Much has been written about the coastal Uruguayan town of Punta del Este, located 2 hours east of the capital Montevideo, and its surroundings being the “Riviera of South America.”
For the last generation or so it has served a glitzy escape for the wealthy of Argentina and Brazil during the summer months (winter in the Northern Hemisphere), and more and more visitors from Europe and North America have come to see the international jet-set enclave at the bottom of the continent. What is an otherwise non-descript town comes to life from December through February, when the beaches fill with bronzed bodies, and mega-yachts languish offshore. Bars, restaurants, and casinos are packed and the nightlife rivals that of Buenos Aires.
Though my parents retired to Punta del Este, or “Punta,” five years ago, they still start to eye the clock for bedtime at the same time most Uruguayans are preparing their dinner. After a month of visiting them in the summer - arguably the biggest party area of South America in the height of the season - it was time to find the action. But Punta’s Miami vibe was not for me, and I went in search for something a little more bohemian. The itinerary was set: from Punta del Este I would head eastward to Punta del Diablo, stopping for a few nights in each coastal village along the way in the province of Rocha, the final stretch of undeveloped shoreline in Uruguay.
The starting point to entering Rocha was Jose Ignacio, a small village a short drive from Punta del Este bordering the province. In comparison, it was small and beachy, with shirtless boys driving 4x4s on white sand roads. Gorgeous vacation homes in rustic modern design were punctuated by chic cafes and expensive boutiques carrying nautical themed décor.
Recently Jose Ignacio has received much attention internationally as a “gypset” destination – a town that liked to talk about its bohemian surf vibe but whose price tags could not be afforded by hippies or surfers. Latin celebrities have houses on the shore and the main hotels in town, Estancia Vik, Playa Vik, and Bahia Vik, are the uber-modern retreats favored by luxury magazines and design aficionados. Men with beautiful hair and tailored shirts come in from the surrounding chacras to join bronzed ladies on the beach. While the amount of surf is debatable, there are a few things guaranteed in Jose Ignacio: the beach is crowded, the people are beautiful, and the line at the seaside restaurant La Huella is always long.
Indeed, Jose Ignacio was about as bohemian as a polo match. I continued on.
For miles after Jose Ignacio the view was nothing but a parfait of horizontal lines – low scrubby grass that meets the caramel-colored sand, the dark green Atlantic, and then that great blue sky – punctuated only by a few houses here and there. A group on horseback, led by a gaucho riding on a saddle of sheep’s wool, briefly broke up the stillness. My first stop in Rocha was La Pedrera, a tiny town just up the coast from the slightly bigger village of La Paloma. All but shuttered in the winter, it comes to life in the summer and reaches its party zenith during Carnaval at the end of February when hoards of Argentine and Uruguayan college students take it over. Though there are costumes and street drummers, it is no Rio – but it is the biggest Carnaval party in Uruguay.
That evening I joined a group of two Uruguayans and eight Argentines, all from different corners of the country, who had waved me over to their table at the hostel with an offering of fernet and cola, the Italian herbal liquor that is both an Argentine obsession and a strongly acquired taste. The temperature had dropped significantly with nightfall, and I found myself wearing a sweater when we headed out to dance at 4am. Light was on the horizon when we returned home, buzzed and sweaty from moving to reggaeton and cumbia hits in a dark boliche with sandy floors.
The next day was spent under an Uruguayan sun hot enough to make a dive in the icy south Atlantic feel refreshing. The emerald water was rough but clear. Long-legged sea birds ran through the white foam poured on shore as I sought refuge under an umbrella between dips. The hole in the ozone layer over the country makes for skin that prickles after a few minutes outside, though it doesn’t seem to deter the locals from donning the skimpiest of bikinis and sizzling for hours in beach chairs turning with the setting sun, mate cup and a thermos of boiling water perpetually in hand.
Located 70 miles from Jose Ignacio, the hamlet is little more than a smattering of ramshackle cabins and a lone lighthouse on a peninsula overlooking the sea. The original inhabitants descended from fishermen, seal hunters, and sailors shipwrecked on the perilous rocky shores. Next came the hippies and artisans, and these days there are families from Montevideo that come for the summer and hundreds of visitors that come for the day. Part national park, part squatter commune, the status of Cabo Polonio has always been in limbo, but the vibe remains the same: relaxed but messy.
If the appeal of the Rocha coast lies partly in its isolation, then Cabo Polonio has charm to spare. The town has no running water and, save for a few generators, no electricity. Until recently it had no cell phone reception, and it is inaccessible by car. The magic lies in being just out of reach.
I boarded the massive 4x4 trucks that leave regularly from the park’s entrance, scoring a seat on the roof for unencumbered – if jiggly – views. (More intrepid travelers can also go at it by foot, hiking 4 hours from neighboring Barra de Valizes). After a half-hour ride through the quiet wilderness of shifting sand dunes, entering the village felt celebratory. Brightly painted driftwood signs pointed in all directions where a maze of sand paths congregated in the town “center,” where locals and visitors gathered to board the next outgoing truck. Rasta colored flags blew in the wind, hippies sold beaded jewelry on sarongs spread in the grass. Horses, chickens, and geese wandered between the houses – some neat nautical cabins, others a mashup of random parts.
By day I joined the crowds on one of the two beaches that flanked the town. I sipped on caipirinhas sold out of coolers by teens with long hair and skin the color of coffee beans as locals played soccer in the surf. I hiked around the tip of the peninsula, the round brown rocks indistinguishable from the hundreds of sea lions that lay splayed atop, napping lazily in the afternoon heat. The lighthouse, built in 1880, offered a vertiginous climb and spectacular views of the town below, set ablaze in an orange glow from the setting sun.
That night, I dined on seafood ravioli in a candlelit shack. Later, visiting musicians played Brazilian hits around a bonfire in the sand, and soon the whole village showed up. Everyone clapped along and hippies twirled around the perimeter, lit by lanterns and the full moon above.
Punta del Diablo
One of the final towns on the coast before entering Brazil, Punta del Diablo was a tiny fishing village that has since become a hipster and surfer hangout. The town is made up of a grid of dirt roads that house rectangular wooden cabins in primary colors with just enough yard space to host a proper asado. The center of town is met by the sea at a small bay, where red and blue fishing boats, as picturesque as bathtub toys, are pulled onto shore and the catch unloaded at the seafood restaurants lining the block. Backpackers and Uruguayan families pop into town to peruse the stalls selling empanadas and shell jewelry between tanning sessions on the shore.
On a walk up the coast, I scurried over high boulders smooth and rounded like giant river pebbles, revealing the glossy purple hearts of mussel shells between the cracks. A fisherman was knee-deep in the tide pool, pulling up electric green seaweed that he would later sell to the local restaurants. Around the bend of the peninsula began Playa Grande. The beach was flat and wide with calm waters and only a handful of families, bronzed and topless and playing with babies. Playa Grande is the first in a series of beaches that runs the length of the Santa Teresa National Park, a forested area with empty shoreline, great surf, and campgrounds for those for whom a hostel was even too fancy. Here, on the edge of the quietest coast of a humble country on the bottom of the continent, only rough wilderness lay ahead.
[Originally published online for Suitcase Magazine]