Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Your Uruguayan Guide: 9 Days in Punta Del Este!

On Tuesday Nic and I finally returned from our sunny vacation in Uruguay. We sunned, swam, ate and socialized with family and friends for 9 slow-motion days in Punta Del Este, Uruguay's premier beach resort area. The sun was strong, the people friendly, the food delicious and we had a uber-relaxing time enjoying the area and spending lots of quality time with Nic's family and friends.

Uruguay is way the heck down on the south east coast of south America and about a 9 hour flight from Miami. It borders Argentina and only recently has started showing up in more travel sites and magazines. Beaches are beautiful and while spanish-speaking, the people and culture are also influenced by their English, Italian and indigenous roots. In the summer (December through March) Uruguayans and people from all over South America head to Punta Del Este for sun and fun. Overall the area felt to me like a more unique mix between Miami and the Hamptons with some areas of high rise condos and others of beautiful houses with gardens. The more sparsely populated and scenic areas with beach shops just east of Punta del Este were my favorite... Manantiales and Jose Ignacio. Our trip was particularly special since this is the country where Nic's parents grew up but if you have the opportunity to go to South America it would be well worth it for anyone to make a stop in Uruguay. Here are my tips and thoughts for your trip based on my brief but fabulous experience in Punta!

When to go: If you're going to the beach areas high season is Jan-feb but weather is still fabulous and things are still open in December and March so go then to get better deals, less crowds and 80 degree highs as opposed to sweltering 100 degrees.

My Favorite Places
Jose Ignacio: Jose Ignacio is a small and beautiful beach town about 40 minute drive from Punta Del Este and 2 1/2 hours from Montevideo. Our local friends told us this was the hot new place and we fell in love with the beautiful beach, light house and cute little village with art galleries and a few great shops and restaurants. The houses are eclectic, beachy and in some cases modern or inventively artistic. This would be my ideal place to rent a little house and spend the days reading, at the beach or riding bikes with baskets around the tiny town.

What to do: There is a something for everyone in this area but here are my recommendations based on our vacation!

Rent Bikes - We found several local bike shops.

Go to the beach - All are public and cleaned by the state. Waves can get big and some spots are fairly surfer heavy.

See art at various galleries in the towns (there are lots of them) or check out Casa Pueblo, Uruguay's famous Hotel work of art...

Play tennis --- In Punta there are plenty of tennis clubs that will let you play by the hour or rent racquets. Just make sure to go early in the morning because it gets HOT HOT HOT in the middle of the day!

The Food:
Like any properly conducted vacation, this Uruguayan vacation revolved around a lot of delicious meals. For the sake of documentation and posterity Nic and I took it upon ourselves to sample ALL the local specialties both edible and drinkable. I liked to think that my tan was counteracting the pounds we packed on but I think I'll just have to get my butt to boot camp this week and work it off the old fashioned way! Uruguay's most prevalent and beloved cuisine is Asado - basically a giant outdoor barbecue with lots of meat cooked over wood in a brick fireplace called a Parilla. Here is an example of a Parilla in the yard of Nic's parents' friend's house where we ate our Christmas Eve dinner...

Grass fed beef is the country's biggest export and most common meat served. Since I'm not a real carnivore I was happy to see lots of fish on the menus in Punta and ate a lot of delicious grilled fish while Nic and his parents enjoyed the sweet breads, chorizo and beef. The cooking is very simple with minimal spices but extremely fresh. Here are a few highlights and Uruguayan specific dishes and delights that you should try if you ever make the trip...

Dulce de leche: Don't confuse this stuff with caramel, dulce de leche seemed to me to be the national dish of Uruguay and is available served on crepes, in gelato,on waffles or just by the spoonful. It is good,sweet and Some people (including my mother in law) are completely obsessed.

Sandwich Caliente: Before coming to Uruguay Nic was describing their amazing "sandwich caliente" which is served all over the country and supposedly an amazing piece of food. When we ordered one up at our hotel I soon realized that this national treasure was a... dah dah da dahhhhhh... buttery grilled cheese with ham. Not as exotic as I had hoped but a national treasure nonetheless!

Chivito: The Chivito is another Uruguayan local favorite that Travel Network star Anthony Bourdain proclaimed was the world's best sandwich on his Uruguayan episode of "No Reservations". The 'wich consists of a thin layer of steak, ham, cheese, a hard boiled egg and lettuce and tomato with mayo on a bun. It's not for really me but people go gaga over them and if you or your travel buddies like meat they will certainly be impressed. Ask your hotel or any English speaking local where to get a good Chivito and they should able to point you in the right direction.

Brottola: Simple and delicious flaky white fish that is local here. Order it cooked on the Parilla.

Recommended restaurants:
Nuna: Very cool and uber delicious pervuian restaurant up a dirt road a few miles from Punta Del Este and in La Barra. Order anything with Leche de Tigre. Website here

La Huella: Cool and fun restaurant right on the beach in Jose Ignacio. Great seafood, meat and drinks. This is "the" cool place and has a bustling bar scene in the back. Make reservation. Website here

Medio y Medio: Great fish shack with nice seating and a big menu. Off the beaten path from most hotels and tourist areas but great sea food and atmosphere at reasonable prices. Info here

No Seas Malo: I was pretty convinced our hosts were lost when they drove us to this restaurant up several dirt roads from the beach town La Barra but when we finally arrived at what looked like someone's old farm we were there. The scenery is rustic, the menus are written on the back of old manilla files but the staff is friendly, the drinks were tasty and the food was inventive. Go here when you're getting sick of the usual scene! Website here.

Where to Stay:
Nic and I were lucky enough to stay with his parents which means much more upscale accommodations than we usually do so my hotel recommendations are not necessarily for the couple on a budget but would be great for more of a splurge or a honeymoon. On the other hand, if we went back just the two of us or if you are thinking of going my first recommendation would probably be just to rent a beach house. Punta del este, la Barra and Manantiales are full of beautiful beach houses and condos that people rent out. My preference would be to rent a quiet little beach house or apartment in the beautiful but small Jose Ignacio. Start your search here!

L'Auberge (Punta Del Este): This is where we stayed and it was amazing. Nic described it best when he said it was like staying at your royal friend's amazing countryside estate where the staff treats you like family. This place was beautiful and SO charming! You can recognize this hotel easily by its tall tower which holds some smaller rooms and a gym on top. If you stay here or if you don't, do make a point of coming over for afternoon tea on the garden and try their amazing Belgian waffles or sandwich calientes that they make over an open flame. Here is the website

Casa Suaya (Just outside Jose Ignacio): trendy middle of nowhere hotel right on a deserted beach with a beautiful pool and a great restaurant. Great for a few days to relax and do nothing! Website here.

Anywho, that's all I've got! I'm sure I'll use lots more of my pictures in future posts since I took a ton of cuties. If you really do think you're going to plan a trip to Uruguay feel free to Contact Us and I'll be happy to try to give you any other useful tips!

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