A hippie-chic little town in Uruguay called José Ignacio.

Jose Ignacio Uruguay

In José Ignacio, the dirt roads are narrow, the Porsches wide, and there are too many drivers eager for a place. After all, everyone is eager to see the scene unfolding on the shore: models in micro bikini, wealthy Americans who try not to stare, European bon vivants who stare unabashedly, and Argentine beauties who blow air kissing in every way. .

For veterans in José Ignacio, a small town on the southern coast of Uruguay, traffic jams are something of a shock. Not so long ago, this was a sleepy fishing post, a haven for loners and the occasional celebrity looking to escape the paparazzi in nearby Punta del Este, a glamorous playground often compared to St. Bart's.

But in the last five years, José Ignacio has become the most elegant place in Latin America, favored by jet-setters from around the world.

"It seemed like a lot of people were coming here," said Mike Rosenthal, a Los Angeles fashion photographer who is a frequent guest on "America's Next Top Model." Mr. Rosenthal found out about José Ignacio from a friend, and then went to Un Mundo Pequeno, an invitation-only social networking site, to learn the latest rumors. "From the food, the music and the way of life of the people," said Mr. Rosenthal, "everything is very European."

Typical days include lazy lunches at 3pm, sunny afternoons on the beach (the sun sets around 9:30 this time of year), midnight dinners of braised lamb and sweet potatoes, and late-night parties given by brands. of luxury like Lacoste or Chivas Regal in tents in front of the beach.

But that's a small part of the charm. Except for a few hectic weeks after Christmas, when social life leaves no time for naps, José Ignacio is still a sleepy place. The only sounds are those of the Atlantic waves crashing and the winds whistling. Noisy discos are prohibited and parties have a curfew at 2 am

"If people want a more crowded place, they go to Punta del Este," said Martín Pittaluga, owner of La Huella, a trendy beach restaurant that everyone goes to, not just for fresh seafood and cleric, but to see old and new friends.

In fact, José Ignacio's new cache owes a lot to the development (some say overdevelopment) of his brother just 20 miles away. “Punta,” as everyone calls it, is starting to look a lot like Miami Beach these days, filled with gleaming condos, mega-hotels, expensive stores, and noisy nightclubs.

Sure, abundant wooded land and long stretches of clear beaches remain around Punta. But José Ignacio appeals to those who prefer the artfully bohemian and casual vibe of dirt roads, hand-painted signs, mom-and-pop boutiques, and bed and breakfasts.

“There are fewer tourists; it's less commercial, ”says London banker Sophie Slade, long-legged elegantly crossed as she sips an espresso at Casa Suaya, a new boutique hotel that overlooks the grass-covered sand dunes of Brava Beach. "He has kept his old style."

That style dates back to 1877, when a lighthouse was erected on a rocky peninsula that became José Ignacio. For much of the 1970th century, the area remained uninhabited, although a small group of high-society families from Montevideo and Buenos Aires began spending the summer there in the 90s, building Mediterranean-style houses by the sea. Still, the town remained under the radar for most of the XNUMXs.

Among the first celebrities to appear, Mirtha Legrand, an Argentine film and television star, best known for a long daytime program, landed. He was soon followed by other big names like the musician Fito Páez and the hotelier Alan Faena. Latin pop star Shakira owns a nearby ranch and British writer Martin Amis lived here for several years to escape the "buzz of the world," as he told a British newspaper in 2002.

Fancy restaurants, art galleries, and boutique inns soon followed. Among the trendy restaurants are Marismo and Namm, both tucked away on a winding dusty road, surrounded by a thick forest of pine, eucalyptus and acacia. Marismo, known for its slow cooker lamb, is strictly outdoors, with candlelit tables around a fire pit in the sand. Serving sushi and grilled meats, Namm is housed in a log cabin furnished with dim lanterns, low tables, and cushioned bench seats.

The more isolated the place, the more attractive it seems. One example is La Caracola, a private club on a deserted beach that can only be accessed by boat. Guests like Giuseppe Cipriani, the renowned restaurateur and playboy, spend the day there sipping caipirinhas and nibbling empanadas on the shore, followed by long lunches of roast beef and freshly caught fish.

While much of José Ignacio maintains a laid-back and hidden vibe, locals are concerned about development. Just minutes out of town is Laguna Escondida, a massive 200-unit lakefront resort being built by Florida real estate mogul Jorge Pérez.

“Some say José Ignacio is growing up too fast, but it still feels like a small town,” said Adolfo Suaya, a Los Angeles restaurateur who opened Casa Suaya. Although his hotel attracts a number of celebrities such as recent guests Naomi Watts and Formula One driver Michael Schumacher, Mr. Suaya is not concerned about overcrowding.

"This place is like the Hamptons in the 60s," he said, "and it's going to stay the same for another 20 years."

THE CUSTOMER IS FROM THE JET SET, THE ATMOSPHERE IS LOW PROFILE. 

There are no direct flights to José Ignacio from New York. Many visitors first fly to Buenos Aires and then switch to Aerolineas Argentinas or Pluna for a connecting flight to Punta del Este. American Airlines offers direct flights to Buenos Aires. Driving from Punta del Este to José Ignacio takes about 40 minutes. You can also fly to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and drive 100 miles. Rental cars are rare during high season and must be reserved in advance.

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