Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, is a charming colonial style town at the eastern river bank of the Río de la Plata. It is one of the unique places from old colonial times which is today both well-preserved and a charming spot drawing visitors from all over the world.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 24 JAN 2020
Arriving by ferry from Buenos Aires in Argentina, we follow the crowd of passengers out of the ferry terminal which at the same time is efficient access point to Uruguay. Hundreds of visitors arrive here every day to experience the genuine ambiance in the old cobblestone streets. Several ferry boat lines with slightly different offers serve the crossing: Seacat Colonia, Buquebus and Colonia Express.
We have come to the old colonial style town on a day trip, taking advantage of easy access by ferry to the picturesque town with UNESCO World Heritage status. Colonia del Sacramento is the oldest town in Uruguay and renowned for its outstanding colonial architecture. The one-hour short ferry ride makes the location a very popular destination as a day trip from Argentina.
Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay
It surprises us a bit that the arriving troop almost immediately dissolves, disappearing into waiting buses or absorbed by the few streets leading to the old town or Barrio Histórico. Within a few minutes we find ourselves nearly alone in one of the main streets, wondering if that is solely because it is off season. Had we feared hordes of day-trippers invading the colonial streets, it is definitely not the case in the morning at this time of the year.
We have arrived in July which is winter in the southern hemisphere. Nevertheless, despite the temperate climate, the sun has power and the air is already relatively warm. Strolling around we take in the colonial atmosphere and spirit in the quaint, narrow cobbled streets.
Colonia del Sacramento – colonial style in Uruguay
The historic quarter of Colonia del Sacramento lies on kind of a small peninsula surrounded by water on three sides. The remote town was founded in 1680 by the Portuguese Manuel Lobo initiating the construction of a fortress.
For years to come, it repeatedly changed between Portuguese and Spanish rule. Also Britain showed an interest in the small, fortified town, but did not really influence it much. Eventually, in 1828 Colonia del Sacramento became part of the independent Uruguay.
The colonial architecture and urban style are the visible results of the Spanish and Portuguese changing control and, thus, integration of building styles. That a considerable number of houses are so well-preserved is precisely why it is a veritable gem.
Colonia del Sacramento may also give an idea of how other towns along the Río de la Plata have looked at the time. The houses in colonial style may give a hint how houses and quarters in neighbouring cities like Buenos Aires have appeared before modernisation.
One of the absolute unique streets, paved with wedge stones, is the Calle de los Suspiros or Street of Sighs. Several legends exist around the name. According to one of them, men condemned to death were taken along the street to be drowned in the sea – and therefore breathed their last ‘sighs’.
Today, the street is an absolutely postcardlike view into old colonial times and may be one of the most photographed streets in Colonia. Nevertheless, we are as lucky as to have it all to ourselves. Strolling around the houses I truly feel that time has stood still for hundreds of years here.
Colonia de Sacramento – an old Uruguay smuggling port
We continue towards the riverfront and the harbour. What comes as a surprise to me is that Colonia de Sacramento was also once an active smuggling port! The location was remote enough to bypass the compulsory trade measures imposed on the Latin American continent by the Spanish. In this way it became a strategically important focal point for illegal cross-border trade.
Like everywhere else in the historic quarter the harbour is idyllic and peaceful with a stunning view to the 50-kilometre wide river … or estuary – which it in fact is. From where we stand on the river bank it actually looks like a sea. However, looking in the right direction it is on a clear day just possible to discern the tall buildings of Buenos Aires in the distance.
The vibrant waterfront is popular among both tourists and locals on a sunny day like today. The harbour features both interesting, old vessels, fishing boats and modern yachts.
Barrio Histórico is with its colonial style houses a beautiful neighbourhood and has an authentic feel. It is unique cultural heritage with its original single-storey, colourful houses. Moreover, it is absolutely scenic!
Wandering around the quaint streets we soon realise that the Plaza de Armas is the heart of the old town. Bohemian cafés and restaurants surround it and create together with the tall sycamores and palm trees a relaxed ambiance in the historic town. Moreover, the impressive church with the two towers, Santísimo Sacramento, also rises on the tranquil square as a landmark of Colonia.
Shipwrecks and bullring
Taking a stroll along the streets in southern direction, another landmark appears. It is the 19th-century white lighthouse which was built over the ruins of the San Francisco convent. It has definitely at the time been a relief to the many navigating ships passing the rocky river beds near the Uruguayan shores during the dark night. Now and then they didn’t make it and sank. The lighthouse could have saved the life of many a merchant or smuggler from the past! According to some sources, up to several thousands of ships may have sunk throughout the years and many of them even with all kinds of treasures on board!
Another rare and spectacular site some kilometres away from the historic district is the old bullring on Plaza de Toros Real de San Carlos dating back to 1910. It is built in Moorish style, influenced by the building style on the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish and Portuguese introduced the bullfighting tradition, and eventually a bullring was established by Argentinian entrepreneurs in Colonia del Sacramento , Uruguay, since it was not allowed in Buenos Aires. They collaborated with Uruguayan businessmen to finance it.
Famous matadors from Argentina crossed the Río de la Plata to fight on Uruguayan ground. A full arena would assemble 10,000 spectators. The aristocracy arrived on the pier Real San Carlos from Montevideo and Buenos Aires by passenger steamship. Waiting carts would take them the short distance to the bullring. However, already in 1912, after only 8 bullfights, the bullring was abandoned again since the Uruguayan government banned the events.
In addition to the interesting, old history popping up everywhere in town, we also come across present-day culture when ambling around. Uruguay’s Colonia del Sacramento also excels at exhibiting handsome vintage cars on the street corners, as well as authentic, old carts from bygone times. The antique vehicles mix with the classic colonial style in a remarkable way!
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