After hanging out for a few days in Montevideo, Uruguay’s somewhat sleepy capital, I got talked into going to the tiny beach town of Cabo Polonio by a couple Aussies and a Kiwi. I had been hanging out with Liz, an Aussie, for a few days and she had heard about it from a couple other people when she was coming south from Brasil. The night before we left, we ran into Dave and Ben, each a chef from New Zealand and Australia respectively. We all had some beers at our hostel in Montevideo and they also said they had heard great things about Cabo Polonio and wanted to head there tomorrow.
That is basically how destination plans are made on the road, when you don’t make advance reservations. Intricate. Complicated. Well researched.
The three of them decided to leave on the 9 a.m. bus up the coast. I still had to pick up my Brasilian passport at the consulate sometime that morning, so I told them I would try to meet them there later than night or the next day.
I ended up managing to get a bus leaving at 1:30 that afternoon after a long, hot, relaxing mug of yerba mate. It was supposed to take about four and a half hours, but because we made a number of additional stops, it ended up taking more like six hours. By the time we got to the bus stop, it was dark.
This normally wouldn’t be a problem at all, but Cabo Polonia is a bit of a unique destination. First, the bus doesn’t drop you off in town; it drops you off by the side of the highway at a gas station. From there, you are supposed to get a ride on a souped-up pickup truck with large tires capable of taking you over the sand dunes to the town, about 4-5 kilometers away. Second, there is almost no electricity at all in town – more on that in a second.
I knew both of these situations before I took off, but I was getting increasingly nervous after five hours or so that I might have missed my bus stop. At one of the stops, I got off and showed my destination on ticket to the bus driver unloading other passengers’ luggage. He didn’t speak English, but through hand signals, he assured me that my stop was still further down the road. My only other concern was whether the trucks ran people to the town from the gas station after dark. I assumed so, since there was scheduled bus service to there, but I wasn’t in the mood to sleep on a bench that night (or any night, really).
We got there, the bus driver called out “Cabo Polonio” loudly, smiling in my direction, and I hopped off the bus with another couple, which made me feel better about my chances of getting to town. It turns out that the truck service runs until 10 or 11 at night or so and there was a truck parked out front already half-loaded with others going to town. We bought our ticket, through our stuff into the truck bed, pulled ourselves up and got a seat.
The truck took off down a dirt/sand road towards the ocean. Through a guard station (its illegal for anyone to take any private vehicles out to the area, even residents) and then down series of roads through and past groves of trees and sand dunes. It was pitch-black, so the only things you could see were illuminated by the headlights of the truck. After ten minutes, the headlights provided a sight of the beach, accompanied sound of waves crashing.
Still not a light or building in sight. We drove down the beach for a bit and off in the distance you could see a lighthouse light sweeping around. Eventually, you also could see some small lights coming from what must have been buildings, about a dozen or so. As we got closer, some more lights became visible, but it was quite obvious this was going to be a different experience.
The truck eventually stopped in must have been the center of town, though you really couldn’t see a thing, because everyone got off. I had the name of the hostel that my friends were supposed to meet me at, but no idea of where it was in town. I asked the couple that had gotten on the truck at the same time as me whether they knew where they were staying tonight and they said they didn’t know. Some local approached the truck and told the couple that he had a place to stay (there are 3-4 small hostels here, but for the most part, you just rent one of the small houses from locals) and they turned to follow him. I was still asking people if they knew the way to the hostel I was looking for, Cabo Polonio Hostel. I asked the truck driver and he pointed off in the direction that the couple had walked off to.
Problem was that they had about a 50-yard head start and I couldn’t see them at all. I through my backpack on and took off at a fast walk trying to find them. . . and immediately tripped over a small little sand bump in front of me, face first into the ground, backpack somehow going up over my shoulders and head and almost pulling me over with it. An almost-full 180˚, with a half twist. The Russian judge only gave me a 6.2.
I got organized and took off after them again. My feet telling me I was walking down some sort of sand road. Hopefully able to remain upright. I caught sight of the local guy’s flashlight and caught up to them a few minutes later. The couple was looking at the local’s place (it turned out to be a small hostel) and I frantically went through my backpack with their flashlight looking for mine.
Knowing I was going to a town with no electricity, this item would have been a good one to put at the top of my pack. Once again, my planning skills shine.
The couple came back, said they were going to look at some other places, starting with the hostel next door. We walked over to the place and met the owner, a nice French-Canadian guy named Henri. There were 7-8 people, but none of my friends, eating dinner by candlelight on the front porch out front. As I continued to try to find my flashlight, the couple decided to move on. I asked Henri where the Cabo Polonio Hostel was and he said this was the place. As my friends weren’t there and the place looked much smaller than the pictures on the internet, I doubted it, but I needed to crash somewhere that night. I took a bed there for the night.
Henri showed me to my room and I dropped off my pack. I had finally found my flashlight by this point. He apologized and said that they had already cooked all the food for the night, so I couldn’t eat there, but there were some places to eat in town. He pointed off in the direction I came from and I walked back into the main part of town and found a spot to eat.
Though I had a flashlight, navigating even a small little town like in complete darkness was in interesting challenge on the way back, especially because I hadn’t had the chance to see the basic layout of everything during the day. I found my way back to the general location of the hostel and was guided the final bit of the way by the light of a television from the porch area.
Everyone was watching a movie playing on a 42 inch flat screen TV that was suspended over the end of the table by a jury-rigged system of ropes, tied into the ceiling. The TV was running on generator power and they were watching the DVD of “Wall-E.”
The next day, I woke up and stumbled out for breakfast. In the light of day, I verified that indeed this was the Cabo Polonio Hostel, as there was a large sign on the back side of the building proclaiming as such.
I think this means something like, “Freedom or Death.”
I was the only one up and as I had coffee and toast with Henri, I complimented him on his place and told him I was surprised that he had a television here, since he didn’t have a regular source of power.
“O’. That’s not my TV.”
“Huh? Who’s is it?”
“Its Denis’ TV. One of the guests here. He brought it with him.”
Over the next couple days, I pieced the following together. Denis was from Montreal. The first time I asked him about the TV, he simply said he leaving in a few days and taking it back to Montreal for his kids. That confused me a little bit, because I didn’t figure that you would be able to get some great deal on televisions in South America – at least a deal worth carrying a large TV around with you on vacation.
I then figured that he was a regular visitor here, since he and the owner were French Canadian, and that knowing he was going to stay at this hostel for a few weeks, he just bought the TV at his last major town, so that they’d have some additional entertainment while here and then he’d just take it home, since he wanted a new TV back there anyway. So the next breakfast, I asked Henri if Denis was a friend of his from back home or a regular visitor.
“No. I have never met him before.”
I asked what the story was about the TV. He said he wasn’t sure, but that Denis had showed up a couple weeks ago and after a day or two, asked if he could go back to his rental car and get his TV. He had been driving down to Uruguay from Brazil in a rental car and had the TV in the backseat. Henri told him that was fine and they then rigged up the rope harness for it. Henri didn’t know anything more than that. For what it is worth, he said he’d also never seen anything like it – though he didn’t seem nearly as intrigued as I was about this odd situation.
That might have something to do with Henri’s general outlook on life, probably best expressed each morning as we each began the day. We both started the day with coffee, toast and jam. He added to that hand rolling a good-sized morning joint, always nicely offering it to me after he took a few hits off it.
He was a very relaxed guy.
I had to ask Denis just a few more follow-up questions on the question of the TV. Later, I asked him when and where he had bought it. He looked at me strangely, as if the answer was obvious, and said “Montreal, about two years ago.” I thought it best to stop there, because I wanted to savor the incongruity of it all, without knowing for certain any more definite answers – though my imagination couldn’t have been any better than the reality.
He had brought a television down from Montreal for a couple month holiday in South America. He rented a car and didn’t have any definite plans on where he was going to go, but apparently he thought he might need a television somewhere along the way.
Luckily, he had stumbled upon Cabo Polonio. The road is rarely predictable and never boring.
The famous Canadian television above.
So, if you want no distraction relaxation, Cabo Polonio is your spot, especially in the off-season, as when I was there. Here is a full list of your entertainment options during your stay here: work on a tan, walk on the beach, nap in a hammock, read, talk and drink. You can mix a few of those up and do them at the same time also.
At night, you can add to that list seeing more stars that you have ever seen in your lifetime – and maybe watching a movie on DVD, if there is a guy from Montreal visiting town.
During the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, December through February, it fills up a bit more with tourists. There are even some bars and restaurants that are only open for those few months. As we walked around town, we saw the shells of locations that get filled out with those places in the high season.
By the middle of March, the place had reverted to its sleepy form. I doubt there were 30 other tourists there.
Five of them were the people I hung out with for three days and two nights. I ran into Liz walking past my hostel the next morning on the way to the beach. She and Dave and Ben had rented a small house about 50 yards away from my hostel. She said they were partying so hard the night before, she was surprised I couldn’t hear them from my place.
Liz is from Western Australia, Perth to be particular about it. She was a travel agent back home and saved up some money to travel, quit her job, and flew to South America. She’d done Carnival and six weeks in Brasil, a bit of Buenos Aires, and was now back up in Uruguay. She was heading back down to BA for a bit and had a flight in a few weeks from there to Miami, where she was meeting a mate flying over from Australia for a Caribbean cruise. Then the two of them had a flight to Panama City and she had about six weeks to get from there to Las Vegas overland to meet another mate coming over.
The problem was that she only had about $3,000 U.S for those two months. The flights were part of a round-the-world ticket, so they were paid for and the cruise was all-inclusive and paid for, but the six weeks from Panama City to Las Vegas were going to be interesting. She has promised to keep in touch and I am going to make her write up an occasional blog to post here with updates on how she is managing. From Vegas — her round-the-world ticket was a bit strange — she had to get back to Miami, fly to New York City, then she was meeting her sister somewhere in Quebec. Her sister is working in Canada and Liz is going to try to work there for a while, save up some more money and continue her trip in Europe.
Dave and Ben were the Kiwi and Aussie from the hostel in Montevideo. They were both trained and experienced chefs. Dave had spent parts of the last three years cooking on exclusive private yachts that went all over the place. Ben was going to make his first effort to latch onto a ship with Dave’s help and connections. They were headed to Spain after a few more months in South America, to catch the summer boating season in the Mediterranean.
Both had been to culinary school and had about ten years experience cooking in various restaurants – and is almost always the case for Aussies and Kiwis I have met on the road, incredibly cool.
The chances of me staying in New Zealand at the end of this trip increase with each Kiwi I meet.
The afternoon that I coming in on the bus, they got there early and meet up with Mel and Marissa, another Aussie and Kiwi, and as is par for the course on the road, all seemingly become fast friends in one night.
They both deserve a longer summary, but here is the short version for each: Mel was an Aussie with a perfectly lilting Aussie accent; Marissa was a stunning, auburn-haired Kiwi architect who had been working recently in London. Fun, interesting, beautiful – and there is just something about those accents. I wish that accent attraction worked in reverse, but I’ve yet to met anyone that says an American accent is sexy.
I was lucky enough to crash on in on their house parties the next couple of nights, though I always felt slightly like an outsider or intruder, because they had bonded so well.
Or I might have felt awkward because of how mind-numbingly drunk I got on the first night at their place. Not a big time like the World Cup 2022 will be…. well, now that I think about it.
Ben had caught some 24-hour bug (Dave got it the next day and thankfully, none of the rest of us got it at all), so he slept through the entire day and night. Dave had decided he wanted to cook on an open fire for all of us. He tried to find some local fresh fish and surprisingly couldn’t find any. He settled for some great looking lamb and beef.
I wandered over to their place around four that afternoon and helped him (mostly watched, but put in a small enough effort to perhaps entitle me to that word – at least because I am the one writing the summary) make a roaring fire in a fire pit next to their house. Of course, we started drinking then, as manly men doing our parts as modern-day Prometheuses.
By the time, Dave was feed the fire a few times and then let it simmer down into a healthy bed of coals, I already had quite a buzz on. I actually haven’t been drinking too much on this trip – much less than at home – so I am going to blame being out of practice. The girls arrived around sundown, when Dave was about ready to put the meat on the fire.
He grilled up the beef and lamb, did some sweet potatoes and regular potatoes up inside on the stove. Wine. Beer. It was a feast. Probably the best meal I had eaten in weeks.
After dinner the true drinking began, along with a game garnered to elicit some interesting drunken opinions: Shag, Marry, Kill. Someone came up with three people and you had to declare which one you would have sex with, which one you would marry, and which one was to die. I must say that Oprah, Rosanne and Queen Elizabeth stumped me for a bit.
Obviously Rosanne must die, but the other two choices?! On the other side of the scale, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron and was difficult in the opposite respect. For the ladies, Heath Ledger (we were well into fantasy world at this point), Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe was quite the stumper.
I don’t remember the last few hours of the evening at all, except for a burst of extreme flatulence at one point – yes, I was on my game that evening. That may have been the point we decided to exit the small house and wander about town. I was quite happy to wake up the next day still with my camera in my possession. At least I didn’t leave it somewhere. And with a hangover commensurate with my evening’s level of debauchery (I love the definition of that from the thesaurus on this computer, “unrestrained self-indulgent behavior, or an instance of this.” Ahhhhh, that’s the word).
When I told my new friends I was going to blog a summary of the three days at Cabo Polonio, they made me promise to not give the following summary and use the term “typical Aussies and Kiwis.” And I won’t.
At the end of the three nights, there was a pile of empty bottles at the house. 24 bottles of wine. Two bottles of Bacardi (though one was not completely empty). One bottle of Cachaça, used to make Caipirinhas. And 15 or so bottles of liter-sized beer, though I think we had either returned some of the beer bottles to the store or thrown them out somewhere.
They all said that the first night, before I met up with them, was the biggest party of the three nights. I was happy I hadn’t found them that night – I don’t know if I would have survived another.
I will say “typical Aussies and Kiwis” in this regard – the five of them were some of the nicest, most interesting, and fun people I’d met in four months on the road. I hope it is not the last time I see any of them. In fact, while Dave was cooking and I was quizzing him about his experiences cooking on yachts, I made him promise to hire me on as a sous chef at some point in the future. He said he might be OK with that, but I’d have to give him half of my wages as a finder’s fee for the job.
I think I might be good with that.
The usual television at the hostel
View of town
Cow chilling on the beach
The way into town.
One odd thing about making new friends on the road, even quickly, saying goodbye is never easy.
#A, I’m glad you were able to use your fire making skills again on this trip.#B, when exactly are you NOT carrying on at a certain level of debauchery, as defined by your computer’s thesaurus?#C, travel safely. 🙂
Wow! That sounds like an epic 3 days!
That picture of the truck hauling people in and out of town gave me chills. Must have been exciting – the unknown and the familiar of travel.
ahhhhh, remembering back on it now. You captured the spirit in that sentence exactly.
Don’t you know that the 42 inch plasma is de regueur amongst backpacking canucks…and all this time I thought you were a seasoned traveler. REI has a new “plasma-pack” with wheels that make bringing it along sooooooo easy.
plasma pack… I love it. Need to get one donated to me 😉
I’m guessing since then you’ve had a decent amount of beer drinking practice mate. I don’t think I’d ever have expected to see a tv like that there ever, looks out of place.
Great story! And sounds like an awesome party with new friends!!! Oprah, Roseanne and Queen Elizabeth is a tricky one. I think I would shag Oprah and marry the queen for the financial benefit. I’m with you on Roseanne.
not like Oprah is a bad result in the financial area either though!
OMG the cow on the beach is such a priceless shot! I had never heard of this place before, now I wanta check it out next time I’m in Uruguay 🙂
Ha, funny how things are connected. I came across your site recently (your top beginner blogging post to be exact, thanks for that one!), and then found my way to this post on Twitter by accident somehow (still trying to work that thing out). I met Liz in Canada in 2009/10 and ended up living with her for six months. Great girl! And I’ll be in Uruguay in two weeks. Spooky. Looks like I’ll have to stop by Cabo Polonio…
that is a great story. I love Liz. She is so damn full of life. LOL.
Amazing story, the detail you put in to it is incredible. I can’t wait to get out there this summer. I’m trying not to get my expectations up too much since it might be different now 2 years later. Definitely have to go there this summer.