Uruguay Natural: From Coast to Campo

Uruguay isn’t known for big attractions like its more frequented neighbours. ‘Uruguay Natural’ is the country’s national tourism slogan, highlighting its natural assets. Our mission was to find out why.

Our desire to get out of the big city and discover the other side of Uruguay led us to its coast. First stop was a small village called Valizas. Valizas is often left off the tourists maps, which in most cases is a good way to discover something off-the-beaten-track. However, the main purpose for our visit to Valizas was to use it as a gateway into the much talked about Cabo Polonio.

We arrived in Valizas at 8pm. There is little electricity and very few street lamps in this small town, so arriving late at night is not ideal. We got off the bus, in the pitch black of night with only a small lamp to find a bed for the night. There are a few sign posts pointed towards various hostels, but it’s almost impossible to find them when you can’t see any further than 2 metres in front of you.

After turning one corner we heard in the distance, the clip-clop of horses hooves coming towards us somewhere in the dark. At that point we had to wonder which century we were transported into.

We eventually found an adorable little hostel called Lucky Valizas, “lucky that we found it, that is”, and were greeted by Luciana, her two year old son, a local fisherman, a log fire, a cup of tea and some flamenco music playing in the background to add to the ambience.

It wasn’t until after we left Valizas that we learnt that locals rent out their spare houses and cabins to tourists from around 500 pesos (around $25) a night. Depending on your level of Spanish, all you have to do is approach anyone on the street and if they don’t have a house to rent, they know who does.

Valizas doesn’t have much to offer in terms of activites in winter, but in summer apparently it’s a completely different place. Regional locals come here for the beach, and the place is just starting to gain a reputation with backpackers too.

It is, however, a good place to relax for a few days and use as a base to get to Cabo Polonio. If the tide’s in, a local fellow called Miguel charges 120 pesos for a boat ride over to the sand dunes. From there it’s an easy two hours walk across the dunes and along the coast.

Cabo Polonio, a town on the Rocha coast with approximately only 500 inhabitants, has no roads in or out. That’s what makes up half of its appeal. The other half comes from its charming village of coloured wooden cabins, situated right on the beachfront. To get here most tourists either walk the 7km from the drop-off point on the highway, or hitch a ride with a local 4×4.

You’d think that such a location would have a hearty fishing industry, but as one local chap told us, most of the locals here are engaged in tourism. Such is the reason he charged us double the price of water elsewhere, from his tiny kiosk. For a small beachside town with no roads in, one is inclined to wonder if tourism is a sustainable industry here, but tourism is how this town thrives. In winter when tourism is scant, local merchants need to and do charge any price they like for goods and accommodation. Provisions like food and water have to be brought in from Castillos.

Even in winter this town and its nature reserve is worth the 2-hour walk to get here. Frolicking in the waves of the Atlantic were possibly hundreds of sea lions. Unfortunately though we also spotted many dead penguins washed up along the shore. In the afternoon, cows come out (of where, is anyone’s guess) to graze on the grassy knolls woven amongst the golden dunes.

Once relaxed and rested, we moved on to the more popular, hippy destination of Punta del Diablo, another coastal spot, a 2 hour bus ride north east of Cabo Polonio.

Once again we had arrived at nighttime, but on our bus was an American guy called Tim that worked at a nearby hostel, El Diablo Tranquilo, and so without much effort we had found our beds for the night, almost absolute beachfront. Waking up in the morning, we were welcomed with the sounds and vistas of crashing waves.

Punta del Diablo sits in la Rocha, perched up on the rocks overlooking the sea below. The beachfront is lined with fishing boats and fisheries and it’s clear what their main occupation here is.

A town of fisherman and artisans, Punta del Diablo used to be the R’n’R spot for hippies. In recent years, though it has become more and more commercialised and it is now apparently the seaside destination for rich Argentineans and Brazilians. Summer prices are apparently exorbitant, and anyone coming for the summer surf looking for a cheap hostel can expect to pay around US$50.

The local sentiments of ‘Uruguay Natural’ resonate more here than anywhere else in la Rocha with signage and protests on every corner denouncing the potential development of a mining pipeline here from inland.

We spent a few peaceful days here just wandering the coastline and absorbing the vibe before embarking on our next challenge – Punta del Diabolo to Tacuarembó in one day.

Lonely Planet had recommended the trip between Chuy and Tacuarembó in the country’s north west, “to see the side of Uruguay that travellers don’t often get to see” THE guide in backpacker travel said it couldn’t be done. As loyal Lonely Planeters, our original plan was to spend a night in Treinta y Tres and a night in Melo, but after much research we found our way from Punta to Tacuarembó in 14 hours. Maybe we were a little crazy, but we did it!

From Punta we took a 6.45am bus to Chuy, where we changed for a 8.30am bus to Treinta y Tres. From Treinta y Tres we found one company, Nunez, that departed for Melo at 1.30pm. Once in Melo, we then took our last bus for the day at 4.20pm – direction: Tacuarembó.

The Uruguayan countryside much resembles that of some parts of Australia, rolling hills are dotted with eucalyptus trees and the occasional farm. It’s not so different from home. That is until we came across a gaucho or two…yes-sir-ee! This is cattle-herding cowboy country –  Argentinean cowboys that is.

Dressed in their bombachas (loose-fitting pants), ponchos and wellies, gauchos are often the symbol of nationalism in Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay. Up until the 19th century, gauchos made up the majority of the rural population. Their folkloric dance, the zamba, is still practiced today and we have been fortunate enough to see this dance a few times.

Once in Tacuarembó, though, we found there are few cheap sleeps. Arriving on a Saturday night meant that the next day was spent just wandering the town centre, as on Sundays, like in most Uruguayan towns, everything shuts.

We left the next day with almost another full day’s travel to Paysandú, a town close to the Argentinean border. The border crossing is an easy 45 minute bus ride from Paysandú. You will need to have a decent level of Spanish though, or at least a dictionary, because all immigration papers are in Spanish only.

 Back to Argentina we went.

Although we didn’t do all that much in Uruguay, we were grateful for having such a cultural experience in a country with such friendly locals.

Next stop…mountains and Malbec in Mendoza!

2 Responses to “Uruguay Natural: From Coast to Campo”
  1. jackluc says:

    i have just red your last report on uruguay; fantastic place! The way it goes , you will prettty soon be able to write your own travel guide. cheers

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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