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A Guide To Uruguay’s Culture And Heritage Sites

Colonia del Sacramento © Diego Delso/WikiCommons
Colonia del Sacramento © Diego Delso/WikiCommons
Located on the picturesque shores of the De La Plata River, the City of Colonia del Sacramento is the only cultural site in Uruguay to have attained UNESCO World Heritage Status. However, this South American country contains a wealth of cultural and historical sites worth exploring.
Montevideo, Uruguay © Jimmy Baikovicius/ Flickr

The Bay and the Islands of Colonia del Sacramento

The Bay and the Islands of Colonia del Sacramento encompass the entire region of Portuguese settlement surrounding the Colonia del Sacramento. The surrounding bays and islands are of similar cultural significance, although they only feature on the UNESCO Tentative World Heritage list. The bay has been described as a ‘reservoir of historic testimonies of rural life’ that paints a clear and revealing portrait of life at the time of the Portuguese settlement. It has been suggested that ‘the area forms, as a whole, a singular example of the daily colonial life carried out in the sea, the city and the country’. It was the development and use of this bay as a crossroads for merchants and entrepreneurs which would ultimately establish Colonia del Sacramento as a commercially prosperous area of trading and economic growth.

The City of Colonia del Sacramento

Colonia del Sacramento is the second oldest city in Uruguay and once played host to a century-long dispute for control between Spanish and Portuguese colonials. It was through Antonio Pedro de Vasconcellos’ role as Governor that the city became a powerhouse for commercial and cultural enterprise in 1722, and it was this commercialism and heavy focus on trade which played such a key role in shaping Buenos Aires into the region that we recognise today. Spain and Portugal fought for control over Sacramento nine times in 100 years, so it is little wonder that the architecture of the city is a blend of Spanish and Portuguese styles. Flat-roofed, white-walled Portuguese buildings line streets of Spanish influence, streets which are slightly lower on the side and higher in the middle in typical Spanish style.

Colonia del Sacramento © Philip Choi/Flickr

Chamangá, A Rock Paintings Area

Recently, this natural rock formation has become an area of real interest to the Uruguayan government and academic researchers alike. Although its position as a World Heritage site is pending, Chamangá, located in the Province of Flores in Southwest Uruguay, is a place of palpable historical significance. The area is scattered with naturally formed granite blocks that play host to 40 rock paintings (more are being discovered all the time), some of which have been estimated to be over 2000 years old. Chamangá is thus characterised as having the highest concentration of pictographic sites in all of Uruguay, while the discovery and study of these paintings has led to archaeologists digging deeper into the region. Although the archaeological investigations are not currently sufficient to secure Chamangá as a World Heritage site, the discoveries which they have uncovered indicate the existence of an ‘archaeological register’, giving real insight into the region’s cultural history.

Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo

A district of Montevideo under heritage protection, Ciudad Vieja is considered one of Uruguay’s cultural heritage sites, with La Rambla Promenade running directly through it. This barrio (Spanish for neighborhood) is the oldest area of Montevideo, hence its name the ‘Old City’. Despite its historic roots, the city has seen a transformation in recent years, one which came about as a direct result of the campaigning and influence of the Municipal Intendant of Montevideo. Ciudad Vieja was surrounded by a defensive wall until 1829 when the majority of it was torn down, leaving only The Gateway of the Citadel standing; this structure now acts as the emblem for this region. Its recent emergence as the area of Montevideo with the most bustling nightlife means that there is a real blend of old and new, with both contemporary and historic examples of architectural design standing side by side.

‘Old City’, Ciudad Vieja © Montecruz Foto/ Flickr

Modern Architecture of the Twentieth Century

This is a significant collection of buildings in Montevideo which feature a vast range of architectural styles, where each one reflects both the era in which it was built and the nationality of those who designed it. It has been described as a ‘monumental complex of outstanding features’ which gives voice to a wealth of architectural expressions, providing real insight into the social, cultural and historical development of Montevideo as a city. Provisionally given the title of ‘Modern Architecture of the Twentieth Century’, in reality the list of buildings includes all architecture produced between 1915 and 1965. The differing architectural styles of each building act as a celebration of development, progress and collaboration between nations; the structures range from early architectural expressions to more modern and advanced styles born from the 60s, a period of architecture which was heavily influenced by post-war experiences and regionalisms.

Montevideo Cityscape, Uruguay © Leandro Neumann Ciuffo/WikiCommons

Fray Bentos

Fray Bentos is a key Uruguayan port perfectly situated between two of the most important rivers in the country; the Rio Negro to the South and the Uruguay River to the West. This position was ideal in encouraging the development of commercial and industrial companies which could take advantage of the rich geographical benefits of the region, such as its fertile soil. The development of this area into the Fray Bentos port, officially established in 1859, gives it a rich historical background that was partially born from its prime location. The growing trade which began in Fray Bentos in the 19th century imparted real social and political change on RÍo de la Plata, and the installation of small and medium enterprises called saladeros led to the increasing migration of people into the foundations of towns surrounding the port. The port and its surrounding structures were built in 1887 and are rooted architecturally in history, featuring original work houses and early commercial buildings, as well as providing an interesting social, cultural and industrial perspective for locals and tourists alike. Although its World Heritage status is pending, all of these factors ultimately render Fray Bentos a ‘true example of European structures in the time of the post-industrial revolution’.

Fray Bentos © Elbetobm/WikiCommons

La Rambla Promenade – Montevideo

Currently on UNESCO’s Tentative World Heritage list, La Rambla Promenade has been described as an integral part of the Montevidian identity. The promenade is a long avenue which spans the entirety of Montevideo’s coastline and, although it is a public space, it is protected as a National Historic Monument. It is made up of seven different sections, each of which encompass distinct characteristics which reflect the period in which they were constructed. Starting from the Bay of Montevideo and the Port of Capurro, and ending in the Eastern Carrasco, Rambla Tomás Berreta, the promenade runs parallel to a series of beaches which contribute to the characterization and description of each segment. Its standing in the public sphere secures La Rambla as a place of real cultural importance for Montevidian nationals, encouraging social interaction along its long stretch of walkways and keeping the concept of an ‘inclusive democracy’ alive in Uruguayan hearts.

La Rambla Promenade in Montevideo © Jose Porras/WikiCommons

Eladio Dieste – Engineer

Eladio Dieste’s buildings and architectural designs are of significant importance to both national and international architectural landscapes. His body of work has been called ‘one of the most outstanding examples of innovative architectural design of the 20th century in Latin America’. Typically his buildings are a fusion of functionality and cutting-edge design, where every aspect of the building, from its central structure to its overall aesthetic, serves a purpose. Dieste was something of a pioneer in architectural circles, developing the masonry structure technique which uses thin sheets of metal to produce much lighter constructions. Some of his Uruguayan works that have secured his position on the Tentative World Heritage list include the ‘Julio Herrera y Obes’ Port of Montevideo, the Church of Cristo Obrero in Atlántida and the Nueva Palmira Quays. Each of his projects feature magnificent self-supporting double-curved arches, slender towers and ‘walls of ruled surfaces’, and have cemented his position as one of the most influential architectural engineers of the 20th century.

Church of Cristo Obrero © Nicolas Barriola/WikiCommons

‘Mercado del Puerto’

This traditional Uruguayan food market takes place in the ‘Old City’ of Montevideo. Founded in 1885 by the Spanish merchant Zumarán Pedro Saenz, the market has grown to host a number of street merchants and restaurants alike, all of whom sell the best of Uruguayan food and drink. The market started as a humble project, it was originally a sectioned off area on the cobbled streets of Perez Castilian. It grew exponentially and just over a year after it opened the organizers had to purchase the Mercado del Puerto building to meet growing consumer demand. This building, and many aspects of the market itself, remain true to its traditional 19th century style. But with its continual expansion and popularity with nationals and tourists alike, there have been certain aspects of the market which have been transformed by time, making it a wonderful fusion of past and present. It was established as a National Historic Landmark in 1975.

Mercado Del Puerto © Eduardo Ruggieri/WikiCommons

Museo Del Carnaval

Dedicated to preserving and demonstrating the multi-layered culture of Uruguay, the ‘Carnival Museum’ opened in November 2006 with the aim of ‘preserving, displaying, disseminating and evaluating objects and traditions that are part of the highest festival of Uruguay’. The Uruguayan Carnival is a national celebration which can last for up to 40 days. It has developed into a dance festival in recent years, featuring Candombe, Murga and Tablados dances, and it is the aim of this museum to preserve and explain where this growth and change has come from. With an event so full of color and expression, there is the danger of its cultural significance getting lost in the excitement and execution. Museo del Carnaval ensures that the national celebration is preserved in the ‘Old City’ of Montevideo, acting as a cultural reference site for all.

Uruguayan Carnival © Marcello Casal Jr/WikiCommons