Colonia del Sacramento, or simply Colonia, is a quaint little town in Uruguay across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Colonia was founded by the Portuguese in the 17th century as their military and commercial outpost on the Rio de la Plata to rival the Spanish settlement of Buenos Aires. Colonia did not grow to be as powerful as Buenos Aires and remained a frontier outpost that changed hands between the Portuguese and Spanish several times during frequent wars and subsequent peace treaties. Colonia del Sacramento is now a World Heritage Site due to its well preserved historical quarter.
A visit to Colonia can be a very relaxing daytrip to escape the big city bustle of Buenos Aires, especially if you need to renew your tourist visa. The only way to get there is by a Buquebus boat departing from Puerto Madero. I recommend travelling in the middle of the week as the tickets will be cheaper and Colonia will be less crowded. If you choose to go over the weekend you will be competing with the denizens of Buenos Aires who often escape to Colonia for a weekend of tranquillity. There are two Buquebus options, the slow boat that takes three hours or the fast boat that makes the trip in just one hour. Obviously the fast boat is more expensive and it may be worth it if you want to maximize your sightseeing experience. Tickets can be booked online on the Buquebus website. There are three classes of service, economy, first, and VIP. The main difference between first and economy is the number of seats per row, three versus four. During the week, economy is the way to go as you will have no problem stretching out for a nap across all four seats in an empty row.
I recommend climbing up to the top deck as the boat departs to get a good view of Buenos Aires. The first thing to focus on is the exquisite Art Deco architecture of Yacht Club Argentino. Once the ferry gets under way you’ll get a good view of Puerto Madero and the skyscrapers surrounding it. As the boat heads farther out you get a panoramic view of Greater Buenos Aires stretching out as far as the eye can see in both directions. You will get a newfound appreciation of the sheer size of this metropolis which is home to roughly a quarter of Argentina’s population.
Once you get to Colonia you will find several vehicle rental agencies inside the port passenger terminal as well as on the main street outside the port. The majority of the sights worth visiting are within walking distance from the port so renting a vehicle is not really necessary unless you plan to visit the Aaron de Anchorena National Park which is about 30 km outside of Colonia. This is the Presidential Resting Residence which is open to the public when the President is not using it. Aside from exotic flora and fauna, and the President’s vacation home, the park has a 75-meter-tall tower from which you can see Buenos Aires on a very clear day with powerful binoculars.
As you walk out of the port, turn left onto Miguel Angel Odriozola Street and a couple of blocks later you will be crossing a drawbridge passing through the main gate of the old Portuguese fortified city. The only surviving section of the city wall was restored between 1968 and 1971. Bronze nails mark the level of the original wall, everything above that being a modern reconstruction. There is a lone ancient canon atop the parapet, probably placed there as a prop for tourists. The rampart is much too narrow for the size of the canon, providing no space for recoil or reloading.
You are now on Henriquez de la Pena Street. The entire right hand side of the street for the next three blocks is Colonia’s Plaza Mayor, the largest and oldest plaza in Colonia. It was originally used for military drills, and later converted into a park with trees and paths. Walk one more block past the gate and you will find Calle de los Suspiros, the Street of Sighs, on your left hand side. This is one of the oldest streets in Colonia built by the Portuguese. It still has the original cobblestone with a drainage ditch down the middle. The houses on both sides of the street are representative of the town’s first colonial period under Portuguese rule.
A few meters further down Henriquez de la Pena Street you will find the Portuguese Museum on your left. The building itself is exemplary of 18th century Portuguese construction with walls up to 90 cm (3 ft.) thick and original tiled floors. The museum exhibits replicas of furniture and uniforms that were in use by the Portuguese in the 17th and 18th centuries in Colonia. Now take another look at the Plaza Mayor picturing it as a flat barren space where Portuguese soldiers performed musket drills in shoulder to shoulder formations in anticipation of a Spanish attack.
At the end of Henriquez de la Pena Street you will find the ruins of the Convent of San Francisco. The convent was built in 1694 only to be burned down 10 years later. All that remains is the stone skeleton of what must have been the main chapel. You will see lines of sockets in the exterior masonry; this is where the wooden support beams of the living quarters once connected to the central stone structure. The lighthouse that is grafted onto the convent’s southern wall was built by Spanish troops in the mid 19th century, probably using rubble from the convent ruins. You can enter the lighthouse and climb to the top for a small fee from 1 to 7 pm. It is worth the effort as it provides a panoramic view of the town as well as a cool breeze on a hot summer day.
The street that forms the western boundary of the Plaza Mayor, Calle del Comercio, has three points of interest side by side, Nacarello’s House, the Municipal Museum, and the Viceroy’s House. Nacarello’s House is an 18thcentury Portuguese construction dating from the city’s third foundation in 1790. The Spaniards had already raised Colonia twice by this date but the Portuguese kept rebuilding it. Nacarello’s House was restored in 1993 and now exhibits original 18th century Portuguese furniture and other artefacts. The Municipal Museum is housed in a building originally constructed by the Portuguese in 1795 and rebuilt by the Spanish in 1835. This is the oldest museum in Colonia exhibiting artefacts and documents spanning the town’s entire history. The next-door ruins of the Viceroy’s House reveal the magnificence of a well-to-do Portuguese household.
On the north-western side of the Plaza Mayor, on Misiones de los Tapes Street, you will find the Regional Archive in a typical early 18th century house. The archive exhibits a collection of documents of historical importance to the entire region. On the far western end of Misiones de los Tapes you can visit the Tile Museum, a mid-18th century building that was restored in 1986. As the name suggests, the museum displays mid 19th to the early 20th centuryceramic tiles of Portuguese, French, and Spanish origin, as well as some of the first tiles produced domestically in Uruguay.
To the north-east of the Regional Archive, around the corner, at the eastern end of Calle de la Plata, you run into the excavation of the ruins of the Governor’s House. There is not much left to see as the Spaniards destroyed the building in 1777 after first removing everything of value, including doors and windows, and then shipping the booty back to Buenos Aires. Immediately north of the ruins you can’t miss the Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento dating from the early 19th century. It is in excellent condition having been respected by conquerors and restored in 1957.
Next, walk north on Calle del Gobernador Vasconcellos to Avenida General Flores and hang a left. Two blocks down you will find the Indigenous Museum on your left. Inaugurated in 1998, it exhibits a private collection of artefacts from the Charrua tribe and other indigenous peoples of the region. Now go back two blocks towards the east on General Flores and turn left on Calle de España to walk a block north to the Spanish Museum. The building was constructed in 1720 and underwent a neoclassical remodelling around 1840. The Spanish Museum houses the most important artefacts from Colonia’s colonial history, as well as contemporary paintings by Jorge Paez Vilaró.
From the Spanish Museum walk around the corner down Calle de San Jose and you will run into the Aquarium which takes up most of Calle de Virrey Ceballos and exhibits indigenous fish and other marine species from all over Uruguay. The Bastion del Carmen Cultural Center is a block north of the Aquarium. Bastion del Carmen is a late 19th century building which was originally used as a soap and glue factory as well as a wool laundry and tannery. Keep walking west along the shore line and you will find yourself on a 19th century wharf, reconstructed in 2001 to accommodate private yachts.
This pretty much covers all the noteworthy landmarks in Colonia. If you followed my route you should be pretty hungry by now. I suggest you keep walking west along the shore until you find El Torreon, which is a restaurant inside an old tower. Since you will be arriving after the lunchtime peak you should have no problem finding a table. El Torreon has excellent home-made pumpkin raviolis and ice cold Pilsen beer. Ask for a few slices of the local cheese, Queso Colonia, it is absolutely delicious. Bon Appétit!
Some last bits of advice for the boat ride back to Buenos Aires: If you don’t plan on hanging around Puerto Madero, you should reserve and prepay a remis (chauffeured car) to take you back to your hotel. Otherwise you will end up waiting in endless lines for a taxi in Buenos Aires. Just pay attention to the loudspeaker announcements (in Spanish and English) for instructions of how to make a reservation. Also, as the boat approaches the Argentine shore of Rio de La Plata, I recommend walking up to the top deck for a breathtaking view of Buenos Aires by night.