320km (198 miles) NE of Buenos Aires
Few resorts in South America rival Punta del Este for glamour. It might be geographically located in Uruguay, but it's where the gliterrati and elite of Buenos Aires make their homes for the summer. As Mar del Plata's reputation downscales, this Uruguayan resort area has become the new place to see and be seen.
Punta is actually a reference to several towns located near each other. The main town of Punta del Este is on a small peninsula where the Río de la Plata meets the Atlantic Ocean. The town is connected to Maldonado, the capital of the Department of Maldonado. Punta del Este and its surrounding towns have over 50km (31 miles) of waterfront, stretching along both coasts. The majority of the city's major hotels are on the calmer river side. The sprawling Conrad Hotel and Casino complex dominates the riverbanks, and serves as a defacto social center even for those who aren't staying at the hotel. Sandy dunes stretch out along the Atlantic side, with rougher waves. The beaches on this side are less crowded. At night, as the tide gets stronger, you'll see many youths carrying surfboards and heading to catch the waves along the coastal highway Ruta 10. As a general rule, the farther you get from the center, the less crowded the beaches. Little of historical value is left anymore in this former fishing village, filled with high-rise hotels and condominiums, reminiscent of development in south Florida. The very heart of the peninsula still has a few historical buildings, such as the Faro or Lighthouse, churches, schoolhouses, and turn-of-the-20th-century buildings -- a reminder of earlier, quieter times, before mass development in the 1950s and 1960s forever changed the way of life here. The port is often jammed with yachts in the summer.
Like any place that gets a reputation and becomes a part of package tours, Punta has lost some of its higher-end clients, who have gone elsewhere to look for greater exclusivity. About 10km (6 miles) up from Punta del Este is the small town of La Barra. It looks more like a little town grown up on Ruta 10, which serves as its main street, lined with bars, small hotels, clubs, and art galleries. It's more expensive to stay here. Visitors who have been to California's Laguna Beach will see more than a passing resemblance. Many young beachgoers flock here; at night, in high season, teenagers throw tailgate parties, parking their cars along the road to drink, hang out, dance along the road's shoulders, and blare car stereos. It's never quiet in La Barra in high season.
Farther along Ruta 10 is the very exclusive Jose Ignacio, a small quiet community that's even more expensive than La Barra. Many celebrities keep second homes here, including international stars such as the supermodel Naomi Campbell. And when the mood strikes and they want to be seen, they head to La Barra.
Most hotels and restaurants in Punta del Este itself are open year-round, regardless of the weather, and Punta maintains a permanent year-round community. In La Barra and Jose Ignacio however, many places close up for the winter. Summer season lasts from October to March, but "the Season," as it is known in the area, is a very specific time. From a few days after Christmas through the first 2 weeks of January, the Punta, La Barra, and Jose Ignacio swell with movie stars and models from all over South America, though mostly from Argentina. Film crews, photographers, and magazine staff follow them and watch their every movement, and parties abound. You may not know who most of them are if you are not from around here, but there are few places in the world with more glamour and beautiful women than Punta in season. Prices at this time are at their highest, needless to say, so if you plan to see this phenomenon, book in advance and prepare to blow your travel budget.
For dialing numbers in Uruguay from overseas, use the country code tel. 598. You also need to drop the "0" in the city codes listed here, 02 for Montevideo and 042 for Punta del Este, when you're dialing from outside the country.