The house wins ... the beach at Punta del Este. Photo: AFP
Instead of spitting chips, Ben Stubbs accepts his fate and explores a ritzy playground on the cheap.
Maths has never been my strong suit. I do the conversion in my head and I think I have the exchange rate from Australian dollars to Uruguayan pesos all worked out. I suck the last olive from my martini and take a seat at the blackjack table. I am in the self-proclaimed Las Vegas of South America at 2am on a Tuesday. Two hundred pesos to $1 is great value. I push all my chips towards the dealer and he flicks out the cards.
A 10 and a 5 land in front of me. Perfect.
For his own cards, the dealer puts down a 10 and an ace.
I'm out. And only then do I realise my mistake: 20 pesos equals $1. Bugger. The dealer scoops away my entire gambling budget for the week and smiles at me before saying "sorry" in perfect English.
The trills of the gambling machines are at odds with the empty corridors filled with a handful of old ladies still coaxing the pokies to reward their commitment. I wander back to my room to await the hangover and chastisement from my girlfriend.
Punta del Este on the Atlantic Coast of Uruguay is marketed as a beach resort and playground for celebrities. During the peak period of December and January, it is also said to be one of the most expensive places in South America.
Our budget for a week of high-class living has sprung a leak, so we set out the next morning to explore the area on the cheap, hopeful that we can survive without having to dive into the dumpsters for food. Walking to town along La Brava beach, it is deserted; there is no one for kilometres, apart from the fishermen standing in wet sand waiting for a twitch on their lines.
At the far end of the beach it looks as if we have stumbled across the tip of a buried city. A colossal hand claws through the sand, the blue-grey sculpture reaches towards the sky stretching for something eternally out of reach. La Mano is the work of Chilean artist Mario Irarrazabal; this searching hand is one of the most recognisable symbols in Uruguay. From La Mano we continue along Avenida Gorlero, taking a wide berth around the boutique stores selling big hats and holiday jewellery in US dollars rather than pesos. Behind us, downtown Punta del Este is littered with row upon row of skyscrapers - 30-storey sentinels that are populated by no one but the gardeners and live-in maids who keep the damp away in preparation for the summertime rush.
We continue exploring the streets and it seems as if we are the survivors of an apocalypse: doors are closed and windows boarded. A tourism representative, Mariana, later tells me that for 11 months of the year Punta is like a fishing village - and how most of the year-round population of about 8000 prefer it.
With lunchtime approaching, we are expecting the inflated prices of summer but are surprised at the options available in the side streets around town. I find a chivito for 95 pesos (about $5). The chivito is the national sandwich of Uruguay and it resembles a Frankenstein version of a steak sandwich. Complete with steak, lettuce, tomato, egg, bacon, cheese, mashed potato, chips, mayonnaise and olives on a roll, it is enough for a hungry lumberjack. Washed down with a local Zillertal beer ($3 for a litre), it is the perfect prelude to a South American siesta, another national passion.
Continuing the bargain-hunting on Avenida Francia, we find "La Tucumanita" and order a pile of $1.50 empanadas to enjoy. My girlfriend is from Argentina, the home of the empanada, so it is with careful consideration that she pronounces these to be the best she's ever eaten.
With Punta abandoned and windswept, we decide to venture from the town. Across from the Casa del Padre Pio church (with a confessional conveniently located across the road from the casino at the Conrad Hotel) we find a car-hire special and get a four-door Hyundai for $35 a day with which to explore the area.
Ten kilometres south of the city is the living museum-hotel Casa Pueblo, which resembles a set from Star Wars. Built on Punta Ballena (Whale Point) by renowned artist Carlos Paez Vilaro during the 1960s to resemble the nest of a Hornero bird, it is a honeycomb of rooms and staircases displaying the artist's various abstract paintings and sculptures. The upper level has a bar and balcony looking out to the ocean. We take a seat near the railing at sunset just as the speakers kick to life and a recording of Vilaro's Ceremony of the Sun poem is played to visitors. The crowd is silent and solemn as the homage to the setting sun is read aloud while the last orange strands disappear behind storm clouds over the Atlantic.
Vilaro completed his Casa Pueblo vision in honour of his son, who made headlines around the world in 1972 as one of the 16 survivors of the infamous flight-571 plane crash in the Andes. Vilaro's son, Carlitos, was a member of the Uruguayan rugby team who had to survive on human remains for two months until rescued. This was later immortalised in the book and subsequent film, Alive.
From Casa Pueblo we cut across the edges of the Laguna del Sauce to Las Cumbres. Las Cumbres is a collection of 19 luxury suites hidden in the forest. Star Service named it as one of the top 100 hotels in the world. Wanting to treat ourselves to an affordable luxury, we have afternoon tea on the deck. While I initially baulk at the $22 cost, it is a bargain when the spread is put out before us. I gorge on apple strudel, chocolate cream cake with dulce de leche (sweet milk), champagne, pots of Darjeeling and jasmine tea, fresh croissants, sandwiches and mini pizzas.
Still strained from the Olympic-size afternoon tea, we head along Route 10 through farming country to La Paloma to explore the beaches. This village is at complete odds with Punta; it is a collection of pastel-painted huts in the trees, with little development. At the single-screen cinema on the main street, I notice Hugh Jackman on the poster for Australia, which is getting its first run.
On the edge of town, a guard at the Faro Cabo lighthouse seems glad of our company and tells us all the beaches are completely public here, so the high-rises and beach parties are avoided. For the $3 entrance fee he takes us up the 143 stairs to the top of the lighthouse, showing us the view south to our next destination, La Barra.
This is the epicentre of the January transformation, when a plethora of nightclubbers and beach partygoers descends on the town. We walk past designer-dress stores next to Quiksilver outlets and various overpriced seafood and steak restaurants, many of which display their prices in US dollars and euros instead of pesos. There are still budget options available, though, and after making our own gourmet gouda cheese and prosciutto rolls for less than $3, we find the Museo del Mar, an odd collection of skeletons, pygmy whale foetuses and shipwreck regalia that could easily feature in the wardrobe of The Pirates of Penzance.
As we head back into Punta del Este at twilight, I check my pocket and find a wad of pesos. We have survived our week on the cheap with flying colours. The flickering lights of the Conrad's casino are in the distance. I smile at my girlfriend and wonder if she'd fancy a hand or two of blackjack with our leftovers.
Aerolineas Argentinas flies from Sydney to Buenos Aires, priced from $1312. See aerolineas.com.
From Buenos Aires, Buquebus runs a daily ferry-bus combination to Montevideo and Punta del Este, which takes about four hours. See www.buquebus.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Conrad Punta del Este is the premier location in Uruguay, with 296 rooms, a casino, restaurants and performance halls. Rates start at $US200 ($220) a night for spa-accommodation packages. See conrad.com.uy.
Las Cumbres has 19 suites in the forest outside Punta del Este. Packages start at $US165. The resort is open to the public for the famous "hora de te", afternoon tea, every day. See cumbres.com.uy for more information.