PERSONALITY TO SPARE

Lose Yourself in Uruguay's Beach Towns

The country's gorgeous Atlantic coast remains eccentric and mostly under the radar. Skip over Punta del Este and follow us to rugged Cabo Polonio (population 79), freewheeling Punta del Diablo, and mystical Piriápolis.

Lodging
El Diablo Tranquilo Hostel, Playa del Rivero, 011-598/477-2647, eldiablotranquilo.com, rooms from $65

Terrazas del Diablo, rental bungalows on or near the beach, 011-598/477-2250, puntadeldiablo.com.uy (Currently Spanish-only), bungalows from $60

Food
El Diablo Tranquilo Bar, Playa del Rivero, 011-598/477-2647, eldiablotranquilo.com, grilled whitefish with spicy salsa $9.50

Activities
Santa Teresa National Park, trails begin at Playa del Rivero, parquesantateresa.com.uy (Spanish-only)

Nightlife
Bitacora Bar, open-air club in the dunes behind the village, no phone, bitacorabar.com

Finding Your Way
Punta del Diablo is about 35 miles east of Cabo Polonio (about one hour by car). From Cabo Polonio, take Ruta 15. At the intersection with Ruta 9, turn right and follow Ruta 9 to kilometer 298, the entrance to Punta del Diablo.

GOOD VIBRATIONS IN MYSTICAL PIRIÁPOLIS
This resort town on a rugged stretch just outside of Montevideo has inspired enough dark legends and Byzantine conspiracy theories to fill a Dan Brown novel. It all started in 1890, when Piriápolis's founder, local real-estate baron Francisco Piria, bought 7,000 acres of undeveloped coastline in pursuit of his twin dreams: making a load of money selling vacation homes and building a utopian city based on Kabbalah, a mystical set of religious beliefs.

"Piria built his city around the spots where magnetic vibrations were strongest, just like the Aztecs, the Egyptians, and the Druids did," says Carlos Rodriguez, our New Age Mystical Tour guide. We're standing at a scenic point high above Piriápolis, joined by a busload of open-minded travelers from as far away as Spain. Some sway rhythmically, overcome by the good vibes. I'm not feeling it.

But the town spread below is undeniably appealing. A regal stone boardwalk winds along the waterfront, past a grand old hotel and aging mansions. On the white sand out front, day-tripping families soak up rays, and behind them, lush hills rise dramatically to rocky peaks.

When the sunset séance begins, I part ways with my mystical friends. On the boardwalk, local fishermen hawk fresh squid, shrimp, and mussels from wooden stands. Sandy beaches eventually give way to cliffs, where a few seafood joints sit right over the water.

At Barlovento, the red wine comes in half-liter jugs, and the house special, linguine tutto mare, comes with just about everything local fishermen have caught that day: clams, mussels, calamari, octopus, and shrimp, all served over homemade pasta. It's dark by the time I follow the boardwalk back into town, and except for the waves below, Piriápolis is quiet. Then an eerie drone starts in from the water, soft at first but growing louder. Piria's ghost? Kabbalah spirits?

"Frogs," explains the concierge at my hotel, the oceanfront Terrazas del Puerto. While not a match for the gracefully moldering period hotels along Piriápolis's main drag, Terrazas del Puerto has airy rooms with ceramic tile floors and large terraces overlooking the ocean and the yacht club below. From my room, four floors above the Atlantic, I listen as Piriápolis's amphibians croon late into the night.

I rent a bicycle from a shop on the boardwalk the next morning and make for the area's most famous landmark, Castillo de Piria. The three-story castle is hard to miss. Rising from farmland outside town, it has medieval turrets and a yawning portico, all frosted a delicate shade of pink. I meet up again with Rodriguez, busy initiating another group in the town secrets.

"The castle is built on a fault line," he says from behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses. "A lot of negative energy converges here." Inside, we navigate a maze of twisting passages, secret staircases, and blind doorways. Rickety stairs lead to what appears to be a basement lab. "Piria was an alchemist," Rodriguez explains matter of factly. "All Kabbalists were."

It gets weirder. On the way back into town, we pass the ruins of a Gothic-style cathedral that towers nearly 10 stories above a fallow field. It's Piria's unfinished masterpiece.

"He built the cathedral to fulfill a prophecy," Rodriguez begins. In quick succession, he reveals that Hitler was a black wizard, Churchill was one of the Knights Templar, and in 1944, the Holy Grail was in grave danger of falling into Nazi hands. So, naturally, the Pope had the Grail brought to Uruguay.

PSST! SECRET BEACHES

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