I’d never really thought about going to Uruguay. I’d skipped past its chapter in my guidebook, and had never included it when listing the countries I wanted to visit on this trip. It’s a fairly common approach. Many people go around it, transitioning from Argentina into Brazil further inland at Iguazu falls: the thundering cascades of water that divide Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
I had been to Iguazu falls in 2015 when I came out to South America for two weeks. It was the trip when I realised that I could and absolutely had to travel round the continent longer term. And whilst I’m sure that it would be just as awe-inspiring a second time around, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to follow the Atlantic coast into Uruguay. After spending a couple of days in Buenos Aires, I caught the ferry across the churning Rio Plata.
Just over an hour later, the ferry deposited me at a non-descript harbour with the feel of an airport terminal. After walking down endless glass-walled corridors, most of the passengers shuffled off to get the bus on to the capital city Montevideo several hours away. Instead of joining them, I took my backpack, cautiously crossed the empty carpark, negotiated my way around a mechanical barrier and past an unmanned booth at the exit and turned into the tree-lined streets that lead up to the small town of Colonia del Sacramento.
Sitting on a small outcrop of land poking out into the Rio de la Plata estuary, the old town was founded in 1680 as an outpost for Portuguese smugglers. Romantic notions of magic and mischief are still alive in the warren of cobbled streets. Low brick buildings hung with ornate wooden shutters hint at mystery and illicit dealings in the courtyards they shelter. Leafy branches twist along walls and spill their brightly-coloured flowers along crumbling brick. An old colonial-style church, its pale paint starting to peel, stands serenely in a leafy square. Above it all, a brilliant white lighthouse rises proudly, keeping guard.
I had heard that Colonia was worth an afternoon trip at most. I’d planned to get out of Buenos Aires early in the day, spend the afternoon in Colonia and then head on to Montevideo for the night. Luckily, I overslept. Instead, I caught a mid-afternoon ferry over and spent the evening wandering the streets, before staying the night and catching a bus onwards the next morning. If I’d kept to my original plan, I would have missed the town at its finest.
I would have missed the moment when the sun sinks beneath its watery horizon and brushstrokes of every colour from brilliant orange to liac streak the sky. I wouldn’t have experienced the otherwordly beauty of the town as the sky blackens and the lamps flicker to life, casting a buttery glow on the faces of the outdoor-diners beneath. I would have missed the chance to settle myself in a cobbled courtyard under a fairy-lit strung tree, nursing a cold beer and entertaining thoughts of Portuguese pirates and old world mischief.
Colonia was a just stop off on my way into Brazil, and yet its there that I have some of my most vivid memories of this trip and some of my favourite photos. It served as another reminder that travelling is not all about the big ticket destinations, but also the detours and stop offs along the way. And it wasn’t just Colonia in Uruguay. There was much more totally unexpected beauty of Uruguay to come.