Uruguay: Discovering the New Secrets of Punta del Este

Gay in Uruguay? It can happen…

The last place I thought I would visit in Punta del Este—the glamorous resort destination on the eastern coast of Uruguay—was a secluded ranch just north of the sexy, sprawling beaches. After all, this South American hot spot thrives due to its unspoiled shoreline that attracts the drop-dead gorgeous, so who knew a ranch would have such allure?

After trekking miles of dirt road only lit by starlight, I found myself drinking champagne out of a flute along with approximately a hundred invited guests. In the middle of nowhere—literally—I shared the rustic glam of the La Patala ranch with some of Uruguay’s most notable denizens. A handful of TV crews blazed their spotlights with camera and microphoned anchor in tow to highlight this event honoring Princess Laetitia D’Arenberg (just some princess of some European country, no big deal) who patrols the grounds without security guards (it’s her private party). Brat-pack entourage of local celebrity fashion designers (Carlos Di Domenico) and—oddly enough—famous hair stylists (Roberto Giordano), also mingled with high-profile guests with trigger-happy paparazzi.

So what am I doing here?

I’ve come to crash it. Load up on the free booze, attack the meat-heavy buffet and cruise the dapper Uruguayans and Argentinians that should be wearing only Speedos just as I saw them at the beach earlier. Like everyone else, I’ve nothing but divertido! in mind: Partying contributes a healthy portion to Punta del Este culture, whether crasher or invited guest. In fact, Punta del Este’s regular celebrity visitors (from Naomi Campbell to Antonio Banderas) are known to live it up with the best of them, generally at private events and functions, meeting new and greeting old.

Only “partying” here is not the obvious E! tv special dreamers identify the beach resort with. And it’s also not actually happening in Punta del Este. In fact, as locals would say, Punta del Este is so over. They’ll say the most interesting attraction worth checking out in this tourist playground is the impressive Casa Puebla museum. Even Conrad Hotel’s bustling casino scene is maybe worth a quick visit, where South American chicas wear fluorescent wigs and the beefcake security guards should have an exhibit of their own.

An aerial view of Casa Pueblo…
…and sunset seen from Casa Pueblo.

But it’s the neighborhoods outside Punta del Este’s main infrastructure that really swell with flavor, Along with the traditional ranches, where I sip on champers and try to understand Uruguay’s version of Hollywood, the burgeoning scenes of La Barra and Jose Ignacio in Maldonado (no more than fifteen minutes by car) really put the charm and glamor in the seaside resort scene. Parties here volley from bars to clubs to beaches to private homes. And—in the spirit of the Latin lifestyle—don’t expect to get off the (early) hook. Nightlife puts the official stamp on the city’s natural knack on style, keeping tourists and visitors up until the brink of sunrise.

Jose Ignacio beach
And Jose Ignacio beach, up close.

I learned this the hard way with a midnight dinner at Conrad’s St. Tropez restaurant (the restaurant to be seen at in Punta del Este), where I met Alfredo Etchegaray, “Mister Punta del Este,” who reigned as the premiere go-to man for several decades (His first gig? DJ at the age of 15). While I declined the invitation to his private party knowing quite well I would be popping aspirin in the morning (the previous ranch benefit event really did me in), the invites didn’t stop with him. A cute local who I met at La Cumbrea hotel (a terrific boutique up in the valley harboring both antiques and panoramic views) decided to give me a buzz at 4 a.m. for a night out dancing. And this was just a Wednesday night. Drinks in the casino was called for when he was “in the neighborhood” an hour later, and catching the sunrise was well worth it.

But all good things don’t always come at the end of the night (or, in Punta del Este, the wee hours of morning). La Barra—the bohemian, funky beach town— thrives during the day with cool shops and cafes. Throw in some cool boutique hotels and some of the most exciting beaches and you never have to leave the two-mile radius. Le Club, a choice favorite, is one of only two hotels that are actually on the beach, so there’s nothing like waking up to a golden sun and strolling out barefoot to hot sand and hot boys.

On the beach at La Barra

La Barra is brimming with a dynamic artist community (that spreads out into the entire resort destination of Punta del Este) so checking out some of the fine galleries offered is essential. A worthwhile visit is the sculpture garden and gallery of Pablo Atchugarry, one of Uruguay’s most iconic artists, just outside La Barra.

Going farther from Punta means less crowds and, in this case, nicer beaches. This is what travelers will find at the bite-size Jose Ignacio district less than twenty minutes drive from the hub. Locals say it’s Punta del Este from fifty years past, and I was completely impressed with the “old school” aesthetic. There were no high rises, no gimmicky restaurants and the sandy beaches have fewer footprints. The beachfront La Huella restaurant is a scene in itself: models, young families, surfers, locals and discerning travelers shack up in this classic, rustic restaurant that sports wrap-around decks and verandas facing the Atlantic. The meal—fish and clerico (a local concoction of white wine, sugar and fruit)—couldn’t have been fresher. With portions so huge, you may stagger out to the beach (like I did) and crash on the beach like a wave from the sea until the night beckons with stars, booze and 4 am wake up calls.

Sunset, Punta del Este-style.
Jimmy Im’s Punta del Este Musts
Must-Do Helicopter Ride: Aer Tecno Aviacion

There’s no better way to get intimate with the region. The 20-minute ride gives a birds-eye view of the coast, including private homes, the incredibly sublime islands of Gorriti and Los Lobos and sprawling beaches with sunbathing ants (http://www.aerotecno.com).

Must-Stay Inn: Casa Puebla

This striking, inhabitable adobe sculpture is a museum-cum-art gallery-cum-residence-cum-bar. Celebrated Uruguayan painter and sculptor Carlos Paez Vilaro constructed this massive art project in Punta Bailena on a juncture of rocks extending into the water. Come for the art, the labyrinth of rooms and halls and the terrific, unobstructed sunset (http://www.carlospaezvilaro.com).

Must-Show-It-Off Gay Beach: Chihuahua

Want to go commando? The gay beach is on top of the nude beach, where the Rio de La Plata meets the Atlantic Ocean.

If you really want to stay in Punta del Este center, the best option is Conrad Resort. It’s home of the fine-dining Italian St. Tropez restaurant, and the gym is one of the finest in the area. Rooms do have some amazing views (http://conradhotels1.hilton.com/en/ch/hotels/index.do?ctyhocn=PDPCICI).

Must-Stay Boutique Inn: Le Club

A family-run, beachfront 14-room boutique with friendly staff, great patio scene and steps from the Atlantic (http://www.leclubposada.com).

Must-Party Nightspot: Kronos

While the cooler parties are at private homes and private events (better start networking) the buzzing gay club is Kronos. Just make sure you don’t show up before 2 am (http://www.kronosdance.com).

Must-Visit Sites for more Travel Help

Uruguay Natural
The official site of Uruguay’s Ministry of Tourism. It’s a bit stiff and the English translations aren’t the best, but it can get you started.

American Airlines
American Airlines (with its nice, revamped business class) flies daily to Montevideo. You can then either fly to Punta del Este or take a bus (it’s less than two-hours drive).

Thanks for the ride, Jimmy!