Tucked away in the south-eastern corner of South America, Uruguay has maintained a sense of relative peace and serenity compared to its brasher, more flamboyant neighbours. Nowhere is this tranquillity more evident than in the country’s oldest town, Colonia del Sacramento: a colonial era picturesque backwater inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Founded by the Portuguese in 1680, 180 km from Montevideo yet only 50 km from Buenos Aires, Colonia del Sacramento has retained its original urban structure and is host to a wonderful array of Spanish and Portuguese architecture. This ancient suburban outpost has, throughout the centuries, preserved its cultural richness: the narrow cobblestoned alleyways, post-colonial ruins, centennial trees, and scenic plazas make this town a delight to explore.
The Barrio Historico (Historic Old Town) is undoubtedly the main attraction, delivering a perfect blend of authenticity and contemporaneity. To inspire your next adventure, here are 10 sites to see in Colonia del Sacramento and the surrounding area.
1. Portón de Campo / Plaza Mayor / Calle de los Suspiros
The most theatrical entrance to Colonia del Sacramento’s historical quarter is through the town’s spectacular city gate and wooden drawbridge, Portón de Campo. Built in 1745 by the Portuguese as a safeguard, this was originally the only way into the town. Today, the thick fortified walls and grassy slopes are a great place to relax and unwind while the peaceful wonders of Plaza Mayor are a short walk away. Visitors to this part of town may unexpectedly find themselves meandering down the narrow pedestrian passageway Calle de los Suspiros (The Street of Sighs), a place legend, myth, magic, and secret.
2. Museo Portugués
Colonia del Sacramento’s historical quarter plays host to a small collection of museums, all within walking distance of one another. Museo Portugués (Portuguese Museum), housed in a building dating back to the 18th century, presents a series of quaint exhibits that together paint a vivid picture of colonial life.
3. Iglesia Matriz and Plaza de Armas
The oldest church in Uruguay – erected by the Portuguese in 1680 and then renovated on multiple occasions by the Spanish, Iglesia Matriz is a fine example of the architectural synthesis on display throughout Colonia del Sacramento. Positioned as the centrepiece of the stunningly beautiful Plaza de Armas, itself the heart of the town’s historical district, the church still retains its original religious structure and striking white exterior that has made this sacred building a must see on your trip to Colonia del Sacramento.
4. Museo Municipal
Displaying an eclectic assortment of both Portuguese and Spanish relics, this two story Museum offers an insight into the living conditions in 18th century Colonia del Sacramento. Casa de Nacarello, a colonial-style building converted into a small exhibition gallery of Portuguese artefacts, sits adjacent to Museo Municipal and is also worth a quick visit.
5. El Faro and the Ruins of the San Francisco Convent
Sitting on the corner of Colonia’s Plaza Mayor, visitors can find the town’s most prominent landmark, El Faro (The Lighthouse). Constructed in 1857, towering above the ruins of the 17th century Convento de San Francisco (San Francisco Convent), the lighthouse offers a great view of the surrounding area via a short spiralling staircase.
6. Shopping in the local handicrafts market
A wonderful selection of craft and handmade items can be found at Feria Artesanal, a local market that lines the northern waterfront. This charming open-air space features a combination of outdoor stalls and indoor shops that offer an extraordinary array of decorative art pieces, beautiful wall-hangings, embroidered notebooks, ornamental ceramics, stylish glassware, and much more. Colonia del Sacramento is also home to a small number of clothing boutiques that can be found dotted throughout the historic old town.
7. Anchorena Park
Located just 30 km north of Colonia del Sacramento, Anchorena Park is considered one of Uruguay’s hidden jewels and is a beautiful place to visit all year round. Nature, history, and culture – this place has it all. The official summer residence for Uruguayan presidents, this estate is one of the most impressive natural reserves in South America.
8. Tour to Granja Colonia
Take a trip to see a Guinness World Record holding collection. Having dedicated over fifty years of his life to compiling thousands of items from across the world, Emilio Arenas has constructed a Museum to display his prized possessions. This somewhat eccentric and idiosyncratic Museum is a short trip (10 km) east from the historical old town and represents a great option for those who favour unconventional travel stories.
9. Plaza de Toros Real de San Carlos
Constructed in the early 20th century, this now abandoned and dilapidated bullring was host to only eight fights before the Uruguayan government outlawed bullfighting just two years after the arena was completed. The building’s exterior showcases some powerful Mudéjar architecture, exported from the Iberian Peninsula, while the interior simply remains a crumbling homage to more prosperous times on the Rio de la Plata. This impressive structure is a short bike ride or lengthy walk from the centre of Colonia del Sacramento.
The scenic town of Carmelo is a one hour’s drive north along the coast of the Rio de la Plata. Perhaps Uruguay’s best kept secret, this is a place of riverfront beaches, verdant vineyards, scented forests, and water sports; a perfect addition to any weekend vacation.
While Colonia del Sacramento’s proximity to Buenos Aires make this destination a one day trip for most visitors, many of these sites require an extended stay in the region. If you are staying overnight, the town has a wide variety of accommodation options and boasts a surprisingly vibrant restaurant scene.
The picturesque town of Colonia del Sacramento should definitely be added to any South American travel itinerary. Book a tour with Uruguay4u now.
By: Simon Hall