How to Get to Colonia, Uruguay
Colonia del Sacramento is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Uruguay, which is most commonly visited from Buenos Aires, Argentina. This detailed guide to Colonia will highlight how to get to Colonia from both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, tips to help your trip run smoothly, and things to do once you’re there.
How to Get to Colonia from Buenos Aires
Let’s start with the most common way to travel to Colonia. Did you know that traveling from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Colonia, Uruguay only takes about an hour by ferry?
Argentina and Uruguay share the Río de la Plata River. Ferries run daily with morning, afternoon, and evening departures. This, coupled with Colonia being easy to explore by foot, makes most people opt for a day trip to Colonia from Buenos Aires. I think this is a mistake and will get into why later in this post.
How to get to Colonia by ferry from Buenos Aires
Buquebus is the most popular option for traveling from Buenos Aires to Colonia and vice versa. Their ferry terminal is located in Puerto Madero, an upscale area in downtown Buenos Aires.
Make sure to check the departure and arrival times so that you book a “fast” ferry. Otherwise, you could be in for a much longer ferry ride- up to three hours long! For most people, the small amount of money you’d save by taking a slower ferry isn’t worth the amount of time that it would cut into your Colonia visit.
For the record, there are two other ferry options to Colonia. The Seacat is a slightly more economical option offering a number of departures. It leaves from the same port as Buquebus. The Colonia Express is usually the most economical of the ferries with fewer departures and its terminal is located nearby on the opposite end of Puerto Madero.
How to book a ferry to Colonia
You can go directly to Buquebus’ website to book your ticket. They have an English version and the reservation process is straightforward. Make sure to have your passport ready, since they’ll ask for passport information.
It’s also possible to purchase your ticket at the port. However, I found the terminal to be crowded and the ferry full. Therefore, to stay on the safe side, I recommend booking your ticket in advance.
Since the Argentine Peso is constantly losing value as a result of inflation, any number I give you in pesos would unfortunately soon change. Therefore, we’ll speak in USD here. For second class seats with Buquebus, you can expect to pay roughly $50 USD per person, per way. For first class seats with Buquebus, you can expect to pay about $10 USD more per person, per way.
Keep in mind that prices fluctuate, depending on the time of year and demand. Therefore, start looking at prices early on, if your travel dates are set, and you may be able to snatch a better deal!
The price is the same if you book your ticket one way or round trip.
All about the Puerto Madero Ferry Terminal
The Puerto Madero ferry terminal is impressive. Modern, spacious, and with a waterfall running down one wall, the atmosphere is calming even though the terminal is usually packed with travelers.
Check in process at the Puerto Madero ferry terminal
I’ll share some tips in this section to make you look like a pro in knowing how to navigate the Puerto Madero ferry terminal.
For starters, they say that arriving to the terminal two hours in advance is recommended, since immigration is involved. However, the day I was there, check-in counters opened up only about 1.5 hours before any given ferry departure.
Also, be careful about where you get in line to check in for your ferry. The screen must state the ferry that you’re taking. Otherwise, you’ll get the boot and have to stand at the back of a whole new line. The lines can get really long. Speaking from experience here!
Travel Tip: Sometimes, the display screen at the check in counters will highlight the vessel name, not the destination. For example, my screen said “Silvia Ana,” instead of “Colonia”.
Check in is quick and easy, once you make it through the line. They’ll check your luggage, print your boarding pass, and point you in the direction of the second floor.
A note on luggage
If you’re taking a day trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia, you won’t have to worry about checking luggage. However, if your travel plans will be keeping you in Uruguay longer (which I hope they do!), the good news is that there isn’t a luggage restriction on the ferry. They also don’t charge for bags.
That said, they have carry-on luggage restrictions for safety reasons. These restrictions are a more generous size than carryon bags at airports. Any other larger luggage will be tagged and checked through. Just like an airline, you’ll be given a ticket with a tracking number.
Security at the Puerto Madero ferry terminal
Like an airport, you’ll have to put your carry-on bags through an x-ray machine and walk through a machine yourself. Unlike travel at major airports, you don’t have to take off your shoes, take your laptop out of your bag, have a smaller bag for liquids, etc. etc.
Despite the long lines at check-in, security was quiet, and I walked straight through, stopping long enough to toss my carry-on on the x-ray machine belt.
Immigration at the Puerto Madero ferry terminal
Going through immigration usually isn’t cool, but immigration at Puerto Madero is pretty darn cool, in my book…ahem, blog post.
You’ll get stamped out of Argentina and stamped into Uruguay within a foot of each other. The Argentine and Uruguayan immigration officers sit right next to each other, even though you’re on Argentine soil!
The Argentina exit was a bit more involved than getting stamped into Uruguay, as they take photos and fingerprints. For Uruguay, I didn’t have to do anything but stand there; I wasn’t even asked a question.
For travel between countries in South America, they often ask to see proof that you’re leaving the country you’re entering within a certain time frame. However, based on my experience and observation, this wasn’t the case with the ferry crossing, probably thanks to all the day-trippers.
Travel Tip: The Uruguayan immigration officer will give you a stamped piece of paper at the time of stamping your passport. You must keep this paper with you, since you’ll need to show it when you exit Uruguay.
All about the ferry ride to Colonia
I’m all about finding the best side to sit on for any given transportation. However, in the case of this ferry ride, the side doesn’t really matter. Since the boat will head directly away from Buenos Aires, views of the city are limited and brief.
As you arrive to Colonia, the driver side will give you views of Colonia’s lighthouse and shoreline. It’s pretty, but nothing compared to what you’ll see when walking around Colonia.
Aside from this, you’ll be riding along a gigantic murky river. The day was calm when I visited and there wasn’t any rocking on the ferry. However, you may want to prepare with some motion sickness medicine, if it’s a breezy day and you get seasick easily.
Fun fact: Río de la Plata translates to “Silver River” in English. The Spanish named this river believing it was going to be their means to transport local silver. As it turns out, local silver didn’t exist!
There are two floors on the ferry. If you’re looking to beat the crowds when you arrive into Colonia, sit on the first floor close to where you enter. The second floor will give you higher views and tends to fill quicker than the first floor.
The ferry has a café, souvenir shop, and restrooms on board. There’s no wifi, so make sure to get your fill of free wifi at the ferry terminal in Buenos Aires. There’s also a small charging station at the Puerto Madero ferry terminal but no outlets on the ferry itself, from what I could find. The ferry felt a bit outdated but is more than suitable for a one hour ride.
Travel Tip: Argentina and Uruguay have different outlets. Make sure to bring an adapter, if you plan on charging your electronics. Both countries have 220v, which is compatible with most small electronics.
What do when you arrive to the Colonia port
Now you know how to get to Colonia by ferry from Buenos Aires. Let’s talk about what to do when you get there!
When you arrive to Colonia, they’ll unload your checked luggage on a conveyor belt, just like at an airport. Regardless if you brought checked luggage with you, you’ll need to put any belongings you do have through an x-ray machine before walking out of the terminal.
Be careful with produce- I saw a guy get stopped for having some apples and bananas in his bag. Eat your fruits and veggies before getting off the ferry!
After you exit Colonia’s beautiful, modern ferry terminal, head straight towards the “Colonia” sign. Colonia is small and there should be tourist groups you can follow, if you’re unsure of which direction to go. It’ll take around 15 minutes to walk from the ferry station to the historical district of Colonia.
How to get to Colonia from Montevideo
If you’ll be traveling to Colonia from Uruguay, you’re in for a treat. Colonia is an easy, three hour bus ride from Montevideo. The route passes through beautiful Uruguayan countryside where you’ll be surrounded by corn, soybeans, cows, and palm trees.
Buses run frequently and cost approximately $10 USD. Keep in mind that people have assigned seats, even for countryside stops. Therefore, if like me you change seats after the bus leaves the terminal, you could eventually get kicked out of your newly chosen seat. You’d then be in the awkward position to kick someone out of the seat you were actually assigned to, or stand in the aisle if the bus is full. That second one was me!
Make sure to ask for a window (“ventana”) or aisle (“pasillo”) seat at the time of purchasing your bus ticket, if it’s important to you. Both sides of the bus will give you equally scenic views.
Travel Tip: If you purchase a ferry ticket from Buenos Aires to Colonia with Buquebus, you’ll see an option to take a bus to Montevideo. Be careful! This ferry/bus combination would require you to immediately get on a bus to Montevideo upon your arrival to Colonia.
Things to do in Colonia
Now that you know how to get to Colonia, let’s talk about all that the town offers! While a day trip will give you enough time to visit most items on this list, I recommend spending the night in Colonia. I’ll explain why soon!
1. Visit Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs)
Calle de los Suspiros is the iconic street that you see in photos of Colonia. It’s every bit worth the visit- and multiple times- to try to hit it at a time when the sunlight is best and crowds are few. As a bonus, the red building was transformed into an art gallery, so you’ll be able to take a peak inside!
2. Walk along the Fortress
Colonia was formerly a walled city built by the Portuguese. Most of the wall was torn down, however there’s a part that remains, which makes for a beautiful entry into the historical center. It’s also possible to walk along a portion of the wall and get some great river views. Make sure to also visit the grassy park beside the wall. It’s such a peaceful area by the water!
3. Visit the Lighthouse
The lighthouse is an important point in Colonia and has some ruins around it. For just 30 pesos you can walk up the steep, winding stairs to the top. The lighthouse is open from 10:00am – 1:00pm and 2:30pm – sunset. Children must be over the age of eight to enter.
The views from the lighthouse are nice, but not spectacular. So, if you find yourself crunched for time, don’t feel bad if you’re only able to take in the lighthouse from the ground.
4. Stop by the Matriz Church
Like any traditional Portuguese town, Colonia is home to an old Catholic church. I found that the best photo opportunities to capture the church was from the restaurants that run along the front of it. The church is usually open for visitors to take a peek inside, although I found the outside to be far more impressive.
5. Visit the Feria Artesanal de la Ciudad
There’s a small artisan fair geared towards tourists near the far end of Colonia, heading out of the historical center. Keep in mind that “far end” is all relative in a town as small as Colonia! The fair is near the river and it just so happened that there was a crew tournament the day I visited. It was a very neat experience watching locals gathered on the beach, cheering on their teams.
6. Wander the side streets
Exploring the streets in Colonia was my favorite thing to do. Tree-lined streets and colorful buildings await, if you’re able to pull yourself way from the main avenues. I walked just about every side street within the historical district and many outside of it. I encountered next to no tourists and felt like I got such a better feel for Colonia by doing so.
7. Take a walking tour
Free English walking tours aren’t in Colonia yet. However, if you speak Spanish, or are looking to hone your Spanish skills, the tourist office in Colonia (just outside of the old town gate) offers walking tours for around $5 USD. Given only in Spanish, these tours run twice daily at 11:00am and 3:00pm. The 11:00am is perfect timing for those arriving on a morning ferry from Buenos Aires. If you’re a group of two or more people, you can try to request an English speaking guide, although there aren’t any guarantees that your request will be granted.
8. Walk along the Rambla de las Américas boardwalk
Although the historical center of Colonia gets all the love, I recommend allotting time to take a stroll down the Rambla de las Américas boardwalk. Beaches, palm trees, parrots, the occasional piece of artwork, and lots of river views will reward you! If you walk all the way to the end, you’ll come to the Plaza de Toros bull ring. The boardwalk is long, so if you want to explore the entire length of it and are short on time, consider renting a bike.
9. Take a hop-on hop-off bus
Along with offering ferry and public bus services, Buquebus also partners with a hop-on hop-off bus service. You can sign up directly at the Colonia ferry station upon your arrival (after you pass through customs). The only advantage I see by taking this bus is if you only have one day, you will easily be able to see the entire Rambla de las Américas boardwalk. Colonia is so small that it’s easy to explore independently. Plus, a huge portion of the experience is simply walking around and soaking up the culture.
All about money
Argentina and Uruguay both use pesos, but their own version of it. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an Uruguayan okay with you paying in Argentine pesos.
However, in Argentina, you’ll find Argentines ready to happily accept your Uruguayan pesos. A very sad reality of the current inflation issues in Argentina.
There are plenty of places in Colonia where you can exchange your money. If you’d rather not exchange your money, USD and Euro are accepted in some places.
I found that most places in Colonia accepted credit cards, although not so much for smaller purchases. There were also some cute street food restaurants heading out of the historical center on Gral. Flores Street, and these only accept cash.
Visiting Colonia in one day vs. an overnight stay
You know how to get to Colonia and things to do there. You now must be wondering how long you should stay.
The majority of people visit Colonia in one day, most of whom travel from Buenos Aires. However, I highly recommend spending the night. In fact, I spent one night and could easily have spent another!
The benefits of an overnight stay in Colonia
The streets in Colonia get crowded during the day, particularly Calle de los Suspiros. I found it frustrating trying to take a picture not only without people walking down the street, but without people going in and out of the art gallery, located inside the famous colorful red building.
Going back to Calle de los Suspiros in the evening helped some with fewer crowds, but I found the morning to be the real people-free gem. I got to Calle de los Suspiros around 7:00am, when the sun had just risen. There wasn’t a soul in sight, except my befriended street dog. Not only did I have Calle de los Supsiros to myself, but I had the entire historical center to explore on my own! I felt safe, by the way, as a single female traveler.
Having this opportunity before the morning ferry arrived is, in my opinion, enough of a reason to spend the night in Colonia. However, if you need another, here it is: Spend one day in the historical district and one day by the boardwalk.
As you’ve already seen in my list of things to do in Colonia, I mentioned a few things that were outside of the historical center. Namely, the Rambla de las Américas boardwalk. You could easily make a full day by the boardwalk, especially if it’s warm out and you enjoy swimming/laying on the beach. Bring some food to have a picnic along the beach or at one of the parks. And of course, make sure to snap a photo of yourself with the Colonia sign!
I hope this guide to Colonia helped shed some light on how to get to Uruguay’s UNESCO World Heritage town and all the wonderful things to do once you’re there.
Will you be going to Colonia? If you have questions, write a comment and I’ll do my best to help! Have you been to Colonia? If so, what were your favorite things to do there?
Laura’s love for traveling started with a trip to Jamaica. Since then, she’s spent over five years living in Latin America and four years wandering the globe. She’s an early bird and backpacker at heart and can often be spotted with a dog or ten that she’s befriended along the way. Much of the content Laura writes on A Piece of Travel includes details on wheelchair accessibility, with the support of her brother-in-law and sister. You can learn about their accessibility endeavors here.