Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Colonia del Sacramento

I can't believe I've been living in Buenos Aires for 3 months. It seems like I arrived just yesterday not being able to mutter a single word in Spanish or walk down a street without a map.

Since I hit the 3 months mark and I'm living in Buenos Aires on a tourist visa, I needed to leave the country and re-enter in order to remain in Argentina for 3 more months. Uruguay is the closest country and is a destination for many non-Argentinians living in Bs As wanting to extend their tourist visa. Catching a 1 hour speed boat to Colonia del Sacramento solves all the legal problems if you want to live in Buenos Aires over 3 months.

I didn't know what to expect from the trip nor was I super excited about going, I just knew I needed to go to Colonia and stamp my passport. My roommate Mike went to Colonia about a month ago for the same reason, and spent the majority of the day reading a book in a coffee shop because it was too cold. My friend Jake with whom I went to Colonia, has visited the city a few years ago and wasn't too keen on going back. So based on Mike's and Jake's low levels of excitement, I felt neutral about my trip, but in the end was pleasantly surprised. Just to give you a brief history: Colonia del Sacramento is the oldest town in Uruguay and is known for it's historic quarter which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For years Colonia was a smuggling port, evading the strict trade measures imposed in the Americas by the Spanish. Although it was initially founded and colonized by Portugal in 1680, Colonia, through the centuries, has changed hands many times between the Portuguese and the Spanish. Even Brazil controlled it for a short while, until the new country of Uruguay declared independence in 1825. Jake and I arrived in Colonia at 11 and had an entire day to explore. We didn't have anything planed other than wondering around, checking out local attractions and renting bikes to explore the city further.

I found Colonia to be extremely charming and quaint. Wandering through the cobble-stoned and curving streets of the Barrio Historico, it's easy to notice architectural similarities of old Lisbon. The tree-lined streets were stacked with colorful houses along with Colonia's trademark yellow lamps, as well as antique cars. The town was very mellow and sleepy. People went on with their business at a slow pace while sipping on their mate. Jake and I walked around town, snapped a million picutes, poped into a few building and churches, climbed a light house to check out the 360 view and occasionally stopped for coffee and snacks. For the second part of the day we wanted to rent bicycles and ride them to the beach and then to either a bull-fighting ring or a winery that we discovered at the tourist/information office. We decided to figure out our plan of action over lunch. I didn't know anything about Uruguayan cuisine and blindly ordered a traditional sandwich called Chivito. How was my sandwich? Well... uhm.... it was finger-lickin-good. The best sandwich I've had and, in my opinion, a best cure for a hangover. No, I didn't have a hangover at the time, but I imagined that if I did have one, the magic cure for it would be a Chivito.

The hot sandwich consists of thin and tender slice of churraso (grilled beef) topped with bacon, cheese, egg, lettuce, tomatoes and a mayonnaise spread with olives. Wash that down with a cold beer.... or two, and you are in heaven. After eating our Chivitos and splitting a liter of local beer, Jake and I were in no mood to ride bikes. We needed a plan since it was going to get dark in a few hours and we wanted to maximize our activities in Colonia. Jake had a brilliant plan, he approached a taxi driver and worked out a deal where the taxi would drive us to all out of the way places we wanted to see, places such as the beach, the bull-fighting ring and the winery.

The taxi driver--Sergio Ortiz--was very chipper and happy to have us in the cab. As he was driving us around, he provided us with the history of Uruguay and Colonia as well as the elections that were going to take place on Sunday. When I asked him who he was going to vote for and why, his decision-making process between the two presidential candidates was simple. One candidate was a lawyer while the other was a doctor. According to Sergio Ortiz, a lawyer is a crook while a doctor saves lives, so there you have it.

Our last destination was the Bernardi Winery located a few miles outside Colonia. The winery was founded at the end of the 19th century and in 2000 it has opened doors to tourism, offering guided tours, tastings and a point for sale of it's products. The winery has remained in the Bernardi family for 4 generations and is known for its artisan productions of wines and highly praised line of varietal grappas. When we arrived at the winery, we stood outside a huge cement building that looked abandoned, but as soon as we stepped inside, we were warmly greeted by Anna, a Bernardi descendant. She took up on a tour of the winery and explained to us the process of making their wines and grappas. After the tour we got down to the tasting. I liked the wine, but my favorite part was tasting 4 varieties of grappa. I think I had a little buzz going after tasting all the products. Unfortunately, I'm not a big drinker so I didn't buy anything. Jake, however left the winery with 2 bottles of wine (at US$4 a bottle) and a bottle of their best grappa (US$6). I think he'll be stocked for a while. Sergio Ortiz was waiting for us outside the winery and took us back to Colonia. We only had about an hour left prior to departure so we spent it walking around some more. As we headed to the boat, I made the best purchase ever. This is something that I've been missing since I arrived in Bs As and not having this item made my life miserable. What did I buy? A BATHROBE!

I forgot to pack a bathrobe in California so not having one has been a pain. I usually wake up, make my coffee and take a shower. Because I didn't have a bathrobe, after the shower I was forced to put my pajamas back on. The whole process annoyed me so my Colonia purchase made me happy indeed.

Jake also made a purchase which made him extremely happy--a scarf. He spend the rest of our time in Colonia and on the boat trying to figure out how to wear and tie it. Quite comical.

All in all, the trip was great. I highly recommend it as a one day trip to anybody visiting Buenos Aires.


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