A Guide to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
The romantic picture of a weather-worn cottage, somewhere deep in the farmlands of Andalusia, storied and well-loved. An Italian village where mad motorists wedge rickety cars down tiny, cobbled alleyways. An elderly Frenchman sat by his careworn front door, smoking a pipe and watching worlds pass by. There are some images of Europe that remind you of her past, of the world that still exists beyond the city lights.
When you enter Colonia del Sacramento, it’s the first world that you remember. Founded by the Portugese in the 1600s, the city doesn’t seem much changed. Maybe if you add in the stacks of mopeds, or daytrippers from Argentina, which only serves to make it feel more European. The building’s crumbling visages are wrapped under vines, hedges, perfectly pruned plants which frame their entryways.
Vine-hugged canopies shade visitors sipping local aged wines, eating old school European food characterised by Uruguayan meats, the only reminders that you are actually in South America. Only an hour away from Buenos Aires, or two from Montevideo, Colonia is a popular day trip location for those looking to escape modernity and rapidity, looking to have a quick day jaunt to a slice of rural southern Europe.
Luckily for backpackers, the best of the beauty of Colonia de Sacramento is free. Grab your camera or your phone and spend the day taking pictures, strolling through quiet streets, admiring the aesthetic. There are few towns quite so picturesque in Uruguay, or even in South America (you’ll grow tired of the same white walled colonial cities some day).
I took the bus from Montevideo to Colonia, which was disconcerting because it took less than the average 8 hour bus journeys that I’d become accustomed to. Being evening, there were already open air parrilla’s well under way, with local men laughing in bright corner shops. The daytrippers had left, and the town felt relaxed.
When I awoke early the next morning, tourists were starting to trickle in, but the streets were still mainly clear. Wander through the old town in the early morning light to see it at it’s prime, and stop to enjoy a coffee and watch the boats of tourists arrive as the hour gets more sociable.
What is there to do?
1. The Old Town
It isn’t hard to spot when you’ve reached the old part of town; the frayed walls and bougainvillea create an instant character, and you’ll feel the haphazard cobblestones underfoot. You should spend a few hours wandering aimlessly in the old town, spying treasures like the Street of Sighs, or the myriad of vintage cars that add to the old school charm in town.
Retrace founding footsteps by walking through the drawbridge, Puerta de la Ciudadela or Portón de Campo, into the former fortress. The post was designed to secure Portuguese sovereignty in southern Brazil, long before succession or the formation of the independent state of Uruguay. So close to neighbouring Buenos Aires, it’s easy to imagine tensions rippling across the Rio Plata.
The barrio histórico is unmistakably Portuguese in style, dotted with the occassional Spanish structure. The older houses, the small ones with doors which reach their overhanging roofs, are built as reminders to the settlers Portuguese home towns. So much of the architecture of the New World is inspired by people who just want to go back to the old one.
2. Climb the lighthouse
I’m sure many have lied through their teeth and told that the waters of the Rio Plata swam blue and gold in the sunshine, but truthfully the densely brown waters do nothing to live up to their neighbouring town. The rivers and sediments that run into the sea mar the waters, that and the collective run off from every dirty back alley in the history of Buenos Aires. The panoramic view from the top of lighthouse of Colonia is better veered towards the town from above than it is towards the unremarkable seas, giving a bird’s view of the irregularly winding streets and visibly lost tourists.
3. Eat & drink
It’s Uruguay, the food is good, the wine is good, the coffee shops are plentiful. Pursestrings were tight while I was in Uruguay, because it’s actually very expensive compared to other Latin countries, but if you have £5-10 to splash out on a touch of local cuisine, you absolutely should. Spindly tables wobbling over cobblestones sit outside the fronts of restaurants, which just look like miscellaneous historic buildings but with a creaking sign hanging over the door to indicate there’s some food somewhere in there. Find one you like the look of, crack out a glass of classic Uruguayan Tannet and sample some of the country’s absolute favourite product, beef. As someone that doesn’t actually eat beef, I’ve found they will accommodate, but be fairly shocked at the notion that a vegetarian can exist in the carnivorous capital of the world.
Not that this list of things to do was exactly seeming taxing thus far, but it’s worth also taking in the siesta hour in Colonia. The market stalls that line the central square will taper out, as vendors lie in the shade of the sycamores, caps pulled over their eyes. The sleepiest hours in South America, where you should find yourself a spot to post up, to sit back, to enjoy the relief from the height of the sun alongside the local crowd. The ferries back to Argentina leave, the crowds disperse, and the town returns to it’s sleepy evening daze. You may not come to Colonia for excitement or adventure, but it has it’s other charms.
An essential highlight of a trip along Uruguay’s coast, or a spot to snare a peaceful moment away from the Porteño’s bustling working crowd. Maybe, like me, you’ll just cure a spot of European homesickness. Whatever your plan, whatever your route, you won’t regret pausing for a day or two in Colonia del Sacramento. Just make sure you pack your favourite camera, some comfortable walking shoes, and all the enthusiasm you can muster for classically crumbling architecture.
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