It’s a little past 7 AM on Saturday and the Buquebus ferry terminal is already a beehive of activity, full of Porteños eager to begin their long weekend. They’re leaving behind a weeklong spell of rain and gloominess, and looking ahead to plenty of sunshine, some juicy asado, and sacks full of duty-free goods – one of the perks of traveling into neighboring Uruguay.
For me, its all a little surreal – my visa only arrived two days ago, and between that and scrambling to get tickets and hotel bookings, I’ve had almost no time to plan my trip. But here I am, in business class no less (not sure how that worked out), journeying across the Rio de la Plata, on what is to be my first international border crossing by boat…
Only 52-km (30 miles) separate Buenos Aires from Colonia, and the “fast ferry” covers that distance in about an hour. Founded by the Portuguese in 1680, Colonia del Sacramento, as its properly known, is one of the oldest cities in Uruguay. It changed hands several times over the span of a century, till the ever-persistent Spaniards finally got the better of its founders in the late 1700s.
Step foot in to Colonia and it won’t take you long to understand just why the Spanish and Portuguese were at loggerheads over this charming coastal town, one that UNESCO declared a world heritage site over two decades ago…
The real beauty about Colonia though is that you can show up there without any kind of agenda. It does of course help that the historic quarter is extremely compact, and you could cover most of the sights in just a few hours. But it’s not exactly an architectural destination, boasting grand colonial edifices or landmark structures. Nor is it famed for its museums or gardens.
You could climb to the top of El Faro for some views (don’t expect to see Buenos Aires from there), or peek into the Iglesia for a bit, but your probably better served just ambling around somewhat aimlessly, from one plaza to the next plazoleta, losing yourself in a narrow cobbled street, or having to back out of a cul-de-sac, only to emerge onto sweeping views of the Rio de la Plata…
The closest Uruguayan city to Buenos Aires, Colonia is an extremely popular getaway for day trippers from the Argentine capital, as well as the expat set looking to get better value for their $$, and have their passports stamped for re-entry. So if there’s one thing you should do while your there is probably get some lunch, cause the historic quarter of Colonia is practically tailor-made for that.
Within hours of the arrival of the first ferry from Buenos Aires, every plaza, street corner and open space is transformed into an al fresco dining venue. Sun-drenched seating, cobble stone floors, blue skies for cover, and ocean views – there’s plenty of it going around in Colonia, and the food isn’t half bad either.
As far as coastal towns go, Colonia may just be the most delightful one I’ve visited in South America, and is, without doubt, a fabulous introduction to the little known country of Uruguay.
Montevideo, the capital city, lies 181 km (112 miles) southeast of Colonia, and there are a handful of bus lines that will take you there, with frequent departures throughout the day. Most buses will set you down at Tres Cruces bus terminal, where you’re likely to experience more humanity than the entire duration of your stay. Savor it.
The neighborhood of Tres Cruces also marks the eastern end of Av.18 de Julio, the capital’s main drag. Along it or close by lie most places of interest to a first-time visitor. On its western end, the thoroughfare is framed by Plaza Independencia, for all practical purposes, the very heart and soul of the city…
Palacio Salvo, an edifice to eclecticism, dominates the proceedings here, as it does across much of Montevideo’s relatively modest skyline. It was built by the same Italian architect responsible for Palacio Barolo in Buenos Aires, and when completed (5 years apart) they were respectively the tallest buildings in South America. Rumor has it that on a very clear day you could see one from the other. Bit of a long shot, given that the distance between the two is 146 nautical miles.
Across from Palacio Salvo, at the west end of Plaza Independencia, stands Puerta de la Ciudadela, the last vestige of a fortification that once surrounded the old city. Today it signifies the border between old and new Montevideo. To the west of it lies an area no more than two square miles, made up of narrow streets and pedestrian passages, punctuated with little plazas; chock full of museums, and brimming with architectural richness…
It’s all very beautiful to look at and pleasant to stroll through, but there’ll come a point where you’ll ask yourself, where on earth are the people, and why is every single business worth its name shuttered? Granted it’s a Sunday, but I have yet to come across a sleepier tourist quarter in all my travels thus far.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and by the time I make it to Plaza Constitución, I’ve come about as far as my morning dose of caffeine will take me. I swallow my pride and make a beeline for the nearby McDonalds!
It seems that all of the old town’s weekend activity is focused upon Mercado del Puerto, a magnificent wrought iron shed dating from 1868, intended as a market to serve ships calling on the adjacent port. Today it comprises several establishments that specialize in precisely one endeavor, grilling meat. This is parilla central, the stuff carnivores often dream about. Amongst those grills is El Palenque, reputed for its Asado de Tira, and where, I’m told, the wait is truly justified…
After two perfect days, Monday is turning out to be a bit of a damp squib. I’ve saved a visit to the highly recommended Museo del Fútbol precisely for such a rainy day, but the weatherman has it wrong, after all. Overcast for sure, but not a drop of rain thus far.
I head back into the old town, hire a bike (rentals can be had for as little as a $ an hour) and make my way east along Rambla del Montevideo. The Rambla or promenade winds its way along the city’s southern coastline, connecting several neighborhoods, and providing access to no less than nine white sandy beaches. It is, in every respect, Montevideo’s playground.
Along its 22-km (14 mile) route, the Rambla is known by many names. Rambla Mahatma Gandhi is one such, connecting Playa Pocitos and its namesake neighborhood on the east, to Punta Brava on the west. The site of a late 19th-century lighthouse, Punta Brava also happens to be the southern tip of the world’s southernmost capital city…
Cuisine wise, there’s little that sets Uruguay apart from its neighbor across the Rio de la Plata. The Uruguayans do seem to take their asados more seriously though, and from what I gathered on my short visit there, drinking mate too.
But the Chivito is definitely unique to the country, something of a national dish. A sandwich comprising a thin slice of filet mignon, topped with mozzarella, tomatoes, mayonnaise, and often a fried egg, El Chivito is to Uruguay what the Choripán is to Argentina. And you will be remiss to leave town without having relished one…
A full set of pics from Colonia del Sacramento and Montevideo can be seen on my Flickr.
3 thoughts on “Across the Rio de la Plata”
Nice article and photos. You make me want to hit the road again!
Check out my latest post here http://www.vingnguyen.com/tips-travel-egypt/
Me too! i am totally living vicariously through you!
Thanks for your comment Vinh – glad you liked it. And thank you for the link to your blog too – have bookmarked it.
On Thu, Sep 17, 2015 at 12:18 AM, brat's ramblings wrote: