Exploring Colonia, Uruguay

A trip to Uruguay in April ’04 was my first to that country. I went to see Montevideo, its capital city. I also wanted to visit the small town of Colonia (its full name is Colonia del Sacramento) in the southwestern corner of the country, about a 2-hour drive from Montevideo. Having seen photos of its quaint, cobblestone streets and having heard that it had begun its existence as a Portuguese settlement, I was intrigued.

It is hard to believe that this lovely town beside the Rio de la Plata River was once of immense importance to two empires, the Portuguese and the Spanish, which had carved out territories in the New World for themselves in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1678, Dom Pedro of Portugal directed Manoel Lobo to found a new colony, Nova Colonia, on the north bank of the Rio de la Plata. It was not a mistake that this colony was almost directly opposite the Spanish settlement of Buenos Aires across the river. Colonia was Portugal’s in-your-face challenge to Spain’s domination of the Rio de la Plata.

The small settlement of Colonia — part fortress, part port and trading post — seesawed between the two Hispanic superpowers for a century. Finally, in 1777, it was handed over once and for all to the Spanish. But by that time there was not much of a settlement left after the fighting, the departure of the Portuguese and the demolition carried out by the victorious Spanish.

Barrio Historico

What remained were many of the buildings built by the Portuguese and the Spanish during the hundred years of seesawing ownership. These are the buildings that still line the streets and squares of the Barrio Historico, the Historic Quarter. They have remained virtually unchanged for the past 225 years, so much so that Colonia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site — Uruguay’s only such site — in 1995.

Life in Colonia 300 years ago centered basically on two squares, the Plaza Mayor 25 de Mayo and the Plaza de Armas. The Plaza Mayor was the city’s main square then. Many of the colony’s important buildings stood shoulder to shoulder around it. Most still remain and have been turned into museums.

At one end stood the Puerta de Campo, a monumental stone gateway entered via a drawbridge over a deep ditch. This was the colony’s only entrance. Thick, cannon-studded sections of stone wall stand beside it, extending down to the Rio de la Plata. Walk through this gateway and you are in a large square lined with simple, one-story buildings as well as a few slightly grander 2-story ones.

Around the Plaza Mayor

Around the Plaza Mayor there’s the Museo Portugues, a large house that once belonged to the Rios family and now houses Portuguese artifacts from the colony’s earliest days. There’s my favorite, the Casa Nacarello, named after one of its owners, with several small rooms, including a wonderful ancient kitchen. It’s a time warp of a house: to walk inside is to step back into the year 1750.

At the corner of the square are the ruins of the Convento de San Francisco where Franciscan friars once lived while preaching to and converting the Indian population. Incongruously, but very picturesquely, a mid-19th-century lighthouse now rises from the ruins.

Two grander buildings stand beside the Casa Nacarello on the west side of the square. Their owners were obviously a cut above their neighbors in wealth. One, now the Museo Municipal, housing a little bit of everything from maps to butterflies, was probably built between 1700 and 1750. Its next-door neighbor, now the Archivo Regional, housing replica furniture, dates from about 1750.

Plaza de Armas

A 5-minute stroll away is the Plaza de Armas, a leafy, shady and more intimate square than the Plaza Mayor, where four of Colonia’s best restaurants stand next to each other like comrades-in-arms.

Pride of place in this square goes to the Iglesia Matriz, founded in 1678, the year Manoel Lobo founded the colony. Uruguay’s oldest church, it still has a baptismal font dating from 1700. A cemetery once surrounded the church and now lies beneath the cobblestones of the square.

On the other side of the Plaza de Armas are the extensive ruins of the Governor’s House which now form a small park with a boardwalk across it so visitors can walk over the foundations of what were once the living quarters of the house.

Other museums

There are also a few places that are not located in either of these two squares but are all within a short stroll of each other. They should not be missed.

There’s the Museo del Azulejo, where a lovely collection of old tiles is housed in a small, 17th-century building next to the Rio de la Plata, and the Museo Indigena, the labor of love of Roberto Banchero, who collected indigenous Indian (the Churras) artifacts. There’s the Museo Español, an aristocratic Spanish house of the early 18th century with wrought-iron balconies, where colonial-era pottery and costumes from different areas of Spain are attractively displayed.

Finally, there’s the Puerto Viejo beside the Bastion del Carmen, part of the ancient fortifications of the town. This was once the bustling harbor for the 17th- to 18th-century colony and full of ships, many carrying smuggled goods. Pleasure boats and yachts have now replaced the transport ships. This is the perfect spot to linger, savoring the past that surrounds you.

If you go. . .

Visitors can stroll through Colonia’s Barrio Historico and see most of the buildings in a few hours. But to truly savor this lovely place, try to spend a night or two. You can visit the museums during the day, but it is in the late afternoon and early evening when day-trippers from Montevideo and Buenos Aires have left that you can have the Old Town to yourself and immerse yourself in the past.

I spent two nights at the lovely Posada Plaza Mayor on Calle Comercio, just off the Plaza Mayor. It’s a small, atmospheric inn built around a shady courtyard with a central fountain. Avoid the rooms at the front facing the street if you want to get to sleep before 2 a.m. We paid the going rate for a room here, $75.

There’s also the beautiful Gobernador on Plaza de Armas. If I were to stay here, room No. 16 would be my choice.

You will not starve in Colonia. My husband and I tried each of the four restaurants lined up on the Plaza de Armas. We enjoyed a reasonably priced lunch ($12 for two) at VB, seated outside in the square under the trees. Cappuccinos at brightly painted El Drugstore were expensive ($6 for two), but it was nice sitting outside just opposite the Iglesia Matriz. And pizzas were generously sized, good and inexpensive ($3 for two) at La Veleta, where a jazz group entertained us during lunch. But our favorite — dinner both nights — was the Meson de la Plaza, with lots of atmosphere and good food ($22 for two, including wine).


If you decide to make Colonia a day trip from Montevideo (or if you’re visiting Montevideo), I recommend staying at the Radisson Plaza Victoria on Plaza Independencia, with a lofty, dramatic lobby-sitting area and a lively casino. It’s in the old downtown area of the city within a few minutes’ walk of the Plaza Constitucion, where there is a flea and antiques market on Saturdays and where tango dancers exhibit their skills when the spirit moves them. In the corner of the square there’s also a good café from which to watch the action.

The Radisson is also within a 15-minute walk of almost everything else we wanted to see in Montevideo: Casa Rivera, Museo Romantico and Casa Garibaldi, all housed in old colonial-era mansions; the Mercado del Puerto with at least a dozen restaurants serving every cut of beef imaginable; the indoor Mercado de los Artesanos, for handcrafted souvenirs, and the Museo del Gaucho, also housed in a spectacular mansion.

Room rates at the Radisson start at about $100 (our 2-room suite cost $112), and there’s the bonus of the excellent Arcadia Restaurant on the top floor overlooking the downtown area and the harbor.