José Ignacio hit the headlines as a South American Hamptons following September 11 and the 2001 tsunami, as the international jet set looked to South America as a safe place to party.
Since the 1980s, the rich, beautiful, and powerful of Argentina and Brazil had flocked to Uruguay’s oceanic coastline. Now it was the turn of the owners of Facebook and 20th Century Fox, the Hearsts and the Rockefellers. And the place to be was José Ignacio, a tiny beach town in Uruguay that just twenty years earlier had no running water or electricity.
While most visitors come to José Ignacio for a few days during high season, when the social calendar is packed, those in the know come for the other fifty weeks of the year–for what’s not going on. British author Martin Amis and Bertolucci muse Dominque Sanda are among those who have chosen José Ignacio to escape the frenetic materialism of Europe. In José Ignacio, they found an unspoiled oceanside peace.
“Martin Amis’s kids and mine used to walk to school together and we’d get together during the winter evenings to play poker,” said Nacho Ruibal, a native Uruguayan who’s lived in José Ignacio for over 30 years. Just six streets by six, the peninsula of José Ignacio juts into the Atlantic Ocean, a village crowned by a lighthouse built in 1877 and defined by its family character and sleepy pace. It is home year-round to 292 inhabitants, according to the last census.
Uruguay’s ocean beaches: the mecca of the Argentine pleasure-seeker
The destiny of the Atlantic coast of Uruguay has traditionally been intertwined with the economic fortunes of neighbouring Argentina. With a population a dozen times the size of Uruguay’s, a short ferry ride away, Argentina has typically provided the bulk of tourists. And Argentines have seen Uruguay’s comparatively stable economy and unspoiled coastline as a secondary investment market, pioneering coastal development.
Punta del Este, a resort twenty miles (33 km) west of José Ignacio, has been the mecca of the Argentine pleasure-seeker for over a hundred years. First promoted as a beach paradise as early as 1907, when a company with the novel name of Snowball chartered steamboats from Montevideo and Buenos Aires to bring wealthy Argentines and Montevideans to buy land. They spread the word that ‘Punta’, as it is known colloquially, was where it was at.
Newspaper clippings from the ’80s and ’90s on José Ignacio. Courtesy of Ignacio Ruibal
José Ignacio marooned in time and place
As a matter of fact, José Ignacio could not have been more different. It was literally cut off — marooned between two lagoons separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a line of sand dunes, the mouths of which open and close with the season. The coastal road from Punta del Este hit a dead end at the Laguna José Ignacio. A few pioneering families from the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo, had built holiday homes on the peninsula, loving the solitude. José Ignacio was a village cut off from the rest of the coast with no electricity or running water, lit by gas and kerosene lamps.
Posada del Mar. Courtesy of Ignacio Ruibal
Despite the fact that they had to cook by gaslight, by the mid-1970s two elegant restaurants had opened up in José Ignacio – the Posada del Mar (pictured above) and later Parador Santa Teresita. The restaurant at Posada del Mar was managed by Francis Mallmann, nowadays famous for his signature cooking-with-fire methods and Chef’s Table. It was Mallman’s first restaurant beyond his native Argentina. Both were indispensable stops on any sophisticated Argentinian’s holiday calling-card.
Later Mallman opened his own iconic restaurant at the foot of the lighthouse. “When I started my restaurant in José Ignacio, it had almost no roads, no water, no electricity,” Mallman told Vogue in 2017. “We opened a high-end restaurant with silverware and beautiful china, so it was a huge contrast.”
Francis Mallman is a very generous professional and the majority of the restaurants in José Ignacio, including La Huella (pictured below) —lauded as “the most idyllic seaside restaurant in the world” by Bon Appetit magazine—trained under Mallman. Long-time residents remember the restaurant staff and their families fitting right into the small community.
La Huella Restaurant in José Ignacio, Uruguay
The arrival of progress
However inevitably, the inhabitants of José Ignacio were desirous of basic utilities. Led by Blanca Martorell, the granddaughter of the town’s founder—the surveyor Eugenio Saiz Martínez—by the 1980s, the community organised to bring electricity, running water, and the telephone, and ensure orderly development of the small dirt roads that separated properties.
At first, there were just a few private phones all connected by a telephonist who would ‘helpfully’ interject her local knowledge into the conversations.
In 1981, a bridge was built over Laguna José Ignacio. The village was now within easy reach of the coastal highway and Punta del Este. Its fate was at a crossroads.
The shape of things to come?
In between José Ignacio and Punta del Este lay La Barra, a picturesque fishing village. Turned off by the high-rise boom in Punta, first artists, then Argentine celebrities and longer-established families, began decamping to La Barra. In the wake of this vanguard, like trend-seeking bloodhounds, were high-end commercial interests from Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital.
Correspondingly, exclusive brands, like the iconic 80s jeans brand Guess, set up shop in Punta del Este, throwing promotional parties, catwalk shows, and associating their brands with the beach scene —the sunset, music, DJs, and gastronomy. These events received endless primetime coverage on Argentine TV and in magazines. Brands flocked in and by the 1990s, peak season La Barra was a Uruguayan Ibiza—heaving with nightclubs and bars and brands.
Residents want progress but of a certain kind
“All those Argentines holidaying in Punta del Este wanted to come and check out this peninsula in the middle of nowhere where a few crazy chefs were doing amazing things with gastronomy,” said Nacho Ruibal.
But once the bridge over the Laguna José Ignacio physically connected José Ignacio with its neighbours to the west, alarm bells went off —especially when the building housing the iconic La Posada del Mar was leased by Guess. They knew development was inevitable. Indeed, they’d lobbied for amenities. But high-rises, large-scale developments and frenetic nightlife was not what the families of José Ignacio wanted for their own community. They knew change was coming, but there needed to be a way to keep growth ‘orderly’.
Legal protection to preserve the family character of José Ignacio
Once again galvanised by Blanca Martorell, the community lobbied the local government in Maldonado to come up with a legal framework to manage the development of ‘the José Ignacio region’. The region—which at its most populous has never been a permanent home to more than 150 families—stretches just over seven miles (12 km) from the José Ignacio lagoon to the Garzón lagoon, and from the ocean to Route 9, another 7.5 miles.
Comparatively, no town or region within a department—as Uruguay’s provinces are known—had ever had region-specific ordinance. It took them two full years, but in 1993, José Ignacio became the first locale to have its own unique set of regulations.
The plots of land on the peninsula had been divided up back in 1908 and were long and skinny. The new regulations limited each plot to single-family use. To avoid over-development, the maximum wall length of any individual construction was restricted to twenty metres—about one-third of the narrow plots. This encouraged the construction of airy ‘casas patio’—patio houses. A casa patio was comprised of a construction at the front of the property adjoining the street, followed by a patio or open-air gallery, and then another building at the back. Dwelling heights were limited to about twenty-foot (6-7 metres) high—so nothing over two storeys was permitted.
Likewise, the regulations also protected the peace and quiet of the peninsula and surroundings. Clubs, discothèques, pubs, and amplified music are banned to this day. The lagoons and dunes are protected from all motorised vehicles—from speedboats to quad bikes.
The prohibition of the building of multi-dwelling units effectively meant a ban on the construction of hotels and apartment blocks. The regulations consolidated the character of José Ignacio as a resort for families. There were also material benefits. Because of pure supply and demand, rental prices skyrocketed.
With a change of government, the regulations were relaxed in 2007. However, there is still significant protection, and the 1993 law still applies to the peninsula. The legislation has consolidated the character of José Ignacio and what some locals refer to as ‘the José Ignacio brand’.
Despite its international profile, in part due to regulations setting larger minimum plot size than elsewhere on the Uruguay coast, there is still land for sale in José Ignacio. Ocean-side lots on the seven-mile coastline start at 3,280-foot sq (1,000 m sq). Plots furthest inland are termed ‘chacras marítimas’ or maritime estates and start at twelve acres (five hectares).
José Ignacio has 7 miles of unspoiled beaches
Social pressure to do the right thing
Perhaps it’s because they worked so hard for the regulations, the locals are the first to apply them and make sure newcomers adhere and adopt a similar attitude. Neighbours make no bones about providing reminders by word of mouth—what locals call ‘social pressure’.
And local business owners play their part. For instance, there’s no law to prohibit unsightly commercial signage in José Ignacio, but you won’t see it—thanks to realtors who write clauses into rental agreements that create the conditions for respect of the norms.
A number of homes in José Ignacio are owned by Argentines, many of whom arrived at the start of the COVID pandemic, before the borders closed, to wait out the worst months in Uruguay. Neighbours posted flyers on store fronts and under front doors to ensure recent arrivals were aware of quarantine requirements and to remind them of their social obligation to the rest of the community. Social pressure is contagious itself. When a couple were seen lunching in La Huella days before their quarantine period was up, other customers (Argentines themselves) pointed the situation out to staff and the couple was asked to leave.
José Ignacio in Action
The neighbours of José Ignacio have recently formalised their social activism. The collective ‘José Ignacio en Acción’ is made up of neighbours, restauranteurs and other business owners who meet up every Saturday. As is customary in egalitarian Uruguay, they include folks from those with serious economic clout to those who get by on what they earn day to day. Together, they are promoting José Ignacio as a pesticide-free region, encouraging restaurants and households to consume local produce and the whole community to recycle. Collective kitchen gardens are springing up on unused terrain all over the peninsula.
“Famous people come because here they’re just another person”
Strolling the sandy unpaved roads with the ocean visible at either end, applauding the sun as it sinks below the water at sunset, drinking a latte around the grassy central plaza, hanging with friends. These are the things that are important to the people who live in José Ignacio all year round.
Things haven’t changed since Blanca Martorell declared in an interview with an Argentine newspaper in 2004, “Famous people come here precisely because here they’re not famous, they’re just another person”. A 1999 novel ‘Tales of the town of the lighthouse of José Ignacio’ recounts deals that shake Wall Street made during “orchestrated casual encounters” in José Ignacio’s famous eateries.
A long-time summer resident summed it up: “We have fought hard so that the only thing that rushes here is the wind.”
Photos: Jimmy Baikovicius
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