Turned out, I had misunderstood the description of Colonia del Sacramento. When I saw the phrase “colonial architecture”, I thought “mature, successful, colony”. You know, Palladian town halls and baroque churches and wide, tree-lined avenues. Montevideo, in fact. Turned out that the architecture in Colonia was from an earlier phase of settlement, more beleaguered outpost than center of administration, and it did in fact change hands several times before Uruguay became fully independent in 1828, although sometimes as the result of treaties rather than capture.
I was not the only one suffering from misconceptions regarding the town. The otherwise very good guide on my bus tour of Buenos Aires seemed quite taken aback when I mentioned that Colonia had been Portuguese. Oh no, he said, Uruguay was always Spanish. I’m not sure what they teach in history class in Argentina, but according to wikipedia (and to the museums in Colonia) he is flat wrong. Colonia was founded by the Portuguese (in 1680) and was held by the Spanish several times but only briefly, although they did found Montevideo (in 1726). Plus, during the various reshufflings leading up to full independence, Uruguay was first a province of Argentina but then part of Brazil.
So, history aside, the old section of Colonia, inside the mostly vanished walls, was much smaller and more low key than I expected. (I should have paid more attention to the photographs.) The Plaza Mayor was nothing like the typical Iberian town square, being a long, largely unpaved, rectangle, notable for some gorgeous old trees, and surrounded by one story buildings set well back from the road.
You could easily see all of the old town in half a day if you pushed it. The museums aren’t that interesting (and the tile museum was closed), and you need to start early to get your photographs done before the crowds arrive. There are plenty of photo ops. Also plenty of cafes. And mosquitoes. So far I had mostly avoided mosquitoes, although I had to beat a strategic retreat from a lake in Montevideo. Here I had to finally break out the hated insect repellent.
I had picked a hotel that was just a block from the bus station and two from the ferry terminal, which meant I was several blocks from the old town. It also meant I ate dinner in the (cheaper) new town. Extremely well one night (at El Porton) and rather badly across the street the next night. For a hotel in what might have been the bad part of town, the Ayres was a nice surprise, although I could only get wifi in my room in the corners, as the staircase blocked the signal. I did notice a number of hostels, in the new town, and hotels, in the old town, besides the posh and pricey Plaza Mayor, or the Radisson and its casino. The Radisson is located near the handicrafts market and the yacht club. I was in town on the weekend, and on Sunday morning the water was alive with sailing boats, and the pier well populated with fisherman, although the sailors seemed to be having more fun than the anglers.
I wouldn’t bother with the handicrafts market, unless you want to join the locals and gear up to drink mate, which requires a thermos of hot water, a bowl of the herb, and a metal straw. I haven’t tried it. I quite enjoyed Colonia, at least in the morning, but although I took a lot of photos I don’t think it really justified two nights.