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COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO, Uruguay – Charming, historic and tranquil.
Located on the Uruguayan banks of the Rio de la Plata, Colonia del Sacramento is about 180 kilometers (112 miles) from Montevideo and only a three-hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In the 17th century, the city’s strategic location provoked intense disputes between Portugal and Spain. The two colonial powers realized they could control commerce in Cuenca del Plata (Rio de la Plata Basin) by ruling Colonia’s port.
Portugal took the lead. In 1680, Lisbon’s crown commissioned Manuel Lobo, Rio de Janeiro’s governor, to found the city of Colonia.
Spain reacted immediately by establishing a garrison, where the current Real de San Carlos neighborhood is located, five kilometers (3.1 miles) from the historic quarter. A long confrontation ensued between the two maritime powers for control.
“For almost 100 years, Colonia changed hands 10 times between Portugal and Spain. At times diplomatically, other times by force,” said Mariela Zubizarreta, Colonia’s tourism director. “The city ended up in the hands of the Spanish crown after much negotiation with Portugal.”
The long fight between Spain and Portugal resulted in a rich blend of architectural styles throughout the city. Portuguese Baroque-style houses are intermingled with Moorish and Spanish-style structures.
Thanks to this diversity, Colonia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and has emerged as one of Uruguay’s main tourist destinations.
Also known for its large number of antique car collectors, Colonia welcomes many of the 400,000 tourists who arrive annually just to see, photograph or buy cars from the last century.
But the number of tourists is just an estimate since visitors who don’t stay overnight or pass through immigration aren’t counted, which includes Uruguayans on day trips.
“Generally, our tourists are middle- to upper-middle class, college educated and culturally sophisticated – people who appreciate historical and cultural tourism,” Zubizarreta said. “Around 50% are Argentine, 23% are Uruguayan, 15% are Brazilian and 12% are from Europe and the United States.”
Calle de los Suspiros
The historical tour through Colonia starts with the Portón de Campo. Built in 1745 and restored in the 1970s, it was once part of the wall surrounding the city.
A few feet away is the famous Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), an alleyway that practically ends in the Rio de la Plata.
“There are several explanations about how the street got its name,” said Penélope Magdalena, manager of the De los Suspiros Art Gallery, which is in a house built in 1720. “Some say the slaves passed through here on their way to be killed in the river. Others claim that this was where the brothels were located.”
Colonia’s Iglesia Matriz (Matriz Church) is one of Uruguay’s oldest churches. It was built at the end of the 17th century and partially destroyed during the Iberian wars, but it has been restored.
For a panoramic view of the city, visitors climb to the top of the lighthouse alongside the ruins of the Convento de San Francisco Javier (San Francisco Javier Convent).
Plaza Mayor, with its stately trees and quaint cafes, can be seen from atop the lighthouse.
The Real de San Carlos neighborhood, which is home to the Plaza de Toros, is five kilometers (3.1 miles) from the plaza.
The bullfighting ring was opened in 1910 by an Argentine businessman. Little did he know that two years later the Uruguayan government would ban bullfighting. The arena hosted only eight fights before the ban.
The same businessman also opened a hotel casino that is now home to the Centro Politécnico del Cono Sur. This center actively collaborates with Spain’s Universitat Politècnica de València.
Good hotel services and restaurants
Colonia, which features bed and breakfasts as well as five-star hotels, has a wide range of accommodations to suit all tastes and budgets.
There are also many dining options. The El Drugstore restaurant, for example, has live music and traditional Uruguayan cuisine. Make sure to try the chivito, a classic Uruguayan sandwich made with steak, eggs, ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato and olives.
The Pulpería de Los Faroles restaurant is known for its service and reasonable prices. There, you can savor the bife de chorizo (sirloin strip steak), traditional rabas (sliced squid) and brótola, a popular regional fish.
“If you want to eat empanadas [fried or baked pastries with a sweet and savory filling], go to the bar at Colonia’s bus terminal because they have the best empanadas I’ve eaten in my life,” Brazilian journalist Edu Lima said.
He has visited the city twice. During his first trip in 2003, Edu stayed in Colonia for five days. In 2007, he returned for a 10-day visit.
“Friends told me that one or two days in Colonia were sufficient to get to know the city. But it’s a question of style. I like a more relaxing vacation without a lot of commotion,” Lima said. “My favorite night life is in Colonia, with its cool restaurants and good wine. Other than that, I took pictures of world heritage sites.”
The city also has nine museums, such as the Museo Portugués (Portuguese Museum), which displays colonial era furniture, weapons, maps, uniforms and artifacts. There is also the Museo del Azulejo (Tile Museum), home to a collection of French and Spanish tiles.
Tickets cost $50 Uruguayan pesos (US$2.50) per person for up to seven museums. Children who are 12 and under are free.
Yet, as any visitor to the city can attest, Colonia itself is an open air museum.
More about Colonia del Sacramento
Location: The city is the capital of the department of Colonia, located in southwestern Uruguay. It is about 180 kilometers (112 miles) from Montevideo on the banks of Rio de la Plata, across from the coast of Buenos Aires.
From Montevideo, it is 177 kilometers (110 miles) to Colonia via the Rodovia Nacional 1 (RN 1). Bus transportation is available.
From Buenos Aires, Rio de la Plata can be crossed by high-speed boat (one hour) or ferry (three hours).