For a Buenos Airean, keeping a summer home in Punta del Este is like owning a hedged-in mansion in East Hampton. But it’s only now, with Rio’s exclusivity waning, that Europeans and Americans are beginning to discover Punta’s gorgeous beaches and seductive cycle of daily sunbathing and nightly carousing. While Rupert Everett, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and supermodel Natalia Vodianova descended on the Uruguayan peninsula last summer, and Hamptons restaurateur Francis Mallman is opening a hotel there this winter, Punta’s simple-chic allure is equally suited to the fabulous and non-fabulous alike. The twelve-hour flight merits at least a four-night stay; if you’ve got more time, spend it in Buenos Aires—most flights pass through.
1 Book a flight from JFK to Buenos Aires (American, United, and Aerolineas Argentinas offer nonstops), then take Aerolineas Argentinas for the 50-minute hop to Punta; round-trips in high-season (December– March) start at about $1,600.
2 Rent a car from the tiny Punta airport, and head for Mallman’s five-room Hotel Garzón (598-4102811; from $220), a restored century-old mansion with claw-footed bathtubs that opens this December in a rural village just past the famed lighthouse at Jose Ignacio Beach.
3 Beach-hop in La Barra, Punta’s trendiest neighborhood. Among the most popular stretches of sand are Montoya (preferred by surfers), and Bikini and Manantiales, dotted with toned, tanned bodies. At around four o’clock, follow the locals to Jose Ignacio Beach, where D.J.’s set up tiki torches for “chill-out” sessions in the sand.
4 Befriend some locals during a game of fulbito (mini-soccer) on the beach, and cajole your way onto a private-party guest list, if that’s your thing. The best bashes start well after midnight, and are thrown at the beachfront homes of models, impresarios, and telenovela actors. Most of the clubs in La Barra change ownership every year, making each summer’s hot spot a wild card. The exception: Tequila, which remains magically hip season after season.
5 Break the beach-party-sleep routine with a visit to Casa Pueblo, a museum in a white-stucco castle that displays works by Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró—touted as South America’s Picasso. Back in La Barra, stop in the Trench Gallery, known for its contemporary paintings by regional artists.
6 Buy a hand-woven wool shawl from Manos del Uruguay, one of several local-designer boutiques on glitzy Avenida Gorlero. Down the street at the Hippie Market, sift through handmade jewelry, textiles, and baskets to find the perfect mate—a bulbous goblet made for sipping yerba maté, a strong tea as ubiquitous in Uruguay as Starbucks lattes are in Manhattan. The souvenir doubles as an objet for your coffee table back home.
7 Crowd into the tearoom of L’Auberge, Punta’s most distinguished hotel, where locals converge at six o’clock to indulge in decadently sweet waffles with dulce de leche.
8 Ask your concierge to hook you up with a baqueano (a horseback guide) for a ride through the forested hills near Garzón. You’ll weave through brush, beneath coronilla trees, and across rushing streams, spotting exotic birds and boarlike carpinchos.
9 Watch the sunset over Jose Ignacio Beach. Grab a cold Quilmes (the favored Argentine beer), lay your blanket close to the shore (far from the D.J.’s), and enjoy Punta’s most popular spectator sport.
10 Eat late: The earliest acceptable dinner reservation is at 11 P.M. Book a table at the seaside Los Negros in Jose Ignacio, and order the brotola, a local codlike fish, and a bottle or two of Viognier Juanico, a rich, dry local white, which you can sleep off in the morning on the long flight home.