Uruguay, Jose Ignacio – Gauchos, Beaches, Food, Wine, Art, and Raw Beauty

This is one where you are just going to have to trust me and I promise you will be rewarded handsomely.

If you have 7 days to spend and are open on your destination, you must consider Uruguay!

Here is my take:

For East Coast Americans an overnight flight to the Uruguayan Capital Montevideo hardly means a time change which allows you to bypass the dreaded jet lag and time loss you have when heading to Europe or the East.    Here is my idea of an absolutely idyllic week:


Arrive into Montevideo.  Rent a car and drive 90 minutes East to Jose Ignacio and arrive at the breathtaking Estancia Vik.  Nothing will prepare you for the arrival to this incredible ranch built as a family home sitting on 4000 acres.  The Vik family incorporated and built the entire property around the most eclectic collection of Uruguayan art, each of the 12 bedrooms completely unique.  The common areas overlooking the waterways, the pastures, the courtyards or pool are all breathtaking in their own way and allow a group of family members to connect in many different ways and settings while enjoying what has the feel of a private home, more than a hotel.

Guests of Laura Madrid will receive the following Virtuoso amenities:

  • Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
  • Daily Full breakfast, for up to two in room guests
  • A complimentary lunch or dinner for up to two people per room


Service is exactly the same, there are no plans and no hours or set places to do anything, simply connect with the “Experience Concierge” and she can set up a riding lesson, a polo match, a massage, a bike ride, or even a horse back ride to the beach or to a vineyard.   The horses are incredible and riding could and should be a part of any stay, from a beginner to a professional, there is something for you.  The area is absolutely beautiful and best explored on the back of a horse!

Meal times are when you would like and they are always exceptional! The French Chef Betancourt uses the very best local produce and prepared each dish so simply but impeccably.  A favorite night for everyone is ASADO night or Uruguayan barbecue in the designated and beautiful Asado Room – watching the chef cook over fire and offer us so many cuts and type of meats is both a show and a treat.  Wines are regional, some made by the Vik family itself, but all delicious from Malbecs to Tannats to Viogniers and Sauvignon Blancs.

Our table awaits at the Asado at Estancia Vik


Take a kayak or canoe along the Uruguayan waterways that cut through the property and even do some fishing.

If Polo is not your game you might be lucky enough to watch at match on the professional court, otherwise there are fantastic grass tennis courts and of course, a ping pong tournament every night.

Guests can take the bikes and cycle off road along the property or take them right into the beach at Jose Ignacio for lunch.


Everyone in Jose Ignacio knows everyone and off-season you are bound to be treated just like a local.  You will see the chefs and hoteliers enjoying their night off from work dining at a local family owned favorite, La Orlada – barbecued fish and lamb, wood burned pizzas, and homemade stuffed pastas are found in this lively and warm little restaurant down a dirt road.

The place to meet old and new friends and perhaps the most famous restaurant in town is La Huella, (http://www.bonappetit.com/blogsandforums/blogs/badaily/2012/07/uruguay-beach-vacation-la-huel.html) located right on the beach where locals and celebrities and the affluent who come for the high season queue up for lunch and dinner at this very chic, yet casual, indoor outdoor eatery.  This is the place to see and be seen, where just about everyone knows everybody and where the models might duck in for lunch still in their bikinis.  Regulars who come for season may book a standing table at La Huella every day for lunch, it truly is the place to go and like everything in Jose Ignacio is very family oriented with multiple generations of families saying hello to everyone.


La Huella just before it fills up for lunch on the beach

Perhaps the best restaurant in Jose Ignacio is Marismo, a restaurant lit only by fire and the stars, open-air with no sign, and open only 2 months a year! You have to know to find it and oh so worth it!


After 3 nights at the Estancia it is time to shift gears and travel just 5 minutes up the road to the other Vik Retreat where you will have a complete change of senses, atmosphere and scene at Playa Vik.  This ultra modern small hotel is avant-garde and high tech and sits on an absolutely private bay in the town of Jose Ignacio.  The suites and 2-3 bedroom casitas again each have been designed in their own theme by a prominent Uruguayan artist – a great deal of fun is in play here as well as no sparing of expense whatsoever.   Keep in mind that the Vik’s built these homes for their personal enjoyment and they open up to guests so staying here is more like being in someone’s home and the staff treats you that way.

playa vik2

We started our afternoon with a gorgeous Sauvingon Blanc and grilled squid by the fire pit overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. We were then invited to communal tables with other guests to enjoy an incredible fish barbecue all served outside.  The ability of the culinary team to cook so well by fire is astounding.

The Beach at Jose Ignacio

The shops in Jose Ignacio are boutique and one of a kind, you can never get bored strolling the little town searching for just the thing and the number of wonderful little restaurants to visit on foot while staying at Playa Vik is a treat.   The resort has a small spa and gym, and of course, ping-pong reigns in the evenings!  During the short PEAK season that runs from mid December to mid January when the Uruguayans, Argentines, and Brazilians are enjoying their summer holidays the places is a buzz with everything open, music, dancing, arts and events.

Max, the Director at the Vik Retreats, shows us how to shop in Jose Ignaci

A little less crowded with everything still open until about Easter time.  Things do slow down for the fall and the spring but it is a beautiful time to come and to experience the area at a more attractive price point with out having to worry too much about reservations and getting the rental car you will want.

Art is everywhere in Jose Ignacio – and a trip to the area without visiting the workshop and sculpture park of Pablo Achugarry would be a miss (http://www.fundacionpabloatchugarry.org/en/sculpture-park).   Pablo works in sculpture of Bronze, marble, even olive tree wood.  His works are made in Italy an in Uruguay and are exported all over the world. Some of his special pieced were commission for Estancia Vik, Playa Vik and for the Garcon Winery.  The grounds have occasional art and food festivals, concerts, and do training for local school children.

Pablo Achugarry

After 2-3 nights at Playa Vik, I then strongly suggest a trip to the tiny 19th century town of just 200 regular residents, Garzon.  The immaculate slow-paced town with a stunning town square is home to one of the most famous restaurants, an idyllic inn, and a true sense of what makes Uruguay tick.

An absolutely stunning, soothing and impeccably designed guest house – Casa Anna (www.casaanagarzon.com) awaits you here.  Your trip will not be complete with out sitting amongst the hand-tended gardens, enjoying the lazy pool, smelling the countryside all around you and slowing down a bit.  Hospitality is warm and natural, with coffee served in a gorgeous communal kitchen.  The owner, Martin Summers, and his wife have an impeccable sense of design and taste that is so soothing, especially after the assault on your senses with the unique art works from the Vik Retreats.   The property has a ping-pong room and regularly hosts “Ping Pong Championships” and an art studio.  One of the rooms is wonderful for families with lots of kids, a long room with 4 beautiful beds all lined up.


Lunches can be served on property by a chef but everyone comes to Garzon to enjoy a meal at the famous restaurant of renowned Argentine Chef, Francis Mallman – http://www.restaurantegarzon.com/e-004.html.


A day trip from here should be to the Olive Grove and Winery of Colinas de Garzon (www.agroland.com).  Our friend Nicolas took us through the grounds, and a high tech visitors studio to show how they process their olives.  Soon a similar but different visitors studio will be available to see their wine making process.  The owner, Alex, has vineyards in California, Italy an Argentina and they are very excited to start improving and exporting some Uruguayan varietals. I really loved their Tannat and their Viognier!  Extremely reasonably priced.  An afternoon here might include an oil and wine tasting along with mouth watering Uruguayan cheeses – all those sheep and cows are not hanging around for nothing! The olive oils carried by many of the best restaurants in the area are on sale here – so fresh, you smell the fruit and spice!  Delicious! A balloon ride, biking, picnicking or private barbecue in the vineyards.

Nicholas shares wine, olives and cheese at Colinas de Garzon

Events to look for in Jose Ignacio are the October Food and Wine Festival with a series of roving events with top Uruguayan chefs and winemakers from Playa Vik, to the town square in Garcon to Punta del Este.  Plan now for next October; puntafoodandwine.com.

A spectacular forthcoming event in February is the VIK South American Art and Gauchos – an incredible exposition with the artists who made VIK RETREATS come to life – contact Resort to Laura Madrid for more information and to secure your space for what may be the most fun and interesting event on the continent.

For me, any of these properties are best enjoyed as complete take over or with a group of friends or family as there are so many ways to enjoy the venues as a group.  As a couple or a family though, you will find so many others to connect with as it is a very social and easy-going setting.

While Punta del Este certainly has put this area of the world on the map as being the glitzy, and posh sea side escape for the well-to-do, it is Jose Ignacio that is the real draw with it’s quiet and familiar yet chic and sophisticated feel.   Art, food, beach, ranch, history, and wines – it is all here and in a way that is truly unforgettable. I would absolutely love to share this experience with you and you will undoubtedly be grateful you trusted me!

Punta del Este

For other sources, you can refer to the Travel and Leisure article on Uruguay – http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/uruguay-south-americas-latest-hot-spot

You can check out the New York Times article on “the chic but not famous town called Jose” – http://travel.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/travel/09next.html?_r=1&

You can look into numerous lists of the hottest new boutique hotels and you will keep coming back to Uruguay, specifically to Jose Ignacio to the Vik Retreats – Estancia Vik and Playa Vik.


The Iconic Lighthouse at Jose Ignacio, Uruguay

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