Beach-side dining in Jose Ignacio
JOSE IGNACIO, URUGUAY
The physical appearance of this small waterfront village has changed little over the past decade. For much of the year, the sandy streets of the former fishing village on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast are silent and un-trodden, the avant-garde designer houses half-hidden behind modest fishing shacks, and tumbledown cottages shuttered and empty. Even its grassy central plaza is unadorned by anything more showy than a bed of lavender.
The “season” starts around the beginning of December, and, as the holidays approach, the village’s population swells with artists, aristocrats, actors and entrepreneurs, from Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, New York, Miami, LA and Barcelona. This international in-the-know crowd transforms the coastline from Punta del Este to Jose Ignacio into South America’s most exclusive — yet low key — vacation enclave. The best known hang-out is Parador La Huella, one of the world’s greatest beach restaurants; great atmosphere, teeming with beautiful people and hosted by a charismatic team and kitchen that know what a great beach restaurant should be.
Described as one of the hippest places on the planet on New Year’s, José Ignacio, along with Trancoso in Northeast Brazil, can make a strong claim for being the hottest place in South America to ring in the New Year. First impressions of José Ignacio, the pueblo, is that it looks like a film set and this feeling is only heightened by the glamorous extras that throng the streets, cafes and the two beaches, the Mansa and the Brava.
Nestled in sand dunes overlooking an endless beach, the tables and bar at Parador La Huella are packed from the time it opens at midday until it closes sometime in the early hours. The menu is perfect for the beach – grilled brotola (a substantial white-fish that gets hauled from the ocean in front of the restaurant), crispy-thin pizzas, oven-charred baby squid, a sushi bar and, of course, the best steaks in the world – are highlights on a menu that otherwise changes daily. The service is snappy and informal. Prices are fair even in high season, the coffee reaches the table piping hot and the rosé is served icy cold. If only all beach bars were made this way! The only price to pay is the wait for a table in the high season, as the secret is out about this part of the coast.
Yet, even at the busiest times, when parked Porsches and SUV’s clog the sandy streets, there are still good and more down-to-earth options available. Manolo’s, the world’s most glamorous butcher’s shop, sells huge milanesa sandwiches to bikini-clad beauties. Further up the street, a little supermarket does a brisk trade in iced champagne, empanadas, and freshly baked bread. Despite the increasing hype and invariable comparisons to Ibiza or the Hamptons, Marbella or St Tropez, ‘as they were back in the day’, it’s a place that hasn’t sold out and clearly hasn’t lost its soul.
This is down to Uruguay herself, the most down-to-earth, least pretentious country in the region, whose greatest asset is her people. It is true that this coast has the feel of a previous era when the world was a simpler place: the endless, under-developed coastline; empty beaches by day; all coupled with the fact that it’s still not that easy to get to from anywhere else. But what it is most of all, its essence, is that it this little corner of South America still has a style that is all of its own that rubs its magic dust on everyone who visits.
Villa Las Dunas is a superb beachfront villa located on the golden sands of Santa Monica Beach.
LA BARRA AND MANANTIALES
The rustic seaside village of La Barra, about 15 miles to the south west of José Ignacio, is Punta del Este’s more charming, quaint and chilled-out neighbor. Located along a mile long stretch of local Route 10 you will find lively restaurants, cafes, bars, ice cream shops and boutiques – all of which are within a short walk to the beach. During the Uruguayan summer (November to March), this village turns into the heart of the social summer season and is frequented by a younger and hipper crowd than you would find in the more developed coastal city of Punta del Este. Manantiales is a quaint sleepy village just up the coast from La Barra. Over the last few summers, several exciting restaurants and cafés have opened, earning it a new group of fans.
Ideal for families and teenagers with great surfing conditions (perhaps the best along this coast), a cool barraca with good music and good atmosphere, it’s the ideal spot to spend the afternoons and watch the sun setting behind the houses that line the coast.
La Posta del Cangrejo
This community is ideal for families with small children thanks to its cove-like layout and small waves perfect for paddling-in with boogie boards. It is also just off Route 10 and close to the abundance of restaurants ideal for snacks and shade.
Between La Barra and Manantiales, this is where the young, beautiful, toned and tanned hang out. This trendy beach with a great atmosphere is also home to the fashion events that take place each season.
Lighthouse in Jose Ignacio near Punta del Este, Uruguay
PUNTA DEL ESTE
The town that has lent its name to the whole coast, Punta has grown into a city, albeit one that retains a slightly suburban salty charm. The good restaurants, night clubs, shops, marina and golf course are easily reached from the other nearby beach spots should the need arise. The airport, the gateway to the coast, is located here.
The village of Garzon is a short drive from the fashionable beach village of Jose Ignacio, yet the village itself is set in gently rolling hills and unspoiled countryside, and the sleepy hamlet seems like a throwback in time, world away from the coastal party scene. It’s here that South America’s best-known chef, Francis Mallmann, has chosen to locate his latest restaurant venture as part of a charming 5-bedroom country hotel which has been wildly praised from all corners. This acclaimed restaurant is a pleasant 5-minute stroll across the palm-lined plaza which, in itself, is a lovely place to linger with a drink or a book on one of its shaded benches. Garzon was featured in the New York Times list of 52 destinations to visit in 2016 and is often toted in the press as having a wild-west feel with horsemen riding by, single-story houses, grazing Herefords and dusty roads. The surrounding countryside has been likened to a South American take on Tuscany, but, with the development of the Garzon Bodega & Winery, it reminds us more of Napa. Yet, amid this rural scene, there are superb restaurants in the village. The beaches, restaurants, glamour and buzz of José Ignacio is just 25 minutes away and can be visited as often as guests desire.
Chic South Americans congregate amid the dunes for languorous midday meals that can last until dusk. Keep things simple with sea bass cooked over coals and a pitcher of Clericó.