During our travels, we had encountered several Uruguayans, and whenever we asked them for recommendations on where to go, we would receive the same answer: “You have to go to Cabo Polonio.” Described as a tiny fishing village of forty inhabitants hidden amongst sand dunes, with no electricity and no way of reaching it save for horseback or 4X4, Polonio intrigued us enough to attempt a trip there. Exactly as all our Uruguayan acquaintances had described, our bus dropped us off on the side of the highway. It was already night, and we were totally lost in the pitch black but for a tiny light in the distance. We stumbled towards it and found it to be the park office, where presently, a 4X4 dune buggy pulled up, and we clambered aboard to be carted off into the darkness.
After a few minutes of bumpy driving, we reached a park office and a ranger came out. “Tienen una carpa?” he asked brusquely. (Do you guys have a tent?)
“Si, por supuesto!” we responded, eager to prove that we were prepared to camp, since we were entering a national park, and as we Canadians know, national parks were made for camping!
“Hand it over,” he demanded.
“… ?!??” replied us.
“Tents are prohibited in Uruguayan national parks. You’ll have to leave it with me.”
Away went our romantic plans of camping on the beach and enjoying to the fullest this rustic experience. Plus, our tent was our baby, from which we hadn’t been separated since we received her. Could we trust this man to care for her as we did, and did he realise how indispensable she was to us?!? Regardless, we handed it over, and with many bemused looks exchanged between the two of us, our buggy continued to bump away into the void.
About halfway through the forty-minute journey through the dunes, we became aware of a strange sound, and if we strained our eyes in the blackness, we thought we could make out odd white shapes just in front of us. We finally realized that the sound was the roaring of the ocean, while the whiteness was huge waves crashing ashore, barely ten meters from where we were driving. We were completely surrounded by and lost in the darkness: the only relief came from the beam of Polonio’s lighthouse.
We were dropped off in an open space, and while we stood bewildered by the disorientating blackness and the vicious winds, we heard a disembodied voice asking if we needed a place to stay. Disembodied voices normally aren’t the most reassuring, but when your only other apparent guide is a lighthouse surrounded by menacing rocks, even a disembodied voice can sound relatively friendly.
We followed our shadowy host through ankle-deep sand and waving sea grasses, arriving finally at what turned out to be not a hostel, like we had been expecting, but his own house. Gabriel, our host, offered us the loft of his tiny, one-room beach shack, and while we hauled our bags up the ladder to our room, he lit candles and invited us to share his dinner of buñuelos de algas (aka seaweed fritters) and a single glass of red wine for the three of us (“The glass is new!” he told us proudly.)
After eating our fill of fritters, he then invited us out for a drink. We stepped back out into the dark and the howling winds, wading through sand dunes until Gabriel commented, “Well, we’re now on Main Street!” In the dark, Main Street felt exactly like every other sand dune we had just crawled through. (In the light, it turned out that wasn’t far from the truth.) We entered what looked like a massive heap of vines, but turned out to be a bar, dimly lit by candles, with little private “rooms” formed by bamboo partitions overgrown by living plants. Josh and I sat there with Gabriel, feeling as though we had stumbled into Lothlórien.
The next morning, it was the sun that woke us up. The window right next to our bed was lit up by a dazzling glow, and rolling over, we were greeted by the view of the sun rising over the Atlantic. We ran outside and directly into the ocean, because what we had been unable to see the previous night was that there was absolutely nothing between our front door and the shoreline.
We were planning to stay only two days in Polonio before continuing northwards. But when the day of our planned departure found us lounging in hammocks while gazing dreamily at the ocean, we suddenly wondered why we were in such a hurry to leave. If seven months had taught one important lesson about travel, it was that seeing ten new and different places will never be as amazing as finding one incredible place that you love.
So, two days stretched into an unforgettable week filled with sunrise and sunset swims, watching dolphins frolic so close to the shore we could see their faces, enjoying many performances by a hilarious folklore music troupe from Ushuaia, and many candlelit dinners (in Polonio, there isn’t any other kind!) of shrimp empanadas and shark ravioli, all caught that morning by the town fishermen.
Never be in a hurry to end a beautiful experience. And always take travel advice from the locals. Lonely Planet just doesn’t cut it!