Colonia del Sacramento is one of Uruguay’s oldest towns, with a charming historic district of Portuguese, Spanish and post-colonial styles.
In less than 90 minutes, we traveled from bustling Buenos Aires to the quiet historic town of Colonial del Sacramento. Originally founded by the Portuguese in the 17th century, the port town was strategically important for defense against the Spanish, who ultimately besieged it. Today, the fortress still stands and wartime is a distant memory. Instead, locals and tourists alike relax on the beach, sip mate at outdoor cafés and stroll the tree-lined cobblestone streets.
After checking into Hostel Colonial, we headed out to explore and quickly discovered why Colonia del Sacramento is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Passing through the Puerta de la Ciudadela (“The Old Town Gate”), we made our way past bright clusters of bougainvillea, old street lamps and quaint antique shops. Like other towns in South America, the Plaza de Armas marks the heart of the city center. Here, we visited Uruguay’s oldest church, the Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento, and relaxed on a shaded park bench, watching local kids play soccer.
Wandering the picturesque historic quarter with its old colonial homes is like stepping back in time.
One of the most romantic streets, La Calle de Los Suspiros (“Street of Sighs.”), is known for its postcard-worthy setting. It’s one of the town’s original streets, dating back to the 17th century. Continuing on, we couldn’t help but notice several vintage cars parked along the street. At El Drugstore, where we enjoyed an outdoor lunch and live music, an iconic 1930s Citroën was parked out front. It had been there so long, a tree with flowers was sprouting out of it!
Apparently, vintage cars have been a common trait of Uruguay for decades. The country experienced a major economic boom during both World Wars by exporting beef and other supplies to Europe. As a result, many locals purchased expensive imported cars, from Rolls Royces to Bugattis. Many of these classic cars, known fondly as cachilas, have remained in the same families for generations.
Despite a thriving moped culture, we opted to take things slow and rent bicycles for our waterfront explorations.
Once off the cobblestones, we enjoyed a smooth ride along Rambla Constanera which runs along the Rio de la Plata (“Plata River”). Considered the widest river in the world, it extends 140 miles at its maximum width. Some geographers say it’s actually an estuary. Either way, its size is impressive and feels more like the ocean.
Due to river sediments that turn the seawater brown, it’s not the prettiest body of water. Nevertheless, we enjoyed views of it from the lookout point at the Bastion de San Miguel. Later, we got a different perspective of the river by climbing the 100+ steps of El Faro Lighthouse, located in lovely Plaza Mayor. Afterwards, we headed to the marina for a brief stroll, perusing the many docked sailboats and small yachts.
Taking a local bus out to the countryside, we got to experience our first Uruguayan wine tasting.
At family-owned Bodega Turistica Bernardi, a mother and her teenage daughter offered us a variety of wines to try, from Cabernet Franc to the country’s iconic Tannat. Originally brought over by Basque immigrants in the late 1800s, the Tannat grape thrives in the region and has come to define Uruguay’s wine culture. We finished off our tasting with an Italian-inspired limoncello then relaxed under a large palm tree while waiting for the bus to take us back into town.
We spent our last evening in Colonia del Sacramento ringing in the new year. This wasn’t our first overseas New Year’s Eve. A few years prior, we had a memorable night out in Lisbon, Portugal, which was just as magical. At Restaurant El Rincon, located at the point of the peninsula, we enjoyed a wonderful multi-course dinner overlooking the Plata River. As it approached midnight, we followed other patrons out to the street where people began to gather. An incredible display of fireworks soon began over the river. We stood in awe, wine in hand, side-by-side with locals, and couldn’t think of anywhere else we’d rather be.