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.