Colonia del Sacramento, or Colonia as the locals call it, is Uruguay’s oldest city. A beachfront town founded by the Portuguese in 1680, it sits across the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Colonia’s distinctive character is defined by winding cobblestone roads and the colourful architecture of its historic old town.
However, there is more to this city than just the historic district. Situated at the convergence of the Parana and Uruguay rivers on the Río de la Plata estuary, Colonia was frequently invaded, changing between Portuguese and Spanish hands seven times before becoming Uruguay. Colonia makes for an interesting and long day trip from Buenos Aires.
Exploring Colonia’s historic quarter
As we emerged from the ferry and cleared customs, we had one question in the back of our minds; should we have hired a guide? Armed with a teen who is fluent in Spanish, we opted to be on our own.
And to be honest, it was easy. There is one road leading from the ferry terminal to the walled historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995. Keeping the sea to our left, we strolled to the old city in under 10 minutes.
Tour Colonia del Sacramento
If you prefer a guided adventure, this small group tour starts in Buenos Aires. Simplifying the travel process, your guide will pick you up at your hotel and you will travel together to the ferry terminal, across the river, and then to the old town. Here, you will learn about history and culture during a guided two-hour walking tour of the enchanting historic district. Next, you will have three hours to explore on your own. Finally, a ferry back, and 12 hours after you departed you will return to your hotel.
Before you sign up for any tour, we encourage you to read the tour reviews. While our recommended tour has a limited number of reviews, Signaturetours, the company behind it, has excellent reviews for their Argentina and Uruguay tours.
Old City Wall (Portón de Campo)
The wooden draw bridge and city wall were rebuilt in the 1960’s, although passing through into the historic quarter still feels like a time warp. A row of bronze nails in the wall marks the height of the ruins before renovations began.
Calle de los Suspriros – a 16th-century Portuguese street
Quaint and colourful, the 16th-century houses stand shoulder to shoulder along the original cobblestone road named Calle de los Suspriros. They represent a mix of Portuguese and Spanish styles.
Lighthouse and ruins of Saint Francis Convent
Turned on in 1857, the lighthouse is still operational today. It was built on the ruins of the Saint Francis Convent, which had been destroyed by fire in 1704. We didn’t climb the 111 stairs to the top of the lighthouse, although we have talked to many people who say the view is worth the nominal entrance fee and the effort. If I were to go back again, this would be on my list of things to do in Colonia del Sacramento.
Bastión de San Pedro – swimming, fishing, and sunset
Normally, Bastión de San Pedro is a spot to swim during the day, fish off the nearby rocks, or relax and wait for a stunning sunset. Not so for us. A storm was brewing and we could see it coming. As the wind picked up, we knew it was going to be bad, but the locals didn’t seem to be phased by it. That is until the first flash of lightning cracked in the sky. Suddenly, locals bolted off, except for a few determined fishermen. We looked out towards the sea and decided to follow the crowds.
Municipal and other museums
If any of the town’s eight museums are on your radar, the Municipal Museum should be your first stop. Here you can purchase a daily museum pass for $50 UYU ($1.50 USD or $2.20 NZD) that gets you into most of Colonia’s museums, however, they are not all open on the same days. Most of the museums close by 4.30 pm.
Luckily, when the sky dumped buckets the Naval Museum took pity on us and allowed us shelter even after they closed. The winds were so strong that all ferry services were cancelled.
And then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. No more rain, no more wind, ferry services resumed.
Basilica del Santísimo Sacramento
The basilica was built of stone and brick by the Portuguese in 1808 and maintains its original design of a single nave.
Ruins of the old Governor’s House
In 1680, Casa de los Gobernadores was the most prestigious house in the city, with a watchtower to keep a lookout for invaders. It was built for Portuguese Captain Manuel Lobo, who founded Colonia and was governor of Rio de Janeiro.
Dinner at Mercosur
Mercosur is where the locals go for a casual dinner. It’s a 5-6 block walk from the old town (located at Av. Gral. Flores 252). I couldn’t resist the parrilla (slow cooked meats like asado in Argentina).
Choosing a ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento
(Colonia Express vs Buquebus)
If you are planning a day trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia, the ferry is the way to go. Three companies offer similar transit. We took Colonia Express to Uruguay and Buquebus back to Argentina at the end of the day. In many ways, the service is comparable, but we found the Buquebus ferry to be more comfortable than the Colonia Express Uruguay ferry.
Things to know before you take a Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento ferry
- If you are doing a day trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia, take the early morning ferry to allow yourself time to visit the museums.
- Arrive at the ferry terminal about an hour in advance, as you need to clear immigration and customs. It is a quick process once you get to the front of the queue. Right after you are stamped out of Argentina, you move to another queue and are stamped into Uruguay.
- Buqebus and Seacat leave from the North Dársena terminal, while the Colonia Express terminal is at the southern end of the Rio Dique although still in Puerto Medero neighbourhood. We stayed in Recoleta, much closer to the Buqebus terminal. Learn from our mistake. If you are doing it on your own, study the map before you head out or use your phone’s GPS, as our taxi driver took us a very long way to the southern terminal.
- The ferry takes about an hour, although the published time is 75 minutes. (There is no longer a slow ferry option.)
- Prices and sailing times are comparable between the competitors, with prices increasing based on demand (similar to airlines). Booking early is a good idea. Buquebus was sold out on our travel day.
- You can book online at Buquebus or Colonia Express.
- Once onboard, seats are not assigned. On Buqebus, those along the back wall go quickly, as regular riders know this is where they will find an electrical outlet.
- Both ferries we took offer an overpriced snack shop featuring ham sandwiches, beverages, and sweets.
- Onboard duty-free shopping is quite popular amongst the locals, who stock up. The shops are open only when the boat is away from port.
More tips on visiting Colonia Uruguay
- Spanish is the official language.
- A 10% tip in restaurants is customary.
- Currency is the Uruguyuan peso, however, everywhere we went in Colonia displayed three prices: Uruguayan pesos, Argentinean pesos, and US dollars. And if you pay with a foreign credit card, you can often get a VAT tax (22%) refund.
PRO TIP: This discount should be automatically applied at restaurants, car rentals, and hotels if paying with a foreign card. See more at the official government site.
- Bring your passport.
- If you return to Buenos Aires on Buquebus or Seacat, the taxis at the port charge very high prices. Specifically, they wanted $450 ARS to take us to our nearby hotel. Instead, we followed a large crowd out the door, walked a few blocks, and then hailed a taxi. We paid the metered amount of $101 ARS. However, I would not have felt safe walking just outside of the Colonia Express Argentina terminal in the dark.
- Weather is unpredictable, especially in the summer, so bring a rain jacket.
Other cities in Uruguay that we visited
We hit the big three of Uruguay, each as independent visits.
- Montevideo (the capital of Uruguay is a two-hour drive from Colonia del Sacramento)
- Punta del Este (a resort town frequently visited by Argentineans).
- Colonia del Sacramento (this page).
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