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.
Posada Mariemar, oceanfront, 011-598/470-5164, email@example.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
Restaurante Mariemar, oceanfront, 011-598/470-5241, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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, ElDiablo 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.
El Diablo Tranquilo Hostel, Playa del Rivero, 011-598/477-2647, eldiablotranquilo.com, rooms from $65
Terrazas del Diablo, rental bungalows on or near the beach, 011-598/477-2250, puntadeldiablo.com.uy (Currently Spanish-only), bungalows from $60
El Diablo Tranquilo Bar, Playa del Rivero, 011-598/477-2647, eldiablotranquilo.com, grilled whitefish with spicy salsa $9.50
Santa Teresa National Park, trails begin at Playa del Rivero, parquesantateresa.com.uy (Spanish-only)
Bitacora Bar, open-air club in the dunes behind the village, no phone, bitacorabar.com
Finding Your Way
Punta del Diablo is about 35 miles east of Cabo Polonio (about one hour by car). From Cabo Polonio, take Ruta 15. At the intersection with Ruta 9, turn right and follow Ruta 9 to kilometer 298, the entrance to Punta del Diablo.
GOOD VIBRATIONS IN MYSTICAL PIRIÁPOLIS
This resort town on a rugged stretch just outside of Montevideo has inspired enough dark legends and Byzantine conspiracy theories to fill a Dan Brown novel. It all started in 1890, when Piriápolis's founder, local real-estate baron Francisco Piria, bought 7,000 acres of undeveloped coastline in pursuit of his twin dreams: making a load of money selling vacation homes and building a utopian city based on Kabbalah, a mystical set of religious beliefs.
"Piria built his city around the spots where magnetic vibrations were strongest, just like the Aztecs, the Egyptians, and the Druids did," says Carlos Rodriguez, our New Age Mystical Tour guide. We're standing at a scenic point high above Piriápolis, joined by a busload of open-minded travelers from as far away as Spain. Some sway rhythmically, overcome by the good vibes. I'm not feeling it.
But the town spread below is undeniably appealing. A regal stone boardwalk winds along the waterfront, past a grand old hotel and aging mansions. On the white sand out front, day-tripping families soak up rays, and behind them, lush hills rise dramatically to rocky peaks.
When the sunset séance begins, I part ways with my mystical friends. On the boardwalk, local fishermen hawk fresh squid, shrimp, and mussels from wooden stands. Sandy beaches eventually give way to cliffs, where a few seafood joints sit right over the water.
At Barlovento, the red wine comes in half-liter jugs, and the house special, linguine tutto mare, comes with just about everything local fishermen have caught that day: clams, mussels, calamari, octopus, and shrimp, all served over homemade pasta. It's dark by the time I follow the boardwalk back into town, and except for the waves below, Piriápolis is quiet. Then an eerie drone starts in from the water, soft at first but growing louder. Piria's ghost? Kabbalah spirits?
"Frogs," explains the concierge at my hotel, the oceanfront Terrazas del Puerto. While not a match for the gracefully moldering period hotels along Piriápolis's main drag, Terrazas del Puerto has airy rooms with ceramic tile floors and large terraces overlooking the ocean and the yacht club below. From my room, four floors above the Atlantic, I listen as Piriápolis's amphibians croon late into the night.
I rent a bicycle from a shop on the boardwalk the next morning and make for the area's most famous landmark, Castillo de Piria. The three-story castle is hard to miss. Rising from farmland outside town, it has medieval turrets and a yawning portico, all frosted a delicate shade of pink. I meet up again with Rodriguez, busy initiating another group in the town secrets.
"The castle is built on a fault line," he says from behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses. "A lot of negative energy converges here." Inside, we navigate a maze of twisting passages, secret staircases, and blind doorways. Rickety stairs lead to what appears to be a basement lab. "Piria was an alchemist," Rodriguez explains matter of factly. "All Kabbalists were."
It gets weirder. On the way back into town, we pass the ruins of a Gothic-style cathedral that towers nearly 10 stories above a fallow field. It's Piria's unfinished masterpiece.
"He built the cathedral to fulfill a prophecy," Rodriguez begins. In quick succession, he reveals that Hitler was a black wizard, Churchill was one of the Knights Templar, and in 1944, the Holy Grail was in grave danger of falling into Nazi hands. So, naturally, the Pope had the Grail brought to Uruguay.
Tour goers are scribbling down notes, nodding enthusiastically. Rodriguez pans the crowd, his face grimly serious with the weight of this revelation. He fixes his gaze on me. What can I do? I exchange a solemn nod. After all, this is Uruguay's Atlantic coast, where penguins barhop, insurgents unwind, and—just maybe—a kooky alchemist once stashed the Holy Grail.
Terrazas del Puerto, Avenida Francisco Piria (upper level), 011-598/43-21-432, hotelterrazas.com.uy, rooms from $40
Barlovento, Rambla de los Ingleses, 011-598/43-26-895, linguine tutto mare (pasta with fresh seafood) $11
Mystical Tour, contact mystical guide Carlos Rodriguez, 011-598/43-22-544, email@example.com, three-hour tour to Piria's castle and cathedral $12 (transportation included)
Castillo de Piria, Ruta 37 (2.5 miles outside of town), no phone, free
Cathedral, Ruta 37 (1.5 miles outside of town), no phone, free
Finding Your Way
Piriápolis is 125 miles west of Punta del Diablo (about 2.5 hours by car) and makes a convenient stop on the way back to the international airport in nearby Montevideo. From Punta del Diablo, take Ruta 9 west. Turn left on Ruta 37 (toward the end of the trip), the access road to Piriápolis.