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Destination Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento

Colonia del Sacramento, the only city founded by the Portuguese on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, has charming cobblestone streets and old homes with a magical mixture of architectural styles. Coveted throughout its turbulent history by different kingdoms, the city was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995.

Text and photos: Carlos E. Gómez

Morning brings the port of Buenos Aires to melancholy life. The Colonia Express ferry sails from the west bank of the Dársena River in Pedro 330 at 8 o’clock in the morning. The noise from travelers can be heard as soon as we reach the Río de la Plata, the world’s widest river, measuring 135 miles across. Ships, cranes, and a floating casino bid farewell to the port. No matter how wide I open my eyes it’s impossible to see my destination: Colonia del Sacramento, on the other shore, some twenty-four miles from the City of Fury.

Nearly an hour goes by on these still waters that resemble an ocean; waters that once witnessed battles between kingdoms and the arrival of conquistadores, colonists, and immigrants from Europe and other latitudes. In the distance stands the coveted city of Colonia del Sacramento, the only city on Río de la Plata founded by the Portuguese.

We reach the Uruguayan port at 9:20 a.m. After going through immigration, the group –which includes at least a dozen different nationalities– is met by Jorge, an entertaining guide, who takes us on a leisurely 20-minute walk and tells us part of the history of this colonial city, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 (the country’s first). The charm of its cobblestone streets and old homes is linked to the magical melting pot of 17th-century Portuguese and Spanish architecture.

Soon we reach the legendary City Gate, protected by a military fort with thick walls, an iconic city landmark and historic relic dating from 1745, built during the Portuguese government of Antonio Pedro de Vasconcelos. Walking through this doorway is like entering another era, reviving stories of tales of foreign lands. Today, the Gate and its drawbridge mark the boundary between the new part of the city and its historic district.

Our guide leaves us in the old city. Located on the tiny peninsula of San Gabriel, the town was founded in January 1680 by Admiral Manuel Lobo, the governor of Río de Janeiro, who sailed in with two ships, two brigantines, and several smaller vessels, accompanied by 400 soldiers, eighteen cannons, and assorted artillery. In September of that same year, 480 Spanish soldiers, a military attachment from the cities of Corrientes and Santa Fe, four from Tucumán, and some 3,000 Indians mustered by the head of the Jesuit missions assaulted this city, which seems frozen in time.

These events were part of the border clashes between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in their efforts to expand their overseas dominions beyond the agreements reached in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Colonia changed hands from crown to crown eleven times, and changed names several times, amid diplomatic and military actions grounded in old treaties and maps and new land surveys, until 1828 when it came under the sovereignty of the Eastern State of Uruguay.

Here, standing to one side of the Plaza Mayor, opposite the Cathedral, with a small map of the city in hand, each of us plots our own path around the twelve walled hectares, in an attempt to feel like one of the illustrious witnesses and inhabitants of this land during the imperial wars. The layout of the city, of Portuguese origin, is based on military criteria. The long wall stands out, rebuilt in some sections, as do the bastions of San Miguel, San Antonio, del Carmen, San Pedro, and Santa Rita, pentagonal fortifications protruding from the fortress.

The lighthouse at the tip of San Pedro offers a fine perspective from which to view the whole city. Located atop the ruins of the old San Francisco Javier convent, this 112-foot tower sends out a flash of white light every nine seconds, visible up to sixty miles away in clear weather. It was financed with the tolls paid by the ships that anchored along the city’s shores. There, from above, the city looks splendid: we see a grouping of old houses with red-tile gables that has been used as a film location for period films like De eso no se habla (1993). The lighthouse provides a privileged view of the river where hundreds of ships sunk below shimmering waters before it began guiding mariners in 1857. The inauguration of this lighthouse was front page news in major newspapers around the world.

I walk the Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), left behind by the Portuguese, a narrow cobblestone street with sloping sides and a central drain. There are many legends surrounding the street’s name: some say that inmates sentenced to death were forced to walk along it on their way to the riverbank to be executed, or that the ladies of the evening back in the day used to walk it, or that when the wind whistles through it, it sounds like sighs.

I visit the city’s small museums located in old houses around the Plaza Mayor, unpretentious homes filled with ancient treasures. The Museo Portugués (Portuguese Museum), a stone building with a gabled roof dating from the first half of the seventeenth century; the Museo Español (Spanish Museum), two small stone buildings originally built as a home in the first half of the eighteenth century; the Museo Municipal (Municipal Museum), exhibiting valuable documents that history buffs will enjoy; and the Museo del Azulejo (Tile Museum), a house that has overlooked the river for three hundred years and now holds preserved samples of tiles from different periods. To learn more about the history, visit the Archivo Regional (Regional Archives), a stone house of Portuguese origin that houses thousands of secrets.

It’s 1:30 and time for lunch. The cuisine of Colonia is as eclectic as the city itself: scenic spots in old houses; sophisticated a la carte restaurants; casual pizza places; home cooking; and restaurants specializing in meat, pasta, fish, cheese, and fine wines. I opt for El Torreón with its unique architecture and order a glass of wine and a cut of beef, which proves to be fresh, well presented, and absolutely delicious, and I’m ready to continue walking, a pastime I enjoy thoroughly.

El Real de San Carlos

The afternoon is spent on a bike ride. I ride down the boulevard, a long stretch of beach and garden, up to Real de San Carlos, a former Spanish military enclave, where you can enjoy its calm waters and a fine sand beach along the Rio de la Plata. I also come across the ruins of a tourist venture headed by Argentine businessman Nicholas Mihanovich in the early twentieth century, which included a bullring, a pelota court, and a hotel casino.

Despite the rivalries, the Spanish and Portuguese shared a passion for bullfighting, a love inherited by many Argentines and Uruguayans. When bullfighting was banned in Argentina, businessmen from the two countries built a huge and beautiful neo-Mudejar style bullring supported by large horseshoe arches. It was inaugurated on January 9, 1908 with all the bells and whistles, and more than 10,000 spectators attended. However, the joy was short-lived; the elegant bullring operated for just two years and eight corridas before Uruguay outlawed the sport in the country. Since then, this silent witness to the art of bullfighting has refused to disappear.

Another unique gem is the pelota court built in 1910; it is a field approximately 210 feet long and 70 feet wide (the largest in South America) where the Basque “pelota” game is played, a sport still seen at the Olympics. Finally, I visit the Museo del Ferrocarril (Railway Museum) across from the bullring. As I make my way though the museum, I realize that everything is original: locomotives, wagons, benches, and other relics of the railway system that played an important role in uniting the people of Uruguay.

It’s five o’clock and I watch as the sun sinks slowly over the yacht harbor, burning up the sky in a show that invites lovers to dream of other worlds. I have just enough time to take some pictures and bid the day farewell, full of peace and serenity and ready for my 8:45 return, when the ship’s horn announces the departure for Buenos Aires.