Just across the wide mouth of the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires lies the picturesque town of Colonia del Sacramento. Founded in the late 1600s by the Portuguese, Colonia was a highly contested city due to its strategic location on the coast and was tossed back and forth between Portuguese and Spanish powers until ultimately falling into the hands of the Spanish. Today, the small Uruguayan town is a popular tourist destination for Argentines and Uruguayans alike, has received UNESCO distinctions for its cobble stoned Historic Center, and displays a unique marriage of Portuguese, Spanish, and post-colonial architectural styles.
From Buenos Aires | Just an hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires, Colonia has long been a popular day trip or weekend destination for Argentines and those visiting Buenos Aires, whether for tourism, to pull out some USD (you can do this in Uruguay), or to reset a visa (I can attest to this one).
Three ferry lines offer service at multiple times per day: Buquebus (the fanciest and most expensive), Colonia Express (no frills), and Seacat (the best combo of price and quality). You can book tickets online or at the ferry terminals - do note that Buquebus and Seacat leave from the Buquebus Terminal and Colonia Express leaves from its own terminal on the other end of Puerto Madero. Since you are traveling to another country you will of course need your passport and to allow enough time before departure to check-in and go through customs/immigration.
From Montevideo | Buses are the best option to get from Montevideo to Colonia and take roughly 2-2.5 hours. The two major bus companies are COT and Turil, both offering several services a day.
10 THINGS TO DO
1| Visit the Old Town Gate known as La Puerta de Campo that serves as the gateway into the Historic Quarter. The gate was built in 1745 to aid in protecting the town from constant attacks.
2| Get lost in the Historic Quarter (you can't get too lost as it's relatively compact). Cobble stoned streets, views of the river, a charming mix of Spanish & Portuguese architecture, and colorful bougainvillea draped overhead will accompany you throughout town.
3| Peruse the strange collections at the Museum Granja Arenas. Opened in 1956, the museum boasts several Guinness World Records including the largest collection of graphic writing pencils in the world.
4| Pause for a coffee or tea at one of the cozy cafes in town, many of which have seating that spills out into the streets. Some popular ones with good coffee, lemonades, teas, and cakes are Ganache Cafe & Pasteleria, Lentas Maravillas, and Queriendote.
5| Climb the Faro or Lighthouse of Colonia for panoramic views of the city and surrounding water (yes, the water is brown..). The lighthouse is easy to spot from anywhere in the Historic Quarter and can be paid for in Uruguayan or Argentine Pesos (a little over $1 entry fee at current exchange rates).
6| Explore the supposed "Most Photographed Street in Uruguay" known as Calle de los Suspiros or the Street of Sighs. The street and the meaning behind its name is shrouded in mystery with many contrasting theories. One claims that the street used to be full of brothels and the sighs of sailors, another that prisoners were chained up on the street and left to be drowned by high tides, and yet another that you can hear the sighs of a ghost of a lover who was stabbed on the street and now haunts it every full moon. Regardless of its true meaning, the street is still home to quaint, rustic architecture, some restaurants, and a few stores & galleries.
7| Try Uruguay's signature wine, Tannat. Historically, Tannat has been grown in Southern France, but Uruguay's climate and soils lend itself perfectly to the grape, making a lighter bodied, less tannic wine as compared to its French counterpart. For a picada and an afternoon glass of wine head to El Buen Suspiro, a cozy stone & wood wine shop in the heart of town. If you have time, or are in town for more than a day, a visit to a local winery is a must. Favorites include Los Cerros de San Juan (the oldest in the country) and Bodega Turistica Bernardi.
Photo by Stephen Walsh
8| Take a stroll along the Harbor, full of colorful sailboats, yachts in the warmer months, and municipal boats. This is also a nice spot to take in the sunset.
Photo by Michelle Henry
9| Eat! Uruguayan food is similar to Argentinian with an emphasis on meats and Italian dishes. For a dose of fresh pasta in a colorful environment, pop into Viejo Barrio located on the Plaza de Armas. For seafood with pretty views of the river and the trees and rocks on its banks, head down to the waterfront Charco Bistro.
10| If you're up for a bit of a walk (you can hop in a taxi as well), head out of the Historic Quarter to the abandoned Bull Fighting Ring, often considered one of the greatest failures in Uruguay. Built in 1910 to attract tourists to this part of Uruguay, the ring was promptly closed in 1912 when bull fighting was banned by the Uruguayan president. Despite discussions of re-purposing and renovating the ring, today the building still remains abandoned.
THINGS TO NOTE
1| Bring bug repellent if you are particularly susceptible to mosquitoes as there are typically quite a few flying around in the morning.
2| If you aren't familiar with the area, don't be alarmed but the water in the Rio de la Plata is brown due to sediments in the fresh water rivers/estuaries that become the Rio de la Plata, this is normal.
3| Virtually all places in Colonia accept Argentinian Pesos or Credit Card. If you're just visiting for a day, I don't think it necessary to pull out Uruguayan pesos or exchange money.
WHAT TO WEAR / PACK
Regardless of season, wear comfy shoes for walking as the entire Historic Quarter is cobble stoned, with many uneven steps and streets. For a typical Fall day consider wearing pants (for some mosquito coverage), a light shirt, a cozy over-sized sweater, a scarf, and large sunglasses as it can get quite bright.