Doing tourism in your own town, neighborhood or region can be a very rewarding experience. And having the chance to see your own area, but with tourist’s eyes can also be very eye opening (pun intended), and I strongly suggest you to pass by the Tourist Information Center in your own city, forget everything that you know about it, and start exploring as you never have been there before.
For example, when was the last time you went to that Modern Art Museum, or that park that just got remodeled, or the new waterfront, or that old area that just got taken by new architects, and everybody is talking about? In fact, taking the hop-on/hop-off bus can teach you a lot of things that maybe you didn’t know about that wonderful place you think you know by heart, because you were born and raised there…
In this case, I decided to go to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay.
I know, you are thinking: “You said you’re going to your own neighborhood, and now you’re going to a different country!”. Wait a second. Colonia is just across the river from Buenos Aires. Is just an hour ferry-ride away, and yes, it’s a different country, but Uruguay is, historically and culturally talking, a brother country. We speak the same language, we both drink mate, we both looooove asado (beef barbecue) and being truly honest, they might not be as famous as Argentineans when it comes to beef, but due to their weather, soil, breeds and expertize, they are a fair competitor. In fact, their most traditional sandwich is the chivito… I know, I know. If you understand a little Spanish, you are raising your right eyebrow again. The word chivito stands for “little goat”, and we were talking about beef! Well, the chivito, even when it’s stands for “goat”, is made with a very thin beefsteak.
A research made by an Argentinean historian states that a very posh Argentinean lady was on vacation in Mendoza, near the Andes mountains. She was hungry and went to a small lodge while the kitchen was closed. The owner of the place offered her a sandwich with some goat meat that was still in the grill, and added anything that he could find to make it hearty. This was cheese, ham, tomato, lettuce, olives and an egg, all that between two slice of bread. The lady was not just happy, she was delighted, and when she went to her other summer place in Punta del Este, Uruguay
Side note: Punta del Este, which is one of the most exclusive summer resorts in South America, nicknamed the Saint Tropez of the South, was and still is one of the most desired beaches and destinations for the jet-set, the rich and the famous. Of course, in counter season, this is January and February. During the northern summer, which is winter there, is a ghost town. She asked the owner of her favorite beach bar if he could recreate this sandwich. He agreed, but the only issue was that there are not that many goats in Uruguay, but he had steak… and that is how the most famous and iconic sandwich in Uruguay, the chivito, was born.
Enough from the history, let’s go to the substance. As I said, Colonia is just a throw of a stone from my home with the ferry. It was originally a Portuguese settlement trying to disrupt the Spanish trade between Madrid and their colonies, which changed hands between the Spaniards and the Portuguese a couple of times in history and left the town with an unique blend (literally, blend) between Spanish and Portuguese colonial architectures that after a very intensive and accurate restoration gain the Old Town a place in the very exclusive list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Walking around Colonia is like travelling back in time to the age of the Colonies (pun not intended this time).
Colonia has a Portuguese–Spanish inheritance, in Uruguay, just across the river from Argentina, a world-recognized merit by the UNESCO to it’s authenticity, with a very cosmopolitan influence, but is still a small city (?) that resists globalization. Now, how does that have something to do with World Class, World’s Honest Food? The food scene in Colonia is very active. Starting with the today’s iconic sandwich, the chivito, to some more sophisticated kitchens that they have in town.
During my last 3-day, 2-nights trip across the river I had some tasks to accomplish:
- Have an authentic chivito.
- Go to a well established restaurant.
- Check one of the newest marvels in town.
For the first task I went to La Pasiva, a national-wide restaurant chain with stores in every main city in Uruguay. Don’t get me wrong, is not fast food. These are real café’s with fairly consistent recipes, but everything is made in-store, including their famous mustard. Nothing is fancy here. No tablecloth, no tall-and-wide wine glasses, just real, honest, humble, tasty, local, Uruguayan, every-day food. This is the place where to have a steak sandwich or a hotdog (several types of sausages) with their (I would say “homemade”, but “store made” fits it better) secret recipe: famous mustard.
That’s where I suggest you do a little exercise: if you have a Uruguayan friend, or if you ever meet an Uruguayan, look him in the eye and out of nowhere, shoot him: “Mustard of La Pasiva” or “Chivito de La Pasiva”… It is when he will see this person do “ahhhhh..!”, and it may be (most likely, if he/she is an expatriate) that his eyes are filled with tears and his heart loses a match two.
This is the importance of chivitos in general, and La Pasiva in particular, are an integral part of Uruguayan culture. I was proposed to go to Mi Carrito, a famous food truck for the best chivitos in Colonia, but the weather was not very pleasant for an outdoor dinner in the winter.
As a well-established restaurant I decided to go back to El Drugstore. It is a place I went a couple of years ago, and without even realizing I was seating at his dining room, once again, attracted by the atmosphere full of paintings, pictures and photographs in the wall. The music was well curated, and the food, particularly the seafood, is well known in town as one of the best. The kitchen is in a corner of the dining room, totally open, and you can see the chef cooking step by step.
This time I ordered two seafood dishes, one was a linguini with seafood, in a very honest preparation with tomato sauce and a lot of mussels, shrimps and other “bugs”. The other, a seafood platter. As I said, this place is well known for it’s seafood, and we went for it. The preparation was simple, served with a white rice timbal, which did not do anything else that enhances the flavor of the dish. The wine we had was a Tannat (of course, is the flagship grape in Uruguay) and the dessert was a fantastic warm sambayón with fresh strawberries.
An old friend was particularly vocal regarding this place when he typically is not, so I decided to check it out by myself. I’m talking about Charco. This place is located in the heart of the Old City. The hotel is inside the walls of an old Portuguese house over cobblestone-covered street, and the bistro has a straight view to the river. It was Thursday evening, we arrived at 8:30 p. m. and the dining room was full (and it was off season!).
We were accommodated at a cute bar they have at the window facing the river, where we could see the ferries leaving Colonia towards Buenos Aires in the middle of the night. The décor is simple and modern, but non-intrusive, so it will not distract you from the main reason you are there. Make your taste buds explore new sensations! Their menu is short but sophisticated.
I was tempted by their shakshuka (spiced tomato stew on iron pan) with feta cheese, poached eggs, crispy bacon and flatbread, and my temptation was well satisfied. I also tasted roasted pumpkin ravioli and lemon thyme with brie cheese cream and spiced pumpkin seeds, and the grilled sweetbread, fried sweet potato, pickled onion and candied tomato, parsley and roasted garlic emulsion. The whole experience was superb, with a great service.
If you are in Buenos Aires for more than a couple of days, it is a great escapade from the high pace tours. Buquebus, the ferry line has several services during the day to go back and forth Colonia, including some with a walking tour around town. I would suggest the 8:15 a. m. service and to come back on the 8:45 p. m.
Note: None of the businesses or services mentioned here provided any kind of incentive to be part of this article, neither were informed beforehand they were going to be part of it.
World traveler in the quest of the authentic flavours from wherever the ship takes me.