A Little-Known Paradise
-Travel Reporting by Jamie Hoang–
Spin the globe or open a travel magazine, and you’ll discover hundreds of enticing beach destinations, but Jose Ignacio, Uruguay, is unlikely to be on the list. This little town is well known by the social elite as a luxurious getaway destination but kept off the radar of more common travel sites like Trip Advisor or Expedia—and for good reason. Jose Ignacio is not a tourist destination.
At first glance, the small town looks limited. But this intimate paradise, located two hours north of Montevideo, is the hottest new vacation spot for modern-day jet setters and celebrities looking to hide away.
Huge villas sit atop grassy hills overlooking the sea. Each one designed to satisfy the ravenous appetite of a modern interior designer. Neatly arranged plush white cushions adorn every porch and balcony, facing the ocean. Houses are far enough apart so that owners can host large social gatherings without disturbing their neighbors.
Access the beach by foot in less than 15 minutes from virtually anywhere in the city. Private and serene, even the waves seem to lap in tune with the remote environment. The natural sand is coarse and grainy with bits of seashells scattered about, but surprisingly easy to walk on with bare feet. Uniquely situated on a small peninsula, the beach is on three sides of the town, and the sounds of the ocean are a soothing soundtrack to your explorations.
On the eastern coast of Jose Ignacio is a small and unassuming lighthouse. This unlikely edifice has inspired hundreds of stories dating back to its construction in 1877. For 20 Uruguayan pesos, the climb to the top is steep, but the view is the best in the town. The interior stairs curve in a dizzying spiral. The steps are so small they seem designed for children. Near the top, a small circular window looks out at the coastline with a prominent view of the blue and white striped Uruguayan flag in the foreground.
A classic ghost tale reminds visitors why lighthouses were built in the first place—to prevent shipwrecks. Looking down at the deceptively submerged, jagged, yet brazen rocks, one has to wonder how many ships had to sink among the rocks before man learned from his mistakes and erected the lighthouse. Visitors, beware the powerful bursts of wind at the top—a product of standing at such heights, or could it be the ghosts of seamen lost.
In town, El Mercadito is one of two markets. The grocery store is a hole in the wall when compared to mega supermarkets in the United States, but it is home to the famous flattened, fried chicken sandwich. The cutlets are hammered out into a thin layer, which is then battered, deep-fried, and placed within a baguette with lettuce, tomatoes, and dressings. The oddly shaped sandwich, with its oversized chicken cutlet, while not esthetically pleasing is world famous and unexpectedly tender.
For a light afternoon snack and tea, “Lucy” is the perfect place to unwind. Here the dishes are made with local produce, and they carry a large variety of loose-leaf teas. The atmosphere is relaxed and borderline slow, but this is the cultural norm. Come alone or with friends, sit, read a book, take your time, spend an hour or two. There is no rush.
For dinner, again there are a few varying options with specialties ranging from seafood to steakhouses. But the best meals in town are the ones hosted and catered to the homes of the social elite. Where money is no object, chefs consult with the hosts and create modern dishes using local ingredients—the result being a once in a lifetime Uruguayan spin on international cuisines.
Unable to score an invitation to a private party? La Huella, the premiere beachfront steakhouse, leaves little to be desired. The exterior shack-like appearance, with its rustic and peeling white paint, looks more akin to an abandoned boathouse than an elite dining establishment, but walking through the doors has the effect of a magician’s trick. High ceilings and glossy wooden décor encase a lively bar serving top shelf liquor. Perfectly seared filet mignons, sushi appetizers, and a decadent wine list all add to the charmed ambiance. So commonplace is Channel, Ferragamo, Christian Louboutin, and diamond jewelry adorning guests dressed to the nines that it almost loses its cachet.
Void of tourist attractions, the town, appears somnolent, but that’s part of the allure. Jose Ignacio is an informal environment with small boutique shops, mom-and-pop establishments, and hand-painted street signs. People are friendly and within minutes of meeting the locals the town feels like home. Shop owners don’t try to upsell items, and if you ask for help, they genuinely try to answer your question. Guests looking for the Miami Beach party scene are directed west to Punta del Este where raging strobe-light-infused parties go all night. This town is a quiet getaway and both locals and jet-setting clientele would like to keep it that way.
Post Photos by Jamie Hoang