Located less than twenty miles from Punta del Este, Piriapolis is a quirky hamlet as might be expected, having had its beginnings as the vision of one man, Francisco Piria, a real estate developer of Italian descent from Montevideo. At age forty-three, he decided that Uruguay needed a resort town on the coast and purchased 7,000 acres including seven miles of white sand beach on which to build it. From the layout of the streets to the vegetation to the source of building materials, he planned his new town according to his own specifications, informed by his unconventional mystical beliefs. Ever since, the town’s eccentric past and unexpected architecture has kept visitors on Uruguay tours dropping in to get a glimpse of Piria’s dream.
Piria’s ambitions were grand. For the town’s signature architecture, he chose art nouveau, the style of the Belle Époque period, then popular in Europe. Before the turn of the century, he completed his residence, Castillo de Piria, a pink-hued castle of magnificent proportions that resembled an Italian villa and was set on a hill overlooking his grand scheme. Eight years later Piriapolis gained its first hotel, so the town could begin welcoming its first visitors on Uruguay tours.
Knowing that the kind of tourists who would appreciate his destination would also enjoy wine with dinner, he planted almost 500 acres of vines that he imported from Europe. To get travelers there, he laid a few miles of tracks for a narrow gauge railroad north to Pan de Azucar, where the nearest train station was located. To attract visitors on Argentina tours from Buenos Aires, he built a pier that could accept passengers by ship.
In 1920, construction began on the Hotel Argentino, designed to be South America’s largest, accommodating hundreds of guests. Uruguay’s first spa hotel was situated on the Rambla de los Argentinos, facing the seafront. Piria lived long enough to see the hotel completed in 1930 but not so his ten-story cathedral that remained unfinished at his death in 1933.
Family tussles over the estate and an unmanageable maintenance budget resulted in government taking over responsibility for parts of the town. This assistance has kept Piria’s dream alive though not in the grand style he had originally envisioned. Today Piriapolis is a casual beach town with a hopping nightlife that absorbs the spillover when Punta del Este’s accommodations are filled to capacity. Yet visitors whose Uruguay tours include a detour to Piriapolis will find architecture and a tall tale to write home about.
One of Southern Explorations’ Uruguay tours, the six-day Uruguay Triangle trip stops in Piriapolis on the way to Punta del Este, for a brief tour of the town’s architectural highlights. Southern Explorations offers Uruguay tours that visit the prime attractions of the country and stay in Montevideo, the capital. We also offer tour extensions for those with special interests who wish to taste wine, learn about Uruguay’s history and culture, or hit the beach.