A day trip to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

A flutist in Colonia del Sacramento in late afternoon

The Argentine capital of Buenos Aires is fond of calling the Uruguayan city of Colonia del Sacramento their “48th barrio.” It’s not imperialism or condescension; it’s 300 years of history. Founded in 1680 by Portugal, Colonia del Sacramento is a mere 50-minute high-speed ferry trip across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires.

Colonia del Sacramento, the former capital of this then Portuguese Brazilian province and a strategic port from the 17th through 19th centuries, suffered a violent history for over 140 years as it ping ponged between Spain and Portugal’s Brazil. With significant Argentine assistance, the former Brazilian province of Uruguay achieved independence in 1828.

Portón de Campo – the City Gate and wooden drawbridge to Colonia del Sacramento

Colonia del Sacramento’s renowned historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the finest districts of 17th and 18th century South American architecture. It is a popular tourist attraction for visitors from Buenos Aires especially during the summer as its position on the northeastern side of the Rio de la Plata provides a cooling breeze. The Barrio Historico de Colonia del Sacramento, within walking distance of the ferry terminal, contains portions of its fortified wall and the city gate with its still functioning wooden drawbridge. Original cobblestone streets radiate from the tree-lined Plaza Major. Shops, restaurants and intimate inns are interspersed among residential 18th century houses.

Barrio Historico de Colonia del Sacramento

I was visiting in late June, which is the beginning of winter in Uruguay. Because of the country’s long Atlantic and Rio de la Plata coastline, Colonia del Sacramento was pleasant with a breezy 60°F. The entire historic core is closed to traffic except for business owners and residents. Many visitors rent bicycles and scooters – many residents use similar vehicles – but it is an easy town for walking. In the summer season Colonia del Sacramento is as crowded as any popular historic waterfront town, especially with Argentinians.

Barrio Historico de Colonia del Sacramento & Iglesia Matriz (c.1695)

Among notable attractions are the lighthouse and the ruins of the 17th century Convent of San Francisco. The Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento was constructed in 1808. The 18th century Portuguese Museum has furnishings, jewelry, uniforms and old maps of Portuguese naval expeditions. The Casa de Nacarello is an 18th century house museum. The Casa del Almirante Brown houses artifacts and documents of the city’s different periods and cultures. Of note is that Irish-born Admiral William Brown was instrumental in gaining Uruguay’s independence and is regarded as the “father of the Argentine navy” – a national hero in both Uruguay and Argentina. The oldest church in Uruguay, Iglesia Matriz, dating from 1695, is found in Colonia del Sacramento as well.

There is a commercial new town to Colonia del Sacramento that is conveniently separated from the historic zone. It continues as the city’s traditional trading hub between Argentina and Uruguay.

Historic lighthouse at Colonia del Sacramento

 Buquebus ferries make 5 to 6 round trips between Buenos Aires and Colonia del Sacramento daily from its new modern and efficient terminal at the Northern Dock in Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires. The trip takes less than one hour. Same day excursion specials are available. From both Colonia del Sacramento and Buenos Aires, Buquebus ferries sail to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital.

There are dozens of restaurants in the Barrio Historico de Colonia del Sacramento. It has always been my experience to avoid any restaurant that has waiters outside overly eager to “capture” a tourist – of any nationality – while explaining their menu. I’ll make a generalization based on hundreds of restaurant meals in dozens of countries – this tactic sends a proverbial red flag that the food is mediocre and overpriced.

Colonia del Sacramento, especially around the Plaza Major, has many such establishments. On the other hand I am partial to restaurants that have water views, even if the menu is not extraordinary. Simple food, well cooked and presented, acquires a special aura when accompanied by a beautiful setting. Uruguay, like Argentina, is known for the excellent quality of its grass-fed cattle and natural farming methods.  In recent years there has been an increase in vineyards devoted to organic grapes and wine production.

Restaurant Dos Puertos

Restaurant Dos Puertos filled the criteria. Set one block from the waterfront, the outdoor seating had a clear view of the sun dappled Rio de la Plata. Even though it was winter, the mild temperature was fine for an outdoor lunch. My first course was their interpretation of what the menu clearly said was Caprese Salad – thick slices of tomato, fresh basil with slabs of Gruyère cheese. If you are very fond of Gruyère you would be in heaven. Personally I would have liked the fresh mozzarella a Caprese Salad requires. My entrée was grilled fresh Sea Bass, simply seasoned, accompanied by a vegetable medley that had obviously come from a freezer bag but at least they were not over cooked. It was not a memorable meal, but the service was friendly and the view relaxing.

Colonia del Sacramento

Like most restaurants, Dos Puertos is primarily a parilla – a restaurant specializing in wood fired grilled meats – and stacks of aromatic wood were piled on the side of the building. Pleasant folk music was piped outside. Restaurant prices are slightly higher in Uruguay than in Argentina.  If you are just making a day trip to Colonia del Sacramento, use a credit card rather than exchange money for Uruguayan currency. You can use Argentine pesos in Colonia del Sacramento, but you’ll get a better exchange rate on the dollar with your credit card, even with the bank fee. (Note: Uruguayan currency is not accepted in Argentina.)

With the pleasant waterfront surrounding three sides of the Barrio Historico, Colonia del Sacramento is well worth at least a day trip from Buenos Aires with its history, charm, cafes, sailing, shops and galleries. For a longer visit, it makes a good base to explore the beautiful countryside of southwestern Uruguay.

 

Travel with Pen and Palate every month to Greece and the world in the Hellenic News of America.

Drinking mate on the street in Colonia del Sacramento

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