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In Uruguay, Old-World Charm, Old-World Prices

Quaint and unassuming, the town of Colonia shows off Spanish and Portuguese history.

Uruguay is not a very high-profile country among North Americans, but that obscurity has an upside.

The country is not overrun by legions of tourists, it does not impose sticker-shock on international travelers, its people are not jaded or blasé when visitors come calling and it has welcome surprises to offer.

Not least among those surprises is the gently crumbling colonial town of

Colonia del Sacramento

, with its mellow patina of age, tree-lined streets, lively cafes and snug bars, cobblestone plazas and the lovely, vintage architecture that has made it a UNESCO

world heritage site

.

Colonia, as it is known for short, was once a thriving, fortified port, built by the Portuguese in 1680 before the Spanish took over. That history bequeathed to Colonia a rich mix of Spanish and Portuguese buildings, most of which survive in the Barrio Historico -- the historic neighborhood.

As trade faded, Colonia became a backwater, which helps account for its fixed-in-amber charm.

Today a community of 22,000, Colonia is 150 miles northwest of

Montevideo

, Uruguay's capital and largest city. It is an hour from

Buenos Aires

by river ferry, which is how many international visitors come to town. Colonia's location makes it a perfect day-trip.

Some Buenos Aires hotels will book passage on the ferry for guests -- as did the hotel my wife and I stayed at, the

Buenos Aires Four Seasons

, a modern hotel ensconced in a beautifully renovated 1920 mansion. A round-trip first-class ticket on a hydrofoil operated by

Ferry Lineas

costs 250 Argentinean pesos, or about $80; standard tickets run about $36.

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Candidly, getting there is not half the fun. Travelers depart Buenos Aires from an aged red-brick waterside building with broken windows, roosting pigeons and fairly sizable shrubs sprouting from the roof. Facilities in Colonia are better but spare and worn. Customs officials on both the Uruguayan and Argentinean side are, well, officious. Even first class seats on the hydrofoil Atlantic III look like coach seats on an airplane and are about as comfortable.

So far, so unappealing.

But things change quickly enough on the ground in Colonia. Many visitors head straight for an outpost of

Thrifty Car Rental

, where they rent not cars but modified golf carts -- good for handling the bumpy cobblestone of main streets and plazas in the historic core.

Colonia is also a fine walking town. You move around town at a slower pace than on the carts, of course, but you see more on foot, and no place is really far from any other place. Walking down Calle Manuel Lobo from the docks to the Plaza Mayor in the Barrio Historico takes just 15 minutes.

Approaching the plaza, the historic town center, you cross a wooden drawbridge and pass through the old city walls. Leafy trees soften the stony heart of the plaza, which is also graced with palms and orange trees heavy with fruit in season. Narrow stone-lined shopping streets slope down to the river. Amigos, it is enchanting.

Buildings in the historic center date mostly from the late 17th through 19th centuries, making the place seem like a big, open-air museum. But people eating and drinking at the many sidewalk cafés, bouncing by on golf carts or just strolling around give Colonia a decidedly active pulse.

There are, of course, actual museums, and you can enter all of them by buying a single ticket for about $1 U.S. on the Plaza Mayor. There is a Spanish Museum installed in an early 18th century building, a Portuguese Museum operating in a building of similar age, the ruins of the Convent of San Francisco Javier, founded in 1683, and the Iglesia Matriz, Uruguay's oldest church, with parts of the building dating from 1680; the interior provides cool sanctuary on a hot day in the southern summer, which runs December through March. There is also a Tile Museum, which showcases the distinctive, blue-and-white tile work of the Portuguese.

Colonia is dotted with small shops and places to snack, sip or have a leisurely meal. Most businesses accept both Uruguayan pesos (presently 24.4 to the dollar) and Argentine pesos (3.2 to the dollar) and some take U.S. currency. Credit cards are often accepted.

Not every business honors the town's antiquity. The Colonia Rock restaurant occupies a heritage building complete with an old well in the courtyard; the walls inside the eatery are festooned with photographs of the

Beatles

. On the TV over the bar, music videos from the 1970s and '80s shimmer and jump. Still, the price is right: A pizza for two, a 1-liter bottle of beer stashed in an ice bucket and a glass of wine go for $9.

In another beautifully aged stone building, a popular cafe on Calle Real called Parillo del Barrio sells flavorful, Italian-style ice cream. Customers can sit at small metal tables in the street on days when the narrow roadway is closed to traffic. Fragrant tangles of jasmine cascade down the building.

Colonia offers the traveler a trip back in time. The hassle factor with transportation and government officialdom is there, but once you arrive in Colonia, the irritation melts away.

For more information, check the prime Web site

for Uruguayan tourism

. U.S. citizens need a passport, but not a visa, to enter Uruguay.

David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. He covers airlines and airports, hotels and resorts, food and wine, and writes travel destination features.