When you think about amazing South American beaches, Brazil is the first place to pop into your mind. Ipanema and Copacabana in Rio. Praia do Rosa in Santa Catarina. Praia do Sancho in Fernando de Noronha. Porto da Barra in Salvador. The list goes on and on. But lately the beach party has been heading even farther south. To Uruguay.
Punta del Este started the Uruguayan beach craze in the late 1990s. Looking to escape the city heat, people from Montevideo and nearby Buenos Aires would descend on the peninsula where the Río de la Plata meets the Atlantic Ocean. But a buildup of chain hotels and condo complexes sent sun worshippers up Ruta 10 to José Ignacio. The former sleepy fishing village now has bohemian hotels and seafood restaurants on the sand. Plus miles and miles of untamed beaches.
Drive down a dirt road, following hand-painted signs to Casa Suaya. The small, isolated hotel has a casual central living room, hand-carved furniture, and huge picture windows that overlook Playa Brava. Be lazy in the mornings; breakfast doesn’t begin until almost ten. Grab towels and chairs, and walk through the dunes to the empty beach. Taste the salt in the air. Drink capirinahs by the pool. Ride horses on the sand. Watch for Franca whales migrating toward the Valdes Peninsula. And, later, bike into town.
You’ll see the old lighthouse as you approach the center of José Ignacio. Playa Mansa, south of town, is calm compared to Playa Brava’s rough surf. Grab a beachfront table for a long lunch of fried calamari, grilled steak, and pitchers of clericó at La Huella. Buy a straw hat on the beach. Wander around the small shops and art galleries along the plaza. And eat a late alfresco dinner by a fire pit. Marismo for slow-braised lamb. La Olada for pumpkin salad and mussel ravioli. Someone starts playing the acoustic guitar. And Tannat wine starts to flow.
It will be late–or early, depending on how you look at it–by the time you head back to Casa Suaya. But with the beach on your right and the bright moon and stars above, you’ll have no trouble finding your way home.