How to Roadtrip Uruguay’s Coast
Friday: Pick up a car in either Montevideo or Punta del Este then follow the poky coastal Route 10 and watch as the surrounding architecture fades from Beverly Hills-esque summer retreats to the kinds of pop-up art shacks you might find at Burning Man. Try to time your arrival to the Laguna Garzón before 6pm so that you can take the free puddle-jumper barge which will ferry you and your car across a thin spit of water. If you miss the boat, prepare for a much longer but equally charming reroute.
In this case, turn around and head back the way you came, taking a right on the Camino Sainz Martinez, a well maintained dirt road. Along the way you’ll pass rust-colored Hereford cattle, fluffy sheep, and flocks of rheas -South America’s smaller ostrich cousin- as well as the stately Estancia Vik, the luxury resort/ranch and presumed owner of said photogenic livestock.
Pick up Route 9 towards Rocha, passing through more sprawling farmland dotted with cattle and their attentive cowboys. Roll down the window and listen for the unmistakable squawk of monk parakeets as they chatter in the trees.
Your destination has minimal facilities so take the opportunity in the town of Rocha to refuel and withdraw cash. Make up time by continuing on Route 9 all the way to Punta del Diablo.
Once a small fishing village, today Punta del Diablo is popular with bourgeois bohemian tourists who appreciate the area’s hippie vibes and artisan community. In summer, the tiny community of year-round residents swells when hundreds of vacationers fill up the many rental houses, hostels, and posadas. Book accommodation in advance if you don’t want to be left scrounging for a place to stay at the last minute. The popular El Diablo Tranquilo, has a warm atmosphere and inviting bar that attracts a laid-back backpacker crowd.
For dinner, amble over to the candlelit, driftwood-accented dining room at Posada Rocamar, which serves local wines and dishes like pumpkin ravioli and dulce de leche crêpes.
Saturday: Take the morning to explore Punta del Diablo’s wild beaches and wilder architecture.
Hit the road again, this time heading south on Route 9. Turn off on Route 16 towards Agua Dulces then pick up Route 10. You’ll pass the Laguna de Castillos, which offers ample opportunities for fishing, boating, and birding. When you see a sign for Parque Nacional Cabo Polonio, pull over into the parking lot. The park entrance marks the sole access to Cabo Polonio, a ramshackle beach community cut off from electricity, telephone lines, and the world by miles of protected sand dunes. Cars are not permitted to cross the dunes. There are however, spartan 4X4s (replete with nylon straps for looping your arms to brace yourself for the bumpy ride) that shuttle passengers back and forth from the park entrance to the “town” center.
Once in the town center, pick up any necessary provisions at the store (the one and only) and make your way along sandy paths to Cabo Polonio Hostel, a cheap and cheerful shack with private and shared dorm style accommodation. Whip up a meal using the communal kitchen and enjoy the quiet that creeps in at this edge of the world.
Sunday: There aren’t many sites in Cabo Polonio. There are the residences themselves, which range from solid cottages to driftwood shacks. There is the lighthouse. And then there is the thriving community of sea lions that lounge on the rocks by the lighthouse. Remember to bring a handkerchief or scarf to protect your nostrils from the stinging pungency of all those blubbery basking beasts.
While waiting for the 4X4 shuttle back to civilization, sample freshly baked beef and corn empanadas at the food stalls in the town center.
Once back on the road, break up your return trip to Montevideo by making a pitstop in La Pedrera for a picture-perfect pitcher of beer and a chivito sandwich, a traditional Uruguayan dish of beef, lettuce, mayonnaise, egg, ham, and red peppers on a bun.
On the drive: Montevideo is a very easy city to navigate, so getting there and away in your rental car requires little more than making sure you keep the ocean on your right (leaving) or your left (returning). Full disclaimer: we actually took the bus from Montevideo to Punta del Este where we rented our car but then returned it in Montevideo. Once you’re out on the coast, fill up on gas whenever you can, as stations tend to be scarce.
Punta del Diablo: El Diablo Tranquilo Hostel offers private rooms from $28 USD. Telephone: +(598) 4477-2519. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Posada Rocamar also has rooms, but it is considerably overpriced for its Spartan furnishings (a bean bag chair? come on). Better just to go there for dinner.