I’m standing at the top of Colonia del Sacramento’s “Street of Sighs,” an 18th century passageway built by the Portuguese when they still controlled this peninsula in present-day Uruguay. The original trough running down the center of the mossy-stoned lane continues to drain rainwater to the Rio de la Plata lapping just yards away. Two rows of aged ocher, rose and russet stucco buildings now serve as art galleries and artisanal cheese stores. I’m captivated by a scene of beauty created by cobblestones, wrought-iron lamps, coastal bluffs and, of course, prostitutes.
My tour guide, Maria del Carmen, has just informed me that the galleries and gourmet shops on this street were brothels in a former lifetime, beckoning the many seamen who washed up on Colonia’s shores. One of several legends explaining how Colonia’s most photogenic street got its name claims that the sailors would sigh over the women of easy virtue as they walked down the road.
I’ve taken the hour-long ferry ride from chaotic Buenos Aires to this enchanting colonial city across the river in search of tranquility. Thanks to the prostitutes, I’ve found it. According to Maria, the prostitutes are responsible for Colonia’s preservation of a bygone era. The ladies of the night held court on this street and the surrounding alleyways until a mere 40 years ago. Along with other impoverished souls, they kept the Barrio Historico the precinct of ne’er-do-wells while the better-off chose to erect new edifices farther inland.
Thus were the historic buildings saved from the demolition and modernization that has condemned many other would-be tourist magnets to the dustbins of history. Once the tourism industry recognized the perfectly preserved district’s appeal and took over — culminating in a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1995 — skyrocketing rents forced the prostitutes out.
That’s just one historical irony in a place now prized for its tranquil beaches and relaxed atmosphere but originally a military fort whose early decades were steeped in blood and turmoil. Although the Portuguese chose the location as a strategic port from which to challenge the Spanish and then spent decades duking it out with their archenemy, Colonia is now synonymous with peace and quiet.
MAKING AN ESCAPE
After two weeks studying Spanish in Buenos Aires, enduring a daily diet of crazy drivers, diesel-cloaked air and trash-covered streets, I was ready for a place where pollution is a foreign word and cars actually stop for me when I cross the street. Sometimes when I’m not even in a crosswalk. Tourists, for their part, almost never bother with cars here, preferring to rent glorified golf carts because an automobile would move them too far too fast.
And this is not a place for moving quickly. For one thing, there’s not a lot here. It’s possible to walk from one end of the old town to the other in less than 15 minutes, so there’s no need to rush.
Each year thousands of tourists make the mistake of thinking that because you can take an easy day trip to Colonia from Buenos Aires via a one-hour high-speed ferry, that’s what you should do. Sure, in one day I could scale the 118 tightly wound steps of the lighthouse for a panoramic view, cross over the reconstructed colonial drawbridge to roam along the old city walls, and squeeze in a picnic on the reedy beach.
But by staying the night, I could slow my heart rate and absorb some of the laid-back vibe before returning to the big city, as well as experience a side of Colonia that’s only available to those who don’t have to hurry to hop on an afternoon ferry.
The evening of my arrival, I decided to follow the ship lights glowing at the end of the pier and stroll along the wooden planks until I found myself amid dozens of sailors tethering their boats to their moorings by moonlight. The next morning was a Sunday, and as I walked past the central church — destroyed and rebuilt in Spanish-Portuguese warring almost too many times to count — I heard a rich, boisterous singing. I tried to slip in unobtrusively at the back, but I arrived just as the priest gave his blessing to the parishioners, who all turned to each other to offer words of greeting and kisses on the cheek — mine included.
And by staying for two evenings, I could weigh in on the impassioned local debate over the best spot for watching the regularly spectacular sunsets. Many swear by the lighthouse because of the 360-degree vista, but it can close too near to sunset to give you time to savor the view. Maria, my guide, prefers to walk out on the pier in the old port, where you can linger alongside teen-agers and old couples until well after the sun has crossed the horizon.
I chose the deck of one of the many waterside restaurants as my favorite observation point. Yes, there were a few people and lampposts between me and the shore, and neither the cuisine nor the service matched the scenery. But sitting at a patio table sipping vino as the sun bade farewell really couldn’t be beat — particularly since the sun turned into a magenta orb before eventually slinking under the water.
They say that on clearer nights, you can make out the Buenos Aires skyline, but I was just as glad that a slight haze at twilight prevented such a view. I didn’t want any reminders of the hustle of urban life there, or any jagged lines disrupting the horizon.
HISTORY ON DISPLAY
Of course, there are things to do here beyond strolling, sitting and sipping. Colonia boasts an array of museums, and for the single price of $2.50, you can enter them all (except that, as befits a small town moving at its own pace, on any given day a few are closed according to a head-scratching schedule). Alas, it’s true that you get what you pay for, and $2.50 divided among several museums doesn’t get you much.
English is in very short supply in most of the museums (as well as among tourist officials, waiters and shopkeepers; my two weeks of Spanish helped un poco, but more important was body language and good humor). Luckily, many of the more compelling exhibits are largely visual, including a collection of ancient map reproductions in the Portuguese Museum and all of “Nacarello’s House,” a tiny four-room structure built by the Portuguese in the mid-18th century. The stone floors and wood-beamed roof impart the feeling of that era, as do replica furniture and decor.
The building is one of Colonia’s oldest, though the Spanish destroyed many of the earliest Portuguese structures just a year after the establishment of Nova Colonia do Santissimo Sacramento in 1680. That sacking was the first of many times that Spain and Portugal traded the territory back and forth, but eventually their competition, continued by Argentina and Brazil, gave way to an independent Uruguay, with Colonia one of its most storied cities.
Now the only competition in these parts is among maitre d’s trying to lure foreigners into their quaint eateries and tourists trying to snag the best photo setup points. In fact, it’s still important to have a quick trigger finger, because every twist in the road reveals another image transporting you to a previous century.
Meandering around the sycamore-lined streets, red-tiled houses and bench-strewn plazas during my hour-long walking tour of the old town the day before had seemed like a much better use of my time than traipsing through the official museums. With Maria leading the way, I was able to get the timeline on the whiplashing history, observe buildings I might have overlooked and learn about the prostitutes’ contributions to Colonia. I decided to skip the 90-minute version hawked at the ferry terminal, since it cost $25 and required a bus ride out of the old town to see a forlorn 100-year-old entertainment destination four miles north. These days its main draw is a disintegrating bullring, which was used only a couple years before the central government outlawed bullfighting in 1912. The nearby casino was also shuttered, though gaming sites still operate in the new areas of town.
Other visitors use pedals instead of petroleum to get out of the historic center, renting bikes to explore the shoreline or the Bodega Bernardi vineyard about four miles away. Even a short ride brings you to beaches ideal for sunning or reading. (And in the Uruguayan summer of December through February, swimming.)
After my comprehensive museum turn, I was feeling a little tuckered out and was secretly relieved when it got too windy and chilly for biking. Instead, I decided to peek into the shops selling handmade ceramics and woolen wraps and check out the cafes so blessedly prevalent in this part of the world.
I’d heard that the beer in Uruguay was an even better liquid refreshment than the tea and coffee at the cafes. So I recruited a German couple at my lodgings to help me evaluate that claim, figuring that they could provide an expert opinion. Before hitting the bar, we went out in search of quality parilla (steak and other meat options put on the grill) and Malbec, the staples that define the culinary landscape in Argentina and Uruguay. We found them both at local institution Parrillada El Porton, whose thick wooden tables were filled with both Colonia families and tourists.
One of my new German friends also found the Uruguayan specialty chivito on the menu. This is a slab of beef sitting atop french fries and salad, itself topped by bacon, ham and cheese, all crowned with a fried egg. Though it’s often priced for two to share, he managed to clear his overflowing plate on his own. Any remaining room was filled by another, sweeter local specialty: pasteles de membrillo, layers of fried dough stuffed with quince jam and dusted with powdered sugar.
Afterward, we headed out to a nightspot, which there are just enough of to keep travelers entertained for a few evenings without disrupting Colonia’s slow pace. There are trendy bars with fancy cocktails and upscale restaurants with fine wines, but we went for El Drugstore, a quirky establishment featuring artwork and kitsch, a lengthy drink list and live music. We sipped our Pilsen brews to the sounds of a pair of guitarists plucking out traditional regional tunes. Although the beer rated only a wavering thumbs up from the Germans, it added a pleasant flavor to our night out on the town.
In any case, remember that experiencing Colonia is more about drinking up the atmosphere than the local concoctions. And that the real main course is the streets of stone houses covered with bougainvillea, the sailboats gliding past the railing of the beach path and the feeling that the cosmic clock has been paused for your visit.