I’m in Uruguay. I realize it’s a bit off the typical tourist path, at least for North Americans. However, in South America, Uruguay is a glamorous summertime destination, and it’s summer here now. So I’m excited to include a sun-drenched, weeklong drive along the coast of Uruguay in our travel itinerary.
We’ll be driving almost the entire seaside of this country. Starting in Colonia del Sacramento, the oldest town in Uruguay, and cruising along the coast almost as far as the Brazilian border. Our end goal is Rocha, which is well off the grid so you may not hear from me for a while. However, we have left this part of the trip open for “come-what-may”, so we’ll see what happens. We’ll definitely spend some time hanging out with the South American A‑listers, jet-setters, and bon-vivants in sexy Punta del Este, and the boho-chic beach town of José Ignacio. Other than that our plans are fluid. Whatever happens, we do expect plenty of beach time, terrific seafood, wine tasting, and the kind of open-ended road trip that makes life seem like a stream of endless possibilities.
Today we are exploring the tiny, picture-perfect village of Colonia del Sacramento. It’s just a one-hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires, and an UNESCO-protected World Heritage site. After a week of late-night carousing to sweltering tango riffs in Buenos Aires, I’m pleased by the laid back blend of luxury and authenticity that Colonia offers.
The town started as a 17th-century Portuguese military fort and is anchored by El Faro (an old lighthouse). It still has many of its colonial vestiges including cobblestone alleys, ancient ramparts, post-colonial ruins, a bustling riverfront port, all surrounded by scenic farmland.
If you find yourself in Buenos Aires I’d highly recommend you take the ferry across the river. Colonia has a lot to offer and is perfect for a day trip. Strolling along the eucalyptus-lined Río de la Plata, or winding your way through the maze of topsy-turvy streets lined with flower-filled windowsills is a charming way to spend an afternoon. There are also European-style restaurants, wine bars, artisanal food shops, a burgeoning art scene, and boutiques featuring handmade wool sweaters, shawls, and other unique items. I bought some leather sandals that I love.
Our plan includes an overnight stay, so a leisurely dinner is a big priority. Being a tourist town, there are many places to eat in Colonia. Several places along the main square across from Iglesia Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento are very popular casual eateries. Expect pasta and pizza, and the Urguaynian sandwich known as a chivito.
Getting There: From Buenos Aires, take the one-hour ferry, Buquebus (buquebus.com; $120 round-trip or Colonia Express; even less money) to Colonia del Sacramento. From the capital of Montevideo and the international airport, the best option is to rent a car for the 110-mile drive.
Where to Stay: We chose Charco Hotel for its chic style and convenience to the walled Barrio Histórico district. The “white rooms” combine both colonial authenticity and a sleek minimalist aesthetic. We loved this little hotel and enjoyed the river views from the tiny above-ground reflecting pool. Being in the heart of the old fort means that there can be no digging on the property. And the small pool fits artfully into the garden without destroying the integrity of the historic ruins the hotel sits upon. High season doubles from $140.
Other great choices: Four Seasons Resort, Carmelo Everything you expect from a Four Seasons Resort. Sprawling riverfront grounds with spacious suites and bungalows surrounded by eucalyptus trees. It’s sleek and Asian-inspired, with a Zen-like spa. Guests lounge by the pool sipping caipiroskas (Riffs on the Brazilian caipirinha made with vodka, lime wedges, and sugar) while taking in the views of the Rio de la Plata. High season doubles from $450.
Casa los Jazmines If we’d been staying in Colonia for more than one night, I would have chosen this place. It’s a rustic bed & breakfast nestled in the rolling countryside near Colonia. It features quiet luxury on an incredible piece of property. It has sophisticated details like Egyptian cotton sheets, iPod docking stations, and an impressive list of Uruguayan and Argentine wines. It’s only a 10-minute cab ride from the ferry dock but feels like a rural retreat in another time and place. High season doubles from $180.
Posada Del Angel Just a block from the city center, this well-priced place is very popular so book ahead. It’s a simple building made festive with flowering vines and cheery yellow and blue paint. It’s a small hotel with enough amenities to make guests feel comfortable. Standard interior-facing rooms are dark so it might be worth a few dollars more for a room with a view. High season doubles from $80.
Where to eat:
Our hotel included a light breakfast which we enjoyed from the riverfront bistro. However for my favorite meal of any vacation day, the second breakfast, we stopped by Bike and Coffee. It’s a small place right at the entrance to the Barrio Histórico. They arrange bike rentals and tours and provide coffee while you wait. There’s also a fixed Menu del Dia, which may include any of the fresh ingredients you’ll see adorning the tables. This is the place we were introduced to the traditional preparation and bitter charms of Yerba Maté, a hot, tea-like drink that seems to be a passion (addiction?) with all the local people. In fact, even at the beach, we saw people with thermoses of hot water tucked under their arms, and mugs with tell-tale silver straws.
For lunch, we chose to sample a chivito at the food cart La Eslabon. It’s a beef and fried egg sandwich that comes piled high with other ingredients including ham, roasted peppers, olives, criolla sauce, and mushrooms. You’ll find it at many restaurants and food stands around Uruguay. I was attracted to the food cart because it was very busy and filled with locals. It is located just opposite the bus terminal near the ferry terminal. Look for the bright yellow food cart.
For drinks, we chose the bar at our hotel, Charco. It features a few simple cocktails, many of them frozen, and craft beer from Colonia served on picnic tables overlooking the Rio de la Plata. This lush green space also acts as the organic garden for a few herbs and vegetables that the restaurant uses in its meals.
I was particularly pleased with our dinner at El Buen Suspiro. Its low-ceiling and exposed beams have all the rustic charm we were seeking. Our table was tucked (literally) into a hole-in-the-wall. This wine bar is the perfect dark and romantic spot to sample local wines by the bottle or glass. It also serves small plates, and tapas-like picadas (little snacks eaten with a toothpick). For dinner, expect to find fixed menus centered around local cheese and charcuterie.
Other great choices: If you’ve got a car or can find a cab it’s an 8‑minute drive to Bodega Bernardi, a family-owned winery and café dating back to the 19th century. Go for lunch and you can taste house-made grappas while you stroll through the vineyards.
Quirky El Drugstore Café is a popular place for light fare from a large menu, or you can get a cup of Yerba Maté to go. It’s a classic sidewalk café that also has indoor seating. It’s not hard to find either. Just look for an antique car parked out front under an old sycamore tree. I don’t know what the story is, but there are quite a few of these old cars parked all over town. Some are still running, others make eclectic planters or even a quiet place to take your afternoon tea (I mean Maté).
As with Buenos Aires, Italian fare is very popular in Colonia. Some of the best house-made pasta can be found at Viejo Barrio Restaurant and Bar located on the historic Plaza de Armas.
Pulperia de los Faroles features sangria, seafood, pasta, and views of the river from colorfully clad tables overlooking both a park and the river.
At 30 years old El Porton is parrilla (grilled meats) that, by Colonia’s standards, could be considered the delicious new kid on the block. Family-friendly, with all the meats and other animal parts you’d expect in a true Uruguayan parrilla .