A Sweet Escape: Cabo Polonio, Uruguay

It is a truth universally acknowledged in the Southern Cone that all porteños (natives of Buenos Aires) in want of a beach break, hot-foot it out of their homeland to the more northern, and far cleaner, shores of Uruguay and Brazil. So of course, when I found myself craving sea and sand as summer swelled in the air, I joined the masses hopping the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay’s south-east coastline. It’s a notorious haven of sea (or river) side destinations, with Punta del Este being the “Miami” of the strip — a perennially popular and famously glamorous beach, framed by city streets. I, however, was seeking something a little more sedate, a true escape from the bustle of Buenos Aires, and it came to me in the form of a few scattered sentences in my (admittedly out of date) Lonely Planet guidebook. In amongst the country’s highlights, to mingle with the wildlife in the ‘secluded hippie beach town of Cabo Polonio’ came in at number 5. In ‘Uruguayan Budget Beach Breaks’, Cabo Polonio Hostel was listed, described as a ‘wonderfully rustic beach shack-hostel…home to a gorgeous stretch of beach’ — it looked like I’d found my paradise lost. After gazing longingly at a few photos online I was sold enough to send a deposit via Western Union (quite the palaver over here apparently), hoping that the journey and my two nights there would be simpler and much more relaxing than the booking process!

Cabo Polonio’s beach shack hostel © Tara Kergon

Arriving in Cabo Polonio was easier than expected, since it was not the isolated, slightly-forgotten hideaway I had anticipated. There’s a certain buzz around the location within the backpacking community, and by word of mouth it has become a popular destination with tourists. Disembarking from my bus and queuing for the 4×4 to the village, it was almost disappointing to be among a sizeable group of other travellers. I had hoped to fall off the map for a few days; was it instead to be a giant X-marks-the-spot? That said, despite its unexpected popularity, it seems I’d truly struck gold. The 4×4 trip in itself was an adventure as I was jolted 7km across the sand: wind whipped my hair, and the ‘death seat’ on top of the jeep, right at the front with a questionable seat belt, afforded me a staggering vista. Unfolding in front of me was a tiny fishing village with a clean coastline kissed by an unfettered ocean, and then, as we rounded the bay, a ramshackle collection of tiny hostels bearing multicoloured roofs, murals, and flying flags, gave off a vibe more rainbow-hippie than chic.

The little town itself being divided as such was both a blessing and a curse. Obviously the few permanent residents of Cabo Polonio would rather not be overrun with tourists traipsing through their hometown, so leaving us to wander around an area stuffed with tumbledown hostels, restaurants and beach bars, and a few souvenir shops, provided them with some peace. It also, however, meant that the tiny tourist settlement was exactly that, a tourist settlement — if you’re in search of an authentic Uruguayan stay, and don’t want to be surrounded by travellers, perhaps it’s not the ideal getaway.

Despite the volume of tourists, once we all scattered to our respective hostels I found the gorgeous stretch of sand directly outside of mine was almost empty as I ran headlong into the waves like a giddy child. To add to my glorious isolation, the remote coastal location meant that water and electricity were scarce, and Wi-Fi non-existent, so I was forced to disengage with the rest of the world. To live in the moment these days feels incredibly rare as we are always connected with the rest of the world through the internet, with news and messages from home constantly arriving, or watching everything through filters and viewfinders, but here it was the only option. A standout moment for me was to watch the sun rise, watercolour hues lighting up the sky, as a day dawned in which I had no pressure to connect, to work, or to do anything but relax.

© Tara Kergon

I think perhaps my favourite part of Cabo Polonio was the feeling. Somewhere between the blissed-out buena onda of reading a book in a hammock or stepping directly from my door to the soft sand, and the complete disconnection from the rest of the world, came the peace I had been searching for. There was no responsibility to drag me blinkingly back into real life, and no obligation to be or do anything, except enjoy: to play childlike in the ocean, to lie on the shore and soak up the sunshine, to breathe entirely freely. The next time someone overlooks Uruguay when travelling in Latin America, or asks me why they should bother to go, this freedom is why Cabo Polonio will be my first response — swiftly followed by the people, amongst the most welcoming and kind I have ever met, and the delectable climate. It’s true that the country lacks the big-name tourist destinations that its neighbours have, but travel isn’t just about attraction-hopping.  For me it has also always been about the slower days, where you recharge, and find a feeling of home even on the other side of the globe.