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Pueblo Garzón: from ghost town to cultural center of Uruguay

Garzón, a town frozen in time to the east of Uruguay, is located 30 minutes from the lighthouse of the spa Jose Ignacio and has managed to captivate tourists from all over the world with its magic.

The Pueblo Garzón train station is located about 145 kilometers east of the country’s capital. Trains have not stopped there for half a century. Despite being in ruins, or perhaps because of it, it retains the charm of places with years of history.  

At the back, rusty tracks stretch into an empty horizon, long buried under grass. Iván Martínez, a dealer, joined two abandoned wagons through a wooden walkway and, inside, offered a space to emerging Latin American artists.

Pueblo Garzón was a land of opportunities that later fell into oblivion and recently began to rebound. It was born about a century ago, when farmers and ranchers flooded east from Montevideo into Brazil. Politicians in the capital did not get to name the place until 1935, paying homage to the famous XNUMXth-century independentista Eugenio Garzón, the general who was destined to become one of Uruguay’s first presidents but who died en route to Montevideo to take possession of office. 

The death of Pueblo Garzón, like that of so many railway towns, came hand in hand with a new highway, Route 9, which made its way a few kilometers to the south and made the railway line obsolete. In the 1960s, the population had plummeted, from around 2.000 to less than 200. For half a century, Pueblo Garzón remained like a movie ghost town.

Then, in the last decade, something strange happened: the abandoned houses of Pueblo Garzón were turned into upscale restaurants, wine bars and art galleries. Tourists from all over the world began to arrive, enchanted by its unpaved streets and the nostalgia of time.

Celebrated Argentine chef Francis Mallmann – best known abroad for his whimsical Patagonia episode in the US Netflix series Chef’s Table – says he has been in love with the place since his first visits in the late 70s, when he ran a restaurant in the nearby coast. In 2003, Mallmann left the humid Atlantic for the drier interior of Garzón, opening a restaurant on the edge of his palm-fringed plaza. The streets were soon spruced up and the city underwent some of its first improvements in a generation.

Around the same time that Mallmann came to the town of Garzón, so did wealthy Argentine businessman Alejandro Bulgheroni who, in the mid-2000s, turned Garzón into a new wine region. Garzón Winery It was inaugurated in 2016 and now some 30.000 tourists come every year to taste the wines that have positioned Uruguay in the wine market.

Among those bottles is Balasto, an elegant red blend with lots of Tannat, as well as the bright and energetic Petit Clos Albariño that shows the potential of this Galician grape on the other side of the Atlantic. Bulgheroni also has a passion for Provençal-style rosés, most notably the 2021 Field Blend.

Beyond the tastings, visitors to Bodega Garzón can also play rounds at the Tajamares golf club or dine at the restaurant run by Mallmann.

However, just as attractive as the Garzón Winery it’s the boutique wineries popping up in the city, like Compañía Uruguaya de Vinos de Mar, which opened a small restaurant and wine bar in January. Run by Michelini i Mufatto (a family business with wineries in Mendoza, Argentina and the Bierzo region of Spain), it offers Uruguayan tapas paired with what it calls “transcendent wines.”

Pueblo Garzón is going from being a one-day destination to a place for a longer and more restful trip. The little five-room Mallmann Hotel, housed in a large brick building that once housed a general store, used to be the only one in town. Now, you can find rustic-chic vacation homes and upscale boutique properties like the six-bedroom LUZ Culinary Wine Lodge. This is a minimalist Moroccan-style property, set amidst emerald-green vineyards and olive groves on the road between Garzón and José Ignacio. There’s also a spa with bespoke beauty products, a gin bar by the infinity pool, and a pop-up restaurant in the adjacent pine forest, where Argentinian chef Martín Milesi gathers guests around a long table.

Food and wine may be the cornerstone of Pueblo Garzón, but what has really cemented its rise in recent years is the onslaught of artists who now call this town home. For example, the American photographer Heidi Lender bought a piece of land and, in 2017, opened the field creative institute, which offers residency programs for artists and a canteen where visitors can meet them. 

The annual Campo Artfest is its flagship event, a carnival of creativity. It is held at the end of December, just before Este Arte, a fledgling art fair in the nearby resort town of Punta del Este, and the José Ignacio International Film Festival, with open-air screenings at the train station in Waiter. The result: a month-long festival season. However, the entire summer (November to March) is truly a hive of activity as young artists breathe new life into derelict 1920s-era houses.

Close to Campo, we find other exhibition spaces, the largest of which, Walden Naturae, is an ambitious project by Ricardo Ocampo, the creator of the contemporary art space Waldengallery in Buenos Aires. It is located behind an imposing red brick wall on the outskirts of the city and, seasonally, presents new exhibitions of contemporary Latin American art every month.

Just beyond the city limits is the Uruguayan visual artist’s sculpture park Pablo Atchugarry (whose son Piero opened a gallery near the main square of Garzón in 2019). Atchugarry’s monolithic abstract art shares space on the hill with works by German sculptor Peter Schwickerath and American Land Art pioneer Alan Sonfist. Its pieces stand up like Quixotic toys as you walk along the trails of this reserve.

In January, in a larger sculpture garden near Punta del Este, the Atchugarry Foundation inaugurated the first museum of contemporary art in Uruguay: THE MACA. The huge undulating building by architect Carlos Ott combines paintings by Uruguayan masters (Joaquín Torres-García, María Freire) with works by Frank Stella, Wifredo Lam and Louise Nevelson.

Along with the arrival of MACA, Lender launched an Art Route that unites a circuit of creative institutions between Punta del Este and Garzón and hopes to position it as a first-rate artistic and cultural destination.

Combining nature, the past and decadence with modernity and openness to the world is the great challenge for Garzón, the sleeping city that is awakening from its lethargy. 

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