If you’re craving a break from the city, do as the elite Argentines, Brazilians, and Uruguayans do and head to the rustic beach village of José Ignacio. What was once a tiny sleepy fishing town has transformed over the years into a bonafide destination, with its reputable gastronomy and endless stretches of sandy beaches earning José Ignacio the moniker of the St. Tropez of the Americas. Shakira and Leonardo DiCaprio have visited in recent years, just to drop a few names.
Although the locale has quickly expanded, both villagers and the tourism office are working to maintain the bohemian ambience of the delightful refuge. A sign in the town square, not far from a recycling bin, sums it up perfectly: “Preserve the local identity, care for the environment, and public space.”
The charming Uruguayan coastal hamlet is an hour from Montevideo and about 25 minutes from Punta del Este. It’s best to rent a car so you can experience all that the area has to offer. Here’s how to have the ultimate weekend in José Ignacio.
Check into your accommodation. Many tourists head to one of the Vik properties in José Ignacio which are stunning, but more intrepid travelers will prefer seeking out more unique places to stay. CDL Design Lofts are the perfect place to stay if you’re looking for an eco-conscious home base. You’ll love these red shipping containers which have been lovingly transformed into luxurious suites complete with a kitchenette, spacious bedroom and living room, sun deck, fire pit, and outdoor grill. If you didn’t drive to José Ignacio you can use the on-site Trek bicycles to get around the enclave.
Make your way to the José Ignacio peninsula and stop at the town square. If you’re traveling with little ones you’ll find a public outdoor jungle gym where they can play. Snag one of the outdoor tables on the lush lawn of SOHO CAFÉ for lunch and select from the selection of hearty salads, burgers, and Uruguayan classics including medialunas with ham and cheese.
Embrace the local saying “only the wind runs here” and go for a stroll on La Mansa Beach. This is the perfect place to take in the area’s stunning sunsets. Or, if you’re feeling like switching up the scenery hop in your car or on your bicycle and make your way East towards Laguna Garzon to cruise around the unique circular Puente Laguna Garzon. The ring-road bridge was designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly and opened in 2015. People used to have to cross the waterway using a raft to get from Maldonado to Rocha on the coastal road. The innermost part of the bridge is a walkway where you can often find people fishing or just taking in the 360-degree views.
For dinner head back to CDL in the La Juanita neighborhood and walk over to the nearby sushi bar, Destino. The locally-owned restaurant serves some of the best sushi in the country in a warm, welcoming setting complete with wooden furniture, wicker light fixtures, and a quaint backyard. For an apres dinner drink choose from a wide selection of Uruguayan wines at Solera before you tuck into bed at CDL.
Start your morning at Panadería José Ignacio to taste some of the most beloved bread and baked goods in Uruguay. Fill a paper bag with medialunas con azúcar and go to La Brava Beach to catch some waves or simply lay back on the sandy beach and watch the windsurfers. Be sure to bring a towel as most of the beaches in José Ignacio don’t have any facilities or rentals.
Before lunch pay a visit to the iconic Farol de José Ignacio. It was built in 1877—you can climb to the top of the 32.5-meter tall lighthouse for 30 Uruguayan pesos (less than $1) from 10 AM to 3 PM daily. The stairs are small and steep but the Panoramic vistas from the top are well worth the trek. On a clear day you can see the skyline of Punta del Este.
After breaking a sweat you deserve to unwind at one of the top 50 restaurants in Latin America. Parador La Huella won the award of being the best restaurant in Uruguay. Fernando Trocca and Martín Pittaluga’s eatery encompasses the ethos of barefoot-luxury with its beach-front location and fine casual dining. Sit outdoors to enjoy the atmosphere—don’t worry, wool shawls from Uruguayan social enterprise Manos de Uruguay are on hand if it gets a bit chilly. Order a few pitchers of clericó and a few seafood dishes from the parador to share for a long leisurely lunch in the late afternoon and stay to enjoy until the sun begins to reflect glorious colors on the sand dunes.
Head back to CDL at dusk to enjoy the fireplace in the lush, verdant backyard and the spectacular view of the stars. If you find yourself hungry again have a late dinner at the most beloved restaurant in the neighborhood, Juana. The cozy restaurant feels like a living room with wine-cork lined walls, an open-faced kitchen, and superb service. No detail is spared here—the owners even create a signature scent by walking through the space with a burning cinnamon stick.
No weekend getaway is complete without a little pampering. Book a massage in your room at CDL with their highly trained local technician who will create a custom treatment for you to ease your muscles and help you truly relax. The only thing to do after getting a massage is head to brunch. La Excusa has the best brunch menu in José Ignacio and makes excellent cortados or local tea blends.
For your final activity in José Ignacio, you’ll be tasting wine and olive oil. Make a reservation at Bodega Oceánica José Ignacio at least a day in advance so you can partake in the fascinating two and a half hour tour of the farm and vineyards that share the land with gorgeous sculptures. You’ll visit the cylinder-shaped winery where a vertical process is used to create wine and see each step of the olive oil-making process.
After the educational portion comes the fun part—learning how to properly taste-test the O’33 extra virgin oils (here’s a hint: the quality can’t be gauged by the color). There are 10 types of olives cultivated in Uruguay, but O’33 is experimenting to create a brand new breed of olive—you’ll be one of the only people to have ever tried it! Next is taste testing a wine flight of the bodega’s young maritime wines including Pinot Rosé, Albariño, Tannat and more.
Header photo by @estudiodeal on Instagram.