Colonia

View from the lighthouse over the old town
Draw bridge at the old town gate

Colonia (Colonia del Sacramento) is in the Rio de la Plata region of Uruguay. It is filled with old colonial buildings and cobbled streets, and is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Understand

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.

Tourist Office

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.

Get in

By boat

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.

By bus

The bus terminal

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.

By car

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.

Get around

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.

See

The lighthouse and the San Francisco convent ruins
Bullfighting ring

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.

Buildings

Streets and squares

Calle de los suspiros

Few of the streetscapes in Colonia's old town are not worth taking a photo of, but here are the most famous places:

Religious buildings and sites

The interior of the basilica

The eight museums

Casa Nacarello
Historical map of the town

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.

Other museums

Do

Eat

Outside eating at Plaza Mayor
Old mill, nowadays a restaurant — El Torreón

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.

Drink

Yerba mate, the local drink of choice. Every single person here carries around their own cup and bombilla, so when in Rome...

Buy

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.

Sleep

Classic cars on the cobbles of Calle de Portugal.

There is an affordable camping site in the western part of the city, located in a park-like area. There are also several hostels.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Stay safe

Calle del Comercio

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.

Go next

There are frequent buses to Montevideo and ferries to Buenos Aires and Tigre in Argentina several times a day.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Tuesday, December 08, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.