I have a confession: I didn’t pick up a surfboard until a year and a half ago. It was October 2016, and I was living in a little beach town up the Uruguayan coast called La Paloma. I’d been living there for several months, but it was only recently springtime in the Southern Hemisphere. (All good with wetsuits, but I’m not here for cold water.)
Fortunately, I’d made a couple good friends who happened to be semi-pro Uruguayan surfers (as one does when living in extremely small beach towns for extended periods of time). I’d casually mentioned my interest in joining them some day, and they’d pestered me ever since, and now that the weather was warm I was officially without excuse.
So finally, one fateful spring day, the sun was shining, the beach was beckoning, and I answered nature’s call.
In the land of hippie surfer Uruguay beach towns, that looks something like this: my friend stopped by my house on a Wednesday morning, unannounced as usual. We shared some tea then moseyed down the street to another friend’s house to share some more tea and borrow a wetsuit. Then we strolled through some woods to the beach, did some quick yoga stretching on the sand, and in we went.
For those of you who have never tried surfing, learning goes like this: I would lay on the board until a wave came. My friend, from behind, would torpedo me forward to catch the wave. Then I would, in one fell swoop, try to push off with my hands, land my feet in proper positioning squarely underneath me, stand up, and stay balanced. Needless to say, I was unsuccessful my first countless attempts. (I did later finally get the hang of it, and it’s wondrously intoxicating – but that will have to be a story for another time.)
Anyway, despite my personal lack of stardom in the surfing world, I spent many hours discussing the ins and outs of Uruguayan waves with my aforementioned more knowledgeable friends. And so for those of you who are more adept at this wonderful pastime, here’s the scoop on surfing in Uruguay:
Punta del Este – Playa Brava, La Barra, & José Ignacio
This is where the surfing starts. Punta del Este lies on a peninsula where the Río de la Plata opens into the Atlantic Ocean. All of the coast southwest of here (toward Montevideo) is technically not ocean, but rather an extremely wide – as in up to 120 miles across – river. You can still surf on those beaches, but people say the “real waves” start in Punta where the Atlantic begins.
The most popular beaches in this area are Playa Brava, Boca de la Barra, and José Ignacio. La Barra and José Ignacio are slightly north of the city (accessible by car or public bus) and slightly less crowded. La Brava is right in the downtown area, and has some good surf school options for beginners.
About the city: Punta is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Uruguay – some even call it “the Monaco of South America.” I can’t say I’ve been to Monaco so perhaps wouldn’t defend that title too fiercely, but I can say that Punta del Este is undoubtedly beautiful, high-brow, full of fine dining, upscale shopping, and vibrant nightlife, and certainly the place to spot the occasional small celebrity.
La Paloma & La Pedrera
Full disclosure: this is where I lived and I am likely at least minorly biased.
That said, La Paloma & La Pedrera are the best surf spots in all of Uruguay. They are towns about 15 minutes apart by car, bus, or bicycle. Coming from Montevideo, they’re some of the first surf towns in the department (like a state in the U.S.) of Rocha, which notoriously has the best coastline in the country. Rocha is known for its clean, white sand beaches, azure waters, spectacular sunsets, and flocks of summer tourists. Luckily for wave chasers, the Uruguayan surf season is more fall through spring than summer – which means you could have whole stretches of beach all to yourself.
The most popular beaches in this area are Corumbá, Los Botes, and La Aguada.
Heading about another hour up the coast, we reach the small, strange, incredibly popular town of Cabo Polonio. The first time I ventured to Cabo, I had the unnerving sensation that if ever there were to be a zombie apocalypse in the world, it would begin right there. The strangeness of the town is mostly due to the fact that it’s entirely inside a protected natural reserve – meaning there are no motorized vehicles except the authorized jeeps that transport you, only generators for electricity, and an abundant overall hippie vibe. It’s bordered only by beach and dunes, and the next nearest town is a several hour walk across the sand. Needless to say, it’s stunning, remote, refreshing, and slightly overpriced (since everything has to be hauled in across miles of sand dune). Cabo in general attracts a more bohemian type who are down for a lot of walking, limited electricity, and deep connection to nature – and its surfers are no different.
The most popular beach in this area is Playa Calavera, on the northern side of town.
Important note: in addition to hippies, Cabo houses one of biggest sea lion marine reserves in the world. While they tend to spend significant time congregating on rocks to sunbathe, they also swim. If you are riding the waves, it is not uncommon to see sea lions alongside you doing the same. Nothing to panic about, as they are peaceful creatures unless threatened.
Punta del Diablo
This is one of the most famous beach towns in Uruguay, for surfers, swimmers, and sun-tanners alike. It’s even further up the coast, about another hour from Cabo heading toward Brazil. In fact, many people venture up from here through the border town of Chuy and into southern Brazil to continue their wave-chasing journeys.
Punta del Diablo is famed for its long, beautiful beaches, artsy town, and proximity to other outdoor attractions – the Ombú forest, sand boarding, and ever-present horseback riding opportunities. It’s perhaps the smallest of the four destinations, with a year-round population of only about 500 people – though nearly 25,000 tourists pass through each year.
The most popular beach in this area is La Viuda. Pesqueros is another option in the nearby national park of Santa Teresa.
And finally, a few overall tips:
- The best time to surf in Uruguay is from April to November
- Be sure to pack a wetsuit if you go in the colder months of July and August!
- Windguru is the best site to check for daily prognostics.
- This surfing guide (in Spanish) offers more details on exact wave heights, wind directions, left/right point breaks etc.