Punta del Este,
Part Hamptons, part Cote d'Azur, part South Beach (with a dash of 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. Punta celebrated its centennial in 2007, but little more than a half a century ago it was a fishing village nearly covered by dunes. Its shores were first discovered by sunseekers escaping winter in Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America. South Americans were soon to follow—more than 100,000 Argentines flock to its beaches each January.
Conrad Resort & Casino
For many visitors, the Conrad Resort & Casino defines nightlife in Punta with its casino and a year-round slate of Las Vegas–style shows by some of the biggest stars in Latin entertainment. Even if you don't recognize the names, taking in a performance at the area's largest hotel is de rigueur. The hotel also has one of the city's best clubs on its premises, Ovo, which attracts top international DJs.
An essential part of visiting Punta is exploring the colorful Feria Artesanal on the town's central Plaza Artigas. It's open weekend evenings all year; between Christmas and Easter it's open weekday evenings as well. Popular items include gourds for sipping mate (herb tea) and leather and silver crafts.
Naturally perfumed with the scent of eucalyptus, this huge arboretum is one of the most important botanical gardens in the world. Its creation was the labor of love of Croatian-Uruguayan botanist Antonio Lussich (1848–1928). The approximate 474 acres contain more than 350 species of trees from outside Uruguay as well as 70 domestic species. Guided tours are in Spanish only.
Punta del Este is circled by the Rambla Artigas, the main coastal road that leads past residential neighborhoods and pristine stretches of beach. You can find everything on Avenida Gorlero, Punta's main commercial strip. The thoroughfare runs northeast–southwest through the heart of the peninsula and is fronted with cafés, restaurants, boutiques, and casinos.
Once the site of a prison, Isla Gorriti now attracts a different type of exclusive crowd. High-end residents with their own boats often set Gorriti as their destination to play and party for the day. You can catch a ferry ride from the marina, though, and make a day trip of it. Note that the island is reachable only by boat, (The parador, or beach club, has a good restaurant.)
Isla de Lobos
This island is a government-protected natural reserve and national park 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 nearly 190 feet tall.
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. Uruguayan abstract artist Carlos Páez Vilaró created his work as 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—or anywhere much else.The spaces include an excellent series of galleries dedicated to the artist's work. Here you can see photos of him with friends like Picasso and peruse copies of his books. One book tells the true story of his son Carlos Miguel, who survived a plane crash in the Andes, which was made into the 1993 film Alive.
The waters are calm at Punta's longest beach and one of its most popular. Good 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.
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking; showers; toilets; water sports. Best for: sunset; swimming; walking.
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 means "rough"). Brava is one of the most frequented beaches—largely thanks to La Mano de Punta, a giant sculpture with the fingers of an enormous hand appearing to reach out of the sand—where many visitors will surely be snapping photos. This work by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal gives the beach its colloquial name, Playa de los Dedos (Beach of the Fingers).
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; showers; toilets. Best for: sunrise; sunset; walking.