The River Plate, the widest river in the world

A few years ago, while reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, I was surprised to read that one of the rivers depicted in the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) is the River Plate. The fountain was created by the renowned Renaissance artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1651. To make a long story short, each river represents an area of the world where papal authority had spread, one river per continent, so the River Plate represents the Americas.

The fountain is located at Piazza Navona and the day we visited the piazza, the fountain was under renovation and covered with a tarpaulin. I didn’t get to see the sculpture but I get to see the River Plate (Río de la Plata) in person every time I go back home to Buenos Aires.

River Plate
A view of Puerto Madero

Where is the River Plate?

The River Plate is located in the east coast of South America between Uruguay and Argentina. The capital cities of both countries, Montevideo and Buenos Aires, were founded at either side of the river.

Why is it such a deep shade of brown?

The reason begins with s…. silt! Two contributory river systems flow into the Plata basin and bring down a huge amount of silt. Tides and wind hinder the deposition of silt on the bed so it keeps swirling around.

River Plate
The coast of Montevideo . The wide beaches are very popular

Did you know?

1516 – The Spanish crown requested navigator Juan Diaz de Solis to find a route to the Pacific. What he found, however, was the River Plate, which he named Mar Dulce – Freshwater Sea. Hostile Indians killed Solis and few others. Their attempt at establishing a European settlement failed miserably.

1526/29 – Italian explorer Sebastian Cabot made a detailed study of the estuary

1580 – Pedro de Mendoza founded Buenos Aires, and this time the settlement was successful. The area remained a backwash of the Spanish empire and the River Plate was closed to foreign trade. The black market flourished and smugglers did a roaring trade, of course.

1680 – The Portuguese founded Colonia del Sacramento on the eastern shores of the River Plate. Colonia, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, is a lovely little town and a great day trip from Buenos Aires with several daily ferry crossings.

River Plate
Can you spot the water down the street? Colonia, Uruguay

1726 – In order to curb Portuguese advance, the governor of Buenos Aires founded the city of Montevideo, now capital of Uruguay.

1939 – The first naval battle of World War II took place in the River Plate. The Royal Navy had located the German cruiser Graf Spee and hunted it down off the coast of Uruguay (a neutral nation). The Graf Spee entered the port of Montevideo and was given 72 hours. The captain decided the scuttle the ship. The crew were arrested and sent to Buenos Aires.

Traditionally, Buenos Aires turned its back on the River Plate. But in the last decade or two there has been a new appreciation of the river. Puerto Madero, the city’s newest neighborhood practically on the river. The Reserva Natural Costanera Sur is a beautiful nature preserve much like a quiet green oasis in the city.

The River Plate is said to be the widest river in the world, its mouth being 220 kilometers (140 miles) wide. It is busy river too: multiple ferry crossings between Buenos Aires and Colonia and Montevideo, cargo ships putting into port, private yachts leisurely sailing at weekends, coast guard vessels, and sand dredgers. The River Plate can be a friend or an enemy; its treacherous currents have taken many lives. I, for one, prefer to find a place to sit and watch life pass by in this majestic river.

Rios - de la Plata

Further reading

An abridged guide to Montevideo, Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay 


For your Pinterest board
The River Plate (Rio de la Plata), between Argentina and Uruguay

2 thoughts on “The River Plate, the widest river in the world

  1. I remember crossing from Buenos Aires to Colonia and feeling like I was on an ocean more than a river. It was so wide! I also remember noticing – and wondering about – the brown colour


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