Cabo Polonio, Uruguay: In Search of the Fabled Ombu Tree
Cabo Polonio is not in outer space; it is in Uruguay. It is a small, secluded town in a small, South American country. In fact, I hesitate to even call Cabo Polonio a town. Instead, it looks and feels like the final outpost on the edge of a rugged frontier. And it is. Cabo Polonio is surrounded by rugged frontiers.
Cabo Polonio sits on the tip of a moon-sliver peninsula that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean. On the back side, powerful waves relentlessly knock.
But on the other side, on the inside of the moon, the water comes calmly to shore. At the top end, a lighthouse stands sure and straight over boulders tumbling into the sea. Two small, rocky islands dot the coast nearby.
The monster truck that carried my husband and me into town from the nearest highway carried in 17 other curious travelers, too. One passenger rode in the cab with the driver, the rest of us, and all of our bags plus three surf boards, were loaded into the flatbed of the truck.
Finding a Guide
I accepted his offer. I didn’t have a map, I didn’t have the name of a hotel, and from my first glances at the buildings around me, I have to admit, I was a little anxious. My husband was nervous, too. “Are you sure we should be here?” he whispered into my ear, grabbing my arm and tugging me close.
I had not.
The scruffy-looking man with the nub of a cigarette led us and a handful of the other newly-arrived travelers down a sand-covered path and we soon arrived at Hosteria La Perla, a quaint, clean hotel with a large deck overlooking the beach where the water was just 15 steps away. It was low tide. The next morning, at high tide, the water lapped at the deck’s edge. We checked in to a room and immediately sat ourselves at a table on the beach for lunch.
Within 15 minutes of our arrival, Raul, an English-speaking local, was at our table offering his services. Did we want to go horseback riding? Did we want to see the Ombu trees? Did we know there were sea lions sunning just around the corner? What did we want to know about Cabo Polonio?
All is Arranged
Our lunch finished, our outing planned for the next afternoon, we had nothing to do. We lounged in the padded chairs at the hotel. We chatted with other travelers lounging in chairs nearby. We sipped coffee. We read. We decided to go exploring.
Raul was right. A colony of sea lions was sunning just around the corner. We could hear them. They yipped and yowled and we followed their cries picking our way along slabs of rock slanted towards turbulent ocean waves. The noisy ones were fighting, waging private wars. They can rip bloody wounds and even kill each other, hence the dead sea lions washed up on the beach. Most of the sea lions, however, were sleeping. If we crouched low and didn’t talk, a few of them let us creep close.
We hardly spied a person in wandering around the town, but there was no shortage of animals. Horses grazed, dogs snoozed in patches of sun, chickens pecked, ducks waddled and one cow stood forlornly tied to a post. The sun sunk low, we returned to our hotel for dinner and headed to bed where we listened to the ocean swoosh right outside our door.
Viewing the Ombu Trees
Part of the controversy stems from the Ombu´s wood: it’s not hard. The Ombu grows in layers, but its layers aren’t dense like an oak; instead, they are flaky like a croissant. Plus, as an Ombu ages, its inner layers wear away, leaving it hollow. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the age of an Ombu, but many of the largest Ombues are estimated to be over 500 years old. However, since they are hollow, they are vulnerable. Strong winds can easily topple an Ombu.
An hour long boat ride up a wide, low river delivered us to two protected Ombu forests near Cabo Polonio. We only entered one forest, the other was closed. As it turns out, Raul pulled strings for us when arranging our Ombu trip. The protected forests don’t normally open to the public until January. It was the first week of December, but we were there anyway. A local fisherman showed us in and we ushered us through the still woods. The Ombues grow in funky clumps with wide, creeping trunks. Their branches reach high overhead and offer plentiful shade.
It was quiet among the leaves of the Ombu trees. It was solitary, too, just like the town of Cabo Polonio hidden behind miles and miles of sand and facing the sea.
January is Cabo Polonio’s busiest month. Much of Uruguay goes on vacation in January and summer is in full swing. The few hotels in town are booked in advance and rental cabins are reserved early. February is also busy, but you’ll have more luck finding accommodations if you’re arriving spur-of-the-moment. In March, summer weather lingers in Cabo Polonio, yet many Uruguayans have gone back to work, leaving the town quiet during the week.
October and November are whale-watching season. Whales pass by Cabo Polonio, making their way north from Antarctica.
November and December are spring in Uruguay. The sun shines, but rain showers are common and the wind snaps crisply. Most of the cabins are shuttered and few people are about, but the quiet is perfect for unwinding.
June and July are winter months. People are sparse.
Where to Stay and Eat
There are few hotels in town; none of them are large.
Hosteria la Perla is open year-round. Its rooms all have private bathrooms, some with an ocean-view. Breakfast is included. An on-site restaurant serves lunch and dinner, plus drinks during the day.
Hotel MarieMar is next door. It does good business during the busy season, yet looks closed up in other months. Rooms have private baths; breakfast is included. MarieMar also runs a restaurant when open.
If you plan to stay awhile, you may want to rent a cabin. Some rental properties are posted at cabopolonio.com.
Pitching a tent, I was told by a townsperson, is not allowed.
Food stands, bars and restaurants pop up during the summer season. Wander the sandy streets and you’ll find eating and drinking options, although nothing is bound to be gourmet. If you’re looking for groceries, two stores sell “provisions”. Bread, canned tuna, chunks of cheese, dry pasta, tomato paste, bars of chocolate, bags of chips, and bottles of water and beer are stocked.
It isn’t hard to get to Cabo Polonio, but it isn’t easy either. The trip isn’t strenuous, nor is it physically taxing. The difficulty lies in making connections – lots of connections. Because of this, and because Cabo Polonio is not geared toward international tourism, those who don’t speak Spanish will probably find the trip more stressful than those who do.
To begin with, you must get to Uruguay, a trip complicated by the fact that there are few direct flights between the United States and this small, South American nation.
From Montevideo, one daily bus stops at Cabo Polonio on the way to Valizas. It leaves at 9 a.m. Buy tickets at the counter with the sign reading “Bus Ruta 9”.
From Punta del Este, the bus trip isn’t as direct. First, go to the town of San Carlos. Local Punta del Este buses travel to San Carlos. Buses heading to San Carlos run along Rambla Claudio William. The trip to San Carlos takes about an hour. Two buses depart San Carlos for Valizas. One at 11:10 a.m., the other later in the afternoon. Aim for the early run; the trip is not done yet.
La Paloma is another bus departure point. This resort town isn’t nearly as ritzy as Punta del Este, but its beaches are just as nice. Plus, it is closer to Cabo Polonio than Punta. Two buses head to Valizas from La Paloma, one at 6:30 a.m., the other at 12:50 p.m.
By Monster Truck
You could always rent a car in Montevideo or Punta del Este and drive yourself to Cabo Polonio. You’ll have to leave your car at the highway, however, and take one of the monster trucks into town. There are some shaded parking stalls at the highway, for a fee of course.
El Paraiso operates monster trucks into and out of Cabo Polonio, and offers some shaded parking spots for cars near the highway. Horseback riding tours and boat trips to the Ombu trees can be organized through El Paraiso, yet they do not have a web site. Call (598) 470-5386 to inquire about prices ahead of time, but the best bet is to simply show up and organize an excursion face-to-face.
Hosteria La Perla is a small hotel open year-round in Cabo Polonio.
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