Beautiful beaches, classy hotels and many celebrities: the Uruguayan peninsula is one of the most popular upscale seaside resorts on the continent. The rich and beautiful feel safe here.
What do film star Bruce Willis, fashion designer Ralph Lauren, football legend Diego Maradona and Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg have in common? They have all spent their vacations in and around Punta del Este — "the place to be" during the South American summer.
Here the rich and the beautiful of the world bask in the sun in the lap of luxury. That's why this small town, which during the winter months counts just about 15,000 inhabitants, has become known as the South America’s Monaco. Even Albert II, Prince of Monaco himself took a break from the Mediterranean to spend a vacation here.These days cruise ships bring the well-to-do here on a large scale. The high society from neighboring Argentina and Brazil however prefer to travel here on their yachts. "We sail here from Buenos Aires every summer," a woman with an elegant sun hat sipping an espresso on the deck of her yacht tells DW. "This place has a special flair; it is a resort with decorum, where everybody who is anybody meets — and yet you can enjoy some peace and quiet."
Safety is the real luxury
No wonder, because Uruguay is also known as "South America's Switzerland" thanks to an intact social system and strict bank confidentiality. With some 3.5 million inhabitants, it is one of the smallest and safest countries on the continent. Here anyone can confidently show off their wealth. That is the true luxury, which is appreciated by international jet-setters. "Punta del Este is the only place in the world where I can go out without a bodyguard," Onassis heiress Athina is claimed to have said while her yacht was anchored in the harbor here.
This sense of privacy is achieved despite the fact that during high-season, between December and February, more than half a million people flock to the peninsula, attracted by its location surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean in the east, in the west lined with expansive beaches. On the one side La Mansa, the gentle beach with calm waters making it ideal for bathing. On the other side La Brava, the rugged beach with wind and waves making it perfect for surfing. Glamour also adds to its charm. In February, during the annual film festival, the number of VIPs reaches its highpoint. That's when Hollywood greats mingle with South American high society.
Shops, shows and slot machines
The town has a renowned "fashion-road" — the "Calle 20." On this shopping mile you'll find outlets for international fashion labels next door to each other. The town's casinos also attract the wealthy visitors. The casino in the Hotel Conrad is an attraction: with 75 gaming tables and 550 slot machines it is one of the biggest in South America. "A form of casino tourism has developed independent of the summer season," explains Paola Fernández, the spokesperson for the hotel which also carries out Poker tournaments. The Conrad is one of the most famous in the town, not just in terms of accommodation and its casino. "At some point every tourist will come by here," says architect Gabriela Carrión. In the hotel's restaurants, bars, clubs and event halls something is always happening — from auctions of thoroughbred Arabian horses to sophisticated fashion shows or performances by international artists.
Fishing village becomes meeting place for gourmets
For years the architect from Montevideo has spent her weekends and holidays in Punta del Este. She regularly makes a culinary detour into the surrounding area. Past the villas of the elite and the classy Estancias — the rustic chic country estates which offer exclusive accommodation or tastings of their own olive oil or wine — to the picturesque fishing village José Ignacio, which has become something of a hotspot for haute cuisine. Over the years several exclusive restaurants have settled here. The award-winning La Huella is said to be the best restaurant in the country. It has built its reputation on its grilled seafood as well as its laid-back beach front atmosphere. The remote village of José Ignacio has turned into a select outpost of Punta del Este. Anyone who is anyone makes sure to call by here. An increasing number of guests rent stylish accommodation in the village or buy an entire estate in the surrounding area — like Latino pop-queen Shakira.
Celebrating the nights
Anyone looking for nightlife however will have to head back to Punta, as insiders refer to it. During the summer, this is where the nightlife happens on a scale unlike anywhere else in the country: sunset chill-out sessions at popular beach bars, live concerts on panoramic terraces and raves in the clubs with icons of the international DJ world. "Those who make it onto the exclusive guests lists or have the necessary cash to spend, can pretty much party all summer long," says Gabriela Carrión, exhausted after spending the night partying on the dance floor with Frankfurt electronic beats guru Sven Väth spinning the records. Tired but happy she advises: "You should definitely not miss out on the nightlife in Punta!"
Despite the bustle Punta del Este is still very placid. Anyone seeking peace and quiet will find it here. But then again that's hardly surprising, as here you are in the best company.