Colonia del Sacramento is one of those small towns with such a photogenic historic center and a welcoming, laid-back atmosphere, you feel instantly at home. Soon you find yourself imagining living there.
With a history stretching back more than 330 years and a well-preserved Barrio Histórico that’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, Colonia owes its existence to its strategic location on the Uruguayan side of the wide Río de la Plata. Just a 75-minute ferry ride from Argentina’s Buenos Aires or a two-hour bus ride from Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo, the tidy town is an obvious top choice for a side trip from either capital. With its ancient architecture and right mix of museums, artisan shops, restaurants and sidewalk cafes, the town makes for a stress-free day or two of relaxation and exploration.
Although many travelers make the trip to Colonia just for the day, my travel companion and I opted to spend the night, which allowed time to walk virtually every cobbled street of the historic district, visit several museums and kick back at outdoor cafes and restaurants, giving us a more intimate connection to the city. If we had had more time, two nights would have been even better.
History of Colonia del Sacramento
Portuguese founded Nova Colonia do Santisimo Sacramento in 1680, at a tip of a small peninsula on the opposite side of the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires, which had been founded a century earlier by the Spanish. This did not sit well with the Spaniards, who promptly attacked the new settlement and threw the Portuguese out. Although a treaty signed in Lisbon restored the town to Portugal shortly thereafter, Colonia’s turbulent beginnings were just a shadow of more to come.
During the War of Spanish Succession in 1704-05, Colonia was attacked again by the Spanish and razed to the ground. It was returned to the Portuguese yet again in 1715, when it grew to more than 1,000 inhabitants and became a thriving commercial center. But a tug of war over Colonia continued over the next century, when it changed hands another seven times, mostly between Portugal and Spain but falling also to Brazil from 1822 to 1828, after which it became part of Uruguay.
Unsurprisingly, war and time destroyed some of Colonia’s earliest structures, including most of its fortifications and some houses. But otherwise the historic district remains remarkably intact, surrounded on three sides by the river and made up mostly of modest one-story buildings that reflect a fusion of Portuguese and Spanish colonial styles and are strung together along narrow cobblestone streets that spill open onto plazas rooted in the town’s founding. One of the most delightful things about Colonia is that you can walk virtually everywhere.
Impressions of Barrio Histórico
It was a slightly cool, sun-drenched winter’s afternoon when we arrived in Colonia’s historic district, which lent brilliance to the deep-blue sky, gaily painted homes and huge bougainvillea bursting forth in colors of fuchsia and deep orange. Narrow cobblestone lanes, which follow the contours of the land, are in some cases so ancient, uneven and roughly hewn that some of them are almost impossible to walk upon with any sense of decorum.
Nonetheless, we made our way to the wide Plaza de Armas Manual Lobo, shaded by
sycamores and anchored by the Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento, first erected when the town was founded but restored in the mid-1800s after being destroyed by lightning. Without any plan or direction, we wandered down lanes leading to the river, through a square noisy with brightly colored parakeets chirping from palm trees, and to the old wharf, where young locals meet to talk and share yerba mate tea in traditional cups. We saw dogs sleeping in shadows, gathering on grassy patches for play and socialization, and hanging out at open-air cafes hoping for a handout, making me envious of their carefree lifestyle.
It wasn’t long until we discovered the old city gate and Colonia’s most famous landmark, a lighthouse erected in 1857. To get the lay of the land, we climbed the many circular stairs to the lighthouse top, where we were rewarded with views over the old town, church spires and the never-ending Río de la Plata. At the base of the lighthouse are the ruins of the Convento de San Franciso, destroyed by fire in 1704. World travelers turned artisans, some with dreadlocks and tattoos, laid out their wares on tables beside the convent ruins; from one of them I bought a bracelet fashioned from black and neon-green fishing line. The smell of pot wafted faintly through the air. If I were a young traveler peddling wares, this would be as fine a spot as any for settling in while contemplating my next move.
There’s a definite hip vibe to old Colonia, from art galleries tucked away in courtyards to restaurants inhabiting rustic buildings and serving innovative cuisine, but one of the things I found most captivating about the old town were the many old vehicles left standing on its cobbled streets or plazas, as though they were conceptual pieces of art. We saw old VW bugs, a Chevrolet Bel Aire, jeeps, old Ford trucks and more, making the old picturesque town even more picturesquely old fashioned.
“Oh, my father put his old car out on the street,” a shopkeeper said ruefully when I remarked about the abundance of old cars. “I told him he shouldn’t do it, but now there are even more cars. People keep adding to them.”
Personally, I think the vintage cars are a nice touch, as though the streets of Colonia are awaiting a film crew or simply never caught up to the 21st century. In any case, they’re much more interesting than those huge painted cows, bears and other city mascots so popular around the world.
Surprising for a town this size but not considering its long history, Colonia has more than its fair share of museums relating to its architecture and past. Most comprehensive is the Municipal Museum, housed in an attractive stone building first erected in 1795 and rebuilt by the Spanish in 1835. Displays relate the town’s many wars between the Portuguese and Spanish, along with local archaeological, geological, religious and cultural artifacts. Colonial-era furniture, dinosaur fossils, military costumes and an array of mounted local birds and other animals are spread throughout several floors.
We also toured Nacarello’s House, dating from 1790 and simplistic with its couple of small rooms and Portuguese furnishings of the time. Other museums include the Portuguese Museum in an 18th-century stone building and with an impressive display of maps; a Spanish Museum, first constructed in 1720 and rebuilt in 1840; and the Indigenous Museum with items belonging to the Charrua and other indigenous tribes of the area. An 1880 rambling building that variously housed a glue and soap factory, a laundry for wool, and a tannery is now the Centro Cultural Bastion del Carmen, with art exhibits, musical and theatrical events and good views of sunsets from its park-like grounds.
But while Colonia del Sacramento is largely a sleepy little town when not bombarded by tourists, the bird that woke me up during the night seemed to be single-handedly trying to rouse everyone to action. Its call was the same as I’d heard in Buenos Aires, so when I visited the Municipal Museum and wondered which of the many birds in the natural history display might be the culprit, I mimicked the sound for the bemused women at the admission desk.
“Whoo Whoo! Whoo Whoo!” I gave it my best shot.
“It’s an owl,” they agreed.
I conceded that that’s what it sounded like, but in the middle of Buenos Aires? What struck me was that the hoot of the Colonia owl differed slightly from its counterpart in Buenos Aires, which puzzled me until a fanatic birder I know confirmed that birds can acquire different accents according to where they live. But of course! The Colonia owl sounded gentler, less strident than the owl over in Buenos Aires, as though it, too, knew it had a good thing going.
[For a slightly longer version of this article, see my published feature in gonomad.com.