Punta del Este, in Uruguay, was for many years visited only by fishermen and sailors. It is now one of the most fashionable holiday resorts in the world – dubbed South America’s answer to St Tropez – while its beach houses are spectacular and highly sought after.
A 30-minute plane ride from Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, this stretch of the Maldonado coastline, with its miles of white sand, hilly dunes and lush trees, has seen asking prices for new developments rise by more than 15 per cent during the past year, according to Reporte Inmobiliario, a company that monitors real estate activity in Latin America.
Wealth began trickling into the area in the 1970s, when affluent Argentines and Brazilians built simple beach houses to use during the summer. Now a spate of building has seen a number of wealthy investors, including the Norwegian billionaire Alex Vik, and scores of holidaymakers construct ever more elaborate summer houses as Uruguay becomes the destination of choice, not just for South Americans, but for an increasing number of Americans and Europeans.
It is a big change from the days when Punta del Este was regarded as the place where rich elderly ladies came to recover after plastic surgery. During Uruguay’s military dictatorship of 1973 to 1985, it is said the regime’s generals regularly took their holidays here, but it was a long way from becoming the jet-set destination it is today. Punta del Este is made up of a cluster of different neighbourhoods, each with its own character. La Barra has a hippy vibe, Punta is for families and Jose Ignacio tends to attract the younger, wealthier party crowd. An ocean-view house here will cost about $1.5m and while the number of sales may have dropped (due mainly to problems with the flagging Argentine economy), the prices haven’t and the building boom continues, as demonstrated following the announcement last November that a 23-storey Trump Tower is to be built in the area.
Diego Montero, an architect who owns M+ Arquitecto practice and who has designed several striking houses in the area, says that while there are strict building regulations, the area is only just beginning to develop and there is as yet no coherent policy about planning styles. However, there are certain conditions which must be taken into account when designing a home in Punta del Este.
“Uruguay has a temperate climate with a lot of wind, especially during December and January … The sea views are to the south, which is cold for the southern hemisphere, and the storms come from there too, so you need to pay attention to the orientation of the building because if you get it wrong you will either freeze or fly off,” says Montero. The windy climate also means that residents have grown used to their sandy gardens changing shape from year to year as the wind moulds them, says Caroline Bond, a British expat who used to run a financial training and conference company. “A path that leads down to the beach one year might be uphill the following season and gardens are created with several different seating areas to take account of the wind direction and time of day,” she says.
Bond moved here with her daughters four years ago and has completely renovated her house, a modern castillo on the beach. “Although the houses tend to be extremely luxurious they are also very comfortable. They are places where you can kick off your shoes and relax so the decor tends to be rustic,” she says. “Many people are only here for the season so they don’t bother with heating or need rugs on the floors. The spaces tend to be large and open-plan with stone floors and walls to keep it very natural looking.”
When it came to furnishing the property, Bond stuck with a more traditional style. Uruguay imposes high import duties – up to 40 per cent – and that, coupled with the tiny population of just over 3m people, means that interior design choices are limited as there just is not enough demand to warrant a large range of shops.
Bond, who now runs a holiday rental business, called luxurycountryrentals.com, instead went to the local remates, a cross between an auction house and a junk shop, where it is possible to pick up anything from gaucho souvenirs to old wooden planks for building, as well as furniture that has been discarded from the older, larger haciendas.
Canadian Margarita Arsenault spent two years turning her house, a former general store, into a five-bedroom, six-bathroom home. She also shopped at the remates and tracked down original Uruguayan furniture to keep the building as authentic as possible. It is on sale for $1.25m.
“We bought a lot of furniture at the local auctions and recycled old ceiling beams to make cupboards in the kitchen and bathrooms. We also bought some 100-year-old pircas stone walls that run along old farms and used them to make flower beds and walls, as well as old tiles which we sorted and arranged in our own designs,” she says. Inside, the colours are traditionally natural and neutral, with the occasional splash of red to add a little colour.
“Uruguay is not a colourful country like Brazil or other parts of South America. Pastels are popular but it is usually stone floors, wooden beams and white walls,” says Arsenault. “There is a lot of slate and brown sandstone – some of it even has fossilised roots. But when it comes to a typical Uruguayan style the first thing you notice is the diversity. You will find side by side Spanish colonial and English Tudor, as well as lots of cement and glass. However, the tendency of higher-end beach houses is modern cubic, often with a mix of wooden decking and wooden pergolas for shade.”
Santiago Hughes, of Uruguay’s Union Property Group, says the modernist style of the 1930s has long been popular in Uruguay and is reflected in many current projects. “We often see the use of straight lines and austere architecture here,” he says.
One of the most striking new builds is the Playa Vik in Jose Ignacio, which is formed of six avant-garde beach houses with glass walls and grass roofs surrounded by lawn and ocean views.
They were designed by the architect Carlos Ott, who has been described as Uruguay’s equivalent of Sir Norman Foster. His projects include the airport at Punta del Este and the Opera de la Bastille in Paris.
He wanted to create something contemporary and daring to contrast with the more natural buildings nearby.
“Although there is no typical style of beach houses in Uruguay, in much of the coast, and perhaps particularly in Jose Ignacio, there has been an effort to build modern houses with large windows, mostly incorporating the beautiful stones of the region, as well as wood and exposed concrete,” says Ott. “The old tradition of houses in Punta del Este had been sloping roofs with ceramic tile and exposed red- or white-painted brick walls, which were prevalent in the area.”
Those traditional Spanish-style houses, a nod to the country’s first European immigrants, are still there, alongside simple whitewashed fisherman’s cottages and many larger colonial style buildings. However, they now sit alongside the more modern beach houses which seem to be springing up all the time as the Punta del Este grows in popularity.