Juan very kindly helped me organise my trip across the Río de la Plata to the little town of Colonia on the southern coast of Uruguay. The ferry takes a little over two hours and costs around about USD60 (although Juan did mention that this was a particularly cheap fare).
I booked through my travel through Buquebus ferries and at about 10am got an Uber across to the terminal. Juan, Mechi and I had been out the night before, and its safe to say I wasn’t feeling the most, erm, chipper at this point…!
I’m not sure why, however I was expecting the ferry to be similar to one of the boats we used in places such as Thailand; old, rickety and a pretty informal check in/passport procedure… turns out I couldn’t be more wrong. The ferry terminal was super swanky – almost like an airport. You have to properly go through customs and the ferry is huge – complete with duty free etc. Winning! The way I was feeling, a rickety old boat may have tipped me over the edge… quite literally.
Luckily for me the passage was smooth and certainly nothing that a cheeky beer and the biggest empanada known to man couldn’t sort out. Uruguay here I come!
As soon as the ferry arrived into the port at Colonia, I looked out the window and was instantly struck by how different this place looked to the Buenos Aires that I had become accustomed to; it was so tranquil and green!
Unfortunately my ferry was just over an hour delayed which significantly reduced the time I had to explore Colonia; I wasted no time however, and straight away set about treading the pavements and made down to the Barrio Histórico; the historical old quarter of the city – a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a 10 minute walk from the ferry port to main start of the historical quarter; if I’m being truthful however the walk took me about double that as I literally couldn’t stop pausing and taking photos – this place literally is a photographer’s dream!
The history of Colonia is super interesting and I made sure I read about it before making the visit.
Colonia del Sacramento played an important part in the Uruguay’s history, more so than many may realise. Colonia’s history starts in 1680 when the Portuguese established `Nova Colonia do Santissimo Sacramento’ (The New Colony of Blessed Sacrament). The location of the town was strategically very important as it was intended as a foothold in Río de la Plata, acting as a gate towards the mines of Peru and vast agricultural areas.
The first defences were started on the nearby small island of St. Gabriel, which was also close to the Spanish Buenos Aires. This Portuguese initiative was seen as danger to Spanish interests in the region. In this same year Spanish troops invaded St. Gabriel Island and drove out the Portuguese, igniting the start to a long fight between Portuguese and Spaniards. This rivalry ultimately fuelled the development of Buenos Aires, and without the involvement of Colonia del Sacramento, Buenos Aires would be a very different city today.
Spaniards destroyed the town in 1704 and 1705 during the War of Spanish Succession. The Portuguese started to rebuild the city again in 1715 and in 1718 with the population growing to more than 1,000 people. The Golden era of Colonia del Sacramento started in 1722, with the appointment of Antonio Pedro de Vasconcellos as Governor. He focused on the development of the city, which rapidly grew and by 1750 it had become truly successful. In 1753 the skilled Portuguese military architect Jose Custodio de Sa e Faria designed improvements to the fortifications. Despite this, 1762 saw the Spainish managing to take over the city, only to be returned to Portugal in 1763. However, after a siege in 1777, it again became a Spanish city.
With the Spaniards now in charge, parts of the earlier-built fortifications and some of the buildings were demolished, but the new rulers caused no radical changes to the overall look of the city. Following the short-lived peace, the city experienced fierce independence battles from 1811 to 1828, involving the Portuguese and Brazil. Between 1839 and 1851 the new nation of Uruguay was at war with Argentina and Sacramento, which again caused the City of Colonia del Sacramento to suffer.
Since the mid-19th century the political situation in South America began to stabilise and peace finally came to Uruguay. In 1859 the last of the fortifications were demolished and a new era of development began in Colonia del Sacramento, expanding beyond the old borders. During this time a new centre of Uruguay was developed called Montevideo resulting in the loss of Colonia del Sacramento’s metropolitan flair. Colonia del Sacramento became a silent provincial town, thus saving its historical architecture and urban fabric. The heritage value of the city was first recognised in 1924, when several attempts to set up a conservation regime were made. In 1995 the historical centre of the city was included in the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List and remains the only Uruguayan monument on this list.
There’s no denying it; this well-preserved urban landscape successfully delivers a snippet of the past, abolishing the city’s stormy political history.
One you reach the historical centre of the city, the first thing which greet you are the old city walls and the drawstring, fortified, gate. The Old Town Gate is also called Puerta de Campo or Puerta de la Ciudadela, and was built in 1745 by the Portuguese governor Don Manuel Lobo. The region of the Río de la Plata was valuable and was regularly fought over, so this gate with its walls served to defend the strategically located town from attacks. Today, it is still well preserved and a frequently visited place. It marks the limit between the new part of the city and the Barrio Histórico.
Nowadays, Colonia is a really sleepy town in which you can wander, enjoy the beautiful sites, the stunning Portuguese and Spanish architecture, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy fantastic food and wine.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I could have spent days here. Every corner I turned I was greeted with another amazing site, a beautiful vista, or an picture perfect scene which looked like it had been set up solely for my camera lens – it was amazing.
I walked along the shore line and admired the vintage cars sprinkled around as if they had been sitting in these exact spots for years. I tried not to attract too much attention from the dogs wandering the streets, inhaled up the smell of smokey bbq which seemed to linger in the air and soaked up the cool breeze that was coming in from the waters. What a place!
Something that I absolutely loved about Colonia is that you can imagine exactly what it would have been like treading the same pavements two hundred years ago, although the historical buildings may now have their paint chipping, or their shine slightly faded, they were completely charming and a total time capsule. I was in awe.
I took a little time to head down to the pier where I admired the mix of modern sailing boats next to the quintessentially old fishing boats which are probably just as well used today as they have ever been. Had I had a bit more time, I definitely would have sat out on the decks and soaked up the atmosphere from the waters edge for a little longer – it was beautiful!
Unfortunately however, I was a little pushed for time, so I decided to stop off for a bit of a break and enjoy some good food and wine, obvs.
After a little bit of a wander I settled on a nice little place right near the waters edge called La Comandancia, which had a cool little outdoor area, a log fire burning in the corner, and a banging playlist of latina covers playing over the sound system.
Italian food is renowned to be amazing in these parts of South America due to the influx of Italian immigrants who flocked here back at the end of the 19th century. Seeing as I had yet to sample any proper Italian food in Buenos Aires, I opted for a dish of fresh pasta and beef ragu which was absolutely delicious. Of course, I rounded this off with a large glass (or two) of incredible local red wine. To say I was in my element would be an understatement…
After lunch, I decided to continue as I had started off and literally kept on walking through the town. I was in awe at the architecture, the typography of the signage at the shops, the colours and the atmosphere of this little town.
Something which you will see quite a lot over the Colonia are golf buggies and electrical cars which are a perfect way to get from a-b if you feel so inclined! I was perfectly happy just wandering but I saw loads of people travelling around using these, and I wont lie, it did look pretty fun!
One of the first stops I came to in the afternoon was the Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento.
This Catholic Parish was established on 2 February 1680 and takes the title as one of the oldest churches in Uruguay. The first church here was a humble mud ranch and dated back to the origin of the city itself. The current church on the site dates back to 1810 however it was partly destroyed shortly after by lightening storm. The building was restored between 1836 and 1841. Finally, in 1976 a conceptual refurbishment took place which gives light to the building we see today.
I did take a quick look inside which, as a I imagined, was absolutely stunning, understated – simple – but still super beautiful.
From here I continued walking across the square to the ruins of the Convento de San Franciso, which was destroyed by fire in 1704.
World travelers turned artisans, some with dreadlocks and tattoos, laid out their wares on tables beside the convent ruins; all of course casually sipping from their cup of Yurba Mate.
I must admit, The smell of weed did waft faintly through the air, here – having been declared as legal in 2017. I definitely admired from a distance, however, I promise I didn’t mum!
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. I honestly think I fell in love a little…
Just across the square stands the El Faro lighthouse which built in 1857 and is worth seeing because of its special shape and design. The lower part is shaped in a square and the upper half is a cylindrical tower which reaches all the way up to the lantern. The lighthouse was built over the ruins of the Convento de San Francisco, which are still visible today. If you’re anything like me I just spent my time climbing up over them and trying not to trip – super interesting though!
After scaling the rocks for a little while and getting lost in the maze of beautiful cobbled streets I decided it was time to wander back towards the dock for my ferry back to Buenos Aires; there was always time for a quick caipirinha however!
I ended up stopping off at a little bar which had a nice outdoor terrace just a stones throw from the ancient gates back out of the historic quarter.
I sat out in the sun, sipping on my delicious cocktail, and thinking that I had become the Uruguay equivalent of Dr Doolittle by getting the birds to eat literally out of the palm of my hands; that was until I was, erm, ‘relieved on’ not one, but twice! Safe to say that friendship was over as soon as it started and I swiftly departed, making my way back to the docks and taking my stash of salted peanuts with me!
The walk back to the ferry still offers up plenty of interesting sites. I stopped off at the original Colonia railway station which now is part of the Museo del Ferrocarro which houses Uruguay’s biggest collection of historical railroad memorabilia – to me it looked like something straight out of the old US Western films!
That brought my little trip across to Uruguay to an ended as I wandered back to the dock and boarded the ferry back to Buenos Aires.
I literally could not recommend this little day trip from the big city more. If I had more time I would have stayed overnight to get a proper feel for the area. Even so, I fell a little bit in love with this town and certainly cannot wait to return one day!