Perhaps it's a function of my having been born as common as mud in a landslide, in the working-class suburbs of Montevideo, Uruguay, but I've always dismissed the summer resort town of Punta del Este as a vulgar party paradise for the continent's alleged beau monde: the Uru-trash, as I would later refer to my garish upper-class compatriots; the tasteless Brazilians with millions; and the ricos y famosos of Argentina—socialites and celebrities who divide their summers between Buenos Aires, Punta del Este (or "Punta"), and the party pages of society magazines like Gente.
My family emigrated from Uruguay in the early 1970's, months before the democratically elected government acquiesced to the military regime that would plunder the country for more than a decade. I like to joke that I was a six-year-old political dissident at the time, even though there is a photo of me at the airport looking anything but threatening in a safari suit and holding a pink man-bag; in truth, my parents just lucked out when they chose to move elsewhere. In any case, my mother, who is neither rica nor famosa, but who like me has the natural dark skin color that sun worshippers travel to Punta to acquire, is largely responsible for my unfavorable mental picture of the place. I vividly recall one anecdote about how she and her sisters saved up their money and hightailed it to Punta for the weekend only to be shunned by the old white ladies on the beach, who clutched their handbags for dear life as my mom's mulatto teenage posse walked by. The story sometimes changes—in one version the overcooked old hags have décolletages "like leathery old saddles"; in another, the ending is punctuated by a rosary of expletives not fit for publication—but the message is always the same: Punta is evil and must be destroyed.
With more than a little anxiety, I finally returned to Uruguay in March 2002, my parents in tow. When we arrived in Montevideo, it was depressing to see what had become of the capital, its dilapidated Beaux-Arts buildings fading reminders of the city's former allure and prosperity after the Second World War, when Uruguay was considered by many to be the Switzerland of South America. But it was hard not to be seduced by the shop-soiled charm of the city and the indomitable spirit of its residents. This time I had to see Punta as well—I am, after all, now old enough to know that evil can be fun—and whether she liked it or not, my mom was coming with me.
I needn't have worried. She ate it up like so much of her beloved dulce de leche (and thanks to her son's working in the fashion industry, her handbag was more chic than any on the beach). But just as my mom's attitude had changed, so apparently had Punta's. Although we'd arrived at the tail end of peak season, it was clear that the 2001 fiscal crash of Uruguay's relatively affluent neighbors (most notably Argentina) had derailed the conga line of monied partygoers. According to the locals, the usual thumping disco beat of the place had been replaced by the barely audible foot tapping of a Norah Jones concert; summer rentals, which in good times had been as high as $40,000 a month for premium locations, had plunged to record lows; crowded restaurants and bars were as scarce as a vegetarian dish on a South American menu.
The conspicuous lack of 24-hour party people only threw into relief the breathtaking beauty of the peninsula, which is flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Río de la Plata on the other. We had a blast lounging on the tourist-friendly white sand, walking in the surrounding dunes, and watching the sunset over the river (if not the sunrise from a late-night disco). But it was drawing too long a bow to still call Punta the St.-Tropez, or even the Hamptons, of South America.
Maybe it was inevitable that Punta would rise again, buoyed by its historic transformation in the 1950's from sleepy ﬁshing village into the less decadent but no less alluring South American counterpart to Havana and San Juan. In the year or so after my visit, I began to hear reports that the crowds of bikini-wearing hedonists were returning to Punta, including supermodel Naomi Campbell and Duran Duran lead singer Simon Le Bon. So I went back, without my family, to see if the jet-set playground favored by the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Che Guevara, and the Rat Pack was really getting its glamorous groove back.