Monday, February 4, 2008

Crossing the Plate

As I left my apartment this morning, my down-the-hall neighbor Enrique saw my bags and asked where I was going. To Colonia, I responded, and Enrique told me he'd heard it was a beautiful place. In reality, the Uruguayan town, with its cobbled, sycamore-studded streets, is more than just beautiful--its historic citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Southern Cone's best-preserved example of early colonial urbanism. It's barely an hour by boat from Buenos Aires, across the River Plate, but Enrique--who's probably in his sixties and spends several weeks every summer in Brazil--has never been here.

I first visited Colonia in the early 1980s, and its "Portuguese ranchos" and other period houses look just as they did then--local ordinances properly prohibit fiddling with their facades (one hotel, which has two streetside rooms, cannot install air conditioners in those rooms because they would be visible from the street). Many of them are museums, as well as guesthouses and restaurants catering primarily to Argentines. Colonia's also become a stop on the cruise ship circuit, though.

While Enrique's never been here, plenty of Porteños have, as it's a popular weekend destination all year and, in summer, it's overrun with them. As I strolled around looking for a place to eat, diners had spilled out of the restaurants and onto the sidewalk and plaza tables on a warm, windless evening.

Unlike Buenos Aires, Colonia is pedestrian-friendly: cars, trucks, motorcycles and even taxi cabs defer to walkers--even jaywalkers. Instead of cars, people rent bicycles, scooters, or even golf carts to get around town. The quality of accommodations, ranging from hostels to boutique guesthouses and high-end resorts, is outstanding in every category. In my opinion, it's the single best excursion from Buenos Aires, even if Enrique hasn't yet seen fit to get that Uruguayan stamp in his passport.

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