A potted history first
The tiny historic town of Colonia del Sacramento has a long and interesting history. It was founded on the shores of River Plate in modern-day Uruguay by the Portuguese in 1680. According to the official version, the idea was to stop the Spanish advances into Portuguese territory, but many historians think that, in reality, their aim was to take advantage of the lucrative smuggling activity that was taking place across the river in the town of Buenos Aires.
This didn’t sit well with the Spanish, who attacked the new settlement. And then they razed it to the ground during the war of Spanish Succession. The Portuguese eventually imposed their sovereignty, only to resign it in 1762 to the Spanish (who else?). Colonia became part of the Spanish Empire and then of Uruguay when it declared its independence in 1828.
A day trip to Colonia
Colonia sits across the river from Buenos Aires, only an hour away if you take the fast ferry or three on the slow one. I have to confess that I’d never visited this lovely place until our friends from Dallas said they would like to see it.
We sailed at noon from the Buquebús terminal in Buenos Aires (on the intersection of Avenida Cordoba and, well, the river). Buquebús is one of the ferry companies that offer daily crossings to Uruguay. What with the voyage and the time change (Uruguay is one hour ahead); we got there at about 3 pm in time for lunch. We chose a lovely restaurant but unfortunately, the parrilla (grill) was closed for the day so we had a chivito (a huge beef sandwich with lots of trimmings). We washed it down with a bottle of tanat, Uruguay’s flagship wine.
After lunch, we wandered about the historic centre. The older the street, the more irregular the cobblestones. The Calle de los Suspiros (Sigh Alley) is probably the prettiest and cheerful. Its low buildings are from the first colonial period and the river makes a beautiful background. I could almost see Portuguese galleons patrolling the waters, on the lookout for the Spanish enemies. Or drunken sailors taking a tumble on the big stones while trying to find their way back to their ship.
There are a handful of museums (Municipal, Portuguese Tile, Regional Archive, First People, Spanish and so on). We didn’t have enough time to visit them but I was told at the Tourist Information Office (located outside the port) that you can buy one ticket for 50 Uruguayan pesos, which gets you into all of the museums.
We did climb up to the top of the lighthouse, which dates from 1857. The views from the top are spectacular but it was quite windy. That and my fear of heights meant that I didn’t stay very long, only long enough for a photo. Below the lighthouse are the ruins of an 18th century Franciscan convent.
Colonia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. It is a great place to wander about, enjoy some fresh air, and escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city. There is a photo opportunity everywhere you look. The wide river, the colorful colonial houses, the flowers on the window sills, the typical streetlamps. Find a place to sit down and enjoy the peace and quiet. Granted, we were there on a weekday, however, I understand that weekends are more hectic. The locals are super polite and friendly and have that small town warmth that makes you want to stay forever. I fell in love with our neighbors – I mean, with Uruguay. I want to go back for more.