A Tiny Portuguese Town: Colonia del Sacramento

A week ago Thursday, I traveled from Montevideo to Colonia in the early afternoon, after a lovely walk on La Rambla, the waterside promenade that goes around much of Montevideo’s coastline. On La Rambla, I passed several people walking dogs or out running, enjoying the sun on the water just as I was.

Buying a last minute ticket was very straightforward, and the bus I was on to Colonia was very nice (nicer than the Buquebus as well as much less crowded). There are two companies that run buses every other hour so that there is a bus every hour most of the day.

As we left Montevideo, we passed through the poorest neighborhood I’ve seen in South America (as I’ve definitely been staying in the middle class/white collar neighborhoods so far). There were clusters of one story houses built out of what looked like concrete. Most of them looked to be one or two rooms, some in blocks that were well-maintained and cheerfully painted, others in decrepit clusters. It was a sobering reminder of the masses of people who make do with very little.

I arrived at Colonia’s bus station and found out I only had a few blocks to walk to get to the charming little hotel I had booked. Posada del Angel is decorated in shades of blue and white with a motif of what other than angels? After checking in, I headed to the old town of Colonia, also only a few clocks away from the hotel. (The old town area of Colonia is tiny.)

Colonia was founded by the Portuguese as a base for smuggling into Spanish-held Buenos Aires. The old city is maybe a mile square, if that, illuminating the life of a town from the mid to late eighteenth century. There are still a few intact streets paved in cobblestones with the drainage groove down the middle. There are some old Portuguese (and slightly younger Spanish) houses still intact. While the Spanish houses are white, the Portuguese houses were painted in rich, deep colors. It’s beautiful.

I found a cute little cafe that seemed to cater to locals instead of tourists, and had a slice of cake and a hot chocolate made with milk and melted chocolate. I went to a place on the main square for a pricey and not terribly tasty dinner (starting with a caprese salad where the mozzarella was similar to the hard cheese you can get as sandwich cheese in the States). After, I walked back through completely quiet, dark deserted streets – the old town out of tourist season. The quiet was a little eerie for a city girl!

On Friday, I had the whole day to spend in Colonia, and I had already explored much of it the day before. So I settled in for a lovely, leisurely day, starting with a breakfast of dulce de leche on medialunas (like sweet croissants) and cafe con leche. I then walked around a lot more, going to the city museums which were open. Each museum is in an old house and is one or two rooms of city history exhibits. My favorite was the little red house furnished as an eighteenth century Portuguese house.

I ate a late lunch/early dinner at this little restaurant inside one of these old Portuguese houses on the Street of Sighs (Calle de Sospiros). It’s a wine and cheese/meats/tortas tasting place, and I nursed a surprisingly dry Uruguayan Riesling while enjoying a cheese plate and veggie tortas. It was lovely to sit in the small, low-ceilinged room with its foot-thick walls and wood beams overhead.

A Hop, Skip and Jump Over to Uruguay

I had decided to spend a couple of days exploring a taste of Uruguay, so on Tuesday I left Buenos Aires for a ferry over to Colonia, where I transferred to a bus for Montevideo.

The ferry trip was very smooth. The seats in tourist class are rather like airplane seats (with some cosy table and chair type set-up in the lounge area). I managed to get a seat by the window, although there wasn’t much to see but water! (The window was facing south.) The Rio de la Plata estuary really is like a sea, except browner and with little floating branches with leaves on them here and there.

The bus was crowded and a little overly warm, but we made decent time. My first order of business on arriving at the Montevideo Tres Cruces bus terminal was to change money. I thought I’d be able to do it at the ferry terminal in BA, but they said I’d have to wait until I got to Uruguay. So I did – unfortunately. My plan had been to change some of my Argentine pesos to tide me over until I got to an ATM some place less risky than a bus station. Well, the rate in Uruguay for Argentine pesos is 50% worse than the rate I’d have gotten at the crummy exchange place in Recoleta, Buenos Aires. I changed less than I’d planned to since I was losing so much money, and changed a handful of dollars to tide me over. Lesson learned. The Argentine peso currency market is clearly not open to free exchange in Argentina, as this, the Blue Market (aka unofficial exchange rate where dollars are worth closer to eight pesos than five), and the fact that you can’t convert pesos to dollars without written authorization will all tell you. I also feel somewhat used – not just by this, but by the fact that Uruguay also has as exorbitant ATM fees as Argentina does. Anyone traveling in these areas who doesn’t mind carrying a lot of cash should just bring dollars.

Anyway, I had enough money to get a cab (actually super cheap) to the hotel. It was a decent budget hotel, and the lady at reception told me what areas to visit and which areas to avoid even in the daytime. She also told me to keep an eye on my bag even in the safe areas, as those have pickpockets. (Pickpockets I can deal with, muggers not so much, so knowing the bad neighborhoods in the west of La Rambla – the promenade by the water – and the west of the Old City was very useful. All that said, I should note that most of where I visited in Montevideo felt fine for me to walk around in as a solo woman.)

There was a supermarket nearby, so I picked up breakfast food and then, since it was already dark, I just chilled in the room until restaurants opened at 8:30. I tried an asado (grill) place called Parrilla Sur, which was clearly a place that catered to locals. I tried the pulpa and fries. I’m not sure whether pulpa just refers to a boneless cut of meat or a specific cut. While tasty, I must say I preferred the meat in the parrilla in BA because of the seasoned salt and probably also just the cut of meat itself.

Yesterday was my full day to explore Montevideo, and I spent the morning on a tour so that I could see parts of the city I wouldn’t have visited on my own, including the fancier neighborhoods where some foreign embassy staff live. I must say I was glad of the van as it was pretty chilly until the sun came out around noon!

I was the only English speaker. There was one Brazilian, so the tour guide spoke very slowly in Spanish for her sake, which meant I could understand perhaps 60 or 70% of it. She did then translate into English, so I could tell when I had misunderstood something, sometimes amusingly!

We started off in one of the governmental center of the city, Plaza Independencia. It’s where the presidential offices are located.

After that, we drove through some of the eastern neighborhoods. I got the impression of a lot of greenery (at least that there would be if it were summer). Some neighborhoods had huge 19th century buildings while others had more modest (and modern) houses that could belong in a middle-class US neighborhood. Parks were scattered throughout, as were various monuments to “olden days”: gauchos, the native peoples who were pretty much wiped out in the 19th century, wagons.

While I tried to look at the map sometimes to know where we were, we definitely went off the tourist map. We also drove around a lot, so I can’t really say where the Parliament is in relation to the soccer stadium. We ended at hilltop with a little park and memorial to those lost at sea (or the river – I’m a bit unsure which it overlooked).

The tour left me off at the Mercado del Puerto, or Port Market, a covered market that is full of restaurants specializing in asado. I sat at a bar and ordered what looked like a daily special, and ended up being a dish of beans, sausage, and…tripe. Go figure. Actually, the dish tasted a lot like cassoulet, which I like, and the tripe was pretty bland. The atmosphere, while physically chilly, was great.

After lunch, I headed to the Carnival Museum located right next door (right on that East-West dividing line). It had been recommended to me by several people, plus it was a good time for a pit stop. I enjoyed it, but was a little disappointed. It’s very small and everything is in Spanish, some of which I could follow. There are some interesting exhibits of Carnival costumes and a big set of paper mâché figures dressed as in a Carnival in the middle of the museum.

After the museum, I set about heading away from the rough neighborhood towards the eastern part of the Ciudad Vieja. I was pretty much out of pesos, and remembered that the guide had mentioned that there were lots of banks in the Old City. I headed to one, then, my wallet lightened by another six dollar ATM fee, I headed towards the central, pedestrian road. There are definitely a number of beautiful old buildings in Montevideo:

I walked back from the Old City to the hotel via one of the main city arteries: Avenida 18 de Julio. Lots of 19th century buildings to enjoy along with the modern shops!

After a rest in the hotel, I headed to the Gaucho Museum. I really enjoyed it – lots of silver spurs, daggers, old pistols, mate gourds and other items of daily gaucho life, all in a glorious old building with sky-high ceilings.

Then I searched for a cafe to while away the rest of the afternoon. It wasn’t easy to find a place with seats available: every place with a tv was packed, showing the Uruguay-Brazil game for the soccer Confederations Cup. It was almost eerie passing some of these cafes with everyone facing the street because the tv was on that side of the room. People stopped on the street anywhere they could see a tv, radios were on everywhere, and a bunch of cops huddled outside a shoe shop near my cafe for forty minutes watching the tv in the store. (It’s fine – all the criminals were no doubt watching the match, too!)

Dinner was a sandwich and some wine from the supermarket. I wanted to try wine from Uruguay. It was pretty tasty!

A surprisingly smooth drink

A surprisingly smooth drink