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Punta Del Este Makes a Comeback

Martin Morrell Poolside at the Serena Hotel in Uruguay.

Photo: Martin Morrell

Punta is also one of the safest places to visit in style. A stroll down Calle 20, where designer-brand stores are as ubiquitous as the pizza joints on virtually every corner, reveals enough conspicuous displays of wealth to rival Moscow—except in Punta the voluptuaries sport real tans and wear flip-flops. And while everyone you talk to mentions Punta's practically nonexistent crime rate, they're also quick to point out the slew of reasonably priced, recently opened hotels. "The building boom in the last few years has changed the tenor of the area," says Fabián Andrés Repetto, a 30-year-old fiction writer and DJ (it seems that everyone in Punta has a hyphenated career). "Sure, there have always been posadas and the odd hotel, but it used to be that you pretty much came to Punta only if you owned a place here or could afford to rent one for the summer."

The largest and most attention-seeking addition is the Conrad Punta del Este Resort & Casino on the playa mansa, or "mild," river side of the peninsula. A plus-size, bikini-wearing extrovert among modest gamines such as the upscale La Capilla, the Conrad, which opened in 1997, is located in the heart of Punta, across from Gorriti Island, a popular spot for watching sea lions. A Vegas-style mega-hotel with almost 300 rooms and a casino that's especially favored by visitors from Brazil, where gambling is illegal, the Conrad is not for the traveler who wants a romantic getaway or hopes to savor the authentic flavor of Punta. There's a convention-center coldness to the place—you half expect to walk into an off-site software retreat at any moment—but it's big enough to accommodate the summer hordes, and the location is hard to fault. The hotel also pays big pesos to attract marquee-name Latin entertainers such as Shakira, Ricky Martin, and Luis Miguel, making it an essential stop on the Punta social circuit and one of the few places in town to show any signs of life during the otherwise moribund period between April and December.

That's no small feat, and one that proved too difficult for the Conrad's short-lived rival, the five-star Cipriani Resort Spa & Casino in La Barra. The Cipriani was pitched as a more intimate alternative to the Conrad: chic enough to appeal to the carpaccio crowd, accessible enough for the weekend gambler happy to eat shrimp cocktail at the slot machines. But after only two summers, the management, including Arrigo Cipriani, fell out with the owners—oddly, the national oil company of Angola—over the hotel's direction and parted ways.

These days, the Cipriani Resort has another name, the Mantra, but judging from my recent visit, what they're chanting is, "Cutbacks! Cutbacks!" Although the hotel's spa has hardly changed and remains worth the visit (the Vichy-water treatments are standouts), the rooms and the restaurant are both noticeably more populist, and the wilting plants suggest that maintenance on the once perfectly manicured grounds is less frequent than it used to be.

A much more attractive option is the Serena Hotel, a boutique hostelry not far from the Conrad. The bad news is that the Serena has only 32 rooms, with possibly the most attentive staff and the best location of any accommodation in the area—the view of the marina from the swimming pool is unrivaled—so getting in requires booking a reservation well in advance.

Whether you stay there or not, Casapueblo—the residence and workshop of Uruguay's greatest cultural treasure, the artist Carlos Páez Vilaró—is a required visit for any traveler to Punta. Set in Punta Ballena, a whale-watching promontory outside town, Casapueblo is a sprawling white confection of a place that brings to mind a meringue created by Gaudí. It is Punta's artistic focal point and its most interesting architectural landmark—and it has affordable rooms. "I call it my habitable sculpture," says Vilaró, in his atelier. "It's the result of my personal war against the right angle. And like me, it's part of the furniture of Punta del Este."

Although Vilaró and Casapueblo are revered as folkloric, almost anachronistic fixtures, the artist represents many of the locals when he says he is not concerned that Punta's recent modernization will sacrifice the cultural heart of the place on the altar of tourism. "I was worried that the arrival of these huge hotels and investors would compromise the artistic vibrancy of Punta del Este," he says, "but the opposite has happened. The Conrad, for example, has presented all types of artists—painters, singers, dancers—whom we could never have afforded otherwise. So it's all good. The only downside is that it's going to be hard to keep Punta our little secret."

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