Although we were four hours behind the UK, we slept well and were happy to be awakened by a cockerel crowing into the muted daylight at 0600. We breakfasted on more of Martin’s bread and spreads as we watched the large birds strutting on the grassy land just below our balcony.
Martin visited us soon after 1100. It was Good Friday and he was on his way out to the shops before they closed at noon. He told us the location of shops and the fuel station and recommended various places to eat. He also explained that we could park the car almost anywhere at no charge; the few restrictions were indicated by red and white stripes painted on the kerbstones.
We drove into town past low houses on small plots bathed in strong sunlight. The Mikro Makro supermarket fitted its name. It was the size of a typical Co-operative Food Store in Ipswich with several aisles crowded with diverse foodstuffs and some household goods. We bought more bread, the local cheese, bananas, grapes, a can of corned beef, olives, a small jar of Peruvian sweet peppers, instant coffee, two large bottles of beer, two milanesa sandwiches and a bombilla. A what? A bombilla; it is a steel straw with a strainer at one end — an essential element of the consumption of Yerba Mate (pronounced ‘matay’) a caffeinated infusion of the leaves of a type of holly. This is a highly popular drink throughout South America. All over Colonia we saw people carrying flasks of hot water and their mate gourds containing the wet powdered mate and the bombillas through which they drank the bitter liquid.
We drove on into town, turning right at the roundabout by the fuel station. This took us down to the river front on a T-junction controlled by those traffic lights. We turned south into the centre of Colonia and went straight to Mi Carrito, the street food van universally recommended from various sources. It was closed until 20:00. A helpful woman living across the street told us this and advised us that the nearest food vendor was on the street corner. Or at least that is what we deduced from our meagre Spanish and her volubility. The corner café looked unremarkable so we turned the corner and parked across the street by the town’s craft market. The market comprised a few dozen permanent kiosks selling mate paraphernalia, weaving, knitwear, ceramics, jewellery, and carved goods. Food was being sold from another street van and from one of the kiosks. We chose chivitos and agua con gas from the kiosk. With no English we managed to communicate that we preferred beef to chicken and that we would like a table in the shade. The affable proprietor moved a table from the sunny spot in front of her kiosk to the shade of a nearby tree. She brought us two bottles and we revelled in fizzy chill. Chivitos are a national dish in this part of the world; they are best described as beefburgers made with thickly sliced steak instead of minced beef rissoles. The quality of the beef seems to vary from satisfactory to excellent. This was satisfactory but the combination of the beef, salad vegetables, and mayonnaise in a soft bun is a simple pleasant taste.
After paying for our lunch we walked along a riverside promenade before joining more leafy streets to a waterfront cultural centre in a restored nineteenth century red brick industrial complex. At the main door were posters advertising the month’s events: comedy, drama, concerts, classes, and exhibitions all featured but nothing took our fancy. Immediately past the posters stood a large arched gateway leading into a grassy space alongside the performance buildings. The most noticeable feature was a tall brick chimney that must once have vented the waste fumes of the erstwhile industrial process. Near the water stood a dramatic timber spiral demanding to be photographed but so attractive as a climbing frame and a recliner that we had to wait a long time to get our pictures. Beyond the arched gateway the streets were lined with restaurant tables busy with diners enjoying grilled meats, fish, wines, and pale beers. A restaurant on the corner of the promontory occupied a squat stone tower of military mien with modern windows affording river vistas from its top.
From this Bastion de Santa Rita we walked back east along Avenida Generale Flores, the town’s main street, filled with restaurants, banks, and shops selling clothes, electronics, cosmetics, and groceries. Our car was not far out of the Barrio Historico and we were soon driving back to our Tree House. This time we turned right at the traffic lights instead of passing the bull ring because we bought petrol from the filling station. The fuel was only a little cheaper than we would pay in the UK.
We unpacked our shopping and spent the afternoon reading on our balcony. By sitting on the very northern edge of the balcony we could obtain access to a very weak WiFi signal affording us an intermittent connection to a very slow internet service. It was just strong enough to promise adequate service but so unstable that it gave enduring frustration. Eventually we accepted the limitations and concentrated on our books.
As the sun set we returned to the western tip of Barrio Historico and walked along Paseo de San Gabriel by the waterfront. As we walked, W pointed out an appealing pattern of yellow lights; the glowing candles on terraces of restaurant tables. We turned up a narrow cobbled passage to the Plaza Mayor. In English this is the main square but we could see nothing of it in the darkness. Just a few steps away from the square stood Churana; Martin and Carolina’s favourite local restaurant. An unremarkable doorway opened into a small craft shop selling work by local artisans including Carolina’s weaving. Through the shop was a tiny restaurant spilling out onto open air terraces down the slope to the river. A substantial tree formed an eye-catching feature with lights of boats swaying gently beyond. A smiley helpful waitress served us strips of milk-marinated beef with potato salad and tomato salsa. The dish looked appealing and the salads were delicious but the slow cooking and marination could not compensate for the quality of the stewing steak that was the heart of the meal.
Returning to our car we realised that the terraces of attractive lights that we had noticed earlier were those of our disappointing dinner venue. Even with the lights of the town, the night sky was filled with stars and we searched for familiar constellations with the help of Google Sky Map. Back in the countryside at El Nido the sky was even more star strewn.