Tag Archives: Uruguay

A Colonial Visit

Friday 15 March 2024 – One very rewarding thing one can do when visiting Buenos Aires is actually to leave it – and, indeed, leave the country. Just across the River Plata from Puerto Madero is Colonia del Sacramento, which is in the tiny country of Uruguay.

In theory, it’s a short journey on a fast ferry. As ever with these things (and, dare I add, particularly in Argentina), the reality differs somewhat.

I started this blog almost exactly six years ago when we toured Chile, Patagonia, Ecuador and Peru. I remember writing that our arrival into Chile was marked out by a succession of queues. Our departure from BA was similar.

I had fondly imagined that our transport would be one of those streamlined wavecutter catamarans, with maybe a few dozen passengers aboard popping over for a day in Uruguay.


This began to be borne in on me as we queued to check in. There were lots of people and many of them had large suitcases with them, hinting at major travel intentions.

After checking in and getting boarding passes, we then queued for emigration (no photos allowed!), which for punters like me involved queuing for a desk to be free, getting the thumbs-up from the official and then – having to go to another identical booth to get passport stamped.  I still don’t know why.

Then we got into the departure area, which was worryingly short of information screens telling us where we should go.  There was nothing on our boarding passes to guide us except the name of the boat we’d take – Sylvia Ana L. There was board up with that name on it, but no indication of what its significance was. A bunch of people started moving off in the direction of, well, somewhere else, we had no idea, and we wondered if we should join that rush, but hadn’t the nerve.  We met a couple of ladies who Jane had chatted to earlier and they assured us that if we simply sat down and waited, we’d be fine. But there appeared to be a gigantic queue, and no actual way of knowing whether it was one we should join. Announcements were either incomprehensible or clearly pre-recorded.  So we caved in and joined this queue.

It goes, in the picture above, all the way on the left of the terminal building, to the far end, crosses over and comes all the way back – that’s a looong queue.

A nice lady behind us in the queue helpfully told us that she thought there had been some issue with the jettyway that passengers should normally use to get aboard, and so we had to go via the drivers route.

This gives further clues as to the size of the boat; it’s a car ferry.

The queue to our right started shuffling forward, but for an age no-one moved in our queue, which further stoked fears that They were getting on board but We were in the wrong queue. But after a while we slowly plodded along until we passed, going back, the place from where I took the above photo.

Yup.  Still a queue.  We shuffled along and down some stairs and emerged, blinking into daylight as we were shepherded towards the back entrance of Sylvia Ana, which you can now see is a hefty old piece of transport infrastructure,

and along through eerily empty and highly industrial spaces, up stairs and into the passenger area.

I suppose they must have  boarded all the foot passengers before letting vehicles on; I wonder what the drivers thought. Anyway, we ended up wandering around what is really quite a large ship, which has two floors of passenger accommodation, multiple lounges, several cafeterias and  many shops, looking for somewhere to sit.

I’d fondly imagined going up on deck to take photos of departure and arrival, but that was simply not an option, so we sat down, with no clear idea as to how long the crossing would take, to await entry into Uruguay.

It took about an hour and a half to get over the water – less time than I’d imagined – and then we disembarked into

another queue. Which went round a corner to

another queue.  An official carefully kettled us up for a while until he judged we non-natives were getting restless, then let us through. To a final queue, where everyone’s backpacks were scanned (this seems to be A Thing in South America).

At last, we were free to explore!

Colonia’s not a big place

and the bit that attracts so many tourists, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, is tiny – about half a kilometre from top to bottom, and 300 metres from left to right.

However tiny, it has an interesting story, and to have it explained to us we were met by a nice lady called Lourdes, who was to be our guide for the day.  And a very pleasant day it turned out to be, as well.  We had about an hour with her before some free time to walk round and explore, and then a final hour or so with her and a driver to explore further afield.

It was clear, as we walked out, that the ferry terminal at Colonia used to be a railway station.

The main destination of the railway was Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, some 180km away.

Lourdes explained a little of the background of Colonia.  It’s an outlier, in that its heritage is Portuguese, rather than Spanish like all of South America that isn’t Brazil. The Portuguese got here first (among the Europeans, that is) in 1680, and realised the strategic value of Colonia’s location. This pissed the Spanish off no little and they captured the site a couple of years later. However a treaty in 1683 returned the site to Portuguese control.  For the next  150 years, possession shuttled back and forth between Spain and Portugal, Fortifications were built (along the dotted line shown in the second map), to try to make it possible to keep control of this strategic place

but most have been demolished.  It is possible in some places to see areas where the walls stood and also foundations of the original buildings.  Because the old town is now a UNESCO heritage site, the relatively few inhabitants have a duty to maintain and if possible improve the old town area.

We passed a mural which shows some of the historical dress and dance of the town.

It’s an attractive place to walk around

although one has to be careful over the uneven footing.  Wherever we went, we came across scenes like this, where Portuguese traditional buildings (the red one above) sat beside newer buildings which were constructed in a Spanish style (like the white one).  The road itself is traditional Portuguese – the edges slope towards the middle so that water can wash down towards the river, which is behind as you look long this street.  As well as rain water, domestic washing water and sewage would be emptied into the street, so it must have been pretty unpleasant at times.

Today, the houses sell for in the order of a million US dollars and come with the obligation to maintain them in the traditional style. Looking at them, however, tells a great deal about the financial situation of the original owners.  If the roof tiles were one deep

they were poor.  If two deep,

better off. Wealthy families would have tiles three deep.

I think we were quite lucky to have arrived reasonably early, as it was quiet as we first walked around;

it got busier later, but never oppressively so.

A pedestrian area in the middle is the Plaza Mayor, the main square

and there are some retail opportunities for those seeking ethnic wosnames.

There’s a largish church

(not the original one, but a newer, Spanish styled one) with a lovely calm and plain interior.

Many of the houses originally built in Portuguese style have been extended in Spanish style

and the two cultures come together at one road junction

where you see a Portuguese road on the left, with its characteristic channel, but on the right the Spanish road is (what passed in those days for) level.

An old convent’s remains is used as the basis for a lighthouse

which is still active.  Many of the major roads are lined fetchingly with London plane trees,

and there are splashes of colour in courtyards or painted on walls in several places.

It’s an attractive place, with its engaging history of conflict between the Portuguese and the dastardly Spanish and we enjoyed walking around the small area of the old town.  But our brains were now utterly full, having been overloaded the day before during our tour of BA and today from all the information that Lourdes gave us. So it was Time For A Nice Lunch.

We sat for a couple of hours outside ¡Qué Tupé!, which as far as I can see means, literally, “What a wig!” We think it might colloquially translate to something like “what a cheek!” but that’s just guesswork – our waitress couldn’t help us with more info.

It has a similarly lovely interior

including one of those beguiling mobiles which I find so attractive.


There was some live entertainment.

I think the woman was of Welsh extraction, because she sang far too loud, far too often and flat.

We had a little more time to look around at some of the quirks of the place

before meeting up with Lourdes and her driver and heading out of the old town. The main site she took us to was a bullring.

It has quite an amazing story behind it.  It was built in 1908 and a Moorish style, as part of a larger Real de San Carlos Tourist Complex and opened for locals in 1910. The ring itself was huge –  50m in diameter with seating for over 8,000 spectators. The Real de San Carlos complex included not only the bull ring, but a ferry dock (for carrying tourists from nearby Buenos Aires), and a huge “pelote basque” building – a major enterprise.

Which was closed down two years later, after only eight bullfights were staged, because the government banned the practice.  I mean, good for them, but it must have been a bit of a blow for the operators.

A casino was also built and began operating after the bullfights were forbidden, and the whole complex only operated until 1917. Today only a racetrack from the complex is still in use.  Renovation work is being done, and the site is partially used for events these days.

Above you can see old and new brick together, as well as foundations from other original buildings.

Our final stop, on the way back to the ferry, was a football ground which had been delightfully decorated around its perimeter

and then we were taken back to the ferry to return to Buenos Aires and Argentina.  The return journey took just an hour and the distance is 45km, so it’s not really a surprise that passengers weren’t allowed outside during transit.

We had the evening and most of the following day to ourselves before our Southern Ocean and South America trip ended.  As I say, the narrative is a bit non-linear; we used some of the day to visit El Ateneo, which you’ve already seen, and an evening event, which you haven’t;  and there’s a bit of our first day here that I haven’t told you about yet..

That’ll be in the next post, then.  See you there?