House-museum of Uruguayan artist Carlos Paez, Punta del Este. Picture credit: MIGUEL ROJO/AFP via Getty Images

Punta del where?

Old Europe lives on in the new world

Artillery Row

You know how people sometimes hand out invitations they don’t expect to be taken up, as in “You must come and visit us in…” , and there follows somewhere so distant that the likelihood of the invitee ever actually coming is remote. Well, there are exceptions. I like to explore, and having accepted one such invitation, sincerely given, to a place called Punta del Este, my wife and I decide to go. This is what we found. 

Punta del Este, literally “East Point”, the point in question being the eastern extremity of South America’s Rio de Plata estuary, is a coastal town and resort in Uruguay. To most of us denizens of the northern hemisphere, mention of this seldom-visited continent conjures up all too many negative images and stereotypes. 

Economically, we equate it with rampant inflation. Politically, it is notorious for instability and frequent swings between far left and far right governments. Socially, we visualise grinding poverty, the plight of the homeless street children and surging, unrestrained crime. Environmentally, we think immediately of the deforestation of the Amazon basin. All in all, we perceive South America to be a confused, troubled continent, overcrowded with suffering populations terrorised by criminals, drug cartels and mad dictators.

But I am told there is another side to this, with Uruguay described to me as “the Switzerland of the southern hemisphere” and Punta del Este as its Saint-Tropez. Many of Europe’s super-rich, among them our hostess-designate, are said to take advantage of its mild and sunny climate to winter there in a warm, calm and relaxed atmosphere. Well, there’s nothing like seeing for oneself to get at the truth.

We reach Montevideo, the capital, after a difficult journey via Sao Paulo in Brazil, in the process negotiating a veritable minefield of anti-Covid regulations and online form-filling. Encouragingly, the actual arrival at the small, modern airport is a welcome relief. Immigration and customs formalities are swift and efficient. Within minutes, we are seated in a comfortable air-conditioned SUV, speeding smoothly along excellent, lightly trafficked roads in the direction of our destination. Exiting the airport, I notice a derelict though fully intact Vickers Viscount passenger aircraft standing in a corner of the apron, a testimony to a former British presence and a sad reminder of the largely defunct but once world-leading British civil aviation industry.

Looking beyond the wide, well-mown verges lining the highway, I see a broad, rolling landscape of coarse grassland punctuated here and there by pine and eucalyptus trees. These are the “pampas”, known as “savannah” to geographers. Here and there herds of cattle graze. Horses too are much in evidence, as you would expect for a country bordering Argentina, the land of beef and polo. 

In little over two hours, we arrive at our beachside hotel. A warm south-east trade wind is blowing steadily, much as it does on the other side of the South Atlantic at Cape Town, globally positioned on exactly the same latitude of 34 degrees south. But there the similarities end. Cape Town is a city in decline, surrounded by shanties of squalor and dereliction and racked by unemployment and crime. In the course of our entire 100-mile journey from the airport, I have seen nothing remotely to compare. Already, I begin to feel I am in a South American version of southern Europe, but without many of the latter’s disagreeable features.

I am privileged to meet the apex of South American society

Punta town is much like any other resort in a warm, seaside location such as Florida or the Costa del Sol. High-rise apartment blocks, a broad corniche, wide beaches, many shops and busy traffic. The prestigious Punta del Este Yacht Club presides over a yacht harbour sporting the usual mix of luxury craft. The town is full of holidaymakers, their car number plates – Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina as well as Uruguay – demonstrating the wide catchment area of this popular destination. Despite the prevailing 200% car tax, there are few jalopies. Most are modest mid-range saloons and hatch-backs, intermixed with a fair number of luxury Mercedes and BMWs.

Most apparent of all are the people: middle class families and couples all enjoying their summer holidays in a polite and civilised manner. There is no rubbish, no yobbery, no hooliganism. I feel completely safe. If it were not for the warm weather and the high-rise buildings, I might be on the beach at Bournemouth, circa 1959.

This wide, clean beach extends east for 20 miles to a little village called Jose Ignacio. Here we find the real Sainte-Tropez of South America. Beach clubs, restaurants and designer shops spaced out between holiday houses lining quiet, sandy streets. More chic than elegant, it nevertheless exudes an atmosphere of calm, reserved decency. 

But it is behind the beach, and the busy coast road which parallels it, that I discover the most impressive characteristics of this living reminder of an era of western civilisation sadly lost in the northern hemisphere, together with the reasons why. 

Set in spacious glades scattered among the woodlands of pine and eucalyptus which separate the pampas from the coast are the magnificent houses of the establishment. Splendid villas, some in the Palladian style, with elegant porticos, fountains and even a private chapel; fine haciendas surrounded by beautiful gardens and paddocks, their cascading water features adding depth and interest to the distant vistas. Reinforcing their grandeur, all have an air of permanence, modesty and good taste, a sure indication of the nature of their owners.

Our principal hosts, a charming Dutch heiress and her Swiss husband, a lawyer of international renown, have organised a series of lunches and dinners in our honour, and here I am privileged to meet the apex of South American society.

At one dinner, I find myself seated between a Portuguese Marchioness and an Italian Countess. Opposite me a Brazilian businessman modestly tells me about the 25,000 head of cattle he has grazing his extensive estates. Nearby down the table sits an Anglo-Argentinian gentleman directly related to an ancient Scottish noble family, which includes a former British prime minister to whom he bears a distinct facial resemblance. In conversation, the little difficulty over the Malvinas (otherwise known as the Falkland Islands) forty years ago is brushed off with a laugh.

Epitomising the atmosphere of “old money” elegance is an aristocratic Argentinian hostess who is directly descended from King Ferdinand of Aragon, her husband a Genoese industrialist. Many are Swiss educated, all speak at least five languages fluently. 

The country is in a time warp, and very pleasant it seems too

I engage a portly and cheerful fellow-guest in conversation, who turns out to be a famous football agent, doubtless far richer than any of the players he trades from club to club. Jokingly, I suggest his best business is selling second-rate players to British clubs at top prices. His knowing smile indicates confirmation, the typical wealthy owner of an English football club being easily impressed with offerings from the land of Diego Maradona. 

I meet moguls of mining and advertising, and a “press baroness”, all courtly and courteous. I learn interesting facts I never knew. From the Argentinian wife of the Finnish Ambassador I discover that the eucalyptus plantations of Argentina and Uruguay are essential to Finland’s paper industry. A Brazilian beauty and gemologist explains to me how the gemstone trade of Pernambuco, a tiny province on the north-east tip of the South American continent, was established by the Jews of Andalusia who, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, made their first landfall there and found diamonds in the alluvial river beds. Soon after, when pursued across the Atlantic by their inquisitorial tormentors, they fled back to the once-Spanish, but now independent and protestant, Netherlands, establishing the gemstone capital of Antwerp which, as does Pernambuco, flourishes to this day. 

Here, six thousand miles distant, there thrives still a haute monde of civilised elegance which much of Europe lost more than half a century ago.

“How can this be?” I ask myself, and in history lies the answer. This pleasant country is a facsimile of old Spain. The climate is more maritime than Castile and Aragon, the terrain and soil are more fertile, but the similarities are obvious. Above all in importance are the people who built, and continue to build, the country. 

A stratified but entirely homogenous society left behind by Spain, the colonial power, when it pulled out 200 years ago, leaving the European settlers to get on with the job themselves. Which, after various small wars they did. But there were at least two very important wars they took great care to avoid. By remaining resolutely neutral in the First and Second World Wars — in 1939 Uruguay gave the German battleship ‘Graf Spee’ 24 hours to leave Montevideo harbour, where it had sought refuge from the guns of British cruisers — as well as keeping out of the Spanish Civil War, they allowed their exclusively European society to develop untrammelled and at its own speed. 

The country is in a time warp, and very pleasant it seems too. The people are almost exclusively descended from the original colonising Spaniards, with a smattering of Italians, Portuguese, Dutch and Germans among them, and the distinction between “haves” and “have-nots”, while not invisible, is decidedly blurred, with a marked absence of the social tensions now embedded in many parts of the northern hemisphere.

The Brits went back to Britain, as they tend to do

“How do these people cope with rampant inflation and political instability?” I ask myself. The answer is, firstly, by doing something for which there is a ready market. If you own a vast cattle ranch, or a copper mine, there is always a market price, usually in US dollars, for beef and copper. If you own a food factory, and I am astonished by the great range of packaged foods under brands unknown to me which abound on the shelves of the well-stocked supermarkets, you will always have buyers. 

People have to eat. A sophisticated, developed economy, which this clearly is, can survive inflation, and some even profit from it. As to politics, here in South America I suspect the maxim “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” reigns supreme. If the wealthy make sure they back the winning side, they should have little to fear. Finally, there is the all-embracing Roman Catholic church which reigns supreme throughout the continent to provide additional social glue and stability where required.

“And the Brits? Weren’t they here too?” you ask. Yes, a bit, but the Brits concentrated more on Argentina, building railways to exploit the agricultural riches of the pampas before the populist president Juan Peron started to seize their properties. Many lost fortunes and left. And thereby lies the difference. The Brits went back to Britain, as they tend to do. They invariably see Britain as their home country. But for these descendants of Spanish colonisers, they retain their ties to Europe, certainly, but their home countries are Uruguay and Argentina. The only near parallel I know is the Afrikaaners of South Africa, for whom South Africa, not Holland, is their home country. They have nowhere to run to, so they stay and make the best of it.

I leave Uruguay determined to return, this time also to explore neighbouring Argentina and Paraguay. Paraguay, my hosts tell me, is ‘Uruguay without the sea’. I look forward to seeing for myself.

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