Thursday, August 17, 2017

Colonia del Sacramento.

View of diners outside El Drugstore Restaurant and Bar....a missed opportunity for us :-(

Original Post Date: February 20, 2017.

Today, we did a road trip to Colonia del Sacramento, a small Spanish colonial city located about a 2.5 hour bus ride from Montevideo.  By the way, the city lies across the water from Buenos Aires.  If you take the Buquebus ferry, it's only about a 90 minute ride making it a perfect day trip from Buenos Aires.

I had read about Colonia, as the locals refer to it as, when I was researching things to do in Montevideo.  Originally, I had planned for us to do the day trip to Colonia tomorrow but after the very disappointing first impression of old city Montevideo, I decided we needed to escape to what looked like the colonial city I had expected to find in Montevideo.

We had breakfast at the hotel - the first ones down.  It was a quick breakfast after which we headed out to catch the local bus to the Tres Cruces bus station.  Of course, I had already identified the station on the map but Bro needed validation that we had the the correct information so I let him chat with the receptionist.  The same CA1 bus that we rode on yesterday, back from the street market, is the same bus that would take us to Tres Cruces.  I figured we just had to go back to the same bus stop where we got off and wait for the ride to come.  So we headed out.  One thing about the buses here, they pretty much arrive every few minutes. 

The ride to Tres Cruces took us on the same stretch of road that we were on yesterday but we went much further.  Even so, it was no more than a 30 minute ride, at most.  The final destination for the bus was the station so everyone emptied out and we followed them inside the building which we thought was the bus station but it turned out to be a shopping mall.  It's a very nice shopping mall as far as shopping malls go - pretty much looks like any mall you would find in a US suburb.


The actual bus station is located on the lower level.


All the bus companies were lined up against one wall.  We checked them out until we found the one company that left for Colonia within the hour - Turil.  You can check the Tres Cruces website for bus options and schedules.   The tickets came up to be about $15 USD each.

They had a bus leaving at 10a, giving us about an hour's wait.  Not bad. 




While waiting for our bus, we also checked out the bus options for Punta del Este, our second day trip.  We just have to decide whether we go tomorrow or the day after.  Challenge with bus schedules is just trying to understand them :-)


When it was a few minutes shy of departure time, we headed outside and waited for the bus to arrive.  I don't think buses run late here.  We didn't have an assigned seat so we just boarded and plopped ourselves down in two available seats.  Like the long distance buses that we took in Chile, this Turil bus was equally modern and comfortable.  I will definitely consider bus travel in future trips to South America.


We settled in for the long ride to Colonia.  Montevideo is a larger city than I had expected - it took quite a while for the bus to reach the outskirts, leaving the city behind.  Uruguay is green and flat.  Very flat.  It's not the type of landscape that inspires you look out the window for any length of time.  Bro and I had brought along our iPads so we turned to them to keep ourselves entertained.


It was around 12:30p when we pulled into the small bus station in Colonia.  We decided to take advantage of the facilities before leaving the station - it had been a long bus ride!

Colonia is renowned for its historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I had already mapped out a few destinations for us to go to.  First stopping point was to be the Visitors Center which according to the map was less than a 5 minute walk from the station.  So, I fired up Google Maps and led the way.  Unfortunately, the place was closed when we arrived - apparently, permanently as the office had relocated closer to the heart of the old city.  So, we continued our walk according to the map.  Just one block in and the sight the tree lined cobble stone streets and pastel colored buildings were the tell tale signs that we were in the type of Spanish colonial city I had imagined Colonia to be.


A few blocks later and we had arrived at Portón de Campo, the entrance gate to the old city and the wooden drawbridge that takes you to it.  


Here was also where we found the Visitors Center.  We stopped in to cool off in an air conditioned space while we got some suggestions on places to visit.  With map in hand, we set out to explore the historic old city, entering through the gate.  I had expected to find a place filled with touristy restaurants and shops but I was very pleasantly surprised to find that there were just a few.  So far, so good.


We continued our walk, following the map and soon found ourselves gazing over the tree tops to see a lighthouse. 



On our right was a small park - Colonia's Plaza Mayor.  It was blisteringly hot and humid day and even though I had barely walked for 10 minutes, I was already in need of shade.  I am a wimp when it comes to heat :-(


One one side, Plaza Mayor is flanked by some very lovely, quintessential Spanish colonial buildings that were probably once homes of the wealthy but today house small hotels, restaurants, and shops.  We sat for a few minutes under the relative cool of the trees in the park, sipping on water and watching the world go.  There was not much world going by - Colonia is a relatively sleepy little place.  I can see why it's a nice escape from either Montevideo or Buenos Aires.


The lighthouse aka Faro de Colonia del Sacramento sits next to the ruins of the17th century Convento de San Francisco.  Construction of the lighthouse began in 1845 and was completed in 1857.  As we walked by it, we noticed people at the top and made a note to return to climb up for a bird's eye view of the historic city.



Bro was still following the map and he was focused on taking us to the places that had camera icons displayed next to them.  We guessed that meant there was a nice view from these spots.   We meandered towards the water.  As we strolled, I couldn't help but think that this is what I had imagined old city Montevideo would look and feel like.  Really a shame that it's not. I think it would be a real economic boost to the old city if the government would pour money into fixing it up. That place is so run down - nothing to attract tourists and their dollars!




Colonia is such a small place.  I don't think it took us more than 5 minutes to get from the lighthouse to the banks of the the Rio de la Plata.  Amazing that the delta is so wide you pretty much think that it's the ocean!




The waterfront is home to the wealthy at least if the homes here are any indication.  I can see why given the nice views.  Everything is well taken care of here - the buildings, the gardens, the streets.  Even the tile plaques displaying street names are pretty.





We arrived at small boat dock and took another short break here.  We found a bench and sat for a few minutes which was about all that I could stand given the heat and humidity.  Any longer and I would have fried to a crisp!  No exaggeration!






There were a few restaurants here but not all that many.  I was getting the sense that while Colonia is a tourist destination, tourists don't come here in hordes.  We most certainly didn't encounter all that many when we were here.  In honesty, there were barely any tourists considering this is high season.  It made me wonder where they had all gone to instead though I wasn't complaining as it was so nice sharing this place with only a few people.


From the water's edge, we veered back towards Plaza Mayor, strolling under the refuge of trees.  Thank God for trees!



And thank God, really thank God for Bortolot, a small gelato shop that we just happened to stumble up and of course, we had to go in.  Considering we had not eaten any lunch, cream and sugar was an ideal pick me up :-)

Behind counter were literally dozens of aluminum containers filled with deliciousness just waiting for us.


Thanks to Bro's previous mathematical calculations that the quarter kilo container was the best buy for the money, we went about picking our three flavors - at least one of which has to be that lip smacking good sambayon and the other a chocolate flavor of some sort.  I don't care about the third though my taste buds would have been perfectly happy getting a double order of sambayon.



We settled on cherry for the third flavor.  It was okay.  Sambayon was divine!  I have to figure out how to make it at home.


After we finished our gelato and cooled off, we headed back out and continued our stroll through the old city.  This really is a nice place for a stroll.  As we took in the sights and sounds around us, I was virtually kicking myself for not having planned for us to spend one night here.  We could've easily done it - instead of arriving into Montevideo, we would've traveled here from Buenos Aires and then taken the Turil bus to Montevideo.  Ah....but hindsight is always perfect, isn't it?



I noticed the double spires of the church and headed us in their direction. 




The Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento (the Basilica of the Holy Sacrament) dates back to 1810 though the parish itself was established in 1680 making it one of the oldest Catholic parishes in the country.


The interior was a very simple and sparsely decorated space - a stark contrast to what most Catholic churches look like on the inside.


Located right opposite the church is a restaurant called El Drugstore that is typically described as a bit touristy with a lively atmosphere and decent food.  Sounded good to me so I had flagged El Drugstore as a place that we could have lunch in and had even noted that it was across the street from the church.  But for some reason, I had completely forgotten about the place as I was staring at it.  I blame it on the heat :-)  As a result, we didn't venture inside.  Opportunity lost.


From the church, we took a long way back to the lighthouse.








Arriving back at the tall white structure, I could see people hanging out at the top so I knew it was open for visitors.  We're going up!



Inside, we paid our entry ticket  - 25 pesos, less than $1 USD and then we had to wait.  Thinking about it, the space at the top is pretty small and given that the staircase leading up is pretty narrow, they have to carefully manage the number of people going up and down at any given time.  It wasn't a long wait though....maybe 10 minutes.



I'm always the slow one so I let Bro go first.


We exited at the first level observation deck and took in the view.  I'm so glad we did this after walking about the town as we could spot a few of the places we had been to....like the basilica.


Colonia indeed is a teeny, weeny place so there wasn't a whole lot to see but it was a nice view of the water.



When the path was clear, we made our way up to the top level deck.



Of course, the higher up, the better the view.  We could see into the far distance....to the modern day city of Colonia.  As you can see from the photo, there's not a lot of glass, steel and concrete here.


After the lighthouse, we were pretty much done and just in time too as we would soon have to catch the bus back to Montevideo.  We did have enough time for a very slow stroll.  I wanted to really soak in the beauty of this place.  Colonia was another reminder of why I so love Spanish colonial cities.  Surprisingly, after nearly 4 weeks of traveling through South America, it was the first colonial city we had been in.  I don't know what happened to Chile and Argentina?  Perhaps those places were more influenced by other European cultures than the Spanish??



Our walk took us along the water's edge.  At one point, the remains of the old city walls appeared.


We had made it back to Portón de Campo.

One last view of the walls and the water beyond before leaving Colonia.  It was short visit and well, there's not as much to see here as in many other colonial cities but I still enjoyed our time here.


We continued on our walk to the bus station.  Though located outside the historic city walls, the neighborhood we walked through was itself pretty charming.  Lots of small restaurants and shops.  Few people were out and even fewer cars.  Almost felt like a ghost town.



As often happens, we talk as we walk and then I get no reply back from Bro.  I turn around and he's engaged in a conversation with some one.  In this case, the man and his wife stopped Bro - curious about where he was from. Apparently, the man had just returned from the pharmacy with some medication and once he found out that Bro was a doctor, he had a ton of questions.  Bro answered what he could without going beyond dispensing information that could harm the man.  In any case, the talk wasn't all about medicine.  The man and his wife turned out to be a very lovely couple but soon we had to end the chat - we had a bus to catch.  Adios!


Back at the station, we had short wait before boarding the Turil bus back to Montevideo.  By the way, if you arrive into Colonia via the Buquebus ferry from Buenos Aires, there are storage lockers in the bus station for you to stow your suitcases while you explore the historic city.  You can then retrieve your luggage when you're ready to catch the bus to Montevideo.  In hindsight, this is what we should've done.


We boarded the 5p bus and settled in for the ride back to the big city.



Even though we really hadn't had a strenuous day, the heat and humidity had really sapped our energy.  Both of us nodded off in no time.  When I woke up, we were on the outskirts of Montevideo.


The bus rumbled its way through the suburbs.




And before you know it, we were back at Tres Cruces.  It's summer and the days are long so the sun had not even set when we stepped foot off the bus.



We hadn't had lunch and it was dinner time.  We had two options.  Head back to the old city and try to find a place to eat and hit up one of the eateries at the mall.  We opted for the latter.  We were both too hungry to wait any more.

So we headed down to the food court.  I was expecting a lot of fast food places and indeed they do have them but they also have *proper* restaurants.  I spotted one with a massive grill and immediately began to drool at the thought of having a really mouthwatering piece of flame grilled beef.  Unfortunately, the flames were not happening.....at least not for a another hour or so more.  Like the Argentinians, the Uruguayans are late eaters.  It would be at least 9p before anything would come off the grill and we were not about to wait so we went ahead and ordered other items from the menu.  I opted for a chivito - the iconic pork sandwich of Uruguay. The thing was massive but I ate every bit of it.  It was delicious and just what I needed to fill my belly.  It was probably a lot more food than I needed but so worth the calorie splurge!


It was dark by the time we finished our meal.  We made our way back on the CA1 bus.  By now, we knew exactly where to get off.  Back in the room, we chilled out and talked about what to do tomorrow.  We've decided to hang in the city.  Bro did a bit of reading and has ideas on places to go.  Should be interesting!

Then, we heard the sound of music and drums. First, it was faint and then it got progressively louder as if it was approaching the hotel.  Bro was curious and wanted to go check it out.  I was a bit more cautious as earlier in the day, Bro had read an online review to me where the guy had been held up at gunpoint.  We had met a British tourist, on the tour bus to Perito Moreno that also told us that someone had attempted to hold him up in Ciudad Vieja.  Though our hotel is very nice on the inside, the area around it is not so nice.  At night, the building across the street is filled with men just loitering around.  I wasn't so sure it was a good idea to go wandering out but curiosity got the best of me so leaving everything behind us but the room key, we left the room and headed out in the direction that the sounds were coming from.  Just about two blocks from our hotel, we stopped in front of a church.  There, a small group of people, some dressed in costumes, were drumming, dancing and singing.  I was surprised to see African faces among the performers - the first and only ones I've seen on this entire trip.  To me, it looked like a colorful, joyful celebration of some sort.  There was a small group of spectactors as well - all local residents and which included a lot of young children.  As the entire group made its way down the street towards our hotel, we followed along.  After a while, we decided we had had enough and headed back to our room.  After seeing the children out and about, perhaps the whole thing about this being a dangerous place is a bit overblown.  We just have to be careful and keep alert but otherwise, don't let my own paranoia get in the way of my enjoying my visit here.

On that note, goodnight from Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo!