A Great Escape

  • Português
  • English
  • Posted on April 22, 2011


    View Full Image

    Yadid Levy for The Wall Street Journal

    SOUTHERN CHARM | A stone-paved street in Colonia del Sacramento

    As I squeezed through a narrow cobblestone passageway leading to a vista of the mighty Rio de la Plata, I found myself entertaining a thought far less noble than my surroundings: If I ever get into troublethe kind that can’t be solved by a check, a lawyer or an apologythis is where I’ll run.

    Colonia del Sacramento, founded in 1680 by Portugal, lies on the Uruguayan side of the river. It is just an hour from Buenos Aires by boat, but with stone walls, curving streets, a preternaturally reserved population and stealthy yet abundant wealth, it seems tailor-made as a hideout.

    View Slideshow

    Four Seasons

    The pool at the Four Seasons Resort Carmelo

    Colonia, in fact, would seem to be the most mysterious place in Uruguaywhose popular beach towns I’ve explored widelyhad I not arrived from Carmelo, an hour’s drive inland, where the Four Seasons has operated a splendiferous resort since 2001. For years I’ve heard Uruguayan friends whisper about the hotel, unable to reconcile its price tag (upward of $400 per night in summer) with its location in deepest cow country. “It really is in the middle of nowhere,” marveled chef Bobby Flay, who spent last New Year’s Eve at the resort.

    But he is an example of the area’s growing appeal to the glamorous, who find peace and isolation along with comfort. While Carmelo is humble, the surrounding countryside gives plenty of evidence of a boomfrom the land, planted in soy and corn, grapes and olives, and riddled with shiny tractors, to the new luxury homes. The wealth reflects high commodity prices, but also capital flight from nearby Argentina, whose rich use Uruguay as a refuge for their funds.

    My husband and I, with our two young boys in tow, drove about 155 miles from Montevideo, some of it on bumpy two-lane roads, to investigate. While the beach towns along the Atlantic coast, including glitzy Punta del Este, nearly become ghost towns this time of yearthe Southern Hemisphere’s fallColonia del Sacramento and Carmelo are well worth a river crossing.

    View Full Image

    Yadid Levy for The Wall Street Journal

    Leticia Acevedo, the owner of Peldaños, a boutique in Colonia.

    Driving into Carmelo, we giggled over the city’s low profileseveral blocks of two-story buildings and little elseand the lack of any sign of a luxury hotel. We called the hotel and were directed to drive past vineyards to a guard booth at the edge of a forest. The hotel was a sprawling complex of bungalows and a spacious main house decorated with wood, stone and Asian-style furnishings. We were led to a two-story apartment with 23-foot ceilings and a wall of windows overlooking sandy grasslands and a magnificent, fast-moving river.

    The Four Seasons says the hotel was built to draw tourists to the unappreciated, secluded beauty of this part of Uruguay, and that remains its appealin addition to a level of service and luxury uncommon in this country.

    The Lowdown Getting There: Ferries go to Colonia del Sacramento from Buenos Aires many times a day (from around $50, buquebus.com). Buses leave Montevideo from Tres Cruces station ($11, trescruces.com.uy). Where to Stay: The Four Seasons Resort in Carmelo starts at $240 per night in winter, when polo and cooking classes are offered. (fourseasons.com/carmelo). In Colonia, Posada Plaza Mayor is in a 19th-century home (from $110 per night, posadaplazamayor.com). Where to Eat: In Colonia, bohemian El Drugstore has live music and vegetarian options (Portugal and Vasconcellos, 598-522-5241). In Carmelo, the Four Seasons’s Mandara serves sophisticated food. Finca Narbona, a converted farmhouse, has homemade pastas and its own wines (Ruta 21, km 267, narbona.com.uy).

    After an afternoon in the giant pool and adventures along the river that included sightings of a 3-foot-long lagarto (lizard), huge-footed wood rails and hummingbirds, we lolled about in a variety of tiki huts while drinking an excellent bottle of Uruguayan CataMayor Sauvignon Blanc. (We skipped the polo lessons and the well-equipped spa.)

    I’ve eaten many forgettable meals in Uruguay, where attempts to depart from the country’s grilled-beef culinary trope often fall flat, but at the hotel’s main restaurant, we ate a beet-and-goat-cheese stack worthy of Spago and rack of lamb that confirmed that Uruguay’s lamb is the most tender and flavorful around. Without kids, I might have had a private grill master serve a traditional Uruguayan asado (sausage, sweetbreads and steak) in a gazebo overlooking the river; at $120 per person, it seemed a good deal.

    The next morning, we drove to Colonia del Sacramento, possibly one of the easiest Unesco World Heritage Sights to visit. We parked steps from the stone archway and canon-lined city walls that lead into the historic quarter. Though a healthy number of tourists were ambling around, lines were non-existent and fees small for the city’s sights, including an 1857 lighthouse and a series of museums displaying artifacts of the area’s native cultures, artisanal tiles and old Portuguese furnishings. The city’s thick fortress walls underscore its history as the object of centuries of tug-of-war between Portugal and Spain, and later, Argentina and Brazil.

    The primary activity in Colonia is contemplating the quiet beauty of the edge-of-the-earth town, where ancient homes preserved as museums are steps away from still-inhabited houses. I peered into the curtain opening in a window, only to be met with the stares of a family gathering to drink maté, an herbal tea served out of a hollow gourd.

    View Full Image

    Yadid Levy for The Wall Street Journal

    GO SLOW | Outdoor seating at El Drugstore restaurant in Colonia del Sacramento.

    That’s when I starting forming my getaway plan: What better place to hide than a city where buildings can as easily house a real-life family as ghosts? Vintage carswe marveled over a lipstick-red Studebakerabound, compounding my feeling that Colonia is South America’s Brigadoon.

    We turned up the Calle de los Suspiros (“street of sighs”), a stone-paved street flanked by old Portuguese homes. It manages to look both darling and sinister, and transports you to the past.

    Yet for all the if-these-walls-could-talk enigma, Colonia is a great place to shop for artisanal goods and chic clothes not easily found in most of Uruguay, a reflection of the stylish porteños who come here. At Peldaños, I was tempted by salad forks whittled from cattle horn, hand-carved wood cutting boards and Spanish-style sangria jugs. I lusted over a wool jacket with ruffled collar in the window of Paseo del Colegio. At La Casa de Jorge Páez Vilaró, an art gallery and restaurant, bright expressionist paintings by the late brother of Carlos Páez Vilaró, one of Uruguay’s most famous painters, vibrated with energy.

    View Full Image

    Yadid Levy for The Wall Street Journal

    A spring day in the town’s Plaza Mayor 25 de Mayo.

    For lunch, we settled into al fresco seats at the Pulperia de los Faroles, one of many pretty restaurants lining the Plaza Mayor, a town square straight out of 1950s Spain. As we ate salads and grilled local pollack, a pair of young tango dancers performed nearby.

    As they passed their hat around, an argument broke out with an Argentine lady who took issue with their request. A manager booted the dancers, who skulked off to

    a nearby restaurant, and we sat, stung by the injustice.

    I finally explained to the manager that we felt the customer was in the wrong, then crossed the plaza and told the dancers that we had defended them. They seemed stunned that a Yankee tourist had taken interest in their plight. Finishing my beer, I felt absurdly proud that I had, for a moment, become a player in a local drama.

    It bodes poorly for my plan to one dayif need beescape in luxurious anonymity to Colonia. But as the dancers disappeared into a hot late afternoon, the restaurant cleared and the plaza returned to its stillness, I realized that this was a place that could erase all footsteps.

    The Wall Street Journal/AC

    Rio Negócios Newsletter

    Cadastre-se e receba mensalmente as principais novidades em seu email

    Quero receber o Newsletter