Punta del Este is a curious town. For eleven months of the year, it lies pretty much empty with its myriad of identikit construction tower block apartments vacant and many of its restaurants, hostels and clubs shut down. However, at peak South American summer time, it transforms into one of the most popular destinations for Argentinians, Brazilians and Uruguayans alike in search of sun, sand and salaciousness.
Want some numbers to back it up? Well, according to a local we talked to, the population of the town transforms from around 20,000 to 250,000 in the intense December to mid-January holiday period.
On the budget backpacker route, this once-upon-a-time fishing town is often dismissed as too expensive – this is, after all, the summer playground for the rich, the glamorous and the beautiful of this part of the world who flock to Punta seeking a seriously good time. Some refer to it as the 'Monaco of South America', whilst a quick glance at the yachts docked in the harbour will remove all doubt that this is certainly a rich man's playground. Visit in high season and there will be crowds, traffic jams, increased rates and, if you've been living out of your backpacker for months, you will likely feel like a bit of a scruff.
However, if it's on your route and out of the peak weeks, then Punta del Este can still provide enough fun, sun and entertainment to justify a few days stay, with the town actually offering good accommodation and nightlife options for travellers on a budget.
#1 go surfing
When there's any decent swell, you're bound to find dozens of surfers chasing the same wave at Playa Brava – often showing little regard for any bystanders in the sea - but ask around the locals and they'll give you the low down on the secret spots.
During our stay in November, wetsuits were still favoured by pretty much everyone on a board.
#2 visit the hand in the sand
Created by a Chilean artist in 1982, this is probably one of the most well-known pictures to get in Uruguay. However, given the popularity with local tourists, you'll be lucky to get a people-free shot.
We were standing around for twenty minutes trying to get an opening but, just as it seemed that all the groups were leaving, another bus load would turn up and everyone would start running to the grasping digits, selfie-stick in hand.
#3 run around the peninsula
An excellent way to get to know Punta quickly is to get your running shoes on. The majority of the town is located on a peninsula and, when the sun is shining, there's no better way to spend an hour than by running the paved coastal pathway.
Take a little diversion, and you can check out the lighthouse or pretty bright blue church next to the observatory and get a sense of what the town was like before the tourism boom.
#4 buy fresh seafood and have a drink at the harbour
One of the highlights for us in Punta was strolling along the working harbour. Fishermen gut, scale and slice the catch of the day – often with fag in mouth – sea-lions mooch around trying to get some left-overs, albatrosses swoop down upon you whilst the boats of millionaires float next to battered fishing vessels.
Visit during the morning or afternoon and, as well as enjoying the atmosphere, you'll be able to pick up some excellent fresh shrimp, scallops or fish for lunch.
There are also a number of restaurants dotted along the harbour where you can enjoy a lunch deal in the sun, or just settle for a glass of local wine with a beautiful view.
#5 dance the night away
As one would expect for one of the biggest holiday destinations amongst South Americans, there's no shortage of nightlife during high season. There's a large casino in the centre of town, but most of the proper nightlife takes place east of Punta in the town of La Barra, around 10kms away.
During our visit in November, the town was not very busy and we knew our budget couldn't really stretch to a Uruguayan club, so your best bet is to ask around in your hostel for recommendations on the best spots and transport options after dark.
#6 laze by the beach
The beaches of Punta were actually a bit of a surprise. Given its popularity amongst Brazilians and Argentinians, we were expecting huge stretches of golden sand to rival the best beaches in South America. However, those within the city were actually small and not exactly picture postcard.
They were however perfectly lovely to spend the day at, cold beer in hand. Playa Brava is where we spent most of our time, with a few shop bought cans of Norteña beer.
If you're in the city for a few days, you may want to catch a local bus to check out some of the better stretches just outside of Punta, such as Bikini Beach in La Barra or some quieter spots in Jose Ignacio.
where to stay
Although Punta del Este is definitely a place more geared towards those on short-term holidays or who retain a holiday home in town, there is still a good backpacker scene. We were hosted by Tas D'Viaje Hostel and Surf Camp for our three-night stay and we'd recommend checking them out if you're visiting Punta.
The location is excellent – only a couple minutes from the bus station and even less from Playa Brava. A lot of thought has been put into the design of the hostel: gorgeous furniture made or upgraded by the staff, pastels of blue and white throughout the building giving a distinctly nautical theme and a beautiful outside deck where you can enjoy your breakfast or a sunset beer with a view of the ocean. Alcohol can only be purchased within the hostel, but they've got a kicking little bar round the back where you can get to know other travellers.
We stayed in one of their double rooms with private bathroom, which was comfortable and clean with a great shower. They also have a number of dorms available, including lockers. Surf board and bike rental is available, in addition to tourist information from the English-speaking staff.
Address: Four blocks from the bus terminal on Calle 24, between Calle 28 and 29.
Uruguay isn't a difficult country to get around and, from the bus terminal in Punta del Este, you are only a few hours from your next likely destination.
There are regular departures direct to Montevideo ($268 UYU, 2 hours) whilst those who are heading further east along the coastline should travel to La Rocha ($187 UYU, 2 hours), where you can connect to a Ruta del Sol bus to La Paloma ($71 UYU, 40 minutes) or travel further to the entrance for Cabo Polonio ($76, 1.5 hours).