Uruguay’s Wild Side

Weinberger is a Connecticut-based freelance writer

My husband, G.J., dearly wished to see a carpincho in the wild, but had to settle for a few, well, carpincho calling cards that dotted the marshy terrain.

“They’re fresh,” our host and guide, Mario Servetto, assured us, although we did not need convincing.

A nature walk through Servetto’s vast Uruguayan estancia, or ranch, La Barra Grande, may have produced no glimpse of native carpincho, better known elsewhere as capybara (the world’s largest rodent), but we did see graceful n~andus, more familiarly known as emus, as well as chajas, a kind of wild turkey, and a dozen or so other birds whose names, to me, are simply lovely Spanish syllables. And as we walked with Mario through a shady grove, he pointed out the brilliant red-flowered ceibos and rare, centuries-old ombus, a tree unknown outside Uruguay and southern Brazil.


Here, in Uruguay’s small, easternmost department of Rocha, with its 100-mile stretch of south Atlantic Coast and remarkable diversity of ecosystems, unusual fauna and flora are abundant, and North American visitors are rare. At times during our four-day visit to the region last January--the height of the summer season--G.J. and I felt as if we had wandered into a Spanish-speaking Eden.

Visitors are beginning to discover Rocha’s rich opportunities for nature tourism. Its unique wetlands have been declared a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, and support, according to one source, 120 species of birds, 80 species of fish, 30 species of amphibians and abundant migratory bird populations. Visitors may spot unusual mammals, such as the nutria (a water-dwelling rodent with webbed feet prized for its fur), the armadillo and the pampas deer, and learn about the region’s rare flora, such as the ombu and the butea palm, the fruit of which is used to make a local liqueur.

The relatively untouched Atlantic beaches, adequate if not luxurious accommodations, excellent regional cuisine (seafood and the famous Uruguayan beef) all make Rocha a worthwhile destination for visitors who seek a nature-oriented holiday in South America that doesn’t require vaccinations, a trek through a rain forest or the rigors of high altitude tourism. Such a visit is easily combined with travel to Brazil, Argentina and, of course, Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.

Uruguayans themselves have been slow to discover this treasure within their own borders. When we told acquaintances in Montevideo that we would be spending a few days in Rocha department, they invariably commented on its beauty, but cautioned, “It’s quiet out there--nothing much to do.” Indeed, for many Montevideans, a holiday outside the capital means a trip to nearby Piriapolis or to Punta del Este, Uruguay’s premier vacation destination, a chic, frenetic and expensive resort in the department of Maldonado.

But 60 miles east of Punta del Este and its yacht clubs, polo matches and noisy night life lies the department of Rocha, whose varied terrain includes extensive wetlands, massive lagoons, rugged hills and a largely undeveloped coastline extending to the Brazilian border. G.J., who was born in Montevideo and lived there until he was 11, was particularly keen to visit Rocha, a part of the country he had never visited as a child. On our previous trip to Uruguay two years before, we had not ventured beyond Montevideo and Punta del Este, and now eagerly took the opportunity to see a bit of rural, unspoiled countryside and coastline.

Basing ourselves in the small seaside resort of La Paloma in the southern end of the department, G.J. and I explored mainly the coast, which was cooler in the January heat than the inland routes through the hills, where the temperatures routinely climbed into the 90s during our stay. We were aided by Omar Nobrega, owner of Southern Cross Excursions, a knowledgeable and energetic booster of eco-tourism in Rocha.


Nobrega, who lived in New Jersey for several years and speaks perfect English, secured a last-minute room for us at La Paloma’s modest Hotel Viola, provided us with touring suggestions and arranged for our visit to La Barra Grande. For $64 a night, the Viola was clean and safe, but not as comfortable as we had hoped and a bit noisy.


Uruguay’s 59,000 cattle and sheep ranches have long formed the backbone of the country’s agriculture-based economy. But in recent years more and more estancia owners such as Mario Servetto have found both profit and satisfaction in opening up their estates to nature tourism.

La Barra Grande abuts the freshwater Laguna de Castillos, one of five large freshwater lagoons lying just inland from the Atlantic Coast, separated from the ocean by a barrier of sand dunes and marshland. The ranch itself is made up of a variety of habitats, from dry, grassy pampas to wetlands (called ban~ados). Small streams crisscross the estate and feed groves of rare trees as well as providing water for grazing cattle and sheep.

For an hour and a half, we tramped over an ever-changing landscape, through open fields dotted with tall arcing pindo palms and through dense woods dark and tangled with parasitic vines. A thunderous downpour cut short our visit. We raced to Servetto’s Jeep for a bumpy ride back to the lodge, where his wife, Michaela, had lemonade and a delicious sweet bread awaiting us.

We set out one morning for an excursion to Cabo Polonio, an isolated cape about 25 miles northeast of La Paloma. As we drew closer to the cape along the rural Route 10, we noted the many signs for conveyance to Cabo Polonio, for it is inaccessible except by sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicles able to navigate the six miles of sand dunes.

After parking in one of the many roadside lots and purchasing our tickets, we climbed aboard an oversized dune buggy and held on tight for a spectacular but bumpy 25-minute ride over a barely visible dirt track that threaded through the dunes and finally onto a broad expanse of beach.


The buggy dropped us off among the small huts that make up a tiny fishing village clustered around the cape’s lighthouse. Although government regulations prevent development of the site, there are a dozen or so souvenir stands and snack shops.

Sea lions, however, far outnumber the human residents, and it is this protected colony that visitors come to see. G.J. and I could hear them bark long before we could see them, but a short climb onto a rocky promontory beyond the huts and lighthouse brought them into our view, hundreds of hooting, frolicking, sunning animals.

We spent a glorious morning at Cabo Polonio, wandering the clean beaches, watching the sea lions and chatting with the artisans setting up their stands. One could easily spend a day here, but the brilliant sun and lack of shade sent us back over the dunes and onto another, cooler, nature outing to the nearby Arroyo Valizas and its rare ombu forest.

A few miles northeast along Route 10 from where we arranged our ride onto Cabo Polonio lies a creek, an arroyo, that runs into Laguna de Castillos. Boarding a canopied boat along with six other tourists, we floated languorously for half an hour, watching the birds. We were thrilled to pass by a flock of stunningly pink flamingos until we reached our destination, the Monte de Ombues, the forest of ombu trees. Unlike Mario Servetto’s privately owned ombu grove, this collection of the rare trees is state-protected, and visits are strictly regulated.

Our guide led us on a 30-minute walk through an enclosed, densely forested area, issuing orders to touch neither the flora nor to step off the narrow dirt path. We passed a dozen or so ombus, ancient specimens that grow a mere millimeter per year. We learned that despite its appearance, the ombu is not exactly a tree--botanists argue over how to classify it, some claiming it is most accurately described as an herb.

On another morning, G.J. and I drove farther up the coast to the nature preserve at Santa Teresa, wedged between the Atlantic and Laguna Negra, so-called for its dark waters. Besides its small zoo and botanical gardens, the park is crowned by an 18th century fortress, Fortaleza de Santa Teresa.



Returning from Santa Teresa to La Paloma, we stopped in the seaside villages of Punta del Diablo and La Pedrera. A single hard-packed dirt road threads through Punta del Diablo from the main route, passing tiny thatched-roofed cottages dotted haphazardly across the landscape. Although thriving through tourism--attracting Brazilian visitors in particular, Omar Nobrega later told us--Puma del Diablo remains a fishing village, home to more than 300 fishermen, whose brightly colored boats line the beaches. In contrast, La Pedrera, just six miles from our base at La Paloma, is a tiny, quiet and increasingly upscale community. Many Uruguayans and Argentines are buying summer homes here, eschewing the more fashionable and crowded Punta del Este for the slower pace and wild rocky beauty of this stretch of Atlantic Coast.

When not out exploring Rocha’s natural attractions, G.J. and I wandered about La Paloma, the most developed of the regions’s coastal resorts. We loved the town’s groves of pine and eucalyptus, its whitewashed bungalows adorned with roses and oleanders, the white sandy beaches, ice cream parlors and the fishing harbor. The easy rhythms of summer were replicated here as they are at beach resorts the world over: Families spend their days at the beach, ride their rented bicycles through the town, buy watermelons and peaches from the backs of farmers’ pickup trucks, take a paseo--evening stroll--and dine late on Uruguayan beef grilled to perfection over wood fires, or on exquisitely fresh seafood.



Down Uruguay Way

Getting there: American has direct service with two stops, L.A.-Montevideo. Connecting service on American, United, Lan Chile and Varig; special round-trip fare of $1,110 expires Wednesday night. Otherwise, fare is about $1,260.

Tour agencies: Southern Cross Excursions, Sucursal Pto. La Paloma, Rocha CP 27.001, Uruguay; telephone 011-598-940-5726. .

Ole! Travel, 831 Mitten Rd., Suite 201, Burlingame, CA 94010; tel. (800) 559-5192, fax (650) 697-8212.

Earthwatch, 680 Mount Auburn St., P.O. Box 9104, Watertown, MA 02272-9924; tel. (617) 926-8200.


Nature tourism sites: Travelers can visit the following sites independently, or arrange a group visit through a South American travel agency.

La Barra Grande Ranch, Kilometro 249, Route 9, Castillos, Rocha. To arrange a visit, phone ahead. Local tel. (0475) 9595.

Cabo Polonio can be reached from Route 10. Beginning at Km. 260, conveyances compete to take visitors to the Cape via dune buggies. We used one called El Frances. Round-trip ticket per person, about $6.

Where to stay: Hotel Casino Santa Maria, Avenida Solari, La Paloma; tel. 011-598-479-6151, fax 011-598-479-6152. Doubles from $78, including breakfast.

Hotel Bahia, Avenida Navio, La Paloma; tel. 011-598-479-6029. Doubles from $70, with breakfast.

Hotel La Pedrera, La Pedrera; tel. 011-598-479-6028, fax 011-598-479-7105. Doubles from $100, including breakfast.


Where to eat: La Farola Confiteria-Restaurant, Avenida Solari, La Paloma; tel. 011-598-479-6115. Average price of entree: $7.

For more information: Write to Oficina de Turismo, 176 General Artigas, Rocha, Uruguay. Consulate of Uruguay, 429 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 400, Santa Monica, CA 90401; tel. (310) 394-5777, fax (310) 394-5140. Uruguay Tourism Web site: