Five out of five people in our group LOVED Uruguay!
We spent three days in this small country. You could probably get away with two days but next time I come I may spend an extra day or two and visit the beaches and countryside.
Uruguay was part of the Spanish, Portuguese, British, Argentina, and Brazilian empires. It is the exception to South America. There is no native population left, and it is 100% immigrants with just 3 million people and over 30 million cows. It was founded in 1825 by Free Masons, and unlike the rest of Central and South America, it is not particularly Catholic.
The ferry from Buenos Aires to Uruguay is easy. I had read bad things about the ferry websites but even without speaking Spanish, it was easy once I made sure I had plenty of time and patience to navigate the site. There are a couple of different ferry companies but we used Buquebus which appears to be the most popular. Likewise, navigating the ferry terminal and check-in process was easy. The website advises arriving two hours prior to departure, and I am a rule follower, so that is what we did, but I feel like we could have gotten away with a lot less.
Colonia is wonderful! It is a charming UNESCO sight right on the water with cobblestone tree lined streets, colored houses and shutters, iron balconies, and outdoor cafes. To me it felt like a mix of Kotor, Montenegro and Savannah, Georgia. Like many old walled cities, I recommend spending the night here. Then you get to experience the town after the hordes of tourists have left and you feel like you are the first person to discover this gem. While you don’t need a lot of time in Colonia, I would recommend a full twenty four hours if you can. If you are short on time, then a day trip is better than nothing.
Colonia was founded in 1680 as a reaction to the taxes and trade restrictions in the Spanish city of Buenos Aires. Colonia changed hands at least half a dozen times before becoming part of an independent Uruguay. However, today Colonia’s fortunes and prices are still tied to the turmoil, politics and economics of Buenos Aires as it affects their trade, tourism, and real estate.
The town’s Cathedral opens at 9 am and is very simple and beautiful. They also have daily mass at 6 pm. The lighthouse ($25UYU -less than $1US ) provides beautiful views of the city and water and is located in the ruins of the old convent. Take the time to visit the 7 small museums in Colonia. They are open Thursday through Tuesday, 1115 am to 430 pm. You can get into all of the museums with one ticket ($50UYU, approximately $1.79 – cash only) which you buy at the municipal museum (building with the three white cannons near the light house). Don’t worry, you have time. Each of the museums are very small and you only need 1 ½ to 2 hours to do them all.
****Hotel Beltran (Colonia) is a small delightful old (1873) local hotel that does not speak English (but still helpful) with a beautiful courtyard in the old town. They also had a good breakfast that included fruit and fresh squeezed orange juice.
****Istanbul Gourmet (Colonia) provided a wonderful lunch. It was a small café run by the owners from Turkey that offered a change of pace from local Uruguay / Argentine cuisine. Note: Four of us have lived in Turkey and found the food authentic, although we were disappointed in the Baklava as it tasted more Greek than Turkish.
***Dos 22 (Colonia) was a small, quaint restaurant with good, reasonably priced food. For some reason, finding dinner on a Wednesday night was extremely difficult but this fit the bill. The pumpkin ravioli was outstanding.
Traveling to Colonia to Montevideo by bus is straightforward. The bus terminal is just to the right of the ferry terminal. If you are not spending the night, the bus terminal does have a baggage room to hold your luggage. Bus Turil is $454URU (approx. $13 USD) for the 2 ½ hr trip. The buses do fill up so buy your tickets the night prior or when you arrive.
Montevideo is a small city and you don’t need much time here. The free walking tour is a good way to see the sights and learn a little bit about the history. Additionally, make sure you stop by the Cathedral and the Theater. While at the cathedral, pop back into the shop in order to read a bit about the church and cities history. The theater is very affordable and if you have time, try to catch a show. There are also tours of the theater weekday afternoons at 4 pm and at 1100 on weekends. You can also visit Placio de Salva which has a daily tour at 4 pm and a ghost tour on Wednesday evenings at 7 pm. Make sure you walk through De Zabala Square while in the old city and look up in the trees to see the wild parrots.
Montevideo does not have a ton of museums. The MAPI, pre-columbian art museum, is one of the most recommended museums and is located in a beautiful building. We were told all museums are free, but in reality admission was ($80URU). Another popular museum is the Andes Museum 1972 and is $200UR . The musuem tells the story of flight 571 which crashed in the Andes mountains and where the survivors lived for 72 days before rescue. It is the basis for the book and movie Alive.
****Café Brasillo (Montevideo) was founded in 1877 and is just a few blocks from the main square and cathedral. We found it through an NY Times recommendation. Afternoon te (tea) is a tradition in Uruguay, and Cafe Brasillo is one of the most popular spots for both locals and tourists. Our group had some of everything (traditional te, salad, sandwich, pasta and desert) and enjoyed it all. But the te for two was by far the most popular and least expensive. However, I couldn’t turn down my first opportunity for vegetables in days and I went with the salad and fresh squeezed orange juice. But whatever you order, end the meal with a Dule de Leche pancake – trust me (I should have ditched the salad in order to have room for two)!
****Port Market (Montevideo) is an old train station that was never used as a train station. It is touristy but has a fun vibe and lots of restaurants. We ate at La Maestranza and had a great lunch of lamb, grilled peppers and grilled sweet potatoes.
***Hotel Presidente (Montevideo) in central Montevideo was very close to the sights. It was comfortable with a western feel and a good breakfast and showers. It was a little sterile with no personality so it depends on what you are looking for in a hotel. The staff was nice. We had some small issues but nothing that would prevent me from staying here again or recommending it to others. But next time I am in town I might look for something smaller with more character.
Impressions: One of the things that struck me on my first trip to South America was the traditional drink Mate. While it is popular in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, it was so ubiquitous in Uruguay that I can’t help comment on it. Mate is a tea like root drink. It is meant to be shared and it is consumed in a special cup with a common straw. When people talk about traditional drinks, I usually picture holidays, special occasions and old people. We saw Mate EVERYWHERE. People on the street with a briefcase and mate. People on the bus drinking their mate. Even teenagers hanging out on the street corner, drinking their Mate.
Uruguayans are very hospitable and appreciated meeting independent English tourists. We met some lovely people that were eager to share their culture with us.
Travel Tip: Unlike the problem with cash on the other side of the river (really the estuary if you want to get technical), not only does Uruguay widely accept foreign credit cards, they even provide a VAT exemption if you pay with credit. While these ATMs also limit the amount of cash you can withdraw at a time, and they have a heavier service fee than Argentina, you only need to whitdrawl a nominal amount of cash to cover museum entrance fees, tour tips and taxi rides. English was less common in Uruguay than Argentina or Brazil, but the people were exceptionally helpful and nice and it was still not difficult to get around.
Books/Movies – I didn’t find much about or from Uruguay. The most famous story from Uruguay is told in the book and movie, “Alive.” You could also learn more about the Free Masons to understand the foundation and culture of the country.