Attractions: Uruguay Punta del Este Day Trip from Montevideo

February 2, 2024

Paul Kay

Have you been to Uruguay? Maybe Montevideo should be a vacation destination? Montevideo is famous for its extensive coastal promenade known as “La Rambla.” Stretching over 13 miles, it’s one of the longest waterfront promenades in the world, perfect for walking, jogging, or cycling.

Punta del Este is often referred to as the “St. Tropez of South America” and is unique in that it’s situated on a narrow peninsula where the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Río de la Plata meet. This creates a fascinating phenomenon where you can see the different colors and temperatures of the two bodies of water blending. There are many thing to see in Punta del Este including Casapueblo. 

We too a Viator tour to Punta del Este and it was terrific. We saw plenty of things along the way and there was no rush. I highly recommend it.

This iconic building, designed by Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, is a must-visit attraction. It serves as a museum, art gallery, and hotel, with distinctive and whimsical architecture reminiscent of a Mediterranean village.

We decided to take a day trip to Punta del Este from Montevideo. We were staying at the Hyatt Centric in Montevideo and it was about a 2-hour drive to the city from the hotel. Punta del Este is a city and resort on the Atlantic Coast in southeastern Uruguay. Punta del Este is also the name of the municipality to which the city belongs. Although the city has a year-round population of under 10,000 when summer comes, the population grows.

The city has been referenced as “the Hamptons of South America” and “the Monaco of the south.” I thought it was similar to both Miami (USA) and Cartegena (Columbia).

View of beach and town of Piriapolis from Cerro San Antonio Uruguay

However, the first stop on our tour was not Punta del Este. It was Piriapolis which is a city in the Maldonado Department of Uruguay. It is sometimes called the “budget version of Punta del Este” because the beaches are just as beautiful, but the prices are much lower.

Piriapolis is a small beach town on the way to Punta del Este from Montevideo. Piriapolis actually pre-dated the Punta del Este. We thought it was a much more laid-back version of Punta del Este with normal restaurants and clubs. We saw a vintage hotel and plenty of people crossing the street on their way to the massive playa (beach) area. It felt like a Mediterranean beach town.

The town was named after a very thoughtful and pioneering investor, Don Francisco Piria. He was born in 1847. He started his own business in 1863 called the Old Montevideo Market which he ran until 1875. He was wealthy and became wealthier by selling large estates in Montevideo. In his spare time, he created the liberal newspaper “La Tribuna Popular.” 

Older building in Piriapolis Uruguay

He decided to move along the cost and do something with his wealth. He bought land and decided that this undiscovered stretch of Uruguay could turn into something very big. He established the town in 1890 when he closed on a very bought a large acreage of land all the way to the beach. In 1897, he finished his private home and in 1905, he created the major hotel, the Gran Hotel Piriapolis and the unique architecture and hand-crafted furniture exclusively brought from Italy soon became the talk of town. This gorgeous hotel accommodated the first tourists in the country in the times in which the word “tourism” did not have the same meaning it has today. He needed a better road, so the primary road was constructed between 1910 and 1916 which follows La Rambla or promenade by the sea.

Chairlift chair on Cerro San Antonio Piriapolis Uruguay 

One of the main attractions of the city of Piriapolis is the summit of San Antonio Hill. We noticed right away that there was a non-moving chairlift rising to the top as we wound around the curves of the mountain to approach the summit. As far as we can tell, they are not operational. 

We passed people walking up the hill and others cycling. Neither group seems very happy about the very long climb. Cerro San Antonio (San Antonio Hill) owes its name to the small round white chapel at its top. Halfway up, we saw the statue of Maris Stella Virgin, protector of anglers and sailors. She was facing the sea – protecting all that she could envision. The top of the hills is 426 feet above sea level.

close up Madeline at top of Cerro San Antonio Piriapolis Uruguay

From the summit, you can see the Uruguayan version of Sugar Loaf Mountain. It is 1,300 feet tall and looks somewhat similar to the larger version in Rio de Janeiro. At the foot of that mountain there is an animal reserve, which offers a ninety-minute tour. There is also a small zoo at the base of the mountain.

welcome monument permanent exhibition at Punta Ballena to Museo-Taller Carlos Paez Vilaro Casapueblo near Punta del Este Uruguay

We got back in the bus and our driver collected a small entrance fee of about $8 USD per person for the next stop. It is called the Museo–Taller de Casapueblo. This was one of the most original places we have ever seen. It was worth the price of admission just to photograph the outside.

view as we exit Museo-Taller Carlos Paez Vilaro Casapueblo at Punta Ballena near Punta del Este Uruguay

It is an art museum with the exterior almost as intriguing as the collections inside. The artist is Carlos Paez Vilaro. It looks like Santorini on steroids. He was somewhat inspired by Gaudi on the exterior and Picasso on his interior art. He wasn’t an architect, but he definitely did not want to see a lot of straight lines or corners. His inspiration was supposedly brick bread ovens. The museum is all curves and spires. There were three sections to this gigantic project. One was just his studio. One was just his home and the last, which is what we see, is his showcase. We only had an hour to tour but apparently at dusk every day since 1994, visitors can participate in a sun ceremony, where staff play a recording of Mr. Vilaro reading a poem dedicated to the sun.

Display of building and photos at Museo-Taller Carlos Paez Vilaro Casapueblo at Punta Ballena near Punta del Este Uruguay

The building, which took 36 years to complete, has thirteen floors with terraces that are staggered all over the place that allow visitors to have different views of the sea. He was an extraordinary artist and when the complex was finished, he dedicated it to his son, Carlos Miguel. His son was one of the seventeen Uruguayan survivors of the crash of Uruguayan 571 Air Force Flight. The flight crashed in the Andes on October 13, 1972. There was a famous book on the subject called Alive which is a very good book. There was also a gripping movie, also called Alive, which starred John Malkovich, Ethan Hawke and others. I didn’t know one of the survivors was the famous artist’s son but I’ve read the book and I’ve seen the movie. It’s one that you are not likely to forget.

His artwork 2 on display at Museo-Taller Carlos Paez Vilaro Casapueblo at Punta Ballena near Punta del Este Uruguay

His paintings and murals are recognized all over the world. One of his “longest” accomplishments is a mural over 500 feet in length. He was commissioned in 1959 to create a mural for a tunnel connecting a new annex to the Organization of American States’ Washington, DC headquarters which was in the Pan American Union building. It was supposed to be less than 50 feet in length but something must have happened because the completed mural is 509 feet in length. It was completed in 1969 but humidity damaged the artwork, so he came back in 1975 to repaint it.

His artwork 3 on display at Museo-Taller Carlos Paez Vilaro Casapueblo at Punta Ballena near Punta del Este Uruguay

There is so much art crammed into this museum. Unfortunately, it is usually mobbed with tourists and the cruise ships buses are everywhere. Hopefully you can see it on a day when no cruise ships are at port because you could easily spend hours in this museum. There was a nice restaurant and bar on the premises as well so you could stay most of the day and enjoy the art and the view.

We needed to get back on the bus and move to Punta del Este. This is a destination worthy of the TV series formerly hosted by Robin Leach: “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” As Rio property values lowered because of crime and politics, well to do Uruguayans, Argentinians and Brazilians have made Punta del Este the place where the South American elite come to play. The beaches are beautiful, and the food and hotels are ready for them. There are water sports, nightlife, discotheques, a racetrack and plenty of other diversions for the wealthy.

Park Beverly HIlls neighborhood 3 Punta del Este Uruguay

As we entered the city, our guide took us on a trip to the residential area. It felt like a combination of Malibu and Beverly Hills. Many of the large homes are rented out – some for $25,000 USD per month. The summer season is largely December through February so if visitors want to come during the prime season, they will pay for the privilege. After our residential tour, we were told that there were several restaurants in the area, but they had a discount with Napoleon restaurant. Most of us followed our tour director’s advice.

We then got back into our van and took a brief tour and were dropped off in the city center and given free time to roam around.

Madeline 2 fingers at La Mano Punta del Este Uruguay

Madeline and I wanted to see the famous “hand.” The hand sculpture in Punta del Este is quite striking. The fingers are rising out of the sand. It is known as La Mano or Los Dedos. The sculpture was created by Chilean artist Mario Irarrazabal and it is a tourist photo must.

double roller coaster bridge 2 in Punta del Este Uruguay

Nearby is the La Barra Bridge or Maldonado bridge. It is built over the Arroyo Maldonado stream, but it is built as a wave. It feels like a roller coaster when you cross it because you are going up and down when all you need to do is go across. It’s called a stressed ribbon bridge because the support cables are embedded in the concrete. It’s a work of art and functional at the same time.

El Faro 3 Punta del Este Uruguay

Walking back to the city, we saw the lighthouse. It is called the Faro de Punta del Este (Punte del Este Lighthouse) and it was built in 1860. It’s worth a photo opportunity. There is also another lighthouse on Isla De Lobos. This is known as Sea Lion Island and it’s about 6 miles from La Mano.

Isla de Lobos is where you’ll find the tallest lighthouse in South America, and the third tallest in the world. Built in 1858, it is 194-feet high, and home to over 200,000 sea lions. It is the second largest colony of sea lions in the world. We could barely make out the sea lions, but we could hear them. The lighthouse is very visible. We didn’t have a chance to go out to the lighthouse on a tour boat, but our guide said there are tours that will take you there.

Paul with dulce le leche y chocolat dulce le leche cucurucho de helado at Pecas Helados & Cafe in Punta del Este Uruguay

We walked back toward the city to our meeting point which was a coffee shop in the city center. We stopped for a diet Coke, but I noticed there was ice cream available with dulce de leche. This caramel and chocolate concoction was something we discovered when we were in Argentina and Chile. I had to try a cone. 

It was enormous and I wound up wearing quite a bit of it before finishing. Madeline helped a bit, but she was daintily using a plastic spoon to carve a morsel here and there. I cleaned up in the very nice restroom and was presentable before we got back in the bus for our 2.5-hour return trip to Montevideo.

This was a very nice way to spend a day enjoying Uruguay. The Viator tour to Punta del Este was terrific. We think you will like it.

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