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Wasting Time in Colonia del Sacramento

Even the dogs are bored.

Even the dogs are bored.

Almost every single travel guide or blog I read about Buenos Aires, recommended a day trip across the Rio Uruguay, to the tiny town of Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Lonely Planet describes the town as having “‘it’, whatever that is, as well as enough restaurants, bars and nightlife to keep you happy for weeks.”

Weeks?! We couldn’t keep ourselves amused there for even one day.

Granted we were there during low season and on a weekday, but still the ‘charming’ cobblestone streets of the ‘renowned’ historic quarter were barren and deserted. Dry, dusty, dying leaves covered the roads and it felt more like a ghost town, than a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To add to our delight, Colonia, despite being just a short one hour catamaran ride away from reasonably warm Buenos Aires, was COLD. Numbingly cold. And we were sadly underprepared.

Brrrr

Brrrr

Colonia 2

Wanting to make the best of our day trip, we’d booked an early boat there and an evening boat back, but we were soon wishing that time would speed up.

The walk from the ferry pier into the historical district took approximately 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes, in which we did not see a single other soul, save for a few other unlucky day-trippers, and a passed out dog. I started to wonder if the town was really inhabited, or if this was some trick of the Uruguayan government to prey on unsuspecting tourists.

The deserted main square

The deserted main square

Deserted streets

Deserted streets

As we explored the town further, I began to seriously consider the possibility that we’d stumbled onto the empty movie set of a colonial town, rather than the real deal. We passed old, vacant cars decorating the streets, some filled with plants or driven by fish, a giant chessboard made out of old plastic and a strange park inhabited by skeletons and prehistoric beasts.

Still cold. Brrrrr :(

Still cold. Brrrrr 😦

Colonia 4

Colonia 5

Colonia 6

The truth is that the cobblestone streets and the main square of the centre were tolerably cute, and I could imagine that when filled with people drinking and eating, in a different season, could’ve been somewhat more appealing. As it was however, all of the town’s ‘props,’ suffered without the benefit of people, and served only to give the historic centre a staged and orchestrated feeling.

Tell me this doesn't look staged!

Tell me this doesn’t look staged!

After a few passes through the touristy part of town, we’d seen enough – of the props, and of the high prices – to hightail it back to the main drag to find a warm coffee shop and wait out the rest of the day. $16 spent on coffee later, we were finally able to walk back to the pier, board our boat and head back to the warmer side of the river. The side where people, you know…actually live.

Tips for Traveling to Colonia del Sacramento

Our round trip boat tickets from Buenos Aires to Colonia cost $60 each, and were booked online the day before travel. The 3 companies that service the route are: Buquebus, Colonia Express, and Seacat.

We ended up taking Colonia Express, because it seemed to have the most accessible launching point from Buenos Aires, but it seemed like service and quality was relatively similar with all of the companies. We were traveling in low season, so our boat was empty, tickets were cheaper than normal and it was easy to book last minute. If you’re planning on visiting Colonia during high season, book in advance. This is a popular day trip for tourists and Argentinians alike (though I struggle to understand why).

There isn’t much to do in Colonia except wander around, climb to the top of an old lighthouse, and eat. Count on Italian or a meat BBQ. Prices for an asado in the touristy historic centre aren’t cheap, however. Better to walk a few blocks out, and look for a meal where the locals eat.

Saying no to an overpriced asado in the deserted historic centre.

Saying no to an overpriced asado in the deserted historic centre.

And finally, if you’re visiting in low season, like we were, I recommend that you don’t waste your time or your money. All in all, we spent $120 on round trip catamaran tickets, $30 for lunch, and $16 on coffee, just killing time and trying to stay warm – way over our attempted $100/day budget. I’m all for going over budget when required; some places are worth going over budget for. Unfortunately, Colonia del Sacramento most definitely was NOT one of those places.

Frankly, I’m not even sure that Colonia would be worth the time in high season. There was honestly nothing to do, and not in a good way. As far as colonial towns go, it paled massively in comparison to Villa de Leyva in Colombia – a town, where you could actually spend a week relaxing and doing ‘nothing,’ but soaking up the tranquil vibes.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yes, I was surprised by Colonia too. I wrote: “Turned out, I had misunderstood the description of Colonia del Sacramento. When I saw the phrase “colonial architecture”, I thought “mature, successful, colony”. You know, Palladian town halls and baroque churches and wide, tree-lined avenues. Montevideo, in fact. Turned out that the architecture in Colonia was from an earlier phase of settlement, more beleaguered outpost than center of administration”

    However, there were plenty of people around (in late October) and anglers and sailboats to watch. I’d say it makes a reasonable stop off between Montevideo and Buenos Aires, but only for an afternoon.

    August 4, 2013
    • Haha…Beleaguered outpost sounds about right!!! Yes, Montevideo was much more of what we expected…though it was also quite deserted. I guess Uruguay is just a relatively quiet and unpopulated country…

      August 9, 2013
  2. Totally agree with you here guys. Colonia is actually pretty and bustling but def. only if you travel at the right time of the year. Gorging on gelatos, sunbaking, strolling and people watching are about the only things there to do. Winter pretty much nulls all those options!! brrrrrr indeed 🙂

    August 5, 2013
    • The season definitely had a lot to do with it. The town just felt completely dead…pretty disappointing after reading all the amazing reviews on blogs and websites. Still, I don’t know if anyone could spend WEEKS there!! (like Lonely Planet seems to think) 😉

      August 9, 2013
  3. Oh, you were there at completely the wrong time! It’s so nice in summer when you can swim in the river or an abandoned quarry-turned-into-swimming-hole on the outskirts of town. It was one of my favoutite places because of the holiday atmosphere, families out enjoying themselves and visitors from all over…very touristy but fun.

    August 18, 2013
    • Yeah, we totally were! It was really, really cold, and so deserted! Swimming in that abandoned quarry sounds like fun…

      August 18, 2013
  4. Oh, I so agree! We did enjoy our one day here (and it was summer, so it was at least warm), but this is not a place to settle in for more than a day.

    March 25, 2016
    • All I have to say is that Colonia must have one VERY effective tourism marketing department!! 😉 It’s funny when I first started traveling, I used to consult Lonely Planet all the time, but as I’ve gotten more experienced as a “traveler,” I’ve realized that it’s better to do the opposite of what the guide says. Haha! 😀

      March 26, 2016

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