It’s a quick trip (three hour in bus) up the coast from Montevideo to Colonia, and from there it’s an even quicker trip (one hour in ferry) across the Río de la Plata to Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, despite their being separated by just 50 km (31 miles) of freshwater, these two communities could really not be more different.
Founded by the Portuguese in 1680, Colonia del Sacramento is considered among the oldest settlements in Uruguay and is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. From the antique cars lining the city’s charming cobbled streets to antique streetlights fixed atop the faded, pastel-colored stonewalls of the home, Colonia is best described as quaint, authentic, and picturesque.
The entrance to the Barrio Historico – the city’s Old Town neighborhood – is marked by the Puerta de la Ciudadela (above), which was constructed in the early 18th century to help keep the city protected from the invading Spanish. Like many other Uruguayan communities, the riverfront of Colonia features La Rambla, a promenade that runs along the coast of the Rio de la Plata.
It’s a small community, and we didn’t even take the time to venture outside the historical district, but nonetheless, Colonia is a great stop for anyone traveling between Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It’s a nice little town: Perfect for an afternoon, potentially boring for an entire weekend, yet excellent for living long term.
Although my folks and I had started the day dodging the morning rush hour traffic to reach the Montevideo bus station on time, now we found ourselves completely satisfied by the serenity of Colonia. We enjoyed a lazy afternoon in the sun, nibbling on some pizza as a local musician strummed away on his guitar.
Thanks to the beautiful spring weather we were actually able to see the Buenos Aires skyline from Colonia, and while these two destinations are less than an hour-ferry ride apart it feels as though they are separated by about 300 years.
Upon leaving the port we immediately found ourselves in a crowd. While known as the “Paris of South America” for its’ stunning architecture, rich culture, and high-class culture, the city’s bright lights, subway system and liveliness make it feel like New York City.
Bags in hand, we slithered our way down the bustling streets, past the the notorious Casa Rosada (The President’s mansion, or “the pink house” as it is known in Spanish), and through the esteemed Plaza Veinticinco de Mayo. Before long we had reached the city’s main thoroughfare, Avenida 9 de Julio, considered the widest avenue in the world (seen above).
Today, Buenos Aires is commonly described as being a very European city, and while I’ve never been to Europe, I think I would agree it’s an accurate description for the Argentinian capital city. More than anything else, the architectural style of the buildings struck me as being very distinct from that of other Latin American cities I have visited.
Why is it so European? A huge influx of immigration in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s sent more European expats to Argentina (6.6 million) than any other country, with the exception of the United States (27 million). In fact, in 1915, immigrants and criollos (people born in South America to European immigrants) outnumbered native Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) by at a rate of four-to-one.
Arriving with much to prove, these immigrants hoped to construct Buenos Aires into a city that would compete with the powers of Europe: London, Rome, Paris, Madrid, etc. The newly-born Argentinian aristocracy went to extreme measures to establish a culture of wealth and elegance.
One such example of this extravagance is Teatro Colón, a world-class opera house that opened its’ doors in 1908. Porteños have a reputation for patting themselves on the back and exaggerating their successes, but Teatro Colón really is one of the most renowned performance venues on the planet.
Catering to the upper class society, the theatre and its’ many salons are very ornately decorated, and in terms of acoustics it stands among the top five theaters in the world. We were among hundreds of visitors touring the theatre that day and weaving our way through the crowds of tourists we heard guides recalling information in Spanish, English, and Portuguese.
The buzz and chattering stopped however, when we stepped into the main auditorium. We stood in awe and my eyes wandered: six levels of lavishly adorned balconies, an incredible mural spanned the massive ceiling, the metal plates on the floor seats glistened from the light of the chandelier.
It was absolutely silent for several minutes, until a lone pianist took the stage to rehearse. With the exception of us twenty-some tourists, the soloist had the 2,500-seat arena all to himself. While my parents and I didn’t attend a show, we can say we heard a performance in the Teatro Colón, and it was certainly one to remember.
Other highlights from the city’s high society neighborhoods included the Recoleta Cemetery (where the infamous Eva Perón is entombed), the Ateneo Grand Splendid (a theatre-turned-bookstore), Café Tortoni (Buenos Aires oldest cafe), and Catedral Metropolitana (where Pope Francis served as the archbishop for over two decades).
Our final stop during our three-day stay in Buenos Aires was La Boca, the neighborhood nearest the city’s southern port. While wealthy immigrants settled in the city’s northern region, the poor and working classes congregated in the south. As a result, the energy and culture of La Boca (which means “the mouth” in Spanish) is quite distinct.
Pedestrian streets like El Caminito enable visitors to stroll past the neighborhood’s signature brightly colored taverns, which are known as conventillos. It’s said that the underprivileged immigrants who first inhabited these dwellings lived in very close quarters, with up to 100 people sharing a single bathroom.
While the streets were fairly empty and lifeless – the rainy weather kept the majority of musicians, dancers, artists and vendors inside – we were still able to enjoy the street art and bright colors of La Boca.
Lastly, a trip to La Boca is not complete without a stop by La Bombonera, Argentina’s most sacred football (⚽️) stadium. Home to Club Atlético Boca Juniors, the stadium seats just 50,000 people but rocks (literally) on game day.
The stadium’s patriarch is Diego Armando Maradona. Maradona was born and raised in La Boca, made a name for himself playing with Boca Juniors before moving on to the European leagues. He is widely considered to be the greatest soccer player in the history of the world. Today, another Argentine has entered the conversation; You can find many Lionel Messi statues and murals near the stadium, as well.
It was a short trip, but we packed a lot in and really learned a lot! Buenos Aires really has a lot to appreciate with rich history, an impressive art and music scene, a notable political past, and of course fútbol.
For years I’ve heard about strong connection between the cultures of Argentina and Uruguay, and while there are many similarities I still prefer bizcochos over facturas and I take my mate with me wherever I go. Vamo’ arriba, no?
A las ordenes.
Algo bueno: We took in a show at Tango Porteño in Buenos Aires.
Algo malo: USA failed to qualify for the World Cup
Algo curioso: In Spanish, to say someone is “in trouble” you must say they are en el horno, which means “in the oven”
Algo sabroso: La Pasta Frola – An outstanding cafe and bakery on Buenos Aire’s busy Avenida Corrientes