Colombia has large cities, known around the world, that attract thousands of tourists each year such as Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena. However, only a few know that our country also features hundreds of small hidden treasures, many of them a legacy of our colonial past. Here are our 5 favorite Colombian towns: places frozen in time, lost among our vast landscapes and waiting for you to make a long-lasting print on your memory.
1. Santa Cruz de Mompox, Bolívar
On Margarita Island – Colombia´s largest river island– and surrounded by the calm waters of the Magdalena River, stands a magical colonial town: Santa Cruz de Mompox, 150 mi from Cartagena. Its name comes from the Mompoj Chief, who led the region when the Spanish arrived in 1537 in search of gold. Later populated by wealthy merchant families fleeing pirate-stricken Cartagena, Mompox still retains its wonderful architecture –majestic colonial buildings that rise amidst the most authentic Caribbean atmosphere.
In 1995, it became the second municipality to be declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. And it’s not surprise: Mompox is magical realism at its finest. Any Gabriel García Márquez’s fan would feel like stepping on Macondo upon arrival. Today, Mompox’s historic center offers a wide array of boutique hotels, restaurants and bars that take visitors to another time in history. Mompox also hosts important cultural events, such as the famous Jazz Festival (there’s no better stage for jazz!) and the International Independent Film Festival.
2. Villa de Leyva, Boyacá
There is no doubt that Villa de Leyva is Boyacá department’s gemstone. Located 99 mi from Bogotá, about 3 hours by car, it’s one of the most beautiful colonial towns in the country, and one of the most visited. Villa de Leyva synthesizes all of our past in one place. On the one hand, it is known for the plethora of fossils that have been found there, with findings dating back to 100 million years; it was also part of the Muisca territory in the pre-Colombian era, which is evidenced, for example, in the nearby archaeological sites; and finally, it played a very important role in the colonial stages as a military and supply center for the Spanish.
Its cobbled streets and squares let it to be named a Unesco World Heritage Site. In fact, its main square is one of South America’s largest with 150,000 sq. ft. and the main meeting point for residents and tourists, a tradition going back to the town’s colonial past: it used to be the meeting place of Spanish leaders and military officers and residents of nearby communities to stock up on water and food. Today, Villa de Leyva offers a wide variety of gourmet restaurants and boutique hotels that receive hundreds of tourists every weekend; and its one-of-a-kind skies make it host several important cultural events such as the Astronomical Festival and the Wind and Kite Festival.
3. Salento, Quindío
Salento, known as the father of Quindío, is the oldest town and the first municipality founded in this department. About 15 mi away from Armenia, the capital, and hidden from the main roads connecting the region, Salento stands as a secluded, colorful and charming refuge in the heart of the Coffee Triangle. Its never-ending quietness, its colonial architecture, which remains intact, the smell of coffee and the friendliness of locals make it one of the most popular destinations in the country and a place that once visited becomes an unforgettable memory.
Salento is the gateway to the Cocora Valley and Los Nevados National Natural Park, one of the most impressive protected areas in Colombia, hence, with a clear sky, you can see the snowy volcano peaks in the distance. Despite its size, Salento offers many activities, from a stroll through colorful Calle Real –full of crafts shops and restaurants– or a horseback ride along the valley, to a tour in a yipao (the fantastic paisa version of jeeps) or a total dive into the making of the world’s best coffee.
4. Guatapé, Antioquia
No trip to Antioquia would be complete without a visit to one of the most beautiful and colorful towns in Colombia. Today’s Guatapé village was built back in 1978, after the old town was flooded to build a dam. The project made residents relocate and even shift their livelihood into tourism. One upside of this project was the unique panoramic view it created. To appreciate it, you just have to climb the 740 steps that take you to the top of El Peñol Rock –a huge stone that has become the place’s biggest attraction.
In addition to the impressive rock, Guatapé’s undisputed identity mark lies on the zócalos, cement baseboards that decorate the lower façades of the houses. Initially placed there to protect them from moisture and animals, the zócalos now embellish the town’s forefronts with representations of people, animals and shapes. Guatapé aims to be a leading example of responsible tourism, so it has become the first municipality in the country to ban the use of single-use plastic.
5. Barichara, Santander
Hidden in the middle of Santander department, about four hours from Bucaramanga, “the most beautiful town in Colombia” is a yellow paradise that shines every time the sunshine hits it. Featuring an ochre stone that gives the town its unique hues, Barichara’s colonial buildings remain today as pristine as the day they were built. It is not surprising that Barichara is the scene of many films and telenovelas, thanks to its magical landscape, its bohemian atmosphere and its perfect climate.
Barichara was first established as a parish in 1702, after the alleged appearance of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception on a stone, therefore, one of its most iconic buildings is the Cathedral that pays tribute to the event. Often compared with Villa de Leyva, Barichara is usually less crowded and a little more exclusive, but still sharing (or, according to many, exceeding) its colonial charm.
Very close to Barichara, 30 minutes away, you’ll find San Gil, one of the best destinations for extreme sports and ecotourism in the country. Here you can go rafting, rappelling, paragliding and engage in many more outdoor activities with a beautiful scenery in the background.