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.
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:
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!
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:
- Reserve your seats at the Ticket Sale stand. Your passport is required.
- 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).
- 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.
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
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.
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.
Where to eat
Restaurants can be found on every corner here. Some of them have a dray parked outside…
… 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:
Some restaurants are pretty formal, with fine decor in the best traditions of the early 20th century…
… while some boast truly authentic local influences and honors from TripAdvisor’s Best of [this corner of the world] awards:
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:
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:
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.
Here’s another one, with plants shooting through the roof:
Many of them still seem ready to drive off at any moment:
As the sun goes down, take a walk by the river and enjoy the beautiful late-afternoon light falling on the town:
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 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.
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.]
This door makes Colonia del Sacramento a very green city….
Whatever brought you to Colonia del Sacramento, just don’t forget to take some sunset photos—and don’t miss your boat back home.
Safe travels and enjoy!
P.S. Can you tell us about any other reasons to visit Colonia el Sacramento? If so, comment below.