Being able to experience a place, and to discover so much of its past, is what makes Colombia a unique travel destination. When planning that essential trip, be sure to include some of the obligatory stops on the map, which will take you back in time to an age of exploration, conquest and colonialism.

We begin in Monguí, beneath a faint morning sky and looking at the 16th century Basilica of Nuestra Señora which graces one of the largest squares in Colombia. A few days later, several hours from Monguí, in the desert of La Candelaria, which encompasses the colonial town of Villa de Leyva, we cuddle up in woolly ruanas to stave-off the chill of a windswept paradise.

Even though many visitors to Colombia opt for Villa de Leyva and Monguí – two towns steeped in history and nestled in the Boyacá highlands – they now share a more contemporary bond, that of being included in the government program of Red Turística de Pueblos Patrimonio, or National Network of Patrimonial Towns.

Like Villa de Leyva, Santa Cruz de Mompox is a necessary destination when exploring the coast. These jewels in the country’s tourism portfolio are extensively covered by guides, home to important festivals throughout the year and increasingly coveted for their intangible connection to an age of colonialism.

But there are other towns, many others, which do not yet bask in the limelight of tourism fame. These towns deservingly have been included in the National Network for having contributed to the rich patrimony of this nation. In fact, 17 towns have been given this important recognition, and the government is promoting them at home and abroad.

One of the main reasons this country appeals to outsiders is that it generates an experience between our present and all that has been before.

Take Ciénaga for example. In this coastal community, ornate Republican architecture has endured the onslaught of tropical weather. An important renovation of graceful plantation-style homes has been underway, in order to welcome visitors in search of ‘Macondo’, one of the most sought-out inspirations of Laureate Gabriel García Márquez’s imagination.

The Tourism Network of Patrimonial Towns was set up by the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism (MinCIT) and National Tourism Fund, FONTUR, to recognize the achievement of 17 towns in keeping our patrimony intact. It is also a recognition to the locals for the efforts made in showcasing their heritage, preserving their ancestral traditions and ways of life.

The list is as follows: Aguadas (Caldas), Barichara (Santander), Ciénaga (Magdalena), El Jardín (Antioquia), El Socorro (Santander), Guadalajara de Buga (Valle del Cauca), Honda (Tolima), Jericó (Antioquia), La Playa de Belén (Norte de Santander), Monguí (Boyacá), Salamina (Caldas), San Juan Girón (Santander), Santa Cruz de Lorica (Córdoba), Santa Cruz de Mompox (Bolivar), Santa Fe de Antioquia (Antioquia), Guaduas (Cundinamarca) and Villa de Leyva (Boyacá).

Tourism promotion and sustainable practices are a powerful agent, and the National Network encourages locals to stay true to their artisanal practices and preserve cultural expressions, which are unique to each and every place. Travelers can appreciate hat weaving in Aguadas, Caldas, to the stitching of leather satchels, the famous carriel, in Jericó, or the elaborate filigree designs of Momposino goldsmiths.

Santa Cruz de Lorica (Córdoba)
The Plaza de Mercado in Santa Cruz de Lorica (Cordoba)

Then there’s architecture and the diversity of styles, which span centuries; such as the stone enclave of Barichara, the wrought-iron arcades of Lorica, and the brightly painted balconies and doorways of coffee towns Salamina and El Jardín. To experience the age of industrialization and how Antioquia was settled, you have only to cross the iconic suspension bridge over the Cauca River at Santa Fe de Antioquia. Here, you are invited to imagine the arrieros hauling mules and country life in one of the many haciendas.

The National Network is a journey through time in a country that takes great pride in its varied landscapes and biodiversity. From the tropical plains of the Sinú Valley, where Santa Cruz de Lorica is located, to the Momposino Depression – gateway to the interior of the country – rivers are an important reference point. Hence, the Magdalena unites two of the most emblematic towns of this route: Mompox and Honda.

Jardin Antioquia
Jardin, a town in southwest Antioquia, boasts colorful, well-preserved architecture.

Relatively close to the country’s capital, Honda is a popular destination for tourists craving hot weather and the chance to explore a town on foot, which for two centuries fueled the growth of Bogotá.

The last port for ships sailing down the Magdalena laden with goods from the Old World, Honda has preserved immaculately its old colonial quarter. People can climb the steps of the Calle de Las Trampas to the old market and visit several museums, including the first Customs House of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (1811-1816). Not to be missed are the iron bridges which connect one side of town with the next, spanning the majestic river with scenes of local fishermen casting their nets.

Each town enjoys a pristine natural setting and tourists are encouraged to enjoy a list of outdoor activities: from river rafting and rock climbing near Barichara, to misty walks through the páramo of Monguí. The diversity of terrain, accents and local cuisine give the National Network a contemporary edge.

So, as you drive into the future, with roadmap in hand, you are really heading back in time to unique places, which will continue to shape the imagination of this nation and give you an experience of a lifetime.

For more information on the Red Turística de Pueblos Patrimonio visit:

www.pueblospatrimoniodecolombia.travel

Follow the Red on twitter: @redpueblos @fonturcol @MincomercioCo

Use the hashtag #Colombiaesrealismomagico.