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.