Cabo Polonio, Bona Fide Best of Uruguay

There may well be other places like this, a scruffy village of dwellings on a cape which seems like it’s from another time, but I haven’t seen any. Most locations remind you of some other place that has some similarities, but I have yet to ever meet anybody who’s been able to name one for here. It has a vibe all its own in a site that provokes photo frenzies and futile attempts at worthy descriptions. Hard to get to, harder to leave, and always generating plans for the next return trip. This is the effect this cape produces, and not many are immune to the spell.

Beasties basking beneath the beacon

It started off long ago, like many on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast, as a fishing village. There were, and still are, multitudes of Sea Lions here, which resulted in thousands being slaughtered for their pelts. The shipwrecks off this treacherous point are many and legendary, so the history of the place is bountiful. The blonde bombshell and animal rights activist Bridget Bardot was instrumental in ending the sea lion slaughter, and now there are, once again, loads of the beasties, often barking up a storm.

A view from the classic lighthouse

Now it’s an actual national park, protected  territory, and all visitors are encouraged to do their best to keep it clean and semi pristine. There’s a modern visitors center, with excellent historical information and a colossal map on the floor to illustrate where you’re bound. After paying to board a whopper of an all terrain vehicle to roll 7 kilometers through sand dunes and coastal forest to reach the village. The option to walk is available, but very few do, as most can’t wait to get there.

These big shuttles are how most visitors get to Polonio nowadays

And there is something else: an ultra rustic village with no electricity that’s not generated from solar panels, wind turbines, or gas generators. Besides the well worn track that the giant shuttles roll in on, there are really no streets, just sandy paths and passageways. Quite a few multicolored cabins, houses, and other structures, and many absolutely ramshackle, as if put together out of a scrap bin. The funkiest community of houses and cabins in one place ever seen, with dogs, chickens, horses and hippies running wild.

Horses run free here, along with everything else

And what a lighthouse, one of a network on this coast that are situated every 20 miles or so.

Vintage, great looking and still kicks ass

This beauty offers a stupefying  360 vista of the cape and everything this side of the horizon, including the expansive lair of the sea lions. To the north lie the lofty dunes that border the woods and stretch for kilometers to the closest settlement of Valizas. Southward, miles of immaculate empty beach for many miles. Cabo Polonio has become the preferred getaway for urban dwellers in 3 countries, and fills up with them every January. Vacancies are meager and lodging rates as high as they get. Nevertheless, it’s the best place you could possibly be at that time of year.

South Beach in low season is a gem even if empty

The rest of the year it usually only gets bustling on warm weekends, and during the cold winter months, it’s a virtual ghost town. The hamlet has 3 named neighborhoods, though I visited for years without hearing any mention of them.

The serene Playa de los Huevos just up the coast

I prefer to order them by geography: Calaveras Beach, extending towards the dunes to the north; South Beach, on the other side of the peninsula reaching in the direction of the next town, La Pedrera; and the grassy peninsula between these two which is filled with granite boulders. The actual ‘town’, more of a hamlet than anything, is situated in this middle area. This is where most of the commercial businesses are, the hostels, cafes, shops, and now, 3 small grocery stores.

This is the main commercial drag

Calaveras Beach, facing east, has the strongest surf while South Beach facing almost due south is much more gentle. Most of the dwellings above South Beach are painted white and appear to be more solid and upscale than the rest, with a few exceptions. Many of these pads are available for rent and are among the most expensive and swank in the area.

These white cabins are some of the choicest on the cape

The village center sports the most accommodations and without doubt the cheapest. There are also a few hostels and B&B’s facing Calaveras Beach. Many of the places to stay close up in the low season, which lasts from May through November, and for the ones that stay open, this is the economical season. Hostel World lists just 3 places that are operating in the off season, but this number probably triples during the summer. Rates that are $10 per bunk can easily triple in January, when Cabo is full blast.

On the rocks, with hammock of course

There are some extra funky digs back away from the beach situated close to the dunes, and some of these can be rented as well, although the methods of contact are usually word of mouth. Those dunes are great fun to wander around, offering sensational views of the entire cape, and I’ve found sizable pools of fresh water here after rainy days, a special, ephemeral treat. One of the popular diversions is to hike the trail from Cabo to the neighboring town of Valizas, first starting on the beach and then winding inland through the dunes. This can take 2 to 3 hours depending on energy and time demands, and a 2 mile longer route follows the coast line the entire way, past a superb beach called Playa de Los Huevos (egg beach), directly below the prominent rocky overlook known as Buena Vista. This ramble as a round trip day hike will probably be too much of a physical challenge for most people to enjoy, but there are plenty who do it.

Buena Vista hill between Cabo and Valizas

I’ve gone to Cabo for just a day, and I’ve made the trip to stay just a night, and neither of these are what I would recommend. Two nights even seems a bit rushed, and I have friends who won’t even consider staying less than two weeks. Generally speaking, the longer the better, as the state of absolute relaxation and disregard for time is enhanced by the day. Four nights is quite de-stressing, and this provides enough time to do everything desired. It used to be the rule to bring as many supplies, food and drink with you as possible, but besides a few essential items, Cabo this is no longer the case. With 3 grocery stores that sell most items at a reasonable cost, including wine and liquor, specialty products now make the most sense. Because of the absence of electricity, locals rely on candlelight for lost illumination, so long burning candles serve a practical need. When there is rain, there are mosquitoes, so repellent is exceedingly valuable at times as well, although most places have nets. Another essential commodity is suntan lotion, as the big light in the sky is powerful and relentless. One of the features of  Cabo Polonio is the lack of trees, so getting out of the sun is not so easy in hot weather. Therefore a hat is an important thing to have, and sometimes the only shade around. I would advise anybody to bring what they can comfortably carry, and I have made the trip toting several bottles of wine and specialty snacks. If you’re a fan of marijuana, now legal in Uruguay, definitely bring your own, as it is scarce and expensive.

This stretch of the Uruguay coast is pristine and primo

Driving to the entrance station is no problem, but cars are not allowed on the road through the dunes to the village. This absence of traffic is another of the positive attributes of the park, both for the lack of noise and relaxed surroundings. Parking is available and there is a daily charge. Since there are few vehicles allowed, and almost all either ‘grandfathered in’ or work trucks, it makes sense to take a bus and just get dropped off, saving the parking fee. Rutas del Sol makes three arrivals and pick ups each day, more in high season, and they can be booked and boarded at the main bus terminal at Tres Cruces in Montevideo. The cost is around US$40 for the 270 kilometer, 4 1/2 hour ride.

No matter  how you arrive, just make sure you do. Cabo Polonio has been my favorite place in Uruguay since I first visited, and years later, it still is. I make it every year regardless, and it’s a must see for every foreign visitor who comes here. I can’t recommend it when the weather is wet and stormy, but any other time it will be worth the effort. It’s a word that’s frequently overused, and almost a cliche, but Cabo Polonio is one of the rare places that is, no question, MAGIC.

One of the best places in the world to do absolutely nothing

The Montevideo Rambla

Rambla is the equivalent of promenade, a walkway or pedestrian pathway that would be called the ‘strand’ if it was in Southern California. The Uruguayan version was created by popular vote back in the 1950’s, when the other choice on the ballot was building two battleships for the navy. Needless to say, the people made the right choice.

              The kite surfing at Malvin beach is full blast

This long stretch of coastline on the Rio Plata is an ecological treasure trove, with miles of undeveloped areas separating the dozens of beaches. Birds are the principal residents, and it’s a superb rarity to have so much wild terrain so close to a major city. In many other countries this coastline would be relentlessly developed and overrun with businesses, but in Uruguay, virtually every bit is open to the public. Many of the residents consider it the number one feature and attraction of Montevideo, and the entire length is bikeable in a day, an extraordinary activity.

   Just about every section of the rambla offers a stellar sunset view

For all practical purposes, the Rambla starts at the edge of the massive port of Montevideo in Ciudad Vieja. Sarandi is the heart of the old town, bustling with tourists, cafes and sidewalk vendors, and it’s western end extends out onto the kilometer long jetty that frames one side of the harbor.

Nice smooth surface on this stretch of the Rambla through Barrio Sur

This is kilometer zero as the Rambla stretches east and is just a few blocks from Puerto Mercado and the heart of the old town’s commercial center. Here the surface is grainy light brown granite slabs, smooth and durable, and this part of the slab is mostly empty except for fishermen and locals. there are many sites of interest, like the ‘the stack’, a tall brick chimney atop an ancient oven just above the waterline. This first landmark is just 300 meters from the point zero jetty. Another 400 meters on is a staircase down to a broad shelf of rocks and a popular sunbathing spot.

Rising up over a short slope here, the surface is more irregular and beat up, but passing the fort evens out again and is smooth enough to skate. This surface of large diagonal slabs lasts for miles now heading east. at 2800 is another large platform shelf below the Rambla on the river, affording easy access for swimmers and fishermen.

The Rambla wraps around Playa Ramirez in across from Parque Rodo

Across the road is a large grassy area with a statue of the liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar, astride his horse. 3300 is the site of another stone plaza platform beneath the Rambla, and at 3600 sits the ugliest embassy of all in Montevideo, that of the US. This imposing structure overlooks its own plaza, and is adjacent to Tinkal, renowned for tremendous chivitos, the national sandwich. Two more grassy plazas follow, the second of which is presided over by Yemanja, the celebrated Yoruba and Santeria goddess of mothers and the sea.

                                    This must be the place

At 4600 meters is a sensational viewpoint and famous statue on the left beneath the college of engineering. Teatro Verano, a sublime outdoor concert venue is situated at 4700 across from the other end of Ramirez beach.

Saw the Black Keys here at the Teatro Verano on a rainy night…excellent

4800 marks the entrance to the Paseo de los Pescaderos that can be ridden with special care and offers more fine views and benches, along with four different fishing clubs with their own restaurants. Just past this is a wall directly above the water and another prime fishing location. Across the road the far eastern edge of Parque Rodo is visible with a pretty lagoon, some cliffs and paths. this area borders the magnificent Golf Club of Uruguay, designed by the legendary Alistar McKenzie in 1928. Parts of the course are visible through the border vegetation along the fence. It’s a classic track.

Number 14 has the only water hazard on the course, Golf Club of Uruguay

6300 is where the Ancap gas station is situated, at the bottom of Avenida Artigas, one of the major thoroughfares in the city. Just beyond is the road that goes out to the lighthouse at Punta Carretas, with a huge parking area and a popular restaurant. The turnoff is overlooked by a statue of Juan Zorilla San Martin. Immediately past the road on the right sits a newer addition to the features, a striking huge stone and steel sculpture which is even more interesting from the water side. More grass fields follow, some used for rugby and soccer games. Across the street is the Zorrilla Museum tucked between the tall buildings and this neighborhood holds some of the best hotels and restaurants in the city. At the end of the fields a barely marked path leads out to an old concrete jetty that is very popular as a swim spot.

Pocitos beach is frequently very crowded and care should be taken passing along this stretch of the Rambla. At the far eastern end the sidewalk narrows to just a few feet wide, and this choke point can be a concern on busy days. At 8400 meters pretty Gomensoro Plaza sits just across the road, a serene oasis surrounded by tall buildings. 100 meters further is the major intersection where Boulevar Espana and Avenida Brasil converge at the beach, both super busy traffic arteries.

The wide Rambla at Pocitos Beach can get a lot fuller than this, believe me

A little east of here the Rambla veers to the right around a skatepark and follows the coast past a large parking area before meeting the jetty at this end of Buceo harbor. Here the path loops back to the main road, past the Montevideo yacht club and the complex of fish markets next to El Italiano restaurant, a Sunday tradition in these parts. Buceo harbor is full of boats, and though bikes aren’t allowed on the jetty, usually the security guard will keep an eye on them so you can walk out to the end and look around.

After a really big storm a few years ago, several boats were thrown out of the water

14300 is where a grassy point is marked by an old stone monument which divides this fine beach into two sections, and just beyond a rock and grassy area favored by surfcasters and secluded sun worshippers. This next rocky point separates Malvin Beach from it’s eastern neighbor Playa Honda, where, as the name implies, the drop off from the shore is more abrupt, which attracts those that enjoy deeper water close by.

Here a small cafe on the Rambla is the last place to get food or drinks for a while. Near 15000 the surface briefly switches back to the nice smooth red and white pebble finish for a short distance before reverting back to the concrete blocks all the way past Punta Gorda.

Slow down here at Playa Mulata to buy some fish or drink a cold beer

17000 marks the beginning of Playa Verde, a favorite of many, separated from the Rambla by taller coastal pines and grassy dunes. Soon the surface changes again to a small red tile effect, and the sidewalk gets tight as it passes two seafood markets and restaurants directly on the Rambla. These actually sit on Playa Mulata, bordering Playa Verde to the east, and just as pretty. Just beyond 18000 the surface once again changes to the best surface of all, a golden pebbletech that runs all the way past Carrasco Casino. Here is the Rambla at its’ best; very smooth, even, and wide as it parallels long Carrasco beach.

                                A major stop for selfies

19500 marks the magnificent Carrasco hotel and casino, the center point of downtown Carrasco, Across the road the Rambla runs by a nice paved plaza, again with exercise equipment and a meeting place for many. Shortly past here the surface reverts back to smaller concrete squares but is still smooth and easy rolling . Carrasco beach is big with both surfcasters and kite surfers, dog walkers, and beach people looking for a little more elbow room that those to the west. Once again the vegetation changes somewhat, with lots of Tamarisk trees, small, broadleaf bushes, and heaps of coastal pine trees. The dunes that separate the Rambla from the beach flower gloriously in the spring.

          Montevideans always gather to watch a good sunset

21000 is the site of the naval school across the road and along here Playa Carrasco becomes Playa Miramar with no visible difference between the two, just fewer people the further east one goes. Long needle short pines predominate here, and 22000 marks almost the absolute end of the Rambla as it crosses Carrasco River. This is the turn around point to head back west and enjoy it all from the other angle, and it seems different heading in the other direction. When the weather is good, the Rambla is calling.