Take a day trip by ferry to Uruguay from Buenos Aires and you’ll end up in calm and attractive Colonia Del Sacramento. Blink and you’ll miss the most popular stop on the Colonia tour, Calle de los Suspiros, or the “Street of Sighs”. The street is short, photogenic and appealingly rustic, yet it really only interests me because of its name.
Why sighs? Calle de los Suspiros used to be called Ansina and several different stories relate the reason for its poetic incarnation. The least believable concerns crime. Criminals were hanged at the end of the calle, hence the “Street of Sighs”. Another version has sighing criminals being led along the street to be drowned in the river as the tide rose. Do people tend to sigh before suffering public execution? Neither idea has any real evidence to back it up.
The most romantic, and also entirely undocumented, version relates the passionate story of a lady waiting on the street for her sweetheart. She was stabbed in the moonlight by a masked man and, with her last breath, sighed the name of her lover to call him to her aid. He was too late.
The most plausible explanation, and the version recounted by most tour guides as they lead visitors around Colonia, concerns prostitutes. Apparently Calle de los Suspiros was a street-long brothel. Prostitutes lolled around on the cobblestones tempting the sailors who’d just stepped off the boat. Whether the sighs came from the prostitutes or the sailors as they admired the goods on offer is anyone’s guess, but you get the picture.
Today you’re only likely to hear echoes of the long-ago sighs if you visit Colonia out of season. While still a thousand times more tranquil than downtown Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata, Colonia is increasingly busy with day trippers and travellers. But step down the street alone, on a wet and wintry August day, and you may hear a whisper of the truth behind the Calle de los Suspiros stories.