Early Sunday morning, we went off to search for Uruguay’s most famous hippie retreat: Cabo Polonio. After having figured out that hitchhiking in the bustling metropolis of Montevideo was going to be difficult, we decided to take a direct bus to Cabo Polonio; direct, that is, until the end of the paved roads that leads you to the beginning of the sand dunes. From there, we gazed at the massive 4x4s bouncing by that delivered tourists straight to the beach, and decided to embrace Laurent’s Dutch cheapness and walk.
The 7km path was an easy one, but by the time we arrived our shoes were a little heavier from the sand we had accumulated. Arguably, we had a better view than the 4×4 because we could stop and take in what was around us. Straight ahead were the lapping waves of the blue water crashing by what appeared to be a pretty clean sand beach, and just before, small cabins dotted the grassy banks. We walked towards the town, located a kilometer or so away, but hoped that we might be able to camp outside the town for free.
The first shack we saw advertised itself as a BnB, so we welcomed ourselves on the land. A small shirtless bearded man opened the door and in his German-accented Spanglish explained that while he was not the owner, he endowed us with the powers to be to allow us to camp on ‘his’ property for the night. So we put up camp. (An investigation conducted a few days later revealed that one night at the BnB, when it was operating, would have cost us 100 euros or so for the night. Nice save.) This was a huge relief since camping is normally forbidden in Cabo Polonio, but this was a restriction we were able to work around by gaining permission to camp on private property.
Since he also needed to visit town to pick up something anyways, we walked with him along the beach. He laughed at the presence of our shoes. Enrique, as he introduced himself, was a very friendly wandering painter in search of inspiration. He had walked almost the entire way from Montevideo to Cabo Polonio. As he disappointing put it, “I was looking for hippies, and found only hipsters.” He was looking for a place without cell connection; but unfortunately for him, cell service is excellent in Uruguay, and virtually every town, including Cabo Polonio, offers free public wifi in the city square. Soon after he arrived, he had met a Uruguayan movie director, who had offered him a place to stay in exchange of completing some tasks: vigorously watering the plants outside the house, dusting the windows from the salt from the ocean, and painting the house. It seemed like a good deal. Later that evening, we had tea with him as we watched the stunning moon rise and the ocean glow blue with the stars above.
Guidebooks had told us that Cabo Polonio would host Latin America’s largest sea lion colony. The first day we saw none. Instead, we found two very cute little owls, two dead penguins, one large whale skeleton, a few lazy dogs chilling at the town square, and eventually, in our last hours there on the second day, 4 sea lions. Not a promising count for the future of sea lions.
In its heyday, Cabo Polonio was a rustic seaside retreat for those looking to escape the fascinations of 21st century life. In some respects, it still maintains this tradition with no grid access and only using solar, wind, or generator sources for electricity (because no one in his right mind wants to drink a luke-warm beer on the beach). The power lines that cut through the landscape are only there to power the landmark lighthouse. However, a rapid growth of tourism in the past years has seen the town transform itself to cater for this bustling industry. Many hostels and restaurants line the main street (the widest strech of sand in the dunes), free wifi access exists for those who couldn’t fathom the idea of being there without instagramming it, and souvenir shops are abound. In its peak season in January, the normally sleepy town of 100 swells to 1000. Luckily for us, it was shoulder season in March, and we could stroll along the beaches and rocks without others filling our every frame. We enjoyed a cold beer, bought at the well-stocked supermarket, at sunset and made it back to our tent, just before the moon rose.
Tips for travellers
- Befriend one of the 100 or so private property owners, if you want to make your stay at Cabo Polonio budget friendly (only if you have your own tent).
- The supermarket in town is suprisingly well-stocked and fair priced, but if you plan on cooking it is probably better to bring some supplies. The shop where the 4×4 trucks leave is truly overpriced though, and it is better to shop in Cabo Polonio.
- The 7km walk from the main road to Cabo Polonio, even with heavy backpacks, is not that bad and saves you 218 UYU. Bring some water though.