PERSONALITY TO SPARE

Lose Yourself in Uruguay's Beach Towns

The country's gorgeous Atlantic coast remains eccentric and mostly under the radar. Skip over Punta del Este and follow us to rugged Cabo Polonio (population 79), freewheeling Punta del Diablo, and mystical Piriápolis.

UNPLUGGED IN CABO POLONIO
It's well past midnight when Joselo, the blind bartender with silver hair past his shoulders, brings up the story of El Pingüino. "Four penguins washed up on shore," he says. "I took them all in, but El Pingüino was special."

Joselo is speaking by candlelight in his eponymous bar in Cabo Polonio, a tiny beach town about 150 miles east of Uruguay's capital, Montevideo. The candles aren't for effect. A half-hour dune buggy ride from the nearest highway, Cabo Polonio has no cars, no paved roads, and, apart from its signature lighthouse, no municipal electric power.

"When the bar would fill up, I used to bring El Pingüino out on the dance floor," Joselo explains. "He'd walk right through the crowd completely at home."

Dancing penguins hardly seem out of the question in Uruguay, a Dorito-shaped country of 3.5 million wedged between the more touristed Brazil and Argentina. The towns along its Atlantic coast—cut off in capes, isolated on rocky points, and marooned behind dunes—have evolved along their own, often quirky, paths.

In Cabo Polonio, Bar de Joselo is getting crowded. It's a local favorite, although competition is admittedly scarce; apart from a few peak weeks of the high season (December through February), Joselo's is the only bar in town. A side door leads from the ramshackle bar room to a backyard garden. I feel my way through a maze of flowering vines to a hidden outdoor patio. Small groups of Argentines and Uruguayans, and even an unlikely pair of Americans, sit huddled around bottles of grappamiel, Uruguay's trademark blend of grappa and honey. It's smooth, sweet, and deceptively potent.

Last call sends everyone spilling out onto Cabo's sandy main street. The village, with an estimated year-round population of 79, is dark now except for candlelight seeping from a few windows. A short walk takes me back to the Posada Mariemar, a guesthouse a few yards from the ocean's edge. Mariemar offers simple, comfortable rooms, oceanfront views and—a luxury in these parts—electric power drawn from its private generator. I drift to sleep watching the glimmer of the lighthouse on the water and wake up the next morning to what sounds like distant howling, barely audible above the crashing waves.

At breakfast, on Mariemar's sunny seaside patio, innkeeper Daniel Machado explains that it's the sea lions: "We've got a whole colony." On cue, a sleek, whiskered head surfaces from the water, a stone's throw from where we're sitting. Machado points me down a rocky trail to investigate.

Finding the sea lion colony is hardly a challenge. I follow my nose toward Cabo's lighthouse, passing simple stone and stucco cabins (many available for weekly rentals) that cling to grassy cliffs overlooking the ocean. There are no shops, but a few local craftspeople have spread out woolen goods and carvings for sale. On either side, white-sand beaches stretch to the horizon. Surfers prefer the more southerly beach, while the calm waters of Playa Norte are better for swimming.

Behind the lighthouse, I find several hundred barking, squealing animals sunning themselves on the rocks, giving off the heady bouquet of two-day-old sushi. The largest sea lions weigh nearly half a ton and laze untroubled, blinking sleepily in the afternoon sun. But the rest are in a feistier mood. Every so often, rivals bare fangs, let out a blood-curdling yelp, and charge. Blubbery necks crash with a satisfying slap.

"They're the machos that got kicked off the islands offshore. There are no females here, so all they do is fight," Machado explains back at Restaurante Mariemar over the classic Uruguayan lunch: an artery-busting chivito sandwich. It takes two hands to steady this imposing pile of sliced steak, ham, and fried egg.

Machado later escorts me to the oversized 4x4 that will ferry me across the dunes and back to civilization. We drive past vehicles loaded down with visitors arriving for the weekend: a mix of long-haired nature lovers, local families, and a few international travelers with imposing cameras. Looking back, I see the lighthouse has been fired up.

Lodging
Posada Mariemar, oceanfront, 011-598/470-5164, mariemar@cabopolonio.com, rooms from $35

Cabins, private owners rent out rustic, beachfront cabins; most have no electricity, and water for washing and flushing must be hand pumped. For photos and contact information, see cabopolonio.com/alquileresx.htm (Spanish site but most owners are English-savvy). Cabins from $60

PSST! SECRET BEACHES

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