Wildlife Viewing in Funky Cabo Polonio on the Coast of Uruguay

Beach Shacks are Part of the Charm of Cabo Polonio. Photo Credit: DM Smith

The chill wind cutting through my jacket and the steely sky did not bode well for our 20 minute ride in an open dune buggy to the hotel.

Worse yet, the dune buggy’s hood was up and our driver was busily banging away at whatever ailed the beast.

Luckily, the rain held off and the hood came down. Ten minutes later we were on our way. We reached funky Cabo Polonio in time for a quick, brisk walk on the beach before dark.

Seal lions and Fur Seals Before Breakfast

It couldn’t have been more different the next morning. A grey, windy cold gave way to brilliant, sunny calm. Just a few feet from our hotel window eight or ten young southern sea lions crashed through the waves, chasing their breakfast. We watched them for a while, then decided to head for the seal colony. A young fur seal, taking a break from feeding, rested on the outer rocks just past the hotel, nose pointed to the sky as if, like us, he was trying to absorb the heat of the sun after yesterday’s cold.

Fur seals and Sea Lions Share a Rocky Outcrop in Cabo Polonio. Photo Credit: I Robinson

A short walk from the hotel, just below the lighthouse, we found the rocky outcrop where South American fur seals and southern seal lions lay draped over the hard surface, sparred over resting spots and discussed world issues in sharp barks or high-pitched cries. Although the area was fenced off, the animals were close enough to view even if we hadn’t had our trusty binoculars and telescope.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • This is a great place to see South American seals, sea lions and birds up close.
  • Cabo Polonio’s funky houses, quirky hotels and unspoiled beaches are just plain fun.
  • Good for adventure travelers and those who speak at least some Spanish.

But the binoculars came in handy for looking at the seals, sea lions and birds on the offshore islands. The only disadvantage to visiting Cabo Polonio in the off-season was that the boats, which take visitors out close to the islands in summer, were not running. We contented ourselves with the giant petrel that crossed in front of us, just yards offshore, gracefully negotiating the narrow space between waves and the handful of penguins that swam in the surf line as we scanned the waters.

Despite problems this dune buggy eventually made it from the National Park Visitor Center to Cabo Polonio. Photo Credit: DM Smith

Cabo Polonio- National Park and Funky Hamlet

The seal and sea lion haulout was the main impetus for making Cabo Polonio a national park. Ironically, this designation may help keep Cabo Polonio from becoming too commercialized too quickly. It is only in the last couple of years that internet and cell phone access have invaded. Electricity is still limited.

As we walked the main beach again, we studied the shacks, brightly painted structures constructed of whatever was handy, nestled in the dunes. Many were still boarded up, as September is early spring for South America. Park personnel are engaged in an ongoing contest to keep people from building more shacks or adding on to any existing buildings.

When the tourists arrive, high season is January and February, the bars and restaurants open and tour guides appear in the middle of town where the dune buggies drop off passengers. We were quite happy to be here in the off-season when the seals outnumbered the humans.

A young fur seal basks in the sun on the haulout at Cabo Polonio. Photo Credit: I Robinson

Practicalities

  • It is possible to take a day trip to Cabo Polonio from Montevideo or Punta del Este, and this may be the better choice, especially in the offseason and if your Spanish is limited, as most of the year-round residents don’t speak much English. Buses run regularly and private tour operators will also take tourists from the cities for those traveling without a car.
  • Access is via public dune buggy or on foot (approximately 6 km through dunes). The dune buggies run on a regular schedule from the National Park Visitor Center to the middle of town. Plan on paying in cash at the visitor center.
  • As of 2012, there were only two regular hotels in town but many of the beach shacks are for rent. In the off season most restaurants are closed but the hotels, once they open, provide dinner for their guests and a small restaurant/food stand is open for lunch or light snacks near the dune buggy stop.

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