In 1938, the Nazi Warship ‘the Graf Spree’ was the dominant vessel in the German Navy, heavily out gunning any Allied ships with the speed capable of catching her. She was positioned in the central Atlantic sinking ships looking to bring provisions to the besieged British Isles when three warships of the Royal Navy caught up with her. After the initial engagement, one British frigate was damaged beyond repair, another two took superficial damage, as did the Graf Spree. Forced to retreat into the mouth of the Rio Platte, the Graf Spree docked at the port of Montevideo, a neutral port where by international treaty she only had three days safe harbor.
The British Navy began a campaign of misinformation, convincing the captain of the Graf Spree that a superior force had gathered at the mouth of the Plate. Thinking he had no choice but to surrender or scuttle his own ship, he chose the latter. As the Graf Spree sank into the harbor, where it sits today, his men disappeared into the Plate River region rather than rejoining the war. It was not the first wave of German immigration to Argentina and Uruguay, and famously it would not be the last. After the war was over, hundreds of Nazis fled to the region, learned Spanish, and made South America their home.
The Plate River is either the largest river in the world or a tiny sea, depending on who you ask. It stretches 140 miles from Argentina to Uruguay. In the middle you can’t see either shore. When we left Buenos Aires for Uruguay, again we failed to conceive of the distance. How does crossing a river take an hour in a high-speed catamaran? Three hours by conventional ferry?
The upside of this epic river crossing is that the other side feels a world apart. Our hot urban adventure in the modern mega metropolis of BA had been difficult and we’d soon be headed to the capital city Montevideo, but first we docked at Colonia de Sacramento, one of Uruguay’s first settlements.
Leaving our bags at a very safe storage unit at the Colonia bus station (I mention this because there is a lot of discussion and very few answers on the Internet about where to leave one’s bags in Colonia) we hiked up the hill to the old city. Once on the hill, newer buildings gave way to tall ceilinged, one story houses with flat but ornate facades – typical of Spanish colonial architecture in the Platte River region. Tree lined streets became more lush as they aged, finally opening on to the town square.
We stood there at the edge of the square looking confused. It was like walking into a 19th century Mexican village, complete with a charming adobe church and Eucalyptus trees shading the plaza.
On a warm afternoon, cooled slightly by a breeze from the Plate River, staring at adorable little haciendas with stucco walls, grass sprouting irregularly from various surfaces, we were under a spell. We wanted to stay here. We wanted to move here. We wanted to disappear behind an adobe wall and come out sporting mustaches and perfect Spanish.
We were so charmed that we got in an argument over how charming it was, and whether it was worth asking our Montevidean hosts to abruptly change their plans and wait another night for us. We’d never met them, but surely they’d understand?
“Hi, it’s us strangers you agreed to host sight unseen, yes well we’re stuck in an incredibly charming time warp, and won’t be able to make it back to the future* any time soon.”
We stayed in this state for a long while. Wandering over rough cobblestones, slinking through the shade of an overgrown arbor. We peeped into the windows of abandoned mansions waiting to be transformed into ‘the most charming hotel ever’.
Finally after plunking down in front of the Pharmacy and putting away a frosty but unimpressive cerveza, we came to our senses and hurried to collect our bags and catch the bus to Montevideo.
*check “use back to the future in a sentence” off the bucket list.