Cabo Polonio – Lost island in a sea of dunes

Deserted beaches, rocky islands heaving with baying seals & tiny colourful shacks. Cabo Polonio, Uruguay is unforgettable.
By Karen A Higgs
Last updated on February 3, 2022

It’s not the vast deserted beaches, rocky islands heaving with baying seals, and tiny colourful shacks that make Rocha’s Cabo Polonio unique—but what it doesn’t have.

Inhabited for thousand of years by indigenous tribes, legend has it that Cabo Polonio was named after one of the many ships that sunk off the rocky cape and her three treacherous islands in the 1700s.

Cabo Polonio – almost unchanged since the days of pirates and smugglers

Attracted by the bounty to be had from ships bound for Spain laden with Latin American riches, the area became a hideout for pirates and smugglers. After a lighthouse was built in 1881 fishermen and seal trappers replaced the pirates. The fishermen remain though the trappers are no more after the government banned seal-hunting in 1992.

Photographer Stéphane San Quirce describes Polonio with enigmatic beauty as “a lost island between the Atlantic Ocean and a sea of sand dunes”. It’s not actually an island but it does feel like one, and it stands relatively unchanged since the days of pirates and smugglers”.

It’s not what Cabo Polonio has but what it doesn’t have

It’s not what Cabo Polonio has—its huge deserted beaches, rocky islands heaving with baying seals, and tiny colourful shacks—but what it doesn’t have that makes it unique. There’s no electricity, no running water, no TV, no cars and no streets.

Polonio was designated a protected national park in 2009.  You need to park your car at the visitors centre on the highway and ride an ancient safari-style double-decker truck through five miles of dunes.

The ride is incredibly fun—thirty minutes bumping through dunes and then a glorious speed over Playa Sur with Cabo Polonio—with its tiny houses clinging to the cape and not a single tree to break the wind—growing ever closer. In summer you descend from the truck at a grass roundabout in the centre of the village into  some kind of parallel hippie universe.

Cabo Polonio Uruguay photos by Guru'Guay

A parallel universe

Narrow grassy paths fan out from the roundabout lined with wood-hewn shacks selling cold beer and fried seafood caught that morning run by stoic local women. Dread-locked travellers spread out their wares on colourful blankets, offering jewellery and crafts, tie-died beach wraps and to plait your hair for a few pesos. Someone’s inevitably strumming a poorly-tuned guitar. And of course a legal joint is being passed around.

Wend your way down to the water a minute away. The beaches are wild with pristine white sand. Even during high season there’s always a piece of virgin sand to lie out on. Or head over to the iconic lighthouse to watch seals sparring feet away from where you are standing. You can cross the whole village in a matter of minutes and explore the whole place in a matter of hours.

To find out how to get to Cabo Polonio, the times you MUST avoid visiting, what you should know before renting a beach house and more essential information (like where to spot shipwrecks – seriously!), get the Guru’Guay Guide to Uruguay: Beaches, Ranches & Wine Country

Cover photo by Marcelo Campi

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2 Responses

  1. We got a kick out of the whole experience: the truck ride over the dunes, the little shelters, the characters, the seals on the rocks, the beautiful beaches, our lunch at one of the little restaurants, the lighthouse—the whole package. And all of it was even better because we were there with our wonderful Uruguayan friends as guides. We’re from Southern California, so Cabo Polonio reminded us a bit of Joshua Tree.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, S! I’m glad you had a good time in Cabo Polonio. I am a photographer and it is one of my favourite places to photograph (especially at night). I found very interesting your reference to Joshua Tree. Cheers,
      Federico

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