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Although it's a mere two hours east of Montevideo, Uruguay's highly touted Punta del Este is a world apart. Part Hamptons, part Côte d'Azur, part South Beach (with a dash of Las Vegas tossed in for good measure), Punta del Este is a flashy destination. "Punta"—five minutes here and you'll shorten the name just as everyone else does—and the handful of surrounding beachfront communities are, famously, jet-set resorts—places where lounging on golden sand and browsing designer boutiques constitute the day's most demanding activities. The resort takes its name from the "east point" marking the division of the Río de la Plata on the west from the Atlantic Ocean to the east. It also lends its name to the broader region encompassing the nearby communities of Punta Ballena and La Barra de Maldonado, a trendy area of galleries and restaurants referred to simply as "La Barra."
Punta del Este. Half a century ago, the resort town of Punta del Este was a fishing village nearly covered by dunes. Its shores were first discovered by sunseekers escaping winter in North America. The town's South American neighbors were soon to follow—today, it's so popular a beach resort that more than 100,000 Argentines flock to its sands each January. Punta is considered, during warm months, to be an annexation of Argentina. In Punta proper—the peninsular resort bounded by Playa Mansa and Playa Brava—the beach is the primary destination. Playa Brava has Punta's best known landmark, the fingers of a giant hand that seem to be poking up out of the sand.
Inland lies Arboreto Lussich, a huge arboretum perfumed with the scent of eucalyptus. Its creation was the labor of love of Croatian-Uruguayan botanist Antonio Lussich (1848-1928). Its 4,000 acres contain 350 species of trees from outside Uruguay as well as 70 domestic species. Guided tours are in Spanish only. .
Punta is circled by the Rambla Artigas, the main coastal road that leads past residential neighborhoods and pristine stretches of beach. Avenida Gorlero, Punta's main commercial strip, runs north-south through the heart of the peninsula and is fronted with cafés, restaurants, and elegant boutiques, Yves St. Laurent and Gucci among them.
If Punta's beaches don't draw your attention, you can gamble at at the casino in the impressive Conrad Resort & Casino. Spectacularly lit fountains and gardens, an abundant use of marble, and stunning art by Uruguayan painter Carlos Páez Vilaró make this an extraordinary resort. Even though the off-season is quieter, things hop here year-round. Head to the blackjack tables, or try your luck at one of the nearly 500 slot machines. Rambla Claudio Williman at Parada 4, Playa Mansa.
You can take a boat from the marina to pine-covered Isla Gorriti, which has a good restaurant. Gorriti was once the site of a prison, making it Uruguay's own little Devil's Island.
Isla de los Lobos is home to one of the world's largest colonies of sea lions. You can view them from tour boats that leave regularly from the marina. Its 1907 lighthouse stands 50.9 meters (167 feet) tall.
Piriápolis. In 1890, Francisco Piria, an Argentine born of Italian parents, purchased all the land, first established as a private residence, from the town of Pan de Azúcar to the Río de la Plata. Piria saw the tourist potential of the land and began developing Piriápolis to resemble a French coast town. Piriápolis is now a laid-back beachfront enclave that lacks the sophistication—and the exorbitant prices—of nearby Punta del Este.
The area has plenty of stores and restaurants, a casino, and the grand Argentino Hotel (Ramblo de los Argentinos), the town's crown jewel, built in the old European tradition with spas and thermal pools.
Punta Ballena. Built on a bluff overlooking the ocean that supposedly looks like a whale (ballena, in Spanish), Punta Ballena is hidden from vacationers passing on the main road.
Casapueblo, a hotel and museum at the tip of a rocky point with tremendous views of the Río de la Plata, is the main draw in Punta Ballena, east of Punta del Este. Creator Carlos Páez Vilaró calls his work a "habitable sculpture" and it defies architectural categorization. With allusions to Arab minarets and domes, cathedral vaulting, Grecian whitewash, and continuous sculptural flourishes that recall the traceries of a Miró canvas, this curvaceous 13-floor surrealist complex climbs up a hill and looks like nothing else in South America. Begun in 1968, Casapueblo is a continually evolving work. Says the artist: "While there be a brick near my hands, Casapueblo will not stop growing." The spaces include an excellent series of galleries dedicated to his work. Here you can see photos of the artist with friends like Picasso and peruse copies of his books. One of Páez's books tells the true story of his son Carlos Miguel, who survived a plane crash in the Andes, a story made into the 1993 film Alive.Punta Ballena. Admission charged.
An essential part of visiting Punta is exploring the colorful Feria Artesanal (intersection of El Ramanso and El Corral) at the intersection of El Ramanso and El Corral. It's open weekends 5 PM-midnight all year; between Christmas and Easter it's open daily 6 PM-1 AM. Popular items include gourds for sipping mate (herb tea), and leather and silver crafts.
Golf. Club de Golf charges a typical $90 greens fee for 18 holes of golf. You can play a round of golf at Club de Lago, which has tennis courts as well.
Horseback Riding. Mosey over to Club Hípico Parque Burnett, an equestrian center on the distant outskirts of Punta, in Pinares, for an afternoon of trail riding. Montevideo-based Estancias Gauchas (Bacacay 1334, Montevideo) offers various trips from Punta del Este to estancias where you can ride horses and take part in the gaucho life. There are French and English-speaking guides.
Polo. From December 15 to February 28 there are several polo tournaments in Punta del Este, the most famous of which are the Medellín Polo Cup and the José Ignacio Tournament, attended by some of the best players from South America and Europe.
Playa Brava. The golden sand and numerous food stands here draw a young crowd that mostly stays on the beach rather than braving the rough water. Brava is the place to take in the sunrise after a night of partying and before going home to bed. Look for the whimsical La Mano, a giant sculpture with the fingers of an enormous hand appearing to claw its way out of the sand. The work gives the beach its colloquial name, Playa de los Dedos (Beach of the Fingers).
Playa Mansa. Things turn calm again at Punta's longest beach. Decent sand, shallow water, many food stands, and proximity to the center of town make it the area's most family-oriented stretch of coast. Catch good sunset views here, and take in one of the late-afternoon beach aerobics classes, too.
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