It’s may only be 50 km by boat from the bustling city streets of modern Buenos Aires, but arriving in Colonia de Sacramento is, almost literally, like arriving in a different era of history. The picturesque old town of cobbled streets and colonial-era houses dates back to 1680, when it was founded by the Portuguese. It still has enough of its original 17th and 18th century stone buildings to feel exactly like the European colonial town stranded on a far flung shore in the New World that it once was. One of the reasons it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995.
We landed in Colonia de Sacramento, or Colonia as it’s better known, after a week in Buenos Aires. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the sudden change of pace. Colonia is not a big place, walking around the entire Barrio Histórico at a leisurely pace is unlikely to take you more than half a day. Once you’ve had lunch it would be reasonable to ask yourself, what now? That though is the wrong approach, because tranquility is one of Colonia’s charms. To call Colonia sleepy would do a disservice to sleep, three relaxing days later and I didn’t want to leave.
If the influx of tourists with every boat that arrives from Buenos Aires and the empty streets at night are anything to go by, most people visit Colonia on a day trip from its more illustrious neighbour across the red-brown waters of the Mar del Plata. A lot of the town is geared towards tourism, but despite a couple of tourist trap restaurants it still feels authentic. Spending a few days here meant we got to enjoy the relaxed pace of life. We also got to eat at Pizzería Don Joaquín (only open in the evenings), surely Latin America’s tastiest pizzeria?
Colonia’s history is the history of European colonial expansion and a global trade in goods that arrived in Europe on ships from many European nations: Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. It brought back strong memories of other Portuguese and Spanish colonial towns I’ve visited in the past – Cidade Velha in Cape Verde, Ibo in Mozambique, El Castillo in Nicaragua, Galle in Sri Lanka, to name just a few – and was another reminder of the extraordinary and brutal history that connects these different places, and which has shaped modern Latin America.
Throughout the 17th century, colonial competition between Portugal, who controlled Brazil, and Spain, who controlled pretty much everything else in South America, often erupted into armed conflict. Modern-day Uruguay was a bitterly contested frontier between the two empires. Built in a strategic position on the Mar del Plata opposite Buenos Aires, Colonia was a direct challenge to Spanish power. Frequently the scene of fighting, possession of the town seesawed between the two counties for 150 years.
Ironically, the fighting and bloodshed on the Mar del Plata was a sideshow to what was happening in Europe, and the two countries swapped colonial possessions in a series of European treaties. All that changed when Argentina became independent from Spain in 1816. The Portuguese Empire seized control of the region only for Brazil to declare independence in 1822. Naturally, Argentina and Brazil went to war for control of the region. Known as the Cisplatine War, three years of fighting ended in stalemate in 1828 with the formation of an independent Uruguay.
This violent history is never far away as you wander Colonia’s peaceful streets today. We were staying on the Plaza Mayor (once the military parade ground) in a converted colonial-era house, now the lovely La Posadita de la Plaza B&B. It was the perfect place from which to explore the historic centre. The Brazilian owner gave us the lowdown on the sights, best cafes, restaurants and bars, not to mention the background on why we kept seeing people wearing 19th century clothes … of which, more later.