Colonia del Sacramento is the oldest town in Uruguay. Spain and Portugal took turns conquering Colonia for about 150 years before Uruguay gained independence in 1828. The Barrio Histórico, which retains its colonial era charm, is a popular vacation spot for Porteños, and a frequent side trip for tourists in Buenos Aires. There are several ferries each day, and the "fast" boat gets you to Colonia in under an hour. In typical form, we booked the ferry ride the day before, so we took the seats available to us: first class to Colonia, and steerage back to Buenos Aires. Steve tried to e-mail a hotel in Colonia for reservations, but he never got a response. Lorena, our innkeeper and savior, called the Posada Plaza Mayor for us, and confirmed that they'd gotten Steve's e-mail and had a room waiting for us.
Primera clase was nothing special. The only real advantages are 1. fewer screaming children than there are in turista clase, and 2. free champagne in plastic cups. It's a 50 minute ferry ride; unless you're seriously high strung about crowds and noise, the first class seats aren't worth the extra pesos.
The ferry to Colonia overflowed with humanity. There were more people than seats. When we disembarked in Uruguay, the scene at baggage claim looked like a chapatti giveaway in central Dhaka. Fortunately, we hadn't checked any bags. We skirted the edge of the crowd and beat a hasty retreat with our lone backpack. When we got to Barrio Histórico, there was nobody there. Were they still waiting for their bags? Hours later, as we snapped pictures of the lighthouse with only a handful of tourists in sight, we wondered where everyone had gone.
Our room at the Posada Plaza Mayor was spacious, with high ceilings, huge windows, and gorgeous old moldings. The best part was that it opened out to this beautiful patio. The worst part was that the hotel allows smoking, and the room was redolent of stale, old smoke. The staff were pleasant and helpful, and offered us restaurant and sightseeing tips in English.
We had a leisurely lunch of ñoqui and Uruguayan rosado at a charming Italian place near the hotel, and then wandered down to the beach. I think this is technically the Rio de la Plata, but it looks, smells, and feels like the Atlantic Ocean. At 3PM, it was still warm enough to enjoy the ocean breeze, so we walked by the water for a long time. When it got too cold, we wandered back into town to check out the sights. In some ways, Colonia is like every other beach town on Earth. There's a lighthouse, an old church, and countless antique and souvenir shops. In some ways, it's different. Most of the streets look like European cobblestone; some of them, the oldest ones, look like mazes of large, uneven rocks. It's equal parts Cannon Beach and 17th century Portugal. The Uruguayans take the "off leash" concept of dog ownership a step farther than we've seen in Argentina-- the dogs just sort of walk themselves and then go home. We saw dogs everywhere, and we rarely saw them with humans. All the dogs were polite and well-socialized. This little guy looked lost, but he took stock of his surroundings and found his way.
We had a few restaurant recommendations from our Fodor's guide and from the hotel staff. In Colonia, just as in Buenos Aires, restaurants don't even open for dinner until 8PM. At 7:30, most of them were pitch black. We grew concerned; in the U.S., it's not uncommon for restaurants to close on Sunday or Monday nights. Is that why the town was so quiet? We explored the ruins of an old Portuguese house for a while, and then returned to see if anything had opened. We were disappointed to find that Mesón de la Plaza, which is supposed to have the best selection of small production Uruguayan wines in Colonia, was closed. We found another restaurant that our Fodor's guide had recommended, and this one was open: El Drugstore. There were only a couple of tables of people inside: a women eating alone, which is a rare sight in South America, and a couple who smooched for so long that we're pretty sure they didn't need a room. We choose a table with a great view of the kitchen, which is smack dab in the front of the restaurant. We ordered an assortment of tapas-- some little cheese fritters, a tortilla, which is a Spanish omelette, and some couscous with mushrooms that was so hearty and meaty (despite being described as "vegetarian" on the menu) that we wondered whether they used veal stock or oxtails to kick it up a few notches. We settled in with a bottle of $10 Tannat, and nibbled slowly. An hour later, the music started. I don't really know how to describe the music-- flamenco guitar, maybe? The "drummer" tapped his hands against his own seat, and we were seriously impressed by the variety of sounds he was able to coax from such a simple wooden box. These guys were great! By 10:30, the place was packed. That empty table for six became a full table for eight, including three children. It's not just young adults who enjoy nightlife in Buenos Aires and its environs: we've watched toddlers and octogenarians file into loud, trendy restaurants past midnight.
We didn't want to leave. Of course, there's never any pressure to leave. We ordered a couple of espressos and a dulce de leche-stuffed crepe to prolong the experience. An hour after that, we ordered some cognac. When we finally requested our check (they never, ever bring a check until you ask for it here), it was only because we had a 9:45AM ferry to catch the next morning.
We enjoyed our trip to Colonia, but here are a few random thoughts about the experience...
• It's a day trip. There's no need to stay overnight. You can see the whole town in three or four hours. Although you do need to go through customs on both sides, it's a ten minute process.
• It's not a uniquely Uruguayan experience. We decided not to visit Montevideo, but we're having second thoughts. Colonia is geared for tourists, and as nice as it is, you don't get any sense of life in Uruguay. Go for the loveliness of the place, but recognize that it's very much a resort town.
• It's touristy nature makes it easier in some ways than Buenos Aires. Everyone seems to know a little English in the restaurants and hotels, and the restaurants offer menus in English. You can pay for anything in Uruguayan Pesos, Argentine Pesos, or American Dollars.
• Buenos Aires is a seriously frenetic city, and two weeks here can really wear you out. Colonia is a nice place to relax and recharge.