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.
Restaurante Mariemar, oceanfront, 011-598/470-5241, email@example.com, chivito (steak sandwich) with fries $7.50
Restaurante La Perla del Cabo, oceanfront, 011-598/470-5125, paella for two $18
Sea lion colony, behind the lighthouse (follow your nose), free
Bar de Joselo, look for the bungalow with an exuberant garden out front (or ask anyone), no phone
Finding Your Way
International flights land in Uruguay's capital, Montevideo, with round-trip fares starting around $670 from Miami. At the airport's Budget office, you can rent a sedan for $104 a day during high season, with taxes and insurance included (visit budgetinternational.com to reserve in advance). Cabo Polonio is about 150 miles east of Montevideo (about three hours by car). Take the coastal highway (Interbalneario) to Ruta 9. At kilometer 209, turn right onto Ruta 15. Then turn left at Ruta 10 and continue to kilometer 264.5. There you'll find a fleet of ever-ready 4x4s that ferries travelers over the dunes and into Cabo Polonio (around $2 per person). Budget has good maps and can offer advice on getting around. Don't worry: Uruguay has only a handful of highways, all well marked.
GETTING SUBVERSIVE IN PUNTA DEL DIABLO
An hour's drive east of Cabo Polonio, Punta del Diablo (Devil's Point) is a cheery settlement of colorful bungalows. A onetime fishing outpost, the village has recently become a requisite stop for backpackers. But long before they discovered its endless beaches and low-key vibe, Diablo was a refuge for visitors of a different sort.
"It was a haven for leftists back in the '70s," says Andrés Carrau, who custom builds and then rents out Diablo's trademark beachside bungalows, known as cabañas. "They came here to hide from the dictatorship." Carrau shows me to one of the Terrazas del Diablo rentals, a two-floor, magenta-colored cabaña that has a sundeck, a full kitchen, and an upstairs bedroom with ocean views, exposed beams, and bamboo furniture.
Diablo is just as easygoing; the streets are sand, and a fleet of wooden fishing boats bobs in the bay. But international attention has also lent the village a young, hip vibe and the kinds of accommodation and services to match. Beachside restaurants offer French and Italian cuisine, and a few tasteful mini resorts are now sprinkled among village cabañas.
Right on the beach, El Diablo Tranquilo, a hybrid hostel, pub, and laid-back restaurant, is at the vanguard of the new Diablo. I climb to the rooftop for possibly the best view in town: The beach three stories below is scattered with young, beautiful people sunning alongside fishing boats pulled up on the white sand. Surfers ply the waves beyond. Farther still, thrill seekers clamber out onto Diablo's rocky point, a 300-foot finger of land that extends into turquoise water.
"In other beach towns, it's all about being seen," says Brian Meissner, expat owner of the El Diablo Tranquilo. "Here, you could be famous and no one would know."
Thirty years ago, Uruguay's most infamous guerrillas flocked here for precisely that anonymity. In the '70s, the leftist Tupamaros terrorized the country, robbing banks, looting gun depots, and even kidnapping the British ambassador. When the government cracked down, the Tupamaros fled to Diablo. Sympathetic fishermen ferried the rebels to safety in Brazil, until the government caught on, reportedly sinking a fishing boat and drowning its crew in retaliation.
After dinner at El Diablo Tranquilo—grilled local whitefish caught fresh that day—I trek the few blocks back to my cabaña. Instead of bearded revolutionaries, I pass partygoers headed for Diablo's most happening nightspot, Bitacora Bar, an open-air, sand-floored club. During Diablo's manic January peak, when vacationing uruguayos descend upon the Atlantic coast in droves, Bitacora hosts all-night parties with dancers numbering in the thousands. But most nights the scene is far more intimate, with bands playing for crowds of just a few dozen.
The next day I'm up at dawn, in time to witness a few fishing boats unloading the night's catch. I follow a narrow path that leads away from the village and into Santa Teresa National Park, a UNESCO biosphere reserve that's home to endangered sea turtles and, during spring mating season, pods of right whales. The trail climbs along a sandy bluff before plunging down to a gracefully curving bay. Hardly a bad place to be on the lam.