When I first visited Punta del Este, an add-on weekend from Buenos Aries in 2004, I'd have to say the name twice, as almost none of my friends had ever heard of it. I stayed in the wrong places, along the Rio de Plata, which I quickly moved from to the surfer La Barra with its ‘fashion cafés', Freddo gelato and dated Punta del Este Resort that at the time was a very-chic Cipriani. And while larger flashy shopping developments destined to become strip malls have now popped-up from La Barra to Jose Ignacio, the Uruguay Riviera has never been hotter - especially in late-January - providing you know where to be.
To be in the middle of the action, an address at Playa Vik offers stunning architecture and Jose Ignacio location that’s in the middle of the region's best town and beaches. Nearby Estancia Vik or Fasano La Piedras would be our back-up choices, more dramatic with their rural locations and architecture with the latter offering a more-elevated international crowd in lieu of Vik's football-throwing Americans. La Huella and Marismo are still the best restaurants in Jose Ignacio, as they were in 2004, with newer eateries like La Linda in Manantiales, Lucifer in Garzon and Narbona in La Piedras offering the best destination eateries within 30-minutes drive.
But much is changing in the area. Once surf-minded Manantiales and La Barra are losing their bohemian charm with too-big retail-condo-hotel developments that seem to never come to completion. It's why the chicer crowd is heading inland to areas like Garzon. Put on the map by chef Francis Mallmann and his Restaurante Garzon & Hotel, here you'll now find new Bodega Garzon winery and agriculture center penned by architect Carlos Hartmann. Bodega Garzon is also home to a new, second restaurant by Mallmann with daily tasting menu and ubiquitous wood-fire ovens. Another town doing it right is La Juanita, a highway stop outside of Jose Ignacio. This arty neighborhood is home to innovative beach houses made of old shipping containers, live music cafes that stay open past midnight and new Casa Grande that hopes to bring yet another glossy retail-condo-hotel plaza to a perfect Uruguayan beach town.