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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.