It's two in the morning in Punta del Este, and the Beautiful People are looking for trouble. On the crowded sidewalk of a tiny harborside strip crammed with cafés and bars, the tables are being removed to accommodate outdoor dancing, as are some of the skimpy tops worn by the preternaturally tanned and toned revelers. By 6 a.m. the alcohol and good times are still flowing inside popular venues like Soho and Moby Dick (a perennial hot spot on an otherwise ever-changing strip); outside, promoters distribute fliers for after-hours parties—including one for a rave on a beach that promises, in fluent Spanglish, a crowd of "verry interesting pipol."
Pipol, I'm so there. But as cheap as cabs are in Punta, they're scarce this morning. Uruguayans are nothing if not approachable, so I bum a ride with a group of party animals who are clearly not concerned with having to go to work in a few hours. "There's always time to sleep in winter," says Gabriela Rauschert, a 25-year-old Punta-born glamazon whose diablo-may-care attitude is typical of this idyllic but self-indulgent outpost. "From the end of December, it's been one big party every night."
Which is not to say that the place is in siesta shutdown mode by day. La Barra, a bustling, trendy area five minutes by car from downtown, is so popular in summer that it becomes as gridlocked as East Hampton on a Saturday morning. "La Barra is an interesting creature," says Rodrigo Cotelo, a 27-year-old musician. "Depending on the season, it can be either in step with the rest of Punta or very much apart from it. But there's no question that something's always going on—it's the place to hang out and meet people. It's close to the beach, there are plenty of restaurants and shops, and, like the rest of Punta, it's a mixture of a rough, unspoiled landscape and a fancy lifestyle."
What passes for fancy has reluctantly changed over the years. (Even during the dictatorship, from 1973 to 1984, Punta remained relatively unscathed, in part because the generals wanted somewhere to tan and play bridge, but mainly because it continued to make money for them.) These days, Punta society is much more inclusive. Although traditional establishment playpens such as the Yacht Club and Cantegril Country Club remain hermetically sealed (ironic, really, when you consider that cantegril means "slum"), the majority of the places in town have relaxed door policies for locals and tourists alike.
Granted, there are restaurants where you can pay $2,400 for a bottle of wine—I'm referring to Los Negros in the rapidly gentrifying area of José Ignacio, until recently a low-key surfer outpost about 30 minutes east that now counts novelist Martin Amis and Isabel Fonseca (daughter of the renowned Uruguayan sculptor Gonzalo Fonseca) among its glamorous residents—but in most of Punta dining is reliably good and affordable. Given their proximity to water, restaurants tend to be seafood-intensive. Try brótola, the local codlike whitefish on most menus, and be sure to have a bite at one of the many paradores (beachside diners), which are particular favorites at sunset.
One person who remembers Punta's first heyday isn't surprised by its renaissance: Pedro Bordaberry, the son of the last elected president prior to the military regime, was until recently Uruguay's minister of tourism. "Our beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world, our cows aren't mad, and our chickens don't have the flu," Bordaberry jokes. The awe-inspiring coastline and healthy animals notwithstanding, other factors point to Punta's enjoying another moment in the fashion sun. For starters, it's become arguably one of the most tolerant places on earth, where neither gay couples nor American tourists have to hide their pride. "There's a lot more English heard on the streets these past few summers," says Delfina Frers, a public relations executive and adrenaline junkie who drives race cars and flies helicopters for kicks (her son-in-law, professional polo player Nacho Figueras, is the face of Ralph Lauren Polo's new men's fragrance). "Americans have figured out that this is one place where they are definitely welcome."