You can actually pinpoint the transformation of José Ignacio on Uruguay's South Atlantic coast from a one-lighthouse spit of beach with cheap shacks to the new capital of global hip. A transformation, we should add, that occurred without the rustic little town losing its soul along the way. Only some half-dozen years ago, it was still possible to see aguateros delivering water to homes and hear generators kicking alive every night with a rough cough, compensating for the country's spotty utility coverage.
But recently, it's as if someone tapped into a reservoir of models, ski instructors, polo players (this being next door to Argentina, after all), and other assorted beautiful "now" peo- ple. This flood of well-tanned charm gives José Ignacio's beaches a moist flavor that those old aguateros couldn't have imagined.
Here's the long story made short of how it all happened. Before José Ignacio's transformation, a now-defunct small beachfront bar called Cream en el Mar offered one of the great sunset views on the planet—and the most dangerous cocktails this side of Ibiza. Nearly every summer evening, as the sky went twilight-pink, the beach outside Cream would begin to fill up with all the beautiful people from Argentina and Europe visiting Punta del Este, a seaside town 30 miles southeast of José Ignacio that's often compared to Miami for the way its tall condo buildings have devoured the beachfront. Occasionally you'd also find the odd wandering American. Cream was one of those outdoor nightclubs where everything was always right, and it seduced not only the rest of the town—the restaurants, the shops—but everyone who stopped by. Eventually it seduced developers, too. (Cream itself proved irresistible: It was acquired last year and is being turned into a private home whose owners will surely, for years to come, have to answer disappointed doorbell ringers looking for one last sunset mojito.)
The country's secret was out. The world now knew what most of it had been missing. Here was a place where the green Uruguayan pampa collides with the rugged coastline. Though Brazil delivers the liveliness of Rio and Bahia, it cuts it with danger and poverty. Where Argentina gives you the ambition of Buenos Aires—"a city constructed for an empire that never existed," locals lament—it's sometimes accused of having arrogance and attitude. But Uruguay, a tiny nation roughly the size of Pennsylvania, presents its landscape, an Impressionist's tapestry of blues and greens, one moment dramatic, the next tranquil.
"People love José Ignacio because of its long, wide expanses of beach framed by wild forests, rocks, and cliffs," says local architect Eugenio Cesar. "They love it because the beach doesn't drop off suddenly into deep sea. And because it's farther north, the waters are slightly warmer, more Brazilian. The surfing is good, the restaurants are good, and the hotels are few. That keeps it peaceful."
This peaceable wildness is reflected everywhere: in the town's flat-roof houses, cafés, and bars that don't sit along an ordered street grid but instead are scattered among the coastal dunes or in the pine forests that run down near the water's edge. Punta, on the other hand, has lost its natural beauty to pavement and an urgent energy that's a strong cup of coffee for all but the most invincible. An evening there is like a stumble through a nightclub. The town seems in a headlong, all-night rush to blur the hours before dawn with music, vodka, and misguided romance. Whereas a memorable evening in Punta is dining next to a chattering French supermodel, the most appreciative diners in José Ignacio enjoy their meals next to bonfires. At Marismo, a restaurant that opened three years ago down a dirt road off the main highway, meals are served on tables hewn from local trees and crafted by 30-year-old Federico Desseno, the carpenter who runs the place with his wife, Natasha.
It seems every description of José Ignacio includes the phrase "twenty years ago." "Like Ibiza twenty years ago!" people will tell you. "Like Aix twenty years ago!" The town itself is doing what it can to hold on to those 20 years as long as possible, limiting building height and vigorously stopping sprawl along the coastline. The $3 million homes on the ocean may be less modest than the shacks they replaced, but they don't crowd out the town's ranchero feel. Most are built in a simple modern style with stone and wood, meant to look like extensions of the dunes. "José Ignacio is too small to accommodate much more development," says José García Arocena, the 49-year-old owner of Posada del Faro, a 12-room hotel in town. "So they're being built on small but very impressive chacras [small farms]." A nervous-making Setai resort begins construction along the coast later this year, but even that will be restricted to a handful of multimillionaire guests who can afford the expected high price.
Unlike Punta, José Ignacio is driven by a mantra of discernment, not development. It's a town of carefully cultivated pleasures, many of them hidden from the casual tourist. You'll find it in the few small hotels, such as Arocena's, which hides the conveniences of Wi-Fi and room service in a setting that feels like a private country home. I stay with friends when I go—a handful of us make an annual pilgrimage to a buddy's ranch and beach house. If you don't have local acquaintances, the best way to experience José Ignacio's slow rhythm is to rent a home. During the high season (December to January), prices start at $6,000 a week. In the last year or two, Marismo's Desseno says, he has noticed the summer season stretching past January and well into February, with many returning in April, around Easter, for one last fling before winter sets in.
The thread that holds everyone together during these crowded months is the Uruguayan penchant for a good time—with whatever's at hand. This is perhaps the one place in South America where "our culture of improvisation works in our favor," says Martín Pittaluga, who owns La Huella, an open-air, beachside parador in José Ignacio.
La Huella's menu is a collection of all that's freshest for the day, simply cooked, then served with Argentine wines and light breezes off the ocean un- til 3 a.m. It's the perfect entrée to José Ignacio's spontaneous party culture, where locals open their ranches for midnight parties of 200 to 300 people. They may not know 80 percent of those who come, but somehow they all share a connection to the vague skein that seems to bind people here within two degrees of separation. That sense of knowing everyone, even if you've never met them—it's all part of the seduction. Inevitably you're out all night, every night, and nearly always making it up as you go along. You'll find yourself winding through nightclubs, poolside parties, and secluded beach spots where the only thing interrupting the sound of the waves is giggling.
At places such as Los Negros, the local restaurant of Argentine celebrity chef Francis Mallmann, time can't pass any way but slowly. Los Negros may look from the outside like just another beachside steak house, but once inside you'll discover a menu of Mediterranean bistro dishes and walls splattered with handwritten poetry. Mallmann is an obsessive, consumed with a need to bring out the sharpest tastes from picked-this-morning vegetables and time-mellowed oils and vinegars. His precise and delicate take on the Med's best foods are only a base for Los Negros's greater charm—its ability to dissolve time.
The best José Ignacio days balance out Punta but don't exclude it. Punta's energy and restaurants deserve a look, and the nightclubs are not to be missed. But the freedom to leave it and get into Uruguay's nature is where José Ignacio retains the edge. There is a place, however, where the two worlds meet. Between Punta del Este and José Ignacio is a small town called La Barra. It lights up at night with tiny dance clubs and a two-lane main street choked with Argentine and Uruguayan teens enjoying the long summer twilight. Toward the southern end of town is a little shack, Medialunas Calentitas, that serves fresh hot medialunas, finger-size crescents of dough dredged in cinnamon and butter. This shack, with its several dozen outdoor seats, is where Punta and José Ignacio collide. It's the place everyone goes just before dawn to add something sweet to an already sublime evening. As you and your friends eat those warm croissants at 4:30 a.m., you'll be thinking of what to do next: more dancing, an early-morning ocean swim, or home to bed to rest up and do it all again.
Notes on Going Native
The best way to go to Uruguay is indirectly. Take the overnight flight from Miami or New York to Buenos Aires and spend a day or two there. You can catch an easy flight directly to Punta del Este. During high season (December 15–March 4) there are anywhere from six to 12 flights daily between Buenos Aires's Aeroparque Jorge Newbery and Punta del Este's Laguna del Sauce. The quick 45-minute trip can be booked on the Uruguayan airline Pluna (pluna.com.uy; 598-2/604-4080) or Aerolineas Argentinas (aerolineas.com.ar; 800-333-0276). Round-trip tickets start at $190. Pluna also offers flights to Punta from Montevideo during high season, but frequency depends on specific dates. The trip is only 30 minutes and costs about the same. Another option is to take advantage of the exchange rates and charter a jet that can fly you on a tour of the Rio del Plata delta before landing in Punta del Este. Then rent a car at the airport and drive directly to José Ignacio. To charter a flight, contact Nicolás Llaurado at Flycruising Argentina (54-11/4315-8236; flycruising.com). The cost is $1,750 for two to four people during the high season.
Best Time To Go
The two weeks around New Year's is peak season. It's the most crowded time and, in a way, the most interesting and social. If you want a more relaxed version, go anytime from late January to early March. Some swear by the coast in midwinter, when the region is at its most peaceful—that's also bird-hunting season, which has recently attracted sophisticated Americans. (Punta del Este is becoming a shooter's mecca during the off-season.) Luis Brown's River Plate Wingshooting offers passing and decoyed pigeon-shooting in the morning and seasonal perdiz-shooting in the evenings. Brown guarantees you will use six boxes of shells per shoot—or he'll give you a refund. May to July offers good partridge shoots in combination with pi-geon shoots (the guarantee is 12 partridges per shoot). The shoots are based at a seaside villa just outside Punta del Este— a five-minute walk from the beach and a 20-minute drive to the shooting fields. Contact Classic Sports International (800-375-5692) for more information. The cost is $3,140 for four days of shooting (three full and two half days of pigeon- and perdiz-shooting), four nights' accommodations, meals, ground transfers, and gun permits.
Where To Stay
In José Ignacio, visit La Posada del Faro (from $250; 598/486-2110; posadadelfaro.com). In La Barra, try Mantra Punta del Este Resort, Spa & Casino (from $385; 598-42/771-000; mantraresort.com). For beach house rentals in Punta del Este and José Ignacio, contact Ricardo Sader at Inmobiliaria Sader (598/486-2270; saderinmobiliaria.com).
With friends on a veranda around 11 in the morning. Be sure to spread your toast with dulce de leche—it's a national tradition.
At Los Negros (598/486-2091). But don't even think of starting before 3 p.m. The grilled steak is a particular favorite, along with red wines from Mendoza. Kill off the after-lunch haze with a shot of espresso.
Go to La Huella (598/486-2279) after midnight or Marismo (598/486-2273) around 11:30 p.m. In both places, try sitting as close to nature as you can. And bring cash; many restaurants don't accept credit cards and cash machines are scarce.