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5 Hours in Punta del Este, Uruguay: From Beautiful Beaches to Urban Delights

Punta del Este is paradise defined.

With its glistening azure waters and stunning sandy beaches, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect place to drop anchor than this resort city on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast. While Punta, as the locals call it, boasts a population of fewer than 10,000 permanent residents, the city comes alive for two weeks in January each year, when hundreds of thousands of rich and famous sun seekers swoop in to take advantage of this coastal playground in its peak season.

In recent years, Punta del Este has become a popular port for some of the world’s most prominent cruise lines, including Costa, MSC, Celebrity, and Norwegian. One of the best things about cruising is that you get to sample many different parts of the world, and you can always revisit the ones that really stand out. Punta del Este is one of those places.

Cruise Ship Shore Excursions

With only a few hours to explore Punta del Este, it’s important to maximize your time. Cruise ships typically offer shore excursions that take you to the most prominent tourist sites. These types of excursions are a great way to ensure you get a good feel for the place you’re visiting. However, on this particular cruise, I found the options lacking. I decided to research other options for my day in Punta del Este. I wanted to create a custom experience that met my unique needs. That’s when I came across a company called ToursByLocals.

For nearly a decade, ToursByLocals has been connecting travelers with local guides in more than 150 countries around the world. They’ve sourced the best experts in each community they serve so they can guarantee an exceptional experience every time. What’s more, they offer port pick up, the option to create your own itinerary or select from a variety of excursion options, and a “no one left behind” return to ship guarantee.

While the cruise line offered only two ways to spend the day in Punta del Este, ToursByLocals provided a plethora of opportunities. From food and wine to walking and wildlife tours, there was something for every taste. There were also a variety of guides to choose from. You can read their bios to find out their areas of expertise and interests to select the one that’s right for you. I opted for the Punta del Este and José Ignacio shore excursion with the delightfully fun and exceptionally intelligent Mariana.

Getting Started

Prior to our arrival in Punta del Este, Mariana contacted me to arrange a meeting time and place—10 a.m. at the very end of the pier. Since we needed to tender ashore, this gave us plenty of time to relax in the morning before our excursion. From the moment your ship drops anchor in Punta del Este, you’ll be blown away by its beauty. Just taking in the sun shining over the marina while drinking your morning cup of joe is a enough to make you wish you had more than a few hours in this amazing resort city.

punta del este

We arrived at the pier a little before 10 a.m., and while Mariana was holding a sign inscribed with my name, it was completely unnecessary. We locked eyes on each other long before I was near enough to read the sign. Mariana looked just like her picture, and from the moment we met, it felt like I was reuniting with a long lost friend. After a quick embrace and official introductions (my mother was also traveling with me), we were on our way.

Mariana wasted no time jumping right into guide mode. Though she did it in such a way that you felt you were just slipping into a casual conversation. It was relaxed and easy. She showed us the dockside fish market where stout sea wolves anxiously await scraps of seafood from tourists who are all too eager to feed the massive marine creatures.

From there, we headed toward the car, where we met Mariana’s mother, who had graciously agreed to be our chauffeur for the day. This was a pleasant surprise—by not having to focus on driving, Mariana was able to give her full attention to my mother and myself. But this wasn’t our only surprise. Mariana had a few sweet treats for us to try, too. One of the two local delicacies included dulce de leche, which is made from sweetened milk that is heated until it forms a thick caramel-like substances, and it’s absolutely to die for. The second treat was an alfajor, which is made up of two round cookies with dulce de leche sandwiched between them—also delicious.

We enjoyed our treats as we drove along the coastline, taking in the magnificent mansions lining the shore. All the while, Mariana provided fascinating details about Uruguay, Punta del Este, and the sights we were seeing. Punta is built on a peninsula that extends well into the sea, and a 2.5-mile pathway lines the shore along the peninsula. You can get off the ship and enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the area as you walk along the water.

Embarking on Our Adventure

One of our first stops was to take in the rocky point that marks where the Rio de la Plata river and estuary meet the Atlantic Ocean, creating a completely unique ecosystem. It’s at this midpoint that we made a quick pit stop to take some photos and talk about how these two distinct bodies of water converge.

Mariana talked in detail about the diversity of nature found in this place, as well as recounted the discovery and history of the country. She then showed us the remains of two mermaid statues that once stood proud on the rocky shoreline, as well as the site of the first naval battle of World War II. Mariana added a personal touch by telling us how her own grandmother had witnessed the fighting first hand and would often share stories with her grandchildren.

From here, we hopped back in the car, pausing for a quick look at the lighthouse and the beautiful blue Candelaria Church located across from it. Mariana, who teaches touristic geography at the local university, is extremely well educated about the area and provided tidbits of knowledge and fun facts about every site we visited and Uruguay in general. Her zest for life and passion for preserving Uruguay’s natural beauty are infectious. It was immediately apparent we were in excellent hands for the day.

As we continued our drive along the coastline, Mariana explained that the river side of the water is called La Mansa, or tame beach, and it’s perfect for swimming and relaxing on the sand. The ocean side, called La Brava, or fierce beach, is known for its rough waves and is ideal for outdoor enthusiasts looking for a little adventure in the form of surfing and other water sports. It was here that we made our next stop for a picture with the infamous sculpture of the hand rising from the sand, or La Mano.

From here, we began our long and scenic drive along the Atlantic coastline. Mariana regaled us with countless facts about the scenery and landscapes we passed. She explained that Punta is located in the Maldonado Department, or state, of Uruguay, and we would be traveling to the entire length of this department on our excursion. To begin, we crossed over the wavy bridge—so named for its notorious ups and downs—into the town of La Barra. Located at the northern end of Punta del Este, this idyllic beach resort community is the perfect place to kick back and soak in the sun.

Passing through the countryside, we took in sights of kite surfers, local vegetation, and beaches en route to the town of Manantiales. According to Mariana, Manantiales’ Bikini Beach is the place to spot models and other celebrities during the peak season, and lavish condos are available to rent right along the waterfront.

On the next leg of our journey, we made our way to José Ignacio, an ultra chic beach town that serves as a quaint getaway for Latin America’s the uber elite. If you’re hoping to spot a South American celebrity, this is the place to be. We ventured through the city streets, getting a good feel for the way the other half lives—and boy, do they live. This exclusive community boasts some of the most expensive housing in the area and is the ultimate seaside paradise.

A trip to José Ignacio wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the picturesque lighthouse that sits astride the rocky shoreline. It was here that Mariana shared with us the details of some of the important work she does to promote sustainable tourism and environmental awareness.

Roundabout at Rocha

By this time, we were only about halfway through our adventure with Mariana. There was still much to see and do. We continued our journey to the edge of Maldonado via the incredibly cool circle bridge that spans across Laguna Garzón. Once we hit the border with Rocha Department, we turned around and made our way back down the same road. Mariana pointed out rare indigenous cacti and revealed even more interesting facts about Uruguay.

Prior to meeting Mariana, she emailed to ask our dining preferences. She tries to tailor the excursion to individual tastes and wants to ensure her guests have an exceptional experience. Some people are looking for an upscale eatery where they can eavesdrop on the stars. Others seek a seafood extravaganza. Us? We opted for a simple outdoor eatery in Mariana’s hometown, La Barra.

Before heading for lunch, Mariana treated us to a glimpse into her own life. We drove past her house and down her street. She even took us down a back road and through a farmer’s field where we could glimpse the city from afar. It was an extraordinary and unexpected experience that turned out to be the highlight of our day. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we found ourselves at the most delightful little restaurant. At first glance, it looked like nothing more than a tiny log cabin with a few picnic tables set out in the open air. But it turned out to be a truly gourmet experience. We were greeted with a warm embrace by a few of the locals, who seemed to know Mariana well.

Within minutes of our arrival, the small establishment was swarming with hungry patrons. We were delighted to find Mariana’s husband and young daughter had arrived ahead of time to snag a table under the shade of the extended rooftop. Immediately, we engaged in conversation, giving us unprecedented insight into life in Uruguay. And have I mentioned the food yet? My goodness, I can’t forget the food…it was the ultimate in deliciousness. The restaurant offers three different choices on its menu each day, and at least one is vegetarian. Seeing as I don’t eat meat, I opted for the pumpkin quiche, and I was not disappointed. The generous portion was enough to tide me over until a late night dinner seating back on the ship. And it was accompanied by a fresh-from-the-garden salad doused in vinaigrette and sesame seeds that tasted like heaven.

Since there were still a few sights left for us to see, we made quick work of our meal, bid farewell to Mariana’s family, and headed back out on the road. As we made our way back toward Punta del Este, we drove through a shantytown to balance the excessive wealth we’d witnessed earlier in our tour. We also drove past the Maldonado university where Mariana works and through Maldonado City.

The last leg of our journey took us to Punta Ballena, or “Whale Point,” a small peninsula in the Rio de la Plata. En route, we learned that Punta del Este is the perfect place to view southern right whales from July to November each year. In fact, they come so close to shore that you can “smell” the water they exhale through their blowhole. Mariana is an expert in this particular species and offers specialized whale tours during the peak season.

Punta Bellena is the perfect place to watch the sunset over the river. It’s also the ideal location to spread your proverbial wings for a little hang gliding or take a gander at the infamous architecture of Casapueblo. Looking like something straight off of a Santorini postcard, what was once a summer home and workshop for Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró is now a hotel, museum, and art gallery. You can take a tour of this incredible location if you’d like to get up close and personal.

All Good Things Must End

As it always does when you’re having fun, the time flew by all too quickly. With what seemed like the blink of an eye, our time with Mariana was up. We had spent five perfect hours in Punta del Este, enjoying the area and making new friends. And, just like a good friend, Mariana anticipated my mother and I would like to spend a little time wandering the main street on our own. She gave us the option to be dropped off at the pier or on Gorlero Avenue, where you can find souvenir shops, clothing boutiques, and more.

Needless to say, we opted for the latter, and after saying our goodbyes and snapping a quick selfie, we parted ways with Mariana and her mother. We spent an hour or so meandering in and out of Gorlero’s quaint shops. If you’re looking to take home a special reminder of your time in Punta del Este, an amethyst is the way to go, and you’ll find no shortage of them here.

From the center of town, it’s only about a ten-minute walk back to the pier. We grabbed a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from one of the waterside restaurants and took another walk around the fish market—I just had to see those incredible sea wolves one last time. You’ll also find free Wifi near the pier if you want to tell friends and family back home about your awesome adventures in Uruguay.

I have traveled to about 50 countries on 6 continents. I’ve been on countless cruises and tours, but none have come even close to the amazing experience I had in Punta del Este. I can say with some authority that ToursByLocals has found something truly special in Mariana. If all of their tours are even half as good as the one I took in Uruguay, then they are well worth every penny.

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