Considering its past was riddled with assaults, pirates, storms and sieges, Colonia del Sacramento, or Colonia, as it is affectionately called, has developed into a quaint, sleepy little town beckoning you to stop by to experience her varied charms. Located on the southwestern coast of Uruguay on the Rio de la Plata, Colonia offers a gentle respite from the frenetic energy of its neighbor across the bay, Buenos Aires, Argentina. This long-time contraband port town, first settled in 1680 by Manuel Lobo, then governor of Rio de Janeiro, now enjoys the fame of being a UNESCO World Heritage site. And rightly so. Everything about Colonia is awash with nostalgic character, apparent from the first moment one steps off the ferry onto Uruguayan soil.
A sweltering Indian summer in Buenos Aires led my traveling companions and I to take to the “high seas” on the 50-minute ferry over to Colonia – a perfect day trip for those weary of the big city life. The Buquebus ferry offers a speed ferry from the Darsena Norte terminal in Buenos Aires to Colonia for a reasonable 135 Argentine pesos, roughly $40.00, round trip. If you want a stale ham and cheese sandwich and a Coke to be served to you en route, you can upgrade to first class for a mere $5.00 more. After an unusually swift pass through customs, 50 minutes and three mini bottles of sparkling wine later, our first glimpse of land offered a graceful lighthouse, reaching its pale, slender body heavenward. As we later discovered, this lighthouse, El Faro, was built in 1857 from the stones of the crumbling convent below it. Beyond this classic coastal fixture, gentle greenery clasped the coastline, swaying in the soft sea breeze.
The ferry terminal is only a brisk, ten-minute walk to Colonia’s main streets. More adventurous explorers may take to the roads on scooters – the chosen method of transportation among locals. Candy colored helmets bob and bounce up and down the labyrinthine cobbled streets. Many scooter rental shops can be found immediately outside the ferry terminal on Rivera Street; one-day rentals are available for as little as $20.00.
On the walk into town, we came across the tourist office, where the helpful staff is all too eager to offer maps of the town and a friendly lunch recommendation. It can be found at the corner of Avenue General Flores and Rivera Street. Their telephone number is 2-6141-23700.
The main thoroughfare, Avenue General Flores, leads to Plaza Mayor, the historical heart of Colonia. It is elegantly tree lined. From my experience in South America, when you find a tree lined street, you find a myriad of cafes brimming with smiling, multi-lingual tourists, with enough yerba mate (a traditional tea beverage in South America) on which to sail a small yacht. We found a quaint little sidewalk café that caught our fancy. Mercosur, located on the corner of Avenue General Flores and Ituzaingo, offered an outdoor seating area to rest our travel worn feet and imbibe our trusted worldwide friend, Coca Cola. In my journeys, I have discovered that no matter where you are in the world, some things like Coke and Starbucks are refreshingly unchanged and, in their own way, can combat against mild homesickness.
The souvenir shops on Avenue General Flores were bursting with baubles of all kinds for the trinket minded tourist. We found brightly painted lighthouse magnets, small stringed instruments made from gourds, postcards by the hundreds and, of course, lots of tacky T-shirts and jewelry to please friends and family back home. Once we meandered past the café/souvenir shop barricade, we came upon a lovely square from which tiny streets and alleyways fanned out like a web of intricate veins. The town square, Plaza Mayor, hosts many of the points of historical interest in Colonia’s crumbling, moss covered ruins of the late 17th century, such as Convento de San Francisco, Casa Nacarello – a restored, colonial-period house where the ceilings are so low, I am convinced the inhabitants were a race of munchkins. The Museo Municipal housing has everything from unearthed clay artifacts to jars of coiled snakes. A day pass for entrance to all of the area museums can be purchased for 10 Uruguayan pesos, or about $0.50 – depending on the exchange rate that day.
Although fans of history, the museums became a bit musty for our tastes. Our adventure resumed on one of the lovely, meandering lanes leading off the square. Each cobbled, centuries-old street was lined with jewel toned, tile roofed houses, oozing with charming stories of past inhabitants, begging to be told. As I beheld these mud and stucco houses crafted in the Portuguese and Spanish styles, I wanted to stop for a moment – fully imagine what the walls of each house beheld – but Colonia was urging me onward, to see everything her history-packed streets had to offer.
A brief walk from the Plaza Mayor in nearly any direction will lead you to the shoreline. Looking out over the whirling, gray water, you can see tiny gray blobs, islands, dotting the horizon. Turning your head the opposite way, affords a view of the quaint and charming beach houses lining the waterfront; each shrouded as heavily as a sheik’s harem with fragrant, flowering flora. Lazy cats bathe on lawns and gentle waves caress the rocky beach.
After the audible assault of a metropolis like Buenos Aires, the sweet silence of this place was music to my ears. Walking down this coast road is reminiscent of being on an island in the Caribbean; I had a fleeting sense I may be captured by a wayward pirate marauding up the beach. If the year were 1707, I may well have been. In the early 18th century, Spanish, English, French and Dutch pirates and privateers sailed into the Rio de la Plata, hoping to strike it rich by commandeering ships filled with cattle or other commodities from mainland Argentina and Uruguay. Clashes with the Portuguese ensued. Eventually, though, the problem for Colonia was not pirates, but invasion by the Spanish crown. In time Spain dominated. Colonia inherited both Spanish and Portuguese cultural influences, still visible today.
This road, Paseo de Gabriel, leads me to a small pier, jutting precariously over the shady shallows. I find this secluded refuge to be a perfect place to sit on a welcoming bench, collect my thoughts and gaze back at the serene image of the town. Upon reflection of my day, and a brief review of the vibrant photos taken on my digital camera, I decide Colonia is one of the priceless treasures of my adventures in South America.