South Amer­ica’s Ris­ing Star

Small in size but pack­ing a big punch in char­ac­ter and style, Uruguay is a well-kept se­cret poised for the spot­light

Business Traveler (USA) - - INSIDE - By Aaron Peasley

Small in size but pack­ing a big punch in char­ac­ter and style, Uruguay is a well-kept se­cret poised for the spot­light

If you come to Uruguay ex­pect­ing im­ages of South Amer­i­can cow­boys and rolling pas­toral land­scapes, you’ll be dis­ap­pointed the minute you step off the plane. Mon­te­v­ideo’s gleam­ing new Car­rasco In­ter­na­tional Air­port, de­signed by NewYork-based ar­chi­tect Rafael Viñoly, feels more like the kind of am­bi­tious struc­ture you’d find in hy­per-ef­fi­cient Switzer­land than one of South Amer­ica’s small­est coun­tries.

In­au­gu­rated in 2009, the airy, ar­chi­tec­turally au­da­cious air­port feels like a glimpse into a promis­ing and bright fu­ture, with an enor­mous arched roof that stretches tent-like over 1,300 feet from side to side. Far from just an­other bland and rou­tine com­muter hub, the new air­port has be­come some­thing of a metaphor for Uruguay it­self, a coun­try whose am­bi­tions and lust for the good life belie its tiny size (the pop­u­la­tion is just above three mil­lion).

Many more in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers are dis­cov­er­ing the charms of this small but in­tox­i­cat­ing coun­try. In 2011, the last year for which fig­ures are avail­able, Uruguay re­ported more than three mil­lion tourists, an in­crease of 24 per­cent from the year be­fore. Chances are, a good many of them skipped the cap­i­tal Mon­te­v­ideo, a medium-sized, nav­i­ga­ble city with roots trac­ing back more than 326 years. In­vari­ably eclipsed by its larger, more ex­u­ber­ant ri­val Buenos Aires, Mon­te­v­ideo in the past has been de­rided as the kind of place that doesn’t even merit a post­card.

To­day, that’s no longer the case. Mon­te­v­ideo is mak­ing strides on a num­ber of fronts, un­der­go­ing a slow me­ta­mor­pho­sis. Calle So­ri­ano has emerged as a hip­ster-friendly strip, where vis­i­tors can dis­cover the work of lo­cal artists and crafts­men; a new wave of up­scale stores and de­sign gal­leries are join­ing the tra­di­tional ar­ti­san work­shops; the ho­tel sec­tor has grown sig­nif­i­cantly; and a small but dy­namic food scene has spread from the smarter bar­rios.

De­tour to Par­adise

For most trav­el­ers, how­ever, a night or two in Mon­te­v­ideo will be enough. Just a few hours’drive away is par­adise, aka Punta del Este, the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar re­sort des­ti­na­tion. Punta, as vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one here calls it, is one of the most fa­mous des­ti­na­tions in South Amer­ica, long known as the place where Portenos (res­i­dents of Buenos Aires) come to let their hair down. Over the years, Punta has ex­pe­ri­enced its share of booms and busts (most re­cently when the Ar­gen­tinean peso was de­val­ued in 2002), sur­viv­ing the bad times by cling­ing stead­fastly to its pris­tine nat­u­ral beauty and sense of laid-back beach glam­our.

To­day, Punta’s coast­line – which ex­tends about 30 miles north from the city – is once again as­cen­dant, find­ing fa­vor for its col­lec­tion of chic beach towns, de­sign­cen­tric ho­tels and won­der­ful restau­rants. Brazil, the coun­try’s boom­ing, touris­m­mad neigh­bor to the north, has made its pres­ence felt: prices have risen, beaches fea­ture more tiny biki­nis than ever, and a clutch of Brazil­ian-owned busi­nesses have opened, in­clud­ing the much­her­alded Fasano ho­tel.

Like much of Uruguay, the coast­line has be­come more in­ter­na­tional in feel.“For many years it would be the same peo­ple re­turn­ing year af­ter year,” says Aaron Ho­j­man, the owner and de­signer of Casa Zinc, a charm­ing, highly idio­syn­cratic bou­tique ho­tel lo­cated in the fish­ing vil­lage of La Barra.“To­day, it’s not just Portenos com­ing here. Some­times it seems ev­ery­one has dis­cov­ered the spirit of the place. The good news we’re see­ing them all year round, not just for two weeks in Jan­uary.”

Even though it has be­come in­creas­ingly in­ter­na­tional in feel – English is in­vari­ably spo­ken in restau­rants and ho­tels – the lo­cals stress that not much has changed since the coast­line trans­formed from a col­lec­tion of fish­ing vil­lages to a prime tourist area in the 1970s.“Ev­ery­one comes here be­cause you can still re­lax,”Ho­j­man ex­plains.“Uruguayans cel­e­brate the sim­ple things: won­der­ful beaches, great food and fam­ily.”

Man-made Won­ders

Given their low-key am­bi­ence and al­most pas­toral back­drops, it’s

sur­pris­ing that the towns along Punta del Este have de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for world-class ar­chi­tec­ture and first-rate ho­tels. Like the Hamp­tons, North Amer­ica’s fa­mous beach en­clave to which it is of­ten com­pared, each town varies in size and char­ac­ter. But re­gard­less of their cur­rent ca­chet, they each pos­sess spec­tac­u­lar beaches and plenty of places to eat – chiv­ito, the coun­try’s iconic sliced steak sand­wich, tends to be read­ily avail­able should hunger strike.

About a 30-minute drive from down­town Punta, José Ig­na­cio has be­come the most il­lus­tri­ous place to own prop­erty. Amidst the town’s ar­chi­tec­tural pas­tiche – where lo­cal beach huts sit happily be­side mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar glass vil­las – is Playa Vik, owned by NewYork in­vestor Alex Vik and his wife Car­rie. Blend­ing an ex­u­ber­ant de­sign with a stag­ger­ing wa­ter­front lo­ca­tion, the ho­tel, which opened in 2011, is the kind of prop­erty that sticks in your mind long af­ter you’ve checked out.

Af­ter suc­cess­fully es­tab­lish­ing Es­tan­cia Vik, a grand ranch prop­erty some sev­eral miles in­land from José Ig­na­cio, the Viks took a less tra­di­tional ap­proach, tap­ping lo­cal ar­chi­tect Car­los Ott. The ho­tel’s cen­tral pav­il­ion, known sim­ply as “Sculp­ture,”bears the ar­chi­tect’s sig­na­ture space-age aes­thetic. With a pool that can­tilevers dra­mat­i­cally over the beach, the Sculp­ture is the so­cial heart of the ho­tel and, judg­ing by its pop­u­lar­ity dur­ing my visit, José Ig­na­cio it­self. In an ef­fort to have the ho­tel feel more like one of their pri­vate homes, the Viks in­stalled an en­vi­able col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary art, in­clud­ing pieces by Anselm Keifer, James Tur­rell and Iraqi-born, worl­drenowned ar­chi­tect Zaha Ha­did.

The Art of Liv­ing

In re­cent years, Uruguay has be­come a some­what un­likely hot­bed for the vis­ual arts, pro­duc­ing world­class ar­chi­tects, de­sign­ers and artists. While down­town Punta del Este’s tow­ers may sug­gest a lit­tle soul­less­ness, this is far from a beach des­ti­na­tion bereft of char­ac­ter or cul­ture. Among the area’s many cul­tural at­trac­tions is Cas­a­pueblo, an ar­chi­tec­tural odd­ity mas­querad­ing as an art mu­seum and ho­tel. Home to the work of Car­los Páez Vi­laró, a pro­lific lo­cal painter, the stun­ning cliff­side com­plex re­sem­bles a su­per­sized struc­ture you might find on the Gre­cian Isle of San­torini.

It’s easy to un­der­stand why artists would be drawn here. The area’s sen­sa­tional land­scapes – of­ten de­scribed as St Tropez meets Texas – seem to at­tract creative types, dream­ers and en­trepreneurs.“You can re­ally come here and do your own thing,” ex­plains Ho­j­man, who did just that when he re­turned to the area more than a decade ago to start his thriv­ing ar­chi­tec­tural and de­sign prac­tice (en­cap­su­lated exquisitely within the ho­tel).

Uruguay’s rel­a­tive com­pact­ness and gen­eral user-friend­li­ness makes get­ting around a breeze (rental cars can be booked in ad­vance and col­lected at the air­port). Un­less you visit dur­ing the peak sea­son – the pe­riod fol­low­ing NewYear’s Eve when all bets are off – traf­fic is rarely a prob­lem and the roads and high­ways are easy and safe to nav­i­gate.

What’s more, the coun­try’s size and im­mense char­ac­ter means trav­el­ers can pack quite a few con­trast­ing ex­pe­ri­ences into just a few days: bar­be­cues and horse­back rid­ing in gau­cho coun­try; cock­tail in­ter­ludes with South Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion stars pool­side at a spec­tac­u­lar oneof-a-kind bou­tique ho­tel; and even a day wine tast­ing in one of the coun­try’s emerg­ing wine re­gions, which in­creas­ingly ri­val Ar­gentina’s in qual­ity. From crys­talline beaches to world­class restau­rants, it’s easy to imag­ine that this lit­tle cor­ner of the world is des­tined for much big­ger things. BT

Main and above: Punta del Este’s Brava Beach and Car­rasco In­ter­na­tional Air­port

Playa Vik in José Ig­na­cio, La Barra (main) typ­i­fies the chic properties crop­ping up along the coast­line, but cul­ture such as Can­dombé Street Art (be­low) still thrives in the streets of Mon­te­v­ideo

Mate tea cups at Plaza Con­sti­tu­cion flea mar­ket, Mon­te­v­ideo

Clock­wise from top left: the “Sculp­ture” at Playa Vik; Cas­a­pueblo; Col­or­ful row of houses, Bar­rio Reus, Mon­te­v­ideo, Uruguay and Scal­lops with radic­chio cooked “New An­dean style” by Fran­cis Mall­mann (be­low)

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