Buenos Aires is an exciting, vibrant, and beautiful city, as I’ve written before. But like any huge metropolis, it can also feel loud, polluted, restless, and overwhelming. (With all due respect to the Big Apple, porteños never seem to go to sleep. They will still be partying when you go to bed, and are halfway into their day by the time you get up. Must be the maté.) If you’re staying in the city and need a break from the noise, you needn’t go far – and you can knock another country off your list while you’re at it.
Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, can be reached by short ferry ride across the Rio del Plata, which separates Uruguay from Argentina. The town of about 20,000 is a World Heritage Site dating to 1680. It consists of cobblestone streets, old cars and Vespas, and 17th and 18th century buildings left over from the Spanish and Portuguese, who passed the colony back and forth like a hot potato. Colonia del Sacramento was the colony nobody cared much to keep; during a 200 year period it changed hands 11 times, before a newly-independent Uruguay snatched it.
Slideshow: Colonia del Sacramento
Colonia’s artifacts are worth exploring, from the ruins of an old convent near the lighthouse, to the old city gate, to the Portuguese basilica built in 1808. Otherwise, it’s a town best enjoyed by finding ways to take it in – watching the motorbikes ride by from a sidewalk cafe, having a steak and a beer at a local parilla, or simply strolling the rocky cobblestone streets and trying on the gaucho clothing in various shops. Prices for hats and boots can be high – locals know they live in a tourist trap – but you’re bound to find at least a few inexpensive souvenirs. Food options vary from basic steakhouse sto pasta and pizza joints. The Drugstore (Calle Portugal) is an eclectic and colorful restaurant featuring live music; we ducked in during a rain shower to stay dry and have some coffee and yerba maté.
Lodging also varies from basic hostels to luxury hotels. We stayed in the charming Don Antonio Posada, paying around $80 a night for a standard room which featured a huge bathroom and a morning dove nesting in the flora outside our window. The guesthouse has a small swimming pool, fountain, and plenty of outdoor space for taking in the powerful Uruguayan sunshine.
Colonia del Sacramento is historic, quiet, and yes touristy. I would not recommend more than two days’ stay; there just isn’t much to do besides recharge one’s batteries. It’s a quick getaway from the bright lights of BA (and an easy way for long-term tourists to renew their three month travel visas in Argentina), but you will pay slightly higher prices on essentially the same types of food. But if you need to relax a little and haven’t yet set foot in Uruguay, that’s a minor price to pay.
Ferries from Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires operated by Buquebus cost between $40 and $80 US one way, depending on the time of day. A cheaper alternative is Colonia Express, for which we paid around $20 each way per person. Note that they depart from a much smaller ferry station toward the end of the port.