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The Great Transformation of Punta del Este

A stormy coast along the tourist city of Punta del Este, Uruguay. Photo: Getty Images.

For years, Analía Suárez woke up before sunrise and the first voice she heard was that of Bernardo Neustadt on the phone.

As the right-hand woman of the influential journalist, the 2001 crisis decided to completely change her life. She moved with her husband to Punta del Este, started from scratch planting raspberries, watches sunrises over the sea simply for pleasure, and now owns “Imarangatú,” one of the trendiest restaurants in the city, and is the president of the local hoteliers association.

Very few people can explain better than Suárez the transformation of Punta del Este, which has evolved from a summer mecca to a dormant city in winter to one of the most coveted corners of the world to escape the crises and tensions experienced in many countries in the northern hemisphere, including Argentina.

“If you settle here, you have to connect. Connect with nature, with the place. Because the nights are calm, this is for something else. Punta del Este is the best place in the world,” says Suárez to Forbes Argentina during a conversation in her restaurant, which has become “the” place not to be missed.

“This restaurant once served 1,800 covers in a day in the summer. It’s in a strategic, amazing location. And we are clear on what we want, with a chef, Matías Sanjurjo, who cooks exquisitely and leads a team of 60 people.”

Years away from those stressful early morning conversations with Neustadt, Suárez fell in love with the Uruguayan resort. “My goal was to integrate the beach into the city because in winter, the beach was not enjoyed.”

Enrique Antía, mayor of the Maldonado department, which includes Punta del Este, has been enjoying for some time what he was convinced would happen: the transformation of Punta into something different than it used to be.

“People choose to live in Punta del Este because of the quality of life, in the first place, but also because of the environmental quality, the enjoyment of nature, security, and recreational conditions,” he told Forbes Argentina.

“Already more than three million square meters have been built in these last four years, and there is another million and a half ahead. At least $9 billion in foreign investment has been harvested,” he added.

This influx of money and those millions of square meters trigger some concerns in Suárez, opposing the dream of some in the city for Punta to become the Miami of South America.

“Miamiization will not happen, but I see that ambition. There are risks because investment is needed and developers abound the most. Houses are disappearing in La Mansa and La Brava to build buildings,” she warned.

“There are 6,500 properties for rent. They are killing off small hotels because buildings with amenities have maid service,” explained Suárez, owner of a hotel, the AWA, where a French guest once left her a phrase she will never forget: “Europe is here now.”

The friendliness of the Uruguayan service -“In Italy, France, and Greece, they treat you badly!”- is another positive point, according to the owner of “Imarangatú.”

Europeans and Americans settling on the Uruguayan east coast are witnesses. There are small signs of the transformation of that corner of the world. For decades, Punta was a summer resort for wealthy Argentines and Brazilians, along with a handful of semi-aristocratic Europeans.

Today is different. Only 120 kilometers from the capital, Montevideo, Punta is now the lung that injects dynamism into aging Uruguay. There, among forests, dunes, rivers, lagoons, and the sea, things are happening that catch the eye.

It’s Thursday night, and the Punta del Este airport is calm. The summer has passed, and only a few flights land. One of the buses that usually transports passengers from the terminal to a plane crosses the runway and stops at a hangar. There are about 200 people gathered to hear four speakers in a debate anchored by a question: “Is Punta del Este a cosmopolitan city?”

“Yes,” says Francesca Magno, an expert lawyer in residence and immigration at the consultancy Andersen. “We are becoming more and more here. Our office in Punta del Este was born because of the large number of foreign clients who are settling. Uruguay has legal security, something that makes us, lawyers, very proud. We are a country with something very enviable in the region, a safe haven. Of those who come, not many return to their countries.”

Daniel Fernández Abarno is 32 years old. He is Uruguayan-American, born in New York and has spent most of his life in New York. Since 2022, he has been settled in Punta del Este, and his perspective is that of someone who sees things from both inside and outside.

“We are in the middle. People don’t live here all year because their profession or economic center is not here, but at the same time this city is no longer as empty as before,” Fernández Abarno, CEO of the first Uruguayan Search Fund, ROU Partners, based in Punta del Este, told Forbes Argentina.

“What is needed to become a city is a genuine activity center for people from here. Young people who work come from Friday to Monday and then are in Montevideo. We need company headquarters here,” he added.

Marcia Alves, a Brazilian who now holds a high position at one of Punta del Este’s new gems, the International College, is a human thermometer to measure the internationalization of Punta del Este and Uruguay, a country that goes against the left-wing governments in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, or Chile. Alves is the head of admissions at the International College, one of the first people foreigners who arrive in the tiny Uruguay, a country of just 3.2 million inhabitants, speak to.

“Since I arrived ten years ago, there has been a very big change. The school arose because of the families that settle here. Today we have students from 23 countries. Many Argentines, but increasingly more Europeans. We have Russian, German, Israeli, Dutch, Spanish, Polish families who feel very comfortable, they know someone will speak to them in English. I get Russian and Belarusian families who don’t speak a word of Spanish. They seek economic and social stability. Many people don’t want to live in the United States, many Germans want to leave Europe. They look for a simpler life with peace and quality,” she explained.

Magno, who also deals with newcomers, gives a historical perspective on the issue: “My Italian grandparents fled a war, and today many people have the need to get away from the war in Ukraine, to have a quiet life. Others seek not to be hit with surprise taxes. Uruguay is a country where responsible freedom is the basis.”

And not only that, says Magno to Forbes Argentina: “Many bring up the ‘nuclear test.’ They tell me they come to Uruguay because it is the safest country to escape the third and even the fourth wave of a nuclear explosion. Uruguay is far away, like Argentina, although the economy there doesn’t help. And Australia and New Zealand are also far away, but there is a fear of the geographical proximity to China.”

The last thing you think about when you step on Chihuahua is a nuclear explosion.

A naturist beach, as calm as few and adopted by the LGTBIQ+ community, from Chihuahua you can even walk to the Punta del Este international airport, but at the same time, you feel isolated from any disturbance or problem, far from everything that doesn’t work in the world.

“I think more and more people will come to this beach and say it without any fear of being judged or having people think things that are not true,” said Agustín Etchegoimberry, owner of the Chicho beach club, the only one in Chihuahua and a great stage for watching sunsets and enjoying a drink. “Chihuahua was stigmatized for many years by naturism and nudism, today the beach and the neighborhood are developing and receiving new visitors. Many do not know that here naturism is optional and everyone who comes has the freedom to practice it or not.”

Etchegoimberry, married to a South African, lives half the year in Uruguay and the other half in London. Chihuahua has him in love. “I personally believe that this is one of the most beautiful beaches in Punta, not only because of its geography, where the stream meets the sea, and its sunsets, but also because of the type of people who visit it. There is a relaxed and friendly atmosphere among all visitors. Chihuahua has great potential that is not being well promoted, there are not many naturist beaches with such easy access and close to the city.”

Etchegoimberry is also a witness to the profound change that Punta del Este is experiencing. “Without a doubt, it has grown a lot in recent years. It was growth driven by the pandemic. Argentines, Brazilians, Chileans, and also people from Montevideo decided to move here to enjoy nature and the sea air more. This led to the creation of new schools and infrastructure to meet this new demand for services. However, now I notice that the growth of new residents is stabilizing, and I have heard cases of people returning to big cities due to the lack of more activity in winter. While it is nice to enjoy the tranquility, after a while that tranquility can turn into boredom.”

“We are at a point of equilibrium. People do not live here all year because their job or economic center is not here, but at the same time the city is no longer as empty as it used to be,” Fernández Abarno, CEO of the first Uruguayan Search Fund, ROU Partners, based in Punta del Este, told Forbes Argentina.

“What is needed to become a city is a genuine activity center for people who are from here. Working young people come from Friday to Monday and then are in Montevideo. Company headquarters are needed here,” he added.

Marx Alves, head of admissions at the International College, an international school that makes you want to be a child again, is a human thermometer for measuring Punta del Este’s internationalization, and therefore Uruguay, a country set against the left-wing governments ruling in countries like Brazil, Me…

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