If you're in Buenos Aires and fancy to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, a trip to Colonia del Sacramento, in neighbouring Uruguay, is the best choice.
The city, which today capital of the department of Colonia (something like a state) was founded in 1680 by Portuguese and Rio de Janeiro governor Manuel Lobo, anxious to consolidate business with Spanish speaking America.
The walled old part of town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995. It sees a fusion of Spanish, Portuguese and post-colonial architecture. The cobbled streets and squares with centennial trees help bring us back in time, a time when Portuguese and Spanish fought each other: one trying to establish a stronghold this side of the Río de la Plata (Silver River), and the other trying to avoid a Lusitanian invasion in their territory.
The city is very pleasant and the best way to discover it is strolling its cobbled streets, stopping at a souvenir shop, a small museum or one of the many cafes and restaurants. Most people spend a whole day here, but Colonia can be seen even in half a day. The most common way to arrive in the city is by ferry from Buenos Aires or bus from Montevideo. The fastest ferry takes one hour and fifteen minutes. When you walk from the port to the old town, you will walk past the city's old railway station, where a hotel and catering school operates today. The railway itself is partly covered by the grass. Whilst making your way to the old town you can already appreciate the rather peculiar architecture.
After a few minutes' walk you will see the gate that leads to the old town and part of the old wall. One could never tell that this area was abandoned for 200 years and up to the 1960's all of this was just ruins and a territory dominated by prostitutes, pimps and clients. A place no respectable person would dare set foot upon.
The whole old town underwent a full restoration, which included rebuilding the city walls and the main gate with original and new stones, and renovation of some mansions and museums.
In the area called Punta de San Pedro you will find the city's lighthouse, which was built in 1857 over the ruins of the Saint Francis Convent. The top of the lighthouse can be reached after climbing 111 steps. But the effort is well worth it, as this is the only way to enjoy a bird's eye view of the city and the Río de la Plata. Talking about Río de la Plata, there's also a small yacht club in the city with a pleasant marina full of small boats and yachts belonging to Uruguayans and Argentines, as many affluent porteños (natives of Buenos Aires) have a holiday home here.
To help take you back in time, there are a number of old cars everywhere in Colonia! Cars from the beginning of last century to the glorious 1960's can be seen everywhere - some are there just for decoration, others are in full use! And mixing with these relics are some rather intrusive golf carts, which you can hire if you prefer to explore the city on four wheels... but come on, this city was made for walking and you should walk all over...
If you're spending more than just half a day in town, I strongly recommend you visit some of the museums, such as the Portuguese Museum, the Spanish Museum and the Native Indian Museum. Needless to say the Santíssimo Sacramento Basilica, built in 1680 and considered the oldest church in Uruguay, should not be missed!
Having gone through several periods throughout history, and becoming today an attractive tourist destination, Colonia offers a great day tour departing from Buenos Aires or Montevideo, and will definitely take you to a different time in history. The times of a colony.
- Two-hour walking tours in English are available and cost UYU150 per person (or USD8, €7 if you want to pay in foreign currency, but remember these exchange rates are rather disfavourable!)
- Climbing up the lighthouse, despite the 111 steps, is worthwhile, but make sure to pay in Uruguayan pesos if you don't want to lose money.
- If you're coming from Buenos Aires, Montevideo is just 2 hours' bus ride (UYU254) and deserves at least a full day visit.