During high season, glamorous Punta del Este, Uruguay (or Punta, as most call it after a couple of days), is filled with rich South Americans, mainly Argentines, looking for sun and fun.
Located 70 mi/110 km east of Montevideo, Punta del Este proper is a narrow spit of land jutting into the Atlantic, surrounded by beaches and a yacht harbor, but informally it encompasses a much larger area. Around its edge is the oceanfront promenade, the Rambla General Artigas, which is lined with cafes, bars and seafood restaurants. You can spend the day at the beach enjoying one of many watersports (yachting, swimming, surfing, deep-sea fishing and waterskiing). Then relax in the afternoon with a traditional British high tea (tea and scones) at one of the tearooms in town.
West of town, the wonderfully surreal Casa Pueblo is a good place for a break from the sun: The Moorish-style fortress, once the home of painter Carlos Paez Vilaro, is now an art gallery and hotel. Punta also has great golf courses, tennis courts and a vibrant nightlife (restaurants, discos and casinos).
Because of its unique geography, the peninsula at Punta lets you watch the sun both rise and set over water. The beaches are good, with each having a certain ambience of its own—one stretch of sand may be for families, another for sporty types, one for teenagers and another, apparently, for supermodels (many of whom spend their summers there instead of Buenos Aires).
The scene changes from season to season, so you'll just have to find where you're comfortable. Playa Mansa, protected by the peninsula, is calmer than the Playa Brava beaches that face the Atlantic. The Mansa beaches are favored by families and watersports enthusiasts. Playa Brava's waves draw surfers, and the activity carries on into the night, with numerous pubs and nightlife options.
Day trips can be taken to Isla Gorriti, a beautiful island just off the coast, which has uncrowded white beaches and the ruins of an 18th-century fort. Another boat trip will take you around Isla de Lobos, an island jammed with sea lions.
If you would rather travel by car, drive a short way to the resort town of Piriapolis, anchored by the grande dame of Uruguayan resorts, the Argentino Hotel. Or drive east from the peninsula past the spectacular mansions to Jose Ignatio, an increasingly popular small resort 19 mi/30 km west of town with perhaps the prettiest beaches, best waves and finest restaurants in Uruguay.
The season runs December-March (summertime in the Southern Hemisphere). During January and February, the beaches can be crowded, the traffic heavy and the prices high. The best times to visit are early December and March.
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