By Joshua Rapp Learn, Contributing Reporter
URUGUAY – From the first step off the ferry at nighttime, Colonia del Sacremento settles upon your senses with a serene, mysterious atmosphere. As you pass the blocks in darkness, past empty stone-clad avenues lined with trees, the architecture of the surrounding buildings seems to travel backwards in time under the dim light of the streetlamps.
When you arrive in the interconnected series of squares surrounding the ancient town’s colonial heart, lights give way to flickering, candle-lit cafes. An overnight stay in the romantic setting is the best way to enjoy the state of grandiloquent decay the city has eased into.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Colonia is the oldest town in Uruguay, dating back to the late seventeenth century when it was founded by Portugal. Over the following years, the town often jumped between countries and colonial forces, claiming allegiance to Spain, Portugal, Brazil and eventually to Uruguay to who it has belonged since the end of the Argentina-Brazil war in 1828.
Now this small city of just over 21,000 offers notable sights in the colonial center, like the old city gate and wooden drawbridge, and a lighthouse that protrudes out of the ruins of an old 17th century Franciscan convent. While on a clear night you can actually see the lights of Buenos Aires glowing to the south across the river delta.
A fresh breeze off the water will carry you through the empty streets where ancient cars from the forties are parked haphazardly, some appearing almost as if they had been abandoned by the side of the road a half century earlier and nobody had bothered to tow them.
Some are so decrepit that full grown bushes protrude from the long broken windows. In fact, closer inspection reveals some of them have contribution jars on the front seats with signs stating ‘1 peso per photo.’
Every morning in Colonia del Sacremento, boatloads of tourists crossing the Rio de la Plata from Argentina compete with busloads of tourists from Uruguay’s own capital for space. They tend to stuff the streets with bodies, pack the small cafes and blind each to the resonating history through an excess of camera flash.
Luckily, by late afternoon the same tours that carried the tourists into town also bring them back to where they came from, leaving the town virtually deserted for the benefit of the few lucky enough to have missed the last ride out.
Those who choose to enjoy the romantic serenity of a World Heritage Site over a bottle of wine by candlelight have an added bonus: if you wake early enough in the morning, you will have a head start on catching the museums and wandering the streets before the tour groups arrive.
After the peaceful mystique of the town at night, exploring Colonia in daylight seems like an entirely new experience.
Colonia del Sacramento can be easily accessed by bus from Montevideo or by boat from several harbors in Buenos Aires. Of the latter, a trip through the delta from the northern suburb of El Tigre is the nicest journey.