Text and Photos: Gloria Algorta
I’ve been to Piriápolis and the surrounding areas so many times that at first it was hard to see it as a place worth writing about, which is often the case with familiar things. I decided to tour the area as if I were seeing it for the first time, looking at it with fresh eyes.
I left Montevideo and headed east. Just after crossing the Solís Grande stream at km 82, I found myself at the Solís seaside resort, where I was met by my sister, who has a house there and agreed to accompany me on my tour. For her, Solís is an oasis of peace on holidays and weekends. Almost all the streets are dirt roads and you can hear birdsongs and an unseen neighbor’s wind chimes from the deck of her house. We eat lunch at the iconic Alción Hotel, which separates the two beaches. Founded by English railroad investors, Solís still overflows with English-style gardens and Garden Club ladies, and sun umbrellas still shade English-speaking families.
A unique feature of this seaside resort is its charming stream, which is sometimes invaded by seawater. Here we can enjoy both fresh and salt-water swimming, separated by only a few hundred yards of stony beach. The stream widens as it empties into the ocean, creating an ideal spot for water sports and beautiful sunsets. Near the other side of Solís, on the bank of the Espinas stream, we visit a wooden bird watching blind, and to our surprise, we sight not only saw birds, but also carpinchos, enormous indigenous rodents found from Panama to Buenos Aires province, known as capybaras or chigüiros in other countries.
Route 10 runs along the coast from Solís to Punta Negra, passing through Piriápolis. The next seaside resort along this route is Bellavista, but I won’t describe it until the end of this article, for reasons that will be clear later.
We continue to Las Flores, where the oldest —and very charming— wood and stone houses date back to the time the English financed the railroad. The highway splits Las Flores in two. There are houses along the beach, and on the inland side, inns with sea views stand on rising ground. All of these seaside resorts have their own shops, restaurant-bars, and sports clubs.
Castillo Pittamiglio, along the road that links Las Flores with the route connecting the other seaside resorts, is now being restored. Pittamiglio was one of the most interesting men in Uruguay in the mid-20th century; he was an openly homosexual politician, believer in the occult, and freemason. A friend of Piria —more about him shortly— he built his summer house with hidden passageways and the turrets of a medieval castle. I’m familiar only with the façade, but the place certainly deserves a visit now.
Playa Verde is a world apart; the entrance is barely visible from Route 10 because it sits entirely on the ocean side of the road. Summer vacationers are loyal to this out-of-the-way seaside resort and wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. It boasts two beaches and an excellent restaurant, open weekends year-round. A friend of mine has a Playa Verde house that features the kind of functionalist architecture favored by Le Corbusier. Aside from the house, my friend also has a group of lifelong friends of a certain age. Most people here display an intense loyalty, which I don’t pretend to understand, but it is enough to know it exists.
Playa Hermosa and Playa Grande
After a look around Playa Verde, we take to the road again and continue on to Playa Hermosa and Playa Grande. The mid-20th century hotels here weave a spell with their hydrangea-framed verandas featuring comfortable patio chairs with striped cushions. Of course, both places feature beautiful beaches. We stop just long enough to take a few photos.
Not far from Piriápolis stands La Corniche, a signature restaurant in a location that, until a few years ago, housed Vértigo, the favorite disco of the area’s young people.
It is impossible to talk about Piriápolis without remembering the pioneer Francisco Piria (1847-1933), an Italian entrepreneur with dreams —or delusions— of grandeur. He left behind an eponymous city on the bank of the Río de la Plata; a house in Montevideo, now the seat of the Supreme Court; and another near Piriápolis, the embodiment of a dream, known as Castillo de Piria. Catillo de Piria is now a museum. In addition to his business acumen, Piria was an intellectual and a politician. He was familiar with the Cabala and alchemy, leading many people to assume that Piriápolis possesses a special, magnetic energy The monuments are there to be deciphered by anyone willing to do a little research.
Piria is responsible for planting trees along the coast in the department of Maldonado. He was active in real estate and agriculture and he also mined granite from Pan de Azúcar hill. In 1890, he wrote of the cove where he decided to found Piriápolis: “We traveled through much of Europe, visiting many seaside resorts, mountains, forests, valleys, and summer and leisure destinations. We saw so much beauty and so many magnificent treasures, yet we were captivated by this enchanting spot. The sight of it was enough to spark our passion.” He built the Hotel Piriápolis, now the Colonia Escolar de Vacaciones, on the broad, golden sands, filling it with Persian carpets, Murano glass, European furniture, Limoges china and much more. The port —essential for attracting Argentinean tourists— opened in 1916, and the coastal road was modeled on Nice’s Corniche. He set the hotel and its grounds on the inland side, saving several yards of beach and long-gone dunes.
In 1930, Francisco Piria opened the Argentino Hotel, the largest in South America at the time.
Piriápolis had a growth spurt in the 1940s and 1950s, and with more than eight thousand year-round residents, the city now has its own economic and cultural life. Located about sixty miles east of Montevideo and twenty-two miles from Punta del Este, this city and its surrounding area offer services, activities, and landscapes for all tastes.
Piriápolis has hotels, a casino, a movie theater, restaurants, pubs, discos, shopping centers, supermarkets, a yacht marina, water sports, and more. The natural cove is unique in Uruguay: its hills leading down to a calm, green sea are unusual in a country of plains and rough waters. Many local and international events are organized year-round, including the 8K Doble San Antonio race, regattas, beach sports, mountain biking competitions, automobile races, a paella serving two thousand people, and all kinds of shows. There are private functions in hotels and clubs, and public events like performances by national stars as part of the Ministry of Tourism’s summer schedule.
The summit of Mt. San Antonio can be reached by car or chair lift, providing visitors a panoramic view of the not so distant skyline of Punta del Este. Mt. Sugarloaf, home to a reserve for indigenous fauna and an adventure eco-park, is crowned with a huge cement cross. A two-hour walk takes visitors to the summit. The view is spectacular and the climbs I’ve taken with my children and friends have always been amply rewarding. Ascending a mountain is a satisfying challenge, even when the mountain rises only 1388 ft. And this is one of the highest points in Uruguay!
My sister and I have tea at the Argentino Hotel. The surroundings are fascinating: our table enjoys a view of the ocean. We walk through a lobby illuminated by enormous stained glass windows and admire its Carrara marble staircase and delicate crystal light fixtures. The highly eclectic style is nearly impossible to define.
We continue on to San Francisco, a seaside resort that was just a variegated forest not so long ago. In my opinion, it has the best beach in the region, complete with dunes and a wide stretch of fine, white sand. Here the ocean is definitely the ocean, even though the Rio de la Plata officially ends at Punta del Este. How can you draw borders in a substance as fluid as water anyway?
Despite its wonderful view, the houses on the Punta Colorada promontory are simple and unpretentious. My son Pablo and his former Scouting mates enjoyed innumerable camp-outs in this slightly inland spot, until construction invaded the forest clearing. All the seaside resorts are growing in tune with the economic bonanza in recent years, filling the remaining forest clearings with development.
Punta Negra and Beyond
Punta Colorada used to be the terminal point of Route 10, and it is still the final destination for buses. Now, however, the highway continues, passing Punta Negra, which features rocks that give it the name “Black Point,” a rough, dangerous beach, and waves more than large enough to surf. Route 10 ends a few miles from Portezuelo. There, at the end of the road, a few ranches emerge in the middle of nowhere.
From Punta Negra, visitors can travel toward Punta del Este on a dirt road leading northeast toward the resort route, more or less near Portezuelo. Or, they can turn around like we did, and return to Solís, happy to have been pleasantly surprised by seeing a familiar area through new eyes.
Bellavista Once More
The way to the Bellavista seaside resort is marked by enormous buoys along the highway. My husband’s family has had a house there since long before I met him. We have spent summers in Bellavista since we returned from Spain twenty-seven years ago, and we have also enjoyed innumerable weekends and many winter vacations there. My children and nieces and nephews grew up on the resort’s beach. I saved this particular place for last so I could close on a personal note.
In its day, Bellavista was an exclusive seaside resort: there were just a few dirt roads, traced by the Aznárez family, local ranchers and owners of the seaside hotel. The Aznárez family did not sell land to just anyone, but a couple of decades ago, during a difficult period for the countryside, sales accelerated and Bellavista began to grow and fill with all kinds of houses. There are year-round residents like the retired couples who make day trips to Montevideo to see their families, telecommuting Europeans, and Argentineans living off their investments. We all know each other.
The beach consists almost entirely of smooth pebbles. The presence of sand and the ability of beachgoers to go into the water without rubber shoes depends on the storms that deposit and remove the stones on the beaches. This is an important topic of summer conversation: “Is there a beach?” we ask, inquiring about the fate of the sand.
My favorite part of Bellavista lies on the other side; I climb over the gate, into fields with a view of Sierra de las Ánimas. This summer I made friends with the horses, but I didn’t get up the courage to ride them bareback because they were too tall and I couldn’t edge them close to the fence. Almost all of my photos of the birds of Uruguay were taken here. Bellavista lives in my heart, with memories of barbecues on December 31st to welcome so many new years, both good and bad; the wild moorhens’ shrill song that woke me at dawn; and my children and nieces and nephews growing up together, filling the house and tents set up in the yard when the house could not accommodate so many. For most people, Bellavista is just another place; for me, it’s the one place I would alway.