A short ferry ride from Buenos Aires across the broad and muddy Río de la Plata is the tiny enclave of Colónia del Sacramento in Uruguay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular weekend getaway for Porteños and tourists alike. Colonia dwells in a mini time warp, little changed from 17th century, when it thrived as a Portuguese enclave on the northern shore of the gateway to South American interior.
Oft fought over, the territory changed hands a dozen times between the Portuguese, Spanish and Brazilians, before the emergence in 1828 of an independent Uruguay. As the oldest town in the country, Colonia maintains a somnolent charm. Cobbled streets lined with languorous shade trees, bright painted, yet faintly dilapidated historic homes, museums and churches, empty into the broad empty plaza beside the whitewashed church and old military fortress. A solitary lighthouse holds out on the slight peninsula at the south end of the Barrio Histórico (historic quarter). Art shops, outdoor cafés and chic restaurants cater to day visitors brought by the high-speed hydrofoil from BA.
In the evenings, the few visitors who stay overnight in one of the boutique B&Bs or the upscale Hotel Plaza Mayor on the main square, have the town to themselves. Walking the quiet streets in the moonlight, crisp autumn leaves underfoot and a brisk breeze blowing from the broad riverbank, it is easy to imagine the loneliness and remoteness of the earliest settlers.
And then there are the cars. For no discernible reason, along the windswept cobblestone streets are a half dozen or so abandoned antique cars. Left to rust, with plants growing from the inside sears and twining through open windows to the skies, these nostalgic keepsakes echo more lively times, the Roaring Twenties, Swinging Thirties, the days when Colonia was, perhaps, a place of laughter and music and romance.
It is entrancing to sit at a outdoor cafe and let one’s mind wander the back lanes of the past. What stories do these old cars hold? Who cranked them up and drove the hilly alleyways? to a grand gala, maybe, or out to the nearby estancias, or perhaps all the way to Montevideo? Of course it is really just fantasy, carefully tended by the old men who snip and water the plants, polish the aging chrome and fenders, dust off the tires, and keep the passing ghosts and memories happy.