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