The welcoming lack of tourists filled me with relief, and the untrusting eyes of my fellow passengers filled me with unease. This would be a familiar dual sensation in South America, but one I came to appreciate, despite the fact that I'm still not sure what nationality would be best to be mistaken for. Depending on where you are here, being either American or British tends to only be slightly less hated than the other. Ever since being punched by an Irish girl in Thailand solely for the reason I was English, I always try to fly under the radar in unfamiliar lands. The rickety bus made its way through dense jungle, concrete slums, winding coastal roads. The environment made the crammed ride almost bearable. The only thing missing from this ride were cages of chickens and the drug mules hurling contraband out the window before a border checkpoint, that would come later. The 14-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Punta del Diablo via a quick change in Montevideo was a bumpy affair, and my first of many in the continent.
Pulling into the quiet, unassuming town, the warm sea air hit as soon as I stepped onto the dusty road, and so did Limo. Wagging his tail frantically, I could barely move as he leapt up at me, excited beyond belief at my arrival. Kneeling down, I read his collar and looked around for the owner, nobody. The streets were empty; no cars, no people, it was almost a ghost town save for a few kids kicking a ball against the only shop in sight. The sun was high in the sky and not a building above the first floor. Quirky mismatching cabins dot the landscape instead of high-rise resorts, a good first impression.
Jeronimo, the Spanish owner of the cabin I have rented for the next month, is supposed to be meeting me, but no sign of him. Fumbling around in my pocket for his number, I head to the shop to ask for a phone. Five minutes later and he arrives. Hopping in his well travelled hatchback, we drive to the cabin, talking enthusiastically about his newly adopted home since escaping Barcelona to find a quieter life in South America. A surfer himself, he tells me he truly lucked out and proceeds to talk through the different breaks in great detail, pointing at every wave on the passing coastline, swerving into the opposite side of the road to give me a better look each time, all within walking distance from the cabin. They all pretty much work on the same swell and wind conditions; southerly swell with warm offshore wind from the north, a perfect combination. Opposite of this and you have howling cold winds blowing up from the Antarctic, laying siege to any sets rolling in and turning the sea into a choppy, uninviting mess.
Driving through the village it is plain to see this town is well and truly off the radar of any resort companies; not a single hotel and only one small hostel occupies the main strip. There are no paved roads, no traffic lights, no chain stores. Punta del Diablo is truly a well-kept secret. Well, not so secret to the scores of Argentinians and Uruguayans who descend on this sleepy retreat every year. Outside of the peak months however, the only people here are the surfers and the small contingent of local fishermen content with the simple life. And the dogs, the legions of feral dogs. A mercado is pointed out, the faded Pepsi sign outside the only clue. Asking about an ATM, Jeronimo shakes his head, might as well not have one as it never works outside the peak season anyway.
Turning up another dirt path, we arrive at the cabin. An aqua-coloured stone abode with a hammock out front, and only a few other simple cabins in the vicinity, all painted in contrasting colours. Handing me the keys, he turns to leave before stopping. Not having surfboards presents a new problem, just how far off the grid are we and how do we even get hold of some? Jeronimo says that I should go see see Fernando, who runs the small cafe in town and a surf ‘shop’ out back. He'll sort out boards.
I enter the simple cabin and see a bed, a kitchen, sofa, a desk, and a fire pit. Just as I go to slide the door closed, bounding up the dirt path is Limo. Stopping outside the door, he sits and wags his tail ever enthusiastically, it would be rude at this point not to invite him in. Ditching my stuff, I head to the ocean, feeling haggard and caked in dust from the road. Limo tagging along, we wander the short path, passing under a large tree canopy, filled with a hundred tiny green parakeets lining the branches, Limo attempts to scale the tree, sending the lime cloud skyward. We emerge and pass over a dune to reveal the Atlantic ocean, and endlessly rolling waves, groomed by a light offshore breeze. I can't see anyone surfing.
Not wasting another minute, Limo and I head straight back into town and to the cafe to find Fernando. We are taken to his prized board room, complete with several boards tied to the ceiling, all yellowed from the sun, and endless ding repairs. Behind an old chest freezer, another four. He offers me a pretty good deal and whatever board I pick, he'll buy straight back from me when I leave. I choose a 6'1 Phil Byrne squashtail thruster with just enough width to cope with the small days. Sea temperature warm enough for just boardies all year round, it's almost 5pm when I make it back to the beach. Chest-size waves, gentle offshore and still not a soul out there, this is why I am here.
Almost two hours pass, and I can't help but just sit on my board and smile. Looking back toward the beach, Limo lies patiently in the sand next to my stuff, never leaving. A lull in the set and I gaze around me, jungle to the north, and far to the south, the much more built up tourist trap of Punta del Este, I couldn't be in a better place. The something catches my eye, a dark flash above the surface. Then again, this time, a very dark and definitive outline of a fin. I couldn't be in a worse place.
To be continued...