< Last Photo   << Last Chapter                Notes on the Geography of Places: Uruguay: Colonia         Next Chapter >>   Next Photo > 

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.

Make default image size smaller

Uruguay: Colonia picture 1

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 2

Tidy wheat fields?

Uruguay: Colonia picture 3

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 4

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 5

New houses can wait.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 6

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 7

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.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 8

A monument in the town square recalls pioneer labor.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 9

Street names allude to it, too.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 10

So do some houses.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 11

As does the town's water tower.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 12

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.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 13

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.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 14

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 15

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 16

Recognize what it is?

Uruguay: Colonia picture 17

Sorry; didn't mean to insult your intelligence.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 18

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 19

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 20

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.)

Uruguay: Colonia picture 21

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.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 22

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 23

Nor would this casino.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 24

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 25

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.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 26

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 27

More of the original fortifications.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 28

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 29

The Plaza de Armas includes the foundations of the governor's palace, as well as the town's church.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 30

Helpful postings.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 31

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 bombarded it in 1765. The ship's captain was captured and hanged on the spot. How's that for frontier justice?

Uruguay: Colonia picture 32

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 33

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."

Uruguay: Colonia picture 34

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.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 35

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 36

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.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 37

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.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 38

Is the roof original?

Uruguay: Colonia picture 39

We're spared that question here.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 40

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.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 41

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.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 42

Same street, closer to the water.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 43

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 44

Amazing what a little Bougainvillea can do.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 45

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 46

A one-block boulevard.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 47

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

Uruguay: Colonia picture 48

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.

Uruguay: Colonia picture 49

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

Free advice: don't wear high heels.

* Argentina * Australia * Austria * Bangladesh * Belgium * Botswana * Brazil * Burma / Myanmar * Cambodia (Angkor) * Canada (B.C.) * China * The Czech Republic * Egypt * Fiji * France * Germany * Ghana * Greece * Guyana * Hungary * India: Themes * Northern India * Peninsular India * Indonesia * Israel * Italy * Japan * Jerusalem * Jordan * Kenya * Laos * Kosovo * Malawi * Malaysia * Mauritius * Mexico * Micronesia (Pohnpei) * Morocco * Mozambique * Namibia * The Netherlands * New Zealand * Nigeria * Norway * Oman * Pakistan * Peru * The Philippines * Poland * Portugal * Romania (Transylvania) * Senegal * Singapore * South Africa * South Korea * Spain * Sri Lanka * Sudan * Syria (Aleppo) * Tanzania * Thailand * Trinidad * Turkey (Istanbul) * Uganda * The U.A.E. (Dubai) * The United Kingdom * The Eastern United States * The Western United States * Oklahoma * Uruguay * Uzbekistan * Vietnam * The West Bank * Yemen * Zambia * Zimbabwe *
go back to previous picture go to next chapter go to next picture go to previous chapter page