When I started to plan my trip to Argentina for my trek, I thought maybe I’d arrive a couple of days early and do something other than eat and walk in Buenos Aires. Don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong with those things! Those are indeed very noble activities in my book in that great city. But I was looking to just do something different. I looked at one-day or half-day tours, and I looked at museums and other similar attractions. One thing caught my eye due to my eternal wanderlust: Uruguay was just across the river and it would be really easy to cross by boat.
I was aware of Montevideo and Punta del Este. The latter seemed to require an overnight. Montevideo seemed a tad boring but I thought, “why not? it’s the capital?” And then I ran into Colonia del Sacramento (or simply, “Colonia”). I had never heard of this place. Quick research led me to find out it was listed in “1,000 Places to See before You Die” so I had to learn more.
Funny how history runs its course…
Colonia del Sacramento was established by the Portuguese across the river from another small town called Buenos Aires in the late 17th century. The town was part of a ping-pong match in terms of who ruled it: Spain, Portugal, Spain, Portugal, …, Brazil, and then independent Uruguay. Must have been exhausting! The modern town’s old quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a population of roughly 25,000 folks.
Getting to Colonia del Sacramento
Certainly one can get there by road from Montevideo but, if you are in Buenos Aires, the Buquebus ferry leaving from Puerto Madero is quite efficient and convenient. There are fast ferries that make the crossing in one hour (the river, at that point, is really no longer a river but the sea meeting the river) and slow-poke boats that make the crossing in three hours. Needless to say, three hours on a boat when I can do it in one was a no-brainer…. The one hour ferry was at 8:30 AM so that was a bit of a sacrifice since there was a line or two to make at the port… But it was the right choice. On the way back, since we wanted to have dinner in Buenos Aires, we took the ferry that arrived around 6 PM. One thing to mind is that there IS a time zone difference between Uruguay and Argentina (crazy).
Oh, and another thing to mind is that you MUST bring with you the reciprocity fee receipt for Argentina (if you are a U.S. citizen)… When you leave Uruguay, right at the port in Colonia, you will go through BOTH Uruguayan and Argentine immigration officers. When you get to the Argentine officer, if you do not have it, you are in a for a nervous wait to see what the officer will do with you. No, it did not happen to me, but it happened to a friend. Note: the other friend hanging with her volunteered to the officer “Oh, I don’t have mine either” – lol! Somehow, the officer did not care about her but did about the other one.
The town – ruins
The thing to see in Colonia is the old quarter. When you exit the very modern port facility, you go out of the port and go on that same street uphill and, eventually, you will hit the main street where you will make a left and walk for like five minutes before you hit the old quarter. (There is a tourism info office outside the main building of the port but I did not go in.)
The old buildings have been beautifully kept up or maintained and the quarter is easy to walk around in. The old quarter is in a peninsula so you can’t go too far without hitting the water except in one direction (as you can see in the map above). The old quarter has ruins of fortifications from those centuries when the European powers were trying to take control of the river. You can also see parts of the foundation of the former Portuguese governor’s house and ruins of the old convent. Most of these ruins are, one could say, ruins of ruins but, nevertheless, they help understand how the town was set up and defended.
The town – buildings and structures
There old church, the Basilica del Sagrado Sacramento (Basilica of the Sacred Sacrament) was heavily restored starting in the 1950s. It is simple in its design and decor.
The town is clearly oriented to visitors from Uruguay and abroad with many cafés, restaurants, gifts shops, and art shops.
But the best this charming town offers is just the simple yet beautiful architecture of the streets in or near its old quarter. A peaceful setting graced by history and architecture!
Lunch time in Colonia!
Of course, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch where I enjoyed an incredible pasta dish and we all enjoyed trying Uruguayan red wine – an unexpected treat (later followed by a cup of Freddos ice cream!)
A resident enjoying summer…