Uruguay’s laid-back surfing devil
Cero Stress (Zero Stress) is a beachside restaurant and bar in Punta del Diablo, Uruguay. (Karina Martinez-Carter)
South America’s lengthy shoreline draws some of the world’s most dedicated surfers. In Uruguay, isolated surfing inlets are dotted along the coast -- disconnected, simple, seaside hamlets flanked inland by expanses of green acres populated by the occasional grass-munching cow. Throughout the summer months, surfers slip onto the remote, empty beaches for some of the continent’s best uninterrupted surf, where just about all there is to do is focus on the waves.
The most famed Uruguayan surf town is Punta del Diablo, whose name -- “Devil’s Tip” -- belies the area’s relaxed, laid-back vibe. The town is peppered with basic houses painted in a kaleidoscope of colours, and the sandy dirt roads that criss-cross Punta del Diablo can still be traversed in about an hour on foot. But today, the former fishing village known mostly to backpackers is seeing an influx in visitors, thanks to the welcoming social scene that accompanies the unbroken surf.
Punta del Diablo is located about 300km from Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, and the only way to get there is by car or bus. Buses run at staggered times throughout the day on a five-hour ride that loops in and out of Uruguay’s Rocha beach havens, stopping occasionally on the near-empty route to pick up locals at seemingly arbitrary stops, devoid of any markers. About 25,000 vacationers make the trek every year, ballooning the year-round population of fewer than 500 people.
Punta del Diablo also is situated about 175km from flashy Punta del Este, where the stylish set from bordering countries like Argentina descend to party during the summer. But the two towns are opposites in size and personality. Punta del Diablo has no high-rises and no ATMs, and the waves are audible at any time, from any point in town. Time spent in Punta del Diablo is time spent on the beach, rather than party-hopping, as it is in Punta del Este.
Punta del Diablo attracts a bohemian crowd from across Latin America, as well as backpackers who stop along their route through South America. The ages of people vary, as does the level of surfing skill. Many come toting their own surfboards and rise early to hang 10 on the open, near-deserted beaches. During high season, which runs December to February, a greater number of novice surfers arrive, looking to rent a board and take a few lessons. The weather is almost invariably cooperative and cloudy skies are rare, so all are advised to frequently slather on sunscreen under the notoriously brutal Uruguayan sun.
Many visitors, surfers included, opt to pitch a tent on the campgrounds located on the edge of town. Those looking for a roof above their heads can choose to rent one of the few holiday residences available -- also a popular option for longer stays. The hostels in town stay full during peak season, making them an easy epicentre for the nightly social scene.
El Diablo Tranquilo, one of the pioneer hostels in town, opened in 2007. A University of Wisconsin alumnus is at the helm, and he often hires recent graduates from his alma mater to staff the place. Some of the rooms are cramped, and the hostel somewhat resembles a bohemian fraternity house, so surfers looking for solitude should look elsewhere.
A more upscale beachside posada (hotel) that also opened in 2007 is La Viuda del Diablo, built from wood and large glass windows. Each suite contains a Jacuzzi and a king-sized bed. It also has a beach bar and restaurant on-site.
After the sun sets, visitors stay occupied at the strip of bars in town. Most restaurants -- where the options for fresh seafood dishes are plentiful -- double as nightlife destinations. At places like Bitácora, which has Rastafarian colours for its logo, people dance outdoors and the crowd spills onto the beach. Like most late night beach parties, there is always someone with a guitar, starting a song circle huddled around a campfire.
While other South American beaches might top Punta del Diablo in wave height or blueness of the water, few compare in terms of tranquillity. And that is just how the regulars want to keep it.