Solo un Sol: Las Aguas de Punta Del Este
At the point where Rio de Plata becomes the Atlantic Ocean sits a nondescript anchor. At Punta Del Este, a peninsula southeast of Montevideo, the ocean and estuary fight so that the tides struggle between salt and sweet at that tip, at so notable a difference that the eastern shore is called Playa Brava (Rough Beach) and the western shore Playa Mansa (Calm Beach).
An hour and a half drive from Montevideo, Punta Del Este boasts 20 miles of pristine beaches and is the prime summer spot for Uruguay, bringing people from across the world. Since it’s the beginning of winter here now, the city was mostly part empty but just as beautiful.
At specific intersections, the roads were planned so that looking down the four connects, the shore can be seen from each one, the optical illusion giving the impression of being on an island.
The main avenue is called Avena Gorlero, and is lined with palm trees, banks, casinos, restaurants, fast food, shopping, theaters, movie theaters, arcades, art galleries, confectionary shops, bars, boutiques, cafes, and more. Though at the height of tourist season many don’t open until noon, they stay open into the early morning. It is also the only street recognized by name; all others are assigned numbers. The buildings are of many modern and intriguing designs, funded by rich foreign banks and, it’s rumored, also from money laundering.
One of the most iconic pieces of sculpture in Uruguay is Mano de Punta Del Este, five giant fingertips emerging from the sand at Brava Beach. Completed in only six days by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal in February of 1982 during an international sculpture invitation, it represents man coming to life on Earth. On Playa Brava, the sculpture is the only one to survive stinging sun, wiping winds, and grinding sands. From a distance it has a living, moving quality. I suppose the image is familiar—a hand made large and suddenly obvious. I like it.
In addition to the tourist attractions there are impressive landmarks and much natural beauty. Faro de Punta del Este, literally the light house of the eastern point, was built in 1860 by Tomás Libarena. On nearby Punta Ballena (Whale Point), clinging to the edge of emerald green and slick-black cliff faces, grips Casa de Pueblo, the house and masterpiece of Uruguayan artist Carlos Paez Vilaro. Vilaro was inspired by el hornero, a common bird in Uruguay that constructs its nest from mud. The nests look like the old fire-wood stoves, or hornos, which is why the birds that make them are called “over makers.”
Starting with his bare hands and adding to the home throughout his life, the luminescent stucco fortification looks like a palace of clouds leaning over the water. About eight kilometers from the coast of Playa Brava, La Isla de los Lobos (Island of the Wolves) is home to one of the world’s largest (and the largest in South America) colony of sea lions. Though we did not visit the island we were able to see them! If you’re wondering why it isn’t Lion Island (lobo marino), “sea lion” in Spanish has a literal translation of wolf of the sea.
Between Puerto and Montevideo there is a smaller seaside resort, the first ever built in Uruguay and said to have mystic healing powers. It was built during the Belle Epoche (the U.S. gilded age), a time period labeled in retrospect as a peaceful era before WWI. Designed by metaphysics student and master mason Fransico Piria, Piriapolis was built following the principles of alchemy—that both the physical and non-physical were governed by organic rules whose discovery and understanding led to the understanding of all in the world, and kallabah, which means “receiving/tradition” in Hebrew and is a mystical esoteric teaching in the Jewish community that works to relate the spiritual and worldly.
Thanks to Piria’s good vibrations, the seaside view is enchanting, especially the view from Cathedral San Antonia on Cerro San Antonio. (Uruguay is flat; the largest point is Cerro Catedral and just peaks 1,600 ft. While this sounds imposing it translates to “big hill” of San Antonio.)
The far-off curving shore hugs the bay and is hugged by seaside roofs and dogs barking from below. It's hard not to leave without the Uruguyan country stamping itself behind your eyelids and ringing in your ears.