A big hand for Punta del Este

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In this week's Lonely Planet 'Great Escape', discover Uruguay's jet-set beach resort, an Atlantic enclave with plenty of art and culture to explore on the side

Bronzed, bikini-clad sylphs sip cocktails while well-fed sugar-daddies convene over cigars, and a shirtless DJ in mirrored Aviators spins thumping disco house under a makeshift canopied booth in the sand. It's just another afternoon on the beach in "Punta", as regulars call it. By turns referred to as the St-Tropez or Hamptons of South America, Punta del Este is exactly what you'd expect from those comparisons: a high-end festival of flesh and flash.

 Attracting Brazilian millionaires and high-society types from Buenos Aires, the area explodes into one continuous beach bash from December through to the end of February. Outside the frenzied high season, when hotel prices rocket and traffic jams are commonplace, many local businesses are shuttered and holiday homes sit empty.

As in Spain and Argentina, the dinner rush starts at 10pm and the clubs won't be bumping until well after 2am. Punta del Este proper, a built-up small peninsula of hotels, low-lying residential and commercial buildings and a small marina, isn't entirely where it's at anymore. The party has shifted east to the surf town of La Barra, with its Bikini Beach, and the formerly sleepy fishing village of José Ignacio, where a small number of modernist inns and the odd seafood restaurant now exist. Beyond the sand and socialising, Punta del Este has cultural cachet of which the average merrymaker is blissfully unaware. One need only head inland a few minutes to find a sculpture park, working cattle ranch or winery.

Punta's quieter side is just as compelling, from the natural splendour of the windswept coves, dunes and cliffs along the coast to the green pastureland and sun-dappled, canopied country roads that snake through it – a refreshing respite from that thumping house beat.

The perfect getaway

Punta del Este's South Beach-esque condos and nightclubs are just a part of this resort town, but start your explorations here. Climb the giant concrete fingers emerging from the sand on Playa Brava, sample the asado (charcoal-grilled beef) at a traditional parrilla (grill) and check out the yachts in the marina. Listen out for the summer's happening club, then make a game of getting past the ever-humourless bouncer.

To the east, the striking Museo-Taller Casapueblo, perched on Punta Ballena, is the artist Carlos Páez Vilaró's workshop, gallery and hotel. Now head west for youthful La Barra, where a mix of art galleries, surf emporiums and ice-cream shops attract glitterati, backpackers and families alike. Go inland to discover the delightful Museo del Mar, a treasure trove of whalebones, sea-creature taxidermy and thousands of neat collectibles.

In José Ignacio, lunch at beachfront hot-spot La Huella may entail a long wait, but the people-watching and impossibly fresh seafood, like the white-fish brótola, make up for it. The serene Pablo Atchugarry sculpture park is 5km inland from here and includes local sculptor Atchugarry's studio. Venture further west and you'll hit sleepy Garzón, a tiny town in gaucho (cowboy) country now best known as the home of Argentine celebrity chef Francis Mallmann's eponymous restaurant.

There are also places with a feral beauty to them, like the hippie-magnet village of Cabo Polonio, which has no roads into it, just 7km of dunes from Highway 10 (walk or hitch a ride on the open-air dune-rider bus to get there). Other things Cabo Polonio does not have: electricity; running water. And not a beefy bouncer in sight.

Plan it

Fly into Montevideo (the capital of Uruguay) or Buenos Aires (the capital of Argentina). From Montevideo, take a bus or rental car to Punta. From Buenos Aires, take a quick direct flight (less than an hour) or a ferry across to Uruguay. The ferry will either take you to Colonia or Montevideo, then take a rental car or bus to Punta. Book accommodation well in advance in high season (December to February); avoid the crowds by going in the shoulder season (November and March).

Detour

Though overshadowed by grape-growing giants such as Argentina and Chile, Uruguay is South America's fourth-largest producer of wine. The closest winery to Punta del Este is the award-winning Alto de la Ballena, which has eight hectares of vineyards at the foothills of the Sierra de la Ballena. Here, owners Paula and Alvaro Lorenzo grow merlot, tannat, cabernet franc, syrah and viognier. Visit their incredibly scenic estate – by appointment only.

This is an extract from 'Great Escapes', published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). To order a copy, go to shop.lonelyplanet.com

Travel essentials

Location: Punta del Este, Uruguay

Best time of year if you want to party: high season (December to February)

Ideal time commitment: Four to seven days

Essential tip: Book in advance during high season, including any flights or the ferry from Buenos Aires

Budget: £££

Pack: Sunscreen, bikini, camera, cash

ESSENTIAL EXPERIENCES

 * Lingering over a sunset dinner at a beachside restaurant and sampling freshly caught brótola (a local white fish) or grilled octopus

 *  Visiting the kitschy, colourful Museo del Mar for the weird and wonderful sea creatures preserved in bottles, the shells and the vintage beach paraphernalia

 *  Splashing about, then sprawling and gaping at the eye-candy on the beaches in La Barra, Punta del Este and José Ignacio

 * Shaking a tail feather till the sun comes up in a downtown Punta club or at a La Barra beach party

 * Exploring Casapueblo, a rambling, gleaming white Gaudí-esque villa, housing a hotel and art gallery, built on the water in Punta Ballena.

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