A quick hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires is Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. Founded by the Portuguese in 1680, this small historic port city is located at the tip of a short peninsula with a strategic position on the north shore which was used as a military strong point. The city has been well preserved and is renowned for its historic quarter which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photos of its beautiful cobblestones streets and the sweeping views from the 19th century lighthouse were enough to draw me in so I booked an early morning ferry out in order to spend the entire day exploring the city before catching an evening ferry back to Argentina.
After arriving in the Uruguay port, I set off with my little map of the city to see the towers around the edge of the fort. I was very confused when I found myself walking down a dirt trail along the water front with no one in sight. Since I'm typically good with orientation and finding my way around, I was especially frustrated that nothing was matching the map. Using the street names I finally figured out where I was and realized that there were two ports in the city, but only the historic one was shown on the map and not the port of arrival. After that discovery it was much easier to find all of the key spots around the relatively small city.
Once I was headed in the right direction, the surroundings began to match the photos I had seen. The quaint town became increasingly picturesque with small boutique stores and little cafès lining the cobble stone roads. The first stop was at the Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento which was built in 1680 in post-colonial architecture reflecting the Portuguese colonial cultural influence and is one of the oldest churches in the country.
Directly across from the Basilica is some of the cities most unique artwork. Several retro cars were parked around the streets in this area that have been repurposed as pieces of art. These slightly dilapidated, but very charming vintage cars have been decorated and changed to serve various purposes such as being an extra large planter, or a small intimate dining room setting.
After numerous shipwrecks in the bay, eventually enough taxes were levied by the government to construct a lighthouse. It was built in 1857 over the ruins of the San Francisco convent which can still be seen. The lighthouse remains operational today, but it is also open to the public to visit where visitors can ascend the steep stairs for a lovely 360 view of the city.
While exploring the little museums and following the winding streets to visit each of the key sights in the historic barrio was fascinating, my favorite part of the city was the numerous open air cafés and restaurants. Directly adjacent to the lighthouse on the street corner was an adorable open courtyard lined with twinkle lights and flowers called Paella. It was the perfect place to people watch, sitting under the orange tree and leisurely sipping a glass of chardonnay. As I continued to explore the city, I ended up discovering several other endearing spots and stopped at a few of them to enjoy the laid back atmosphere and delicious treats.
The most popular street in the historic district is La Calle de los Suspiros or the Street of Sighs. Although there are differing opinions on the origins of how the street earned this name, this eye-catching avenue holds many colonial age architectural features and is one of the UNESCO world heritage sites. I asked several of the locals about the street and each had a different theory about the name. One said that it was where the criminals used to get hung- taking their final breaths, another said that it was because the street used to have brothels for when the sailors passed through town- ensuing sighs, and another said it was because every time visitors come to the street they sigh happily looking at its beauty. New stories and theories are likely to continue emerging, but regardless of the actual origins, the lovely Street of Sighs remains full of history and legends.
As the sun began to set, I headed back to the port to catch the return ferry very satisfied with the day trip. Although it would have been fun to spend a few more days exploring the country and visiting Montevideo, an afternoon in Colonia del Sacramento was a perfect amount of time to explore this historic and very charming city!