CHRISTMAS in Uruguay marks the start of the high season. Perhaps this sounds like a giddy little pun on the fact that marijuana is now legal here, but that would not be in the proper spirit. Arriving in Montevideo just as this landmark legislation is being rubber-stamped by the Senate, I quickly learn that foreigners tend to get much more excited about it than most Uruguayans, who kindly request that we please be cool.
For one thing, the first crop of high-grade, low-cost, state-regulated cannabis has not even been harvested yet. For another, the new law stipulates that it can never be sold to non-residents anyway. That said, there are too many bongos being played in public for a visitor not to be aware that marijuana is already rife in the capital – possession of which, for personal use, has long since been decriminalised. Strolling from the old town to the city centre, on an early summer evening under Christmas lights, I can smell it on the breeze and see it being smoked in the streets. Not furtively, but casually, with much the same urbane air of discretion and maturity that alcohol is consumed by continental Europeans, to the baffled admiration of Brits who cannot relate. More striking, however, is the ubiquity of yerba mate.
Uruguay claims to have invented that grassy-tasting tea-like infusion – one of many claims contested by their neighbours in Argentina – and the entire population seems openly addicted to it. Literally everyone is drinking mate from a mate (the traditional gourd of the same name) through a curved and ornate metal straw called a bombilla. They drink it while walking, talking, sitting on benches in historic plazas, and even while riding motorbikes, with flasks of hot water tucked under their arms like oxygen tanks.
On the concourse outside City Hall, where film students are projecting their short movies onto a building across July 18 Avenue, I meet a bearded young graduate named Eduardo, who has a mate in one hand and a spliff in the other. The caffeine balances out the cannabis pretty nicely, he tells me. “But this,” he says, holding up the gourd, “is much more fundamental in Uruguay.” He doesn’t want to sound like a hypocrite, but he has mixed feelings about the Regulation of Marijuana Law. Eduardo agrees that it should be legal, and he’s glad that he now has the right to grow up to six plants at home, which is four more than he had already.
But he also shares the concerns of the majority who don’t smoke pot, and don’t want the place overrun with gringo stoners. “I just think it’s bringing us way too much attention.” Then offers me the joint, which leads us both into a grey area of his country’s drug policy. He’s not selling, and I’m not buying. Surely there’s no legislating for simple politeness? Moving on to Punta Del Este, I can see why the majority of visitors to Uruguay head straight for the coast. The beaches here are spectacular, the water rough on one side of the resort (at Playa Brava), and gentle on the other (Playa Mansa), where the Rio De La Plata opens into the Atlantic. Frank Sinatra and his friends put this place on the map in the 1950s, when the post-war investment boom blew up a small fishing village into a vertical cluster of casinos and luxury hotels, drawing down the biggest stars in the world. It has since become one of the prime party towns of Latin America, if only for a few months of the year, and only for those who can afford it. From just before Christmas to just before Easter, the prices will double around here, and the high-end condos fill with wealthy Argentines and Brazilians.
These days, I’m told, the real celebrities tend to play in Jose Ignacio, an even more exclusive resort a little further north. The rich are now staking out parts of this coastline faster than the budget travellers can even discover them, though there seems to be some kind of middle ground in places like La Paloma, a gorgeous green and blue headland where the woods still extend almost to the surf. A local audience assembles every night on a westward-facing beach here called La Balconada, and applauds the sunset as if seeing it for the first time. The actor and musician Jorge Drexler – perhaps the second most famous Uruguayan in the world, after bitey Liverpool FC striker Luis Suarez – loves this spot, and wrote a song about it called Camino A La Paloma. But he wrote a whole album about Cabo Polonio, a kind of hippy colony perched around an isolated lighthouse some 30 miles in the distance. “We’re not hippies,” says Daniel Machado Molina, when I get out there the next day on the 4×4 truck that serves as a local bus. “Unless you mean people who aren’t stressed out, aren’t looking at their watches, aren’t obsessed with technology.”
Molina is one of the few permanent residents of Cabo Polonio who was actually born and raised here, among the fishermen and seal hunters who first founded the settlement. The original scattering of huts and shacks has expanded to include rentable cabins and guesthouses, most without running water and almost all without electricity. Come January, every bed will be occupied, as the winter population of about 50 people swells to thousands through the austral summer. Many of those tourists are “the type with long hair and coloured trousers”, as Molina puts it, and they love being off the grid. But more and more, he says, are now demanding that the limited power sources available – solar panels, wind turbines, and a few diesel generators – be used to secure their wifi connections. “Our lifestyle here is changing from rustic to touristic. But it’s still the same place, with the same natural beauty. I think people should be trying to adapt to Cabo, and not expect Cabo to adapt to them.”
Over two nights in my own little candlelit cabin at the south beach, I get pretty comfortable here, and friendly with some of the locals. I especially like Joselo, the blind bar owner whose ultra-dark, cave-like establishment has been known to attract stray penguins from the rocks nearby. And “Punky” (real name Joaquin), an ex punk singer turned handyman whose dog Little Boy howls along when he plays the harmonica. Most of the community is comprised of exiles, pioneers and fugitives from Montevideo, who came here to escape unfulfilling city lives. They use the word “libertad” (freedom) a lot, which makes me think about the liberal enclave that I imagined Uruguay to be – the first Latin American nation to also legalise abortion and same-sex marriage – and the more libertarian spirit I find here. “Look around you,” says Punky, when I ask about marijuana. “It’s always been legal in Cabo. There’s no-one to tell you it’s not.” And much as most locals seem to respect or at least tolerate the current president Jose Mujica – a former leftist guerrilla turned poetic speaker and progressive thinker – their only relationship to the government is essentially adversarial.
More than half of the present settlement stands on land owned by the state, and the battle over property rights has dragged out for decades. Over lunch at his small and perfect seafood restaurant, I ask Daniel Molina if he thinks of Cabo Polonio as some kind of independent republic. “That’s the question,” he says. “Uruguay wants a piece of us, but do we really need to be a part of Uruguay?” Similar frictions are in effect a little further up the coast in Punta Del Diablo, another fishing village now developing so fast that private owners might soon sell the land out from underneath the families who first settled it. Meanwhile, more “rustic” accommodations are being constructed every day, along with plusher apartments for wealthier tastes. One of these has half-obscured the sea view of Nestor Ventre, known locally as “Cacho”, who rents his self-constructed wooden house to tourists in the summer.
“Stupid building,” mutters Cacho, as we watch the sunset from his living room. “But this is still paradise.” He seems right enough to me – the nearby Playa Grande is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. If I were sufficiently high on homegrown weed I might sit down and start sketching out the blueprints for my own house here, like Cacho and his neighbour Flaco once did. Flaco’s real name is Fernando Falconstein, a splendid inheritance from Austro-Hungarian immigrants. As the stars come out I listen to these two men debate on new legislation. Flaco has been smoking cannabis since he was 14, and growing it since he was 30. Now 59, he has huge plants in his garden, tucked behind a metal barricade to shield them from the sea spray. He sometimes uses the leaves as a kind of currency, and this morning he traded a handful for some fresh lemons. More often, he says, he just gives it away.
“For love, not for money.” Flaco thinks this non-business model makes him exempt from the new law, and he does not even recognise the authority of the state to tell him what he can or can’t do with his home-grown property. “I am the state!” he says, magnificently, with a glass of whisky in one hand and a joint in the other. Cacho rolls his eyes and takes the joint. He agrees that marijuana is harmless, and grows a couple of plants himself. But he thinks that Uruguay has bigger issues to address, and greater attributes to shout about – if Uruguayans were the shouting sort.