Colonia del Sacramento (Nova Colonia do Santissimo Sacramento) was founded in 1680 by the Portuguese (Manuel Lobo), sandwiched in between the Portuguese colony of Brazil and the Spanish Vice Royalty of the River Plate (later Argentina, Uruguay and Southern Brazil). Its strategic position and use as a smuggling port meant that its sovereignty was hotly contested and the city changed hands several times between Spain and Portugal and was for a while also part of Brazil before the independence of Uruguay.
The city has 20,000 inhabitants and is a popular destination for people from Buenos Aires on the opposite side of Rio de la Plata.
There is a large tourist information center adjacent to the ferry terminal, a tourism booth in the bus terminal, a larger one in the basement of the cultural center two blocks from the terminals along Odriozola/Calle Florida and as well as a small office at the western terminus of Calle Manuel Lobo near the old city gate. Some brochures and other tourism information is also available in the Casa Nacarello museum next to the main square.
Colonia is a good destination for visa runs for those people who wish to extend their stays in Argentina, and an easy day trip from Buenos Aires. The port is around kilometer southeast of the old town, a little more from the commercial downtown.
Boat connections to Buenos Aires are good with three companies operating ferries: Buquebus, Colonia Express, and SeaCat Colonia. There are both slower ferries that also carry cars and faster ferries that just take people across. The fast Buquebus catamaran ferry (one hour) costs around USD70 return (when booked in advance) and around USD110 when booked the day prior and is usually quite crowded with day tourists and travel groups. One of the fast boats has free wireless Internet (WiFi, satellite link) Make sure you book in advance for weekends and the peak season (Christmas until the end of February). The slower boat costs ARS102 (from Buenos Aires) round trip, and takes about 3 hours. Note that although you are traveling North-South, the time in Colonia is 1 hour ahead of Buenos Aires, so it is important to reset your watch (especially if you don't want to miss your boat on the way back).
A cheaper possibility is to take a boat from Tigre (north of Buenos Aires) to Carmelo in Uruguay. From Carmelo, take a bus, which run every two to three hours from the center of the city to Colonia. Great landscape and also drops off kids from school along the way.
The bus station is about a kilometer east of the old town (or one and a half south from the commercial downtown), not far from the port and is accessible by foot. There are almost hourly connections by bus from Montevideo to Colonia, with most buses leaving from Montevideo's Tres Cruces terminal. The ride takes 2.5 to 3.5 hours depending on stops and several bus companies operate the route. One-way ticket prices start at about UYU200, in May 2014 a one-way ticket with COT was UYU281 including the service fee when bought over the counter in Montevideo. There are no two-way tickets, and if you are traveling to Colonia and back you will pay exactly as much as two single tickets.
Be careful with people telling you that all buses are booked out. This is in general not true, as you can also buy tickets on board if you don't have one when boarding the bus and there are places to stand on board if all the seats are full. A taxi is several times more expensive, and should probably be considered only in emergencies. For peace of mind, buy a bus ticket upfront to avoid rare disappointment - this would apply in the main tourist season in the Southern Hemisphere summer.
Two major highways arrive in Colonia. Highway 1 unites Colonia with Montevideo and other destinations in the east. Highway 21 goes north to the Aarón de Anchorena National Park, and Fray Bentos, and is the one you will arrive along if you are driving overland from Argentina.
Moreover there is an airport 17 km east of the town as well as railroad tracks leading into Colonia but plane and train transport have ceased operations. However the unofficial flag carrier BQB has reportedly plans to start flights from this airport.
The old city of Colonia, which holds the main attractions, is quite small. It can be easily walked in a single day. There are shops where you can rent bicycles or scooters which you can use to ride around the city or in to the countryside. Streets aren't always in perfect condition, so keep an eye on the road, especially cobbled ones.
The ferry and bus terminals are next to each other, about 500m east of the old town (barrio historico) and about 1km south of the city center. You can rent row and sail boats from the marina.
Colonia has several old buildings from the colonial time, especially in the upper part of the town further away from the river. There's also the old fort of the city that has played an important role in the wars against Argentina and Brazil. Also the old town wall is worth seeing. The main attraction of Colonia is its historic center, the lower part of the town which is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It consists of buildings from the Portuguese colonial age.
You will frequently encounter old cars parked on the streets of Colonia, the oldest of them being from the 1930's.
- The lighthouse. 14:00-18:00. For a nominal fee you can go up to the top of the lighthouse (faro) and see most of the city and look out over the city and Rio de la Plata. On a clear day probably even Buenos Aires is visible. The lighthouse was built in 1857 and it is 12m high. UYU20.
- The old bullfighting ring (Plaza de Toros). Outside of the city there is a semi-abandoned amusement park with Uruguay's only bullfighting ring that is almost "unused". It was finished in 1910 but bullfighting was banned by law in the country two years later.
- The house of the Viceroyalty (Casa del Virrey). Reconstructed on the ruins of the original building.
- Portón de Campo. The gate of the city with its draw bridge. Next to it are the ruins of the city walls.
Streets and squares
Few of the streetscapes in Colonia's old town are not worth taking a photo of, but here are the most famous places:
- Calle de los Suspiros. Probably Colonia's most famous street and the view along the street towards the main square is featured on many tourist related publications of the town. The name of the street translates to the street of the whispers or the street of the sighs. The street allegedly got its name because the houses along it used to be brothels...
- Plaza 25 de Mayo (Plaza Mayor). Everyone wandering around the barrio historico will pass through the main square at some point. It is lined by several points of interest for travelers such as museums, places to eat, drink and sleep. On the western edge there are old cannons laying on the ground and in the middle there is a palm functioning as an electrical pole and a lamp post complete with a fuse box and even electrical sockets! If you wonder about the noise from the palms, it's from small green parrots that have their nests there.
- Plaza de Armas. Next to the basilica and several restaurants, this square includes the ruins of a watchtower.
Religious buildings and sites
- Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento (Iglesia Matriz). The oldest church in Uruguay. Constructed by the Portuguese in 1808, but the first church on this place was built already in the 1690's.
- The ruins of the San Francisco convent. Small brick ruin between the lighthouse and the main square. You would not know what kind of building it has been if there weren't a sign next to it.
The eight museums
There are eight small museums that can be visited with one ticket (UYU50) which must be purchased in the Museo Municipal. They are open 11:15-16:45. However, every museum is not open every day; each of them is closed one or two days a week. Because of this you'd have to stay two days if you want to see all museums. Also, photography is banned in all of them.
- The museum of the history of the Portuguese period (Museo del Período Histórico Portugués), Enríquez de la Peña 180 -184. In this 18th century objects from the time when Colonia was a part of the Portuguese empire are on display including the coat of arms that was originally on the city gate.
- Casa Nacarello (Museo casa de Nacarello), Del Comercio 67. A Portuguese 18th century building, basically an example of a home from those times.
- The municipal museum of Dr Bautista Rebuffo (Museo Municipal Dr. Bautista Rebuffo), Del Comercio 77. Museum in two floors presenting objects of daily life 200 years ago as well as the works of scientists and explorers that have lived and worked in the town. In the room dedicated to a biologist there are various six- and eight legged creatures on display that get larger and larger the further you come in the narrow room. If you're lucky you get to meet the offspring hanging next to the fusebox in the back corner.
- The museum of the regional history archives (Museo Archivo Regional), Misiones de los Tapes 115. The house was built by the Spanish in 1835 and called "Casa del Almirante Brown". The museum shows documents from the various epochs in Colonia's history.
- The tile museum (Museo del Azulejo), Misiones de los Tapes 104. Tiles that has been used during the 19th century are on display in the tile museum. At Paseo San Gabriel just behind the museum there is a beautiful map of Colonia as it looked in 1762 painted on tiles.
- The indigenous museum Roberto Banchero (Museo Indígena Roberto Bancheno), Del Colegio. Showcases the life and culture of the indigenous population of the area.
- The museum of the history of the Spanish period (Museo del Período Histórico Español), De San José/España. Renovated in 2009. Here you can see everyday objects from the Spanish are, the late 18th century.
- The paleontological museum Armando Calcaterra (Museo Paleontológico Armando Cancaterra), Roger Balet s/n (located in Real de San Carlos north of Colonia). Fossiles and other paleontological and archeological discoveries on display.
- Climb up the old lighthouse (entrance fee is two for one regular price)
- Walk the old city center and eat fresh ice cream
- Buy souvenirs and eat asado, chivito or other Uruguayan specialties
- Walk along the beach
- Rent a golf cart and drive around the old town.
The old city is full of restaurants which serve the weekend tourist crowd from Buenos Aires. The specialties are Italian and asado (barbeque). Colonia was also settled by Swiss immigrants and is home to a unique local Swiss cheese that you can get at the markets.
- La Pasiva, Avenida General Flores 444. The most affordable is the La Pasiva chain restaurant, also present in Montevideo and Punta del Este.
- La Bodeguita, Del Comercio 167 (also accessible from the lower coast side). A great place if you want something lighter than the common asados. Try to get a table at the lower patio with a view over the water. They have excellent sangria. Pizza UYU 85.
- El Drugstore, Portugal 174 (next to the basilica). This restaurant is pretty artsy and colorful on the inside. Everything seems to be painted in different colors and there are paintings, posters, photos and trinkets decorating the walls. There is a small stage where local guitarists are playing. They have an extensive menu with Uruguayan specialties, however their chivito is only served al plato. On the downside they charge a cover charge (like most restaurants in Uruguay) as well as for the show. They have outdoor seating as well. Chivito al plato UYU392.
- El Torreón, Paseo de San Gabriel. If you always wanted to eat or have a glass in an old mill, you can do so at El Torreón. They also have outdoor seating.
Yerba mate, the local drink of choice. Every single person here carries around their own cup and bombilla, so when in Rome...
- Lentas Maravillas, De Santa Rita 61, ☎ +598 52 2-0636, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 10:30-20:00. Amazing cafe and lounge with garden overlooking the Rio de la Plata. Brunch is especially good with Illy coffee. Stop by for 5 o'clock tea to enjoy tartlets, muffins, cookies, and other culinary delights or sip mojitos in the garden while reading a wide selection of books from the lounge.
- Colonia Rock, Misiones de los Tapes, 157, ☎ +598 52 2-8189.
In addition to several small boutiques, there's a supermarket as well.
If you need to change money, beware of the banks on Avenida General Flores, as some of them have outrageous exchange fees of up to 20%. HSBC has a bank at Calle Portugal with good exchange rates. Also Banco de Uruguay at Calle Flores in the historical district is a good place to change money. Many places accept US dollars and Argentinian pesos too, but as all three of them use the symbol "$", you should better inform yourself which currency the price is listed in.
There is an affordable camping site in the western part of the city, located in a park-like area. There are also several hostels.
- Hostel Colonial, Av. General Flores 440, ☎ +598 5228151, e-mail: email@example.com. Nice basic hostel, with Internet and shared kitchen. It is located in the old town in an building from the 17th century. Dorms from USD 10.
- El Viajero Hostel, Washington Barbot 164 (7 min by foot from the boat and bus terminals), ☎ +598 5222683, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Well-run, clean, friendly hostel just a few metres from the historic old city. WiFi, computers, kitchen, great common area. Live music on the weekends. Dorms from USD17, rooms USD59.
- Sur Hostel, Rivadavia 448, ☎ +598 45220553, e-mail: email@example.com. Just a few blocks from the historical center. Wifi, free internet, hot water 24h, kitchen, great terrace and great barbecue. dorms from USD14.
- Hostel El Español (near the bus terminal). The cheapest option in the town. Offers simple accommodation and a good morning coffee. dorms from UYU250.
- Posada Plaza Mayor, Calle Del Comercio 111 (in the center of the historic Colonia), ☎ +598 5 228 909, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. From USD 100.
- Hotel La Misión, M. del Tapes 171, ☎ +598 5226767. Check-in: 2pm, check-out: 11:30am. Small, cute hotel. Great location in historic district. The original building dates from 1762. from USD 135.
Colonia is a preserved tourist town with very little of the harassment seen in most cities in Latin America. The dominance of local weekenders from Buenos Aires and Montevideo creates a very different environment from other tourist cities. Many streets seem eerily empty outside the main tourism season.
However petty crime still exists, and especially on the beach you should never leave your stuff out of sight.
You will encounter stray dogs almost everywhere in the old town. They do not seem to behave aggressively towards people, though it's always better to be careful.
There are frequent buses to Montevideo and ferries to Buenos Aires and Tigre in Argentina several times a day.