Colonia: Uruguay’s many reasons why

“Better to marry a neighbor than a stranger.”
Uruguayan proverb

Perhaps that is why Buenos Aires (Argentina) is fond of calling this Uruguayan city 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 suffered a violent history for over a 140 years as it ping ponged between Portugal’s Brazil and Spain. Finally, with significant Argentine assistance, the former Brazilian province, known today as Uruguay, achieved it’s independence in 1828.

old town Colonia with lighthouse
oldest house in Colonia 1690

Colonia’s renowned historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the finest districts of 17th and 18th century South American colonial 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, 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 Mayor. Shops, restaurants and intimate inns are interspersed among residential 18th century houses.

original city gate, drawbridge and fortified walls
“300 years of struggle and love”

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 coast line, Colonia was pleasant in the breezy 60’s (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 is as crowded as any popular historic waterfront town, especially with Argentines.

Casa del Almirante Brown

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

Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento, Plaza Major

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

Top: new maritime terminal, historic train station Bottom: Buquebus ferry

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

Cafes in Colonia (yes… that is a former windmill & a dining table in an antique car)

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

a profusion of flowering plants even in winter

Restaurant Dos Puertos filled that 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 temperatures in the 60’s were 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.

Restaurant dos Puertos

Like most restaurants, Dos Puertos is primarily a parilla, 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, use a credit card rather than exchange money for Uruguayan currency. You can use Argentine pesos in Colonia, 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.)

at rest in Colonia’s harbor

With the pleasant waterfront surrounding three sides of the Barrio Historico, Colonia 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.

(Note: All photos and collages will enlarge when clicked and very large when double clicked)


One thought on “Colonia: Uruguay’s many reasons why”

  1. We have been to Colonia in the SA summer, Marc, and found it to be lovely. Sunset looking across the Rio de la Plata is inspirational. Like you, we found food adequate–never great. We rented bikes and went out to the old bullfighting arena outside of town. A nice excursion. The best food we had in Uruguay was in a private home where the lamb was slaughtered the day before and cooked over fire.

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