Have you been to Uruguay? Maybe Montevideo should be a vacation destination? Montevideo is not only the capital but also the oldest city in Uruguay, founded in 1724 by Bruno Mauricio de Zabala. With over 1.3 million residents, Montevideo is not only the largest city in Uruguay but also home to approximately one-third of the country’s population. Montevideo boasts a beautiful coastline along the Rio de la Plata, offering several urban beaches where locals and tourists can relax and swim, including Playa Pocitos and Playa Ramirez.
You’ll love Montevideo but this post is about a day trip to Colonia. Colonia del Sacramento is a city that is on the way to Colonia – where Madeline I stayed for our trip. I thought of going there from Colonia but this Viator tour was offered from Montevideo. Like Colonia, Colonia del Sacramento is just across the Río de La Plata from Buenos Aires. It’s known for its cobblestoned Barrio Historico, lined with buildings from its time as a Portuguese settlement. Colonia del Sacramento is somewhat noted for its 19th-century lighthouse which has sweeping river views. Close to the historic district is the Porton de Campo, with remnants from the old city walls.
Granja Colonia / Granja Arenas
The first thing we saw on the trip was the Granja Colonia. It is a quite expansive museum and gift shop. It has at least five Guinness Book of World Records collections. Senor Arenas and his family were farmers and successful ones. Mr. Arenas started collection souvenirs. His collection grew in a very large way. The souvenir collection ballooned into four rooms containing over 80,000 items collected by the farming Arenas family patriarch over the past 50 years.
This museum has one of the largest pencil collections in the world.
There are two large rooms with plenty of lead pencils everywhere. He also has an impressive collection of more than 36,000 key chains, 4,800 ashtrays, 3,600 perfume bottles, 10,000 matchboxes. It appears he is working on drink cans next.
While famous for its collection of, tchotchkes, the Arenas family is known in the area for their delicious jams and jellies. Visitors will find the traditional fruit-flavored jams as well as some more unique flavors.
Plaza de Toros Real de San Carlos
We then toured the city a bit and saw the remnants of a bullfighting arena, Plaza de Toros Real de San Carlos. Our guide, Guzman, told us that it was being prepared for a new life. People were ensuring the stone walls were safe and once the facility was reconstructed for safety, it would become an historical tourist site with vendors selling their wares inside. We heard that food vendors were also considered in the next phase.
The history of the bullring and racetrack across the street is a story between the Spanish and Portuguese. The bullfighting arena was completed in 1910 and famous bullfighters came to crowds of over 10,000.
The architecture reminded us of what we’ve seen in Morocco and Oman. We were told that it is Mudejar style architecture which is a combination of Muslim style and Western style – typical of the Iberian Peninsula.
People would come from Buenos Aires by boat. At that time, bullfighting was frowned upon by Argentina and Buenos Aires in particular. So, if you wanted to see it, you needed to come over by boat. The Real de San Carlos complex included the bull ring, a horse track, a hotel and casino, and a ferry dock for tourists arriving from Buenos Aires
Although it was very successful initially, Uruguay also passed a law against bullfighting in 1912 and that was the beginning of the end. The casino began operating after bullfights were forbidden, and the whole complex operated until 1917. Today only a racetrack from the complex is still in use but it didn’t appear to be terribly active when we visited.
When the bus continued to move again, we neared the water and our guide, Guzman, said that the land in the horizon over the water was Argentina. We stopped for a photo at the Colonia sign which is definitely a tourist stop.
Our bus took us into town. We wondered where the town was since most of what we saw up to this point were very small houses. We were approaching the Barrio Historico district.
The town of Colonia del Sacramento was founded by the Portuguese in 1680 and was likely chosen because of its proximity to Buenos Aires just a short distance away across the Rio del la Plata. It’s hard to see all of the district because everything is so flat. It helped going to the top of the lighthouse because the old town borders were clearer.
Even though the Portuguese established the town, it was occupied by the Spanish and Portuguese regularly. You can see the influence in the buildings with a fusion of the Portuguese and Spanish traditions evident in the construction methods. There are large squares and cobblestone streets with mostly small stone buildings. A two-story building is unusual, and the lighthouse is the tallest thing to be seen.
Puerta de la Ciudadela
We entered the historic quarter via a drawbridge and door called Puerta de la Ciudadela or Puerta de Campo. Once you enter you can see where the canons were stationed and what used to be a fortress.
Calle de los Suspiros
Our guide told us some stories of the past. He pointed to one house which was painted red. It was supposedly the house where the women of “ill repute” provided services for the military men. The street leading to the house is a UNESCO World Heritage site called the Street of Sighs or Calle de los Suspiros. Nobody explained why it was called the Street of Sighs, so we did a little digging.
Apparently, it wasn’t just the red house which contained a brothel, the street used to lodge countless brothels. All of the sailors and military men were quite aware of the street and what might await. The sighs were a common sound coming from satisfied customers or perhaps the women telling their customer how great the experience was. Another story is that the soldiers who walked along the street would pay compliments to the prostitutes and sigh for them once and again. The street was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995.
We had a 3.5 hour stop in the town and we were advised to have lunch first and then stroll around. We ate at Don Peperone which was an Italian restaurant. It seemed that most of us wound up there because our guide, Guzman, heartily recommended it. It had space for more than 100 so we had little trouble finding a table.
We both had mini pizzas that were freshly baked and were excellent. They had over 50 varieties so you could surely find a pizza you liked. They had pasta, salads, meats, fish and many more things to eat but pizza seemed to be the highlight.
Espacio Portugues, Museo de Colonia
We were told that the “white house” in the square was a museum and that you could purchase tickets, perhaps after lunch, for the museum. We wanted to investigate it after our pizza lunch. This is really a hidden jewel of the square and our guide didn’t promote it. For a fee of $50 Uruguayan Dollars or about $1.25 USD it allowed you to see eight museums in the area – all within walking distance. The person in the white house didn’t speak any English but she gave us a pamphlet and said 8 in English, and she pointed, and we figured it out.
The map provided information about the locations of the museums, and they were pretty easy to find. The white house museum is probably the most complete with multiple rooms and an upstairs and downstairs. It is an 18th-century Portuguese building which houses an old coat of arms, pieces of furniture, weaponry and reproductions of historical artifacts and cartographic maps. It even has a skeleton from a lestodon and a giant glyptodon.
I thought the lestodon looked like a dinosaur and the gyptodon looked like a Galapagos tortoise. I was wrong on both counts.
A lestodon was a giant ground sloth from South America measuring over 15 feet and weighing 2.85 tons. That’s a rather big sloth. Its remains have been found in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.
A glyptodon was a large, heavily armored mammal somewhat similar to an armadillo. Those of us who live in Texas are very familiar with armadillos. We like them until they get into Madeline’s garden – then we need to relocate them elsewhere. This glyptodon was roughly the same size and weight as a Volkswagen Beetle, so we are both glad we didn’t see him in the garden.
We left the “white house” and moved to the Nacarello House which is an old Portuguese house, with its original stone walls and floor from the early 17th century. Another museum is called the Museum and Regional Historical Archive. It has many documents and artifacts from the various conquerors of the town including Brazil, Portugal, Spain, England, France, Argentina and finally Uruguay.
In the “Roberto Banchero” Native Museum it’s all about the indigenous cultures which thrived before any European invader came. Here we saw arrow tips, pottery, boleadoras, arrow tips, and mortars created by the native people.
Another museum is devoted Years to the Spanish occupation – appropriately named the Museum of the Spanish Historical Period. Probably the most colorful museum is the Tile Museum. We found it on Paseo San Gabriel. It is a very small stone house with a low roof and inside are decorative tiles from the Portuguese, French and Spanish dating from 17th and 18th centuries.
Colonia del Sacramento Lighthouse
The next stop was the Colonia del Sacramento Lighthouse. Since Argentina is close to Uruguay, the lighthouse is in a strategic location in the Rio de la Plata. Uruguay was occupied by so many countries before becoming independent. Both the Portuguese and Spanish regularly took the short ship ride to Uruguay. After paying $1 USD admission, we climbed 111 steps up a winding, narrow staircase to the very top, and get to soak in the city’s best views. On the way to the top is a larger circle around the lighthouse and we could take better pictures from the intermediate level.
At the top, it is quite crowded and to get to the top you need to take a very small ladder. We saw people with backpacks that had to spend a bit of time navigating the tiny entry area. It was quite windy at the top and very little space to take pictures.
Shipwrecks were regular because of the strong current of the Rio de la Plata. Many boats containing gold and silver sank. A toll tax was levied on ships beginning in 1855. The tax raised the funds for the first lighthouse. The lighthouse took longer than expected to begin service. It took until 1857 and the neighbors were so thrilled that it became worldwide news.
After 3.5 hours in the town, we saw quite a lot of history. It’s a very interesting step back into history and if you enjoy learning about the past history of Uruguay, you’ll really enjoy this town. It is a very nice tour offered from Viator and we really enjoyed it.
Have you been to Uruguay? Maybe Montevideo should be a wine vacation destination? This is Part 2 of our Uruguayan Vineyards post. You can find Part 1 here. Uruguay has several wine-producing regions, with the majority of vineyards located in the southern part of the country. The most prominent wine regions include Canelones, Maldonado, Colonia,…
Have you been to Uruguay? Maybe Montevideo should be a wine vacation destination? This is Part 1 of a two part post on Uruguayan vineyards. Part 2 can be found here. Uruguay is a hidden gem in the world of wine, and while it may not be as famous as some of its South American…
Have you been to Uruguay? Maybe Montevideo should be a vacation destination? Montevideo is not only the capital but also the oldest city in Uruguay, founded in 1724 by Bruno Mauricio de Zabala. With over 1.3 million residents, Montevideo is not only the largest city in Uruguay but also home to approximately one-third of the…
Have you been to Uruguay? Maybe Montevideo should be a vacation destination? Montevideo is famous for its extensive coastal promenade known as “La Rambla.” Stretching over 13 miles, it’s one of the longest waterfront promenades in the world, perfect for walking, jogging, or cycling. Punta del Este is often referred to as the “St. Tropez…