Why you should care
Because Uruguay’s wild side goes beyond surfing and weed.
People know Punta del Diablo as a wild place: From December through February, the population of this fishing town in the little South American country of Uruguay swells from 823 to somewhere around 30,000, with people coming to surf and party on the beach. But outside the expanding town limits, you’ll find a coastline where wild isn’t fueled by cheap beer or the country’s legal herb.
The dune-rimmed coastline, stretching north to the border with Brazil, offers something for nerds and cool kids alike: from a national park for history and surf lessons to a nature preserve. Communities have been promoting these preserves with programs that “allow people to visit them in a conscious way, caring for the surrounding environment,” said Federico Massarino, who self-publishes La Guía Verde, a sustainability-focused guide for visitors. A local bus runs up the coast, but intrepid travelers can hike along windswept beaches. From the golden-brick ramparts of historic Spanish Fort Santa Teresa, green hills roll to the sea. A few miles farther north, in Cerro Verde, you can look out from an isolated rocky promontory over feeding sea turtles.
Accompany a park ranger through untouched forests to marshes and a freshwater lagoon.
Potrerillo Santa Teresa, a hard-to-reach national research station inland from Punta del Diablo, offers the same wide-open feeling. With advance notice, you can accompany a park ranger through untouched forests of native trees to marshes and the Laguna Negra, a freshwater lagoon. The preserve boasts 256 species of native and migratory birds — green parrots, ostrichlike ñandu, endangered saffron-colored blackbirds — who hide in tall grasses or fly up in flocks like confetti, surprised by a rare human visitor.
Migrating to Punta del Diablo is easy for humans — either a four-hour bus ride or rental car drive from the capital, Montevideo. Accommodation options include rental houses ($15 a night), hostels ($10-$15) or beachside camping ($2-$3) — prices that double in the high season. And empanadas and beer cost more than in similar beach towns in Mexico or Nicaragua.
But there is no guarantee of entrance to the preserve. For now, visitors must schedule a tour through PROBIDES, the Uruguayan Program for Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Eastern Wetlands. Juan Pablo Burla, a PROBIDES biologist, would like to see a “greater flow of visitors” to the Potrerillo by opening the park to the public one day a week. This past year, a wiped-out bridge kept out everyone but research staff. There’s also no guarantee of sightings. Birdwatchers who manage to snag entrance should check migration schedules to make sure their favorite feathered friends will be in town.
But imagine, at the end of the day, telling your fellow hostel-goers tales of indigenous burial grounds and snake sightings in what felt like unexplored frontier. And then catching the end of the sunset on the beach, watching the stars spread out and the waves roll in, feeling that you’ve got a whole ocean too, to yourself.