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South America's Charm Bracelet

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I had been trying for days to get a mental fix on Punta del Este, to figure out just which place it reminded me of. St. Bart's, I had thought at first, choosing the obvious connections of sun, sea and sand, and snippets from the press about which celebrity had been seen where and with whom. But that wasn't entirely it. Italy, was my wife Janice's guess, noting the lasciviously rich blackberry gelati we had eaten, the fact that Uruguayans say "ciao" as goodbye (though they spell it "chau") and the Bellini cocktails that arrived after we asked a waiter for "something Uruguayan." But Italy wasn't entirely it either.

It was only when Pablo, a downtown Punta bartender, explained candombe—Uruguayan-African fusion music—that I decided Punta del Este evokes Minnesota.

Why that unlikely connection? Because Pablo, like so many Uruguayans we met, embodies the unassuming hospitality of the Midwest I knew in my youth. The morning after our talk, he brought his CD player into the bar. As I ate one of the cookie-like alfajores that Pablo had offered, I listened on one earphone while he listened on the other.

He explained in English about the unusual, fire-tuned drums, and he translated the Spanish lyrics. Candombe was reminiscent of many styles of music: I swear I heard echoes of the Gipsy Kings, the Beatles and a touch of Frankie Yankovic.

So, Punta del Este is a little like a Caribbean island, a little like Italy, a lot like small-town U.S.A. And that still isn't the full picture.

"Where is that again?" our friends asked when we told them we were headed to Uruguay for Thanksgiving break. It's on the Atlantic coast of South America, we said, a relatively small, flat dollop between the behemoth of Brazil to the north and rugged Argentina to the west and south. In planning our trip we found that guidebook publishers don't have a lot on Uruguay. People find out about it by cruising the Internet, reading the gossip pages or, as we did, just poring over maps.

On Uruguay's southern tip lies a twisted peninsula that marks the point where the Atlantic meets the Río de la Plata, which Spanish explorer Juan Díaz de Solís discovered in 1516 while looking for a passage to the Indies. The story goes that De Solís and his crew sailed up the river and encountered the Charrua Indians, who killed and, by some accounts, ate them.

Punta del Este, which was established in 1829, is the focal point of the peninsula. Its 8,000 year-round residents share their beaches with visitors from both Americas. (Celebrity sightings include actor Leonardo DiCaprio and models Eva Herzigova and Naomi Campbell.)

Unlike Rio de Janeiro, the continent's premier beach destination, where personal security is an omnipresent issue, the two major risks at breezy Punta are sunburn and death by dessert.

It's a 10-minute walk across Punta, past high-rise office buildings and condos and small hotels, from one stretch of the town's beaches to the other. Playa Brava (Fierce Beach), on the Atlantic side, catches the ocean's force, and its sand is coarse. An old shipwreck pokes out of the ominously gray water just offshore, where wetsuited surfers challenge waves that look as if they've traveled unimpeded all the way from Africa. Along Playa Mansa (Calm Beach), on the river side, the waves are mellower, the wind gentler, the sand finer. Sailboats rock impatiently in marina slips, waiting for captains who hail from ports in the Americas.

Our arrival in Uruguay was easier than De Solís'. Immigration agents at the Punta del Este airport sped us through their booths, and within 30 minutes we were unpacking in a spacious room overlooking the pool at the Mantra Resort off Playa Brava.

On our first evening in the 1-year-old resort, a uniformed young woman appeared at our door and announced that she was our butler, ready to help with any problems. She seemed disappointed we had none. When we asked for a cab, three men saw us safely inside it, translating our destination for the driver and ascertaining the fare.

The Mantra lies northeast of Punta del Este, and Janice and I looked forward to the 15-minute ride into town every day. First we would pass La Barra, which looks like a fishing village, complete with anglers casting long lines into the surf, but betrays its tourist focus with a string of cafes, discos, pubs and art galleries.

Next we would cross the undulating bridge designed by Lionel Viera that spans the Arroyo Maldonado. The distinctive two-humped design—a structure built to withstand sea surges after two earlier bridges failed—offers a free thrill ride that is best experienced in the rear seat of a bus with poor shock absorbers.

Then would come the prosperous outskirts of Punta del Este. High dunes rise on one side of the road; on the other, condo towers bear flapping sales banners that shout "Vende! Vende! Vende!" (Sale! Sale! Sale!). The fanciest private homes in this area are barricaded by mounded lawns to foil coastal winds and prying eyes. A bit farther off the beach is a grouping of grand vacation homes (one takes up an entire block) called Beverly Hills. Many are empty 11 months of the year, a tour guide told us. Even in upscale parts of town, thatched roofs keep houses cool.

At the upper edge of downtown Punta at Playa Brava we encountered "Los Dedos," five light-green concrete fingers, the middle about 10 feet high, that emerge from the sand. It was sculpted in 1982 by Chilean artist Mario Irárrazabal, and is a favorite photo op. We watched busloads of rambunctious schoolchildren posing for group portraits there.

Nearby on the beach is the phone booth-size shrine to the Virgin de la Candelaria, whose feast day roughly coincides with the discovery of the Río de la Plata. The shrine is said to commemorate the first Mass in Uruguay, celebrated by De Solís' crew. Offerings of flowers and seashells surround her niche amid the rocks and sea spray, accompanied by notes of thanks for her intercessions. Although about two-thirds of Uruguayans are at least nominally Roman Catholic, the government distances itself from the church; Christmas is officially celebrated as "Family Day," and Easter is merely part of "Tourism Week."

When we ventured inland from Playa Brava to shop or snack, we would use the red-and-white cap of the city's lighthouse to maintain our bearings. And we could always just head downhill to get back to the water's edge and the Rambla Gral. Artigas, which is a road and a unifying force here. It starts as Route 10, the beach road above the town, and changes into the Rambla at the undulating bridge. It swoops down the peninsula on the Playa Brava side, rounds the tip of the peninsula and heads back up past the marina to the sands of the Playa Mansa. From there it follows the north bank of the river in the direction of Uruguay's capital, Montevideo, before changing back into plain old Route 10 again.

One afternoon Janice and I interrupted a card game between men hanging out in one of the marina's dockside offices to negotiate a trip to Isla de Lobos, a refuge for sea lions. The captain hesitated; I could see him mentally calculating two fares against the cost of diesel fuel. But he told us to come back later, and when we did he had put together a tour group. Soon we were motoring toward the island's tall lighthouse.

On approach, the odor of bird guano failed to offset our delight at seeing hundreds of sea lions, shiny and wet, sunning on the rocks. On land the sea lions—which the Uruguayans call "sea wolves"—galumphed across the rocks, but in the water they flashed by our boat like jet planes buzzing a dirigible.

Despite Uruguay's reputation as a nation of beef eaters, chefs in Punta del Este also turn out excellent seafood cuisine. Some of the best is the simplest: fresh fish (particularly brotola, which is similar to sole) filleted a few minutes before it is grilled to order and served at a sidewalk table. At Lo de Tere, a busy restaurant across the street from the docks, Janice and I shared tender baby shrimp tossed with oranges and pumpkin. We finished with parfaits made from dulce de leche, a milk-based sweet found in many Uruguayan desserts, and dawdled over miniature cappuccinos. It was a relaxed Saturday brunch, with a lot of laughter and glass clinking among the families sprawled around nearby tables.

Like Spaniards, Uruguayans typically eat dinner late; the equivalent of the "early bird" special expires at 9 p.m. We had dinner one night in the heart of town at La Pasiva, a big, noisy chain restaurant, and were served by middle-aged guys whose names—Oscar, Elbio, Fabian—were stitched on their white smocks. They'd dash to the grill with orders and dash off again carrying chivitos (steak sandwiches), hot dogs, tall ice cream desserts and mugs of Pilsen chopp (Uruguayan draft beer). We painted our chivitos with earthy, homemade mustard, concluded that Philly cheesesteak vendors ought to fear the competition and finished our meal with caramel-bathed flan.

We discovered that maté (pronounced mah-tay), not coffee, is the national caffeinated drink. Many Uruguayans carry around their own cups, usually made from gourds. They also tote a metal or wood straw (a "bombilla") with a spoon-shaped filter on the lower end that keeps the yerba maté leaves, which look like dried oregano, in the water and out of your mouth. The resulting brew recalls Japanese green tea, but with a smoky overtone. Although its paraphernalia call to mind certain illicit activities, maté drinking is perfectly legal.

Gambling also is permitted in Punta del Este. The Conrad, a 17-floor retro spaceship-style hotel and casino on Playa Mansa, replicates a Las Vegas atmosphere with a lavish array of ways to challenge your bank account. (Mantra's casino, by contrast, is more under the radar; I didn't even notice it until we had stayed in the hotel two days.) A mural by local artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, illustrating the history of Uruguay decorates a swath of the Conrad's lobby.

We visited the artist's atelier on a cliff at Punta Ballena, a few miles west of town. Casa Pueblo's whitewashed architecture is a combination of Charles Addams and Dr. Seuss and Beetlejuice. Cupolas sprout little horns; exterior walls seem to melt and droop. The villa, which also serves as a 70-room hotel, incorporates galleries filled with ceramics, scrap metal sculptures and paintings. Striking in its colors and patterns, Vilaró's work melds African and South American themes in much the same way as the candombe music he favors.

A tape of Vilaró reading a farewell poem in Spanish was being played in the background as we stood on an upper-level balcony gallery. We looked down on a pair of seabirds skimming the river, which the wind had teased into the texture of billowing burlap. Vilaró thanked the sun on our behalf, saying that although we were sorry to see it leave, we knew it would be back. Meanwhile, it would bring light to other people. The reading ended just as the top rim of the sun disappeared under the water. Everyone applauded.

And that's sort of how we feel about Punta del Este now. We're sorry that we had to leave, we look forward to seeing it again, and we know that others will enjoy it in the meantime. I still don't know that I've satisfied my desire to fit Punta del Este neatly into a category. Trendy, exotic or innocent? St. Bart's, Italy or Minnesota? All the more reason to come back.

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GUIDEBOOK

Sampling All the Charms of Punta del Este

Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for Uruguay is 598. All prices are in U.S. dollars and have been converted at an exchange rate of 25 pesos to a dollar. Room rates, which can go up in high season (December through February) are for a double for one night. Meal prices are for dinner entrees unless otherwise noted.

Getting there: From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) is offered on American, Delta and United. They connect with Pluna, the Uruguayan national airline, which flies into Punta del Este.

Where to stay: Mantra Punta del Este Resort, Spa & Casino, Ruta 10 at kilometer 162, Calle Publica, La Barra de Maldonado; 42-771-000, fax 42-770-302, http://www.mantraresort.com . The new darling of the beach is northeast of Punta del Este about half a mile from the ocean. The restaurant's Mediterranean cuisine pushes no gastronomic envelopes, but is competently executed and moderately priced. Doubles start at $250.

Conrad Punta del Este Resort & Casino, Parada 4 Playa Mansa, Punta del Este; 42-491-111, fax 42-489-999, http://www.conrad.com.uy . You can't miss Conrad's silhouette on the Playa Mansa skyline. If you like Las Vegas hotel-casinos, you'll find the Conrad to be a miniature version. Doubles start at $180.

Hotel Amsterdam Punta del Este, 759 Calle el Foque, Punta del Este; 42-444-170, fax 42-441-211, http://www.hotelamsterdampunta.com . Just off the beach near the tip of the peninsula's Atlantic side. Nice views. Doubles start at $80.

Where to eat: La Pasiva, 840 Avenida Juan Gorlero, Punta del Este; 42-441-843. Part of a chain of sandwich shops in Uruguay, this is an inexpensive way in which to experience a national favorite, the chivito, a steak sandwich. Beer, a sandwich and dessert, about $7.50.

Lo de Tere, Rambla del Puerto at Calle 21, Punta del Este; 42-440-492. Good seafood and other Uruguayan dishes near the marina. $15-$20.

La Tuttie, corner of Calle 9 and Calle 8, Punta del Este; 42-447-236. Seafood in a quiet residential neighborhood in the lower peninsula. Some outdoor seating. $5-$11.

For more information: Los Angeles office of the consulate general of Uruguay, (310) 394-5777. Ministerio de Turismo del Uruguay, http://www.turismo.gub.uy .

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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