IF THE BRIGHT LIGHTS and crowds of Punta del Este put you off, escape it all completely for a few days of mellow madness in Uruguay´s strangest treasure.
Cabo Polonio is a secret that is slowly leaking out, because once you know about it you can´t keep your mouth shut. With no running water, no electricity, no roads, and not an Internet cafe in sight, Cabo Polonio is a truly unique experience. Although this sandy outcrop is a permanent home to 70 people – an eclectic mix of fishermen, eccentric expats, and hippies – there isn´t even a postal address, as it has never been registered as a residence.
On the eastern coast of Uruguay, Cabo Polonio sits on a sliver of sand jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, with two stretches of clean, white beach sheltered by rollicking sand dunes and rugged tufts of forest. At the outermost point, a grand lighthouse looks out over two rocky islands, home to a large colony of sea lions.
Cabo is somewhere between a working fishing village and a self-contained hippy retreat, eerily reminiscent of the 70s movie, “The Wickerman.” It is made up of a chaotic scattering of multi-coloured houses and inventive shacks dotted across the grass and sand, with some chickens, cows and horses grazing in between. You will see fishermen bringing in their catch along the beaches, and a happy band of hippies permanently crafting their wares along the dusty paths, selling to what tourists they see.
Without water or electricity, there is neither Internet nor mobiles, and only one land-line. The residents survive by collecting rain water in wells, which is pumped up for drinking and showering. While only the lighthouse is powered by the national grid, some shops and houses run essentials like refrigerators and lights from generators, but most people make do without.
The village is centred around a sandy circle with a handful of miscellaneous stores, cafes and posadas branching off in lanes. You can buy most basics in the two larger shops, although sometimes there is a wait for the next delivery of fresh produce like vegetables and eggs.
Although those in the known descend on Cabo from December to March, supporting the very basic tourist infrastructure, the whole town grinds to a halt in the off season, with very few options for food or accommodation.
Cabo has just been made part of Uruguay´s National System of Protected Areas, which means even though people have been building houses illegally there for years, no further development will happen, a blessing which will save it from turning into just another sea-side resort town.
There are no roads leading to Cabo, which gives it the wonderful sensation of complete isolation.
But it is situated only 7 km from the highway, Ruta 10, in the Rocha province. You can reach this magical spot on a four-hour bus journey from Montevideo for $12 on Rutas de Sol. It stops in every village along the way, but this is the most direct route, so sit back and enjoy this scenic strip of coast.
The bus drops you off at an isolated outpost with just two little shops and a man waiting for your arrival to offer a lift on one of his big yellow 4×4 trucks.
The budget option is to walk through the sand dunes, but it is tough on the thighs, especially with a heavy rucksack. Trucks are only $3 and if you get a seat up on top, it’s a great 20 minute cross-country ride, dodging sand dunes and shrubs, before the expanse of beach is spectacularly unveiled, and you find yourself hurtling along the surf.
When you jump off the 4×4 in what functions as the main square, you´ll most likely be greeted with friendly offers of accommodation from locals, including Alfredo, who runs the one hostel: Cabo Polonio Hostel.
The solar-panelled hostel has good basic rooms with breakfast included for $25, and has a bar, restaurant and a relaxing patio with hammocks. Just 100 m from the sea, the hostel also offers guided trips and horse rental.
Cabo also has two hotels, which can boast of their electrical prowess.
For the truly atmospheric experience, though, forego all modern luxuries and rent a cabana from one of the locals.
The larger of the two mercados will help you find available rooms or houses. These can vary from wooden shacks with corrugated iron roofs and basic bunk beds for less than $10 a night, to solar-paneled holiday homes with sea views and patios.
Check out Cabo Polonio accomodations for some options.
Sights and Activities
You can explore Cabo Polonio in less than an hour.
Make like the locals and throw off your shoes to wander the dusty paths barefoot, soaking up the often bizarre sights, such as Perdida, the local bartender’s pet penguin, waddling along the road.
A short walk beyond the town towards the sea you will find the lighthouse, built in the 1880s.
It is worth paying the $0.70 entry to make your way up the never-ending staircase, just for the view from the top of the endless sea and across the flat farmlands of Uruguay. The very friendly lighthouse staff will also let you into the light bulb itself for a cheesy photo op.
Cabo, once famed seal hunting territory, now protects its large colony of sea lions (or lobos marinos) who live on the two rocky islands beyond the lighthouse.
One or two are usually sunbathing on the rocks underneath the lighthouse, but in mating season thousands flock to the mainland, with the females lounging on every available surface as the males fight for their attention.
The principal attraction is, of course, the beaches. If you find yourself there in off-season you can often have the beach completely to yourself. Nothing beats waking up early and making the first set of footprints across unmarked sand. The water is clean and just cool enough to be refreshing, with good waves on one beach and sheltered swimming on the other.
Part of the beauty of this place is the slow pace of life. There is very little to do here, so when you see locals getting stuck into their first cerveza early in the morning, the best thing to do is join in. Asking a resident if he ever gets bored living here, he replied, “Isn’t it better to be bored here than anywhere else in the world?”
But if you grow tired of watching the sun move in the sky, the surrounding area makes for great walking, or you can hire horses for a couple of dollars.
The true magic of this place comes to life as the sun sets. Remember to stock up on candles from the local shop before night falls, as these will be your only source of light. Take a moment to appreciate the complete darkness. Away from the city lights and smog you can see the Milky Way as you sit on your patio and sip a beer.
Brave the torchlit walk from your lodging to the “main street” just to see Josario’s Bar, the only bar which stays open year round. This unique hidden den is cut into a field with a ceiling made of entwined flowers, which drip into your glass of wine as you drink.
The warren-like den was designed by blind owner Josario, and feels more like a set from Midsummer`s Night Dream than a bar. With jugs of wine only $3, you can spend a long evening here chatting with locals by candlelight, while Gershwin and Miles Davis lull you into a drunken haze.
Every additional drink makes the dark walk back to your lodging that much harder. Listen out for the sound of the sea lions barking to each other in the night, making an eerie cackling. This is how Cabo Polonio is, half mad and beautifully unusual.