed by the parade of movie stars and models to be spotted frolicking in the surf or strolling along the broad, sandy beach.
Many visitors to Uruguay skip Montevideo, but it is an attractive city with some fine architecture and excellent restaurants.
Among Uruguay’s many wineries, I enjoy Pisano, founded in the early 20th century. Seek out its Etxe Oneko Licor de Tannat, which has the force and richness of a vintage port.
Stop in Buenos Aires
American Airlines operates the only nonstop flights between the United States and Uruguay, from Miami, New York or Houston to Montevideo. As such, many travelers opt for a night or two in Buenos Aires before taking one of the many scheduled 50-minute flights to Punta del Este. We recommend traveling in late February, which is a perfect time to escape the northern winter, but well past the Christmas to mid-January high season.
The Town of Garzón
A pleasant excursion took us to Garzón, a tiny town 20 miles north of José Ignacio, which has recently undergone a renaissance at the hands of urbanites from abroad. These outsiders are busy restoring the old brick houses that line the streets around its tidy main square. Among them is Argentine star chef Francis Mallmann, proprietor of El Garzón, a five-room property with a superb restaurant.
Three hours ahead of New York (EST).
To phone hotels in Uruguay, dial 011 (international access) + 598 (Uruguay code) + local numbers.
Uruguayan peso (UYU). Fluctuating rate valued at UYU35.3 = US$1.00 as of June 2019. Note: Our suggested hotels quote rates in US$.
The rainy season generally runs from June to October, with December to April being the best time for a visit.
Montevideo, Tel. (598) 1770-2000.