“José Ignacio is like a bubble,” says Mario Leite De Oliveira, hotel general manager with Vik Retreats. “Do not think that Jose Ignacio is like the rest of Uruguay.”
Too tiny to even be a microcosm, José Ignacio is a charming fishing village turned exclusive vacation hot spot catering to South America’s wealthiest clientele. In a country where a laid-back mindset seems intrinsic to life, the village takes leisure to the next level. Punta del Este is larger, louder and packed with denser crowds. You may have heard about it as the go-to beach getaway for Uruguay and Argentina alike. José Ignacio, perhaps, is what Punte del Este used to be, or maybe never was. Which mean that now is the time to get in on the fun amid Uruguay’s undisturbed natural beauty, and its bounty of excellent eats and delicious drinks.
How to Get to José Ignacio
American Airlines operates a seasonal direct flight from Miami to Montevideo; otherwise, all long-haul flights from the U.S. will be via connections, with a more complete slate operating to Buenos Aires. From there, you can either book a short connecting flight to Montevideo (MVD) or hop on a three-hour ferry. Once in Montevideo, the drive to José Ignacio takes about two hours. A slimmer lineup of connecting flights from Buenos Aires is also available to Punta del Este (PDP) airport, an hour outside of José Ignacio.
Where to Stay
Vik Retreats operates a triumvirate of resorts in José Ignacio, each of which has a distinctive personality that might appeal more to certain travelers than others, while the three join forces to offer guests a collective range of experiences across the portfolio.
The first to make its debut was Estancia Vik, in 2008, an estate which served as a family vacation home for its owners, the Vik clan. With 1,600 acres of ranch land, a stay at the estancia is a chance to get a taste of the gaucho lifestyle, albeit with a splash of luxury. The converted home has 12 spacious rooms and seems as if it’s in a world of its own, though it’s just a 15-minute ride from town.
The other two are both on the beach, located a short walk down the sand from one another. Bahia Vik is the most “proper” hotel of the three, with 48 rooms spread across one main building as well as a series of bungalows. Each room is a showcase of local artists, design and contemporary style. There’s a series of small, sleek pools and direct beach access. Playa Vik offers 19 rooms housed within a striking architectural compound filled with eye-catching art installations and décor. The property features a showpiece infinity pool on the terrace of its main house. If you think the sunset view is particularly pinpoint, it’s not the wine talking: the pool was designed to hit the perfect angles.
The Perfect Weekend in South America’s Hidden Gem of a CityWhere to stay, as well as what to eat and do in Uruguay’s capital city.
What to Do
José Ignacio’s arts offerings are on par with an avant garde city many times its size. The fact that it has managed to attract such a world-class collection of artists, galleries and exhibits, and the enthusiasts who seek them out, would make for a fascinating case study on building a scene from the ground up in the span of a generation or two.
The flashiest of the bunch is James Turrell’s Skyspace Ta Khut, which offers ticketed admission during sunset hours, as the display coincides with the changing colors and mood as daytime fades away into dusk and dark. The striking stone structure itself will have you feeling as if you’re entering some alien civilization’s house of worship, while the display is sure to intrigue. It’s located on the grounds of Posada Ayana, a sleek, 19-room luxury hotel a few blocks away from “downtown” José Ignacio.
It’s easy to while away an afternoon or two strolling through town, as pint-sized as it may be. There are dozens of shops and galleries spread across a quaint, central area. It’ll break up your other pursuits of sunbathing on the beach — take heed that the UV rays are notorious in this part of the world — and living your best ranch life at Estancia Vik, where you should be certain to go horseback riding around the estate.
Uruguay’s MACA, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Atchugarry, is the first major contemporary art museum in the country. MACA opened in January 2022 and is found a short drive outside of town, with the highlight of the 90-acre grounds being its stunning outdoor Sculpture Park. The museum is under the umbrella of the Fundación Pablo Atchugarry, named for the famed Uruguayan artist who has an outsized presence in the region; he designed the enormous sculpted bronze door at Playa Vik, for instance, offering an interpretation of the famed doors from the Florence Baptistery.
Where to Eat and Drink
Can a chef single-handedly put a city on a map as a worthy food destination? Francis Mallmann showed that if you cook it, they will come. To eat. He opened Posada del Mar in 1978 and set José Ignacio on its course towards international renown. “Francis Mallmann really built this place,” said Edda Kofler, co-owner of Posada Ayana, referring to José Ignacio on the whole.
See what the famed fire-loving chef is up to these days at Restaurante Garzón, which operates a five-room, B&B style hotel — albeit one with luxury pricing and the world’s best bed-and-breakfast food. That’s not to be confused with Bodega Garzón Restaurante, the restaurant at the most noted winery in the region. Be sure to leave some time for a proper tour and tasting, and consider visiting other wineries in the region as well. And if you’re still feeling hedonistic and hungry, and haven’t gotten your full Francis fix just yet, head to Chiringuito Francis Mallmann, a casual beach affair.
He’s not the only game in town, of course. Walk right up off the beach and into Parador La Huella, a bustling restaurant with the feel of a boisterous house party that’s managing to entertain the entire neighborhood, with fresh seafood, and local produce and meats. Mostrador Santa Teresita is a recommended lunch spot and all-day gathering space, while Cruz del Sur Cocina operates its own farm, and hosts outdoor farm-to-table-in-the-field dinner events, as well. Tres La Juanita has drawn rave reviews, and is not to be confused with Juana Cocina Bar. La Susana is a beach club adjacent to Bahia Vik, and Ferona Club Social specializes in fire-cooked food, cocktails and live music.
Be forewarned, José Ignacio is a seasonal destination, and you’re likely to find the town as it was in the 1970s — a sleepy seaside village — during the heart of South America’s winter.
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