El Arte de Desenchufar

by Liz Caskey on March 18, 2015

Desenchufar in Spanish, literally, means to unplug. A cell phone, a TV, our brain, or the art of disconnecting, for a little while, from life. In the past months, we had been running around like mad men busy with work, baby, and life so we decided it was high time for an escape to the dune-lined beaches of Uruguay. In actuality, besides the beaches, we were really craving Uruguay’s low-frequency rhythm that would help us reboot our system. Uruguay is a place that automatically slows you down upon landing. Its people have an endearing informality and laid back nature that puts you in the perfect frame of mind to desenchufar and be content with the lingering we so desperately needed. Desenchufamos (we unplugged) on the beach, over a sunset, over a glass of wine.

After an epic journey from Santiago (twelve hours door-to-door with airline delays), we landed in Montevideo in the late afternoon and drove a hundred miles up the coast towards the glitzy, Miami Beach style high rises of Punta del Este, where the Rio de la Plata and the Southern Atlantic Ocean meet. To the northeast, the low headlands stretch for twenty-five miles along a single coast road that connects the beach communities of La Barra, Manantiales, and José Ignacio. Each village feels more low-key than the last until the (paved) road stops at Laguna Garzón, three miles beyond José Ignacio. Here, only the bold cross the laguna by a tiny ferry to continue on to the windswept beaches of the Rocha province extending to the border of Brazil.

We arrived at our “home”, Estancia Vik, as twilight disappeared.  After getting bebe to bed, we were famished and split a well-earned chivito, Uruguay’s signature steak sandwich with the works (ham, bacon, cheese, fried egg, caramelized onions, and roasted tomato). The rustic yet smooth Tannat worked perfectly with the meatiness and soothed our minds as we began decompression. The next morning, we would be rewarded with the sweeping views of the campo, the verdant countryside. The campo is the term for grassy lands that make up much of Uruguay. They seemingly emerge from the dunes that line the shore to form a single, pastoral whole. The tail end of summer (late February) is my favorite time on the Uruguayan coast. The weather is stable, sunny, and warm yet the crowds have dissipated and there’s still action.

We awoke to blue skies dotted with pillowy, soft clouds and miles of bucolic, rolling grassland edged with coronilla trees, grazing horses, and the gleaming Laguna José Ignacio below (which Vik guests can kayak as activity while on the ranch). Estancia Vik is built on a scenic bluff overlooking the campo the whole way to the sea. This handsome whitewashed stucco’s architecture has integrated the gorgeous landscape and into a view at the turn of nearly every corner. At breakfast, we munched on medialunas (the local croissant) smeared with dulce de leche and strong espresso. We  were ready for a dosis of the local beach scene in José Ignacio. Luckily, we had the perfect starting point: reservations for lunch at La Huella.

José Ignacio is a village renowned as a summer playground for South America’s wealthy. However, there are no extravagant mansions or glamorous bars, only simple whitewashed bungalows and low-slung cottages. There’s no advertising anywhere—no billboards, no Coca Cola signs on the beach umbrellas. It’s all understated yet perfectly tasteful and simple. There’s the postcard perfect landmark lighthouse, a testament to the village’s humble origins as a fishing village where fishermen still launch their boats from Playa Mansa and bring in the delicious mussels, brotola (local cod), and chiparones (baby squid). The village’s grassy plaza is far from showy with modest bushes and some swings for the children. There is no dramatic landscape–just the endless stretch of pristine beaches and the azure Atlantic.

We settled into the terrace of La Huella overlooking Playa Brava with heavy waves crashing and red flags flapping in the wind. La Huella is an institution in these latitudes. A legendary beach shack-cum-restaurant that’s tucked away into the dunes, it’s a place that invites lingering all afternoon (or evening) long. We ordered a bottle of the local Albarino whose zesty acidity was the perfect complement to the Capresse salad studded with colorful heirloom tomatoes and soft, tangy, handmade mozzarella. I had been craving this salad, this wine, this landscape, this breeze, this vibe for weeks. It truly was soul food. A parade of dishes followed, which we devoured, slowly, like grilled baby squid and bean salad and brotola with roasted root vegetables. The dishes were simple, perfectly prepared, and reflected the unpretentious, honest nature of Uruguayans. In fact, much of Jose Ignacio’s allure lays precisely in its casual charm. Here, the food scene is fervent yet they are simply executed projects, often started by chef in his/her own home/garage/garden.

We spent the afternoon contemplating the coastline from Playa Vik’s stunning infinity pool. As the water appeared to plunge into the Atlantic below, with the tiny outline of Punta del Este high rises in the distance (nearly 40 kilometers away), the landscape begged further contemplation and introspection. Our seven month old played happily next to us, taking her first splashes in the pool like a natural mermaid. As sunset approached and thunderclouds built in the distance, we returned to Estancia to put a very tired and happy girl, and parents, to bed.

The next morning, we said adios to the “family” at Estancia Vik (who made our stay feel so homey) and moved to the Vik’s newest hotel overlooking Playa Mansa, Bahia Vik. Recently opened in November 2014, this member of the Vik family feels more like an exclusive beach resort. The individual suites cluster around the sleek lodge with stunning views of the gleaming ocean. The more private bungalows are nestled in the dunes further out. Each suite was individually decorated by a local Uruguayan artist, a unique touch in every Vik hotel.

We lunched barefoot at Vik’s beach club restaurant, La Susana, digging our toes digging into the warm sand while savoring chilled (Chilean) Sauvignon Blanc, grilled fish, and fresh salads. Afterwards for dessert, we ordered the delectable Vikaccino, a play on the afogatto, vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso and dulce de leche. We went for a long, long walk in the late afternoon along Playa Mansa, letting our daughter put her tiny little feet into the ocean for the very first time. At first she was reluctant. After she stood mesmerized as the water came and went. The sun sunk into the cloudless horizon painting wisps of pink, red, and purple tones across the sky. That night we sat out on our terrace with a friend while Micaela slept, savoring the sweet, sultry, salty night air and the constant hum of the waves crashing nearby. We sipped a favorite Tannat and savored artisan cheeses along with a locally made prosciutto. With the lack of light pollution, the stars in the sky over José Ignacio twinkled and the Milky Way galaxy was visible. Life was good. Daily reality was, thankfully, very far away.

That’s how the days roll in José Ignacio. There’s nothing to do, really, other than disconnect and eat well. This is a place with a languid pace of late breakfasts and lazy lunches, naps by the pool, walks on the beach, extended conversations over clerico (the local sangria), and the constant of Mother Nature with her soft wind touching our face, the sun kissing our skin, and feeling our toes in the sand and sea. In this setting, we reconnect with nature, and ultimately, ourselves. Yes, el arte de desenchufar, the art of unplugging, is all about recharging our batteries and feeding our souls on a very primal level. How wonderful that there’s a magical little place where not only we can do that but also indulge in life’s luxuries in style, and oh-so-deliciously.

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