Car Renters beware:
Punta was a fabulous place to begin our South American adventure, however, things got off to a rocky start at Montevideo Airport. After reading-up on the necessity to have a car (very accurate) and the scarcity of vehicles during summer months I made a rental reservation well in advance. (The reservation was made with Hertz through a very reputable third-party website). I even took the extra step of calling Hertz direct to confirm my confirmation.
Upon arriving I was informed that no cars were available AND that non would be available for the duration of our trip! I showed them both "confirmations" and their answer was a polite "we understand, this always happens, there is nothing we can do for you, take the bus." Seriously!!! I even called the Hertz hotline which was useless.
Our first day in Montevideo now off the table, we wound up taking the COT bus from just outside the terminal to Punta (easy), a taxi (expensive) to our hotel in Barra, and renting a motor scooter (tons of fun) for a few days. It worked out for us b/c were are a young couple, but somebody with a family, or who planned on traveling around Uruguay, may have been in really bad shape and forced to rent a car from a “local company” at outlandish rates.
The guy behind me on line was told that he MAY have a car later but the bus was also recommended as his best option. From talking to people it seemed like this was a common issue for all the car rentals agencies during high season.
As for Punta:
We loved our time there. But if you are considering going please understand this is great vacation spot for regional South Americans and, at least in my opinion, not a true international destination point. The water is clean and clear but not exceptionally warm or colorful. There are few majestic landscapes, but endless stretches of glorious pristine beach front. You can choose to find a tranquil beach experience at any spot along the road, or go to one of the many (although far apart) beach posts, with music, drinks, and liveliness. Having transportation is a must to really soak it all in.
When booking lunch at La Huella (a great spot) in Jose Ignacio, bring your swim gear as it’s right on the main beach so can take a dip before or after. If you don’t have a reservation you may be able to sneak in at an open table (about 3/330 pm or so) towards the end of the lunch service. Talk to locals (especially your wait staff) to get the tips on the beach parties going on late at night.
Paying for the museum at Casapueblo/Punta Ballena was not worth it because you cannot go outside on the ground level to get a good view of the place (reserved for hotel guests). But a ride there is 100% worth it because the views of Punta del Este from Punta Ballena are marvelous. Don’t be afraid to walk down the rock paths (on the side of the entrance road to Casa Pueblo) to get some great pictures of this beautiful hotel. We were lucky enough to see some local kids swimming and rock jumping into that gorgeous water so we joined in – however, I would not recommend that on your own. Bring your “water shoes” too as they would have been very helpful, although not necessary, while navigating the rocks …
If you are primarily focused on the most fabulous beach experience then you probably want to look elsewhere. However, if you want to take a vacation from your vacation, relax in a place where there are few Americans and experience a truly regional experience, then Punta del Este can be wonderful for you. It was for us. Drive (or motor-scoot!) up and down the coast, experience all the different beaches, enjoy!