We caught a bus to a small town called Colonia del Sacramento on the west side of Uruguay. Situated on the sandy banks of the Rio de la Plata it was an important centre for smuggling British goods across the river into the Spanish colonies during the 17th century. Wreckers also used to light fires along the banks to encourage ships to strike the rocks around the town so that they could plunder the cargo. Eventually, the Spanish got fed up and sent a force to drive the Portuguese militia barracked in the town back into Brazil.
The Barrio Historico, the old town, with its narrow streets, colonial buildings and reconstructed city walls is charming because there are few such examples in this part of the continent. It is a lively place with streets lined with plane trees and the whole area is kept very trim. During that day two or three ferry boatloads of day trip visitors arrive from Buenos Aires who fill the town and the restaurants and file around the historic areas. After they leave, the town becomes very quiet, the restaurants half empty or completely empty for dinner with the waiters having nothing to do other than chat to one another.
We hired a beach buggy to drive a four kilometres outside the main town to an area called Real de San Carlos, where an entrepreneur called Nicholas Milhanovic built a once grand but now sad tourist complex comprising a bull ring, a casino and a horse race track all with the intention of drawing the wealthy of Buenos Aires where such activities were banned at the beginning of the 20th century.
The elegant bullring was used for just two years and is now falling apart (it is fenced off, bullfighting is banned in Uruguay). The casino failed when the Argentineans imposed a tax on excursions across the river and only the racecourse is still operational and we could watch the race horses being exercised around the sand track and on the beach.
Someone is trying to make the most of the potential of this area, building beachside properties and a golf course and the Sheraton has a large hotel next to the racecourse. It still looks pretty sad and run down but the efforts to smarten it all up may pay dividends in a few years time.
The town was an enjoyable change from the big city and was sufficiently compact that we could walk everywhere. The weather improved as well which always makes any place seem brighter and more welcoming. The old colonial feel was enhanced by many old cars parked around the cobbled streets many of which will never move anywhere ever again, the vegetation sprouting from within and without signaling the death of once proud grand transport.