Colonial City Life in Uruguay

The city of Colonia is one of the best places in Uruguay for year-round living. In fact, when I originally visited Uruguay, it was my first choice for a second home.

The Portuguese settled Colonia in the late 1600s as a contraband trading post, designed to get around the taxes imposed by the Spanish authorities in Buenos Aires. It’s one of the best examples of a historic colonial settlement you’ll find anywhere.

Located on a peninsula that juts out into the ocean-like Rio de la Plata, its cobblestoned streets, quiet parks, and finely-restored antique stone buildings represent a period that’s been lost in much of the hemisphere.

Colonia goes to great lengths to preserve its historic charm… and it shows.

The original historic center—Barrio Histórico—is not only rich with brilliant bougainvillea and 17th-century Portuguese architecture, but also loaded with exclusive high-end shops and an array of restaurants that belies its small size. It’s the perfect town for walking along the river, exploring the sycamore-lined narrow streets, or relaxing in the shade of one of the well-maintained parks.

Located about two hours by car from the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, Colonia is just an hour from Buenos Aires, Argentina, by ferry. It’s a completely “walkable” city, with everything close at hand…plus good public transit, a ferry terminal, and numerous car rental agencies. It would be easy to live here without a car.

Colonia is always bustling, and you’ll see visitors—mostly from Argentina—during all parts of the year, including the mild winter. But over the last few years, it’s also become a popular spot for English-speaking expats…many from North America and Australia.

As you walk down Colonia’s main street—General Flores—you’ll find more restaurants than you could visit in a month. There’s an abundance of parrilladas—restaurants featuring a giant BBQ grill fueled by firewood. The bright umbrellas of their sidewalk dining lend a festive atmosphere to the town, as do the diners who patronize them all hours of the afternoon and evening.

Once you get away from General Flores, the streets are mostly lined with sycamores, providing a green tunnel of shade on a warm summer day.

In the real estate market, the giveaway prices from five years ago seem to be gone for good. Today, a good-sized home in Centro will likely cost more than $150,000…a genuine 17th-century Portuguese colonial will easily top $300,000. While up from a few years ago, though, these prices are still quite competitive on the world market.

And there are still bargains to be found. My favorite property on this trip was an old home in great shape that sat on a lush, tree-lined street, right on the border between Centro and Barrio Histórico. With two large bedrooms and two baths—along with a garage, a good yard, and service quarters—the asking price was $140,000. A good deal for a house in the heart of the region’s best colonial city.

Colonia won’t be for everyone. While some find the constant flow of international visitors energizing, others will find it annoying, despite the amenities it brings.

But if you want to settle in a clean, safe, walkable city—and be a part of one of the world’s unique historic sites—then Colonia could well be for you.

I have a complete report on Colonia’s real estate market in the June issue of International Living Magazine—out tomorrow.

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