Uruguay’s At­lantic Coast

South Amer­i­can play­ground boasts boho-chic beach towns, ritzy re­sorts

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - Story and pho­tos by Mark Jo­han­son

JOSE IG­NA­CIO, Uruguay – The former home of artist Car­los Paez Vi­laro, now a labyrinthi­ne mu­seum and ho­tel called Cas­a­pueblo, has a way of con­fus­ing vis­i­tors. Per­haps it’s the Gaudi-es­que ar­chi­tec­ture and San­torini color pal­ette that make you be­lieve, for a fleet­ing mo­ment, that you’re far away on some Mediter­ranean shore when you’re re­ally in Uruguay.

This stretch of the Uruguayan coast from Punta Bal­lena to Jose Ig­na­cio of­ten con­founds those who ex­pect South Amer­ica to be un­de­vel­oped, un­der­priv­i­leged or trou­bled. Here, it’s none of those things.

I’ve lived in South Amer­ica for half a decade and, over the years, heard count­less tales of the ritzy beaches that curve along the At­lantic east of Uruguay’s cap­i­tal, Mon­te­v­ideo. Why, I won­dered, had so many South Amer­i­cans made the con­ti­nent’s sec­onds­mall­est na­tion their sum­mer play­ground? And why were an in­creas­ing num­ber of U.S. celebri­ties fol­low­ing suit? The in­trigue fes­tered un­til I fi­nally booked a flight to see for my­self.

The road east of Cas­a­pueblo skirts an end­less gold-sand beach all the way to the coast’s largest re­sort town, Punta del Este, where even the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion is (four years be­hind sched­ule) aim­ing to get in on the ac­tion in 2020 with a 25-story, 156con­do­minium Trump Tower.

With puls­ing beach bars and glas­sine apart­ment blocks fronting the emerald sea, it’s easy to see why Punta del Este has built a rep­u­ta­tion as the Mi­ami of South Amer­ica. Its star power is so strong that Brazil­ian su­per­mod­els and Ar­gen­tine movie stars flock here as much to re­lax in their seafront con­dos as to be cap­tured by pa­parazzi do­ing so.

There are a hand­ful of chic gal­leries set back from the sea that come alive each year dur­ing Este Arte, one of South Amer­ica’s top in­ter­na­tional art fairs. Yet the most pop­u­lar at­trac­tion is a piece of pub­lic art from Chilean sculp­tor Mario Irar­raz­a­bal, which de­picts a hand par­tially ris­ing out of the sands of Brava Beach.

I stop for a quick lunch not far from its jumbo-sized fin­gers at I’marangatú, one of the see-andbe-seen restau­rants, where I dine on grilled oc­to­pus and fresh mus­sels from Isla de Lo­bos, an is­land vis­i­ble on the hori­zon that’s home to the largest sea lion colony in the West­ern Hemi­sphere.

La Barra, with its white­washed homes draped in bougainvil­leas, is the next re­sort as I con­tinue east­ward. Thirty years ago, this coast­line had lit­tle more than a few hum­ble fish­ing vil­lages. Now, thanks to new bridges that leapfrog its myr­iad la­goons, de­vel­op­ment has crept ever far­ther from Mon­te­v­ideo with in­vestors (mostly from Ar­gentina and Brazil) cap­i­tal­iz­ing on Uruguay’s peren­nial sta­bil­ity in a rocky re­gion. Nowhere is this de­vel­op­ment more ap­par­ent than Jose Ig­na­cio, where beach­front prop­er­ties sell in the mil­lions of dol­lars.

Jose Ig­na­cio man­ages to be mon­eyed with­out ever feel­ing snobby or staid. Shabby chic is the over­ar­ch­ing aes­thetic. There are no shop­ping malls, night­clubs or con­dos. The roads are largely un­paved, the cot­tages are unas­sum­ing, and it’s per­fectly fine to walk bare­foot into the town’s most pop­u­lar eatery, La Huella — that is, as­sum­ing you’ve made your reser­va­tion weeks in ad­vance.

This air of care­free el­e­gance has led stars like Shakira to pur­chase a home here, while big­name U.S. vis­i­tors in­clude Mark Zucker­berg, Leonardo DiCaprio and Katy Perry, who can stroll the wind-whipped beach in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity.

If there’s one per­son re­spon­si­ble for plac­ing Jose Ig­na­cio on the in­ter­na­tional tourist map its Nor­we­gian-Uruguayan busi­ness­man Alexan­der Vik and his Amer­i­can wife, Car­rie.

The cou­ple have opened three de­sign ho­tels in and around Jose Ig­na­cio. Es­tan­cia Vik, the oldest, caters to polo play­ers and gau­cho wannabes hop­ing to live the life pro­mul­gated by Ralph Lau­ren ads. Sleek Playa Vik, the se­cond prop­erty, lies be­neath a “liv­ing roof ” of na­tive plants on a knoll at the edge of town, while the themed bun­ga­lows of Bahia Vik take ad­van­tage of their prime set­ting along Jose Ig­na­cio’s calmest stretch of sand.

All Vik prop­er­ties share a com­mon theme: con­tem­po­rary Uruguayan art. They show­case the works of lu­mi­nar­ies like sculp­tor Pablo Atchugarry and painter Car­los Musso in a way few mu­se­ums in the coun­try could af­ford to do.

“I like for peo­ple to live with art as op­posed to col­lect or in­vest in art,” Vik ex­plains of the state­ment pieces that line the lob­bies of his ho­tels. Many rooms, par­tic­u­larly at Bahia Vik, were made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with lo­cal artists to “add a di­men­sion that is both stim­u­la­tive and en­gag­ing.”

From the pa­tios of the Vik prop­er­ties to the open-air cafes like Sol­era in town, every­one in Jose Ig­na­cio seems to be dressed in flow­ing white li­nen and toss­ing back glasses of rosé as if to coax the set­ting sun into lin­ger­ing a few min­utes longer. Turns out, all that wine comes from just 11 miles away at Bodega Gar­zon.

This win­ery, I learn the next morn­ing, is noth­ing if not am­bi­tious. Owner Ale­jan­dro Bul­gheroni es­sen­tially cre­ated his own 524-acre wine re­gion in a part of Uruguay where few would’ve dared to grow grapes.

“It was a big risk as there was no wine be­ing pro­duced in this ter­roir,” Bul­gheroni re­calls. “But when the first bot­tles came out in 2010, and they were good, we be­gan con­struct­ing the win­ery,” which opened in 2016. Now, some 20,000 tourists each year flock to Gar­zon to tour the strik­ing fa­cil­ity and taste bot­tles that are chang­ing per­cep­tions of Uruguayan wine.

Gar­zon has, in its short life, be­come the na­tion’s largest wine ex­porter with South Amer­ica’s first LEED-cer­ti­fied sus­tain­able win­ery. And it doesn’t just make that sun­set-per­fect rosé. The rolling granitic hills here re­ceive cool ocean breezes that tem­per the blaz­ing sun, cre­at­ing ideal con­di­tions for grapes like tan­nat (Uruguay’s sig­na­ture wine ex­port) and al­barino (its se­cret weapon).

There are four cows for ev­ery hu­man in Uruguay, which is a good thing be­cause the pop­u­la­tion eats more beef per capita than any­where else on Earth. Per­haps that’s why one of the world’s most fa­mous grill masters, Fran­cis Mall­mann, has built a home, ho­tel and restau­rant min­utes from the win­ery in the five­block cow town of Pue­blo Gar­zon.

The Ar­gen­tine chef (who has a Uruguayan mother) has made a name for him­self for his primal style of slow-roast­ing foods with fire, air, stones, smoke, salt, oil and lit­tle else. Ever since he graced the first sea­son of the Net­flix show “Chef ’s Ta­ble,” he has gar­nered a le­gion of fan­boys around the world, my­self in­cluded. To find him cook­ing in an old gen­eral store in this dirt road gau­cho town was like watch­ing a West­ern movie set come to life.

I de­vour salt-baked corv­ina fish, then fire-roasted ten­der­loin tourne­dos draped in chimichurr­i — all the while mus­ing about how the meal is the per­fect en­cap­su­la­tion of my trip. The plates were sump­tu­ous, yet un­pre­ten­tious, while the set­ting was el­e­gant, in part thanks to its rus­tic charm.

Sure, Punta del Este may have been a bit flashy, but on the whole, this mon­eyed Uruguayan coast had man­aged to tem­per its good for­tune in such a way that even a hum­ble free­lance jour­nal­ist could feel wel­comed to the party. And isn’t that what we all crave? To feel like a celebrity even when we’re driv­ing bare­foot down dirt roads cov­ered in sand.

Cas­a­pueblo is a ram­bling ho­tel and mu­seum con­structed by Uruguayan artist Car­los Paez Vi­laro in Punta Bal­lena.

Bahia Vik is the new­est of three Vik Re­treats prop­er­ties in Jose Ig­na­cio.

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