As I stood clueless in the patch of sand that is Cabo Polonio’s downtown, a local provided directions to my hotel that were perfect for a Uruguayan beach village lacking conventional electricity and roads.
“Keep heading up the path and make a right at the boats on the beach and follow the ocean,” said Santiago Pereda, an American-Uruguayan English teacher.
The 15-room Perla del Cabo was built more than 40 years ago by fishermen. Waves lap its porch, where dining tables mingle with hammocks. Rooms range between $80 and $200.
During my Uruguay visits over the years, I had heard rumors of this tranquil, carefree, dune-rich town and decided to see it for myself. At the hotel, I met Jaclyn Balkan, a Fordham University graduate student, and her boyfriend, banker Chris Brown, who said they had learned of Cabo Polonio from Uruguayan friends.
“There’s a sensation of discovery when you stumble upon a place like this,” Brown said. Balkan enjoyed the solitude and the roar of the ocean just a few feet from her window.
“It definitely has a remote feel,” she said. “I like the lack-of-electricity vibe.”
There are a few Uruguayan beach villages like this that retain an almost unspoiled, undeveloped character. They tend to attract the young and bohemian, along with Montevideo residents seeking to disconnect from modern life on vacation. Yet there are always threats to Eden, as the word gets out and developers smell profit.
A World Away
Cabo Polonio is in the state of Rocha, which borders Maldonado, home to the Miami-esque resort of Punta del Este. Rocha’s beach towns, many still largely fishing villages, begin about 90 minutes northeast of, and a world away from, Punta.
The village’s one-story buildings are strewn along sandy paths within a national park. Strict development and environmental rules protect the miles of sand dunes surrounding the town. Solar panels and generators provide intermittent electricity, while at night the beam of an 1881 lighthouse offers the moon and stars a little competition.
The Atlantic coast of Uruguay, rough with shoals and rocks at points, was a danger for shipping in the 1800s, a period when many of the country’s several lighthouses were built using British technology. Today, that same treacherous seacoast is a boon to surfers.
Pereda, 25, uses the town as an escape valve from Montevideo as often as possible, and saves money by fishing and gathering mussels off the rocks for dinner. He epitomizes the town’s hippy atmosphere.
“It’s so stressful, the real world,” he said. Here he has “no electrical plugs, so no computer, and no cell phone.” Increasingly, though, he sees more visitors.
“Three years ago, there was almost no one here. There were only Uruguayans,” Pereda said. Now “walk down the street and you hear different languages.”
A less-isolated Rocha resort is Punta del Diablo. While it isn’t environmentally protected like Cabo Polonio, its development size is restricted. The town is famous for thatch-roofed A-frame Hansel and Gretel houses, built by fisherman to rent to vacationers. Fishermen’s boats and stalls where they sell their catch remain the shoreline’s most prominent feature.
I stayed at Nativos, a 10-room hotel and restaurant that opened in 2008. It’s really an overgrown log cabin, and it gave me a feeling of summer camp for adults.
The owner is a skinny fellow named Eduardo Vigliola from Montevideo, who said about 10 percent of his guests are North American.
“They like it because it’s virgin, it’s different from Punta del Este,” he said, even if it has nowhere near the same services. Still, he worries about overdevelopment.
“Punta del Diablo is changing so fast,” he said.
I heard that theme again from Martin Abasto, of Buenos Aires, whom I met one afternoon on the beach where he had come to surf with friends.
“This is a fishermen’s village, discovered by tourists,” Abasto said. “People who come here look for tranquility, peace. They don’t want craziness. They want to have more of the beach to themselves.”
It was late in the season, which runs from November to March, with few people around. That’s deceiving, however. Each year, “it’s more touristy than before,” he said.
Punta del Diablo’s growing popularity is often attributed to the El Diablo Tranquilo Hostel and Playa Suites, two complexes first opened in 2007 by 28-year-old Wisconsinite Brian Meissner.
I told him that virtually every young non-South American I met was staying with him.
“We’re like a boutique hostel with a large emphasis on the social aspect of travel,” Meissner said. “They’ll eat tonight with 60-year-old retired lawyers.” He offers dorm rooms that range from $10 to $60 and private rooms between $40 and $170.
Yet Meissner also worries. From the top floor of one of his buildings, he points out boxy developments built by Uruguayans and Argentines and strewn throughout the town. Referring to Europeans and Americans, he says, “the best development in Punta del Diablo is foreigners doing developing in the traditional style.” He seems not to see the irony that his own buildings, also large and nontraditional, will never be mistaken for A-frames.
A construction boom might be on, yet nature still abounds. Vigliola took me to a nearby ecological zone called Laguna Negra with an astounding array of avian wildlife -- owls, falcons, parrots and the ostrich-like nandu.
Vigliola calls a puddle a “carpincho Jacuzzi,” referring to the world’s largest rodents. Carpinchos, which remind me of furry pigs, grow to as much as 175 pounds (79 kilograms). But it isn’t the creatures from the Black Lagoon bothering me. In shorts and flip-flops, I’m bitten by large green insects as spiky grasses cut my feet.
My last day in Rocha was spent in La Paloma, another resort marked by a lighthouse and plentiful surfers, but one that has sacrificed some charm to gain in pizzerias, retailers and even a condominium high-rise. No fishermen, no hippies -- and I couldn’t see the stars.
Being here made me appreciate Cabo Polonio and Punta del Diablo all the more. You’d better get to Rocha soon.
From North America, fly to Montevideo and take COT or other buses to Rocha beach towns, approximately three hours away. At Cabo Polonio, authorized 4X4 buses cross into the park to connect to the town, a half-hour ride over dunes. For tourism information: http://www.turismorocha.gub.uy or http://www.puntadeldiablo.com.uy. Rocha beach towns are accessible by buses from Punta del Este and Montevideo; schedule information: http://www.cot.com.uy. Additional websites for hotels mentioned: http://www.nativos.com.uy, http://www.eldiablotranquilo.com)