When summer arrives in December, La Pedrera’s main street bustles with families dining al fresco, sandy-haired teenagers hanging out in board shorts, jazz musicians entertaining passers-by and artisans selling handmade jewelry on makeshift stands.
By Paola Singer for The New York Times
It is a lively, somewhat boisterous scene, and very concentrated. Just a few feet away in any direction the noise and lights begin to fade, replaced by the lulling sounds of the ocean and the glimmer of the Southern Cross constellation.
La Pedrera is one of a handful of seaside villages in Rocha, a rural area of eastern Uruguay that’s slowly emerging as South America’s next bohemian-chic hideaway. Insiders and locals know Rocha as a cheaper and more relaxed alternative to Punta del Este, a high-end resort town about 80 miles south, and its oh-so-fashionable neighbor, José Ignacio. But in some ways, Rocha is the very antithesis of the country’s more famous beach destinations. There are no luxury brands, no parking woes and no society-page shindigs.
“It’s more down-to-earth, natural and younger than José Ignacio or Punta,” said Brenton West, a British photographer who was traveling along the Uruguayan coast in January. “It keeps its rural charm.”
Home to several ecological reserves and 100 miles of rugged Atlantic shore, Rocha traditionally attracted hippies, surfers and nature lovers, along with families seeking a low-key vacation. Everyone from dreadlocked backpackers to relatively affluent professionals mingled in simple bars dispensing beer by the liter.
But the limited dining and lodging options — tourist accommodations were either tents or hostels (or looked like them) and restaurants were more like canteens — kept most international travelers away. Now Rocha is undergoing a discreet transformation. In the last few years, Uruguayans and Argentines in search of rest and rusticity have begun visiting the area, buying land and building elegant summer homes. Some have become innkeepers or restaurateurs, stepping in to fill the hospitality gap and drawing more and worldlier clients.
(About 94,000 vehicles made their way to Rocha during the 2011 summer season, a 10 percent increase over last year and a 35 percent increase from 2008. Visitors must arrive by car or bus, and vehicular statistics are the only ones kept.)
La Pedrera’s first boutique hotel, Brisas, opened in late 2009. Laura Jauregui, an Argentine who has traveled the world working for multinational technology firms, bought and renovated the 14-room property near the village’s scenic cliffside promenade, decorating it with a mix of midcentury finds and custom-made rattan furniture. Televisions and telephones are purposely missing.
Ms. Jauregui said she considered the hotel, housed in a building constructed in the early 1900s, an investment. “The Uruguayan coast has always been very popular, and it’s been moving progressively toward the north,” she said. Yet she was surprised by the “geometric growth” of her business after just a year. “We were fully booked this season, from Christmas until Carnival,” Ms. Jauregui said. “Many people who were in José Ignacio last year are here now.”
It took José Ignacio, just outside Punta del Este, about a decade to go from sleepy fishermen’s village to enclave of luxury and exclusivity. While it retained its rustic low-rise architecture, it also became home to $800-a-night rooms and restaurants with hard-to-book tables from Christmas to February, the peak season. But the unspoiled, unplugged feeling that once made it so attractive can still be found in La Pedrera.
“Here it’s two steps behind,” Susie Galbraith, a British marketing executive who was traveling with Mr. West, said sitting in the lobby at Brisas. “It’s a bit more hippie, and more quaint.”
Residents like to say that watches and mirrors are beside the point in La Pedrera; people eat when they’re hungry, sleep when they’re tired and wear whatever they want. And what they want to wear, it seems, are mostly flip-flops and bathing suits.
After all, much of life unfolds on the sand. Playa del Barco, a wide beach with rough waves and a distinctive sculpture of sorts — the rusty bow of a cargo ship that sank there in the 1970s — has visitors well into the night, mostly 20-somethings who gather around bonfires.
Night-life options are limited, especially for those over 30, but La Pedrera has a growing stable of restaurants. Olinda, which opened in 2010 in an old house, is a cozy spot with brick walls, vintage tiles and wooden chairs. It serves well-executed international dishes like curried chicken with mixed greens and rib-eye steak with garlic mashed potatoes. The back patio, open until 3 a.m., is a good option for late-night drinks.
Another relative newcomer is Lo de Charlie, the outpost of a seafood restaurant in Punta del Este. At this smaller but equally colorful space, the owner and chef Charlie Begbeder added sushi to his roster of classics like sautéed baby squid and garlic shrimp. And at Darwin, a parrillada (or steakhouse) decorated with artfully mismatched antiques, the barman prepares tasty variations of the caipiroska, replacing lemon wedges with blackberries and other fresh fruits.
Some people fear that with these arrivals La Pedrera risks losing its appeal. But development has been quite slow, partly because to drive there from Punta del Este, the hub of the Uruguayan Riviera, involves a roundabout route that takes about 90 minutes. The most direct path between the two locations, a panoramic coastal highway, is interrupted by the Garzón and Rocha Lagoons. While cars can cross the Garzón Lagoon on a shabby raft that carries up to four vehicles at a time, a process that is both impractical and anachronistically charming, right now there’s no way across the larger Rocha Lagoon. (Bridges would make the trip from Punta del Este about half as long.)
Still, its relative isolation was — and is — a large part of the appeal. One of La Pedrera’s most notable pioneers was Julio Bocca, the renowned Argentine ballet dancer. He rented a house there about a decade ago, and within days was found by paparazzi, who chronicled his every move for gossip magazines and generated buzz about the village. Undeterred, Mr. Bocca has returned to Rocha many times over the years. “It’s a wonderful place,” he said. “The beaches are gorgeous, and the quiet nights are incredible.”
More privacy can be found farther north. Five miles up the coast from La Pedrera is San Antonio, a settlement of about 30 houses that’s lined with sandbanks and is reportedly attracting Argentine actors and artists who want to escape the limelight. “This is the kind of place that people discover only through word of mouth,” said David Tezanos Pinto, owner of Posada San Antonio, a rough-hewn but chic four-room guesthouse that opened in late 2005. Mr. Tezanos Pinto, who divides his time between Rocha and Buenos Aires, was one of the first foreigners to arrive in the area. When he bought the property — an old carpentry shop surrounded by a eucalyptus forest — there were no real roads, only paths carved by the occasional utility vehicle.
“My wife and I traveled all over the world looking for a place to build a small inn and change our lifestyle,” he said. “The combination of countryside and beach was what really attracted us.” The posada has a restaurant — the only one in San Antonio — with a rotating menu that typically includes freshly caught fish. There’s also a small pool, made out of a round cattle tank and, less than a half-mile away, a seemingly endless beach.
Going north again you’ll find Posada Buscavida on a barely populated stretch of coast called Oceanía del Polonio. It is the first and most secluded boutique lodging in Rocha, with 10 austere rooms and a not-so-austere clubhouse, where guests can lounge on oversize white sofas and order perfect fried calamari, or walk a few steps to the beach bar and sip a chilled martini bianco on a hammock.
Buscavida, which is open in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, can arrange horseback rides to nearby Cabo Polonio, perhaps Rocha’s most emblematic site. El Cabo, as locals call it, is a protected sand-dune reserve with no roads, no electricity, hundreds of sea lions and a dozen or so shacks, many painted in bright colors. In January and February, the warmest months, Cabo Polonio fills with visitors who come to experience beach life as it was hundreds of years ago.
“Rocha has so many places that are still pristine,” Mr. Bocca said. “You can get into a four-wheel-drive and easily find a completely deserted beach, and disconnect from the world.”
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