Road trip along star strip

Travel | Mark Johanson 5 Feb 2020

The former home of artist Carlos Paez Vilaro, now a labyrinthine museum and hotel called Casapueblo, has a way of confusing visitors. Perhaps it's the Gaudi-esque architecture and Santorini color palette that make you believe, for a fleeting moment, that you're far away on some Mediterranean shore when you're really in Uruguay.

This stretch of the Uruguayan coast from Punta Ballena to Jose Ignacio often confounds those who expect South America to be undeveloped, underprivileged or troubled. Here, it's none of those things.

The road east of Casapueblo skirts an endless gold-sand beach all the way to the coast's largest resort town, Punta del Este. With pulsing beach bars and glassine apartment blocks fronting the emerald sea, it's easy to see why Punta del Este has built a reputation as the Miami of South America. Its star power is so strong that Brazilian supermodels and Argentine movie stars flock here as much to relax in their seafront condos as to be captured by paparazzi doing so.

There are a handful of chic galleries set back from the sea that come alive each year during Este Arte, one of South America's top international art fairs. Yet the most popular attraction is a piece of public art from Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrazabal, which depicts a hand partially rising out of the sands of Brava Beach.

I stop for a quick lunch at I'marangatu, one of the see-and-be-seen restaurants, where I dine on grilled octopus and fresh mussels from Isla de Lobos, an island visible on the horizon that's home to the largest sea lion colony in the Western Hemisphere.

La Barra, with its white-washed homes draped in bougainvilleas, is the next resort as I continue eastward. Thirty years ago, this coastline had little more than a few humble fishing villages. Now, thanks to new bridges that leapfrog its myriad lagoons, development has crept ever farther from Montevideo. Nowhere is this development more apparent than Jose Ignacio, where beachfront properties sell in the millions of dollars.

Jose Ignacio manages to be moneyed without ever feeling snobby or staid. Shabby chic is the overarching aesthetic. There are no shopping malls, nightclubs or condos. The roads are largely unpaved, the cottages are unassuming, and it's perfectly fine to walk barefoot into the town's most popular eatery, La Huella.

This air of carefree elegance has led stars such as Shakira to purchase a home here, while big-name visitors include Mark Zuckerberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and Katy Perry.

If there's one person responsible for placing Jose Ignacio on the international tourist map its Norwegian-Uruguayan businessman Alexander Vik and his American wife, Carrie. The pair has opened three hotels in and around Jose Ignacio.

Estancia Vik, the oldest, caters to polo players and gaucho wannabes. Sleek Playa Vik, the second property, lies beneath a "living roof" of native plants at the edge of town, while the themed bungalows of Bahia Vik take advantage of their setting along Jose Ignacio's calmest stretch of sand.

All Vik properties share a common theme: contemporary Uruguayan art. They showcase the works of luminaries such as sculptor Pablo Atchugarry and painter Carlos Musso in a way few museums in the country can afford to do.

"I like for people to live with art as opposed to collect or invest in art," said Vik. Many rooms, particularly at Bahia Vik, were made in collaboration with local artists to "add a dimension that is both stimulative and engaging."

Everyone in Jose Ignacio seems to be dressed in flowing white linen and tossing back glasses of rose. Turns out, all that wine comes from just 18 kilometers away at Bodega Garzon.

This winery, I learn the next morning, is nothing if not ambitious. Owner Alejandro Bulgheroni created his own 212-hectare wine region in a part of Uruguay where few would've dared to grow grapes.

"It was a big risk, as there was no wine being produced in this terroir," Bulgheroni recalls. "But when the first bottles came out in 2010, and they were good, we began constructing the winery," which opened in 2016. Now, some 20,000 tourists each year flock to Garzon to tour the striking facility and taste bottles that are changing perceptions of Uruguayan wine.

Garzon has, in its short life, become the nation's largest wine exporter.

And it doesn't just make that sunset-perfect rose. The rolling granitic hills here receive cool ocean breezes that temper the blazing sun, creating ideal conditions for grapes such as tannat and albarino.

There are four cows for every human in Uruguay, which is a good thing because the population eats more beef per capita than anywhere else on Earth.

Perhaps that's why one of the world's most famous grill masters, Francis Mallmann, has built a home, hotel and restaurant minutes from the winery in the five-block cow town of Pueblo Garzon.

The Argentine chef has made a name for himself for his primal style of slow-roasting foods with fire, air, stones, smoke, salt, oil and little else. Ever since he graced the first season of the Netflix show Chef's Table, he has garnered a legion of fans around the world. To find him cooking in an old general store in this dirt road gaucho town was like watching a Western movie set come to life.

I devour salt-baked corvina fish, then fire-roasted tenderloin tournedos draped in chimichurri. The plates were sumptuous, yet unpretentious, while the setting was elegant, thanks in part to its rustic charm.

Sure, Punta del Este may have been a bit flashy, but on the whole, this moneyed Uruguayan coast had managed to temper its good fortune in such a way that even a humble freelance journalist could feel welcomed to the party. And isn't that what we all crave? To feel like a celebrity even when we're driving barefoot down dirt roads covered in sand.

Chicago Tribune (TNS)

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