February 20-22, 2019
Colonia del Sacramento & Montevideo
I managed to find a very cheap flight option (using Avios points) from Montevideo to Rio which led me to spending a couple days in Uruguay between Buenos Aires and Brazil.
Some quick Uruguay tips before sharing the specifics of my trip:
— most places provide a significant discount when using a credit card (approx. 20%) which is completely the opposite of Buenos Aires where cash is preferred. There is no need to bring too much cash, just a small amount for street vendors, the bus, etc.
— Also unlike Buenos Aires where the tap water is incredibly clean, drink bottled water in Uruguay.
— Another difference from BA is that Uruguay is less crowded and has far less incidents of petty theft and crime. You can feel a bit more relaxed taking your phone out for photos.
— Wifi is free and readily available everywhere in Montevideo, less so in Colonia del Sacramento.
— Uruguay is expensive compared to other South American spots but isn’t different than North American prices.
— Most of the tourist shops and cafes shut down quite early. Don’t wait until 6 pm to try and find a mate cup and postcard or you’ll be left paying 5x the price at the airport the next day (I didn’t actually buy the mate cup after seeing the airport prices!)
— Try the Mate tea! And bring some home if you enjoy it. This is truly a Uruguayan tradition and you will see everyone carrying their thermos under their arm and mate cup in hand everywhere.
— Uber is cheap, widely available and easy to use. The bus system is also extensive and cheap making for even more affordable travel options.
— Marijuana is decriminalized however still illegal for non Uruguayan people to purchase. You’ll notice people smoking cannabis everywhere, as well as many advertisements all over.
— The advertised $40 US departure tax from Montevideo airport was included in my ticket on LATAM and I did not see any booth for paying it. I’m wondering if it is now included with all airlines? Just in case, be prepared to pay this upon departure.
Route I took: Buenos Aires (Argentina) – ferry- Colonia del Sacramento – bus- Montevideo – flight- Rio (Brazil)
I opted to take the ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento to explore this UNESCO heritage town before heading to Montevideo. There is a direct ferry from BA to Montevideo and although Colonia was charming, it was a place I could have skipped. Perhaps it was the 39 degree heat and lack of air con in most places but I struggled to find the draw.
The ferry from BA to Colonia was delayed 30 minutes. The lack of annoucements suggested this was probably typical. Beware of this if prebooking your bus connection to other parts of Uruguay.
I took the Seacat ferry for $2106 Argentinian pesos. Prices would have been cheaper if I had booked in advance but that last minute flexibility allowed me to join a beautiful morning yoga class I hadn’t known about before departing whereas advance planning would have had me on the earliest ferry. One tip when buying the Seacat ticket is that you cannot purchase this ticket online with a foreign credit card as it requires an 8 digit identification number. You’ll have to go buy the ticket in person at their office (not the terminal) or rumour has it, you can enter any random 8 digits when promoted for the ID code – I am not suggesting you do this, just sharing a tip I heard that may or may not have worked for me.
I prebooked a taxi through my hostel (Uber would have been cheaper) to the ferry terminal since BA public transit is wildly busy. Traffic is also wild meaning the Subte and walking to the terminal may have been faster but the thought of riding the Subte with my luggage was a deterrent.
Once I arrived in Colonia, I had about 4 hours to check out the town before the bus I chose to take to Montevideo. My first stop was the bus terminal, about a 3 min. walk from the ferry terminal. I stored my bags for 4 hours (80 pesos) and bought my ticket to Montevideo for later that day (395 pesos).
I grabbed lunch at a little cafe on the main street called Irene’s- mostly because it was one of the few places with vegan options. There is no shortage of cafes and places to eat for any taste.
After lunch, I explored the cobblestone old town streets, visited a sad market with half a dozen half assed stalls and climbed up the lighthouse (30 pesos) for a beautiful view. The highlight was probably the ice cream shop with a crazy selection including several non dairy choices.
I wanted to purchase a sim card for my phone as I had some things to do and didn’t want to rely on the wifi on the 2.5 hour Turil bus to Montevideo as well it made taking Uber much easier. I went to the Claro store and of course they didn’t actually sell Claro sim cards. After asking around, I found out I could purchase a Claro sim at the photography store on the main street. The woman at the store sold me the sim for 50 pesos and then helped me load it with 60 pesos of credit – enough for 3 days of data on the prepaid tourist plan. I later received a message that I was almost out of credit after using my phone for about 5 minutes. I hadn’t actually activated the plan (you need to go to the Claro site on your phone to do this) but thankfully they allow you to run a negative balance and so I was able to switch to this plan and had no further issues.
The Turil bus from Colonia to Montevideo was on time, and uneventful.
It was after dark when I arrived in Montevideo so I grabbed an Uber to my hostel. I had booked my hostel online using a booking.com deal so although I paid cash at the hostel, I paid less than the posted nightly rate (920 pesos for 2 nights)
I have always hated tours but I am really enjoying the free walking tours in cities all over so I of course decided this would be a good way to learn a bit about Montevideo. As usual, the tour did not disappoint. I got a fantastic history lesson, tour of the best spots, and a sampling of Mate and a local alcoholic drink. Free walking tours aren’t actually free. They are free to show up without booking and free to pay what you think they’re worth. The pace is better than any tour I’ve been on (faster) and the guides are knowledgeable on all things related to their city. The free walking tour took me around all the main sights of the old town.
The coolest part I likely wouldn’t have found on my own was in the Independence Plaza, below the large horse statue in the middle, you can actually go down some stairs and end up below the statue where there is a little museum dedicated to Artemis. We managed to catch the hourly changing of the guards which was short, but intriguing.
The tour ended at the market in old town – a nice spot to grab food and do some tourist shopping or just wander around. The old town has this trendy but quaint vibe to it, kind of European with the cobblestone streets lined with trendy clothing stores. A fun place to wander.
One little piece I added that wasn’t covered by the free walking tour was a visit to the sexual diversity monument. I was excited to visit the first monument dedicated to sexuality in South America but once I arrived I understood why it was left off the tour. It was dirty, tagged with graffiti, had homeless people sleeping all over and smelled like human feces. What a shame!
After grabbing some lunch, I decided to walk the rambla to Pocitos. I think I overestimated the heat and blazing sun, making this 7 km. walk so much longer. There are multiple bike and those little scooter things available all over the city which would be a much nicer way to get from old town to Pocitos along the rambla. There are a couple of white sand beaches you can visit although there is little for shade and I am not sure about actually going in the water. It appears many had the same thought as the beaches were vacant. Perhaps more of a sunset watching/evening hangout spot?
I checked out the Punta Carretas mall as recommended on Wikitravel. The idea of a shopping mall in an old prison sounded pretty cool and the air conditioning was a good way to beat the heat. Other than the gate on the outside, between a McDonalds and Starbucks, nothing else would suggest any prison history. Unless you need to shop, skip it.
I walked back to the old town to try and purchase a Mate cup and thermos (you will see EVERYONE walking around with these) but sadly all the street vendors and shops were packed up by 6 pm. I had wanted to check out a brewery I passed earlier in the day and some Montevideo nightlife but my Fitbit had logged me at over 35 km. of walking so I called it an early night.
I hadn’t done much reaearch on Uruguay (other than it is the number one in the world for meat consumption per capita. Gross) but I was pleasantly surprised by this charming, friendly, tea drinking place. It is definitely worth visiting, especially Montevideo.