The last time I visited Buenos Aires, one of the most memorable days of the trip, was spent, ironically enough, in Uruguay. A comfy, Buquebus high-speed ferry ride away across the wide Río Plata (one to three hours, depending on the ship, as well as a 2½-hour drive from Uruguay’s capital Montevideo) lies a small city that is home to the loveliest Spanish colonial old town in South America’s Southern Cone (and one of the most fetching on the entire continent, well deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status.
With a present-day population just under 27,000, Colonia del Sacramento is one of this country’s oldest settlements, founded on a peninsula in 1680 not by Spaniards but by Portuguese settlers, then switching back and forth between Portugal and Spain, then independent Brazil, before finally becoming part of Uruguay.
It’s a pleasant stroll of a few blocks from where the Buquebus lets off along Avenida General Flores to the old quarter, but once you hit pass through the old city gate (complete with drawbridge) and hit the cobblestones, you’re transported back in time (and since it was built by the Portuguese, if you’ve been to, say, Lisbon’s old Alfama district, some of it may have a familiar feel). And while it’s obviously set up for tourists, it’s nonetheless a mostly tranquil and classy experience.
The leafy Plaza Mayor is, unsurprisingly, the old city’s epicentre, with several of the historic district’s top landmarks, including the ruins of 17th-century Convento de San Francisco, and right next to it, the white 19th-century lighthouse (above), which you can climb for a good view over the old town. Also here in a small stone house is the Museo Portugués, documenting the town’s earliest settlement, and not far off you’ll find the settlement’s principal church, Uruguay’s oldest, the whitewashed Iglesia Matriz, a relatively simple affair with its own rustic charm.
There are several other modest museums here, as well, including the Museo Indígena (dealing with the pre-Columbian peoples of the area), Museo Casa de Nacarello (showing what an old-time homestead was like), the Museo del Ferrocarril (a handful of restored old-time rail cars, one of which houses a restaurant), and a Museo de los Naufragios y Tesoros (shipwrecks and treasure recovered from the River Plate, which really is remarkably oceanlike hereabouts).
But really, the charm of the place is just roaming the streets, like the sweet little Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs, top), its slablike paving stones leading past gorgeously weathered houses, some now occupied by shops and eateries.
Speaking of which, don’t tell my Argentine friends, but the best parrillada (mixed grill) I had on that trip was right here; Uruguay, too, is known for its cattle-raising and gauchos (cowboys). Here parrillada is called asado, and the top place to go for it (and I’m sure there are plenty of other good spots, too) is El Asador, in a charming colonial house at Calle Ituzaingó 168.