Punta Del Este
It was Che Guevara who unwittingly put the South American beach resort of Punta del Este on the map. In 1961 he was holed up in the resort’s mock-Tudor Hotel San Rafael. Latin America’s leaders had gathered there to talk politics and money, and naturally El Che railed against them all as “puppet dictators”. And the world turned its collective head to watch.
Up until then, Punta – as locals love to call it – had reclined in relative obscurity, best-known as a place where the gentrified middle-classes had built holiday summer lodges to escape the summer heat of Montevideo, then later, in the 1950s, as a “secret” bolt-hole for Hollywood’s attention-grabbing Rat Pack. While this may have given Punta a brief and uneasy chic to rival Rio, the resort was primarily used for obscure conferences throughout the 1970s and 80s by business folk keen to jump on the glamour bandwagon.
Then came the years of excess when the Argentinian peso was somewhat optimistically pegged to the US dollar and rich Buenos Aireans hopped on planes as if they were local buses. Twenty minutes later, they’d be playing Baccarat at Punta’s casinos, stocking up on cheap Gucci shoes, or lying on the fine, white, sandy beaches that stretch almost seamlessly from José Ignacio in the north to Punta Ballena, just to the west of Punta del Este.
The area has variously been dubbed the St Tropez of South America, the Ibiza of Latin America and the Pearl of the Atlantic. Beauty and image are its very razon de ser, and while the same could be said of many European resorts, what makes Punta so extraordinary is its location, close to the borders of both Brazil and Argentina; two nations surely unsurpassed in their quest for the body beautiful.
These rich Brazilians and Argentinians come to Punta to wallow in an almost synthetic, sensuous superficiality; bodies, clothes, watches, mobile phones and cars are all conspicuously on display, day and night. Some people hate it, but if you don’t mind a bit of attitude and love to show off your own wares, you’ll absolutely adore it.
But Punta can be a conservative place. It attracts families in the high season (December-March) and while most resorts and hotels are gay-friendly, public displays will almost certainly elicit curious stares. However, head to the gay beach, Chihuahua, and there are no limits.
Located a few miles from the centre of town, Chihuahua boasts miles of fine sand and beautiful freshwater lagoons, and attracts thousands of sun-worshippers during its short summer season. After 3pm, however, the crowds are less intense and the heat less oppressive – although some claim it has the freshest air in the world – and you’ll almost certainly be treated to one of its amazingly photogenic sunsets.
For all this apparent excess and wanton abandon, however, Punta isn’t a place to party hard. Compared to somewhere like São Paulo, it’s positively desolate. Nevertheless, there are a number of possibilities, including the large gay-friendly club, El Torreon. This gets going after midnight every Friday and Saturday in the former penthouse of a Mexican millionaire. It also boasts an enormous rotating dancefloor (which keeps the boys spinning all night long) and some breathtaking views of the town below. The main party of the season, however, is Camel. This usually takes place at the international airport in mid-January and attracts a huge gay crowd as well as some notable celebrity interest. Naomi Campbell was seen dancing there a couple of years ago, and every year is almost guaranteed to grab newspaper headlines and the concurrent tut-tutting of local party-poopers. But the best parties are the private ones that take place in people’s villas and apartments, so chat up a local on Chihuahua beach to bag yourself an invite.
According to Carlos Melia, owner of the Buenos Aires-based gay travel agency, Pride Travel, Punta del Este “is becoming more popular as a gay destination because it’s the only beach resort in the southern part of the continent suitable for a gay crowd. A typical visitor”, he says, “is middle- or upper-class, about 30 years old, and American.” That said, Punta has also been attracting a sizeable number of tourists from China, Korea, Spain and, more recently, the UK. Whether they come for the gambling, the shops, to surf, or because they’ve grown tired of the usual European resorts, one sure thing is that there’s a growing tendency to combine a trip to Punta with a stop-off in Buenos Aires.
Of course, there are beach resorts closer to the Argentine capital, such as Mar del Plata and Pinamar, but Punta, which juts out into the Atlantic, benefits from warmer ocean currents than either and is one of the few resorts in the world to offer two different beach types on its doorstep. There’s La Brava to the north, on the Atlantic coast, with ideal waves for surfing and a young, daring crowd, while La Mansa, to the west on the River Plate, is wave-free and popular with families.
Also to the west lies the port where you will find the most expensive part of town and which overflows with super-yachts all year round. See it before taking a stroll down Calle 20, which sports enough designer-brand stores to rival a Dubai shopping mall. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were on the French Riviera.
Today, many visitors prefer not to stay in Punta del Este at all, opting instead for nearby La Barra or José Ignacio. Punta’s arrival back on the tourist map has unfortunately attracted some rapacious development. Large residential tower blocks and high-capacity hotels are sprouting up along the sea front, leaving these smaller resorts to take on the role of Punta’s once-famed exclusivity.
Drive north to José Ignacio, a former pirate’s hideaway, discreetly located between dusty roads and white sand beaches, and you’ll be treated to some breathtaking scenery, with beautiful lagoons and gentle, undulating hills that sweep down to the coast. Martin Amis has a home here, and it’s not rare to see Hollywood’s new cognoscenti on the streets.
La Barra, meanwhile, is a bit more upbeat, with a main strip of hip, mainly straight bars and clubs and a beach called Bikini, which attracts a very good-looking crowd of boys and babes from dawn ‘til dusk. It’s is also where you’ll find Las Mantras, one of the most exclusive hotel resorts in South America, with 88 beautifully furnished rooms, a spa, golf course and casino. It metamorphosed out of an ill-fated Cipriani Resort and briefly threatened to be the star of the show, but that show only lasted a couple of seasons and its owners learned the hard way that fashion could be as fickle in Punta as anywhere else.
Back in Punta, the hotel options are varied. An old favourite is the rather tacky Conrad Hotel and Casino, which offers an atmosphere reminiscent of a Las Vegas-style five-star hotel. Shakira, Ricky Martin, and Luis Miguel have all performed here, so you get the vibe. For something a bit more country-house retro, the Hotel L’Auberge is an odd, five-star mock-Tudor pile with 36 rooms, a landmark water tower, a golf course and an oak-beamed salon dedicated to tea and waffles, while the boutique, 32-room Serena Hotel, in the middle of town, provides attentive service, an unrivalled view of the marina from the swimming pool and decor more suited to a design-conscious crowd. Another option is to rent a house, but this can set you back as much as US$2000 (£1013.79) a month for a one-bedroom apartment in January, while a villa will start at around $15,000 (£7603.72).
When it comes to food, Uruguay is famously, if rather unflatteringly, known as the producer for Fray Bentos corned beef, but in fact it’s a stupendous place to sample meat of all kinds. Head to Ramblas Artigas by the port in Punta for some of the best restaurants, including Blue Cheese, which does excellent steak and fish. One of the best, however, is La Querencia, a pizzeria in the nearby town of Maldonado, which comes complete with big flatscreen TVs and an even bigger gay following.
In José Ignacio you’ll find the internationally acclaimed restaurant, Los Negros, owned by Argentinian celebrity chef Francis Mallmann. It is the most expensive restaurant in the region, with London prices for huge steaks and fish. But the brótola, the local cod-like whitefish, is exquisite and worth every penny.
Once you’ve grown tired of the high-life of Punta, a day trip to the rugged cliffs and dense forest of Gorriti Island, visible from the port and teeming with sea lions, provides some much-needed relief. This used to be the place where whale blubber was processed when Punta made most of its money from whale hunting, but today the buildings are abandoned and the whales can migrate (from July through November) in relative peace.
Another option is to head to Colonia on the banks of the River Plate opposite Buenos Aires. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, the town brims with narrow cobbled streets and low-rise colonial houses in the Barrio Histórico. It played an important strategic role in the struggle between Spain and Portugal for control of South America in the 18th century, and was the only significant settlement made in Uruguay by the Portuguese and it’s the architectural legacy left behind that makes it so special with some tremendous museums, decorative missionary churches and lanes lined with colourful stucco houses.
There are also some good beaches nearby, the best being Playa Ferrando, where the water is fresh if somewhat alarmingly brown – and the four-hour drive (or coach ride by Buquebus) from Punta is worth the effort. You can also get here by hydrofoil or ferry from Buenos Aires, though avoid the Friday rush hour when Uruguayans flock home from their better-paid jobs in Argentina.
It’s certainly worth spending a couple of days in Colonia if you can, and there’s a Kempinski Resort and Spa just outside of town with gorgeous rooms and a restaurant overlooking the River Plate, making it the ideal place for relaxation if you’ve got the cash.
Many tourists give the capital, Montevideo, a miss, and while it’s far from being the most exciting city in the world – with only a tiny gay scene – it does boast a quaint old town where time appears to have stopped still. You’ll often spot rag-and-bone men in horse-drawn carts languorously trotting down the crumbling streets.
It’s a world away from the see-and-be-seen atmosphere of Punta, which, when the season starts up again this year, will be hoping the world will still want to come and watch.
Conrad Punta Resort
Ten years old and starting to show its age, the Conrad nevertheless boasts a 24/7 casino, four restaurants, a spa and, of course that, theatre that will make you feel like you’ve just landed on the strip in downtown Vegas, not downtown Punta.
Parada 4. 00598 42 491 111
Four Seasons Resort, Carmelo
Approx 50 miles from Colonia the Four Seasons offers a retreat on the banks of the River Plate with a Pan-Asian spa nestled among eucalyptus and pine trees. Two pools, gym and bicycle hire are available, as are transfers to the Four Seasons in Buenos Aires. Ruta 21, Carmelo. 00598 542 9000
A tranquil boutique hotel in a whitewashed villa with modern rooms, a happening pool, cool Latin music spun by DJs and a spa overlooking the beach. Located approx ten minutes drive from downtown Punta amid a slew of residential tower blocks.
Rambla William, Parada 24. 00598 42 233 441
The Hotel Colony Park Plaza Kempinski in Colonia is five minutes from the Barrio Historico and sits in 8000-square metres of beautiful landscape. The spa comes with indoor and outdoor pools, a wet and dry sauna and treatments including Reflexology and Reiki.
Rambla de las Americas y JM Blanes. 00598 52 26280