a swim, a whim, and an off-season surf town (Punta del Diablo, Uruguay)

– There are no buses back to Punta del Este today, I’m afraid you’re stuck here.

I look down the barren, dusty unpaved road weaving unevenly between the colourful shacks. The early afternoon sun is cutting across so it seems even more desolate than it is.

The huts are in all states of construction, with stuff scattered about, as if everyone just suddenly dropped everything because there was a beautiful swell, and went to surf. But it’s the off-season so they’ll be back only around October.

Too bad. It’s idyllic now. Only a few more open cafes lazily playing some reggae could possibly make it better.

– Bueno.. could you hang a couple of hammocks for us tonight? But right now, I’m going for a swim.

4 hours earlier

I had just broken the water surface when I see Alon from the nearby Rancho Azul, sauntering down the alley towards the beach.

We previously met at a hippie coffee shop Canoa Quebrada, my favourite discovery of the Punta surroundings.

I said I happen to know one Alon, who was a magic carpet salesman. He didn’t believe me, but believe me, he was real. The magic carpets, perhaps, not so much. He was eccentric like that.

– Isn’t it cold for a swim?

– It’s great! You feel the chill for the first 2min, but after it’s really pleasant.

He doesn’t sound convinced as he tentatively lets the water lap at his toes.

– I am thinking of going to La Paloma, about an hour or so by bus from here. Supposed to be an easygoing town, nice beach. Coming?

– Sure, when?

– The bus will pass in about 15min.

– Oh, I only have a 1000 pesos note in my pocket because I was going to drop by the fruteria on my way back.

– That’s enough.

– But I’d like to go get my camera.

– Did you bike here?

– I walked..

– There’s only one bus a day in the off season and it leaves from Punta at 11am.

– …well ok, let me dry myself.

The driver nods when we request two tickets to La Paloma. As we cash out the fare, a fleeting thought that it’s a bit expensive for an hour-long ride should have alerted me, but it’s the equivalent of $7 so I brush it off and sit back.

After we’ve been talking and riding for quite some time, I wonder how will we know when to get off. La Paloma could very well be any town along the way. But we’re riding in the interior, with no site of the coast, so I assume it will be the first beach town.

The bus stops in Rocha, a sleepy village perched in the hills, with all the quaint characteristics of an Uruguayan village in the hills: old men lazily smoke cigarettes on the corner, a pair of girls in school uniforms giggle by the young policeman, a fruit salesman on the corner, a horse-drawn carriage, a row of corroded mopeds leaning on one another, deserted cobbled alleys, greyish volkswagen beetles, the paint that has pealed, chipped and dusted off the colonial facades, fences, doors and blinds..

A speaker somewhere is blasting Elton John’s Nikita.

We trudge on again, back on the vacant interstate, to Elton John still fading in the background.

I ask if La Paloma is the next stop, but the driver replies that this bus doesn’t go there, we should have gotten off in Rocha and tried to find a ride from there. Instead, it’s going to Punta del Diablo.

I say cool, I wanted to check it out anyways. Unfazed, I go back to my seat and tell Alon that we’re not making it to La Paloma today, but Punta del Diablo is coming up. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles.

We pass long expanses of banana groves and I remember that I didn’t get my fruit fix this morning yet.

At the turnoff for Punta del Diablo the bus stops a little way from a mini-market and honks a few times. A merchant comes out in a white apron and exaggeratedly, almost animatedly, starts gesturing at the bus driver – he raises and drops the shoulders and waves his empty hands in front of him, twice. Understood, in any language: he doesn’t have it, whatever the driver is asking for. The whole scene is adorable.

Once at Diablo, the bus unloads us like two pieces of luggage and disappears again in its own dust.

There are a bunch of crooked hand-written signposts for hostels and camping grounds.

But barely anyone, or anything alive around. And so drastically different than Punta del Este, an antithesis.

If this town had any kind of shop open, selling a carton disposable 90s kodak camera, I would have gladly bough it right then.

From the cool of a warped sunshade, to the faint tune of Gentleman’s Intoxication, three greasy headscarves are bobbing and three leathery faces are smiling.

We ask the time – it’s 2pm. When’s the last bus back to Punta del Este?

One says that the bus we came on continued to Chuy, a Brazilian border town, and is not passing through Diablo on the way back. I sorely recall Tabatinga in the Amazon, with maybe better weather.

Oh, this is .. well, not quite unexpected, but not what we’re in for.

The music is that prevalent hippie soundtrack of all surf towns in the world, with Rebelution – Feeling Alright queued next.

What’s the rush, after all.

The entire area feels like it’s currently hosting only two surfers from the Netherlands, three Orientalese girls who are camping in their downtime, and a dread-head who has permanently immigrated from near Porto Alegre.

– Since we’re here on a whim, we don’t have much cash. But we’ll pay you whatever we have, minus the bus fair back to Barra tomorrow.

– Tranquillo, no hay problema.

That’s Jordi, one of the residents: unshaved, streaked beard, salty shoulders, one with the nature.

We ask him how they ration food. He says they grow some veggies and get bananas and young coconuts from the groves just down the road. They have some canned and packaged foods, and once a week the passing busses from Chuy or Rocha supply the mini-market up the road.

What more would you want?

And no carbon footprint.

He makes me a huge ‘family-size’ tomato-avocado salad for 60 pesos ($3). Utopia..

I envision myself spending a part of some summer right here, actually learning to surf, away from the heels and the artificiality of Punta del Este’s clubbing scene.

They say I can shower if I want, but the sun hasn’t been strong enough to heat all the water in the reservoir, so it may be a little chilly. I dance and shiver under the cold water, smiling all the while.

After, a few of us sit on a chipping wooden deck and a few simultaneous conversations in a few simultaneous languages flow along with the beer. The shadows grow long as the sun sinks somewhere behind the last orange shack. I trace the beer bottle rings on the table. All we’re missing is a bonfire.

No one turned the radio off when we went to sleep and it’s playing an easy reggae version of Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone. I drift off to the vibe of a swinging hammock.

We have to be up at dawn and catch the 6am-er from Chuy if we want to be back (south-)east today. I am not sure I want to.

I can hear the waves sloshing at the beach and a few cicadas. The forest and the ocean scent are mixing.

They say that Lore is willing to drop us off to the nearest turn on the highway. I call the back of the truck! Alon rolls his eyes and says, fine, he’ll ride all of the 4min up front. Sitting on the open truck bed in the back, I wrap by pareo against the pre-dawn breeze, cold but giddy. I have a bunch of ripe bananas for breakfast on the road.

– Ah, look, it’s the  bus schedule. There’s a little star by Punta del Diablo, with a caption that says ‘sD’.

– I am going to go on a whim and say that it means “solo domingos”. Hmm I am not sure what day it is but it probably wasn’t a Sunday yesterday.

And I’m glad.


Republished in Travel Origins Magazine.


5 thoughts on “a swim, a whim, and an off-season surf town (Punta del Diablo, Uruguay)

  1. I am sure that the sketches and drawings will be grabbed away from you as soon as you get back home, and I can see how each of us 5 will find own favourite one.

  2. Soooo wonderful!
    The writing…the illustrations…somewhat Thurberish…sparse…lean…
    Thanks, Deja…thanks for the trip.

    You just don’t get these experiances at the RITZ-CARLTON Hotel GHETTO.


  3. great adventure, one I needed. thank you for the company, the whims and the laughs. I am keeping the article as a memento. the magic carpets are aflight!

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