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Capo Polonia, Uruguay:
Home of the Fabled Ombu Tree

Photographs by Kelly Westhoff

Cabo Polonio offers adventurous travelers endless views in every direction. On three sides, the ocean stretches to the horizon. On the fourth, sand dunes rise and fall. The sand is so deep that cars cannot cross it. To reach Cabo Polonio, travelers have three options: walk, ride a horse, or climb on board a monster 4 x 4. Most choose the truck and its bumpy, 30-minute ride. Entering by horseback, however, offers a different perspective. While the truck ride bounes along spraying sand in all directions, an hour trek through the sand on horse will give any rider pause. The dunes are quiet, boundless and deep.

Capo Polonia from a distance
Cabo Polonio from a distance

Lone house in Cabo Polinia, Uruguay
Lone house




Dogs playing in afternoon sun in Cabo Polonia, Uruguay
Dogs playing in afternoon sun

Cabo Polonio offers adventurous travelers endless views in every direction. On three sides, the ocean stretches to the horizon. On the fourth, sand dunes rise and fall. The sand is so deep that cars cannot cross it. To reach Cabo Polonio, travelers have three options: walk, ride a horse, or climb on board a monster 4 x 4. Most choose the truck and its bumpy, 30-minute ride. Entering by horseback, however, offers a different perspective. While the truck ride bounes along spraying sand in all directions, an hour trek through the sand on horse will give any rider pause. The dunes are quiet, boundless and deep.

First glimpse of the lighthouse
First glimpse of the lighthouse

Sand almost taking over a house
Sand almost taking over a house

Sand gathering on the beach
Sand gathering on the beach

Roughly 80 people call Cabo Polonio home year round. Most piece together a living by fishing, raising animals and offering services to the travelers that do make it there. During a December visit, hardly anyone – tourist or townfolk – was about. Beach-goers and surfers arrive for Uruguay’s January and February sun. One hotel does cater to visitors all year. Another opens its doors during the tourist peak. A few small stores sell basic provisions like water, beer, bread, cheese and chocolate.

Fishing boats on the beach
Fishing boats on the beach

Forlorn cow tied to post
Forlorn cow tied to post

Hotel lounge chair
Hotel lounge chair

A colony of sea lions calls Cabo Polonio home. Beneath the lighthouse, they gather to lounge on the rocks and sun. Sometimes they fight and deal each other deadly blows. Dead sea lions wash up on Cabo Polonio’s shores. In the peak tourist months of January and February, the bodies are cleared to make way for beach-goers. Throughout the rest of the year, however, the dead sea lions are left to decompose on their own.

The lighthouse
The lighthouse

A barking sea lion
A barking sea lion

A dead sea lion
A dead sea lion

Nearby Cabo Polonio are two protected forests of ombu trees. Ombues are native to Uruguay and Argentina. Usually, ombues stand alone. For this reason, the groves of ombues outside Cabo Polonio are unique.

Experts cannot fully agree on whether ombues are trees or shrubs. The wood of ombues is not hard; instead, it is flaky like a croissant. These delicate insides crumble over time making many ombues hollow. Without a strong center core, they are vulnerable to strong winds. Ombues can easily topple. Ombues grow in funky clumps with thick, creeping trunks. Because their base is so wide, mature ombues provide dense shade. For this reason, many small towns line their central plazas with ombues.

To reach the ombues from Cabo Polonio, travelers must first travel back to the main highway; this means recrossing the sand dunes. A 10-minute truck ride brings travelers to a thin bridge. From there, it is an hour-long boat ride in a local fisherman's boat up a flat and brackish river.

 


Boat ride to the Ombu trees
Boat ride to the Ombu trees

Ombu trees
Ombu trees

The author next to an Ombu tree
The author next to an Ombu tree

An inside view of an Ombu treeAn inside view of an Ombu tree



kelly westhoff



Kelly Westhoff is a traveler, writer and teacher from Minnesota. She returned last year from a trip around the world with her husband. Read her travel blog, The Er Files.

 

Read Kelly Westhoff's story about Cabo Polinia.

 

A door and flowers in Mexico Visit our Kelly Westhoff Page with links to all her stories

 

 

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