At the end of June 2012 we enjoyed a couple of days in Uruguay and I thought I'd share our experiences for others who might be planning to visit. I travelled with my sister and my son. Thanks to all at TA for their advice - it really helped!
I had originally planned to fly into Buenos Aires then do a day trip to Colonia. But Instead, I decided to fly into Montevideo then travel across to Colonia by bus and take the boat one way to Buenos Aires. This meant we got to see a bit more of Uruguay, and we saved $US300 in reciprocity fees for 3 people by entering Argentina by boat, since they don't currently collect the fee at the boat terminal.
We flew into Montevideo, breezed through immigration and customs and easily found the desk where you book taxis or the shuttle bus into the city. A cab into the old town cost around $US50, so instead we bought seats on the shuttle that drops you at your hotel which cost $US9 each. There is an ATM inside a bank on the right, just before you go through the exit doors. It offered us the option of drawing either $USD or pesos.
We decided to stay in the old town because we were only there for one night, but I had read it was not very safe after dark. I chose the very budget Hotel Palacio, which was perfectly located. It suited us because there were many eating options literally within 100 metres of the hotel, so for me that balanced my concerns about the safety of the area because I knew we wouldn't be wandering the streets after dark looking for a place to eat. We all found the hotel charming, and felt very safe.
We turned up for the free walking tour which is advertised as leaving from the city gate at 3 pm on Fridays, but unfortunately we waited around but no guide turned up. So we wandered around the town for a bit and caught a guided tour of the Teatro Colon (in English), which cost around only $US2 per person. The tour was interesting if you like old theatres, and the young guide was enthusiastic and very friendly.
The old town had a really nice feel to it, with street vendors selling antiques and jewellery, flower sellers and lots of people coming and going. We enjoyed some people watching and a good early dinner at Don Pepperones, where they have menus in English as well as Spanish.
Next morning, our hotel did not offer breakfast but recommended we try the Plaza Fuerte Hotel, located directly opposite, where it was around $US 7 for a very good continental breakfast, with plenty of fresh fruit, cereal, pastries etc.
We walked down to the Port Market after breakfast, but as it was too early for lunch we could only look at the Parillas being fired up, and there wasn't much else to see there except for a few souvenir stores. Unfortunately the Tourist Information Centre at the port was closed at 11 am on a Saturday morning.
We then took a taxi to the bus station for our trip across to Colonia de Sacramento. We hadn't booked tickets in advance, but it was very easy to look on the board in the terminal and find the company with the next bus. The fare was about $US13 per person.
All up, we enjoyed Montevideo, but it was unfortunate the free tour didn't work out and the tourist information office was closed. It was also really, really cold and drizzling rain, so not ideal for rambling the rambla which also would have been a good thing to do in better weather. The streets we took down to the port were very empty on a Saturday morning, so I didn't feel entirely comfortable, but the architecture was lovely and worth the walk.
We arrived in Colonia around 3pm and took the 10.30 am boat to Buenos Aires the next day. This was enough time for us, although we didn't visit any of the museums. I really wanted to hire a golf cart and drive out to see the old bull ring and a bit of the shore along the Rio de Plata. We needed to walk out the door of the bus station, turn left until we were in front of the Buquebus terminal, then there was a cart hire place just up the hill. It was $US 35 for four hours until 7 pm. We needed a credit card swipe for security and a drivers license for any country. We had a cart that seated 2 in front and 2 in the back. The cart was easy to drive and good fun, but smelly from the fuel. Four hours with the cart was enough time for us to drive to our B&B to drop our bags off, then take a drive around the key sites, including out to the old bull ring. We also spent some time browsing a nice little handicraft market near the water, before returning the golf cart. Note you have to return it full of petrol, and the service station didn't take a credit card since it was only a few dollars to fill the tank. There was an ATM in the bus terminal.
After returning the cart we walked back into town for dinner. Colonia felt very safe to walk around in the evening. Next morning we walked from the b&b in the centre of town back to the ferry terminal - even with our luggage it only took about 15 minutes.
We enjoyed Uruguay and were pleased we had taken the short diversion rather than just going straight to Buenos Aires.