THE WORLD’S BEST BEACH TOWN

[JOSE IGNACIO, URUGUAY]  — There. I said it. Jose Ignacio is it. Jose Ignacio is the World’s Best Beach Town.  This is my favorite place in this world. If you’ve followed me for some time or talk to me over Negronis, THIS is the place I always talk about. This is a huge post, combing multiple visits over ten years into a single comprehensive guide. Here is your guide to the best beaches in Jose Ignacio. The best restaurants in Jose Ignacio and the best hotels in Jose Ignacio. All the reasons that make this the world’s best beach town.

A half hour north of the Miami-like Punta del Este is a small peninsula that juts just right out into the ocean, able to capture the best sun and waves from sunrise to sunset. Surrounded on three sides by beaches, Jose Ignacio is the definition of “rustic elegance”. As opposed to the high rises of Punta, Jose Ignacio is restricted to just low-level, understated single family summer houses made from local materials; usually designed by famous Uruguayan, Argentine, Brazilian or other famous architects. There are no more than a hundred or two if you count those dotting the sprawling hills in nearby countryside. So the crowds are limited, the mood subdued, the streets unpaved. The number of hotels are limited.

Jose Ignacio the worlds bests beach town

The town is dominated by the faro, the lighthouse, with great views.

 

The I first tried to book a room at the very small and intimated Posada del Faro, Jose, the hotel owner, sent a brushback email… like a warning shot off the bow… “There is no luxury in Jose Ignacio, it is a very small town, the streets are not paved, there is no ATM, there is no restaurant in the hotel, no room service, no spa, no workout room. If you are looking for luxury, it is not here….”  That’s when I knew I had to go. “Book me!”

A sleepy town most of the year, Jose Ignacio may have the shortest High Season on earth, lasting last just weeks and starting exactly on the day after Christmas. December 26th. Like locusts that all come out of the ground on a single day, on December 26th, the sleepy town comes alive as the world’s wealthy descend from Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Greenwich, the Hamptons, France and Italy. Seriously, you’ve never seen so many beautiful people in such a small place. Some look familiar, some seem like they should be. It’s the best people watching, ever.

Jose Ignacio is my favorite place on earth.

The streets may be made of dirt, but the 100 or so understated houses are architectural marvels, each with their own high perch to view the surf. There are only a handful of restaurants, but they are some of my favorites in the world, mixing the right amount of groove, rustic decor and amazing food. All the restaurants are fantastic. If not, they won’t survive the good taste of this tasteful town.

Houses in Jose Ignacio

The size and style of the houses are all restricted. No huge mansions, they must be made of local materials and height restrictions.

 

The first time I ever heard about Punta Del Este and Uruguay was when I worked for a Swedish company in the 80s and our Latin American salesperson said he had a house there and it was the greatest place on earth. “Uruguay???  Really? Why?”  Several years later I made a quip about Uruguay after reading an article in The NY Times: “You know, you never really hear anything about Uruguay. Every.”  Who knew that years later I’ve become one of Uruguay’s biggest proponents.

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The first time I was planning on coming, Jose, the hotel owner sent a brushback email… like a warning shot off the bow…

“There is no luxury in Jose Ignacio, it is a very small town, the streets are not paved, there is no ATM, there is no restaurant in the hotel, no room service, no spa, no workout room. If you are looking for luxury, it is not here….”

That’s when I knew I had to go.

 

 

view of Playa Brava Jose Ignacio

Playa Brava is the perfect midday beach, with huge waves for surging and kite surfing. This is during peak season… so many people. NOT.

 

Playa del Faro main beach Jose Ignacio

Playa del Faro is one of the main beaches in Jose Ignacio.

 

Here’s an old video I made that really shows the vibe of Jose Ignacio. Cool music is everywhere and really creates the vibe here.

 

When you think of beaches and beach towns in South America, most people think of Brazil. (Which is awesome in itself.) But few are aware of this absolutely stunning windswept and wave-laden peninsula just 40 minutes north of the Miami-like high-rises of Punta del Este.  You can fly into Punta from Buenos Aires, or take a longer ferry, then rent a car and then take the short jaunt up the road. Or you can fly into Montevideo, which is a mellow two hour drive away.

You definitely need a car to go exploring the best parts. I was here once with a cute English couple who didn’t have a car andI know they felt stranded a bit, especially in those days when there wasn’t an ATM in town and restaurants and shops only took cash.  There are a only a couple of taxis maybe one, but that’s it.  For most of the people here, this is where they have a house, so they have a car. Must be the most bored taxi drivers on the planet.

 

Jose Ignacio Hamptons of Uruguay

Some people say there’s a lot of resemblance to The Hamptons in New York, but 30 years ago, before the big mansions came. Jose Ignacio is laid back, unpretentious, understated. So now you can say it is the opposite of the Hamptons now.

 

Growth is very restricted, so there are only a handful of small boutique hotels, which keeps the crowds low.  Everyone else stays in their hidden compounds, venturing out for a stay at the beach or lingering for hours in the town’s casually elegant restaurants. In Jose Ignacio, it’s all about the beaches and the restaurants, all in a cool, laid-back vibe.

You sleep late, have a light breakfast, then head to the beach mid-morning. A late long lunch breaks the pounding sun, the white clerico sangria and wine being just enough for an afternoon nap in the shade. Then you go back to your place, take a cooling dip in the pool, another nap, shower, cocktails and then head out with the arriving darkness around 9ish.  Most locals eat very late, going out with 10, 11 or midnight seatings, even with their kids and families. If you’re just a couple or couple of couples, you’ll actually feel like a small group as it seems every table is a ten- or twelve-top. Everywhere you go, big, very tan groups of gorgeous people of multiple generations, all hanging out into the wee hours. Even little kids, running around the restaurants at midnight. That’s way past my bedtime.

 

Beach shack Jose Ignacio

As opposed to South Beach or other famous beaches, Jose Ignacio is more family oriented. Since most everyone has a house here and there are few hotels, it’s mostly families spending the holidays.

 

Surfing in Jose Ignacio

Surfing is big in Jose Ignacio. You can see guys hitting waves all day long, then serving you dinner at night.

 

My god, this is the best place on earth. I’ve been there four or five times since 2005, so this post includes consolidated pictures and posts over the last decade.

I can’t wait to go back.

 

The Town of Jose Ignacio

Houses in Jose Ignacio

As you can see, there aren’t that many houses in the town proper of Jose Ignacio. Only a couple hundred people live here. No big mansions. Everything is size and height restricted. Only a couple of small boutique hotels are allowed. This is a view of about 70% of the houses on the peninsula of Jose Ignacio.

 

You can see how this tiny peninsula has just a handful of houses but a bounty of beaches on all sides. To the right are the morning beaches and to the left, are beaches perfect for sunset. You can also see where La Huella and Posada del Faro are situated.

 

Lighthouse in Jose Ignacio

There are about 200 residents in Jose Ignacio, although I’m not sure how many of those are not year-round.  Many famous people have houses here, or near here. Ralph Lauren. Martin Amos. Diego Maradona. Many wealthy Europeans. It’s also polo area, so there are international matches once or twice a year, where billionaires fly in all their ponies for intense matches.

 

 

Jose Ignacio perfect villa

From the first day I visited Jose Ignacio, thru subsequent visits, THIS is the place that has always been on my Wish List — if I had a couple million dollars, this is the house I would buy.

The Beaches of Jose Ignacio

Playa Mansa boardwalk

 

Swimmers Playa Brava Jose Ignacio

Playa Brava and Playa del Faro are pretty much right next to each other.

 

Clouds over Playa Brava

I meaaaannnnn…..

 

Waves on Playa Mansa

Playa Mansa is on the direct opposite side of the small peninsula. The Bahia Vik is now on the other side of those dunes, with views over this beautiful beach.

 

Playas in Jose Ignacio map

 

 

 

chairs on Playa Brava

You can bring your own chairs, or rent some and umbrellas.

Best Restaurants in Jose Ignacio

There’s one name you need to know before you arrive in Jose Ignacio, La Huella (pronounced La Hu-EYSHA in local dialect, avoiding the LLs). You need to know this because this is where you will go every single day, sometimes twice. Located smack on the best beach at the edge of town, La Huella is my favorite restaurant in the world, in this, my favorite beach town in the world.

Parador La Huella

Parador La Huella sign

By day, from the outside, Parador La Huella looks like nothing more than a beach shack. In fact, the owners often say “we just serve simple beach food.” But man, as soon as you walk under that canvas you realize there is something else going on here.

 

Parador La Huella crowds

You can come in you swimsuit and flip-flops, or dress up in starchy whites.

 

Parador La Huella interior

Inside, it’s elegant casual. Always jammed, it’s best to make reservations, but also easy to wait. They are so amazingly hospitable with how busy the place gets. All the cute servers hustle across the room, kitted out in 100% Lacoste. Parador La Huella is so famous, Lacoste actually put a small shop at the back of the restaurant. It’s so perfect. And everything I like. There’s often a DJ during the day.

 

Parador La Huella best restaurant Jose Ignacio

By day, the action is outside on the front deck, where the people watching is as good as the food. You can walk across La Huella day or night and hear four, five and six languages being spoken. This is truly an international crowd… in this teeny little beach town.

 

My suggestion: even before arriving here, book a standing 3pm reservation every single day of your stay. And then back that up with a couple of dinner reservations because you will want to come back….and it’s a completely different vibe at night, and equally as special.

La Huella at night

Everything is different at night. Even thought you might have eaten here every day for lunch, at night this feels like a completely different place. The vicuna throws come out, on the back of chairs to ward off the cool-to-sunburn breeze. The lights go down. The swimsuits switch to lithe sundresses and cute shoes. The same place, completely different. Huge tables of families eating into the wee hours, kids hanging out past midnight, their faces slowly landing on where their plates once were.  Gawd I love this fucking place.

 

 

grilled fish and clerico Parador La Huella

Just. Simple. Beach. Food.

 

Parador La Huella beer taps

Marismo

Marismo Jose Ignacio at night

When I first heard of Jose Ignacio, I was reading this article in The NY Times and saw a picture almost identical to this. That’s the exact moment I decided I had to go.

 

Marismo is my second favorite restaurant. A restaurant totally outdoes, tucked under the thick forest of pines, eucalyptuses and acacias, lit only with fire. Everything is cooked with fire.  When I saw pictures of the place in this NY Times article, I knew I had to go here.

My second night ever in Jose Ignacio, I was still a little nervous and apprehensive.  I was traveling by myself. And when I read the directions to get to Marismo, it wasn’t exactly encouraging. I read instructions on how to get there: “Go down the main beach road, turn left on the second road, no sign. Go down a very dark dirt road, dark as you’ve ever seen until you see a wooden fish, no sign, and a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road, then you know you’re there.”

 

Marismo by candlelight

The whole restaurant is outdoors, tucked under a forest of trees, lit by nothing more than fires and candlelight. Perfect.

 

La Susana at Bahia Vik

La Susana Bahia Vik

La Susana is a new restaurant at the new Bahia Vik hotel that just opened on the beach on my last trip. They opened the restaurant before the hotel was done.

La Susana was very new on my last visit, old by now. I think they opened it before the hotel to build a buzz, it was kind of in temporary quarters, but the food was incredible. We ducked in during a rainstorm and hung out there eating and drinking the afternoon away.

best burger at La Susana Bahia Vik

I’ve never had less than an outstanding meal anywhere in Jose Ignacio. I think if you served average food, you’d go out of business.

Since I’ve eaten so many meals at La Huella, leaves little time for other restaurants, but I would recommend eating at Namm, which is outside like Marismo, but Asian. Mostrador de Santa Teresita. And DEFINITELY Francis Mallmann’s Michelin starred restaurant he built 40 minutes inland, in the town of Garzon, which I wrote about in this post, which he owns and restored. he also has a new restaurant in the a new winery called Bodega Garzon.  La Olada.

On the Beach Eating at Posada del Faro’s Beach Shack

Where to Stay in Jose Ignacio

There used to just be a single good hotel Jose Ignacio — the Posada del Faro — with a couple of lesser places to stay. There used to be a law preventing the development of large hotels, or any new hotels, in town to prevent ruining its special vibe. But by a loophole, a few new places have opened in recent years, notably the Playa Vik and the Estancia Vik in the foothills on the rolling hills surrounding the peninsula. Recently, the famed Brazilian Fasano hotel chain opened in nearby La Barra. And most recently the Viks have opened Playa Vik right down the street from Posada del Faro and the perfect sunset pool.  They also opened Bahia Vik, right around the bend.  All the times I’ve visited I’ve stayed at the Posada del Faro, which I think recently changed hands. But it has one of the best locations, the most walkable to to all the restaurants and beaches in town.

Also, for renting a house, I’ve been eyeing this beauty for years, looking to gather up a group to share.  I sent some Rome friends there this year with their whole family and they loved it!  Right off the main Brava beach, in the Dunes development on the way to Laguna Garzon.

I don’t sleep well. When I wake up in the middle of the night…nearly every night… I think of the the waves you hear from Posada del Faro and it lulls me back to sleep.

Posada del Faro

Posada del Faro best hotel

I’ve only stayed in this little hotel every time I’ve stayed here. In a variety of rooms over the years. But always because of this view.

Posada del Faro boutique hotel Jose Ignacio

The whole hotel is built around the wonderfully small, but useful pool. A self-service bar sunken at water level. Elegant white canvas constantly flapping in the breeze.

 

 

Posada del Faro pool chairs

One of my favorite views, ever. Burned into my retinas. The breeze flapping all the white canvas.

 

Views from Posada del Faro

When I can’t sleep, I breath deep and think of the sounds of the waves from my room here. Never remember falling back to sleep…

 

 

 

Playa Vik

The newish Playa Vik hotel. The Viks have built a total of three hotels in the area, each special in its own way and they have a great publicist — you see articles everywhere. Great architecture and art, but to me, doesn’t fit in with the low key vibe and architecture of the rest of the town.

You can also stay at the very well reviewed, ultra modern Fasano hotel in nearby La Barra, the next town south of Jose Ignacio. Expect to pay around $700-1000/night. There are some other smaller hotels that have popped up in the area which I haven’t stayed in. Google it.

 

Exploring Beyond Jose Ignacio

Laguna Garzon

Jose Ignacio is surrounded by endless miles of undulating ranches, lagoons and other wild parts. Uruguayan grass-fed beef is known as being the best in the world. I’d taste good, too if this was my view. Although there’s been a lot of development around the estancias around Jose Ignacio, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was all houses now. 

 

Map of Uruguay coast

To give you a sense of distance, it’s about 40 minutes from Punta to Jose Ignacio. 40 minutes inland to Garzon. An hour and a half north to Cabo Polonio.

 

Bolsas crossing Laguna Garzon

The road used to run out north of Jose Ignacio, ending in there one-care, fishing boat powered ferries, which made it cool. But they’ve recently build a controversial ultra modern circular bridge that allows you to go all along the coast, all the way up to Brazil. Who knows what that’ll do for future development.

 

La Pedrera beach

La Pedrera is the next major beach town. It’s supposed to be the next Jose Ignacio, but has a long way to go.

Here’s a more recent article from The NY Times on finding the best beaches in Uruguay.  It really describes the wild and wooly beach towns north of Jose Ignacio.

Pueblo Garzon restaurant Francis Mallmann

About 40 minutes inland is the famous Michelin-starred restaurant Restaurant Garzon by Francis Mallmann. Years ago, Pueblo Garzon was a near abandoned gaucho town. Francis bought up most of the town and created this dining destination. Now surrounded by vineyards, galleries and shops (but not many). Recently he opened another restaurant on the new Bodega Garzon vineyards just a few miles outside of town. DEFINITELY plan on at least a long lunch or dinner here. There are also five elegant rooms that you can stay in. Highly recommend. Check my other posts on this remarkable gem.

Gaucho festival Garzon This is real gaucho country. You can see my others posts on this cool area.

Wine country Uruguay

If you’re flying in or out of Montevideo, there’s a killer wine country in Uruguay on the other side of Colonia. Highly recommend you check it out. See my other posts.

 

Carmelo Hyatt Uruguay

This used to be a Four Seasons in the heart of wine country — one of the cheapest Four Seasons. But I don’t think it lived up to there standards and has since be downgraded to a Hyatt brand hotel, Carmelo Resort and Spa, still cool though, with an awesome pool. See my other post on this resort and spa. You can actually take a fast ferry directly from Buenos Aires straight to Colonia del Sacramento, about half hour away.

 

More Information on Jose Ignacio

The word is catching on. Here are several recent articles that give the lowdown…and certainly better written and better shot than my amateur dribble. A repeat of the world-famous La Huella restaurant, one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to, in Bon Appetit. Travel & Leisure.And a great article in Departures.  In the New York Post, Modern Luxury in Jose Ignacio about the new, cool-but-out-of-place Hotel Vik. TripAdvisor. A great article on Fathom’s excellent website, which gets better every month. The British version of Conde Nast Traveller. Conde Nast Traveler about what’s jumping in Maldonado, the surrounding state in Uruguay. And Vogue. And Fathom Way To Go. Even the Daily Mail has written gossip about it!  And here’s Johnny Jet’s take on Jose Ignacio. And Huffington Post.  And The Hotel Guru.

And if you can’t make it to Uruguay, or afford it, go to Comporta in Portugal, the upcoming beach town that everyone is calling The Next Jose Ignacio.  Here’s a post I did on that cool beach town. Here’s a great article from the NYTimes that perfectly sums up the whole experience. And the Telegraph in London.

You should go here.

— Last visited: December 2005 & 2006, March 2011, February 2014, Post Update January 2020 — 

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