Meandering up the coast of Uruguay has been on my travel list for a good 10 years, and I’m so glad that it lived up to expectations. Over the course over two weeks we made our way from Montevideo to Brazil, stopping at five different towns along the way, each one completely different to the last. From a luxurious party scene to charming surf towns, the coastline of Uruguay has it all.
Punta del Este
Ordinarily Punta del Este would not be the sort of place I’d head to. It’s reputation is that it’s the holiday destination for wealthy Brazilians and Argentinians who flock there to soak up the sun by day and down cocktails by night. In fact, that’s entirely what the town is designed for. There’s one central road which houses all of the town’s bars and restaurants, and high rise apartments, including a new Trump development, are springing up rapidly. It’s reflected in its visitors – the tanned and toned, the women catwalking their skintight dresses and the guys their skintight vests.
There is however an easy escape. A short ride to the green, isolated island of Gorriti is a nice day out, taking in sea lions at the port and a stroll through the trees, before a day on the beach.
The next stop is La Paloma, a friendly community made up of a small village and the local beaches. The village itself is surprisingly seductive. Jutting out between two bays, there are often rough winds causing a ferocious, angry sea. A walk around the village admiring the scenery, dominated by the lighthouse, taking in the cute, unique little houses and stopping at the two or three bars and restaurants is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. It’s impossible not to feel as calm as the surroundings.
La Paloma’s attraction is its surf beach, La Aguada. It’s just a five minute drive away, which somehow becomes a 30 minute walk. Luckily we managed to hitchhike to the beach every day, which was a lifesaver when you’re carrying a surfboard too. It’s unsurprising that people were happy to pick us up, given how generous and friendly Uruguayans are in general, and especially in small communities like this one. Locals are convinced the place will never change, despite its charms. Everyone you meet, such as the couple who are PE teachers in the village school during term time and rent out surfboards on the beach during summer, live here because they like the glacially slow pace, not in spite of it.
Just 15 minutes down the road, La Pedrera awaits. It’s a small summer holiday town which has gained popularity thanks to having possibly the nicest beach in Uruguay. Its vast golden sands extend around the bay, bookended at one end by sharp rocks creating rough swell. While La Paloma has a small year round community, La Pedrera really only has a pulse in summer. Everyone is there for the same reason – to enjoy a few beers and play on the beach. It’s a dog’s life.
There’s not really anything else to do – the town itself only has one road which hosts all of the bars, restaurants, and kitsch little cafes which make the ideal place to escape the sun and indulge in a brownie. By night there’s a more bohemian feel, with dreadlocks and anklets filling up the bars. It’s sleepy enough by day to relax and lively enough by night to enjoy – it’s easy to see why many Uruguayans flock to La Pedrera for their long summer weekends.
Cabo Polonio is a challenging place. It’s challenging to get to and challenging to get used to. The bus will drop you off at a clean, modern station, but then to reach the town itself you have to hop into an open top van, as it’s set in the middle of a natural reserve amongst the sand dunes, with no roads. Calling it a town is generous – there’s no electricity, no hot water, and don’t even think about looking for air conditioning or WiFi. As soon as you step off the van, you leave your day-to-day comforts behind and step into an altogether different way of life. The world is reduced to the people and place around you. With no TV or internet, the daily grumbles which occupy our minds just slip away. No Brexit disaster on the news every morning, no annoying WhatsApp group chats, and more importantly, no desire for any of that.
It’s picturesque by day. The tin houses sit right on the long, sandy beaches, making way for the rolling dunes. A walk along the beach eventually takes you around to the rocky outpost where sea lions bask in the sun and noisily squabble among themselves. A walk through the fields behind the beach takes you to the centre of the village. It’s made up of about 10 bars and restaurants, where you can pick up a delicious slice of freshly baked cake and an ice cold caipirinha, the hippy, colourful, handmade theme present throughout.
By evening the sky is a watercolour painting. You can see the moon rising on your right at the same time as the sun sets on your left, the sky inbetween a wash of purples and blues. The only sound is the slight ticking of the buildings which have invested in a generator, and those that haven’t are noticeable by their candles flickering in the windows.
At this time of year the village is busy, beers are knocked back every night, and weed brownies are freely sold. However for the other nine months of the year the village is transformed, even further removed from our modern amenities. There are only 60 permanent residents in the village. Life is uneventful, the bars and hostels close, and the pages of the calendar very slowly turn, until next year’s summer season rolls around. According to one of the 60 who I met, that’s how they like it. They make a living out of those three months which gets them by the rest of the time. Besides, you don’t need much when you don’t have to worry about paying mortgages, bills, cars or mobile phones.
After three days of an escape from day to day life, the novelty of the surroundings does start to grind. The nights are long and uncomfortable (the tin huts seem to keep in all of the day’s sun, and then the mosquitos come out to play) and the general feeling of being a little bit tired, a little bit smelly, and very, very sandy is not one that my pampered self could grow to enjoy for much longer.
Punta del Diablo
This place had been on my list for about 10 years, mainly due to it’s reputation for great surf and cheap caipirinhas – what more do you need in life? It completely lived up to my expectations, and was the ideal contrast to the Cabo Polonio way of life.
It’s a small town built around its beaches. While there’s still a living to be made by the fishmongers selling fresh catch, these places are gradually becoming surrounded by little craft breweries and more modern culinary options. Mornings are spent renting a surfboard and catching/being rolled around by the waves, afternoons are spent sipping cocktails under an umbrella on one of the three beautiful beaches.
By the time the sun eventually makes way for blue-to-orange-to-purple sunsets, and you’re lying back on the shore as the fishermen come out for the night, with the cheery effects of four caipirinhas, it feels like another day in paradise.
While there may not be a huge amount to say about Punta Del Diablo, it’s the perfect end to a couple of weeks in Uruguay. Much like you could say about the country as a whole, there’s plenty of fun to be had with kind, friendly hosts, as well as some great spots to recharge your batteries. It may not be completely undiscovered, but it’s definitely underappreciated – get it on your bucket list!