Uruguay's 2011 World Cup victory took the country out of obscurity, but its quirky Uruguayan president put it on the map. Jose Mujica, called the "world's poorest president," lives on a rose farm outside the capital. He flies economy class, drives an ancient Volkswagen Beetle and never wears a suit and tie. Mujica attends diplomatic meetings in sandals without socks and recently shocked the world with his legalization of marijuana and gay marriage. Despite this, Uruguay is not just one big hippie nation. In fact, a large global expat community luxuriates in Uruguay. Some own businesses and invest in property. The “summer people,” find refuge from Northern Hemisphere winters but return home in March or April.
10 Live in the Carrasco Neighborhood
Montevideo, Uruguay's vibrant capital, encompasses the best and worst of urban living. Culture, history dining, nightlife and shopping overload characterize the city's center. Carrasco neighborhood residents live near the action but far from the riff-raff. This pricey residential area began life as a seaside resort for Montevideo's elite. Its developer acquired the land in 1907. He engaged the services of French-Argentine landscape architect Jules Charles Thays, designer of the Buenos Aires Botanical Garden. Today, landscaped gardens embellish each palatial home and low rise apartment building.
9 Stay at the Carrasco Hotel & Casino
Visiting diplomats often choose the extravagant suites of the Carrasco Hotel & Casino. Opened in 1921 and enjoying a prime location on the river banks, it was once a vacation destination for Argentine aristocrats. Disrepair caused its closure in 1997 but a major renovation took place in 2009. The project took 400 days and required 600 workers. It was worth the effort. The Carrasco Hotel and Casino has many of its original furnishings. Its iconic piano nobile reclaims its position on the principal floor. In the lobby, stained glass window panes reflect their light on crystal chandeliers.
8 Party in Punta del Este
Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack came to Punta del Este in the 1960's. Their arrival helped developers see the area's potential. Builders erected a necklace of high-rise hotels along the Rambla. When Punta held its inaugural film festival in 1967, Yves Montand, Jeanne Moreau and Anita Ekberg graced the event with their presence. Soon, Punta became the “it” spot for celebrities such as Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon.
VIP parties are paramount to the Punta lifestyle. Getting an invite is easier said than done. Those with money, power and prestige ask friends and colleagues for invitations to A Small World, a private social network for elite members of society. The network has extensive connections in Punta party scenes. When they're not partying or enhancing their tans, Punta people peruse the designer-brand stores along Calle 20, dine in upscale restaurants and participate in polo tournaments and yacht racing.
7 Reserve a Spot in Trump Towers
The Donald has done it again. His Trump Tower Punta del Este will rise 23 stories high and feature 129 apartments, priced between $700, 000 and $2.5 million. Residents will enjoy an outdoor pool with waterfalls and two indoor pools. Other enticements include a gourmet restaurant, complete with a wine cellar and cigar lounge, a spa and a fitness center. Trump didn't forget the kids. They'll have a teen lounge, equipped with wi-fi broadband, iMacs / Pads and gaming devices. The little ones will frolic in their own play spaces.
6 Buy a Home in El Quijote
The ambiance differs in the gated community of El Quijote. Although technically a part of Punta del Este, there's not a high rise in sight. Its houses sit on a private natural reserve, where residents enjoy horseback riding, tennis, swimming, a community clubhouse and 24-hour security. Plots of land sell for about $120,000. Expect to pay seven figures for the actual houses. In the high season, houses in El Quijote rent for $8,000 to $18,000 monthly.
5 Spend a Night at Casapueblo
In February 2014, Uruguayans mourned the death of Carlos Paez Vilaro, a painter, sculptor, screenwriter, musician and architect. His son, Carlitos is one of the surviving Uruguayan rugby team members whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972. The 90-year old artist died at home in Casapueblo, the mammoth hotel outside Punta del Este. This sprawling building evokes images of the whitewashed buildings of Myknos, Greece. Vilaro designed and built the hotel, which sits next his his personal residence and workshop. Past celebrity guests include John Lennon and tango music composer, Astor Piazolla.
4 Move to Jose Ignacio
While Punta is a people-watching paradise, in contrast, celebrities find refuge from the paparazzi in the hipster haven of Jose Ignacio. Local home-owners include Colombian singer Shakira and French actress, Dominique Sanda. Rolling Stones guitarist, Ron Wood and model Naomi Campbell spend their summers here. It's the low-key ambiance that attracts them. While high rise condos scrape the skies of Punta, they're conspicuous by their absence in Jose Ignacio. In fact, a 1993 ordnance limits building construction to 23 feet high. Although, this does not imply that Jose Ignacio is cheap. Prices start at about $400,000, and skyrocket into the high end of the seven-figure zone.
3 Stay at Estancia Vik
Alexander Vik, a Norwegian serial entrepreneur, financier and patron of the arts, appreciates a room with a view. His Manhattan apartment boasts horizon to horizon vistas of Central Park. His 19th-century Monaco mansion overlooks the Mediterranean and houses one of his companies. As a Harvard student, Vik won two Ivy League golf championships. He raised his kids in an eight-bedroom Connecticut mansion that once belonged to a Rockefeller heir.
Vik's grandfather, a Uruguayan military official, fell out of favor for advocating democracy during the dictatorship. Two generations later, Vik and his wife are making different kinds of waves in Uruguay. When he and his wife visited Jose Ignacio, they fell in love with the area and wanted to share it with friends. The lack of high-end hotels made them reconsider. They remedied the problem with Estancia Vik. Opened in 2009, the hotel exterior pays homage to Uruguayan ranch life. In contrast, the interior features guest-rooms designed by contemporary Uruguayan artists. Activities include polo on a private field, horseback riding through 4,000 acres of wild pampas, kayaking in a private lagoon and wine tasting in a vaulted cellar.
2 Stay at Playa Vik
The success of Estancia Vik inspired a new property, Playa Vik. This ultra-modern venue features six glass-walled casitas. The architect used sea grasses to form the roofs. These small houses surround a titanium-and-glass main building called The Sculpture. Shaped like an inverted trapezoid, this unusual building houses four additional suites. The dining area of The Sculpture offers stunning beach views. As if that was not enough, artist James Turrell enhanced the room with a wall of pulsating lights.
1 Enjoy Mystical Luxury in Piriapolis
Piriapolis was one of Uruguay’s elite beach resorts. Eventually, upscale Punta Del Este stole its thunder, but a sense of mysticism and bewilderment draws some people to Piriapolis. Its founder, Francisco Piria studied with the Jesuit monks of Italy, than furthered his education by exploring the mystical doctrines of Kabbalah and alchemy. When the prodigal son returned to his homeland in Uruguay, he purchased a parcel of land in Cerro Pan de Azúcar, or Sugar Loaf. Piria mined the local granite and created a vineyard, a walnut grove and an olive orchard. He called his new town Piriapolis, and designed its layout in accordance with the principles of Alchemy and Kabbalah. Over a century later, David James, a new developer arrived in Piriapolis. Like Piria's iconic castle, the Sugar Loaf Ocean Club & Spa sits high on the hill. This gated community, says James “Western comfort, Latin warmth, and thousands of years of Eastern wisdom into a harmonious environment to assure wellness of mind, body, and spirit.” Its amenities include a restaurant, featuring a fusion of Eastern and Western cuisine, a golf membership, a spa and wellness center, and a natural hot spring for relaxation. Upon completion, the property will have 114 luxury chalets.