Discovering the Time Capsule of Colonia del Sacramento

30 Jul
On the east bank of Río de la Plata, lies the peaceful Uruguayan settlement of Colonia del Sacramento.  The majority of the 23,000 strong population live, work and shop in the modern city of Colonia, however, it’s the compact and beautifully preserved Barrio Histórico, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is the big crowd pleaser.  We felt like we were stepping back in time entering the rebuilt 17th century city gates (Porton de Campo) with colourful colonial houses, whitewashed churches, art galleries and quaint cafes lining the cobbled streets.  The area oozed traditional charm and we couldn’t wait to explore. 

 Colonia del Sacramento is only 50km from Buenos Aires by ferry and most of its two million annual visitors arrive from the Argentinian capital, especially in summer.  Many come for a day trip or long weekend, taking the fast one hour one-hour ferry, Buquebus (buquebus.com). 
 
For those wanting to spend a relaxing few days in Colonia, there are some excellent boutique hotels and B&B’s on offer.  As our time was limited to two weeks in Uruguay, we just spent one day in the city en-route to Montevideo from Carmelo but this was just enough time to soak up the atmosphere. There is an excellent bus network around the country so it was very easy to explore Colonia and then move onto our next destination.
The picturesque settlement is set on a peninsular is surrounded by water on three sides. Crumbling ramparts and a reconstructed drawbridge mark the entrance to the old town and pretty rows of sycamores draw visitors into its centre.
 
We quickly ditched our map in favour of simply wandering at our own pace to uncover Colonia’s sights.  There are very few cars in the old town, apart from the 1950’s American classic cars that doubled as plant pots(!)  It was a unique and charming place to wander around.
We sauntered down the middle of the roads admiring buildings draped with colourful flowers and creeping green vines.  We discovered cute cafes serving up great coffee whilst Argentinian and Uruguayan nationals sipped on a bitter herbal tea called yerba mate from shared cups as they explored.
The Historic Quarter is quite small, so you can’t really get lost.  All roads inevitably twist and turn back to Plaza Mayor.  Originally used as a military parade ground, the plaza is now a spacious, grassy square lined with trees and dotted with park benches.
The Municipal Museum on the plaza is one of several interesting and quirky museums, accessed with a single ticket.  It has a collection of furniture and weapons from the colonial era as well as an interesting scale model of the original town.
      
Whenever we travel, we always love to seek out new and interesting perspectives so we made a beeline for the striking whitewashed Faro lighthouse, rising impressively from the ruins of a convent and the highest point in Colonia.  A small entry fee allowed us access to the narrow, spiral steps leading to the lighthouse’s panoramic observation deck.  On a clear day you can see all the way to Buenos Aires.  It was a great spot to get our bearings and the views of the rooftops and the riverside were beautiful.
Looking down on Colonia’s buildings there is an interesting mixture of Portuguese and Spanish influences due to the countless times the city changed hands between the warring nations.  The pastel coloured single-storey houses with tiled roofs were unmistakably Portuguese, while many of the grand two-story villas with balconies were added by the Spanish.
Just around the corner from the lighthouse, La Calle de los Suspiros (the Street of Sighs), has changed little since the city was established in 1680.  The cobbled alley was lit by wrought-iron lamps and laced with crumbling colonial buildings with wooden shutters.  The original drainage channel runs down the centre of the street and still carries rainwater downhill to the rippling Rio de la Plata just minutes away.  The painted facades of the houses are made from mud and clay, with bright pink flowers tumbling down from balconies.  It’s no wonder artists love it here. We enjoyed the colourful stories of how the street got it’s name – our favourites were from the ‘sighs’ coming from the brothels that once stood on the street and the ‘sighs’ from ghosts of prisoners who were chained in the street and flogged before executions
 
The small harbour is named Puerto de Yates de Colonia because of its many sailboats.  From here, a beautiful path meanders along the riverside with gorgeous views. Further out of the old town sandy shores stretch for miles drawing fishermen and picnicking families.
When we had enough sightseeing, we enjoyed browsing the art galleries and chic boutiques offering handmade clothes and ceramics.  Foodies will love the wide range of European style restaurants with tables spilling out onto the streets.  Many are undeniably touristic but the atmosphere is excellent. 
We dined on Spanish omelette and Patatas Bravas washed down with a glass of Tannat wine, Uruguay’s delicious national grape.  Live guitar music flowed from the door of a small bar and we were transported to a different time, where aristocratic ladies in lace dresses rode carriages pulled by horses and ambitious young men frequented rowdy taverns and settled their quarrels by sword fights. Our day in Colonia del Sacramento had certainly been worth it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: