This story revolves around two cities that couldn’t possibly be any more different. One is huge, the other is so small it could easily pass as just a large town. One is peaceful and calm; the other hectic and chaotic. They sit in different countries and were founded by two different colonial powers. At first glance, they have nothing in common and yet, for hundreds of years these two cities have been closely intertwined. Staring at each other from either side of the Río de la Plata, let me tell you the story of Buenos Aires and Colonia del Sacramento.
My version of the story states with me living in Buenos Aires back in 2011. Argentina is a massive country, with everything from penguins and glaciers to desert and vineyards. The capital, Buenos Aires, is all the variety and energy of the whole country concentrated into a few square miles. It is a city of hustle and bustle, traffic and crowds but also grand monuments and even bigger parks. It is a city on the level of New York or Hong Kong. The only problem? I’m not a huge fan of cities.
During my time in Buenos Aires, I struggled with the overwhelming chaos of the city. I missed the peace and quiet of a small town and began to despise any place prone to attracting a crowd, from city buses to busy sidewalks. Around this time, 3 months or so into living in the city, I ran into a problem. You see, getting a long term visa in Argentina is hard and I wasn’t really interested in tackling the paperwork or bureaucracy, especially since I wasn’t sure how long I might be in the city for anyway. As a “tourist” though, I had only been given a 3 month “on arrival” tourist visa, which was about to expire. Lucky for me, there was a quick, easy solution that would not only extend my visa but also give me a chance to escape the city for a bit.
The solution? Colonia del Sacramento.
Back to how these two cities intertwine, let me tell you a bit about their history. Buenos Aires came first, an important Spanish settlement on the grand Río de la Plata. The Spanish though were not the only game in town and before a century had past, the Portuguese made their own mark on the river with Colonia del Sacramento, often shortened to just Colonia. As the only Portuguese settlement in this area, Colonia del Sacramento was always a bit of a sore spot for the Spanish.
Add to that the rather lenient trading policies of the Portuguese settlement and the story gets even more interesting. You see, while the Spanish had a strict monopoly on trade in and out of their ports, taxing goods traveling both ways, the Portuguese ran their colony as a free and open port, basically making Colonia the best way to smuggle things in and out of the Spanish new world colonies. To make it even harder for the Spanish to swallow, Colonia del Sacramento sat almost exactly across the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires, the Spanish’s crowning achievement in this part of the new world.
Not content to just allow the smuggling and to tolerate the loss in taxable revenue, the Spanish first conquered Colonia in 1680, less than a year after it was founded. I say “first conquered” because the story is far more complicated. Poor Colonia became the central chess piece in the New World struggle between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, begin repeatedly conquered by the Spanish only to be returned to the Portuguese in a treaty and conquered again. Between Spain, Portugal, and even Brazil for a bit, Colonia changed hands around 10 times before finally becoming part of the free and independent country of Uruguay.
Obviously Buenos Aires and Colonia have a long, complicated history and yet today, you could not possibly find two cities more different. Despite that, Colonia has somehow become almost a sister city, a weekend escape for Buenos Aires porteños, a popular day trip for tourists, and for people like me, a great way to make a quick visa run.
Going to Colonia del Sacramento is as easy as hopping on a ferry and since the journey technically has you exiting and reentering Argentina, it will even score you a 3 month additional extension on your visa. Whether you are living in Buenos Aires, like I was, or just find 3 months in Argentina not enough time to see everything, the trip is definitely worth it. Even if you’re visa situation is fine and you don’t need a Argentina/Uruguay visa run, visiting Colonia del Sacramento is an experience I’d still recommend just for the sake of explore one of the most picturesque and cute places on the Río de la Plata.
There are two ferry options, the fast ferry which takes right around an hour and the slow ferry which is closer to three hours. If you are going for a day trip, spend the extra money for the fast ferry but if you plan on staying in Colonia or continuing your trip around Uruguay, the slow ferry is just as nice and usually quite a bit cheaper. Ferries leave from the main port of Buenos Aires and port in Colonia a short walking distance from the historic downtown.
Now plenty of people coming from Buenos Aires get to Colonia and immediately find it a boring small town. Yes, it is small with only about 27,000 people and an incredibly small historic center, but boring is relative. This is not a big city and most people visiting come for just a day or weekend so there isn’t exactly a ton to do. That being said, if you are willing to relax a bit and forget about checking off “to see sights” you’ll find Colonia is not boring but rather incredibly peaceful.
The best part of Colonia is just wandering the cobblestone streets of the historic center. Earning the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site, the historic heart of Colonia is a great way to experience a bit of colonial New World history. The very center of town is set on a peninsula jutting out into the river. The layout of streets here and the style of the old buildings is very representative of Portuguese colony. While the original settlement was once surrounded by a city wall, most has been torn down over the centuries. The old Portón de Campo, a city gate with wooden drawbridge, will give you an idea of how the early city was protected.
One thing I would highly recommend is hiring a guide for a short tour around the historic center. While you could easily wander yourself and admire the unique character of the old buildings, a guide will give you much more insight into the uniquely Portuguese influence here. From the style of the homes to the layout of the streets, Colonia is a great example of an early Portuguese settlement, and one of the best preserved in the New World. With a guide, you also learn to spot the Spanish influence, as you move away from the center and as the poor trading city swapped back and forth between the two powers, with each city expansion taking on different characteristics depending on the current ruler. Guides can be hired from Buenos Aires, through a tour company, or for last minute planners like me, from offices right in front of the ferry building.
Colonia del Sacramento is a photographers dream with beautiful old buildings, historic cars, tree lines cobblestone streets, and clean, picturesque streets. Locals stroll around at a leisurely pace, stopping to grab a cafe or sitting on a bench to enjoy a bit of mate with a friend. It can seem like a whole other world compared to the always chaotic city of Buenos Aires. Here life is slow and peaceful, easy and relaxed.
That is perfectly reflected in the multiple art galleries around town. Small cities like Colonia seem to attract the best painters, poets, and craftsmen, draw to the peacefulness of the area and inspired by its charm. Sure, there are plenty of tacky Colonia del Sacramento souvenirs like t-shirts and keychains but there are also beautifully carved pieces of art, antique shops filled with hidden treasures, and galleries with canvas upon canvas of beautiful scenes.
After lots of wandering and shopping, I followed the smell of good food and the sound of happy locals to a small restaurant near the historic district’s Plaza Mayor. Food in Uruguay is similar to Buenos Aires and both countries seem to live on mate but there are enough small differences to make the food in Colonia worth exploring. A simple must-have, especially if you will only be in Uruguay for one day, is a Chivito, the national sandwich of Uruguay. Once called the “greatest sandwich in the world” by the legendary chef and traveler Anthony Bourdain, a chivito is basically a thin steak burger topped with all the best things in life – cheese, tomatoes, bacon, a fried or hard-boiled and sliced egg, sometimes olives, and a bit of spicy sauce. It is usually served sandwich style but is also occasionally seen without the bread – just deliciousness on a plate.
On the cool spring day I visited Colonia, the above activities and wandering kept me more than occupied but if you are thinking of skipping the last ferry back to Buenos Aires and staying a few days in Colonia instead, there is plenty more to keep you happy. Right when you get off the ferry you will see shops renting out scooters which on a one day trip aren’t really necessary but which definitely come in handy if you want to stay and explore more of the area around this small city. Just outside of town there is an old abandoned bullfighting ring which is supposedly pretty cool and if you are visiting during the summer, there are even a few beaches just a 15 minute or so scooter ride from the city center. Playa Ferrando is the main one and while the river here is a bit murky and brown, it is from the muddy river bottom, not pollution, making it safe to swim in this part of the Río de la Plata.
Colonia del Sacramento is Buenos Aires’ much loved neighbor, despite a rough history between these two completely different cities. It makes for a great day trip, visa run, or just a chance to add a new country to your passport. Uruguay is an amazing place, definitely worth exploring further but if you only have the time for a quick day trip, I’d say Colonia does it’s country justice, leaving visitors with a strong impression of Uruguay’s laid back attitude, historic beauty, and friendly people.