The first thing you see when you step outside the bus terminal is a giant hand, five human fingers made of iron and cement and partially emerging from sand. It’s La Mano, from Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal. Go ahead, stand beside it and ask someone to take a picture, it’s a fixture in Punta del Este.
Half of Uruguay is very rural and you’ve probably never heard of cities like Paysandú, Las Piedras, Durazno or Treinta y Tres—I discover a new one every time I look at the destinations listed at the Tres Cruces bus terminal. But the Atlantic coast, from Colonia del Sacramento just across Buenos Aires to Punta del Diablo just before the Brazilian border, are a very population summer getaways for Brazilians and Argentinians.
The most famous beach town is Punta del Este, referred to as “The Hamptons of South America” or “the Monaco of the South,” when it’s not being compared to Miami or Cannes—you get the picture.
And here I was, browsing Expedia and Booking, looking for a cheap hotel room in high season.
Oh, there were a few options. Like this great hotel, about 50 km from the beach—I enjoy walking, after all, don’t I? Or this single bed with shared bathrooms, a special deal for… the fuck?! $80?
“It’s free to walk around Punta,” Feng reminded me. “Just go for the day, we did it in 2009.”
Problem, solution. This is Feng for you.
Once upon a time, when I was French, I would have laughed. Who spends four hours in total in a bus just to go to the beach?
But as a Canadian, it made perfect sense—it’s only 130 kilometres from Montevideo to Punta del Este, that’s basically next door!
“Just make sure it’s gonna be a sunny day,” Feng added, because by law, Canadians must mention the weather at least once in every conversation.
“Hard to say,” I typed. “Rain has been forecast for four days but the sky is cloudless. Either it’s a practical way for Uruguayans to manage expectations, either they suck at predicting the weather.”
Then I went to Tres Cruces, the bus terminal, to buy my tickets for the next day ($19 return) and I dug my swimsuit out of my backpack.
The next morning, I boarded the bus, fell asleep and woke up two hours and something later in Punta del Este, right in front of La Mano.
Punta del Este is on a long peninsula and there are two coastlines split at La Mano, which was designed as a rough sea warning. Playa Brava (“fierce”), on the Atlantic side, is a windy surfers beach, while calm-water Playa Mansa (“tame”), on the Río de la Plata side, has white sand.
But it’s not just the beaches that are different, it’s the whole atmosphere too. Punta del Este is a bit schizophrenic. On Playa Brava, there are tons of condos and tall buildings—the skyline is less impressive than in any mid-size Brazilian city but it’s still unusual for Uruguay. This is where you can buy tacky souvenirs, eat your weight in dulce de leche (and then consider buying some for friends and relatives), show your toned butt and learn to surf. But the tip of the peninsula and most of the southern part of Playa Mansa is dead quiet, without any shops around. There are old fishing boats and, in the background, a giant cruise ship. It’s another world.
Still, you gotta be rich to stay there.
I walked back to the bus terminal where we all waited for the driver to finish his mate.
My seatmate was a Russian traveller who didn’t speak English at all but really wanted to chat nonetheless. He was going to Cuzco, Peru, next, and he was coming from Iguazú Falls, Argentina, before going to Chile or maybe he was going, who knows…. Anyway, he was travelling all over South America and he didn’t speak any English or Spanish, go figure. He was enjoying most of the cities—assuming thumbs-up shows approval in Russian—but he liked Miami best, a city he may or may not have been to (it’s hard to figure out tenses with hand gestures).
I faked sleeping after he pointed to most tall buildings we were driving past. “Good!”, “good!”, “good!”
If you go to Punta at some point in the next few years and if every property is Russian owned, well, I know when and how it started.
Now if you don’t mind, I have to go take a shower because apparently, I brought back half of Punta del Este’s pricey sand on me.