Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
Day Tripping to Colonia, Uruguay
Need a break from bustling Buenos Aires? Consider a jaunt across the Rio de la Plata to historic Colonia del Sacramento.
While planning our recent Argentine vacation, my fiancé announced, “Let’s go across the river to Uruguay so we can get another stamp in our passports.” I’m not one who cares to “collect countries,” but after it became clear that we weren’t going to have time to visit more than Buenos Aires and Mendoza during our stay, I agreed to a day trip to see the historic city of Colonia del Sacramento.
Downtime Among the Ruins
Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, Colonia is a sleepy town across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires that came under Spanish control less than 100 years later. It sits on a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides, and contains ruins and remnants of its former colonial days.
We took the early fast ferry at 8:30 a.m. and arrived an hour later. A pleasant 10-minute walk from the terminal along tree-lined streets brought us to the entrance of the old city: Portón de Campo, a colonial gateway set in the remains of a fortified stone wall that protected Colonia from attack back in the day. We entered the Barrio Histórico and found ourselves transported back in time, into a peaceful, relaxed atmosphere that is the opposite of Buenos Aires. The narrow, cobblestone streets—not good for strollers—lined with charming, historic brick buildings and dotted with many plaza and pleasant parks—great for kids to run around in—were empty, save for the occasional horse-drawn carriage.
Colonia’s gentrification was aimed at the tourist market, so plenty of shops, restaurants, galleries and museums line the streets: leather goods, lace items, yerba maté gourds and cups, fine woolen items and artworks abound. (Prices are noticeably higher than in Buenos Aires.) None of the venues were open at that early hour, however, so we passed the time by wandering through the dozen or so blocks that comprise the historic district, and checked out the lighthouse, a former Jesuit college, photogenic Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), ruins of the Convento de San Francisco, some rusted cannons, well-preserved antique cars (except for one, which has become home to a tree) and Iglesia Matriz—Uruguay’s oldest church. It dates back to 1680, and was restored to its original design after being damaged by a fire in 1823.
Our stroll took us along the water, where locals fished in the muddy river, until we settled on one of the many benches along the pier near the harbor to simply bask in the warmth of the sun, read and relax. The town started to come to life by 11 a.m. as the shops and outdoor cafés opened, entertainers started to adorn the squares, and more visitors arrived on the later ferry.
Museums, Dining and Lodging
There are no fewer than seven museums in the small center, all easily viewed in a matter of a couple hours, especially as one or two are always closed, depending on the day, while others are merely a couple of small rooms with displays focused on a specific subject, such as the Museo de los Azlejos (Tile Museum), which features colorful Moorish tiles. For about $10, you can purchase a pass that gets you into all the venues.
Unfortunately, two of the larger sites, the Portuguese Museum and the Spanish Museum, were closed the day we visited. The Museo Municipal, however, had an interesting collection that ranged from dinosaur bones to colonial artifacts and furniture to 19th and 20th century antiques. Casa Nacarello is a restored example of a typical 17th-century Portuguese house, and the founder of the Museo Indigena was on hand to give a personal tour of native artifacts he’s found in the region.
After kicking back and taking in some history, we grabbed lunch at Anjo Preto, one of the many restaurants in town. Unfortunately, the venues recommended by friends and the guidebook we were using were all closed, so we took a chance on this one. Its mediocre lunch—pasta with squid ink, dry steak, two salads and a half-bottle of wine—set us back about $30 each. Definitely not worth it, considering we enjoyed a fantastic meal at El Obrero in B.A.’s Boca neighborhood the week before that included two excellent steaks, appetizers and wine, for half as much.
While the historic section of Colonia can be easily seen in a day or less for those on a tight time budget, travelers looking for down time (there are river beaches a couple kilometers north of the old city) have their option of a few lovely looking hotels and B&Bs in town. For a resort experience, the Four Seasons Resort Carmelo is about an hour away along the river.
Buquebus (www.buquebus.com) operates the ferries between Buenos Aires, at Puerto Madero, and Colonia, with three classes of service (tourist, special and first) and slow- and speed-boat options, the latter costing more. Tourist class, speed-boat prices start at A$118.50/US$38 for ages 11 and up, A$83.50/US$27 for children ages 2-10 and A$39/US$13 for infants-2 years.
Buy your tickets a couple days in advance as the boats tend to sell out. You can purchase them online (an English-version of the site is available) or at the vast and efficient Buquebus office in B.A., located in Recoleta.
Immigration is a breeze. Basically, customs officials from Argentina and Uruguay stand next to each other, hand your passport between them for arrivals and departures, you get your stamps and you’re on your way.