Published in Panorama Magazine, May 2010:
Cabo Polonio might not be the most beautiful place in the world. Nevertheless, you feel like you’ve entered paradise. Cabo —as it is called by frequent visitors, as if there were no other— is a gentle grasscovered hill of sand jutting into the Atlantic and ending in rocks that shelter a stable population of seals and sea lions. It is crowned by a 19th century lighthouse which has not succeeded in preventing frequent shipwrecks in this difficult-to-navigate area, with its winds that push ships toward the coast and a dangerous sea floor with rocky formations that thrust upward as islets. Cabo is flanked by two beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see, with dunes that were once higher than the current 98 feet. There may be other similar hamlets with higher dunes, more exuberant vegetation or better tourist services, but I can’t think of any that have the magic of Polonio.
What gives Polonio this magical quality, this lasting feeling of have entered paradise? The sea, the golden beaches? The rocks, the seals and sea lions? The haphazardly scattered houses? The special residents and visitors? The mysteriously allencompassing sky, which somehow makes itself felt here more than anywhere else? There is all that, but the key is the lack of electricity and of an access highway, which makes it different from any other town on the Uruguayan coast.
The only access is located 164 miles from Montevideo. You leave your car there and hoist your luggage into the open flatbed of a truck specially adapted to carry some forty people, and which crosses the sandy tracks of dunes whose movement has been negatively affected by deforestation. The ride in the truck is cheerful, shared with young people and families with children, beach chairs, sunshades and freezer bags. It takes half an hour to reach the sea. We soon leave the forest and wetlands behind and are surrounded only by sand, thinly covered by sparse, low vegetation. When we arrive at a high point and finally spot the blue slice of ocean in the distance, the truck’s passengers burst into exclamations and cell phones and cameras are whipped out to immortalize the landscape. The last part of the trip is along the Sur beach, very near the sea, along a hard, passable strip of sand uncovered by low tide. We are nearing Cabo; the lighthouse appears in the distance. It is mid-morning on a very hot, luminous day. The Argentinean twenty-something girls next to me claim that you mustn’t miss Cabo Polonio if you come to Uruguay. It sounds like good advice.
The other way to reach Cabo – undoubtedly the best - is on foot. From the coastal town of Valizas, you must cross a stream of the same name (sometimes it is possible to walk across, other times there is a boat service), and walk around two hours. The walk begins among impressive dunes that call to mind an actual desert, and finishes along the beach which ends in the Cabo rock formations. It is impossible to get lost, and crossing the dunes is highly recommended for people traveling light and who are willing to undertake a nice, long walk along the deserted beach.
Cabo has barely seventy full-time residents and close to four hundred dwellings belonging to summer visitors. There is of course electricity for the lighthouse and the maritime and research institutes surrounding it. The houses and inns have no electricity simply because they were built pell-mell without permission on private and public lands, which means that only the interior space of the dwellings belongs to the current owners. There are no private yards; the outside areas are public. Fishermen and summer visitors lead a simple life, far from the consumer society. They have gas refrigerators, but there are no computers, televisions or microwaves, and no cell phones either if you stay long enough for your battery to die. Some of the houses and inns have solar power. There are a few generators in town, but the community does not think much of them, since they make noise and spoil the charm of the area. In Cabo, you are disconnected whether you like it or not.
Days are meant to be spent on the beach and outside in the fresh air. The northern beach, La Calavera, is more suitable for surfers and vigorous swimming. The more protected Sur beach is sometimes as calm as a swimming pool. Seals and sea lions generally congrégate at the large rocks at the point, and right whales come close to shore in the spring. At night, when day trippers have left in the last truck at nine o’clock, candles and kerosene lanterns are lit, as is the fire under the grills. People play cards, read and visit with the neighbors. You might hear a guitar, and occasionally in the distance, there is the sound of a drum in memory of carnival. Crickets and toads are the lords of the night. But more than any other sound, the ceaseless roar of the sea is night’s constant companion.
It’s not like there are no commercial or nighttime activities in Cabo Polonio. Two stores are open year-round and there are more during the summer. There is always someone making homemade bread, cakes and small pies, not to mention the rustic beach shacks selling beverages, seaweed fritters, squid rings or fish bites. Like any town, it has its “downtown,” although this is no more than a sand road with a few handicrafts and souvenir stalls, and three or four bars with live music. Tonight, King George Clemons, a U.S. blues musician who played with Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s, is appearing at Sargento García. Around one in the morning, the tables are piled away and the bar becomes a dance hall.
A short distance from downtown, a flashlight is essential when there is no moon. Locals and frequent visitors have learned to walk around Cabo in total darkness; as the lighthouse’s beam sweeps swiftly around, they memorize where they will step during the next twelve seconds, as that is how long it takes for the beam to finishing tracing a circle. This is the origin of the song “Twelve Seconds of Darkness,” by Jorge Drexler —a world-renowned Uruguayan singer and composer who won an Oscar for Best Song for the movie Motorcycle Diaries.
Cabo residents learn to conserve water, which is a scarce resource. A certain number of houses share a “cachimba,” which is a well where water is extracted from the aquifer. This water is not drinkable; it is slightly cloudy and if it has not rained enough, the cachimbas do not supply the precios liquid, so people are careful and work together to not waste a resource that belong to everyone. The majority of houses have running water; a truck fills the tanks for household use, but people think twice before using the cistern, and dishes are washed with as little water as possible. For a summertime shower, one or two buckets of water from the cachimba are enough, although many houses have showers with gas heaters, which are considered a luxury in Cabo Polonio.
What does it mean that Cabo Polonio is now a national park? Naturally, it means there are prohibitions. Not just anyone with a 4 x 4 vehicle can enter, only residents (yearround or temporary) or registered suppliers with the appropriate permits. New constructions cannot be built. Archeological pieces cannot be collected and flora and fauna must not be harmed (except for small-scale and sport fishing). It is not possible to visit the islands or their rocky perimeter, except for research purposes, nor is it permitted to introduce foreign animals or plants, including visitors’ pets.
A friend, who has had a ranch in Cabo for more tan fifteen years, told me, “If I can’t bring my own truck here tomorrow, I’ ll ride in on the monster truck. This place is marvelous. We went to almost all the meetings as an interested party and we are thrilled with the conservation measures.”
Cabo will continue to exist, the dunes will rise higher once again, the seals and sea lions will continue to delight us and the lifestyle will not be affected by the packed construction that has descended on other parts of the Uruguayan coast. Those of us who do not have houses there will still be able to rent a fairly simple little house, stay at an inn, or like most of the visitors, come here on a day trip. We will still be able to experience that magical sensation of being in paradise.
From Natural Monument to National Park
In 1966, when the area was named a Natural Monument, there were 27 dwellings scattered around an area of eighty-six acres. According to the 2004 National Census, the number of dwellings had increased to 459, 29 of which belonged to year-round residents, with the rest being used for tourism. The history of Cabo Polonio’s inhabitants is tied to small-scale fishing and the seal industry. At the end of the 1970s, it became a summer vacation destination for people who wanted to escape the normal tourist haunts in favor of closer contact with nature in tranquility and solitude. In the 1990s, the popularization of all-terrain vehicles accelerated the transformation of Cabo into a tourist destination and tourism is now the major source of income.
In 2009, Cabo Polonio was added to the National System of Protected Areas in the National Parks Category. The national park spreads over nearly 62,000 acres, 80% of which are ocean and the remaining 20% consists of Cabo Polonio, the nearby islands and beaches, and inland to Route 10. The denomination of “National Park” was the crowning success of a long process that included its incorporation by UNESCO into the network of reserves in the Man and the Biosphere Program. The project has been working with interested parties since 2007. The agreed-upon goals included, among others: protecting biodiversity (for example, endangered species); protecting and recovering the various ecosystems contained in the protected area, including the system of mobile dunes running perpendicular to the coast, and the frontal dunes; and promoting sustainable tourism to improve the quality of life of the local community while respecting its choice of a simple, austere way of life.
How to Get There
From North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, Copa Airlines offers three direct flights to Montevideo, Uruguay, through its Hub of the Americas, in Panama City.
By car: from Montevideo by the Interbalnearia Route to Pan de Azúcar. From there, take Route 9 to the city of Rocha at km 210. Turn right on Route 15 toward La Paloma and at the junction with Route 10, turn left toward Aguas Dulces until km 264, where the access road to Cabo Polonio is located.
By bus: from Montevideo, you can catch a bus at the Carrasco Airport or at the Tres Cruces Terminal to the access to Cabo Polonio at km 268 on Route 10. See the schedules at www.trescruces.com.uy/horarios.php.
Either of these options will involve a truck ride to Cabo; the round-trip ticket costs approximately 8 dollars.
Where to Stay
Hostería La Perla del Cabo. Phone: 598 (470) 5125 / 598 (470) 5377 - http://laperladelcabo.com.
Posada Mariemar. Phone: 598 (470) 5164 / 598 (470) 5241
For more hotels and houses for rent, visit: www.portaldelcabo.com.uy, http://cabopolonio.com.