Lay of the Land
The belly of Uruguay faces south into the Atlantic Ocean and Punta del Este sits at its southern most tip. Montevideo lies to the west of Punta del Este, near to where the ocean meets the Plata River, which runs into Buenos Aires. About ten miles east along the coast is the town of La Barra, and a bit further along lies José Ignacio.
Many Argentines—and more and more Americans and Europeans—feel that this is the place to be for the December holidays. The party crowds head to Punta del Este up the coast where there are discos, casinos and dance clubs that make it feel like a mini Miami. Here, dinners don’t even start until 10:30 or 11pm, and parties set in the pine forests back from the dunes can end at sunrise. There’s a raw simplicity to the landscape and the rituals and now that truly comfortable hotels have arrived, José Ignacio is as fabulous a beach destination as it gets.
When to Go
The best time to visit José Igancio is during the Uruguayan summer months, November through March. The weeks between Christmas and New Year’s are high season and are so crowded that reservations are needed everywhere and the beaches are packed. For those who can travel any time and appreciate a quieter scene, early December or late February and early March are ideal. Many of the popular restaurants and stores begin to close at the end of February until December, so while the weather remains warm enough to enjoy being outside, you may find some of the best places to eat and shop already shuttered. October is when whales can be spotted along the coast.
Who Should Go
While José Ignacio is a glamorous and increasingly popular destination, it is still a semi-rural beach town, and modern luxuries (like TVs in hotel rooms, high-tech gym equipment and reliable Internet access), are not always a given. Service is slow at hotels and restaurants throughout the town, with checks often arriving 30 minutes after being requested. However, this slow-paced way of life is part of the unique charm of José Ignacio. Couples or families looking for a relaxed vacation that feels akin to a big house party will fall in love with the region for its chic simplicity and jovial ease. Those looking for white-gloved service and the latest technology should consider vacationing elsewhere.
There is only a one-hour time difference between New York and José Ignacio, so there is no jet-lag and the overnight flights from the U.S. mean you can leave late at night and arrive rested the following morning. The two most direct ways to arrive to José Ignacio are by flying into Punta del Este (via Buenos Aires), and then driving 40 minutes, or flying into Montevideo International Airport (via Miami), and then driving an hour-and-a-half.
If you fly into Buenos Aires from abroad, you will arrive at the international airport, which means you have to switch to the domestic airport (a 40-minute drive into the center of town) to catch the flight to Punta. There are also ferries from Buenos Aires to Montevideo but they are a four-hour ride.
Most people who visit José Ignacio (which is only about six blocks by eight blocks square) choose to have a car to travel to and from the various beaches and restaurants in the area that stretches up to Punta del Este. If you stay for more than a few days, you will want to explore neighboring towns like La Barra and try off-the-beaten-path restaurants like Garzón. José Ignacio has only a few taxis, so it’s convenient to have your own transportation, unless you plan never to leave your hotel or pay exorbitant prices. It’s best to book a rental car in advance during high season, because the agencies do run out of cars, and if you want an automatic car, you may be out of luck. Some of the hotels offer bicycles.
There are only a few cash machines in José Ignacio and La Barra. Dollars and credit cards are widely accepted, but be sure to travel with cash for markets, some restaurants and taxis and tips.