Thirty kilometres east of Punta del Este, the tiny hideaway of José Ignacio nestles in the sand dunes along the coast of Uruguay. Its sole landmark is the lonely lighthouse jutting out into the sea.
A coastal resort now favoured by wealthy Argentines and increasing numbers of jet-setters from much further, for whom nearby Punta del Este has lots its allure and exclusivity, José Ignacio is overrun by the beautiful people from December to February. British author Martin Amis and Colombian singer Shakira reportedly have homes here, while stars of the fashion world Gisele Bündchen, Naomi Campbell and Mario Testino have all frequented the shores.
After experiencing the beauty of José Ignacio over New Year’s festivities, I was keen to return under less hectic circumstances to enjoy all that the quiet fishing village had to offer.
During the holiday period, the beach is packed, restaurants are booked and streets buzz with life into the early hours. But I arrive in José Ignacio with two companions at the end of February to find it recovering from the holidays under a greying, cloudy sky. The few remaining stragglers wander the little streets, happy to be able to enter shops, galleries and restaurants without the crowds of a week or two before. Boutique owners have swapped racks of bikinis for stands of knitted wraps.
It’s not beach weather, but all roads in J.I. lead to the shore, where a few brave souls can be spotted defying the elements. The lounge chairs and massage huts are unoccupied, but the brisk wind and grey surf make conditions perfect for windsurfers, who have reclaimed their stage to dance to and fro on the waves.
I find it reminiscent of parts of the rugged British coastline – wide beaches fringed by the rough seas and sea grassed dunes. To many US visitors it is the Hamptons of Latin America. Much prettier and quieter than Punta del Este and its neighbouring villages, José Ignacio has attracted more and more of the summer crowd each year. But considering a Freddo ice cream store has moved in, this fishing village may become the next La Barra sooner than later.
The next day we head further east to see what we could find, driving along the coast road, passing new developments and plots of land for sale. But for now it is still comparatively unspoilt, managing to balance the natural environment of dunes, scrubland and bush with the demands of increasing numbers of tourists, developers, investors and architects who will want to fill this blank canvas.
Here, just a few kilometres from José Ignacio, with stretches of green fields leading down to an unspoilt coast, you feel like you’re in another world, far from the niceties of life. This must have been what José Igancio was like 20 years ago. The party reputation of Punta del Este often casts a shadow over the natural beauty of the area.
Inlets along the coast have formed saltwater gullies and lakes, where water-sports schools have sprouted, taking advantage of the shallow water and relative safety from the open sea. The further east the less populated it becomes, giving way to eucalyptus groves and fenced-off tracts of land, much of it offered for sale. Gradually windsurfers on the horizon are replaced by that of herds of cattle, grazing peacefully under the trees with their new calves, as well as some horses and sheep, then the odd gaucho with his dogs.
Twenty minutes down Route 10 we reach the large inlet Laguna de Garzon where the road comes to an end on the shore. Three men are operating a chain ferry across the river to where the road begins again. Two of them guide the cars and passengers on and off the ferry whilst the third operates the small power boat which pushes the ferry along its underwater cable. Next to the ferry is half a bridge, an ugly concrete construction abandoned in mid-flight at some point in the past in favour of the tried and tested three-men-in-a-ferry system. We get quite excited when we are told the ferry is free of charge, so when one of the ferrymen explains he collects foreign coins we are delighted to hand over a few British pence for his collection. He grins at us in thanks.
Idyllic life in José Ignacio doesn’t come cheap. The only option is to stay in one of the few exclusive posadas or to rent a house yourself. The restaurants are wonderful and they know it. This makes them expensive. La Huella, as famous as José Ignacio itself, is perfect for grabbing a snack, a cocktail, a three-course meal, and everything in between. But the esoteric restaurant Marismo really steals the show. Tucked away up a little sandy path and with no real sign from the main road, this place longs to be known by a select few. If you’re one of said few, it’s a real privilege. Driftwood furniture is set around a blazing fire under the stars and you can sink your feet into the sand while munching on some of the finest food the region has to offer, from four-hour braised Patagonian lamb to the freshest seafood.
To visit José Ignacio out of season is best. Perhaps it’s the English in me, but I quietly enjoyed being wrapped up against the prevailing sea wind.