This article has been updated on January 21, 2021
Uruguayan coast boasts of various resorts, such as the celebrity hangout José Ignacio, flashy Punta del Este or former aristocracy summer resort Piriápolis. Those are the classic resort holiday spots or summer houses popular with the wealthier locals, better off Brazilians and recently also increasing property investments of North American expats. Only a few hours away, on the same coast, there are however also few locations with nearly nemesis-like properties, that attract rather different crowds. I am obviously talking about Punta del Diablo and Cabo Polonio, the two non-flashy Uruguayan coastal settlements with artistic and bohemian vibes.
Lifestyle and preferences
So what exactly sets Punta del Diablo and Cabo Polonio apart from most of the other Uruguayan holiday spots? Well, there are two major elements to take into consideration. On one hand, it’s the number of services, infrastructure and comfort a particular location offers, on the other hand, there are various lifestyle and cultural preferences.
When it comes to services, infrastructure and comfort, it has to be said that this is where those two settlements aren’t a match for the flashy resorts. Although in this area, there’s also a considerable gap between the more developed Punta del Diablo and the very basic Cabo Polonio. I’m positive that some people, who are used to the comforts the flashy resorts offer would most likely leave Cabo Polonio asap, in spite of the fact that they would surely love its natural surroundings.
And when it comes to those cultural and lifestyle preferences, in case you’ve needed some further elaboration, let’s just say that one could describe the people attracted to Punta del Diablo and Cabo Polonio as various “liberal individuals with more artistic nature and alternative lifestyle preferences”. In other words, it’s people who perhaps prefer to seek things such as like-mindedness and/or more contact with nature instead of pristine clean pools and silver service.
Punta del Diablo
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Although it is tempting to dive deeper into the semantics of this “cultural divide”, things are not so black and white and one doesn’t have to belong to just one or neither of these two stereotypes explained above. Punta del Diablo could perhaps be a good example of where those two worlds could meet. You don’t have to worry if you don’t feel “hippie” enough to visit here. You can be pretty much anyone to fit in and you can also opt for a higher standard of accommodation.
And now, let’s talk about some facts. About 300km (185 miles) north of Montevideo, after few hours of driving on Uruguay’s Ruta 9, right under the Brazilian border, we would reach Uruguay’s Punta del Diablo. Although this settlement has recorded immense growth in the last few decades, it’s still a small town of around 1000 residents. This number however rises to over 25 thousand people during the high season, by a mix of visitors, mostly from Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.
Things to do in and around Punta del Diablo
The main attraction of Punta del Diablo is its beautiful beaches and the place is also known for its strong party scene as well as overall friendly atmosphere with an undeniable dash of “alternative crowd” essence, as mentioned above. When it comes to possible activities, those are nearly all limited to the Atlantic Ocean and the vibrant party scene. The beaches here are huge and spacious, not to mention the magical and sometimes even somewhat apocalyptic sunsets.
Saying that I have to say that I would be careful swimming in the larger one (Playa de la Viuda) with her strong currents. However, right in “the centre” of the settlement, if I may use such term, there’s Playa de Los Pescadores, which was absolutely safe for swimming, the same as Playa del Rivero, which is just next to it… This is also where you would find the main “promenade” with quite a few restaurants, bars and artisanal stalls.
If you’re not surfing, swimming, sunbathing or nursing your hangover, you could also check out the 18th-century military base Fortaleza de Santa Teresa (once a border between Brazil and Uruguay), only 13 km away. It is located in and Santa Teresa National Park, just north of Punta del Diablo. This forested park that is operated by the Uruguayan Army boasts of beautiful deserted sandy beaches, a nature reserve, a camping area. More information about the park could be found here.
The close proximity to the Brazilian border also delivers an opportunity to do some duty-free shopping in the border town of Chuy. It is mainly popular with the locals to score some cheaper goods but it could be also a suitable place to visit for long term travellers to save few bucks because Uruguay can’t be exactly called a cheap country. Think Germany kind of expensive.
Well, and prices would be the only negative here. It would be the only star I’d deduct from what would otherwise be a 10-star review of Punta del Diablo. The remaining 9 stars would split among the friendly people, cold beer, not bad techno DJs, walks on beaches, massive rocks, sand dunes and the overall atmosphere.
Only about an hour’s drive south from Punta del Diablo or about four hours/255km drive from Montevideo, there’s Cabo Polonio, a place that comes with proceeding reputation and hype that reaches far beyond Uruguayan borders. This “reputation” says that Cabo is pretty much all about a modern-day “hippie” lifestyle. It says that its electricity is all run on turbines and solar panels.
If that is what you’ve heard, I can confirm that it’s all pretty much true, although it would be an interesting debate to discuss what exactly does the “hippie” lifestyle mean in the 21st-century, that would however take us off-topic so let’s leave it up for a different occasion, preferably over a nice bottle of wine 😉
While from the archaeological point of view this area was occupied by prehistoric societies approximately 11 thousand years ago, the present Cabo Polonio is a small semi-legal settlement with just under 100 permanent residents, although I was told by a local that the number is much smaller in the winter.
The village is located inside a protected area, which is an attribute that shapes its atmosphere and conditions a lot. On one hand adds to its unique atmosphere, on the other hand, it also bans the construction of any utility infrastructure to the settlement (other than the lighthouse) but at the same time, it makes the whole place very green and eco-conscious. In my humble opinion, this is the defining point of Cabo, rather than the “hippie” label, which could also mean many other things. Anyway, one way or another, overall, we’re talking about a very friendly and undoubtedly magical place with a unique atmosphere.
Nature-wise, Cabo is only accessible through sand dunes or by the water. The mini peninsula boasts of two beaches, one for the sunrises and the other for sunsets. And then there are also the other local residents, the sea lions. You can observe from quite a close distance just the lighthouse and on two small rocky islets nearby.
Things to do in and around Cabo Polonio
The same as with Punta del Diablo, outside the chilling out and nightlife, the activities in Cabo are rather limited. But don’t forget that you’re inside of the national park so there’s always mother nature and her wonders. I guess that the biggest attraction would be checking out the above mentioned large sea lion colony by the lighthouse. In November, it is also apparently common to see whales and large black dolphins from the shore.
You can also wander deeper into the national park or just take a stroll in the dunes that surround the peninsula. Another activity Cabo is known for is stargazing. Because of nearly zero light pollution, Cabo is apparently among the best places for sky-gazing out there. A tip: if you want to see the stars like in the picture below, time your visit well, like on the new moon, rather than a full moon like me. Furthermore, there are also few nice places to grab a tasty dinner or a good drink.
Social life in Punta del Diablo and Cabo Polonio
Both settlements are notorious for their social life and nightlife. There are however major differences between Cabo and Punta del Diablo when it comes to “the productions”. The latter comes with the much more city-like scene with DJs and rather large parties that are kicking until the early hours. Cabo, on the other hand, remains mostly acoustic and quieter. Whether it’s determined by the electricity or respect to nature, even if someplace runs a DJ on a generator, it’s much quieter and things end a bit earlier there.
Furthermore, in my observation, in Cabo people often socialize in groups, based on the hostels where they stay. Hostels organise dinners or the whole bunch goes for drinks to one particular bar they’ve organised earlier on. Unless there’s a bigger night, such as Xmas Eve, the visitors don’t mingle as much as in Punta del Diablo or in fact in most places. It’s not that you can’t do what you want, it’s just that the lack of light at night makes you wander around in dark and even if you enter a different place, there’s a different group from another hostel that talks about pretty much the same thongs as your group 🙂
Unless you’ve been here for a while and know a lot of people in the village, it then feels like entering some small alternative universe. Like where you would be and with whom you’d talk if you have picked a different hostel. It was interesting and different to socialise in packs there 🙂 I thought that it might be a good subject for a sitcom that could be called “Parallel Social Universe” 🙂
When to visit Punta del Diablo and Cabo Polonio?
The high season for tourism runs from December to February. As always, I suggest the shoulder seasons to enjoy smaller crowds and lower prices, although that means that some restaurants and hotels will be closed. And the Atlantic could be a little colder.
Both settlements are as safe as they can get when it comes to crime. We’re talking about small communities that are dependant on the travel industry. I’d say that the only danger here could come from the Ocean currents and overestimation of ones swimming abilities, not to mention if they are boosted by alcohol.
How to get there and how to move around
There are numerous buses running north from Monetvideo‘s huge and claustrophobic bus terminal. If I recollect it well, in about 5 hours we got to Punta del Diablo for 710,-UYU (€18). From Punta del Diablo to the entrance of the national park 259,-UYU (€6,60) in just under 2 hours. From the park’s entrance, there are these weird shuttle off-road tracks running quite regularly and it will cost you 117,-UYU (€3) return. For the bus back to Montevideo from the park’s entrance I’ve paid a further 643,-UYU (€16,30).
As for moving around, well Cabo is very small and entirely walkable on foot. Punta del Diablo is a bit bigger but you can also walk the whole settlement in about an hour.
Sort of epilogue: Which one of the two is better for you?
To be fair and objective, I have to say that while Cabo is a wee bit more “magical”, Punta del Diablo offers more variety of accommodation, restaurants and comfort, while it provides a similar vibe to a certain extend. Let’s not forget that Cabo is kind of a semi-legal settlement inside the national park with limited electricity, running water, WiFi and other facilities. And because it’s a bit more remote, it is even considerably more expensive than Punta del Diablo, while it provides 1/2 of the (physical) comfort.
I’m talking about hostels being used at the highest efficiency levels ever possible, which means the beds are rammed in small rooms with isles in between being about 50-60cm wide. If you’re over 180cm, your bed will most likely be short for you so your feet will stick out into that little isle. Mosquitoes are also present at levels that are equally efficient to the sleeping arrangements.
I’m not trying to slag the place off. I understand that they must be able to make a living and that they are limited to seasons, limited by utility facilities as well as the seizes of the structures built there. It’s a natural park and development is not exactly permitted, nor it is welcomed here. All that I’m trying to say is that Cabo it’s not exactly a place for conformists and you should be aware of that before you decide to come.
At the end of the day, it depends on what kind of a person you are because once you get the vibe, you’ll be all right with the place or you will just leave on your 2nd day 😉
“I’m an artist”
Furthermore, I believe that I should also mention the fact that not every “alternative” lifestyle person I’ve met has shared unconditional love for Cabo Polonio. The problem was that they’ve found some people in Cabo to be a little pretentious. Although I don’t share that view in its entirety, I could see what they’ve meant by that. In Cabo, there were quite a few people who would tell you that they’re artists without you even asking about it. They kind of impose it on you.
I’m sure that you’ve come across the “I’m an artist” types. Those are the types that announce that they are “artists” even faster than a vegan announces that he or she is a vegan 🙂 And then they want to talk about their art (and themselves). I admit that on few occasions, it felt a little intimidating, especially if it was accompanied by huge self-centric egos of those “I’m an artist” types.
Look, I don’t intend to judge such behaviour, we’re all individuals, and everyone is free to be the way they want after all. And “self-centrism” is part of the mix we’re all made off, isn’t it? I’m sure that there are some people who like the “I’m an artist” types. Personally, I’ve just opted to redirect the flow by gently/politely fading out of those conversations in order to enjoy my interactions with other people as well as the overall atmosphere and nature around the place.
Both locations have rather extensive options on the two major platforms. Punta del Diablo offers more diversity as well as more choices when it comes to comfort and utilities. When it comes to Cabo, I would advise you to book early as its capacities are limited and the whole village can get booked out quite fast apparently.
As for myself, in Punta del Diablo I’ve stayed in Hostel Vente al Diablo came with a friendly and social atmosphere. A bunk-bed in a dormitory @ $15.50US per night was at the cheaper end of what the town had on offer. Except for the fact that Vente al Diablo is a bit of a walk to hit “the centre”, there’s nothing to complain about.
In Cabo Polonio, I’ve picked the iconic Viejo Lobo Hostel. It offers hot showers, 2 toilets, 6-8 pm WiFi. As I said above, Cabo is not for everyone, on the downside of Viajo Lobo, the place can get a bit rammed, but l believe that it’s the inevitable consequence for all of the sleeping facilities, which are usually just tiny houses. The staff at the hostel however do their best to rebalance that with their attentive and kind nature. As for how much, I’m afraid that Cabo can’t be called cheap, even for Uruguayan standards. Quite a few Uruguayans told me that they can’t afford to go there, to be honest. My bed in a tiny 6-bed dorm room came @ $20,-US per night.
Websites and practical notes
Cabo Polonio doesn’t have any ATMs so make sure to bring cash. Also, be prepared for nearly zero Internet. Some hostels allow their guests to connect for two hours but when everyone connects, the speed…
- Turismo Rocha Punta del Diablo page with restaurants, bus schedules, etc…
- Cabo Polonio website with some information such as how to get there and so on…
Next possible destinations
The most obvious destination from here is the country’s capital, which has plenty to offer. Read more about Montevideo as well as the whole country in Quaint Planet‘s Guide to Uruguay here, in case you were interested.
The Argentinian capital is IMHO among the must-visit locations for anyone who enjoys art, passion, wine, tango, football, food and friendly people. In case you wanted to find out what it has to offer, here‘s an extensive “menu” of Things to do in Buenos Aires.
If I were you, I would definitely consider checking out one of the most beautiful waterfalls on the planet. Iguazú Falls are certainly a mind-blowing experience even for people who thought they’ve seen it all. Read a little guide on how to visit the place, how to avoid crowds and so on here in case you were interested.