Cabo Polonio National park

In the natural territory of Uruguay, the Cabo Polonio National Park stands out as a unique destination for those seeking adventures and a deep connection with nature. Remote from urban life and accessible only by special vehicles or on foot, this park offers an unforgettable experience, surrounded by pristine beaches, mighty dunes, and rich marine and terrestrial biodiversity. This guide invites you to explore every corner of the park, from its iconic lighthouse to its reserves of sea lions, providing all the necessary information to plan a memorable visit.

History

Cabo Polonio National park

Origins of the name Cabo Polonio

The name Cabo Polonio has its roots in naval history and local legends, being associated with shipwrecks and the presence of sea lions inhabiting its coasts.

Establishment of the National Park

Cabo Polonio National Park, within Uruguay’s network of national parks, has a history of protection and conservation dating back decades. Its first significant mention dates back to 1966 when Decree 266 of June 2 was issued, declaring the preservation of the Cabo Polonio region of national interest, as well as other areas such as Aguas Dulces and Laguna de Castillos. A significant milestone of this decree was the designation of the dune system between Cabo Polonio and Punta del Diablo as a Natural Monument.
Subsequently, in 1996, the Coastal Islands National Park was established by Decree 447 of November 20, including the oceanic islands off the coasts of Cabo Polonio, along with other islands in the Río de la Plata.

A decade later, in 2006, a proposal was made for the inclusion of the area in the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP), before the National Advisory Commission on Protected Areas. This proposal, developed in collaboration between various government entities and the Municipal Intendency of Rocha, was subjected to public hearings in August and November 2007, where opinions and concerns of local stakeholders were gathered. After a thorough process involving the participation of various interest groups, on July 20, 2009, approval was granted through Decree 337/009 for the inclusion of the Cabo Polonio protected natural area in SNAP, granting it the category of National Park. This step marked a significant milestone in efforts to conserve and protect this valuable Uruguayan coastal ecosystem.

Geographical Location

The Cabo Polonio National Park is located on the Atlantic coast of the Rocha department, in the southeast region of Uruguay. The main access point to the park is at kilometer 3314.500 of National Route No. 10.
It is situated in Uruguay, specifically in the Rocha department. The coordinates of the park are 34°23’00″S latitude and 53°48’00″W longitude.

This national park, created on July 20, 2009, by Decree No. 337/009, covers an area of 25,820 hectares and enjoys a degree of protection that designates it as a protected area under the category of National Park.

Cabo Polonio, a prominent locality, is located within the park boundaries. Additionally, the park is part of the Bañados del Este Biosphere Reserve, which was incorporated into the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program (MaB) reserve network in 1976, and it is also part of the Ramsar Site, designated on May 22, 1984.

It is located less than 37 miles from Santa Teresa National Park, where you can enjoy beautiful beaches and cultural activities.

Topography

The topography of the protected area is varied, with elevations ranging from 10 to 60 meters above sea level. The higher parts consist of gentle hills with active gullies, which have formed from marine deposits and are known as the Narváez Hills. The highest peak is found at Cerro de la Buena Vista, reaching a maximum height of 60 meters. This diverse relief provides a picturesque and unique landscape within the Cabo Polonio National Park.

Climate

The climate in the region of the Cabo Polonio National Park is humid subtropical with maritime influence. It experiences pronounced seasonal variations in temperature, with minimum temperatures recorded between July and August, while maximum temperatures are observed in January. There is a risk of prolonged drought in the area. Precipitation is more frequent during winter, with an annual average of 1277 mm. The mean annual temperature is 16.4°C. This combination of climatic factors contributes to the diversity and vitality of the ecosystem within the park.

Ecosystems and Environmental Units

The area delineating the national park presents a remarkable diversity of environmental units and ecosystems, thanks to its location between the sea and the land. This marine-coastal region is influenced by both the marine and terrestrial systems and also includes ecosystems associated with the floodplains of the Castillos Lagoon and the Valizas Stream.
Within the park, six environmental units with well-defined geomorphological and biological characteristics are distinguished:

  1. Coastal hills: These hills are part of the Narváez Hills and feature coastal native forests and meadows adapted to sandy soils. Here we find tree species such as coronilla, aruera, molle, among others, as well as shrubs and a diversity of native flora.
  2. Plains associated with the Castillos Lagoon – Valizas Stream system: This area is an important transition system between the plains of the Castillos Lagoon and the Valizas Stream, with a variety of habitats such as peat bogs, floodable meadows, and abandoned meanders. A diverse fauna inhabits this area, including birds, mammals, and reptiles.
  3. Transition system: This area is where the effects of the oceanic and terrestrial systems converge, with sandy beaches, rocky points, and frontal dunes. These habitats harbor a varied fauna, from invertebrates to marine mammals such as sea lions and seals.
  4. Transverse dunes: Here are mobile dunes with sparse vegetation, along with interdunal pools that are habitat for amphibians and insect larvae.
  5. Tombolo: This unit includes the tombolo itself and the old island or dome, with low-growth vegetation and the presence of grasses such as Bermuda grass.
  6. Oceanic-insular system: This subunit presents a great environmental diversity, from the shallow infralittoral zone to the coastal islands, hosting a variety of marine life such as sharks, fish, sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals.

Each of these environmental units contributes to the biological and landscape richness of the Cabo Polonio National Park, making it an important biodiversity refuge on the Uruguayan coast.

Fauna

The fauna is a testament to the ecological richness of the area, highlighting the colonies of sea lions and a variety of migratory birds that find refuge on its shores. In addition to sea lions, it is also possible to see whales and many aquatic animals such as the following:

Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) sighting in Rocha and Cabo PolonioThe southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) is a migratory species of baleen whale that visits the waters near Cabo Polonio during the winter months, between June and November. Recognized for its impressive jumps and tails, sighting it offers a unique experience for visitors to the National Park.
The best time to spot southern right whales in the waters near Cabo Polonio is during the southern hemisphere winter months, specifically between June and November. During this period, the whales migrate to warmer waters to breed and give birth, increasing the chances of spotting them near the national park. However, it is important to note that whale watching depends on various factors, such as weather conditions and the whales’ migration, so their presence cannot be guaranteed at all times during this period.

Sea Lions

Sea lions are one of the most emblematic species of the park. They can be found both in the sea and resting on the rocks and beaches near the lighthouse.

South American Sea Lions

Colony of South American sea lions in Cabo Polonio National Park
In addition to sea lions, South American sea lions can also be spotted on the coasts of Cabo Polonio National Park.

Seabirds

The park is home to various species of seabirds, including gulls, cormorants, and albatrosses, among others.

Sea Turtles

At certain times of the year, it is possible to spot sea turtles in the waters near the park, especially during their migrations.

Wild Horses

In the park’s terrestrial areas, herds of wild horses can be found roaming freely through the dunes and meadows.

Terrestrial Fauna

Although less visible than marine fauna, the Cabo Polonio National Park also hosts a variety of terrestrial species, such as foxes, hares, and armadillos, which contribute to the biological richness of the protected area.

Flora

The park’s flora is characterized by its resilience and adaptability, with species such as the oceanic ombú and various grasses adorning the landscape.

Main Attractions

Among the main attractions, the Cabo Polonio Lighthouse offers spectacular panoramic views, while the Moving Dunes invite exploration of changing landscapes. The Sea Lion Reserve provides a unique opportunity to observe these fascinating creatures up close.

Whale Watching

Whales can be seen from Rocha, a department of Uruguay where the park is located. So, this is another activity that complements the visit to the national park.
Rocha has the privilege of being part of the migration route, habitat, and distribution area of the southern right whale. In this place, you can witness the miracle of life, as whales take advantage of calm waters to mate and socialize. This whale species often spends a lot of time on the surface, making it easy to spot from the beach shore or from different viewpoints and strategic points along the coast.

In addition to whales, it is possible to spot dolphins on Rocha’s beaches throughout the year. The region offers a unique experience for nature and marine life lovers, providing the opportunity to witness up close the majesty and beauty of these animals in their natural environment.

Untouched Beaches

The park is home to beautiful white sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters, offering a natural and untouched environment to relax and enjoy the sea.

Sand Dunes

The mighty sand dunes surrounding Cabo Polonio create an impressive landscape and are ideal for sandboarding or simply for walking and exploring.

Cabo Polonio Lighthouse

This iconic lighthouse, built in the 19th century, offers stunning panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and the colonies of sea lions that inhabit the area.

Marine Fauna Watching

The park is home to a rich marine biodiversity, including sea lions and seals, as well as various species of seabirds. Watching these species is a popular activity among visitors.

Stargazing

Due to the low light pollution in the area, Cabo Polonio is an excellent place for stargazing and marveling at the immensity of the universe.

Tourist Activities

The park offers a wide range of tourist activities, from hiking through its diverse ecosystems to wildlife watching and guided visits to the lighthouse, promoting sustainable tourism and ecological awareness.

Visit Cabo Polonio Village

Cabo Polonio Village, Uruguay
Exploring the village of Cabo Polonio involves walking its irregular trails that connect the picturesque houses of the village. During this walk, you can discover the small stores where you can shop, the modest restaurants, and the simple homes of the local inhabitants, allowing you to immerse yourself in the daily life of the area. We had a mandatory stop at Hugo’s store, a Uruguayan with experience in Spain. There, we recommend buying a bottle of wine to enjoy the spectacular sunsets of Cabo Polonio.

You should consider that access to Cabo Polonio village is restricted to vehicles, so it is advisable to park your car, camper, or RV in the surrounding areas and take a walk to get to know it. Ideally, leave your vehicle at the stop known as Puerta del Polonio. Here you will find a paid parking lot where you can safely leave your vehicle.

From the stop, you can purchase transportation tickets, which in this case are all-terrain trucks specially adapted to transport people to the village of Cabo Polonio. This is the only way to access the village since the circulation of private vehicles in the protected area is not allowed.

Visit the Lighthouse

Cabo Polonio Lighthouse in Rocha, Uruguay
Visiting the lighthouse is a must-do experience in Cabo Polonio. Located on the cape itself, this construction with over 130 years of history is a true emblem of the place. For a price of 35 Uruguayan pesos, access to the lighthouse is allowed. From the top, you can enjoy an impressive view of the ocean and also observe the colonies of sea lions that inhabit the area.

Observe Sea Lion and Seal Colonies

A short distance from the lighthouse are the colonies of sea lions and seals, a unique experience not to be missed. To access them, you should look for the entrance to the right of the lighthouse enclosure, following the fence.
During our walk, we were fortunate to enjoy a beautiful journey along the coast, where we could observe several colonies of sea lions up close. We saw them resting on the rocks, diving into the sea, and climbing to the top of the large stones. It was quite a spectacle and a real treat to be able to witness them in their natural habitat.

Hiking Trails and Trekking

We spent a morning hiking a route of just over 10 kilometers to reach the point where the ship Don Guillermo shipwrecked. The route was truly impressive, through Calaveras Beach, a landscape that left us amazed by its infinite beauty, surrounded by dunes where our little one played and a beach that seemed endless. From this point, we could see the mighty stone of the Franciscan.
What struck us most during the journey was the presence of corpses of pups and adult specimens of sea lions and seals on the beach; we counted at least 10, as well as the surprising sight of a shark’s head. It is evident that these species breed right on the two islands in front of the beach.

Despite the relentless force of the sun, those who rise early can continue walking along the beach until they reach Cerro de la Buena Vista or even the picturesque fishing village of Valizas. Undoubtedly, an unforgettable experience for nature and adventure lovers.

Calaveras Beach

Calaveras Beach is a beautiful stretch of coastline located in Cabo Polonio. Known for its breathtaking natural beauty, this beach offers spectacular panoramic views and an unmatched landscape. Its name may derive from rock formations resembling skulls or simply from its mysterious and charming atmosphere. It’s a perfect place to relax, stroll along the shore, and enjoy the sun and the sound of the waves.

South Beach

The South Beach is another coastal area of Cabo Polonio. Located south of the village, this beach stands out for its pristine beauty and tranquil atmosphere. Surrounded by dunes and cliffs, it offers an impressive setting for nature lovers and hiking enthusiasts. It’s an ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle and connect with nature, enjoying long walks along the beach and the serenity of the surroundings.

Stargazing

The opportunity to gaze at the stars with minimal light pollution is a gift for our senses. The sky appears vast, filled with bright points, and if you usually live in a city, you’ll be amazed by what a truly starry sky looks like. The immensity of the universe envelops with its extraordinary beauty, an experience that leaves no one indifferent if you can do it on a quiet night.

Surfing

In the village of Cabo Polonio, there’s quite a bit of surfer activity. There are surfers of all levels, so you can practice your favorite sport or start with the board. It’s an exciting outdoor activity, full of challenges to clear the mind and take a day off from the usual tourist activities.
The coast of Cabo Polonio offers optimal conditions for surfing, with waves suitable for surfers of all levels.

Accommodation and Services

Although the park maintains a focus on conservation, there are options for accommodation and services that ensure a comfortable and environmentally respectful stay for visitors.

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Cabo Polonio National Park is during the spring and summer months, which run from October to March. During these months, the weather is warmer, and temperatures are more pleasant for enjoying the beaches and outdoor activities. Additionally, this season coincides with the breeding season of seabirds and other species, offering the opportunity to witness wildlife in its full splendor. However, it’s important to note that the park may be busier during these months, especially on weekends and holiday periods.

How to Get There

To get to Cabo Polonio from Montevideo during the high season, there are several options. Buses operated by the companies COT or COPSA will take you to the Cabo Polonio bus stop. Outside the high season, buses operated by Rutas del Sol are responsible for this route.
To take the Rutas del Sol bus, head to Terminal 3 Cruces in Montevideo. From there, the bus will follow the east coast of Uruguay, making stops along the way on a journey that takes approximately 4 and a half hours to reach the Cabo Polonio bus stop. These buses are equipped with a restroom and Wi-Fi for added comfort. You can purchase your tickets online through the provided link.

Once you arrive at the bus stop (Puertas del Polonio), you’ll need to purchase tickets to enter the National Park. This journey is made in all-terrain trucks specially adapted to transport people. If you’re looking for a more fun experience, you can choose to sit in the rooftop seats, just like we did! Additionally, you have the option to purchase round-trip tickets with an open return.

It’s important to note that only cash is accepted at these locations, so don’t forget to bring enough cash with you. Credit or debit cards are not accepted.