PUNTA BALLENA, Uruguay — From afar, it appears that an avalanche has blanketed Punta Ballena from crest to coastline in snow. At a balmy 85 degrees and with the golden beaches of Punta del Este only 15 minutes away, common sense tells us this must be a mirage.
But as we approach Casapueblo, we discover that a playful wizard has been at work, fashioning a cascading cliff-castle with whitewashed features resembling a Martian spaceship, beached submarine, and whipped-cream pie all rolled into one.
We are greeted by the castle’s guardian — a bizarre bone-white cactus creature with blue flags flapping from its two horns. Then we are swept up in a wave of visitors heading toward Casapueblo, the quirky sculptural habitat, atelier, and art museum created over several decades by world-renowned artist, writer, and composer Carlos Paez Vilaro.
Near the main entrance, we spot workmen hauling furniture through a wrought-iron gate 20 feet away. We slip inside before the gate clicks shut and wander through open-air passageways named after such luminaries as John Lennon. This part of Casapueblo, or “house-village,” contains a 72-room hotel built by the artist adjacent to his personal residence and workshop. From the labyrinth, we glimpse several swimming pools, outdoor dining patios, and guest rooms with bird’s-nest balconies. An elevator whisks us down nine stories to the ground level where we stroll across the lawn to the jagged, jet-black boulders fringing the Rio de la Plata, or Silver River. From this angle, Casapueblo takes on the countenance of a sleepy Greek island village with sun-bleached houses tumbling from the dramatic promontory to the sea.
In the crowded gift shop, we find Paez Vilaro, 90, perched on a stool, autographing books and posing for pictures. Silver-haired and soft-spoken, he smiles as I hand him a copy of “Ia Orana Tahiti,” which recounts his Polynesian islands experiences and contains stylized drawings of tropical flowers and fish. Inside the front cover, the artist signs his name with a flourish and adds a sketch of a little bird, just for good measure. He gives me a playful wink as he hands the book back.
CLUB HOTEL CASAPUEBLO Punta Ballena, Uruguay. 011-00598-42-578611, www.clubhotelcasapueblo.com. Doubles $190-$280, seasonally. Entrees $20-$30. Museum entry free.