Uruguay’s Rocha kaleidoscope

A coastal area with many landscapes and stories to tell.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
For residents of the Argentine capital who want to beat the summer heat on an ocean beach, distances to Uruguayan destinations are comparable with those to the Argentine resorts in terms of travel time. Flight time from the Argentine capital to Montevideo or Punta del Este is a little over one hour. And a mere 340 km separate Chuy on the border with Brazil from the Uruguayan capital, where Buquebus ferries disgorge over 3,000 passengers and 500 cars from Buenos Aires a day during the summer high season. The direct ferry trip takes 3 ½ hours, during which passengers doze, read or watch a video, and arrive rested for the drive north in a comfortable air-conditioned bus or their own means of locomotion.
… foto Cabo Polonio FARO blog.jpg …
In January, some Buenos Aires vacationers head for Punta del Este and steep high-season prices, but others continue on to one of the little fishing towns that dot the spectacular 170 km of coastline of the Department of Rocha further north. In these towns prices are lower, crowds are somewhat sparser, and contact with nature and local culture is more direct for people who value rest and subscribe to the adage about Small being Beautiful.
In February, prices begin to drop everywhere along the Rocha coast, and in March they are affordable for many people who had to spend the hottest months in Buenos Aires. March is also less windy than January and February.
… foto Santa Teresa BLOG.jpg … Uruguay’s portion of the Atlantic coast is full of rocky capes and peninsulas that separate bays and beaches which provide options of surf or quieter waters. The prevailing easterly winds that make the rocks offshore a danger for navigation led to the construction of lighthouses in Punta del Este, José Ignacio, La Paloma, Cabo Polonio and Punta del Diablo more than a century ago.
For tourists, the Rocha coast is a world of dune-protected fine sand beaches, several of which are good for surfing and kite surfing. Other attractions are restaurants that serve delicious fresh seafood caught by local artisan fishermen, cozy bars and restaurants, inns and hotels of trendy or atmospheric style, two well-restored 18th-century forts, wetlands full of birdlife, and a guest ranch that puts visitors in touch with an adventurous past and comfortable, easily adopted local customs. All this occupies a 60-km-wide fringe of land between the sea and a range of hills.
… foto Mapa Rocha BLOG.jpg …
Heading north from Punta del Este (which is 138 km north of Montevideo), one comes across the former lighthouse village of José Ignacio, (in the Department of Maldonado). Its stone lighthouse with three white bands, built in 1877, is very similar to the one in Cabo Polonio, which went into service four years later. The kite surfing craze has one of its bastions here, with a school for surfing as well as this extreme sport located on the nearby Garzón Lagoon.
… foto José Ignacio BLOG.jpg …
In José Ignacio, Argentines as well as Uruguayans who fled crowds in Punta del Este 10 or 20 years ago are fighting to keep the look and lifestyle of their chosen spot as untouched as possible by developers intent on building mansions and luxury hotels, and travel agencies that bus in tourists for a day on the beach. The recent construction of wooden stairs down to the beach and a boardwalk beside the part most frequented by visitors has increased comfort and improved safety, although some locals feel that the structures mar the view and feel of the place.
… foto José Ignacio ANTES BLOG.jpg … foto José Ignacio DESPUES BLOG.jpg Each of the towns on the Rocha coast has stories to tell. But they deserve a book, they won’t fit into a blog article.

LA PALOMA. Located a little over 240 km north of Montevideo, this city of 5,000 inhabitants grew up around its stately white lighthouse, which Italian stonemasons constructed on Cape Santa María in 1874. In addition to being the department’s biggest and best-equipped seaside resort, it has its largest fishing port, which has a sector reserved for yachts and sailboats.
… La Paloma BLOG …
The lighthouse provides tourists with a 42-meter-high vantage point from which to take pictures of the town. Many houses in the picturesque old quarter around the lighthouse have been recycled.
The abundance of fish around the cape makes it possible to catch something on practically all the area’s many fine yellow sand beaches.
La Paloma’s quiet beach, preferred by families with children, is El Cabito. The Los Botes beach is where artisan fishermen leave their boats and show their catch to visitors.
… foto Surf 1 BLOG …
The beach favored by surfers is La Balconada, where people also go to thrill to sunsets.
Of late, La Paloma has become a favorite of adolescents because of its night life and numerous cheap camping grounds.
In addition to its discos and a casino, the city has several good seafood restaurants and around 50 hotels, cabin courts, rental houses and other accommodations in forest and beachside locations.

LA PEDRERA. Ten kilometers further north, La Pedrera appears as a smaller, more exclusive and quieter place. There are no discos; they were sent packing to nearby La Paloma several years ago. The town is set largely atop a low cliff between two broad, fine yellow sand beaches. The quiet beach preferred by families is El Desplayado, the one with big surfing waves Playa del Barco.
… foto La Pedrera BLOG …
The rocky point that gives La Pedrera its name is home to Costa Brava, the most famous of the town’s renowned seafood restaurants.
Fewer than 3,000 people live there all year round, but in summer the flood of tourists multiplies the population tenfold, so it is better to go in March. There are 14 hotels, cabin complexes, apart-hotels and other accommodations.

CABO POLONIO. A rustic and definitely unique fishing village that lives more off bohemian tourists than fish in the summer. Locals do everything possible to discourage mass tourism. To get there, you have to leave your car in a parking lot near the highway and contract one of the several 4WD truck or pickup transfer services available, or ride a horse. The 50-minute drive takes you through forested dunes and along an immensely broad beach to a sandy clearing in the village on the cape.
The cape is hammer-shaped but looks like a peninsula from afar. It harbors a large sea lion breeding colony. The beaches on either side of it are sprinkled with scattered huts used by fishermen or rented to tourists who range from hippies to professionals. The mobile dunes behind the beaches change the landscape all the time.
foto: Cabo Polonio 1 BLOG.jpg … (bahía desde península)
Cabo Polonio has both agrarian and seafaring sides to its personality, and fewer than 200 year-round residents. There are no streets, just paths amid the houses. Apart from the inns that have electrical generators, the town has no electricity; at night, people make do with the light provided by the revolving beacon of the lighthouse. There is no drinking water or telephone service, either. The treelessness of the cape makes all the sand, rock and sea expanses around you feel very broad indeed. The beaches are good for swimming, diving or surf, and the rocky areas are good fishing spots.
Foto: Cabo Polonio 2 BLOG.jpg … (pueblo) The cape is so low on one side that the ocean’s waves appear to rush past beside you on their way to the beach.
For many years there were only two inns, but now they are seven. None of them are what you would call upscale, but the Perla del Cabo has a great seafood restaurant.
You can get to Cabo Polonio with a day tour booked in Punta del Este.

GUARDIA DEL MONTE. Thirteen kilometers inland from Cabo Polonio is the Castillos Lagoon surrounded by butiá palm groves, marshlands full of native vegetation and wildlife, and a large forest of enormous ombú trees.
On a rise facing the lagoon is the place that best expresses this part of Rocha: the main house of the Guardia del Monte ranch, which grew up around an 18th-century Spanish post house and was acquired by the Servetto family in 1910.
… foto Estancia Guardia del Monte 1 BLOG.jpg (en carro)
Alicia Fernández de Servetto, the owner, raises sheep and cattle, and offers a distinctive Uruguayan ranch experience to travelers who are genuinely interested in the area. For her, the tourists to whom she divulges ombú lore are "not tourists, but visitors." They hear, for instance, that botanists tend to classify the ombú more as a shrub than a tree.
In the evening, she offers newly arrived guests a sweet golden liqueur made from the macerated fruit of the butiá palms that distinguish the Castillos area and give locals their butiasero moniker. …. foto Estancia Guardia del Monte 2 BLOG.jpg … (con ombú) A retired schoolteacher, she enjoys telling visitors how survivors of shipwrecks on the Rocha coast became leading butiaseros during the 19th century.
… foto Estancia Guardia del Monte 3 BLOG.jpg … (Alicia con mapa) In the main house two recycled rooms with private bathrooms are available for guests, who are shown local flora and fauna during horseback rides or cart rides. Fishing and canoeing on the lagoon are additional options.

VALIZAS. Too small to figure on most major tourist maps, this small fishing village just north of Cabo Polonio has high sand dunes. And it doesn’t have electricity, either. It is good for fishing and walking the beach in search of remains of the shipwrecks that dot the Rocha coast. The Aguas Dulces resort a big further north has cabins and huts.

PUNTA DEL DIABLO. This picturesque little shark fishing village is blessed with a beautiful setting, a distinctive small-town life and a special existential energy. A long rocky point separates two beaches with different personalities. The one called Los Botes is where artisan fishermen unload their catch and leave their boats. The other, suggestively named La Viuda (the Widow), is good for surfing and kite surfing.
…. foto: Punta del Diablo 1 BLOG.jpg … (botes en playa)
The main pastimes are walking on those beaches and watching the local fishermen bring in their catch. The place fascinates everyone from backpackers to the bohemian bourgeois set.
… foto: Punta del Diablo 2 BLOG.jpg … (gente bajando a la playa) While the thing to do is rent a rancho (hut) with few if any amenities for a week or a month, there are also 27 more conventional accommodation options, of which only two are inns, one is an apart-hotel and the rest are mostly cabin courts.
… foto: Punta del Diablo 3 BLOG … (ranchos) There are several good seafood restaurants and other eateries, a couple of pubs, and a cybercafé. The stable population is 600, a number that increases twentyfold during the summer high season. More information at: http://www.portaldeldiablo.com.uy/.

SANTA TERESA FORTRESS. Punta del Diablo is very hear the large Santa Teresa Fortress, which in colonial times was disputed by Portugal and Spain, and finally by Uruguayan patriots and the Brazilian Empire until the independence of Uruguay in 1828.
… foto: Fortaleza Santa Teresa 1 BLOG.jpg … (exterior)
Set on a rise within view of the coast to the east and overlooking the Laguna Negra marshlands to the west, the fortress was well restored in the 1930s. It occupies an area of one hectare. Its buildings house interesting displays that illustrate life in the garrison, as well as scale models of all Uruguay’s colonial forts. It is open daily during the summer high season, and on weekends only during the low season.
… foto: Fortaleza Santa Teresa 2 BLOG.jpg … (plaza de armas) The Santa Teresa National Park that surrounds the fortress has an area of 3,000 hectares. Its 2,000 native and exotic trees were planted to fix the dunes, which were threatening the fortress when restoration work began. There are a hot house, a cool shady area formed by shade trees and a museum that shows the restoration of the fortress and the design of the park, as well as cabin courts and campgrounds. The park extends down to four of the country’s most beautiful, pristine beaches, which offer good fishing and excellent waves for surfing.

CERRO DEL INDIO. Located on the edge of the Laguna Negra nature reserve near the Santa Teresa Fortress, this sheep and dairy farm is an ideal place for birders, skilled riders and people who are interested enough in archaeology to chat with the owners about the enigmatic 3,000-year-old Indian burial mounds that are being excavated in the region.
… foto Cerrito de Indio BLOG.jpg …
LA CORONILLA. This modest little town 25 km south of Chuy consists of three loosely connected neighborhoods and the traditional Hotel Parque Oceánico, recently refurbished.
… foto Hotel Parque Oceánico BLOG.jpg … Surrounded by a big seaside (or "oceanic") park of butiá palms and eucalyptuses that links it with the beach, the hotel is a pleasant, self-contained refuge for older people and families with small children who don’t want crowds, noise or night life. Open all year round, it is near the Cerro Verde and Coronilla Islands nature reserves, as well as the Santa Teresa Fortress in the national park of the same name.

SAN MIGUEL FORT. Like the Santa Teresa Fortress, the San Miguel Fort in the hills of the same name was disputed for more than 60 years – first by the Spaniards and Portuguese, and finally by Uruguayan patriots and the Brazilian empire until Uruguay’s independence in 1828.
This fortification in the San Miguel hills sent smoke signals to the fortress 40 km further south to warn of enemy troop movements on the plain below. An interesting folk museum is within sight of the fort. Both are a kilometer from the Hostería Fortín de San Miguel, a replica of a Spanish parador surrounded by the native vegetation of the San Miguel National Park.
…. foto: San Miguel 1 BLOG.jpg …. (entrada)
Dark but homey like an old castle that smells of fireplace wood smoke, the inn is the right base from which to explore both the fort and the museum. It is a favorite of esoteric groups who say it has good vibes because the San Miguel hills lie atop one of the positive energy lines that emanate from Mount Uritorco in the province of Córdoba in Argentina. It has two good restaurants and a swimming pool that is ideal for relaxing for a few days in a setting very different from those of the nearby sea resorts, and a world away from fast-paced big cities.
… foto: San Miguel 2 BLOG.jpg … (pasillo externo hostería) The fort complex is located less than 10 km from the city of Chuy, and it is easy to get there directly from the Montevideo bus terminal. Of the many buses that go from the capital to Chuy every day, several return on a different route that leaves you on the inn’s doorstep.

CHUY. This binational city is no beauty, but the fact that the frontier between Uruguay and Brazil runs down the middle of its main avenue, across which thousands of people move back and forth freely every day, is intriguing, to say the least. Chuy attracts compulsive shoppers who are incapable of passing up bargains in clothing, luxury items, sports equipment and electronic products. Most of the big stores and shopping centers are on the Brazilian side of the avenue, and many duty-free shops are in Uruguayan part of town. As in Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este, many of the shopkeepers are of Arab descent.
… foto Chuy frontera BLOG.jpg … The Barra del Chuy is an immensely broad beach whose northern sector belongs to Brazil, and to Uruguay in the south. The Brazilians have removed the dunes from their sector. The Uruguayans, more ecological, have left them in place to renew the sand of their part of the beach.
… foto Barra del Chuy BLOG.jpg … Hot and muggy in the summer, Chuy is best visited during the cooler months. The temperature is always more bearable in the San Miguel hills.
The best way to savor the diversity of Rocha is to go straight north to the inn near the San Miguel Fort in the Chuy area and proceed south at leisure, spending a few days in each of the small coastal towns that takes your fancy.

In Rocha there are accommodations for every taste. Among them:
Beach and family life
Hotel Parque Oceánico, http://www.hotelparqueoceanico.com.uy/ , La Coronilla.
Hotel La Pedrera,
, (00598) 479-2001, La Pedrera.
Hostería Fortín de San Miguel, http://www.elfortin/ .com, Chuy.
Estancia Guardia del Monte, http://www.guardiadelmonte.com/ , Castillos.
Cerro del Indio, (00598) 47-4003, La Coronilla.

Bohemian bourgeois
Posada Rocamar, http://www.posadarocamar.com.uy/ , Punta del Diablo.
Terrazas de la Pedrera Apart Hotel, http://www.terrazasdelapedrera.com/ , La Pedrera.
Hostería La Perla del Cabo, http://www.laperladelcabo.com/ , Cabo Polonio.
Additional information:
http://www.turismorocha.gub.uy/ , 00598-479-6088.

PHOTO CREDITS: The Cabo Polonio lighthouse, Bonnie Tucker. A beach of the Santa Teresa National Park, Bonnie Tucker. Map of the Department of Rocha. A beach at José Ignacio in Feruary, 2007, Bonnie Tucker. The access to the beach beside the José Ignacio lighthouse in 2000 and 2007, Bonnie Tucker. The La Paloma lighthouse, Bonnie Tucker. A surfer defies a wave on a Rocha beach, Rocha Tourist Office. Playa del Barco in La Pedrera in November, 2003, Bonnie Tucker. Cabo Polonio’s boat beach, Bonnie Tucker. The Cabo Polonio village, Bonnie Tucker. Returning from a birding jaunt at Estancia Guardia del Monte, Bonnie Tucker. Alicia Fernández de Servetto seated at the foot of a 500-year-old ombú, Bonnie Tucker. Alicia showing her shipwreck map, Bonnie Tucker. Boats on one of the beaches of Punta del Diablo, Bonnie Tucker. Recently arrived tourists walk down to the beach at Punta del Diablo, Bonnie Tucker. Huts for rent in Punta del Diablo, Bonnie Tucker. The Santa Teresa Fortress, Bonnie Tucker. Partial view of Plaza de Armas of the Santa Teresa Fortress, Bonnie Tucker. An Indian burial mound, www.portaluruguaycultural.gub.uy. Hotel Parque Oceánico, Bonnie Tucker. The drawbridge entrance to the San Miguel Fort, Bonnie Tucker. The countryside as seen from the San Miguel Inn, Bonnie Tucker. The avenue in Chuy that serves as the border between Uruguay and Brazil, Bonnie Tucker. The Uruguayan sector of the Chuy beach, Bonnie Tucker.