Cabo Polonio, Uruguay: In Search of the Fabled Ombu Tree
By Kelly Westhoff
Being in Cabo Polonio was like being in a galaxy far, far away. In Cabo Polonio, I was far, far away from any resemblance of my daily life in the United States. There was not a gas station, a Starbucks or a McDonald’s in sight. There were no newspaper kiosks. There were no cell phone rings. There were no cafes with Internet access. Plus, for the majority of the day, there were no lights because there was no electricity. But there is 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.
While the ocean presses against Cabo Polonio on three sides, sand presses against it from the last. The bottom end of Cabo Polonio´s peninsula, the end that connects it to the rest of Uruguay, is covered by dunes of sand.
Sand whips and whirls throughout Cabo Polonio. It slithers across the beach. It gathers in mounds the size of a VW bug. It settles against the walls of buildings. It would block traffic if it could, except there is no traffic in Cabo Polonio. Cars don’t drive through Cabo Polonio´s streets because cars can´t make it past the sand dunes. But monster 4×4 trucks can.
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.
The ride was tipsy and jolting. The truck faltered once or twice. The driver down-shifted, the gears grunted, the tires creaked and the weight of the construction-sized machine lunged through loose, deep dunes. Sand sputtered into the air, misting us all.
Finding a Guide
Finally, Cabo Polonio came into view across a wide, long, flat beach. The truck picked up speed and barreled towards the outpost, passing several dead bodies of sea lions rotting at the ocean’s edge. When we reached Cabo Polonio´s center, a dirt-packed clearing surrounded by boarded-up, rickety-looking buildings with corrugated tin roofs, we all hopped out. A few townspeople gathered. One, a roughly bearded man with the nub of a cigarette stuck in his mouth, promised to guide any of us to a room.
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 hoped so. It had been my choice to come to Cabo Polonio. I had first read its name on a travel thread online. Next, I located it on a map and went in search of information. A guidebook offered a skimpy paragraph on the place; I hadn’t fared much better online. Our arrival here had been mostly based on local advice I picked up along the way once we reached Uruguay. I asked, strangers pointed us in the right direction, and we made it. But really, I didn’t know what we would find. Had I made a bad decision at coming here and dragging my husband along?
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
We told Raul exactly what we wanted to do. He disappeared. Two hours later, he reported back. We had plans for the following afternoon. A monster truck would pick us up and take us back to the highway. A boat would take us to see the Ombu trees. Horses would bring us all the way back to the hotel. We agreed without haggling on his price: 1,500 Uruguayan pesos in total, about $75 U.S.
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.
Tiring of the sea lions after a while, we wandered the sandy paths of Cabo Polonio. Simple shack cabins dotted the sloping land. Most were shuttered. A few leaned. And all of them seem as if they had been spontaneously plopped where they stood. There was little rhyme or reason to their placement, there were no orderly, squared-off lots. People were scarce. According to Raul, about 80 people call Cabo Polonio home year-round. The crowds, he said with a slight roll of his eyes, come in January.
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
The next afternoon, after a morning of coffee, reading and sunning, we headed out on our excursion. Nearby Cabo Polonio is a protected forest of Ombu trees. The Ombu is unique to the pampas of Uruguay and Argentina. Experts cannot agree on whether the Ombu is actually a tree or an overgrown bush.
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.
When to Go
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.
Many travelers headed for Uruguay fly into Buenos Aires, Argentina and make their way from there in one of two ways. First, several airlines offer connecting flights between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, or Punta del Este, Uruguay’s upscale resort town.
Buquebus offers a second option for arriving in Uruguay from Buenos Aires. Buquebus specializes in running large ferries across the Rio de la Plata between Argentina and Uruguay. Travelers ferry between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, or Colonia del Sacramento, a UNESCO-protected, antique, Uruguayan town.
The next step is to catch a bus. There are no direct buses to Cabo Polonio. Instead, travelers board buses to Barra de Valizas, simply posted as Valizas on many schedules. Along the way, the driver will stop at a wide spot in the road and let off the Cabo Polonio-bound.
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
A bus station won’t greet you when you get off the bus at Cabo Polonio, but monster trucks will. The trucks charge $60 Uruguayan pesos for a one-way trip into town, a journey that will take about 30 minutes and drive over, through and across sand dunes and a beach.
The driver will push a round-trip ticket, but resist. There isn’t a price reduction for buying round-trip; plus, when you’re ready to leave, you’ll be stuck trying to find a truck run by the same company that brought you in
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.
If the thought of all these connections is making your head spin, several tour operators offer organized day trips to Cabo Polonio from Punta del Este. If your Spanish is non-existent or your time is tight, this may be the way to go. Punta del Este is a well-oiled tourist machine and many tour operators speak English. You could easily plan a week in Punta del Este, reserving one of those days for a side trip to Cabo Polonio.
Basic information in Spanish about Cabo Polonio. Posts rental properties and email addresses for getting in touch with cabin owners. Also provides email addresses for hotels.
Travel information about Uruguay in English and Spanish. Learn about tourism options throughout Uruguay, study maps and find basic historical, social and natural facts about the country.
In English, Spanish or Portuguese, this site is managed by Uruguay´s Ministry of Tourism and offers travel ideas in all of Uruguay. Some of the internal links are more helpful than others.
Buquebus runs ferries across the Rio de la Plata between Buenos Aires and Montevideo or Colonia. View schedules, maps, prices and even purchase tickets online.
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.
Kelly Westhoff is a traveler, writer and teacher from Minnesota. She returned several years ago from a trip around the world with her husband.
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