Trail of the unexpected: Colonia del Sacramento

A rough river crossing from Argentina transports Mick Webb to Uruguay's historic gem, Colonia

Seasickness is not a cause for concern on the average river crossing – but the River Plate is no average river. It took my fast ferry 75 minutes to get from Buenos Aires in Argentina to the Uruguayan town of Colonia del Sacramento on the opposite bank; on the day I'd chosen to travel this was at least an hour too long.

Argentina's poets have seen many different colours in the river – blue-grey, copper, metallic green – but I can confirm that the huge waves, whipped up by a wind from the South Atlantic were a particularly nasty shade of brown and any tinges of green were confined to the faces of the passengers.

It was not an ideal prelude to a visit to Uruguay's most popular tourist attraction. The town's mixture of Spanish and Portuguese colonial architecture stems from its chequered early history. Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, for the next 150 years Colonia was on the front line of a battle between Iberia's two great imperial powers. It changed hands by conquest or treaty on 10 separate occasions before finally becoming part of the independent state of Uruguay in 1828.

Sixteen years ago, Colonia's "Historic Quarter" was added to Unesco's list of World Heritage Sites. Most of its two million annual visitors arrive, like me, from the Argentinian capital. As a cross-border day-trip, it beats Dover-Calais.

As you enter the Barrio Histórico through the city gate, convincingly rebuilt in its 17th-century form, that travel cliché of "stepping back in time" is difficult to resist. In front of you is the Plaza Mayor, originally a military parade ground but now a spacious, grassy square lined with plane trees. Beyond it a maze of cobbled streets stretches over a dozen blocks, bounded on three sides by the waters of the River Plate.

I set out on a haphazard wander, trying to spot the different cultural ingredients that have created Colonia. The evocatively named Calle de los Suspiros ("Street of the Sighs") is a typical Portuguese street from the town's earliest period, with a drainage channel that runs down the middle, unlike those constructed by the Spanish, which have pavements and drainage channels at the sides. The single-storey houses with tiled roofs, painted in pink, blue and other pastel washes are unmistakably Portuguese, while many of the larger two-storey mansions were added by the Spanish.

The largest building on the Plaza Mayor is the Casa del Almirante Brown; Admiral Brown was the Irish-born founder of the Argentinian navy. His house is now the venue for the Municipal Museum with its collection of furniture and weapons from the colonial era as well as an interesting scale model of the original town. It is one of seven small museums dotted around Colonia, all of which can be visited with a single ticket, costing 50 Uruguayan pesos (£2). Each has a different angle on colonial life: the Museo de los Azulejos has some fine examples of decorated ceramic tiles. I also found a handful of shops, selling attractive textiles and jewellery at not-very-attractive prices; among the blessedly few cars to be found on the streets were a number of 1950s American roadsters, enhancing the sensation that I'd undergone time travel or wandered accidentally onto a film set.

Around lunchtime, the sun came out for the first time and with it appeared a galaxy of restaurant tables, chairs and menus of the day. I eschewed the set meals and opted for tapas accompanied by live guitar music in the eccentric El Drugstore, whose walls are covered in posters and local art. A huge Spanish omelette, accompanied by a vast salad and a glass of earthy Uruguayan Tannat wine set me back 270 pesos (£10) and set me up for a sortie back into the real world on a rented bicycle.

"Unremarkable but not unpleasant" describes the modern town of Colonia, where most of the 23,000 inhabitants live, work and shop. A 5km ride up the coast – technically the river bank – brings you to a salubrious suburb of villas with gardens boasting substantial brick-built barbecues for the essential weekend feast of grilled meat. This area, near a river beach, is being developed for tourism. But the most surprising feature is a huge, gaunt, derelict bullring, which fell into disuse in 1912 after only eight corridas, when the Uruguayan government banned bullfighting.

Back in the Barrio Histórico, there was just time to walk along the ramparts, visit the Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento – a simple and much-restored white church – and then climb the narrow and spiralling steps of the lighthouse, which rises, impressively from the ruins of a convent and is the highest point in Colonia.

As the sun began to set, the River Plate gained some startling gold and silver bands, and the wind increased in strength, causing the lighthouse and me to tremble slightly. I had a bet with myself that my return ferry to Buenos Aires would be delayed – and it was, by some hours.

I was content to wait until things had calmed down a bit before my return river crossing. After all, one wall of the Shipwrecks Museum was filled by an alarmingly long list of ships that had sunk to the bottom of the Plate.

Travel essentials: Colonia

Getting there

* Ferries between Buenos Aires and Colonia are operated by Buquebus (00 54 11 4316 6500; buquebus.com), Seacat (00 54 11 4314 5100; seacatcolonia.com) and Colonia Express (00 54 11 4317 4100; coloniaexpress.com). One-day returns start at 180 Argentinian pesos (£30) per person.

* From Montevideo, the bus journey takes two and-a-half hours (00 598 452 1990; turil.com.uy) and costs 196 Uruguayan pesos (£6.20) each way.

Staying there

* Posada Plaza Mayor, Calle del Comercio 111 (00 598 4522 3193; posadaplazamayor.com). B&B starts at US$140 (£93).

Eating there

* El Drugstore, Calle Portugal 174 (00 598 4522 5241).

Visiting there

* Casa del Almirante Brown, Calle del Comercio 77 (00 598 452 27031).

* Museo de los Azulejos, Calle Misiones de los Tapes 104 (00 598 452 21065).

* Museo de los Naufragios, Roger Balet y Calle de los Argentinos.

* Bicycle rental: Thrifty Car Rental, General Flores 172 (00 598 4522 22939); US$3 (£2) per hour.

More information

* Uruguay Tourism: turismo.gub.uy

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape