On Wednesday we went on an adventure. We left our house at the crack of dawn and drove over 200 miles. We walked through shrub and woodland, over sand dunes, and across a misty and deserted beach. We reached a remote and isolated village without roads, electricity or running water. We saw a herd of sea lions. And it was one of the best days of our trip so far.
Our destination was Cabo Polonio. Located on the east coast of Uruguay, the village sits on a small peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. With a year round population of 95 (according to a 2011 census) it is less a village, more a collection of huts and houses, a grocery store and as a result of increased popularity a handful of hostels.
The cape is named after the Spanish sailing ship ‘Polonio’ shipwrecked there in 1735. Following the wreck, it became a settlement for sailors and fishermen, and due to its particular geography, rocky shores and fierce seas, it was the site of many more sea disasters. Legend has it that it was renowned among sailors and pirates across the world who believed the cape was cursed, that death would come to those who ventured there, and when in the vicinity of the cape compasses would spin with no direction causing ships to crash into the rocks of the shoreline.
Today you will find more hippies than pirates, but the village still retains a mystical and almost mythical appeal. Surrounded by endless beaches on either side, it is isolated from the outside world by miles of empty sand dunes and shrub land. Not connected by road, it is only accessible by 4×4 jeeps or foot. It has neither electricity nor running water, and uses wind power and generators to power the local store and the hostels.
We had heard about Cabo Polonio before we left the UK from a friend who highly recommended it (Dan, if you are reading this, thanks for the cracking tip!), and we knew it was somewhere we needed to factor in. Our journey began at 6.45am when we bundled ourselves into our rental car and set out into the misty early morning. Amber had woken at 5.30 that day (better than the eye-watering 4.45 starts that we sometimes have) which meant that we could head off nice and early. The drive from where we were staying in Punta Ballena took a couple of hours, and we arrived at the entrance to Parque Nacional de Cabo Polonio a little before 9am.
Upon arrival, we found out that the next jeep heading to the village would be at 10.30am. Being the impatient types, we decided to go by foot. The walk would only take 1h30 the chap at the vistors’ centre told us. We generally tend to pride ourselves on our walking prowess – only 1h30! we scoffed – and feeling excited and adventurous we gathered our stuff together, strapped Amber into the sling, and headed off, not entirely knowing what the path ahead would bring.
For over an hour our walk took us through sand dunes, shrubs and trees. We took care to follow the jeep tracks as directed, but the tracks were numerous and at times it was hard to determine whether they were all going the same way. And despite still being pretty early, the sun was surprisingly strong. We started to wonder whether our desire for adventure had led us astray, whether we should have waited for the jeep, and whether Amber would be ok.
Eventually however, we hit the beach. Encouraged that we were indeed on the right track, we headed north up the coast as we had been instructed. The early morning mist had yet to lift and was so thick we were all but encased. We strained to see what was around us, hearing the waves to our right and seeing an outline of shrubs inland to our left. There wasn’t another soul to be seen, and with the sun seeping down through the haze, the effect was one of emptiness and eeriness.
We plodded on, unsure of how much further it would be. Then, after about half an hour, out of nowhere we saw a house in the distance creep out of the fog. Then another. And gradually the mist started to lift and a cluster of huts came clear into view. We made our way inland from the beach for a few hundred metres, and suddenly found ourselves in the heart of Cabo Polonio.
It is the most unique place. Houses are dotted across the cape, nestled in the shrubs and sand. Without roads or discernible paths connecting them it feels as if they have been sprinkled across the land. The peninsula is so tiny that no matter where you are the sea is always in sight, the waves offering a soft background hum. The beaches of clear white sand are pristine, and give onto views of the shifting sand dunes further along the shore.
The village has a distinctly hippie, laid back and almost spiritual vibe. The homes are well made but ramshackle, dreamy paintings and colourful motifs adorn the walls of the hostels in the village centre, and the Rasta colours of red, yellow and green that cover the roof of one of the homes are clearly visible as you wander around.
The most remarkable is how breathtakingly quiet it is. There is hardly a person to be seen. Our visit was at the tail end of winter when the summer months have yet to begin, and from what we gather the summer does see increased numbers of visitors. But by all accounts, it never gets busy. Indeed that is its ultimate charm.
We pottered around the village and beaches for a bit, and then went to visit the sea lions. The herd lives behind the lighthouse, on the tip of the cape. Accessible by short scramble over rocks and across a beach made of shell fragments, they are protected by a fence to keep over-enthusiastic visitors a safe distance away. Despite the fence however, you are still remarkably close, so close you can smell them. We spent a few enjoyable minutes cooing and oohing, watching as they expertly basked in the sun, and then made our way back to the village centre to find a shady spot to eat our packed lunch.
Few places have touched me as profoundly as Cabo Polonio. I felt both exhilarated and inspired. When we had first heard about it back in the UK, we were so intrigued, we knew we had to go. And when we actually got there, despite never having set foot before, I felt instinctively relaxed, at home and at peace. Being so remote and tranquil, it is a serene and soulful place. And given the effort it takes to get there, it feels special and untouched.
We were only able to stay a few hours. It was a lengthy journey home, and it had been a long day. After a play in the local playground (probably the best playground I have ever been to on account of its general setting and close proximity to the beach) and a little dance in the waves (with Amber continuing to roar at the sea), we reluctantly made our way to wait for the jeep that would ferry us back to the national park entrance, and ultimately our car.
It is fair to say that we all thought Cabo Polonio was awesome. Even now, a few days later, I continue to be excited just writing about it. Despite only being there for a short amount of time, it left a big impact. It is the sort of the place that gets beneath your skin, pulls you in and makes you not want to leave. I fell in love with it, and I am already determined that one day we will return.