Having seen someone asking about other things to do when in Argentina in Ask Arlene…Travelling in Argentina → I thought I would chronicle my experiences in travelling to Colonia:-
It was Christmas time in Buenos Aires, we were here because it was the promised finish time for our apartment. Of course it was not ready this is Argentina after all, Viv was feeling down and wanted some diversion outside the city and had unilaterally decided we should visit Colonia.
Our first port of call was a travel agents in the centre of Palermo, we were kept hanging a round for hours. Every trip at the advertised price was sold out; we soon came to the conclusion that the advertised price was just a hook to get us in and left in disgust.
The boats over to Uruguay are run by a company called Buquibus and can be found on the internet, so that is what I would do, just book it on the internet. I have by now a passable knowledge of Spanish, you would not call me fluent, but I can usually get what I want. The trouble is internet sites are written by geeks, Uruguay Spanish differs slightly and I was out of my depth. I just failed.
We were staying at Luba’s house, where Luba has offered us and others like us unparalleled hospitality for years. Now all who come to stay become friends and the two French guys, who were there at the same time as us, were more than willing to help with their knowledge of Spanish as well as web navigation. Before too long we had our tickets on the fast boat over the water, a twelve hour stay and return tickets afterwards.
First we had to get the Christmas and New Year celebrations over with friends to meet and tango events to attend. Finally on the third of January we caught our taxi down to the Buquibus depot down at the centre.
As always we arrived early and the place was deserted, one or two people looking lost wandered around followed by their luggage, so we could walk straight up to the check in desk. We had our printed tickets and were soon ushered on towards the boat.
It was just like an airline terminal, few places to sit and barriers across the entry to the portal. After hanging around for about an hour we were lined up and ready to go.
We are leaving one country and entering another so the usual customs procedures are here. Except that there is something a bit odd here, we leave the country, have our passports stamped, and then proceed to another desk to enter the next country, all in the matter of a few feet. This meant that at the other end we would have no immigration to go through and no queuing. It had all been done here at the terminus.
The boat itself was a vast expanse of seating little of character just like a giant cinema without the screen and the lights on. There were TV screens in the corners, but little of interest to us. There were of course drinks to purchase and other amusements but my interest lay in the river. Sixty miles wide it is more like an inland sea, and can get quite choppy at times. First on the boat we grabbed a window seat, the big window was to be my cinema.
I watched with interest the passing of the docklands and small islands, but once clear the boat rose on its haunches and sped away. We got no real impression of speed as there was no reference point but to clear that stretch of water in a little under an hour and a half we must at some point exceeded sixty miles per hour, quite something for a boat. Those vessels we passed were here then gone in little or no time, their distance meant we still could not gauge our speed, but their time in view gave some perspective.
Soon enough we were approaching docks again and my interest was again aroused. I don’t know what it is about cranes and old boats but like a young boy I was glued to the window.
Once on dry land there was little to do, we carried no baggage and our passports had already been stamped, so we wandered out into the searing heat to see a fleet of tour busses, taxis and welcoming parties. To say we were unprepared is somewhat of an understatement. I stared at the vast car park and thought “now what?” We would be here for twelve hours and could not spend it sat in a dusty Uruguayan car park, in a temperature that was already, at nine in the morning approaching forty degrees.
As I looked around me I noticed some people moving towards a building near the dock gates. They all seemed to know what they were doing so we followed- success! We found the tourist information.
Once inside there was barely room to move, and so realising we had time on our hands I decided that we should wait until the crowd had dissipated somewhat. The girl on the desk was more than helpful. She spoke perfect English and furnished us with a map and directions into town. It was not far to walk and she said we would not need a taxi, so now with a bit more confidence we strode off into the morning.
As we walked out of the gate it was like a scene from a spaghetti western, dust covered roads and low wooden corrugated roofed buildings, but in front of us was our salvation, a kiosko selling drinks. Something else we had not prepared for was currency, I like to think of us as seasoned travellers but today we were unprepared for everything. (maybe it was just because it was a day trip or maybe because I was already abroad I don’t know)
We need not have worried; on the side of the kiosko were prices in Uruguay pesos, American dollars, and Argentine pesos. They were obviously ready for any tourist that arrived; though I suspect they were not ready for sterling, we did have Argentine pesos.
We bought two bottles of water and carried on down a street straight from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
It was not so much the barrenness and dust that surprised us but the feeling that we had either stepped back in time over a hundred years or we were on some sort of film set.
When we turned, we saw a wide avenue, trees and green spaces in total contrast to what we had so far viewed. Large colonial buildings imposed their way upon subservient locals, trees shaded park benches where it would otherwise be too hot to sit, but the thing that struck me most were the cars. At home we are used to seeing antiquities cared for by loving owners, old cars that have been restored to former glory for the pleasure of all who view. Not so here, here cars of more than a hundred years old are used as regular transport, I can live with the idea of old cars still in use, but when I saw a car with wooden wheels it was just beyond my understanding.
These vehicles were parked alongside the few modern cars with no apology and no sign that they should not be there, it was totally incongruous.
We walked down the hill towards the town centre passed more colonial buildings, ancient cars and an array of small shops. Half way down was a turning to the right again things did not look right, there were a number of derelict buildings but at the end of the street was a modern marina with some rather expensive looking boats. In a former life I would have been down there looking for a sail, for now I can just admire the well cut sails.
A further diversion brought us to the beach, it looked for all the world like any normal beach, you would not have known this was a river. You could dig in the sand or bathe in the waters. It even had a sort of promenade where you could admire the view, water clear to the horizon.
By now we were getting hungry we passed more derelict buildings and cars older than any of the inhabitants until we came to another promenade. This really had the effect of a seaside town. There was a wide open expanse of road with a wall to protect from incoming waters to the right. On our left were some houses and gardens reminiscent of an English east coast town, in the midst of all this was what looked like a light house, but turned out to be a restaurant. It was a perfect place to stop for lunch, shade outside, river views, and peace and quiet.
Again there was the offer to take Argentine pesos, I took this on face value and we ordered pasta and some garlic bread. It was a very nice lunch but we got a shock when the bill came, things had gone too well up until now and perhaps my guard had come down. They may look like hicks but they knew how to fleece a tourist, we would have to be careful for the rest of the day.
From here we walked around the coast, passed more English looking gardens and onward into a street of white painted terraced houses. In the midst of the terrace one house was in the process of renovation. There was a sign on the door “this house belonged to Félix Luna” I had only recently read an English translation of one of his history books, and was sorry we could not go in.
Ahead was a lighthouse, for two pesos (about 40p) we could go to the top, so despite my poor head for heights, up we went. The view was fantastic, we could see all the places we had been up until now and we could plan some further explorations as well. We could also look out over the river. It is hard to imagine that this is just a river when you see how vast it is. Even from this height there was nothing but water all the way to the horizon.
The day was hot and we grew tired, so when we arrived at a central area we decided to rest. I do not know exactly how to describe this area, not exactly a park, more like a courtyard with trees and benches, where the traffic could still go but not a thoroughfare.
The only available bench however was in full sun, the shade offered being minimal due to the suns height. I tried in vain to move one of the benches but in the forty degree heat just got myself into more of a lather. Then one helpful local came over and assisted me, I offered my thanks, then when the bench was positioned we slumped down in the shade.
Duly rested we headed off again towards the river. On the way we passed through the old city gate and walls, built originally to keep us British out, and now attracting us for our money. How fortunes change.
We rested again on the grass and watched the comings and goings of the buquibus, it was interesting to note the differences between the fast boat we had taken and the slow one, often taken by Buenos Aires residents who live as permanent tourists. It is a cheap way to renew their ninety day tourist visas. A friendly bird kept me amused for hours as we enjoyed the shade of the trees.
We watched amused as some locals tried to refloat a grounded yacht using a digger, I wanted to offer my sailing experience but Viv ever the pragmatist told me to shut up and stay away.
A little more exploration took us to the old railway station. It looked in good condition, ready to sell tickets, and people sat in the waiting room ready for the next train, unfortunately the tracks looked like they had not seen a train for fifty years and would be incapable of taking one now.
By now hungry again we set off back into the centre, after my experience with lunch and another with an Ice-cream I was cagey about purchasing more food, but never the less we found a place called The Drug Store and decided to try it.
Heavy benches surrounded the interior, with expensive looking menus on the tables. The kitchen was open and right next to us, with access to the outside, though in this heat no one was sitting in the sun. The walls were covered with the type if things you would have expected to find in a very old drug store, bottles, demijohns, old balances, pot jars, all there to create the feel of perhaps the former life of this place.
We were greeted by a cheery waitress and ordered some sandwiches and beer. We were pleasantly surprised by the prices; the food quality and service were excellent.
Our experiences in Colonia had not been good so it was great to finish on a high point nothing left now but our journey home.