It had been a fascinating two weeks in Argentina but lying tantalisingly close to Buenos Aires is Uruguay. Anna Hyman and Jackie Marriott crossed the Rio de la Plata to explore the picturesque and historic city of Colonia del Sacramento.
If, like us, you only have time for a day visit to Uruguay’s gorgeous little city of Colonia del Sacramento you would be advised to make an early start. Small it might be, but there is a surprising amount to see and do.
Actually for us it involved a very early start from our comfortable hotel the Palo Santo in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires. Nevertheless even at that early hour some of the lovely staff were up and on duty to make sure we had breakfast and that our taxi arrived.
To give us as much time as possible in Colonia we had opted to take the fast craft from Buenos Aires’ Puerto Madero terminal.
It’s a large modern building with colourful paper -lantern-style lights hanging like large balloons from the ceiling of the main hall. Along one wall are check-in desks, and above each desk screens indicating the various ferries.
Having checked-in and duly been given our documentation and immigration forms, we made our way upstairs for immigration and the various screening procedures en route to the departure hall itself.
A smooth crossing…
The 50km river crossing (evidently it can be choppy) was smooth, comfortable and fast, and in about an hour we were being greeted by our English speaking guide for the day, the charming, Federico Costa of Lares Tours.
We could, of course, have explored on our own, but as we wanted to see as much as we could in a short space of time and also learn more about the history we had asked our terrific UK tour company 2by2 Holidays, who had organised our entire trip, to also organise a driver and English speaking guide to show us around.
…and a history lesson
Federico had decided that our first port of call would be to see the ruins of the bullring on the edge of town.
En route he gave us a brief résumé of Colonia’s history. More correctly he told us that the city is called Colonia del Sacramento (Colonia is the name of the province) but for ease and convenience most people simply call it Colonia.
Colonia was founded by the Portuguese way back in 1680 and because of its strategic position it was extensively used by smugglers moving goods in and out of Spanish Buenos Aires on the opposite bank of the Rio de la Plata. Understandably Spain was desperate to control Colonia.
for over a century Colonia became something of a ping pong ball tossed backwards and forwards between the two countries. The conflict was solved in 1828 when Uruguay claimed independence and Colonia for itself.
First stop – the bullring and a chapel
In spite of being in a somewhat dilapidated state of repair, the vast Moorish –style bullring (the Plaza de Toros de San Carlos) is actually rather imposing. For safety reasons it is not possible to go in but it is just possible to get an idea of the interior through the arches.
It opened in 1910 and attracted the world’s leading bullfighters in the two years of its existence. In fact only eight official bullfights took place before bullfighting was banned by the Uruguayan government in 1912.
Close by is the small white-washed chapel of Saint Benito dating back to 1761 with its statue of the black saint – Saint Benito de Palermo.
A sandy river beach
A short distance from the chapel is a sandy river beach fringed with dunes and trees.
It was a gloriously sunny day, the sand was warm and almost white and the water echoed the blue of the sky, it was idyllic.
The city gate dates back to 1745
From there it was a mere four kilometre drive to the historic heart of Colonia. And such an enchanting heart it is too, one thoroughly deserving its UNESCO world heritage status.
We crossed over the wooden drawbridge passing through the city gate (dating back to 1745) set into the thick protective city walls, and into the enchanting old centre.
The street of sighs
Federico led us into the Calle de los Susprios – the street of sighs. Were they the sighs of the criminals condemned to die there, or the sighs of sailors seeking out the prostitutes who lived in the little houses? Who knows. Today they are more likely to be the sighs from tourists struggling to take a picture of this dangerously cobbled, but picturesque, street.
Portuguese and Spanish cobblestones
In fact with their mix of Spanish and Portuguese architectural styles all the streets are picturesque; the architecture and the layout of the cobblestones depending on whichever country was in charge at the time.
Bougainvillea, Kapok trees…
Bougainvillea in full flower added even more colour to the streets and town square as did the vibrant pink of the Silk Floss (kapok) tree. (Federico informed us that the tree is known locally as palo borracho – drunken stick.)
…and classic cars
The number of classic cars intrigued us too, possibly even more than we had seen in Cuba. Some of the cars obviously in everyday use, others used more for street ornamentation – one outside a small restaurant had a growing tree protruding through its roof.
We wandered into various shops to investigate what was on offer – artisan cheese, conserves, hams and olive oil (and very good olive oil too) figured large, several shops sold handcraft gifts, and we also spotted several enticing bodegas and bars for coffee or something stronger.
Magnificent views from the lighthouse
Protruding behind the monastery ruins stands the white city lighthouse built in the 1850s. If you have time and energy climb the stairs to the viewing gallery.
We didn’t – neither of us liking heights or steep spiral stairs – but we were told the views are magnificent.
Colonia’s main church and Governor’s House
Instead we headed for the city’s main church the Basilica of the Holy Sacrament which still retains traces of its Portuguese ancestry.
This small, simple twin-towered church has been on the site since the founding of the city in 1680 but has been rebuilt and added to several times over the centuries – not least following a lightning strike in the early 19th century which caused an explosion igniting gunpowder stored in the sacristy.
Close by we came across the restored foundations of the Governor’s House. In its day it must have been a magnificent building with a large kitchen built slightly apart from the main house.
La Florida restaurant
The mention of kitchens turned our thoughts to lunch. A set lunch had been included in the cost of our guided tour, and Federico suggested that as it was getting late it was time he took us to our restaurant at Odriozola 215 – Restaurante La Florida.
We loved La Florida from the minute we set foot over the threshold. From the warm welcome from the charming and entertaining owner host, who was also taking on the role of waiter and chef that day, to the very tasty lunch and the restaurant’s somewhat unusual décor – it had our vote.
Lace tablecloths adorned the tables, old photos and other objects such as a scooter and toy car hung on the walls whilst on ledges and tables stood a selection of knick-knacks ranging from ornamental to functional. This eclectic mix of furnishings continued through into the bathroom/toilet.
A tasty lunch
Whilst waiting for our starter of cheeses and tomato served with balsamic vinegar and a homemade pesto we tucked into home -made cream cheese. What our starter lacked in elegance it more than made up for it in quantity and flavour. That was followed by a fillet of fish with prawns in a light curry sauce with fried potatoes. We didn’t really have room for dessert but somehow we managed a rich and indulgent chocolate pudding.
Carlos, for we believe that was our host’s name, recommended a glass of crisp, cold white wine, and his suggestion of a mango liqueur with coffee rounded off one of the best meals we had had during our two week trip.
La Florida appears to be only open for lunch, and not every day either, and we got the impression that credit cards are not taken. Check before you go.
A relaxed lunch
We had planned on exploring on our own in the little time we had left after our lunch, but when Federico arrived at the appointed time to look for us and take us to our fast ferry back to Buenos Aires, he found us still sitting at our table enjoying that glass of mango liqueur and chatting to our host and the delightful couple at the next table.
Exploring further would have to wait for another visit.
Our visit to Argentina /Colonia was organised by 2by2 Holidays:
Tel: 01582 766122 2by2holidays.co.uk/.
Our Buenos Aires hotel
Hotel Palo Santo: www.palosantohotel.com
We ate at
Restaurante La Florida, Odriozola 215, 70000 Col Del Sacramento.
Tel: +598 94 293 036