It’s a funny little place, Uruguay. It has a population of 3 million people in an area the size of Wales, England and Northern Ireland combined, half of which live in one city. I’m told people often get it confused with Paraguay, although I don’t think I’ve ever been guilty of that. In fact I know very little about Uruguay, which is a little strange given that I’ve been there more than 10 times, usually on a Visa Run (a 70 mile daytrip by ferry to Colonia to renew my 90 tourist stamp). Needing to renew my visa again, this time I decided to do things a little more in depth and spent a couple of days in Montevideo and even took a side trip to Punta del Este.
Punta del Este (or simply Punta if you’re in the know) is famous for one thing – attracting hordes of rich and famous Argentinians every summer. From January until April the magazine stands in Buenos Aires are full of glossy covers showing the beautiful people at play across the river in Punta. Sort of like a high-class Benidorm, but with fewer Germans, it didn’t strike me as the sort of place I would like very much.
However, in the spirit of discovery, coupled with the realisation that there was no way I was going to be able to stretch out a 3rd day looking round Montevideo, I hopped on a bus and headed east to the sea.
As the bus rounded the corner at the top of the cliff overlooking the sweep of the bay and Punta del Este appeared in the distance, a row of skyscrapers several miles long, my heart sank. I had visions of crowds with sunburned shoulders walking down the street with plastic mugs of beer stumbling from amusement arcade to bar.
It just goes to show however, that you must always travel with an open mind, because I actually found myself very pleasantly surprised by Punta del Este. Firstly it was clean. As in spotless. Maybe it was simply ready for the long summer season to come but the streets were tidy and empty. Wandering away from the centre past some seriously fancy summer homes, there was not a soul around and the clear skies and sea breezes both helped to create a relaxed sense of well-being.
I can believe that in the middle of February when half of Buenos Aires is crammed onto the beach it becomes a much less attractive place, but I thoroughly enjoyed strolling around the half-empty streets. In a strange way it was like leaving South America for a few hours and visiting a fantasy land where everything is clean and bright and every day is a holiday.