An epic day trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay

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Restaurant at the plaza Colonia Del Sacramento Uruguay Whether you come for a day, a week, a month, or a year, there are always plenty of things to do in Buenos Aires. Always.

With its museums, theaters, operas, parks, festivals, street performers dancing the tango, wildly diverse architecture, cafés serving amazing postres (desserts) and restos serving world-class steaks, Buenos Aires will fill in your calendar 100%. Still, there are reasons you might desire a complete change of scenery.

In fact, there are at least two major reasons, each with the same simple solution. Just hop on a ferry for the one-hour ride across Río De La Plata, to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.

Ferry ride from Buenos Aires to Colonia Del Sacramento across Rio De La Plata

 

The first reason to visit Colonia is that you have a desire to escape the big city.

The second reason to visit Colonia is that you’ve been following the dollar blue saga and need to fulfill your urge for financial stability.

These reasons are not mutually exclusive. Either way, you’ll end up here:

El Torreon tower restaurant in Colonia Uruguay

Feel free to jump right into the section that best applies to your situation.

Reason #1: Buenos Aires we love you but it’s time to get away to a medieval town

After the adrenalin rush of crazy cab rides and the noisy excitement of Palermo Soho’s dining scene, you might require a day or two of complete relaxation. Colonia del Sacramento, on the Uruguayan side of Río de la Plata, is the perfect place to catch your breath. You won’t regret it!

Boats at the dock in Colonia del Sacramento harbor

Getting to Colonia del Sacramento

First things firsts: you will need to buy tickets—preferably in advance, to avoid surprises later.

There are two types of boats making the crossing. The express (rapido) makes the journey from Buenos Aires to Colonia in approximately one hour, while the slow boat takes three hours.

Most people seem to mention the Buquebus ferry service first, but it’s also the most expensive option. There are two more companies operating on the same route:

For reasons unknown to me, Buquebus charges $140 USD for a round-trip ticket, while Seacat and Colonia Express offer the same for $90 USD. Strange, huh?

[UPDATE Oct 09, 2014:

Over time I travelled with all three operators. Here’s the scoop. Seacat was acquired by Buquebus but still operates under the same name. I think it’s the best deal, because they have the same big powerful boat but charge less for tickets. Colonia Express is the cheapest way to travel. Of course there are a couple of drawbacks associated with that:

  • Colonia Express terminal is located a bit farther and hard to get to without a cab;
  • Because Colonia Express’ boats are smaller people prompt to motion sickness might be more sensitive to the water conditions]

If you purchase your tickets at the Buquebus terminal, there are a few steps to follow:

  1. Reserve your seats at the Ticket Sale stand. Your passport is required.
  2. Pay the cashier (caja). To my absolute astonishment, I learned that a non-resident does not have the option of paying in cash with Argentinean pesos. I had to pay in US dollars using my credit card, while the bill of sale had the total amount written in pesos. I wouldn’t complain as much if the (official) credit card exchange rate was the same as the dollar blue rate for pesos (see the section for Reason #2 for more on exchange rates).
  3. The rep recommends you show up about 45 minutes prior to arrival for check-in. Don’t forget your passport and reciprocity fee receipt, as the customs officer will request them when it’s time to come back to Argentina.

Buquebus terminal layout: Registration, Payment, Check-in

Do I need Uruguayan pesos?

Many businesses in Colonia accept multiple currencies for cash purchases. Credit cards are widely accepted as well. Unless you plan on purchasing something valuable, such as a gift, you may not need to change your money for Uruguayan pesos. During my visit, restaurants and cafés were accepting US dollars at an exchange rate of $U22 to $1 USD, while the official exchange rate was $U22.90 to the dollar. Not too bad, especially considering that I spent only what I needed, without the hassle of estimating the right amount of currency to exchange.

Many places accept credit cards too. It was funny to see a blunt VISA advertisement pinned to many doorways around town:

Visa es #1 del mundo

If you decide to get withdraw Uruguayan pesos from an ATM, or caja de cambio, check the Reason #2 section. All the banks are on the town’s main street. When you arrive in Colonia, take Rivera Street from the ferry terminal and turn left onto Avenida Gral Flores (it’s a three-block walk). Banks in Colonia charge $6 USD per withdrawal and have a $300 limit—all except one. (To learn which one, read Reason #2.)

The old town of Colonia

River front in the old town of Colonia

Colonia del Sacramento’s Barrio Histórico (historic quarter) is designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Founded in 1680 by Portugal as Colónia do Sacramento, the colony switched hands repeatedly over the next century and a half, between the Spanish—who settled on the opposite bank of the river at Buenos Aires—and later the Brazilians, until Colonia finally became a part of the independent Oriental Republic of Uruguay in 1828.

Once you arrive in Colonia and step out from the ferry terminal, take a sharp left onto the street that runs along the river bank. Well, it’s hard to call it a river, exactly, because the Río de la Plata estuary is so large, you can’t even see Buenos Aires on the opposite side. There are also a bunch of islands nearby, as if scattered in open sea.

Continue towards the lighthouse. In three to five minutes you will reach the Colonia’s old town, and see what all the hype is all about.

Colonia Lighthouse and the ancient wall

 

Stroll through the small, cobbled streets. It’s magnificent.

You will stumble upon small hidden plazas, little parks, churches, cute restaurants and historic houses. Take your time exploring this beautiful little neighborhood.

Cobble stone street and artist's studio

 

Where to eat

Restaurants can be found on every corner here. Some of them have a dray parked outside…

Outdoor restaurant sitting with a dray in Colonia

… and some park a shiny retro limo, to boost their sales and give a competitive advantage. Once, in a marketing class, I heard that red and orange are the best converting colors for a Call to Action button:

Shinning retro car by the restaurant in Colonia

Some restaurants are pretty formal, with fine decor in the best traditions of the early 20th century…

Inside restaurant formal decor Colonia

… while some boast truly authentic local influences and honors from TripAdvisor’s Best of [this corner of the world] awards:

Authentic Uruguayan restaurant  in the Old Town of Colonia Del Sacramento

Along with Uruguayan pesos, some of those restaurants accept Argentine pesos (yes, that’s right!) as well as US dollars. You may want to ask a waiter what their exchange rate is before placing your order.

The old town is very tiny, so it won’t take a long time to decide you’ve seen it all. Still, it’s an adventure. As I was walking around, I found a cultural center, where a group of kids were playing music on flutes. The doors were open, so I ventured in.

There was art installed in the backyard:

Art installation in the cultural center of Colonia Del Sacramento

 

The art was sharing the lawn with ruins, presumably from the Portuguese. The cultural center’s backyard was a perfect little spot for locals and tourists alike to relax, have a sandwich, and enjoy the late afternoon sun:

Ruins of the old wall Colonia del Sacramento

 What’s up with these retro cars?

The locals at Colonia seem to be obsessed with retro cars. You can see them everywhere. Whether it’s rusting on a side of the street, serving as a giant plant pot, or inviting customers into a restaurant, every car has its purpose.

Retro cars lined up by the restaurants at Colonia Uruguay

 

Here’s another one, with plants shooting through the roof:

Retro car with plant pots  on the street of Colonia

Many of them still seem ready to drive off at any moment:

Red retro car on streets of Colonia del Sacramento Uruguay

 

As the sun goes down, take a walk by the river and enjoy the beautiful late-afternoon light falling on the town:

Cobblestone street in Colonia just before the sunset

 

Reason #2: The ATMs spit out US Dollars here!

[Update: On December 16, 2015 newly elected president Mauricio Macri announced that he would lift el cepo (the currency control policy) immediately. It ended the ridiculous policy prohibiting free foreign exchange within the country. As a result most of the information below became irrelevant. ATMs now dispose cash at the exchange rate that is very close to the market (dolar blue) rate. No need to travel to Uruguay to get $USD cash]

Despite all cultural reasons to visit Colonia del Sacramento, many folks on the ferryhave a very pragmatic goal in mind. The land on this side of the River Plate seems to be greener!

The greener side of the river plate

 

The Argentinean government regulates the amount of US dollars available for withdrawal in Argentina. The circulation of US dollars is suppressed and basically is prohibited.  Without having a specific need for foreign currency, such as an upcoming trip abroad, locals can’t buy US dollars at all. This is a “preventative” measure of the struggling government, designed to keep inflation under control (or below the threshold for hyperinflation). Despite these measures, private-sector economists evaluate Argentina’s inflation in 2013 at around 28%. Investing all available pesos into more stable currency seems to be the only way for Argentines to protect their savings.

Many Argentines rely on a supply of US dollars from neighbor countries, such as Chile or Uruguay. These bills are then exchanged on the black market at a “dollar blue” rate, which is significantly higher than the one set by the Central Bank.

To wit, as of right of now the “dollar blue” rate is 10.75 Argentine pesos to one US dollar, while the official bank rate is 8 pesos to the dollar. The situation was much more intense during the summer, when the “dollar blue” rate soared to 13 and the official rate was still bouncing under 7.

Check the historical chart of the dollar blue rate vs official bank rate for the last 3 years. It’s pretty self-explanatory how disillusioned the  government is with its attempts to keep Argentines away from the foreign currency.

Dollar blue rate vs official rate for Argentine Peso 2011 -2013

I tried browsing some expat forums about topics related to the US dollar exchange in neighboring countries. No one seems to understand or be willing to share very much about getting dollars in Uruguay.  So here’s the scoop.

Three blocks away from the ferry terminal in Colonia, turn left onto the main street, Avenida Gral Flores. As you turn left onto it and start walking towards the waterfront, you will find four or five different banks from which you can withdraw US dollars in cash.

Although it’s possible to withdraw $300 USD at a time, plus a $6 USD fee, these banks are not the ideal. I discovered that Chase actually deducts an additional $5 USD on top of the fee collected by the Uruguayan bank. No matter how much you love banks, an $11 USD fee on a $300 USD withdrawal sounds a bit excessive.

There is a better banking choice in Colonia del Sacramento, though. Keep walking towards the waterfront. Two blocks away from the river, on the right side of the street, you will see the door of the Banca Ejecutiva Inversiones. Behind this door and upstairs, there is an ATM that disposes large amounts of dollars, and charges a fee of $5 USD per transaction.

[UPDATE Oct 09, 2014:

The first time I tried using this ATM I was able to withdraw more than a thousand USD in one transaction. It was in the middle of the week. Then a week later I tried to withdraw the same amount over the weekend and they wouldn’t dispose more than $300 USD at a time. I suspect there is a limitation  on a single transaction set by bank Banca Ejecutiva Inversiones during weekends when crowds come to empty out cash reserves.]

Banca Ejecutiva in Colonia del Sacramento

This door makes Colonia del Sacramento a very green city….

TRee lined street of Colonia

Whatever brought you to Colonia del Sacramento, just don’t forget to take some sunset photos—and don’t miss your boat back home.

People are shooting sunset photos at Colonia del Sacramento

 

Safe travels and enjoy!

P.S. Can you tell us about any other reasons to visit Colonia el Sacramento? If so, comment below.

22 thoughts on “An epic day trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay

  1. Michelle

    Hi, great advise, thanks! Having trouble finding the recommended bank though. What is the street name please? Thanks

  2. This blog is absolutely perfect. Can you give me any insight into being able to obtain money- my friends bank card was too new for some of the ATMS there, do you believe this will be a problem? I have a Mastercard issues in Australia.

    Thanks so much in advance,
    Shani

  3. Jan

    Thanks for the info! We’re going there tomorrow To get some USD. Fingers crossed! Hey, did you experience any daily withdrawal limits imposed by this bank?

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jan! The last time (Nov ’14) I tried to get a descent amount of cash out of that very same bank, I didn’t have luck withdrawing more than $300 at a time. I don’t believe it was my US bank’s limitation, as I raised it for one day only. I also tried different amounts $800, $500, $400, $300. Only $300 worked. Still in all, their ATM fees are the lowest in town and there is no problem running a few transaction in a row. My bank reimburses all ATM fees from around the world anyways. Good luck with your trip and let us know if you have more advice from Colonia!

  4. Awesome info! Thanks for sharing! We made the trip over yesterday to stock up on USD for the rest of our trip. Easy to book tickets on the SeaCat – about $260AUD return for 2, we got nailed by the exchange rate for using a credit card and booking online and it was a public holiday. We got the early ferry over, had a few hours to wander around, max out our ATM cash limits on UK and Australian cards and made it back to BA around 4pm with a wallet stuffed with Benjamins! We couldn’t find the ATM that had the cheaper fees but we were tired and hungover and there are heaps of other banks.

    All the info given in the article and comments above was 100% accurate for us. Our SeaCat left from the main buque bus ferry terminal and not the one round the corner as stated on the SeaCat website, look out for that one. Take your own snacks for the ferry – it’s super expensive. Thanks!!

    • Thanks for the feedback Bobby! I am glad you made good friend with Benjamin fairly quickly. With this type of trips there always an element of uncertainty. All these comments about your real life experience are super helpful ! Keep them pouring in!

  5. eva

    Hi Vadim, great post,thanks!! Can you tell me if there is access to the atm at all hours of the day or only during the banks opening hours which I heard is only from 1 pm?

    • Eva, sorry for the delay with the respond. I am not sure about the late night or early morning but when bank closed for lunch the back door where the ATM is was always open. Unfortunately I don’t know when they shut it off for the day

  6. Hi Vadim, great article! The only thing that I’d add is that visitors shouldn’t just stop at seeing Colonia if they are ready for a rest from Buenos Aires – come on further in! 🙂

    Uruguay and its capital Montevideo have been really under-rated – when they are absolute gems. The under-rating I believe after 15 years living here is that there is very little decent information available about Uruguay in English. The big guidebooks in general are very poorly researched.

    So… for good current info on Uruguay check out http://www.guruguay.com.

    And if you are ever in Montevideo, look me up!

  7. Katie Fedorowicz

    What is the place called in your first photo and all your restaurant photos?? Need somewhere good to eat while there.

    Thanks!

  8. Blanca

    Great info Vadim, shame that we just reading it now in BA struggling to get usd. We could have bring usd instead of loading a usd travel card 😦
    We r going tomorrow to Colonia n get some usd, but some one mention that some ATMs don’t take Aussie cards? Do u know that?

    • Blanca, your trip to Colonia might feel like a forceful event, but you won’t regret getting out there. Unfortunately I can’t advice on the aussie cards because I used the US ones. Banca Ejecutiva mentioned in the post seems to be on top of USD needs. You can go to a teller inside of the branch in case of any issue. They should help you out. Also keep in mind that banks are closing for lunch in Uruguay. So try to solve your banking issues before they close the doors.

      • Blanca

        Thank u Vadim!
        We did successfully withdraw from Banca Ejecutiva and Banred ATMs. Both charged 6usd fee. Banca Ejecutiva will allow 200usd withdraws compared with Banred 3 x 300usd.
        Colonia was nice pretty, we were unlucky on the weather (windy, raining n very cold) otherwise it was good. Did the trick 😀
        Thank u for the info!

  9. Very thorough. How long would it take to see Colonia. I might be going there with a flight back to the USA at 8:45 PM. If I leave early n the morning, is this enough time? Or am I being dumb, and it’s just not worth it. Check out my travels http://www.RichTrek.com too, lmk if you enjoy 🙂

  10. Hi
    I will be travelling to Peru next year and planning to do a stop over in BA. i just want to have a look around the city in BA and do a day trip! Colonia looks like most promising!! Is it safe enough for a solo female traveller?
    And is Colonia worth it, I mean better than something one could do in BA iself?

    • Colonia and Uruguay in general are some of the safest places in Latin America. Safer than Buenos Aires. Traveling there solo is fine.
      Whether you want to do this one day trip or not all depends on how much time you allocated for your stay in BA. You will need a few days to get to know different neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. A trip to Colonia might be a good option when you’ve seen most of BA. Happy travels!

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