Editor's note: Jim Sack is a Fort Wayne resident who will share his experiences periodically while traveling abroad.
Punta del Este in Uruguay is the new Waikiki Beach, the new South Beach, the new St. Tropez — when it is not a ghost town.
Punta is a long finger of land sticking into the South Atlantic on the east-central coast of South America. To the south, the majestically broad Rio de la Plata empties to the sea. To the north, the ocean crashes against rocky shores and rushes up fine, sandy beaches.
Punta is, give or take, a mile across, about 10 miles long and sprouting high rise condo towers like mushrooms after a Michigan rain. Condos with good views cost half a million (dollars) upfront; great views start at a million, at least. But, for most of the year, they are empty.
Punta is also an oasis in a country that is undergoing political turmoil. The country is the size of Missouri (69,700 square miles) with half the population of Indiana (about 6.5 million Hoosiers), but it has poverty far deeper than anything in Fort Wayne and a fabulously rich elite in the style of Rodeo Drive.
In Punta, luxury rules. Suitcases of cash furtively come from across the river from troubled Argentina. Sleek little jets arrive from private airports in Brazil. The very, very rich return each summery December to Punta like the swallows to Capistrano to catch up on family news, to strike business deals and to play the casino. The bay is so white with yachts someone with agility and balance could hopscotch to the outlying islands.
Punta del Esta is nothing but rich. Even the poor are shabby chic, but they are being pushed ever farther from the beach to inland villages as their family homesteads make way for 20 floors of marble, elegant kitchens and ceiling-to-floor glass. Then, they, too, become fabulously rich.
Punta, however, is seasonal. For just two months, from Christmas into February, the historic city swells from 10,000 mostly realtors and restaurateurs to about 300,000 debutantes, surfers and sommeliers. It is frequented by presidents, pretenders, counts and prime ministers. It is where the World Trade Organization was founded and summits are held.
During the season, all of the restaurants and bars are packed. Sardines in oil have more room, but when the next sardine over is a princess of some sort, radiating fashion, bathed in charm, the congestion is to be savored. But, after the season ends, you can choose any seat in the house, if the house is open.
During the season, the streets are packed with fine autos, and the surf is dotted with hundreds of bobbing wetsuits. Between water and boulevard, the glamorrati promenade the boardwalk, feed the friendly little green parrots and smile dazzling grins at one another.
Every patio, every terrace and expanses of the beach host parties that start very late and end around sunrise. What we might mistake for full-sized houses are but backyard barbecue/party dens sporting ceiling-to-floor glass enclosures, third-floor decks, aquamarine pools and well stocked bars.
On the boardwalk, it is Spanish, German, English, Portuguese and French. You can hear Arabic more than occasionally, as well as languages that baffle those who speak multiple languages.
Then, the season quickly fades. It could be the premise for a sci-fi novel. The sidewalk that was a crowded as Chicago's Michigan Avenue during the Christmas frenzy seems more like Wayne Street-Fort Wayne on a cold Sunday morn. The people just disappear, as if instinct calls them back to their caves.
The tres chic fly back to Buenos Aires or Caracas, back to Miami and Madrid. The few locals and long-timers reclaim their beaches, count their earnings and greet each other by name during their day-long walks. To linger an hour on the boardwalk in animated conversation is not uncommon.
The 10-month offseason is a time for workers to repair the damage and for the construction cranes to swing back into action. But, at night, only one or two windows are lighted in any of the massive condo towers.
But Punta is building, building, building, almost in spite of the global slowdown. Last week, there were 10 huge stationary cranes lifting heavy materials to the tops of new condo towers in Punta.
New construction ranges in size from four-story terraced block to towers similar to a Three Rivers Apartment tower or PNCs megalith. They are usually clad in white, graced by long curves and accented in blue and light green glass. All are very modern; all face the surrounding sea.
The same is true down the coast in, Montevideo, the capital. The boom goes on.
It is the duration of the building boom that now worries the gray-hairs. They remember other booms followed by paralyzing busts. They remember the last big bank runs, the devaluations and the foreclosures.
In the early 1990s, neighbor Argentina went bankrupt. Millions were lost and families destroyed. Uruguayans, as well as Argentineans, suffered at all levels.
This current boom is growing a little long in the tooth: There is a visible surplus of condo space, and prices are sky high. The old rich are worried enough to move reserves offshore. They point out the Uruguayan economy has noticeably slowed — last month at zero growth, and now approaching negative numbers.
They add their giant neighbor Argentina is contorted with renewed economic and social turmoil. Even worse, Buenos Aires now severely restricts Argentinean investment in Uruguay with money sniffing dogs and bank controls.
The primary source of Uruguayan outside investment is drying up. Coupled with troubles in Europe, the country is on edge.
A predictor of things to come, the construction supply business reports show orders for staples, such as screws, nuts, bolts and nails, have fallen off the cliff. The elders speculate on when Puntas cranes will grind to a halt.
Meanwhile, down at Puntas working fishermans harbor, just a few paces from the entrance to the venerable, still comfortable Yacht Club, huge sea lions maneuver for handouts from the fishermen just like they have for hundreds of years. Life goes on.
Punta will weather the coming storm. Meanwhile, she will pray for Argentina to change governments and hunker down a bit. In a sense, the world economic catastrophe is a storm, that has not quite reached this country of harbors and dunes and walkways.
After the storm subsides, the surfers will be back, beauties in white will promenade with their sleek dogs, Malbec-grape wine will preside and the massive grills will fill the peninsula with the smell of steak and the scent of money.
Big Money will always have a comfortable place to roost, and for now it is Punta del Este. The boom goes on.