Five Days in Uruguay’s Montevideo and Colonia del Sacramento
Uruguay is one of the biggest surprises of the countries I’ve visited in South America so far. It’s the third country of a year long round the world trip that I’m sharing with my boyfriend Scott, and we spent five days here. Often an overlooked country, it borders Brazil and Argentina. It is surrounded by the Rio de la Plata to the South and the Atlantic Ocean to the East. The country boasts countryside estancias (ranches), a thriving capital city, historical colonial towns and, in the summer, some wonderful beaches. Uruguay was founded in the 18th century by the Spanish and became an independent country in 1825.
Uruguay is polished in a way that reminds me of back home in England. It has a stable economy which its neighbouring countries cannot rival and is very welcoming, friendly and safe.
We arrived into Uruguay via overnight bus from Northern Argentina. Having taken what could only be described as ‘the scenic route’ to get here, we arrived in a small town called Fray Bentos. Yes, the name is exactly what you think! The famous canned beef and pies that we see on our supermarket shelves in the UK are named after this town. The factory was the original place for the production of OXO cubes, set up in South America because European meat was too expensive. The site is now a UNESCO world heritage site which can be visited. Sadly, we didn’t have a chance to go but we hear it’s worth a visit.
Heading straight for the capital city of Montevideo, we had planned about 5 days to visit both Montevideo and Colonia del Sacramento. Both entirely different but conveniently separated by a three hour bus journey. We opted to stay in the Old Town of Montevideo which is close to many landmarks and tours, but can be quiet on an evening. Most tourists opt to stay in the Old Town or in an area called Pocitos – a lively neighbourhood with more bars and restaurants which is also popular with the locals.
Five Days in Uruguay: DAY ONE
One thing we love to do when visiting a new city is a walking tour. You get a fantastic insight into a place and can find out many top tips in this way. It’s also an opportunity to speak to other travellers. We met our guide in Plaza Independencia ready to see the city.
We passed through the Old City taking in sights such as Teatro Solis – Uruguay’s top theatre. Also the Presidential building where, we are led to believe, it’s completely possible to see the President walking around the area and speaking to the locals. Not something that would happen back home.
One of the most famous buildings on Plaza Independencia is the Palacio Salvo. The building was meant to be a hotel but it never happened. It is now an apartment block. Imagine that view over the Plaza! You can visit the building by tour however we didn’t quite seem to line up our times with an English tour so opted not to do this. It has a twin in Buenos Aires (Palacio Barolo) – they were designed by the same architect, Mario Palanti. Apparently, if you visit one of these Palacios and keep your ticket, you can visit the other at a discounted price.
Plaza Matriz and Plaza Zabala
Another place we visited was Plaza Matriz (or known also as Plaza Constitutión). It’s home to the Montevideo Cathedral and the Cabildo (government house). The cathedral is beautiful inside and peaceful to walk around.
We walked through Plaza Zabala and along some of the main pedestrian street Peatonal Sarandí. The street is the hub for shopping and art galleries in the Old Town. The Old Town buildings are full of character – make sure to look up when wandering around. We ended the tour in the Mercado del Puerto – more on this fabulous venue later!
Fun fact – Uruguay is one of a small number of countries where cannabis is legal. It was legalised in 2013 but there are strict laws regarding the selling and consumption. AND foreigners are prohibited from buying it – you have been warned!
Our tour took about 2.5 hours and was deeply insightful into Uruguay’s history and culture.
Walking tour cost (tip): £6 pp
Rambla of Montevideo
Scott and I are super keen cyclists and when we read about the 22km of uninterrupted coastline along the Rio de la Plata we just knew we wanted to rent bikes and cycle along it. There are a few places in the Old Town to rent bikes. We used a company called Orange Bikes. They rent two types of bikes, the famed orange ones (which we got) and also mountain bikes which are a bit more expensive.
Before we set off on our epic ride along the coast, we needed to eat! We found an amazing empanada stall just on the edge of Mercado del Puerto called Empanadas Carolina. The usual options for empanadas (pastries) tend to be: Carne (meat), Pollo (chicken) or Queso (cheese). However, this place had so many flavours to choose from and they tasted fantastic! They even had dulce (sweet) empanadas such as chocolate or dulce de leche. Dulce de leche is South American sweetened milk that resembles caramel. If you visit you simply have to try these empanadas.
The Rambla is used for so many activities. You will see the usual scenes of people running, fishing, cycling, roller skating like most promenades. What you might not expect to see is the sheer number of people who sit drinking Mate with their friends. Mate is a tradition and a national drink of Uruguay. They say that Uruguay drink more Mate per person than any other country in the world!
The ride took us past outdoor gyms, graffiti clad walls, a beach, Playa Ramírez, which at the time was being laid with fresh sand, a golf course and several parks. Honestly it was such a lovely ride and we saw so much on this journey.
Punta Carretas lighthouse & the Montevideo sign
Our aim was to cycle to the Punta Carretas lighthouse which we went to but then decided to carry on to the Montevideo sign overlooking Pocitos beach with views which did not disappoint.
TIP: If you rent with Orange Bikes in the Old Town, there is a bike stand outside the shop and they allow you to keep the bike past the shop closing time (in case you cycle further), you simply use the bike lock they provide and leave it tied to the stand.
Orange bike cost: £8 pp for a day
Five Days in Uruguay: DAY TWO
Keeping Fit Whilst Travelling
Living in London, we had the best gyms and a good fitness regime before we left for our trip. Travelling, however, makes it pretty difficult to keep this up and we have found ourselves lacking on the exercise front! We had done a fair few classes at the Aussie born fitness craze that is F45 when in London. We knew that Montevideo is the proud owner of THE ONLY F45 in the whole of South America. I mean, we just had to do it!
I cheekily dropped the club a message and the next day we were heading on a bus to Pocitos to join a class.
Our trainers were fabulous and so welcoming. It was great to chat to some of the members and trainers afterwards and get a locals perspective on Montevideo and Uruguay.
Class cost: £0
No 121 bus return ticket: £2 pp
Mercado del Puerto
We had visited Mercado del Puerto on our walking tour the previous day and were pretty wowed by the building, the smells and how tantalizing the food looked! We decided after our morning fitness activities that we would more than make up for it with a tasty lunch.
The market building was meant to be a train station for Bolivia. The station clock has pride of place in the centre of the market. Uruguay bought it instead and created this hub for eateries and tourism.
It houses many many Asados (BBQs), a tradition in South America. The grills can be seen when walking around the market. Meat and vegetables cooking everywhere. It smells delicious and the hardest choice is which one to go to.
The restaurant we chose was called Cabana Veronica, chosen because it was busy so it must be good. Our meal was lomo de bife (beef tenderloin), a sausage to share, chips and a salad. The meats were cooked right in front of us. We had a bottle of Uruguay’s traditional ‘cocktail’ of medio y medio to accompany our meal. It’s half dry white wine and half sweet sparkling wine which we loved so much we ended up buying more from the supermarket later in the trip.
TIPS: Most of the restaurants in the market are only open for lunch and not dinner, so make sure you plan around this when you visit. You will also leave smelling very strongly of BBQ, so it’s advisable to not wear your best clothes!
Meal cost: £20 pp
Five Days in Uruguay: DAY THREE
We spent the morning meandering along the main shopping street to see a different part of the city. We passed Palacio Salvo and out of the Old Town, seeing lots of fantastic plazas and sights which were more modern than the Old Town.
In the afternoon we went to the Museo de los Andes. The museum set up in 2013 to remember those who died in the 1972 plane crash in the Andes. It shows a short video followed by the telling of the 16 survivors of the crash which involved the Uruguayan rugby team and some family members. The museum can be harrowing at times, but the memory lives on and it’s a miracle that these people survived 72 days in the snow capped Andes mountains. If you want to know more about this before you visit, there is a book and a film in memory of the crash called ‘Alive’.
Museum entry cost: £6 pp.
Five Days in Uruguay: DAYS FOUR – FIVE
Colonia del Sacramento
We made our way to Colonia del Sacramento by bus (about 3 hours). Arriving in the afternoon to be greeted by rain we put on our jackets and went to get our bearings. Cold, wet and hungry there was only one thing for it: Afternoon tea! Knowing that Colonia is a small town and we could see what we wanted in one day we didn’t mind having a quiet afternoon.
Colonia Old Town
We were lucky that the following day was sunny and a little warmer, if not windy. We got out early and started to enjoy the Old Town. The town of Colonia is one of the oldest in Uruguay. The historic centre is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Our hotel was a few roads away from the centre, we wanted to enter it by the City Gate and original drawbridge so headed to this section, just past the tourist office. There are walking tours and also a tour bus for Colonia, but on this occasion we negotiated it ourselves.
The Old Town is pretty much all cobbled streets. Getting around it is best enjoyed at a slow pace, taking in the fabulous colonial buildings and streets. The main square, Plaza Major, houses museums and just past it, the Basilica of Santísmo Sacramento. Lovely looking from the outside but fairly plain inside.
Do not miss a visit to the lighthouse. We were rewarded with a great view of the Old Town and also out to the Rio de la Plata where we could see Buenos Aires.
It’s surprising how colourful the Old Town of Colonia is, there are many murals, old cars and bright walls of buildings. A sheer joy to walk around.
The bull ring and dinner in Old Town
We had seen a lot of the Old Town by early afternoon and as we had planned a quick bite to eat we opted for a long walk along Colonia’s answer to the Rambles in search of the bull ring. Our trusty maps app (maps.me) located it at 5km away. We set off along the promenade passing the Colonia sign along the way.
The bull ring was not the most interesting thing to see. You can’t go in so it can only be viewed from the outside. However, we thoroughly enjoyed our walk there and back again so don’t regret taking the time to get there.
In the evening we went to a restaurant in the Old Town called Sos Gardel, it’s an asado (BBQ) all you can eat. Limitless meat and salads and soft drinks. Some of the cuts were better than others, but value for money wise was perfect for us.
TIP: If you don’t want to walk very far in Colonia, there is the option to rent golf buggies or bikes. Thrifty supplies both in the centre.
Evening meal cost: £13 pp
Overall, our time in Uruguay was a real highlight and we thoroughly enjoyed it. There are so many places and things to do that we would certainly go back for, especially a visit to an estancia or the beaches in summer. It is somewhere that I would feel safe visiting alone or in a group.
Five Days in Uruguay: USEFUL INFORMATION
Where We Stayed
Both of these were booked via booking.com with genius discount:
Montevideo accommodation: Puerto Mercado Hotel (£26 per night for a double/twin ensuite room including breakfast)
Colonia del Sacramento: Nuevo Hotel Ciudadela (£32 per night or a double ensuite room including breakfast)
The currency in Uruguay is the Uruguayan Peso (UYU). At the time of our visit the rate was around UYU 42 pesos to the £1 pound sterling.
USD is also widely accepted.
Winter: July – September
Summer: December – February
When paying for purchases with a foreign credit card, you can claim a VAT refund on exit. It is really easy to do, we did this at the ferry port in Colonia del Sacramento.
Are you travelling to multiple countries over the next few months? Looking to share your story and get a little extra pocket money? Apply to become a Travltalk contributor now!