Originally published June 17, 2017 on Prowdr.com
Uruguay is a small country—about the size of Missouri—bordered by Brazil, Argentina and the Atlantic Ocean. This hidden gem may not be as prominent on your radar as its neighbors, but it’s ripe for discovery. For LGBTQ tourists, Uruguay is legendary for its openness and acceptance. In fact, it tops the list of most progressive countries in South America year after year.
South America has long been a popular destination for North American travelers looking for less expensive alternatives to Europe and shorter flights than Asia.
Certain locales have always been popular for LGBTQ, like Rio de Janeiro with its stunning beaches and beautiful people and Buenos Aires with its European flair, sensual tango and prominence in the Broadway canon. Yet, just across the Río de la Plato from Buenos Aires lies South America’s most progressive and most LGBTQ-friendly nation, Uruguay.
For over eighty years, homosexuality has been legal in Uruguay—with antidiscrimination laws adopted in 2003 to combat discrimination based on race, xenophobia, sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2009, there was the legalization of gay adoptions, followed by the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2013. More recently, a change in government guidelines has allowed transgender people to change their legal gender without undergoing surgery.
Uruguay is more than just a progressive hot-spot. It is also miles of sun-drenched beaches, and boasts a comfortable, temperate climate and a relaxed atmosphere to unwind and enjoy.
Punta del Este
While Montevideo is the capital and largest city, it is the beautiful resort town of Punta del Este that is the easy draw for the LGBTQ traveler. Punta del Este is the playground of South America’s rich and famous and is quickly developing a global reputation similar to Saint-Tropez.
Located on a natural peninsula, Punta, as locals refer to it, is surrounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by the Río de la Plata. Two beaches, the Brava (Spanish for “fierce”) and Mansa (Spanish for “tame”) lie on either side.
Beaches on the Brava side feature fine white sand with rougher tides, which are great for surfing. The Mansa side is characterized by thick, golden sand with calmer waters perfect for a relaxing swim. The dividing line between the two marks the end of the Río de la Plata and the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean.
The area where the two beaches meet is called La playa de los Dedos (Finger Beach). You’ll find La Mano de Punta del Este (the Hand), a sculpture by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal, depicting five human fingers partially emerging from sand. It is said to warn swimmers about the danger of rough waves.
Bikini Beach (in nearby La Barra) is the see-and-be-seen beach, frequented by models and celebrities. Every beach of the peninsula has public access.
About twenty minutes from Punta is the popular gay beach of Playa Chihuahua—with miles of sandy beaches and freshwater lagoons—that features a large clothing-optional section. Locals claim that it has the world’s cleanest air.
The downtown features beautiful, tree-lined streets with shops and boutiques that cater to the glitterati and tourists, alike—plus, the nightlife in Punta is infamous with a new, hot club every season.
If you want to linger in the Peninsula of Punta Del Este, you will find the largest fair in the area with 200 stands, where you can buy gifts, souvenirs, silver jewellery, gold, semi-precious stones, paintings, plus clothing, leather products and crafts of all kinds. In the evenings, colorful stands with artists, designers, street artists, jugglers and puppeteers and high quality shows take place.
The Plaza Artigas craft fair is very popular among locals and tourists who come to see the wide range of objects of great aesthetic and affordable value. The craft fair is a tourist attraction for Punta Del Este especially during summer nights where there is much movement of people in this place. It is a great place to shop and bring home souvenirs, plus spend a pleasant time with family or friends enjoying the outdoor shows.
Things to See:
A wonderful way to begin your journey is to find the hidden road which appears to the right of Punta Ballena, towards the north, along route 12 and then to the right guiding you to a scenic place that offers the finest viewing points of Punta Del Este and the Lagoon Del Sauce. Be prepared for a winding ascending road (That’s the fun part) before experiencing the optical phenomenon if you stop the car in the marked spots with the legend “stop here”. At the top, you will experience the most incredible panoramic view of both sides: towards the Laguna Del Sauce, topped by the Pan de Azucar hill and to the Peninsula and Gorriti Island will let you take in your magical trip ahead.
- Casapueblo: This fantastical resort-museum designed by Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró is one of Punta del Este’s most famous attractions. While its exhibits include paintings, ceramics and sculpture pieces, it’s the building’s design that is the true draw. While some say its design is intended to resemble a whale, this Mediterranean surrealistic building is a sculpture unto itself. The incredible views are also well worth the visit.
- Fundación Pablo Atchugarry (Pablo Atchugarry Foundation): Dedicated to the promotion of arts and culture in Punta del Este, this is the brainchild of international sculpture artist Pablo Atchugarry. Housed on the grounds are the sculptor’s workshop, a building with three exposition rooms, an auditorium, an open air stage for a variety of shows, a restaurant, a room where art classes are held and the permanent collection and the work of the founder.
- Punta del Este Lighthouse: The lighthouse was built in 1860 to guide ships on the Atlantic Ocean and Río de la Plata. Due to using volcanic sand from Rome, said to be tougher than concrete, in its construction, the lighthouse is still in pristine condition today. From the top of the lighthouse, there is a sweeping 360-degree view of the entire area.
- Museo del Mar (Marine Museum): In it you can find a collection of more than 10,000 species of local and worldwide marine fauna, different species of marine snail, corals, sea urchin, sea horses, sea stars, crabs, shell tortoise, crustacean, jaws of sharks, whales’ skeletons and much more.
- Isla de Lobos (Sea Wolf Island): Located five miles off the coast of Punta del Este, this rocky island houses the largest colony of sea lions in the western hemisphere. Tours leave at the port of Punta del Este.
- Arboretum Lussich (Lussich Arboretum): This 470-acre botanical garden, considered to be one of the most important in the world, is renowned for its collection of exotic plant species.
Reserva de Fauna Autóctona: A zoo of indigenous animals and plants on Uruguay’s highest hill, Pan de Azúcar, on the grounds of an enormous rock quarry.
- Gorriti Island: If you want to venture into nature and experience sailing there are boats that take you every hour to the Gorriti Island. Before you even set sail, you will need to take in the breathtaking scenery. If hiking is your passion, then this will be memorable. The hiking trails are lush with vegetation and the end awaits you with unspoilt beaches.
- Conrad Punta del Este Resort & Casino: This stunning resort, by Hilton Hotels,features a casino, wide range of outdoor activities, three golf courses within a short drive, fully-equipped health club, and a deluxe spa offering massage and holistic therapies. All rooms at the resort feature terraces and sea views.
- Punta del Este Resort & Spa : Located on a 22-acre, wooded plot, this elegant resort features a beautiful pool, tennis court, a renowned restaurant, spa and a grand casino.
Getting There and Getting Around:
Montevideo’s Carrasco International Airport will be the best way to get to Punta. It features a brand-new terminal that opened in 2009, and cars can be easily rented at the airport.
A four-lane toll road called the Ruta Interbalnearia connects Montevideo and Punta del Este. Frequent bus service is also available between the two cities.
Once you’ve arrived, Punta is a very walkable city. If you prefer, you can rent scooters for about 10 USD/hour or 45 USD/day at several places throughout the city.