Punta del Este is located on Uruguay’s southern coast. The “St Tropez of South America” is how the real estate agents like to brand it. Monthly holiday rents can easily run into five figures during high season (US dollars, not pesos)
The city is so incongruous. Uruguay ranks 82nd in the world in terms of GDP per capita, two places above Gabon.
Maria, a 20-year-old from Salto, a rural backwater in the north-west of Uruguay, is paid 80 Uruguayan pesos (£1.80) an hour to clean up after the ePrix’s VIP guests. “What can we do in Punta del Este? We can sit on the beach, but we can’t afford to buy anything. We can’t even afford to get the bus home,” she says.
The city’s elite residents require an army of Marias to make their luxury lifestyles viable. Cleaners, cooks, waiters, gardeners, nannies, valet parking attendants, lifeguards, security personnel; virtually none of them live in Punta del Este proper. Instead, they trek in every morning by bus or motorbike from periphery settlements, a cavalcade of under-paid workers dedicated to keeping this urban anomaly going.
Sandra and Yino, live in a shanty on the edge of Maldonado, a feeder town just outside Punta del Este. From the makeshift porch of their three-room wooden shack, they can see the penthouse apartments curve along the bay. Sandra works as a contract maid, Yino as a painter-decorator. Both make the daily commute into the city. At around 35,000 pesos (£790) per month, their combined earnings are above average for Uruguay. The national minimum wage stands at around 10,000 pesos (£260). Yet the concentration of so much wealth in one place means prices for basics such as food, clothing and medicines are close to, if not higher, than London.
“It costs about 700 pesos a day to keep our family fed, and that’s being as economical as possible,” says Sandra. “People think that when the tourists go, the prices come down, but they don’t. The only thing that’s cheap is the tranquility here.”
“The rich couldn’t live without us … the poor,” says Ingrid Schmutz, a 44-year-old resident of El Placer, a long-standing shanty town.