The Coast of Utopia

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Cabo Polonio, a remote beach village in southeastern Uruguay, sits on a green peninsula between the Atlantic and a desert landscape of shifting sand dunes. Strewn across the grassy promontory are a single lighthouse and a few hundred whimsical dwellings.

Rasta-colored flags serve as wind vanes, tinted glass bottles are embedded in walls, and exteriors are painted with pictures of suns, cow spots, rainbows and a Klimt-like rendering of a woman. One stands out as particularly fanciful.

No roads lead to Cabo Polonio. To get there, most visitors cross the sand dunes to the west by jeep, horse or on foot. Save for a handful of businesses with generators or wind power and houses with solar panels, the structures in town have no electricity or running water. The only power lines in sight illuminate the lighthouse.

Cows graze on earth banks where the beach begins. Long blades of grass swirl in the wind, tracing their own form of hieroglyphics in the sand. Vendors pass from shack to shack, selling mussels, cakes and hot water to refill thermoses of yerba maté. A small pickup truck from a neighboring town distributes bags of ice once a day.

Besides being a nature preserve, Cabo Polonio is also something of a cultural preserve, a place to find a bohemian ethos that is disappearing from the Uruguayan coast, where, 50 miles to the south, around José Ignacio, construction of high-end hotels is booming.

Polonio’s spectrum of regulars spans artesanos who sleep on the beach and sell their wares in town — jewelry, wind chimes, miniature lighthouses made of seashells — to doctors, lawyers and the occasional celebrity. The French-Spanish pop star Manu Chao and the Academy Award-winning Uruguayan composer Jorge Drexler have been known to go occasionally, while the Argentine writer Alan Pauls, the songwriter Diego Frenkel and the actress Inés Estévez have been spending summers here for years.

Though there is cellphone service now — seven years ago, you could find it only on the top of the lighthouse or the peak of a nearby sand dune — Polonio remains largely unplugged. The only place to recharge your cellphone battery is in the main grocery store, Lujambio’s, and only when its generator is running. Dim in the daytime, Lujambio’s flares up at night, becoming a beacon for people fumbling through the dark in search of food, water, batteries, candles and beer. Last year, Lujambio’s started Polonio’s first “Internet cafe,” consisting of one laptop and a stool.

Not everyone wants to preserve the bare-bones lifestyle. Some people who live here year-round say that keeping things primitive is unnecessarily costly and complicated. A restaurant owner named Diego Grignola told me that when his truck broke down on the way to buy gas for his generator, he was in a jam. “Without gas, we have almost no battery left,” he explained. “Soon we’ll have no music, no blender for smoothies.” He pointed to a small windmill on the roof of his restaurant. “Everything depends on the wind.”

“Electricity is the most incendiary topic of all,” said Laura Cánepa, who owns Posada de los Corvinos, a hostel-cum-library where, to borrow a book, you must leave something that holds value where you live but not in Polonio, like your driver’s license or fingernail polish. “The fishermen and business owners want electricity, since it would be much cheaper to keep things cold. Others of us are strongly opposed.”

At night, life is lived by candlelight. If you venture outside, your chances of making it to your destination depend on the cycle of the moon and the power of your flashlight. When the moon is new and your flashlight dies, you must wait for the lighthouse to swing landward. With no televisions or radios, apart from a handful in the village center, and no cars to speak of, the loudest sounds are those of waves breaking on the sand or horses shuddering in the distance.

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