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Notes on the Geography of Uruguay: Colonia

Colonia del Sacramento is the only town in Uruguay that's made it onto UNESCO's World Heritage List. It's a stretch really, but see for yourself.

The history of the place is concisely summed up in Handbook of the Rio Plate, 1885: "A very lucrative smuggling trade was carried on between Brazil and La Plata, to encourage which the Portuguese built the city of Colonia, in front of Buenos Ayres, in the year 1679, from which date the new settlement became a bone of contention, changing masters repeatedly" (p. 569).

You can still see bits of the Portuguese town set into the larger Spanish colonial town and the still larger Uruguayan town. The older bits are the best, at least for gawkers.

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We're just beyond the fringe of Montevideo and heading west, or upstream along the Rio de la Plata.

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Tidy wheat fields?

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There's a reason. Maccio is a Uruguayan company producing the full monty: seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides.

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It's hard to compete in the international grain market unless and until your technology is up to date.

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New houses can wait.

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But how's this for an archetypal farmstead? I'm assuming the gate squeaks a bit.

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A quick detour, please. The Handbook to the Rio Plate says that New Switzerland was sponsored by a pair of promoters named Sigrist and Finder who "spent money lavishly at the outset and failed, after an outlay of $120,000...." The land was eventually sold at auction to happy colonists able to buy their land for a bargain price of two or three dollars an acre. A century and a half later, the town remembers its origin and has perhaps found another source of income.

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A monument in the town square recalls pioneer labor.

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Street names allude to it, too.

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So do some houses.

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As does the town's water tower.

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We've pushed on to the edge of Colonia. Ocean? No, this is still the Rio de la Plata, fresh at this point though brackish by Montevideo.

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Colonia is the point where most traffic historically crossed by ferry between Uruguay and Argentina. Hence this railway, now abandoned, largely because upstream a hundred miles there are now two bridges capturing most of the international truck traffic. Still, the heavy iron-plate signs, British financed to British standards, are going to outlast anybody alive today. The signs report the elevation and the distance from Montevideo's central station, itself abandoned.

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The Estacion de Ferrocarril de Colonia doesn't get much love, which is a surprise given that history is the town's daily bread.

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Now tell me: why is the old freight shed more evocative than the passenger station?

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Recognize what it is?

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Sorry; didn't mean to insult your intelligence.

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Two minutes' walk from the roundhouse, this is the ferry terminal.

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A ferry arrives at dusk; it's a 50-minute trip.

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Pretty impressive district headquarters or intendencia for a town of 25,000 people--and only 8,000 in 1908, closer to the date of the building's construction. This is a recurrent theme in Uruguay: build to show the world your worth or your ambitions. The statue is Artigas, who is to Uruguay what Gandhi is to India. (The usual comparison is to San Martin or Bolivar, but I say live it up.)

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Same building from the slightly less ostentatious rear. The town punches above its weight not only because of its history but because of its status as a district capital and because of its ferry.

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Without the colonial past, this Radisson hotel wouldn't exist.

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Nor would this casino.

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UNESCO's experts came by in 1995 and were sufficiently impressed.

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Here's an older monument erected to the town's Portuguese founder, a man who had the extraordinarily bad luck to be captured by the Spanish. That wasn't the worst of it: peace was made between Spain and Portugal, and the town was returned to the Portuguese, but Governor Lobo was kept imprisoned in Argentina and died there. The authors of the tablet overlooked all this, perhaps to avoid salting old wounds.

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Bits of the town's defensive wall have been excavated.

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More of the original fortifications.

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A pleasant bit of old, inaccessible waterside wall. The color of the water is a reminder that this is freshwater.

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And more still, here at the Plaza de Armas, which includes, in the foreground, the foundations of the governor's palace. The town's church is on the right.

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Helpful postings.

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Most of the old fortifications, built in 1690, were removed in 1777, when the Treaty of San Ildefonso finally settled (in Spain's favor) the question of who controlled this part of South America.

The rest of the wall bit the dust in 1859, save for the buried bits. So what is this? Sad to say, it's a recreation of the old town entrance. How can you be sure? The recreators didn't take the last step and shell the wall to make it look as it had really looked after a British ship shelled it in 1765. The ship's captain was captured and hanged on the spot. How's that for frontier justice?

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If I hadn't told you, you would have figured it was original.

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Atmospheric? I suppose so. Sorry I spoiled the party.

What does Ecclesiastes say about learning? Ah, yes, "For in much wisdom there is much grief."

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Once through the gate, you're almost at the Plaza de Armas and the old governor's palace. The sycamores are magnificent, though so messy that they amount to a job-creation scheme for sweepers.

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The church is the Iglesia Matriz Santisimo Sacramento. Call me a philistine, but it makes me recall Ronald Reagan's comment about redwoods.

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There's another plaza, the Plaza Mayor, beyond which stands a lighthouse added in 1857, when people weren't so concerned about heritage purity. The light is visible from a distance of 12 miles, a bit less than half the distance to Argentina.

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The lighthouse flanks the ruins of the convent of San Francisco. When was it abandoned? Good question. Note the fine--which is to say rough--Portuguese paving.

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Is the roof original?

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We're spared that question here.

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Some buildings, like this one on Vivienda De Solis y de San Pedro, are well cared for, but how close is its appearance to its original appearance? Another question for the notebook, if you're disciplined enough to keep one.

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Avoiding asphalt was one of the smartest things the heritage-folks did. Here's the main street of the Spanish part of town. But is the paving old? It's certainly much smoother than the Portuguese paving.

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Same street, closer to the water.

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Traffic is excluded on many streets. Once again there's the contrast between older and newer paving.

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Amazing what a little Bougainvillea can do.

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Do you think somebody was trying to make sure we didn't drive into the drink?

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A one-block boulevard.

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Lots of tourists stroll around, but early in the morning the scene is ready-made for gunslingers on a spaghetti western.

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A Portuguese street, probably repaved at some point but still ignoring the cardinal rectitude of Spanish towns. The Portuguese part of Colonia is very small, hardly more than two hundred meters square.

Whether protecting Portuguese or Spanish buildings, the authorities today have firmly prohibited buildings taller than one story. Besides the church, the only exception is the lighthouse.

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Is it Portuguese or Spanish? If you're not sure, you haven't been paying attention.

Free advice: don't wear high heels.



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