Colombia’s metropolitan areas have their charms. Medellín boasts an eternal spring-like climate, Bogotá offers an endless string of cultural events and Cali is home to friendly residents and smoking-hot salsa. But for tourists interested in getting to know the ‘real’ Colombia – the roots of a nation famous for cultural density and a profound and multi-layered history – the most interesting destinations lie nestled high in mountains or along gently flowing rivers, often well off the beaten path.
The National Tourism Promotion Fund (Fontur) created the “Network of Patrimonial Colombian Towns” in order to highlight these cultural and historical gems, some of which are already popular destinations, while others remain largely unknown to all but the most adventurous travelers. Ten of the nation’s 44 pueblos considered to be of “significant cultural interest” comprised the initial list, which will likely be expanded to 15 this year.
For those looking for a window back in time, a chance to unwind away from the noise and chaos of the city or just a hot coffee under a terra cotta roof and whitewashed colonial-era walls, these ten towns are must-sees. As a bonus, Fontur offers a special passport that visitors can have stamped in each of the towns on the list, providing both a unique souvenir and entry into raffles for prizes including mountain bikes and a Renault SUV. So pick up your “passport” and take a look at Colombia’s most picturesque pueblos.
With more than 300 years of history preserved in the stone walls of its traditional white houses, Barichara has been referred to as “Colombia’s Most Beautiful Town,” though competition is admittedly stiff. Located amongst the breathtaking vistas of the Santander department, the small town is perfect for those wanting to relax and enjoy a slower pace of life as well as for adventure-seekers ready to raft down river rapids in the nearby Cañon de Chicamocha or take in the rugged landscape from a paragliding expedition.
As Santander is famous for its hormigas culonas, don’t miss the chance to try everything ant-related at the popular Color de Hormiga restaurant, where stand-out dishes include beef in ant sauce and the less adventurous but equally tasty lamb curry. Check out boutique hotels like La Nube, Terra Barichara or La Posada de Pablo.
Just outside of Bucaramanga and not far from Barichara lies Girón, one of a handful of Colombian municipalities dubbed “the white city.” One of the larger towns on the list, Girón nonetheless boasts incredibly well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture and most streets are cobblestone in the city’s historical center.
Every week, the town hosts Parque-Arte, an open-air celebration of art, music and traditional handicrafts, and an annual cultural festival fills the streets of Girón in August. The area is also known for its strong spiritual tradition, and offers a handful of religious museums and sites of interest such as the El Señor de los Milagros Basilica and the Religious Art Museum.
For a taste of the local cuisine, sample the offerings along the Malecón del Río, a walking path dotted with vendors of fritanga (a mix of different meats and fried foods) and artisan crafts that runs alongside the Río de Oro. Stay in one of the town’s small hotels or hostels, or take a day trip to Girón from nearby Bucaramanga, the capital of the Santander department.
Playa de Belén
Before you leave the Colombian east, make sure to stop by Playa de Belén in the department of Norte de Santander. Yet another oasis of whitewashed rows of houses and cobblestone streets, what sets Playa de Belén apart is its proximity to some of the country’s most impressive and unique natural landscapes, such as the towering rock spires of the Parque Natural Los Estoraques.
Make sure to try the special sopa de frijol con grullas, a bean soup with fried dough balls, onion and garlic. Lodging is limited to the Hotel Orquídeas Plaza and a handful of hostels and inns. For backpackers and nature-lovers, the Parque Natural Los Estoraques offers camping, but make sure to brush up on permits and other requirements in advance at www.parquesnacionales.gov.co.
Perhaps the nation’s most storied town and a community seemingly ripped straight from the pages of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, Mompox has been named a National Monument, Museum City and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Men recruited from Mompox helped Simón Bolívar win the crucial battle for Caracas and the town’s strategic location along the Magdalena River ensured that it remained a key point for commerce from the interior to the coast and vice versa.
Today, Mompox is one of the planet’s best-preserved examples of a typical Spanish colonial town, renowned for its untouched architecture and rich cultural heritage. Don’t miss the town’s many festivals, including one of the country’s most elaborate and traditional Semana Santa celebrations.
For lodging, try the Casa Amarilla and make sure to sample a typical plate of fried fish for lunch. Located near the coast, Mompox can get pretty hot during the day, but cool off in the afternoon with a beer along Colombia’s most important river in a town truly frozen in history.
Just a few hours northwest of Mompox along the Sinú River lies Lorica, the second largest town in the Córdoba department and another key port for transporting goods by river during the late colonial era and early years of the Colombian Republic. While Lorica’s historical district is quite a bit more urban than many of the other towns on the list, the natural beauty of the Sinú and the nearby Caribbean coast more than make up for the occasional whiff of car exhaust.
Lorica hosts a few unique festivals throughout the year, including the Festival de la Chicha, celebrating a homemade liquor made from corn, and the Festivals of Pineapple and Ñame, the latter being a tuber similar to a potato or yuca but with a slightly creamier texture and sweeter taste.
Tourists should take care when traveling by land through the surrounding department and limit bus trips to daytime when possible. The airport in nearby Monteria serves most of the country. Hotels in town are limited, but try the Hotel Lorica Colonial or the Hotel Monterrey Center. The must-have food, as with much of the coast, is fresh fish.
Santa Fe de Antioquia
Moving inland into the Andes once again, the town of Santa Fe de Antioquia, as its name suggests, lies just a short drive outside of Medellín in the Antioquia department. Founded in 1541, Santa Fe is one of the older towns on the list, and residents of the region, commonly referred to as paisas, are famous throughout the country for their hospitality and friendliness, so visitors are in for a treat. In fact, Santa Fe was the capital of Antioquia until 1826, when departmental control was transferred to Medellín.
The small town also hosts film and photography festivals in addition to a colorful Bicycle Day and Tamarind Festival. Unlike some of Colombia’s other historic pueblos, lodging is plentiful and often luxurious. Try the Hotel Mariscal Robledo, La Posada de los Reyes or the rural Hostería Tonusco. For food, one can’t go wrong with the traditional bandeja paisa, a sort of sampler platter that normally includes chorizo, beans, avocado, plantain, rice and arepa in addition to the occasional blood sausage or chicharrón.
West of the city lies the Puente de Occidente, a hanging bridge spanning the Cauca River considered to be one of the most important in the world at the time of its construction in the late 19th century. Today, the bridge remains a shining example of avant garde architecture in Colombia and was declared a National Monument in 1978.
Deep in the heart of the nation’s lush coffee region, Salamina is known as the Caldas department’s City of Light due to the number of important artists and poets born there. Leafier than some of the other towns listed with houses adorned with flowers and potted plants, Salamina also offers a slightly different architectural look, incorporating touches of bold color and woodworking characteristic of the region.
The surrounding region boasts a permanently comfortable climate and stunning natural beauty as home to hundreds of orchid species and Colombia’s towering national tree, the wax palm. The Noche del Fuego lights up the city with candles and fireworks, a major draw for tourists, and June brings the Festival Equina, an event celebrating everything equine for three days.
For hotels, check out the Lola García Hotel Boutique, Hospedaje Casa Real or Hotel Colonial Tierra Paisa. The latter option also offers a well-regarded restaurant for sampling local cuisine, and make sure to sip on at least one cup of coffee as it’s tough to get any closer to the source of your morning tinto.
A true Colombian crossroads situated almost equidistant to the cities of Medellín, Bogotá, Manizales and Girardot, and bordered by the Río Magdalena, the town of Honda has also been referred to as the Bridge City, due to an impressive 40 spans crossing the area’s several streams and rivers.
While colorful colonial and Republican architecture stands out from fellow towns in the Pueblos Patrimonio network for touches of Arabian flair, go much further back in history with nearby petroglyphs and historic sites preserving Pre-Columbian culture. To sample local gastronomy, head to the Plaza de Mercado, and wander the hilly stone streets, losing yourself in a bygone era.
Stay at the Casa Belle Epoque hostel or the luxurious Hotel Asturias Plaza. For those seeking a more natural escape, Honda offers several rural hotels situated in the countryside just outside of town, including Hotel Campestre El Gualí and El Molino.
Villa de Leyva
Crossing back into the Central Andes chain, Villa de Leyva, with its mild climate, traditional architecture, exuberant bougainvillea and proximity to the Colombian capital is a tremendously popular destination for Bogotanos on holiday. Unabashedly dedicated to tourism, the town offers top-notch lodging and gourmet restaurants, particularly during long weekends and national holidays, when the sleepy ambience turns to festivity.
Take a day trip to nearby Cascada la Periquera, a step waterfall in the gently rolling hills just outside of town or explore the fossil-filled Candelaria Desert, a unique semi-arid high-altitude region known for its rugged beauty.
Stay at the Hotel & Spa Getsemaní, the Casa de Adobe, Hotel Plaza Mayor or bring a tent and camp out at one of the many fincas surrounding downtown for a rustic (and cheap) option.
Rounding out the tour of Colombia’s historical pueblos, Monguí lies nearby Villa de Leyva but in a completely different climate much higher up in the Andes. Surrounded by starkly picturesque páramos – unique high-altitude moorlands – Monguí is often considered the most beautiful town in the Boyacá department both for its natural and man-made attractions.
Due to year-round cool temperatures, the population dresses in traditional ruanas, a poncho generally made from hand-woven wool, and local cuisine focuses on soups and potato-based dishes. Take a day trip to explore the Páramo de Ocetá, home to a number of plant and animal species that can only be found in the northern Andean highlands, including the rugged frailejón.
Hotels in town are limited, but try the quaint Hospedaje la Casona de San Francisco or the Hotel Portón de Ocetá. For those planning on exploring the area’s natural beauty, look into renting a cabin just outside of city limits.
While Colombia’s urban centers offer world-class shopping, dining, hotels and rumba, the country’s many colonial towns, often nestled in stunning natural scenery, offer the chance to encounter the roots of one of South America’s most diverse and culturally rich nations. Grab your “passport” and hit the trail to explore these ten historical wonders.