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Trip Start Oct 09, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Uruguay  ,
Monday, November 10, 2008

While Cabo Polonio is the most special place I've visited so far, Punta del Diablo is my favorite. We found the place thanks to a pair of Swedish girls who spoke lovingly of a tiny beach paradise where they'd spent two weeks doing absolutely nothing.

As I mentioned, it didn't have quite the uniqueness or magic of Cabo Polonio, but it did have electricity, running water, and a tremendously cool vibe. As I've discovered staying in hostels for five weeks now, the vibe of a hostel itself and the chemistry of a hostel's assembled guests can make or break a particular town in your mind's eye. Fortunately, the one and only hostel in Punta del Diablo is wonderful and so were the people that happened to be there when we arrived.

Earlier that morning, Mikeo--with his nonexistent Spanish--had bravely taken a bus back to Montevideo alone to pick up his tourist visa at the Brazilian embassy. So I was solo when the bus dropped me off on a dirt road five kilometers inland from Punta del Diablo. I'd read online that hitchhiking around these parts was both safe and common, so faced with the choice of a 45-minute walk with 40 pounds on my back or the uncomfortable feeling of thumbing a ride in middle-of-nowhere Uruguay, I chose the latter. In a matter of minutes two locals in a beat up pickup truck pulled over to the side of the road and signaled for me to hop in the back. Simple as that. They dropped me off in the center of town and sped off with a friendly wave.

Punta del Diablo is a fishing village that has grown exponentially in the last few years but is still comparatively puny and largely unspoiled by tourism. There are a couple of markets in town, a restaurant or two, one bar, one hostel, and lots of vacation cabins for rent. The locals (mostly fishermen) are completely laid back, ultra-friendly, always saying hello as they pass, usually smiling. During the high season the town apparently gets quite crowded. Lucky for us, as with so many stops on my trip so far, we are a few weeks in advance of high season so we had the place almost to ourselves. There is one beach that is designated only for fishing boats. Next to it is a nice public beach with small, consistent surf waves rolling in. Hike fifteen minutes farther east and you'll come around a bend to find miles and miles of untouched, empty beaches.

The El Diablo Tranquilo hostel is owned by Chris and Heidi, a couple in their mid-to-late 20s from Wisconsin. Chris spent five years raising the finances (approximately US$540,000) to build the hostel as well as a cozy bar/restaurant on the beach. Once the project was completed, girlfriend Heidi moved down here to join him full-time.

The first person I saw when I walked in the hostel door was Rich, a gregarious fellow from Denver that we'd hung out with a couple of nights in Punta del Este. Along with a handful of friendly Aussies and French-Canadians, he was on his way down to the fishermen's beach to wait for a boat to come in. He made introductions and we were on our way. A boat was just pulling in with a catch of whitefish and prawns. The fishermen couldn't have been nicer as we stumbled through our Spanish and bought huge amounts of food for very little money. A quick stop at the market to pick up beers, pasta and vegetables and we were headed home to cook up a feast. Or to be more specific: Rich was headed to cook up a feast. He is a chef that caters events for wealthy clientele in Colorado resort towns. We would have a pro cooking for us that night.

Mikeo's bus was scheduled to drop him off 5km outside of town around 8:30pm. I was worried he wouldn't know to hitchhike, that he'd have a hard time finding his way here in the dark, and that he simply wouldn't be able to walk that far with his absurdly heavy backpack. I explained this to Heidi who happily arranged for someone to drive out to pick him up. When he arrived at the hostel, a vast quantity of beer had been consumed and the atmosphere was plenty lively.

Mikeo's reputation already preceded him; Rich had told the group about some of his more outlandish antics in Punta del Este, and I'd explained that his backpack weighs 70 pounds because of all of his diving equipment. This, everyone agreed with great admiration, was the heaviest backpack they'd ever heard of. We had food and drinks waiting when he walked in. The crew--which had grown to about a dozen, with additions from Holland, Spain, England--was getting boisterously merry thanks to a rather huge amount of beer. Mikeo promptly stubbed his toe (badly) on a giant piece of whale vertebrae that had been turned into a stool. I suggested that Mikeo's new nickname should be "Whalebone" and so it was for the next 48 hours, that everyone would refer to him only by this ridiculous moniker. "Hey, want to play some cards, Whalebone?" "Do you really think you should be having another beer, Whalebone?" "Please stop harassing the dogs, Whalebone." This brought me way, way too much joy. We continued our feast on the patio under the stars with Sam Cooke as our soothing soundtrack. I forced myself to try the prawns and I actually loved them (not rubbery like they often seem to be at home). After dinner we organized a poker tournament at the El Diablo Bar that lasted well into the night. The hostel's two dogs (both named Bobby London) came along and kept us company.

The following morning I got up, rented a surfboard and had a consistent-but-small beach break mostly to myself for a few hours. At lunch we discovered the town's best kept secret: a sandwich stand that made something called the "Milanesa Completo". Again, I tried to be courageous and eat the whole thing with all the ingredients, and I was rewarded for my courage. This was the best sandwich I could ever remember eating. In the middle was a piece of breaded steak, surrounded by fried eggs, corn, peas, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, and some sort of spicy ketchup sauce. A delicious heart attack served in a plastic wrapper. For the rest of the day we did a whole lot of nothing until it started to get dark, when our Aussie pals built a fire on the beach in preparation for a seafood cookout and bonfire party. Rich again generously prepared a seafood feast, and the bonfire party under a full moon and a million bright stars felt truly special. We were joined by a few locals, as well as some new hostel arrivals from Ireland. Of course Bobby London and Bobby London were there, too. I drank my newly bought wine and exulted in one of the most pleasantly relaxed nights of my life.

On the third day, we were packing up our things and preparing to hop a bus to Brazil when into the hostel walked our certifiably insane friends Sam and Harry from Buenos Aires. We had a little bit of time to kill, so we headed down to the bar and sat on the beach listening to their stories from the past week. They'd gone to a huge electronic music festival called Creamfields in Buenos Aires wearing Buzz Lightyear and Woody costumes they'd bought at a children's costume store. They said they'd been treated like celebrities as they walked around the festival. See photo. These are two of the most entertaining people I think I have ever met. We sadly couldn't stay and hang out with them in Punta del Diablo. And our "one for the road" had turned into "four for the road" and there was a danger of granting the road too much respect. But stay tuned: we will be seeing more of these two clowns when we get to the Sao Paolo portion of our trip. As Mikeo and I threw on our backpacks and marched off towards the bus stop, behind us came the loud and taunting call: "Don't miss your bus, Whalebone!"

Reading: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon
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nanr on

love it
I came across your blog by searching for the town I saw on Anthony Bourdain's show. I am adding this to my list of places I want to visit.

I returned from a year-long stay in southern Mexico and Belize. I am now sitting in the cold midwest wishing I'd never come 'home'. I'd rather be a bum living a simple life as they do in places like you have visited. I'm just glad to know there are others like myself who love, love, LOVE that lifestyle and appreciate the people of these off-the-beaten-path areas of the world. Have a wonderful trip!!! Keep up the blog, I'll be interested to see where your travels take you.

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