(No tel. code; altitude 0 m/0 ft; pop. 88)
If you want to visit somewhere a little offbeat (and off grid), the tiny beach town of Cabo Polonio is your place. Belonging to a different side of Uruguayan life, it represents the antithesis to modern cities, tourist trap resorts and old-style estancia living. As well as having no electricity, there are no paved roads, and running water is scarce. The people of Cabo pride themselves in being "free" from all the ties of modern life, and it is common to see flags of liberty and the word "libertad" painted on buildings. The concept of ownership is relative because the town is seen as one. While in some ways being in Cabo Polonio seems like youâ€™re looking into the past, in another way it is very much like peering into a future way of living, relying largely on solar energy, home composting and recycling, and trying to ensure that water is used minimally. In this way, and due to the happiness and tranquillity of the people with their lifestyle, the town can somehow be quite comforting.
When you hear other travelersâ€™ tales of visiting Cabo Polonio, even just the journey to get there sounds mystical. There are only a few buses that drop you at the side of the road, by the entrance to the national park, then you have to jump on the back (or the roof) of a big-wheeled truck that will bounce you along the sole dune path into town, passing thick woodland on the way. When you arrive, youâ€™ll wander around looking for your accommodation, passing steel or aluminium one or two-storey huts, usually covered in thatch, which is used just as much for insulation as it is for aesthetic reasons. Every building is unique, with bright colors and bohemian murals, and all have been constructed by their owners. Many appear haphazardly done, but that is probably a deliberate effect. Often, plastic bottles are sticking out of the walls of buildings, another form of artistic insulation, and adding to the reoccurring feeling that you are walking within a modern art installation. Next to you, a dog will be wandering, perhaps acting as your guide or trying to adopt you. It has no single owner but is very well-looked after. Later, when it is dark, you may be walking along the sand dunes in only the moonlight, with the flash of the lighthouse every few seconds, and perhaps guided by a pathway lit with candles.
Cabo Polonio is a rare remaining area of transversal mobile dunes, with nearby oceanic islands and native coastal woodlands, making it a superb location for both professional and budding landscape photographers (try to get hold of the photography book Cabo Polonio â€“ Liberte
by StĂ©phane San Quirce, available in Cabo Polonio Hostel). Flora and fauna in and around Cabo Polonio includes much that is considered threatened. There are a wide variety of bird species, many commercial fish including shark, sealions and fur seals can be seen readily along the coast, and you have to be careful not to stand on the many small lizards. Migratory species include Baltena Franca whales, easily spotted from the shore in October, as well as green sea turtles, and occasional penguins and dolphins.
The area has an unusual geological history too, in that it was an ancient island of granitic origin, connected to the continent by a sandy drawstring. The varying level of human presence on the island was linked to the prosperity of the ocean, making the area a place of archaeological importance for Uruguay as it demonstrates prehistoric occupation of the countryâ€™s coastal zone. Evidence shows that the area had been home to indigenous people for thousands of years, but was also used as a refuge for French pirates and smugglers until the early 18th century. The base didnâ€™t receive its name until Captain Joseph Polloni was shipwrecked here in 1753, then a small fishing village became established. However, the continuation of Cabo Polonio as an area of land that would not be ruined by modernity was only preserved due to the willingness, love and determination of its inhabitants, a fact that remains today.
As it lacks proper roads, Cabo Polonio doesnâ€™t use addresses, so instead landmarks and directions from central locations are used by locals to describe how to get around. The most important of the landmarks is the Faro
(lighthouse), which is situated at the corner between Playa Calavera
and Playa Sur
. If you ever find yourself disoriented, perhaps when wandering around the dunes (especially after dark), you can always find your way back by walking toward it.
The plaza is the focal point of town, close to Playa Calavera, and is where the trucks from the park entrance drop off and pick up. It features a few cheap places to eat, a solar-powered phone booth, a surf shop, and several artesanĂa stores and stalls. There is also a delightful boat-themed childrenâ€™s playground, constructed by locals from painted logs.
From the plaza, there are three main sandy pathways on which the majority of places to stay, eat and shop are located, and it is also a short walk to the lighthouse. The busiest street heads eastwards and features the two top hotels, El Perla del Cabo
, as well as one of the best restaurants, El Golosa
, and the legendary bar Joseloâ€™s
. The second street heads westwards toward some popular hostels situated on the seafront, including Cabo Polonio Hostel
and Hostal del Cabo
. The final street, the one on which the trucks travel, goes south and passes the Feria Artesanal
, which hosts live performances in summer. It continues to another landmark, the largest supermarket Templao
(where there is also a Rutas del Sol
bus ticket office), and to the popular restaurant El Alero
, then carries on further toward the more secluded places to stay around Playa Sur, including Posada La CaĂ±ada
and many cabaĂ±as to rent.
Many people come to Cabo Polonio to ride the excellent surf, to sandboard down the dunes or to horseback along the seafront. The views from the dunes in summer can be stunning, and the views toward the blowing dunes in winter can be even better. But you can also come here just to relax on the beach or on a hammock, enjoy a simpler and slower pace of life, and perhaps participate in one of the many spontaneous singing or drumming sessions that regularly take place on an evening, as people without television seek to entertain themselves. Youâ€™ll be sure to get a good nightâ€™s sleep, anyway, as no one can come into your room and switch on a great beam of light. But whatever you do, as long as you arrive with an open mind and a laid-back attitude, you will leave (eventually) with a happier heart.
Other places nearby Cabo Polonio: Punta del Diablo, La Paloma and Punta del Este.