José Ignacio is the best beach in the world. It is my favorite place in this world. If you´ve been following me for a while or talking to me drinking Negronis, THIS is the place I always talk about.
Half an hour north of Punta del Este, which resembles Miami, is a small peninsula that juts right into the ocean, capable of catching the best sun and waves from sunrise to sunset. Surrounded by beaches on three sides, José Ignacio is the definition of “rustic elegance.” In contrast to the tall buildings of Punta, José Ignacio limits himself to low-level single-family summer houses, made with local materials; normally designed by famous Uruguayan, Argentinean, Brazilian or other countries architects. There are no more than a hundred or two if you count those that dot the vast hills of the near countryside. Therefore, the influx of public is limited, the atmosphere is discreet and the streets are not paved. The number of hotels is limited.
The first time I tried to book a room in the small and intimate Lighthouse Inn, José, the owner of the hotel, sent me a warning email… «There is no luxury in José Ignacio, it is a very small town, the streets are not paved, there is no ATM, there is no restaurant in the hotel, nor service no rooms, no spa, no exercise room. If you are looking for luxury, it is not here…». That’s when I knew I had to go. “Book me!”
Jose Ignacio, a sleepy city most of the year, may have the shortest high season in the world, lasting just a few weeks and starting exactly the day after Christmas. December 26. Like locusts that all come out of the ground in a single day, on December 26, the sleepy town comes to life as the world’s rich descend from Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Greenwich, the Hamptons, France and Italy. Seriously, you’ve never seen so many beautiful people in such a small place. Some look familiar to you, others look like they should be. It’s the best way to see people.
The streets may be dirt, but the hundreds of discreet houses are architectural marvels, each with its own high perch to watch the surf. There are only a handful of restaurants, but they are some of my favorites in the world, mixing just the right amount of groove, rustic decor, and amazing food. All the restaurants are fantastic.
The first time I heard about Punta del Este and Uruguay was when I worked for a Swedish company in the 80s and our South American salesman said he had a house there and that it was the best place in the world. “Uruguay”? Really? Why?” Several years later I made a joke about Uruguay after reading an article in The NY Times: “You know, you never hear anything about Uruguay. Never”.
Who would have thought that years later I would become one of Uruguay’s greatest defenders.
The first time I planned to come, Jose, the owner of the hotel, sent me a rejection email… like a warning shot at the bow…
“There is no luxury in José Ignacio, it is a very small town, the streets are not paved, there is no ATM, there is no restaurant in the hotel, there is no room service, there is no spa, there is no exercise room. If you are looking for luxury, it is not here…». That’s when he knew he had to go.
When thinking of beaches and beach towns in South America, most people think of Brazil. (But few know about this stunning windswept, wave-laden peninsula, located just 40 minutes north of the skyscrapers of Punta del Este, that looks like Miami. Punta can be reached by plane from Buenos Aires, or by ferry. longer, rent a car and do a little road trip, or you can fly to Montevideo, which is a two-hour drive away.
A car is definitely needed to explore the best parts. I was here once with a nice English couple who didn’t have a car and felt a bit stranded, especially in those days when there were no ATMs in town and restaurants and shops only accepted cash. There are only a couple of taxis, maybe one, but that’s about it.
Some say it looks a lot like The Hamptons in New York, but 30 years ago, before the big mansions came along. José Ignacio is relaxed, unpretentious, discreet. So now you can say it’s the opposite of the Hamptons.
He sleeps late, has a light breakfast and goes to the beach in the middle of the morning. A long lunch breaks the pounding sun, the white cleric sangria and the wine are enough for a siesta in the shade. You then head home, take a refreshing dip in the pool, another nap, a shower, cocktails, and then head out into the darkness that comes around 9.
Most of the locals eat very late, coming out to sit at midnight, even with their children and families asleep. If you are a couple or a couple of couples, you will really feel like a small group as it seems like each table is ten or twelve. Everywhere, big, tanned groups of great people from various generations, all hanging out into the wee hours of the morning. Even small children, running through restaurants at midnight. That’s past my bedtime.