I didn’t need to see any signs to know we had arrived.  I peered out my window and saw neat rows of tall gleaming apartment buildings that almost didn’t look real.   I was immediately reminded of Miami, though there was an air about things that also reminded me of Europe.  Everything was white, modern, pristine, and expensive looking.  It felt like a world away from the  decaying sidewalks and congestion I had just left in Buenos Aires. The air was fresh, the grass green, and the ocean (not chocolate-colored river) omnipresent.  I was excited for a long weekend out of the city and after a six-hour voyage between cabs, boats, and buses, I had finally arrived in what is known as the Hampton’s of South America – Punta del Este, Uruguay.

It was the last weekend people went to their weekend houses here, the equivalent of labor day weekend back home.  My friend Veronica´s family has a beautiful house in a town called Manantiales, about 15 minutes from La Punta where all the main action is and where it seems most tourists end up.  I of course loved the location for that very reason.  It seemed like the regular Punta-goer place – to be removed from the pretentious scene in the main part of town but be somewhere equally if not more beautiful, with the same level of boutiques and restaurants, and still a stepping stone away from the beach.  Scanning the boutiques we passed I was momentarily transplanted to a block on Madison Avenue, each store window immaculate and displaying jaw-droppingly stunning items.  Nothing was low-key in terms of elegance or price.  Get your black Amex out ahora mismo.

I gazed in awe at the houses we passed along the main road. Some reminded me of giant glass rubix cubes and were large enough to be decent-sized modern art museums. When I hopped into my friend’s Jeep I couldn’t have been more excited when they told me they had just visited the dock to pick up fresh fish for lunch.  It had literally been months since I had even seen fish let alone eaten any, Argentina’s beef having ruled my diet over the past six months. Driving fast over the roller coaster-like Maldonado bridge, my stomach dropped sharply and I started to laugh. I found out it was a trick played on newcomers to drive extra fast to get its full effect. It’s an architectural landmark Punta is known for, aside from certainly an experience.

While walking around the beautiful complex where Veronica’s house is I learned that even Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, had a house right next door. The complex is very aesthetically pleasing in that all of the houses have been designed by the same architect and combine soothing earth toned materials like slate, and rich woods, with lots of white accents and large windows.  Veronica’s house has been decorated by someone who has obviously studied more than just a few interior design magazines and I loved surveying each room.

The living and dining areas were my favorite, very tasteful with large, crisp, white sofas, an enormous long white dining table all contrasted by brightly colored local artwork and paintings from both Uruguay and Argentina. When I asked her stepmother about where she bought the beautiful sculptural-like wicker chairs in the living room she told me about her search for a piece of furniture for that particular spot that wouldn’t block the amazing view and light that streamed in from the row of large windows.  It seemed to me she had found the perfect solution.

After a delicious meal of grilled fish and salads (I had forgotten what it was to eat that healthy living in Argentina), we headed for the beach.  The beaches have fine soft sand and clean water, which explains why so many Argentines seem to prefer Punta for beach vacations over other spots along the eastern coast of Argentina.  It was not a two-minute walk to get there and we were immediately greeted with hugs and kisses by some other families from the complex, breaking out their best English skills to ask me about living in Argentina even though I responded in Spanish. I wasn’t at all surprised  by how these moms of two and sometimes three or four children were so impossibly petite.  Every mom was more bronzed and younger looking than the next and I didn’t need to look twice to know their sunglasses, bathing suits, bags, watches, and even flip-flops were of any number of European or American top designers.  After all – this was Punta del Este, the same place The Lonely Planet comments “tan it, wax it, buff it at the gym, then plunk it on the beach.”  The description seemed apt.

The best dozena de medialunas I will ever eat

Later that afternoon we decided to hit up Medialunas Calentitas, a well-known cafe in La Barra that has a permanent line running out into the street.  I normally don’t eat medialunas in Buenos Aires but was told more than once that these were a must. Half a dozen medialunas later, I had more than thoroughly sampled them and could understand the craze, the buttery goodness drizzled over them in a hurry could have become a minor addiction for me had we been there any longer. I woke up the next  day and the one after that salivating for more.

Part of me was disappointed not to have seen the craziness that is Punta del Este in December and January when all the celebrities and wealthy families from Argentina, Brazil, and Europe flock to vacation there.  But in other ways I was glad, the beaches never seeming remotely crowded despite great weather which made our time there all the more calm and relaxing.

I stopped in a mini mart one day and Veronica explained how in December it’s hard to even move in the store and impossible to find parking, and as we passed the famous “bikini beach” one afternoon she commented how normally there is not a single open space of sand to claim and paparazzi will just appear out of nowhere in the sand to chase down celebrities.  The “boliches” (clubs) and bars, normally raging with underage patrons until well after the sun comes up were empty if not already closed down for the season.  An amazing day spent lounging on Jose Ignacio beach with Veronica’s whole family was enough for me to think that I was glad to have the tranquility, at least for that week.  But by next December I will probably be itching for another visit.