Sometimes, you just need to get out of town. Whether to get away from hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires, or that you’re getting near the end of your 90 day tourist visa and you need that fresh stamp in your passport. If you are reading this then you are one of two categories of people visiting Colonia de Sacramento in Uruguay; the well-researched tourist or the well-researched ex-patriot living in Buenos Aires in a shaky, perpetual tourist-visa limbo. Either way, this playbook chalk full of tips is for you.
Colonia by Ferry:
Buquebus (https://www.buquebus.com/english) is the premier service for getting to and from Uruguay by sea. It is the most expensive of the services, but the terminals and the ferries are well serviced. Buquebus ferries are large, meaning a smoother journey in the event of rough waters. They also offer routes from Buenos Aires to Colonia, Montevideo, La Paloma and Punta Del Este, the beach destination of choice of the Buenos Aires elite.
Seacat (https://www.seacatcolonia.com/) is a subsidiary of the parent company Buquebus, designed to compete with the discount ferry service Colonia Express (see below). If you’re intending to go only to Colonia, Seacat is a good option because:
1. It leaves from the same terminal as Buquebus
2. It’s prices are competitive with Colonia Express and
3. Buquebus shares some of its facilities with Seacat. And so (depending on the schedule) you travel on one or both legs of your journey on the large Buquebus ferries.
Colonia Express (https://coloniaexpress.com/ar) is the cheaper option if you want to save pesos. You can find even better deals if you book over a month or more in advance. It is also doubly more exciting than a boring ‘ol trip via Seacat…by taking Colonia Express, you will go to the terminal located in La Boca. If you’re taking the bus, you’ll have to walk a few blocks past warehouses and the under a motorway to get to the terminal. If you are doing this in the early morning or after dark, it can feel quite sketchy. Take precautions because chances are you’re going to be carrying passports, cash and cameras.
As a bonus (if you make it onto the ferry), the ride itself can be quite an experience in bad weather. Due to the boat size you could be in for a choppy journey for the ninety minutes to Colonia. Don’t forget your dramamine!
Take Colonia Express if you are totally broke and have nothing for the robbers to rob anyways. For everyone else, use Busquebus/Seacat. The terminal is clean and comfortable and in upscale Puerto Madero (easy to get to). The ferry is a large double-decker, a comfortable ride in almost anything except A Perfect Storm type weather. The ferry has a very decent duty-free on board (booze, sweets, make-up and perfume). And finally, (and take this from someone who has gone to Colonia and back MANY TIMES), the customs staff are a lot friendlier than Colonia Express, and much less likely to grill you like they’re about to re-route you to Guantanamo Bay.
-Both the Busquebus, Seacat and Colonia Express websites are fairly easy to navigate, but… for some reason, it sometimes will have trouble processing credit cards from outside of Argentina. There’s no issue when paying in person or over the phone. Visit the terminal or offices to buy tickets or call – both have English speaking operators. The prices shown on the booking screen is BEFORE tax and charges, which can add up to 50% to the final payment, so be wary when comparing prices between the services.
-Print and bring your e-ticket – they will charge you at the counter if you don’t.
-If you’re going by taxi, make sure to specify which ferry terminal you are going to! The Colonia Express terminal in La Boca is lesser known and most drivers will assume Busquebus in Puerto Madero.
Montevideo – If you are going to be traveling onward to Montevideo by Seacat or Colonia, you will need to disembark at Colonia del Sacramento and take a transfer coach (just outside the ferry terminal building as you exit customs) the rest of the way to Montevideo. Buquebus will take you all the way via ferry. Many tourists have been confused by this step. Make sure you check your tickets.
Uruguay By Bus
You can search and purchase bus tickets from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, Uruguay here http://www.omnilineas.com/argentina/bus/retiro/montevideo-uruguay/ The overnight journey is eight hours and quite comfortable if you pay for the executive “Cama” (ie, full recline ‘bed’ seats). You may choose to travel by coach if you are on a tight budget and you want to save the AR$500 or $A$600 (at the time of writing, Dec 2016), and by-pass Colonia to get to Montevideo.
For the comfort and time-saved, we prefer passage to travel to Uruguay by ferry. But long-distance bus is a good option in general (especially in Argentina where the services are top notch) for those on a backpacker’s budget and with time to spare.
Tip: Be wary at Retiro bus terminal! While it is always teeming with travelers and is relatively safe, incidents of petty theft do occur and you should exercise usual caution with your belongings, especially outside of peak hours. Bags thieves are circulating there.
CUSTOMS (Tip: do not skim this part!): Essential… Keep the printed receipt of your Reciprocity Fee with your passport and documents!
Australian and Canadian tourists visiting Argentina are required to pay what’s called a Reciprocity Fee (ie your country charges us, so we’re gonna charge you back, so there, how d’you like that?) of USD$78 and USD$100 respectively. (US citizens are exempted at time of writing, but we advise you always check current visa requirements). This fee allows you to enter Argentina multiple times for a period of a year from the day of payment. For those ‘meandering’ long-term here on a tourist visa, I highly recommend making a note of the expiry date, maybe a reminder on your refrigerator door, on your phone, a tattoo perhaps… The point is it can cost you a bit of money. Allow me to explain – the catch to the multiple entry thing is that you are only allowed to be in country for 90 days at a time. You can leave before the 90 days are up and come back (on the same day if you like), and get a renewal for another 90 day stay when you get your passport stamped at Argentine customs.
If you overstay the visa, its not the end of the world. You will be fined and then allowed to leave the country. This use to be a ‘slap-on-the-wrist’ amount, so small that ex-pats will think nothing of paying it. But it has doubled recently, from AR$300 to AR$600 (at the time of writing).
Coming back in is trickier – you hear all kinds of stories about people being refused entry, having to get immigration lawyers, embassies involved etc – This is a grey area, and there’s always a friend of a friend who got into complications with immigration over lazy visa hopping. It really does come down on your luck and the mood of the customs officer.
Our advice? Don’t leave it to chance, get that visa renewed before it expires. Besides, Colonia is a super nice town, a pretty easy way to pass a day.
Tip: Print a copy of your receipt for payment of the Reciprocity Fee. Print two. Hell, make it three. Keep them with your passport all of the time.
Colonia del Sacramento
Surprise, surprise, you’re going to Colonia. There are plenty of ways for you to pass the day. Here’s the lowdown.
Colonia was a Portuguese town settled in the 19th century – ruined forts, rusty canons, old churches, the whole deal. It’s historic centre of town is UNESCO World Heritage listed which means and the place is basically one huge antique. Grab a map of the town from the tourist information booth at the ferry terminal and wander around.
You can see pretty much see the whole town in a day. Most of the sights are in walking and biking distance. You can even rent golf-buggies and ride around town (there are a couple of buggy and bike hire places directly opposite from the entrance of the ferry terminal). Don’t forget the old bullring, Plaza de Toros Real de San Carlos, a beautiful historic ruin just a short way out of the town centre.
The stretch of beach at Colonia is nothing special, but serviceable to those coming from Buenos Aires to escape the heat. However, it is situated on the Rio de la Plata, not the Atlantic Ocean so you will be swimming in river water. If you are after a quality beach holiday, consider Punta del Este, La Paloma and Punta del Diablo instead.
In short, you don’t go to Colonia for the beach. But if you decide to go for a swim, be warned – in the summer months it can get very crowded.
Every nation has its own national comfort food. For Uruguay it is the Chivito sandwich, described as Anthony Bourdain as the best sandwich in the world, his “philosophy captured in sandwich form”. Beef, bacon, ham and cheese topped with your choice sauces and pickled vegetables – spiced eggplant, peppers, mushrooms, each vendor will have a different selection of its own. Try everything!
For a premium-grade chivito, check out La Bodeguita (de Comercio 167) where the chivitos are served al plato, ie as a large open sandwich with a side of fries and salad. For the budget friendly, everyday local option, hit Los Farolitos (Gral. Flores 272). They are served in little plastic bags to catch all the juicy goodness dripping out of your sandwich.
Ganache (Calle Real 178) is a cute little spot, friendly staff, good music and a pretty setting inside a converted house and with tables and chairs on the cobblestones outside. The coffee is well priced as are the house-made baked goods. A good place to rest your feet and recharge.
Beer: If you’re feeling something a little stronger than coffee, try Choperia Mastra Colonia, a craft beer brewery out of the capital Montevideo. A good mid-range lunch spot.
Wine: If Argentina is famed for its Malbec, then Uruguay’s wine of repute is the Tannet. El Buen Suspiro (Calle de los Suspiro 90) is a wine cellar in the actual stone-walled basement cellar of an old cottage. Enjoy a glass or a bottle with a piacada (chesse and cured meats) platter.
Cocktails: Charco (San Pedro 116) is a boutique hotel by the river’s edge with a shaded lawn where you can recline and drink cocktails and look out serenely onto the water. You’ll pay for the view, so expect it to be a pricier than most places.