A day trip to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay
COLONIA is just an hour by fast boat from Buenos Aires, but it seems a world away. The historic centre of this small Uruguayan town is so well preserved that you’ll think you’ve stumbled on a film set for a historical drama. And because of its seaside location, Colonia (or Colonia del Sacramento to be exact) has a lovely relaxed feel about it. These two features make it a perfect daytrip to escape from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires.
One of the many information panels inside the historic centre tells how it was first occupied by the Portuguese in 1680, then promptly taken over by the Spanish, then retaken by the Portuguese, and so on. By the time it assumed its final form as part of Uruguay in the 1820s, Colonia had swapped hands between the two Iberian powers about eight times. And the Brazilians even had a turn controlling the town, attracted by its handy position overlooking the River Plate. The century and a half of shenanigans about who put their flag over the town are a useful history lesson, but they also give insight about what to expect when you visit. It’s for good reason that UNESCO designated this place a world heritage site.
The historic town is five minutes’ walk from the ferry terminal, and the main entrance is a gate dating from 1745. The drawbridge seems to be permanently lowered, but you’ll get the idea. While parts of the wall that ringed the settlement have been removed, more than enough has survived. You can clamber the walls to get a good view over the town, and to see how much work was done to protect it during colonial times. Shame the wall never quite kept everyone out.
Entering the walled town, you can stroll along the Plaza Mayor before coming to Calle de los Suspiros, where the cobbled pavement and houses on either side have survived for centuries. The road runs toward the shoreline and is near the lighthouse. Queues form here, but you can get to the first level quick enough and then gaze out over the town. The lighthouse sits next to the ruins of a 17th century convent, highlighting Colonia’s long and diverse history of human settlement. Heading back towards the sea, you can continue around the fringe of the town. The forts that protected the town have been demolished, with restaurants and cafes now dotting the shoreline. You’ll soon come across the “Museo del Azulejo” – a rather bizarre little museum dedicated to tiles. The museum was closed the day we visited but my travel partner, somehow intrigued by the prospect of a tile museum, reckoned you could see most of the exhibits through the window anyway. And like most things in Colonia, it’s housed inside a beautiful old house. Colonia shows its glitzier side on its northern side, where launches and yachts are moored near its wharf. Because it’s so close to Buenos Aires and Montevideo, rich urban-dwellers escape here for the night and the weekend. At least the wharf is still old, dating from the eighteenth century. Continue wandering the cobbled streets and you’ll pass the beautiful ‘Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento’, built out of stone by the Portuguese in 1808. There’s also Iglesia Matriz, which although rebuilt, is said to the oldest church in Uruguay. It dates back to the late 17th century. Another thing you won’t miss in Colonia are cafes, restaurants, and shops. There are more than a dozen places to eat here and plenty of places to buy trinkets and so on. But who won’t want to eat after strolling around this beautiful old town? And at least all the shops are housed in original-looking buildings – this is a place still firmly gripped by history, after all.
Check out how to take the ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento