Uruguay — 02 January 2013

By

Chip Livingston

photos by Gabriel Padilha

South American summer vacations hit maximum velocity in January and February, and Uruguay’s Costa de Oro is a major destination for Argentineans, Brazilians and Chileans on holiday, as well as Europeans and North Americans escaping their winter seasons. Punta del Este, while maintaining elite status of the celebrity-seeking jet set, is as overcrowded in the high tourist season as it is overpriced. Hotel rooms range from $200 to $600 per night, and short-term vacation rentals average $4,000 per week for a two-bedroom apartment and starting from $10,000 per week for a two-bedroom private house near the beach.  Not to mention the tightly packed beaches themselves, where radios compete for volume capacity and sunbathers fight for a square of sand to plant their chairs or blankets.

But if you’re looking for an affordable beach vacation where you actually hear the waves crash upon the shore and can stretch out and stroll along the sandy beaches, there’s a host of more natural and less-crowded beach towns along the same golden Atlantic coast.

Punta del Diablo meets these standards from March to November, and it’s my personal favorite for the off-season months. It maintains the pueblo charm of a small Uruguay beach town despite its popularity, and its name, but Punta del Diablo feels like a Spring Break, endless party for most of the summer holidays, with motorcycle and car traffic inching along the beachfront, horns honking wildly, and parking nearly impossible to negotiate.

Punta del Diablo, the Devil’s Point, got its name from its reputation for shipwrecks, and its perpetual waves break perfectly for the many surfing enthusiasts who trek to this stretch of the Atlantic for its sequences of crystal blue crests. Architects seem to have their heyday as well, as creativity and originality seem primary values in construction, not to mention earth-friendly considerations in energy sources and drainage areas.  Recent population surveys have the total number of full-time residents at less than 800, but tourists in January and February can see that capacity reaching 26,000.

The peninsula and lighthouse divide two popular beaches, Widow’s Beach to the south and Fisherman’s Beach to the north. As one might imagine, seafood is prominent among the many casual restaurants open during the summer, a marked difference from Uruguay’s dominant beef diet. And while this “resort” area is among Lonely Planet Guide’s top-20 places to visit, I advise most travelers to avoid the crowded peak season; the traffic and rattle of mopeds and motorcycles are contradictory to the relaxing mindset of most grownup vacation seekers.

Cabo Polonio, however, offers the antithesis to Punta del Este’s 24-hour electric disco hum or Punta del Diablo’s traffic hell. In fact, there’s a virtual absence of vehicles in Cabo Polonio because there are no public roads in or out, except for a National Park path traversed by large dune buggies (which tote tourists) and the few isolated four-wheel-drive jeeps and trucks of Cabo residents (around 100 full time). There’s also a noticeable lack of electricity, though power lines to the remote coastal town known for its sea lion colonies and whale sightings have “modernized” the natural stretch from the coastal road to the little hippy village marked by colorful casitas, hostels, and a 130-year-old lighthouse.

The national park welcome center provides free parking (omnibuses also make frequent stops) and $8 round-trip dune buggy service to the beach where shared rooms in the hostels average $12 per night and rooms in the single hotel, which features electricity, private bathrooms and a first-world restaurant and bar, for around $100 per night. Private home rentals on the “south beach” average $200 per night for four-person occupancy. A dozen new home-grown seafood and parrilla restaurants have popped up over the last year too, providing many cheap, casual food options. There are also two small grocery stores in Cabo Polonio.

But what makes this spot so special is the dearth of modernity, the sea lion and fur seals that breed on the rocky islets and an eastern cliff just below the lighthouse. Other than the few dozen rough-hewn dwellings, most often painted brightly and adorned with shells, graffiti, and broken glass mosaics, and a handful of beach dogs and grazing cows and horses, backpackers come in for the day to take photos and whale watchers scan the horizon and closer waters for the occasional breaches and leaps of the southern right whales that pass along the coast from October through February.

There are two primary beaches in Cabo Polonio, flanking the largest sea lion mating area below the lighthouse. The south beach is the surfers’ draw, where riding waves are frequent along the sandy shore. Quaint casitas topped with solar panels and small windmills line the hill up to the lighthouse and across to the funky village. The eastern beach, known as Skull Beach because of the whale bone fossils and shipwreck ruins, leads north to huge sand dunes where sandboarders slide and jump to catch air. Bonfires light both beaches at night, and guitars and drums carry melodies in the constant wind.

For tourists wanting a similarly peaceful, relaxing beach trip just a bit closer to modern conveniences (Wi-Fi, shopping, ATM machines), the nearby La Paloma has everything the comfort-aware traveler expects, as well as the unspoiled beaches extending in each direction. Typical of many small beach cities between the “East” and Montevideo, La Paloma has a wide range of options from which to choose where you’ll stay, from boutique hotels to towers to cottages. The beach itself is marked only by the occasional tortas fritas salesman, lifeguard or watersports rental stand, for all things surf-related (kite surfing, wind surfing, body surfing, as well as traditional surfing) are front and center up and down the Uruguayan coast, especially sparsely populated seashore expanses like La Paloma’s.

Aguas Dulces, Las Piedras, Jose Ignacio, and Chuy (along the northeast border with Brazil) are also less-crowded choices when looking for the best place to unwind on Uruguay’s golden coast. Depending on your destination, pack appropriately (plenty of fresh water for Cabo Polonio) and bring your sunscreen. The midday sun is brutal in its force. Thankfully though, the ocean’s always cold enough to quell the summer heat, and when the sun goes down and the evening breezes blow, you’ll want a blanket or a jacket even as you warm up by the bonfire.

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