This guest post takes us to Uruguay to explore the remote Cabo Polonio and beach at Valizas, as writer and film-maker Veronica Pamoukaghlian takes us back to carefree summer days of hanging out on the beach, surfing and drinking caipirinha with friends around a beach fire.
The first time I heard about Cabo Polonio was in the early nineties. Although only four hours away from the capital of Uruguay, which is home to half the population of the country, the place had been seen by few Uruguayans at the time and the scarce articles about it that appeared in the press made it sound as exotic as the far west may have seemed to the first English settlers on the Atlantic coast of the US.
The place was a paradise that could only be reached on horseback or using a jeep service run by a Frenchman who was a sort of local pioneer; he was just called “EL FRANCES” (the Frenchman).
The technical problem was a desert of tall golden dunes that separated the road from the beautiful shore. Ever since I read a particular article on a local magazine that no longer exists I began entertaining ideas of spending part of the summer there.
It is considered a rite of passage to adulthood in Uruguay to spend summers further away from Montevideo and closer to Brazil.
The greenish waters of River Plate start turning into the blue Atlantic ocean there, the beaches become more dangerous and mysterious, the surfing is good and there is always a fire on the sand after dusk, a drum caipirinha and, of course, the quintessential casual love stories and hookups of a careless summer.
My first time in Valizas, the closest beach town (you could hardly call it a “resort”), involved camping which I am generally not very good at. I had seen the Caribbean before, but I was instantly fascinated by the blue ocean and the sort of hippy lifestyle.
I remember very well the first time I did the walk across the desert from Valizas to Cabo Polonio. The solitude, the view from the Buena Vista hill, the little stream in the midst of the desert from which I drank the most delicious water, the cows casually lounging by the deserted shore, and my guide, the perfect place of my imagination, the castle island, in front of my favorite half moon of a deserted beach. I also remember a lonely naked tree and some crows following me at times and how everything spoke of infinite beauty with just the exact dose of danger and fear of getting lost, being taken in by a giant wave of the bluest shade, or falling prey to huge hungry birds.
One hour later, I was in Cabo. The lighthouse and the beach that is now my most beloved beach on the planet, after having seen Waikiki, Maui, Aruba, Mykonos, and the lot, welcomed me as if I had been there many times before, and I fell in love with a distinct quality that I don´t think I can put into words, you would just have to go there.
For better or worse, times have changed. After many visitors and many years, the dunes are now smaller, the simple life of the little huts with no electricity has evolved into more modern lifestyles, and last summer a friend crossed paths with George Michael there, this meaning that people from other countries have found out about the magical place, and it is no longer as quiet as it used to be.
The real hippies and penniless musicians and hippy necklace makers of the past have been joined by hordes of fashionable hippie chic Argentineans, Europeans, and Americans. The prices of rent have gone up so much that it is now more expensive to spend a summer in a good house in Cabo than in South America´s top beach resort, also in Uruguay, namely, Punta del Este, which is located only a couple of hundred kilometers away.
The good news is that repeated plans to build a five star hotel to disrupt the landscape of a little hill in the shape of a cape, with a lighthouse at the tip, and very few scattered houses facing the beaches on both sides, have been abandoned, and the original beauty that I discovered many years ago still remains.
Wherever I may be in the world, if there is a summer air and a quiet beach, I will always long for Cabo and the perfect days, the afternoons of swimming to collect mussels, the wine and cheese and delicious local tomatoes we used to call “the happy hour” at dusk, the neon waves at night with noctilucas, and the silence at times of no cars, no city noises, as if progress had never been and we were still able to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, a mate to drink with friends watching the sun go down, and all those things we used to do, the games we played, stuff you do when there is no TV, no Internet, no telescreens to watch your every move.
A safe haven, if there ever was one on the face of the earth, Cabo Polonio still feels like years ago when you visit off season, from late March to November.
My thanks for these memories of happy, hippy summers at Cabo Polonio to Veronica Pamoukaghlian who lives in Uruguay and writes at The Wander Life – “a blog from the heart, from a restless traveler”
More South American tales to enjoy
In Podcast 11 in my travel podcast series, I talk to Craig and Linda from Indie Travel Podcast about their 4 months travelling with friends in South America, visiting Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay. They pick out the highlights of their trip, and give some advice on travelling by bus, how to avoid scams and pickpockets and how they enjoyed staying with locals on this trip.
- Craig and Linda flew into Santiago because of the cheap flights from Auckland in New Zealand. The city is surrounded by mountains and can be bathed in smog although Craig & Linda enjoyed their time there with museums and great street food.
- Patagonia in southern Chile has amazing scenery although Craig & Linda didn’t visit, as it is one of the most expensive regions to visit in South America and they didn’t have enough time.
- The island of Chiloé is a great place to relax and slow down, with a Pacific Island feel with food being cooked in underground ovens, and a place you can spot seals and dolphins.
- In northern Chile, the area around San Pedro de Atacama is beautiful although the town itself is a tourist trap. You can use San Pedro de Atacama as a base for trips into the surrounding area but as an alternative you can approach from the north from Uyunay in Bolivia. This region is known for its natural beauty with mountains and salt flats.
- Craig and Linda enjoyed an astronomy tour with a Frenchman who has set up telescopes in his house to view the very clear night skies in this area that has very little light pollution.
- Linda and a friend spent a weekend in Valparaiso in Chile with plenty of street art, funiculars and brightly coloured houses where the local government had commissioned open air murals around the town. They also visited Viña del Mar, the coastal resort of the region.
- Unfortunately, Chile is one of the most expensive countries in South America for food and accommodation, along with Uruguay and Argentina.
- Craig and Linda travelled by overnight bus from Santiago to Antofagasta and up to Lima and spent 7 weeks in Peru, 3 of which were in Cusco where they attended a local language school to learn Spanish.
- Cusco is not representative of Peru as a whole as it is very touristy, being the main jumping off point for trips to Machu Picchu. We discuss the pros and cons of visiting Machu Pichu which is a major site but also expensive and crowded by comparison to other sites that receive far less visitors.
- From Cusco they enjoyed a trek through the Sacred Valley, visiting local villages that were well off the tourist trail.
- Craig and Linda didn’t visit Machu Picchu preferring to spend time at some other lesser known pre-Incan sites near Trujillo such as Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna.
- They especially enjoyed their time in the northern cities of Trujillo, Chachapoyas and Chiclayo and wish that they’d spent more time there than in Cusco.
- From Peru Craig and Linda travelled to the shores of Lake Titicaca, stayed at Cococabana and did some walking on Isla de Sol, a large island in the lake.
- They visited the Uros floating islands made from reeds that were constructed as a refuge for the local people but have now become a major draw for tourists and brought more prosperity for the locals.
- They had mixed feelings about La Paz which Linda loved as they stayed with locals and she enjoyed the street-food. Craig found the city dirty and felt unsafe as they were targeted with 3 pick-pocket attempts while they were there.
- From Uyuni in Bolivia Craig and Linda visited the salt flats for a 3 day 4 wheel drive tour staying in a salt hotel and ending at San Pedro de Atacama. They loved the amazing play with perspective, coral islands covered with cactus and the heat haze with the mountains in the distance.
Argentina and Uruguay
- Craig and Linda visited the Iguazu falls from both the Argentinian side which they found more developed but also more crowded and from the Brazilian side which had less visitors. The car to take them to the falls was arranged through their hostel and was only a little more expensive and more convenient than taking public transport.
- From Puerto Iguazu they took the bus to Montevideo in Uruguay where they stayed with a friend who took them to his grandmother’s Lake House. This was close to the popular beach and surfing resort of Punte del Este which was reputed to have the best surfing on Uruguay’s east coast.
- They also enjoyed Montevideo which was a relaxing place with plenty of culture and galleries, a contrast to the buzzing atmosphere of Buenos Aries. They also spent some time in in the town of Colonia in Uruguay.
- In Argentina Craig and Linda did some wine tasting in the Mendoza and la Plata regions but found it difficult to take part in the wine tasting unless you were part of a tour as the wineries would only open their cheapest wines to try.
Tips for travelling by bus in South America
- As they were travelling on a budget, Craig & Linda used long distance buses to get around, normally travelling overnight, despite the fact that Linda finds it difficult to sleep on buses.
- The standard of the buses were best in Chile and Argentina and in Peru there was also a wide range of standards with some very high quality buses.
- At best these buses can be similar in style to air travel with comfortable, reclining seats, airline style meals and drinks and even sometimes on board wifi.
- Depending on the bus, you can book semi-cama seats that recline 45-60 degrees, Cama with 160 degree reclining, and even full cama that lie flat.
- Craig and Linda suggest that you research your options and book with an bus operator that has a good reputation, even if it costs a little more.
- Always keep your valuables with you on the bus and keep hold of any day-packs , especially when sleeping.
- You may like a seat at the front of the bus that has more leg-room and you should also check the position of the toilet before selecting a seat to avoid unwelcome smells.
Couchurfingand meeting locals
- On this trip Craig and Linda enjoyed staying with locals through Couchsurfing.org – even though their options were more limited as they were travelling in a group.
- They combined this with staying in hostels which also gave them a break from speaking Spanish and an opportunity to catch up on the work for their Indie Travel Podcast site, as they also earn a living through the website.
If you enjoyed this travel podcast please check out my other podcasts in my Travel Podcast Archive
Other Indie Travel Podcasts on South America
Photo Credits: All photos by Craig and Linda and can be seen on their Mars-Hill Flickr site