The Making of Piriapolis - Uruguay's First Beach Resort Was The Vision of Don Francisco Piria

By David Hammond 
Today the coast of Uruguay is dotted with beach-resort communities.

However, the very first one was Piriapolis, developed by Don Francisco Piria. Piria was inspired to create a Mediterranean-like beach resort in Uruguay after a visit to the South of France.

 Don Francisco Piria, the man who would develop Piriapolis 

Piria’s life is an incredible story of self-determination. He was born the son of Italian immigrants in Montevideo’s Old City in 1847.

He was sent to study in Genoa, Italy for six years under the tutelage of a Jesuit uncle.

When Francisco Piria returned to Montevideo at the age of 13 he received hard news: His parents had died while he was gone, and the the family's wealth had been stolen.

Piria, a young teenage orphan with no resources, sustained himself working in fields. When he turned 16, he joined the National Guard.

As a young adult, he got into retail sales. He became an innovative marketer, and started his own business selling clothing and accessories in Montevideo.

After a fire burned down his shop in 1870, he turned his attention to the business of subdividing land for new neighborhoods and selling the lots, which he launched in 1874.

Piria made innovations in land sales. Instead of selling building lots to one buyer at a time, he sold building lots at highly publicized auctions.

When Piria held an auction, he'd have a marching band and offer attendees free food and cigars to create a buying mood. He advertised that couples should come to the auctions together so they could make an on-the-spot buying decision.

He further increased his market for the lots he sold by offering payment plans.

 Piria subdivided and sold lots for 70 new neighborhoods in Montevideo and other parts of Uruguay and become very wealthy in the process.

While making his fortune, Piria also studied literature, journalism, wrote visionary books, and is said to have made a serious study of Christian mysticism, the Kabbalah, and Alchemy.

Piriapolis' waterfront Centro as seen from San Antonio Hill

Piriapolis History

In 1890, Francisco Piria purchased a sizable coastal parcel in the Department of Maldonado, which would become Piriapolis. It had hills with minerals, freshwater springs, fertile farmland, and waterfront with the potential for a coastal port.

Piria’s first projects in Piriapolis included mining granite from Cerro Pan de AzĂșcar, planting a vineyard, an olive orchard, and a walnut grove.

In 1897, Piria completed the construction of a grand home for himself on the property known as Piria’s Castle.

Once Piria had established a mining and agribusiness base, he turned his attention to resort development. He believed this property had all the natural ingredients for a world-class spa.

His strategy was to provide some interesting man-made features to complement the natural landscape--create both a relaxing and interesting experience for visitors.

The new resort kicks off with the Grand Hotel Pirapolis

In 1905, Piria completed and opened the Grand Hotel Piriapolis, the cornerstone of the new resort. It was the most luxurious hotel in the country. It offered guests the best available furniture, china, glassware, carpets, and linens which came in from every corner of the world. Amenities included saltwater baths in preheated metal tubs.

Between 1910 and 1920 – the resort infrastructure is established 

  • The rambla (a seaside promenade) is constructed.
  • The first public school is built.
  • Piria creates three points of interest: The Virgin Stella Maris statue near the foot of Antonio Hill, a replica of the Greek temple of Venus, and a bronze statue of a bull at the base of Cerro del Toro.
  • Piria conducts the first auction for subdivided lots within Piriapolis. The auctions are held simultaneously in Montevideo and Buenos Aires.
  • The Piriapolis port is completed.
  • A transportation service starts to bring people from Buenos Aires to Piriapolis, with a stopover in Montevideo. The final leg of the journey was on a steam locomotive, which ran on a railroad constructed by Piria between Pan de Azucar station and the Piriapolis port.
  • Piria spends 15,000 gold pesos to promote his Uruguay beach resort to people living in Buenos Aires with a promotional booklet touting Piriapolis's beautiful and healthful climate.

Piria’s base development provides enough momentum to encourage new spontaneous development. Lots sell.  Private residences and over 20 hotels are constructed.

Uruguay’s first coastal resort community is established.

Argentino Hotel, Piriapolis, Uruguay

1920 - 1930 – The Argentino Hotel 

During his entire life, Piria was a risk taker. And he risked it all on his last project: the Argentino Hotel. Building of the hotel started in 1920, and was completed and opened December 24th in 1930.

It was the largest hotel in South America--capable of housing 1,200 guests. The Argentino Hotel offered the highest standard of service on the continent. It became an additional attraction for people to come and stay in Piriapolis.

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