Colombia names Eight towns to WTO’s “Best Rural Tourism 2023”

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The Basilica in the central square of Guadalupe, Santander. Photo: Richard Emblin

Colombia has entered eight municipalities in the high-stakes category “Best Villages for Rural Tourism 2023″ of the World Travel Organization (WTO). This category within the United Nations’ WTO aims to recognize rural destinations “that make tourism an engine of development and generate new employment and income opportunities, while preserving and promoting community values and products”.

To make the UNWTO’s short list, each municipality must have less than 15,000 inhabitants, and present a portfolio of tourism options that engage visitors in traditional, community-based activities.

So, if you want to try coffee picking in Filandia, Quindío, or see how artisans in Tibasosa, Boyacá, make wooly ruanas, then here is our listing, and some insider tips from The City Paper on how to best enjoy your time in these eight destinations.

1. Tibasosa, Boyacá.

Start your exploration of Tibasosa in the town’s main square, Plaza Principal. This lively square, adorned with colorful flowers, and views of the Boyacá highlands, is also graced by the Iglesia de San Laureano. This beautiful church, with its whitewashed facade and ornate interior, showcases the region’s religious heritage starting with intricate colonial woodwork to an impressive gilded altar. Just a short distance away from this town of weavers and artisans you’ll find the Cascada de las Delicias, a waterfall nestled amidst lush greenery.

Mural to the Liberator in Tibasosa, Boyacá.

Take a refreshing dip in the crystal-clear waters or simply relax and enjoy the serene ambiance of this natural oasis. To satisfy your taste buds, indulge in the local sweets of Tibasosa and the region’s most iconic dishes. Don’t forget to pair your meal with a glass of the region’s famous canelazo, a hot sugarcane drink with cinnamon, best enjoyed by a roaring fireplace.

2. Filandia, Quindío.

Set amidst the lush landscapes of the Coffee Axis, lies a hidden gem of Filandia. This charming town offers a unique travel experience that captivates the hearts of visitors. Filandia is a place where time seems to slow down, allowing you to immerse yourself in the tranquility and beauty of its surroundings. As you wander through the streets of Filandia, you’ll be greeted by brightly colored houses adorned with vibrant bougainvillea flowers.

Filandia, Quindio by Triangulo del Cafe Travel
The orante balconies and facades of Filandia, Quindío.

The town’s central Plaza de Bolivar is the epicenter of the community, bustling with locals and adorned with a stone fountain. Take a moment to soak in the atmosphere, sip a cup of locally grown coffee, and watch as life unfolds around you.

One of the highlights of Filandia is its breathtaking views. A short hike or horseback ride up to the viewpoint, Alto de la Cruz, rewards you with panoramic vistas of the Quindio countryside. The rolling hills, coffee plantations, and mist-covered mountains create a sight that seems straight out of a painting. Capture the moment with your camera, but don’t forget to pause and savor the beauty with your own eyes. Filandia is also known for its coffee production, and a visit to a local coffee farm is a must.

Engage in the process of coffee cultivation, from picking the ripe cherries to roasting and brewing a cup of freshly harvested beans. Learn about the intricate art of coffee making and the rich history that has shaped the region’s reputation as a coffee haven. If seeking eco-adventure, there is horse riding, abseiling and hiking through the verdant hills. For those looking to unwind, find solace in one of the town’s cozy cafés, where you can savor the finest Colombian coffee and indulge in delicious local pastries.

Filandia offers a glimpse into authentic Colombian culture, far from the tourist crowds. The warmth and friendliness of the locals, combined with the town’s natural beauty, create an inviting and unforgettable experience. So, if you’re in search of a destination that combines old-world charm, stunning landscapes, and a genuine connection with nature and community, Filandia is the place to be.

3. Jericó, Antioquia

Nestled in the southwest of the department of Antioquia, the picturesque town of Jericó was the birthplace of Madre Laura Montoya, Colombia’s only saint, and as a result, an important pilgrimage destination and religious sanctuary. Admired for its colonial charm and welcoming paisas, Jericó was founded in 1852 as a Spanish settlement in the Andes and its name derives from the biblical city of Jericho.

The colorful architecture that graces the streets is a testament to its past, showcasing well-preserved buildings and facades that transport visitors to a bygone era. The town’s centerpiece is the Basílica Menor de la Inmaculada Concepción, an impressive neo-Gothic church with beautiful stained glass windows. From its religious heritage and museum Museo Madre Laura that celebrates her life visitors can explore exhibits showcasing her personal belongings and gain insight into her extraordinary spiritual journey.

Adorned with coffee plantations in the nearby hills, visitors can also immerse themselves in the coffee-making process by taking part in tours and tastings. Gain a deeper appreciation for Colombia’s most famous export as you learn about the art of growing, harvesting, and creating your own blend of Arabica. Other attractions include waterfalls and the stunning Cerro Las Nubes for panoramic vistas. So whether you’re a history enthusiast, coffee aficionado, or nature lover, Jericó has something to offer for everyone.

4. Zapatoca, Santander

In the heart of Santander’s dramatic canyons and landscapes, Zapatoca has a unique connection to the renowned German-born adventurer and entrepreneur Geo von Lengerke. Steeped in history and natural beauty, Zapatoca offers travelers a captivating blend of cultural heritage and breathtaking scenery. Delve into the fascinating story of the 20th-Century tycoon Von Lengerke, and his lasting impact on this charming Colombian town.

Fascinated by the country’s untamed wilderness and rich cultural tapestry, Lengerke embarked on numerous expeditions, exploring the remote corners of the Colombian Andes. Von Lengerke’s relentless spirit of adventure eventually led him to discover the hidden gem of Zapatoca, where he decided to settle down. Influenced by Spanish colonial design, the town exudes a captivating charm from ornate churches that reflect the rich history and heritage of the region to wrought-iron bridges that played a pivotal role in the German’s development and transformation of the region.

The Casa de la Cultura was part of Lengerke’s vision to bring culture and education to the Guane indigenous peoples, and beyond the town’s historical importance for Santander, visitors can enjoy birdwatching tours in the surrounding mountains, and the stunning cascades of La Cueva del Nitro. Indulge in the authentic cuisine and savor delicious treats unique to the region, such as the famous ‘Dulce de Leche and ‘Bocadillo Veleño.’

5. Iza, Boyacá

Located in eastern Boyacá, Iza is a tranquil and picturesque town known for its stunning natural landscapes and thermal waters. Situated at an altitude of  2,500 meters (8,400 feet), Iza offers visitors a serene escape in the heart of the Andean mountains. One of the main attractions in Iza is its thermal baths. The town is famous for its natural hot springs, which are believed to have therapeutic properties.

Visitors can immerse themselves in the soothing waters while surrounded by the beauty of the surrounding mountains. The thermal baths offer a perfect opportunity to relax and rejuvenate both the body and mind. Aside fro thermal bathing, Iza boasts breathtaking natural scenery. The town is nestled amidst verdant mountains and fertile valleys, making it an ideal destination for hiking and exploring pristine pine forests. Hiking trails through orchards and onion fields offer panoramic vistas of the Boyacá highlands.

For those interested in cultural experiences, the Plaza de Bolivar hosts folkloric festivals and the weekend farmer’s market. Known for its local fisheries and cultivation of potatoes and other high-altitude crops, visitors are encouraged to interact with local farmers and learn about the traditional methods of farming in this picturesque setting. With its natural beauty, thermal waters, and cultural heritage, Iza offers a unique and off-the-beaten-path experience in Boyacá. Whether you’re seeking relaxation, outdoor adventures, or a deeper connection with Colombian rural life, Iza is a destination that will leave you enchanted and refreshed.

6. Villavieja, Huila.

Villavieja is the gateway to the Tatacoa Desert. This unique destination offers visitors a chance to explore stunning natural wonders, delve into ancient history, and experience the warm hospitality of locals. Often referred to as the “Valley of Sorrows,” this brush forest is a captivating sight with its unique rock formations, towering cacti, and vast expanses of red and gray hillocks. Visitors can embark on walks or horseback rides to explore the Tatacoa’s hidden corners, marvel at otherworldly rock formations, and witness breathtaking sunsets. History buffs will be intrigued by the ancient archaeological sites scattered throughout Villavieja. The region was once inhabited by the indigenous Panches, and later, the Quimbaya peoples.

Tatacoa desert in Colombia
Tatacoa desert in Colombia

The Paleontological Museum of Villavieja houses prehistoric creatures that once roamed the area, including the renowned Kronosaurus fossil, one of the largest marine reptiles ever discovered. Villavieja is also famous for its natural pools, known as “piscinas naturales.” These pools, formed by the flow of rivers through the rocky terrain, offer a refreshing retreat from the desert heat. Visitors can take a dip in the cool waters, relax under the shade of trees, and enjoy the serene surroundings.

Local dishes include the tamal, asado huilense and lechona (roast pig stuffed with rice and spices). Indulge in these flavors while immersing yourself in the vibrant atmosphere of the town’s local restaurants and markets. Villavieja provides a unique blend of natural beauty, cultural heritage, and outdoor adventure. Whether you’re exploring the mesmerizing Tatacoa Desert, uncovering ancient history, or indulging in delicious cuisine, this off-the-beaten-path destination in Huila offers a memorable and enriching experience for every visitor.

7. Providencia, San Andrés archipelago.

As pirate Morgan’s favorite hang-out in the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, Providencia island is a tropical paradise that seems untouched by time. As a tranquil and idyllic escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, with its pristine beaches and vibrant coral reefs, “Old Providence” will capture your heart. The island’s laid-back vibe and friendly locals instantly make you feel at home.

Morgan's head on the island of Providencia.
Morgan’s head on the island of Providencia.

With a population of just over 5,000, the island maintains its authentic Creole culture adding a unique flavor to your visit.The island boasts a collection of stunning beaches, each with its own distinct beauty. From the white sands and turquoise waters of Manzanillo Beach to the secluded and serene South West Bay Beach, there’s a stretch of shoreline to suit every preference. Spend your days basking in the sun, swimming in crystal-clear waters, and simply enjoying the blissful tranquility of this Caribbean paradise. Diving and snorkeling enthusiasts will be enthralled by the underwater wonders that surround Providencia.

The island is part of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which boasts an incredible diversity of marine life and vibrant coral reefs. Dive into the depths of the Caribbean Sea and explore the underwater realm, encountering colorful fish, sea turtles, and even the occasional gentle stingray or nurse shark. Immerse yourself in the local culture of Providencia Island by indulging in the island’s culinary delights.

The local cuisine is a fusion of African, Caribbean, and Colombian flavors, resulting in a tantalizing array of dishes. Sample traditional favorites such as “rondón,” a hearty seafood soup, or “baked crab,” a succulent dish made with locally caught crab. As the sun sets over the horizon, don’t miss the opportunity to witness the magical phenomenon known as “the night of the crabs.” During certain months of the year, millions of land crabs migrate from the forest to the sea, creating a mesmerizing spectacle of nature. With its unspoiled beauty, vibrant marine life, and warm hospitality, Providencia Island beckons travelers seeking an off-the-beaten-path Caribbean experience.

Lose yourself in the tranquility of its beaches, immerse yourself in the local culture, and embrace the enchanting allure of this tropical paradise. Providencia Island is a destination that will leave you with unforgettable memories and a yearning to return time and time.

8. Guadalupe, Santander

Located in the department of Santander, Guadalupe is often skipped on the tourism trail for nearby destinations, such as Socorro, San Gil or Barichara. But Guadalupe has its share of natural attractions, starting with views of the Yaguariés mountain range, and the nearby valley with a natural canvas of round pools known as Las Gachas. For Simón Bolívar, this community of coffee and cacao farmers was part of the Liberator’s route across the Andes and where he stopped to recruit fighters.

For history enthusiasts, the Guadalupe Museum is a must, and one that showcases the pre-Columbian artifacts of Guanentá and surrounding areas. Learn about the colonization period and why the Basilica Menor de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe attracts thousands of visitors each year. At the heart of Santander, Guadalupe, also harvest the famous “Hormiga Culonas” (big-bottomed ant), a regional delicacy known for its unique, crunchy flavor.

The naturally-carved pools at Las Gachas, Santander. Photo: Richard Emblin