Unique River Plate places

Martín García with the Delta, Colonia without it.

Antonella Romano / FST
Broad enough at its mouth to look like a sea, the River Plate estuary is narrow enough near its headwaters in the outlets of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers to make the tops of the skyscrapers of Buenos Aires, Argentina visible to people in Colonia, Uruguay on a clear day. This nearness is one of the things that gives Uruguayans and Argentines certain things in common, such as their addiction to yerba mate, a Guaraní habit that was institutionalized by the Jesuit missionaries, who in the 17th century cultivated a wild forest plant and used its leaves as a base for an infusion that is sipped through a metal straw from a gourd or a cup made of other materials.
Argentina and Uruguay also share a national flower – that of the coral tree – and a peculiar equestrian sport known as pato. They have the same national colors – blue and white – in the midst of which shines a sun with a human face. The independence war patriots chose this sun for several reasons, among which was its likeness to the Inca sun god Inti, calculated to achieve the Indians’ backing for their cause. There are also those who say that it insinuates the Freemasonry sympathies of many of the founding fathers on either side of the estuary during the 19thcentury.
However, the proximity has been unable to reconcile some minor differences, such as their claims to famous tango singer Carlos Gardel. Argentines accept that Gardel was born in France, but not that he first saw the light of day in Uruguay, as their neighbors on the other side of the River Plate claim.
The Uruguayans took longer than the Argentines to win their independence (1825 vs. 1816), perhaps because they had to fight so hard to avoid being dominated first by Portugal when they were a Spanish colony, and later, in the company of other provinces of the River Plate Viceroyalty, in the struggle against Span. And after that it had to deal with an ephemeral alliance of Buenos Aires and Portugal and, finally, an invasion by the Empire of Brazil. Uruguay’s existence as a buffer state between Argentina and Brazil became reality with the blessing of Great Britain, and in keeping with the political and commercial interests of all parties concerned at that time in history.
As a sort of recompense for these travails, Uruguay been favored by nature with regard to the sediments borne by the river: the white sand ends up on its pretty beaches, and the mud on Argentine shores.

Perhaps for that reason Uruguayans and Argentines look at the water differently. The Argentines, who for the most part are not great lovers of the sea beyond the beaches of Mar del Plata, dismiss the estuary as “the river,” although one poet once apologized for its muddy look by dubbing it río color de león (puma-colored river). Montevideo residents, who live closer to its mouth and enamored of the sea to the point that they have good seafood, call the river “the sea” and the Atlantic “the ocean.”
In addition to being one of the frontiers between the two countries (the other is the Uruguay River), the estuary houses the innumerable islands of the Paraná Delta, whose rivers and streams were the logical choice of smugglers and politicians on the run as far back as colonial times. Today it is sprinkled with farms and nice little inns and restaurants that can be reached by regular passenger boats.

Martín García
The tiny island of Martín García, located in the northeastern corner of the estuary near the mouth of the Uruguay River, harbors a village of 200 souls and four different ecosystems. Woodlands, grasslands, mini-deserts and marshes in the part of its 184 hectares that is open to visitors can be seen on foot in a day.

It lies a mere 3 km off the Uruguayan coast but belongs to Argentina by virtue of a binational treaty that makes it a demilitarized multi-purpose nature reserve. There is no town hall or police station, just a coast guard base. Residents – most of whom are Buenos Aires Province civil servants and their families – get about on bicycles. There are also a few good-conduct prison inmates who live there with their families while serving the last part of their sentences; none of them wants to return to the mainland. Doors are locked only when the tourist boats arrive.
The cemetery and ruins of certain buildings reveal that in the 19th century the island harbored an Argentine naval outpost, a prison, a quarantine station where victims of successive epidemics were interned, and a crematorium to dispose of their remains. It is said that some of the Indian chieftains who were taken prisoner during the Desert Campaign were among the internees. In the 20th century, the crews of two German battleships, and more than one overthrown Argentine president were confined there. The lighthouse, built in 1881, is not in use.

The buildings that are of most interest to tourists are the cinema-theater with its double-barrel Art Nouveau façade, built in 1910 but still used for special events; the red historical museum in what was once a bar and general store, in front of the theater; the pink town bakery, famed for its panettone Italian fruit cakes; the church right beside it; and the house where Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario wrote one of his most famous poems while a guest of a friend who was a quarantine station doctor.

The Tigre-based Cacciola boat company runs day tours through the Delta and out to the island on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and holidays. Boarding time in Tigre is 8.30. The boat departs at 9am, arrives at the island at 12 noon, and leaves for Tigre at 5.30pm. The round-trip boat ticket costs 76 pesos, or 142 pesos with lunch and a village tour included.
If you are a hiker, a birder, a botanist, an historian, or just a person who is curious about a place that is not on standard tourist itineraries, you should definitely consider one of Cacciola’s two- or three-day packages. You go with the crowd, but when the others return to Tigre in the afternoon, you remain behind and spend the night at the company’s inn. That gives you time to chat with islanders, walk about, take pictures, and have a siesta before returning to Tigre with the next boatload of day-trippers. It costs 324 pesos per person with full board except drinks, or 491 pesos for three days. Information: 4393-6100 in Buenos Aires, 4749-2369 in Tigre; http://www.cacciolaviajes.com.ar/.

For people who are in a hurry and like flying, the island’s aerodrome receives air taxi and helicopter flights from the San Fernando airport. The flight in a small plane takes 40 minutes and costs from US$75 to well over US$100 per person, according to the number of passengers. Waits on the island of over an hour cost an additional 50 to 75 pesos per person, depending on length. A walking tour and lunch at one of the restaurants on the island may be included in the fee. Among flight providers are Argentina Fly (http://es.argentina-fly.com/martingarcia), Vuelos de Bautismo (http://www.vuelosdebautismo.com.ar/) and Overfly http://www.overfly.com.ar/.
Those who wish to combine the plane and boat options – arriving with one and returning with the other – may do so, but it will cost them a pretty penny, because while they may buy a one-way boat ticket, the plane ticket must be paid for as round-trip excursion.

Colonia del Sacramento is always more crowded than Martín García because it is on a mainland, it is a mere 50-minute fast-boat trip from Buenos Aires, and it is famous: it is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
You don’t go through the Delta to get there. The 60-km trip across the estuary comprises just a lot of water until the Uruguayan shore slowly comes into sight, and the boat glides past the town’s 19th-century lighthouse and sidles up to its disembarkation sleeve. The bustle and noise of Buenos Aires are forgotten and contact with another quality of life begins, if only for a few hours.
The Colonia’s Old Town has a lot of atmosphere and personality, and photography enthusiasts immediately fall under its spell. It occupies fewer than 30 odd-shaped blocks at the tip of a small peninsula. Day trippers who arrive in the morning walk about, shop in quality crafts shops, art galleries and clothing stores, and look forward to lunch; there are a number of very good restaurants. (Banks don’t open until 1pm and many shops are closed until 10am, but exchange shops give morning travelers a break by opening at 9am. There is one in the port terminal. Exchange rates are 23.50 Uruguayan pesos per US$, and six Uruguayan pesos per Argentine peso.)

Although few of the hundreds of tourists who arrive in Colonia every day go to the museums that showcase the place’s history, most of them enter into some sort of contact with the past – if only through osmosis – when they enter the Old Town through the Portón de Campo, the gate in the rampart six blocks from the port terminal. The same goes for the rough cobbles of an unpretentious colonial frontier town, and the low old houses lining the “Street of Sighs,” so called for the brothels that used to line it.
The Portuguese coat of arms on the arch of the gate to the Old Town is a replica of the original, which was set in place in 1745 and is now on display in the Portuguese Museum, which in turn is set in an 18th-century house that has Portuguese- and Spanish-built components. Nearby is the Nacarello House, an old Portuguese house that was restored to show living conditions in colonial times. The Municipal Museum has interesting paleontological, natural history and early 20th century history displays. Admission to each museum costs 50 Uruguayan pesos, but you can get a two-day pass to all eight of them for the price of one if you ask for it at the entrance to the first one you visit.

Today, Colonia is a popular day trip destination for both Argentines and tourists who happen to be passing through Buenos Aires. Foreigners who are about to overstay their three-month tourist visas go to Colonia to get Uruguayan entrance and exit stamps applied to their passports so they can re-enter Argentina for another three months.

One day is certainly not enough for enjoying the Old town of Colonia at leisure. If you plan to buy a package with an overnight stay to be able to see it, check where the hotel assigned to you is located. If you won’t have a car and your objective is to enjoy the Old Town of Colonia del Sacramento, accommodation 5 km or 10 blocks from the Old Town will probably not appeal to you.
At least 15 hotels, inns and hostels – and most of the best restaurants – are located in or immediately around the Old Town. However, no map singling them out seems to be available. That’s understandable; the Old Town occupies only a tiny part of Colonia del Sacramento, a city with more than 20,000 inhabitants and many hotels and restaurants that are competing for the tourist trade. One solution is to get a map that shows the names of the streets in the area that interests you and check them against the addresses given by hotels on the Internet before making a reservation.
There are some very interesting places to stay out in the countryside, but they are another story.
The ticket prices of the ferry companies that do the Buenos Aires-Colonia route vary. See http://www.buquebus.com/, http://www.ferrylineas.com.ar/ and http://www.coloniaexpress.com/ and compare.

PHOTO CREDITS: Carmen Bastion, Colonia. Ruins of the prison, Martín García Island. Cine-theater and Historical Museum, Martín García. House where Rubén Darío stayed, Martín García. Walking in the village on Martín García Island. Martín García aerodrome. Lighthouse, Colonia. Citadel gate, Colonia. Riverside restaurant, Colonía. Hotel Beltrán, Colonia. All photos by Bonnie Tucker.