We had no real idea about what to expect of Uruguay. I was apprehensive. David wasn't – until we saw the ferry dock. It was at least a hundred years old; rusty, decrepit and decaying. Oooooppps! – what happened to rule number one – 'travel within our comfort zone'.
The ferry berthed, the doors opened and we had no choice but to join the crowd and be swept along by the collective force of humanity deserting the ship. We stumbled along the rickety third-world gang-way, navigating its maize of corridors, stairs, and corners losing all sense of time and direction until finally we were expelled into the arrivals hall. Here we found ourselves surrounded by chrome and glass. This was ultra modern state of the art architecture – a brand-spanking new ferry terminal building. What a relief! ( Note to the Uruguayan authorities – if you want international tourists to get a good first impression do something about the wharf.)
Colonia del Sacramento is a former Portugese and Spanish colony just across the River Plate from Buenos Aires. It's Historic Quarter (Barrio Histórico) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site rich with cobblestone streets, quaint little churches, defensive walls, cafes, restaurants and museums. It is the perfect place to come to recover from the bustle of Buenos Aires.
By far the best way to arrive is by ferry. The Buquebus Ferry from Buenos Aires takes about an hour and berths within a five minute walk of the old town. The Buquebus has an 'Especial First Class' section which is only a few dollars more than tourist class but loads of fun. We were greeted with a glass of champagne and seated in our own private section upstairs with views across the River Plate. The only other people in 'Especial Class' were a dribble of businessmen and a pleasant young couple from Buenos Aires with a baby. Like all Portenos (residents of Buenos Aires) they were beautifully dressed. David and I felt like refugees in our casual shorts and polo shirts. This is a part of the world where people still dress well for almost any occasion, even when travelling. We definitely let the side down.
Unfortunately we didn't discover 'Especial Class' until the return journey. On the way out we sat downstairs with everyone else, in cattle class. Cattle class was crowded, had no champagne and our view was confined to the back of the seats in front of us, but at least we didn't feel under-dressed.
After our initial, frightening, first impressions Uruguay turned out to be easy and safe. Colonia is a place to ditch the car and walk. Yes, we hired a car, David always does – he's quite boring in that respect.
The Historic District is a walled town of just a few streets, facing out across the river to Buenos Aires. Colonia was invaded again and again in its early years, swapping between Portuguese and Spanish masters with monotonous regularity. The invaders always came by water. Enough of the defensive walls remain to give visitors a feel for how impressive they must once have been. There is even drawbridge. We spent hours unearthing 17th Century cobblestone lanes and alleyways, climbing El Faro lighthouse for it's panoramic views and exploring Colonia's history through it's myriad of pocket-sized museums.
When our thirst for cafes, history and culture was finally satiated we ventured beyond the walls to get a glimpse of where the real Colonians lived. The guide books had told us about an old bull ring about 7 kilometres from the Historic District and it seemed as good a place as anywhere to head to. The Plaza de Toros was built by an Argentinian entrepreneur. 7,000 spectators packed the stadium for it's opening event in 1910 but after staging just eight bull-fights it closed forever when the Uruguayan Government followed Argentina and outlawed bull fighting. This once magnificent structure is now slowly crumbling into history. Incongruously it sits in the middle of a roundabout. A perimeter fence stopped us from entering but we were able to wander around and admire it from around the outside.
Why Uruguay – is it safe?
David loves history and hates crowds. We did the Europe thing when we were younger but we seem to have lost the energy to endure the long flight and the crush of tour groups. South America is our perfect destination. A relatively civilised thirteen hour flight, loads of history, stunning weather and friendly people.
Argentina, Chilé and Uruguay in particular all have rich colonial histories largely undiscovered by the Australian tourist diaspora. Much of their population came from Europe in successive waves of immigration in the same way as our own forebears did. They settled down, farmed, built magnificent colonial structures and got on with their lives. They may have lost their way at times in the 20th Century but today they are safe, thriving democracies.
How do I get to Colonia?
You can fly – but it is much more fun to take the ferry.
Two companies run ferries from Buenos Aires; Buquebus and SeaCat. We took the Buquebus. If you have a car you can take it across with you but many of the hire companies in Sth America won't let you cross borders so you need to check. The Buquebus won't allow you to book your car passage without a description of your car including the registration plate. No exceptions – believe me we tried. This effectively means that you can't book your sea passage until you have picked up your hire car. We simply gave up on this one, took the ferry as foot passangers and hired a car in Colonia. It worked out fine. The car hire places are all within very easy walk of the ferry terminal.
There are lots of tour companies which will take you to Colonia for a day trip. Don't – unless you are short of time. Ditch the tours, catch a taxi to the ferry terminal, it's right in Puerto Modero, wander around Colonia, stay at one of the charming little hotels and return to Buenos Aires the next day. It's ridiculously easy.
When to go?
It is probably best to avoid weekends if you can and definitely avoid Easter. Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) often go across at Easter and there are more than 10 million of them.
Where do I stay?
There is no shortage of quaint little hotels in the old town. Because we had a car we opted to stay out of the centre on the Rambla de las Americas. The Rambla runs along the shores of the River Plate and is a great place to go for long walks and watch the sunset. We found trip advisor to be invaluable.
How easy is it to drive in Uruguay?
Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are all much easier to drive in than you might think and Uruguay is the easiest of them all. After Colonia we drove to Montevideo, about two hours east. The road connecting the two is a modern highway no more difficult to drive than the road between Sydney and Melbourne. The only challenge are the roundabouts – we came to think of them as the Rubik's Cubes of the freeway. It is hard to describe quite why they are so tricky to navigate. The best description I can give is to say that they are a cross between a round about and a hook turn. Melbourne drivers would probably feel quite at home.