The Best Colonial Towns in Colombia – a look at the 17 ‘Heritage Villages’ of Colombia

Whether your travel focus is visiting Colombia’s beaches, jungles or big cities, it’s hard to tour Colombia and not want to visit small towns like like Jardin, Barichara or Mompox.

Most people include a visit to a couple of Colombia’s colonial villages in the course of their trip, often as a day trip away from their main destination. While others dedicate their whole trip solely visiting Colombia’s most picturesque and cultural towns.

The Colombian tourism department ‘FONTUR’, along with UNESCO, established a program in 2013 to highlight the culture, history and architecture of Colombia’s finest, small towns and cities.

With the objective of enhancing tourism at a local level, the Heritage Trail, connecting 17 of Colombia’s most beautiful and significant towns, was created. The program was called: ‘Red Turistica de Pueblos Patrimonio de Colombia’ – the People’s Heritage Network.

The program’s goal is to promote regional tourism, to expand tourist structures and increase economic activity in these mostly rural communities. The program has already seen the development of new hotels, restaurants, artisan markets and related service enterprises tied to tourism.

The promotion has also been somewhat effective in reducing overtourism in the 10-20 best known destinations around Colombia – places where Colombian and foreign tourists tend to concentrate.

(see article – ‘Popular Destinations in Colombia – Tour Traps or Mandatory Stops’)

This is a list of those 17 villages. Some of these towns were already popular destinations. Others were relatively unknown. A tour to any of these colonial villages offers visitors look at Colombia’s diversity, culture, colonial architecture and the beauty of their surrounding countryside.

The Heritage Villages in the Coffee Zone

Exploring the coffee region of Colombia has become a major tourist draw in the country. Most people head to the coffee triangle between the cities of Armenia, Manzales and Periera. Four of the 17 Heritage Trail villages are located within the coffee triangle: Jardin, Aguadas, Jerico and Salamina.

(see article: ‘Exploring Colombia’s Alternative Coffee Region’)

The main square of Jardin

Jardin This small coffee town is 3-4 hour bus ride from Medellin. Jardin, means garden in Spanish, and it is one of Colombia’s prettiest towns. The colonial houses in the center are all painted in lively colors. The men wear cowboy hats. There are hundreds of tables and chairs begging occupancy in one of the most beautiful and colorful main squares in Colombia. Here people sit around, people watching, at all hours of the day and night, sipping tintos and eating pastries.

The main square of Aguadas

Aguadas   it is often covered in morning fog an growsd a delicious high-altitude coffee. Nestled in the mountains, just 78 miles north of Manizales, this small coffee town is also famous for the production of Aguadeno hats.

Made with iraca straw fiber, these hats are said to be the best hand-woven straw hats in Colombia. Some say they are better than the Panama hats which are made in Ecuador. The women in the countryside weave the straw hat using iraca straw fibers peeled from a cactus type plant. They make the rough hats and sell them to the artisans in town who fashion the finished product.

Jerico as seen from the town look out – Cerro las Nubes

Jerico a colorful, colonial town. It’s a place where visitors can experience authentic, traditional culture. Men ride through the streets on magnificent prancing horses, tie them up outside of the stores and sit in the saddles outside of bars sipping cold bottles of beer. Coffee is grown here but beef seems to be king. The village is also a rich center for leather arts and crafts like the typical anitoqueno purses called carriels. There are also lots of wallets, belts and hand-made saddles.

Their beautiful main town square is lined with fruit and vegetable stands in the morning and festive food carts at night. There’s a lookout over the town one can walk to from the city center. Take the hundred stairs climb from the main square (called Cien Escalas) at the top turn right and stroll through the botanical gardens. In the back of the gardens you’ll find the path leading to the lookout. Used as a back drop to the town, the lookout, called Cristo Redentor or Cerro la Nubes, offers amazing views. There’s also a cable car leaving from the lookout and going up to a higher mountain top nearby.   

Salamina

Salamina is a town high in the Andes mountains of the Caldas region. The town’s main street, town square, stores, and church and best real estate all sit on top of a ridge. All the other streets in town run from the ridge down the mountainsides.

They call this town the San Francisco of Colombia.

The town is a stunning 2-hour bus ride southeast from Aguadas heading to Manizales. Hands down it’s one of most beautiful roads I’ve seen in Colombia. The scenery is mind blowing. And the town doesn’t disappoint, either. Salamina a gritty agricultural town full of jeeps, markets and vendors. The houses all have elaborate wood carved balconies. A two-hour trip outside of town there are numerous dairy farms. And along the trail one can see Colombia’s national tree, the rare wax palm.

The town square of Santa Fe near Medellin

Santa Fe de Antioquia is just 35 ,miles or 80 km northwest of Medellin. It is 1,000 meters lower in altitude than Medellin and therefore much warmer and humid. So if you came to Colombia and wondered where the heat was – you’ll find it here. Santa Fe was founded in 1541. It was once the capital of Antioquia until Medellin was named the capital in 1826.

The town’s historical center has remained pretty much the same since and is easily explored on foot. Santa Fe has  beautiful colonial architecture. The streets are made of cobble stones and  the house are white washed with wooden balconies The main square, Plaza Mayor, is a beautiful plaza with a water fountain and the Cathedral Metropolitana.  There are two other churches in the center and several museums to visit.

(see article: ‘Travel around Medellin – Daytrips and places to Visit’)

The Heritage Villages in the Department of Santander

The department of Santander in Western Colombia is rarely touched by foreign tourism with the exception of San Gil which is considered the ‘adventure capital of Colombia’. Two of the Heritage villages, Barichara and El Socorro, are  near San Gil.  One village, Giron, is  located near the department’s  capital of Bucaramanga with the third, Playa de Belen,  is in the department of Norte di Santander not far from the city of Cucuta on the Venezuelan border. 

(see article: ‘Colonial Towns in Santander’)

A street in Barichara

Baricharais just a  few hours travel south of Bucaramanga. Founded in 1741, Barichara translates in the native Guane language “place of rest with flowering trees”.

The town has been called the most beautiful village in Colombia.

The streets of Barichara are made of cobblestones and the whitewashed colonial houses have been kept in their original state. They have filmed many Colombian movies here. Inside the houses remind me of Tuscany with wooden beams, terra-cotta tile floors and terra-cotta roof tiles.

Guane  – is only a 30 minute ride away from Barichara. While not one of the Heritage Villages it merits a visit seeing it is so near. The houses in town were all whitewashed colonial style like in Barichara and there was a nice church in town. The town wasn’t as clean or as well maintained as Barichara.

El Socorro – the town Basilica

Socorro is a  town outside of San Gil where the scream of the cicadas in the trees on the main square is so loud it fills the adjacent dome of the Basilica with a surreal undulating high pitched screech. The town was founded in 1683 and was influential in the history of Colombia. This is where the revolt of the Comuneros started in 1789 against Spanish rule. There a wonderful museum just up the street from the main square called ‘Casa della Cultura‘ and the ladies working there give a very nice tour.

Giron a village near the city of Bucaramanga

Giron is a perfectly preserved colonial town, just 5.5 miles, 9 km., outside of the city of Bucaramanga only the locals seem to know about. It’s an attractive town with cobbled streets and a lazy atmosphere. It reminded me of Mompox. It’s a nice town for a stroll. There’s a nice church in the main plaza and a market off to the side of the square. Down by the river there are more market stalls, tejo courts and an old bridge going over the river.

While you’re at it be sure to spend a day touring Bucaramanga one of my favorite cities in Colombia.

Playa Belen is located in northeastern Colombia, Playa Belen is a 4 hour bus ride from the Venezuelan border town of Cucuta – now a closed border. Due to its remote location, it’s a place tourists rarely visit. But Playa and its surroundings are surprisingly stunning. A diamond in the rough located at an altitude of 5,000 feet. Distance and the isolation give this pueblo its own peculiar personality and a weird, quirky energy.

The name of the town means ‘The Beach of Bethlehem‘ and I always thought this inland town had a beach on a river, a lake or something. But this semi-desert town is bone dry and beach-less. It was called Playa because of the fine beach-like sand of the surrounding desert constantly blowing through town.

The desert surrounding the town was declared a 1,500 acre protected park in 1988. Named ‘Los Estoraques‘, the natural park is unique in Colombia due to its weird geological formations of columns, caves, cones and pointed pedestals formed by 4 million years of wind and water erosion. It has a medieval presence. The rocks resemble castle walls and primitive skyscrapers.

Playa is a small town. At last count there were 3 main streets, 367 homes, 2 bakeries, 6 hair salons and 16 ‘tiendas’ or party stores. There’s a couple small hotels 3 miles outside of town. And the town cemetery is located on a mountain top overlooking the town.

In 1988 the department of North Santander had a competition to pick the most beautiful town in the state. Playa was determined to win. They painted the whole town white, the doors and trim of the outside buildings all brown and the roofs were already of red clay tiles. They handily won the competition. Later it was declared one the country’s 17 Heritage Villages.

Heritage Villages in the Department of Boyaca near Bogota

(see article: ‘Villa de Leyva and Mongui – the beautiful villages of Boyaca’)

Within a days travel of Bogota are two stunning villages: Villa de Leyva and Mongui. Boyacá is a cultural and historical heart of Colombia. It was once the center of the Muisca empire who the Spanish fiercely  fought to appropriate their gold.

Village de Leyva

Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s special towns. Considered  the most beautiful village in Colombia, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited  villages in the country. Only a three hour trip day trip from Bogota, Villa de Leyva is never at a loss for visitors.  It has also been declared a national monument.

The town boasts an impressively preserved  main square, Plaza Major, the biggest and the most beautiful cobblestoned square in Colombia with 42,000 sq. feet of rock surface area.

The town of 13,000 inhabitants is a tourist mecca with 320 hotels, 380 restaurants and 170 stores. It is also the second most expensive city in Colombia – next to Cartagena.

Mongui is another beautiful colonial village in Boyaca. It has also been  voted the most beautiful village in the department of Boyacá. Located six miles northeast of the city of Sogomoso, set high in the hills, Mongui is 6,000 feet above sea level. Due to the altitude the air is cool and rather thin of oxygen.

It’s a small town of only 5,000 inhabitants. Mongui means sunrise in the local native language. The town boasts a beautiful large cobbled stone plaza and a magnificent Basilica built by the Franciscans in the 17th century.  The church has an interesting museum. And just a couple blocks off the plaza, down Carrera 3,  is the  Calycanto bridge, a beautiful arched stone bridge.

Mongui is becoming famous as a traveler’s destination, not only for the village, but also as a doorway to one of the most beautiful ‘paramos’ or high plains in South America.

The paramo unique environment unlike anywhere else on earth. Paramos can only be found in the northern Andes of South America and some isolated regions of southern Central America. But most of the paramos in the world are in Colombia.  Páramos are defined as the ecosystem existing above the mountain’s forest line, but below the permanent snowline. Known as evolutionary hot spots they are the fastest evolving regions on our planet.

One can now easily book a tour of the paramo in Mongui. Exploring  the paramo on ones own is possible but it is highly recommend going with a guide. With a group of 3 or more guide services only run around $15 – $20 per person.

Just North of Bogota in the Department of Cudinamarca

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The town of Honda sits on the banks of the Magdalena River

Honda is a small city sitting on the banks of the Magdalena River – the longest river in Colombia in the department of Tolima. It’s a 3 hour bus ride from Bogota.

Honda was founded in 1539. The golden era of the village lasted from 1850-1910 when the Magdalena River was the only means of transportation between the Caribbean coast the the inland city of Bogota.

The town’s main occupation is fishing and cattle ranching. It’s a town with beautiful scenery, and grass covered hills and a vibrant night life.

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Villa Guadas is a beautiful little town in the department of Cundinamarca just 117 km. from Bogota. It’s a tourist and agricultural center of some importance with a population of 33,000 people. Being so close to the capital city many people come to this mountain town from the city to relax. The town is also well known for its cultivation of the nisporo, a tropical fruit which was brought to the area from the West Indies and thrives there today.

A Town of Miracles just North of Cali

In the southern part of Colombia, in the north valley of Cali is the town of Buga.

Buga – the famous church -Basilica Menor del Senor de los Milagros – (Lord of the Miracles)

Buga – the town of Miracles  – 46 miles (74 km) from Cali –is easily  the most the famous and visited town  in the valley. A colonial gem, Buga is a celebrated religious site, a destination for over 3 million pilgrims every year. Because this is a town where miracles happen.

Back in the 16th century, a indigenous woman, washing clothes in the river, was reported to have found a silver crucifix on the river bed.  She took it home and said the cross grew in size everyday. And then miracles began to happen. The cross became famous. Associated with divine intervention, the crucifix  was believed to have  the power to heal the sick and perform miracles.

A church was built in honor of the miracle granting crucifix which was called:  El Senor de los Milagros (Lord of the Miracles). Today the cross is on display in a special chapel inside the church.

The church, Basilica Menor del Senor de los Milagos, is a  large  church with twin towers and a cupola. It was built in 1907, replacing an old church which had stood on the site since 1573.

But one doesn’t necessarily have to be a religious tourist to enjoy Buga. The town, part of the Network of Heritage Villages, was once called home by many wealthy families coming from Spain during the settlement of the new world.  Today the town preserves its  colonial historic center which is  filled with modern boutiques, hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and religious souvenir stores.

(see article: ‘The North Valley of Cali – Miracles and Massacres’)

Hot, steamy towns down by the Caribbean coast

Lorica, Mompox and Cienaga are hot, tropical towns not far from the Caribbean coast near Cartagena and Santa Marta.

Mompox is about five hours inland from the Caribbean coast. It’s an intriguing and perfectly preserved colonial town.  Founded in 1537 Mompox (also spelled Mompos) was an important port city for cargo and travelers during in the colonial era.  

(see article: ‘Mompox – a backwater rivertown frozen in time’)

The Magdalena River splits in two just before Mompox. Back in the 1800s the branch, on which Mompox sits, silted up with mud and became unnavigable for big boats – so traffic was diverted down the other branch. Mompox became a sleepy, back-water town frozen in time.

The city center is like one huge museum.  All the villas in town leave the huge doors and windows open during the day and evenings displaying quaint courtyards and sitting rooms adorned with village antiques.

When the cool evening breezes float in at sunset,  the residents sit outside  their houses on the street to cool off and chat with neighbors while bats dive down the whitewashed streets for mosquitoes rising from the river.  There’s a languid charm to this place, quintessential colonial Colombia. There are very few cars here.  Most people stroll, ride a bicycle or take a motor-taxi.

Lorica is a town on the banks of the Sinu River – the waterway that gave the town it’s life. The town lies well south of Cartagena nearer to the city of Sincelejo in the department of Cordoba. The town has an interesting historic center. There’s a nice boardwalk along the river and a beautiful riverside market with arts and crafts, hammock and riverside restaurants.

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Houses on stilts over the lagoons of Cienaga.

Cienaga is a coastal town near the Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s situated in the Magdalena department just 35 km. from Santa Marta. Built on salt flats near the sea, the city is just 5 meters above sea level and has a population of 105,000. It is known for its coastal and mountain landscape and for it’s well-preserved colonial architecture.

The major industries are fishing, marble quarrying and agriculture. Several villages around the town have built their houses on stilts over the lagoons. Cienaga is famous for cumbia music and the birth of ‘magical realism’ – a literary movement founded by the nobel prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

(see article: ‘Best Caribbean beaches in Colombia are near Santa Marta’) also ‘Santa Marta and the Beaches’

Lake Cocha – Colombia’s Little Venice

In southern Colombia the town of Pasto lies 250 miles north of the equator, high in the Andes at an altitude of 7,000 feet above sea level. Just 12 miles outside of town is Lake Cocha or Laguna de la Cocha. It is one of Colombia’s largest and most beautiful lakes. It is also one of the Andean water reserves and a birthplace of the Amazon river.

The port town is popular with Colombian tourists who come to enjoy the enchanting wooden chalets, narrow canals, rickety bridges and brightly painted boats. The village, El Puerto, sits on wetlands at the mouth of the river Rio Encano in the Andean rainforest.

Located on the eastern side of the Andes mountain range, the lake receives its water from several streams and rivers coming from glaciers located higher up. The water from the lake does not flow to the nearby Pacific Ocean, but travels through the Guamez and Putamayo rivers into the Amazon. La Cocha has been declared a Wetland of International Importance.

Small buses leave Pasto, 13 miles away, taking people to the port on the lake where small motor boats ferry visitors to the island ‘El Encano’ which is a national park. And according to ancient beliefs Lake La Cocha is also a holy site.

The village has been called Colombia’s Venice, due to the canals in town and also ‘ Little Switzerland‘ due to the affluence of Swiss styles chalets in El Puerto.

The painted wooden chalets have a unique history. According to the locals, 80 years ago the houses didn’t look like they do now. Then in the 1940s a Swiss expat by the name of Walter Sulzer arrived in town.

He was a Swiss was a cook who arrived in Colombia escaping the Second World War. Hired by a local hotel to build some cabins, he used local materials to construct typical Swiss guesthouses. It was a style that was later copied by everyone in town earning it the nickname, “Little Switzerland”.

The town is touristy with almost every home along main street serving up lake trout either caught in the lagoon or raised in neighboring trout farms. The trout is either fried or grilled but the best version is trucha ahumada (smoked trout).

Los Llanos – the Great Plains of Colombia

Los Llanos of Colombia sometimes look and feel similar to the plains of North America and the fields of the Midwest. Lush, green, flat grasslands stretching as far as the eye can see, scattered with herds of cows and huge red skies in the morning and night. These tropical grasslands are treeless savannas and stretch for hundreds of miles before stopping at the jungles of the Amazon river basin.

Cowboys of Los Llanos still work the plains on horseback

The Llanos are to Colombia what the gauchos and Pampas are to Argentina: unique cuisine, music and culture that has been romanticized in Colombian literature. A vast grassland plain situated to the east of the Andes it extends over 170,000 square miles from Colombia to Venezuela. The area has one of the richest grasslands in the world and makes up over a quarter of Colombia’s landmass but yet has only a tiny portion of the country’s population.

Cattle farming has been the primary activity of the Llanos economy since early Spanish colonial days. The ranches, called fincas, are sprawling 2,000 – 4,000 acre spreads. ‘Llaneros’ or plainsmen, are the cowhands who take care of the herds. Up until recently millions of heads of cattle roamed freely on the plains.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that smaller land owners started fencing their land and farming rice, bananas and corn. Flooding during the rainy season turns the grasslands into wetlands which is home to an incredible diversity of birds.

The cattle are the Cebu variety. Originally from Asia, these humped back cattle are well adapted to withstand high temperatures and are mainly used in tropical countries. Completely grass-fed, the cattle here are free to roam the plains belly deep in grass. The meat is more muscle and tougher than barn raised cattle fed corn and grain.

While only the dairy cows are rounded up daily to milk, the beef cattle are free to roam and graze the plains for months on end. It’s and ideal life for the cattle until that one day when they are herded up and trucked to the slaughter house. In the distant, outlaying ranches the cattle are loaded onto river barges and brought to meat processing facilities.

Beef ribs or skirt skewered and slow cooked over wood fire – crunchy skin on the outside, tender meat on the inside

The best meat in Colombia comes from Los Llanos which is famous for its BBQ beef. The choices cuts of meat are prepared on giant skewers and slow roasted over open wood fires. Restaurants, called Asaderos, roast the skewered meats in roadside fire pits offering free samples to people passing in an attempt to lure them into their open air restaurants. It usually doesn’t take much coaxing. Meat is piled high on plates, served with potatoes and yucca and not a vegetable in sight.

What to see and do

Villavicencio is the capital of the state of Meta situated just east of the Andes. Known as the gateway to the plains, the city is a good base for exploring Los Llanos. The city of 500,000 is a commercial hub of the cattle ranches in Los Llanos. A three hour trip from the capital city of Bogota, it’s an easy descent from the mountains to the warm landscape of the plains. Here heat lightning continuously thunders and flashes in the nearby Andes as the hot, tropical air of the plains rises to mix with the cool, mountain winds.

Plaza de los Liberadores in Villavicencio – right: statue in Parque de los Fundadores

Villavicencio has a unique culture, music and food. Here one can eat huge slabs of meat or enjoy the traditional dish ‘mamona’ – choice veal cooked over a BBQ and topped with chili sauce. The town has a nice town square and cathedral – Plaza de los Liberadores and lots of green parks like Parque de los Fundadores where Pope Francis recently visited and planted a tree.

On the weekends there is plenty of ‘joropo” music which features a harp as one of the main instruments. One can dance and party with the cowboys and cowgirls at the nightclubs like ‘ Los Capachos’ – which is the most famous. There’s cock fighting and rodeos with lassoing, bull riding and ‘coleos’ , which involve four men on horseback chasing a bull down along narrow track to wrestle it to the ground.

There are a number of the ranches just outside of the city that accommodate tourists. Tiuma Park* is mentioned the most. These dude ranches offer rooms, home cooked meals and allow people to participate in the cowboy way of life on a working ranch. There are excursions on horseback roaming the open plains, along with river tours and wildlife observation safaris: with over 350 different bird species and animals that include anteaters, iguanas, jaguar, armadillos, tapirs, capybaras (giant guinea pigs – the worlds largest rodent), anacondas, alligators and water buffalo.

Exploring Los Llanos – 3- routes – 3-days

The Llanos only accounts for only a tiny fraction of Colombia’s tourism. The area has a wealth of natural attractions but until recently had been off the tourist trail, ignored by both foreign and national tourists. A remote area, it was once a guerrilla territory for 30 years. But with the recent peace accords between the government and the revolutionary group FARC, the area has been declared safe to visit for the last 5 years. Many towns are organizing and promoting interesting tourism options.

From Villavicencio they have broken the nearby sites into 3 different routes. Each route requiring at least a day. The towns can be visited by bus but often the surrounding attractions, most o f which are located outside the towns, have to be reached by taxi.

Route Piedmont – along the foothills of the Andes

  • Route Piedmont or ‘the foothill route’ runs north along plains along the foothills of the Andes. On this road there’s a zoo just outside of Villavicencio called Bioparque Los Ocarros which carries a wide variety of birds, animals and reptiles typical of the region.

Further north is the town of Restrepo a small cattle town. There is a salt mine here that used to be open to the public but after taking a taxi up to the mine found out it had been closed to visitors for over two years. Down the road the pueblo of Cumaral, a cattle center, is said to be the best destination on the plains to indulge in a big meal of beef.

After lunch, another short bus ride down the road is the town of Baraca – a center for pineapple production. A car ride away are the Thermal baths of ‘Agua Thermales de Guaicaramo. And further west, 50 miles from Villavicencio, is the village of Medina where on can hike the spectacular Devil’s Canyon nearby.

Southern Route for extreme sports

  • There’s a southern route that goes to the town of Cumaral. From here one can go to Sumapaz National Park and go white water rafting on the River Ariari. Futher south (3 hours from Villavicencio) visit the town of Granada. And beyond – San Jose del Guaviare and the Amazon jungle basin.

The Amencer Route – the route of the rising and setting sun

  • The Amenecer (or the dawn) Route is perhaps the most scenic. It goes east to the river towns of Puerto Lopez and Puerto Gaitan.

Tiuma Park is a kind of dude ranch/park open daily from 9-4. * Just up the road is the town of Puerto Lopez. It’s a town on the Meta River. The restaurants here serve mostly fish – catfish, bobosa and apuya. This is the center of Colombia and just outside of town is the Menegua Obelisk. It’s a tower on hill overlooking the plains, marking the geographical center of Colombia. Actually the view is quite inspiring. But in the end it’s like the monument in Ecuador designating the equator. A couple miles past Puerto Lopez there’s a working ostrich farm open to the public.

The last stop, Puerto Gaitan, is a 3 hour bus ride from Villavicencio. A fluvial area, rich in oil, it’s part of the Orinoco belt oil sands that runs through Venezuela. This oil region is one of the largest and richest in the world, just behind the Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada.

Puerto Gaitan is also home to 4 different native tribes. The town has large, sandy, riverside beaches. From here river boats ferry tourists upriver to a spot where three rivers meet, pink dolphins are abundant and passengers can swim with these giant mammals.

Top Spots in Colombia – 15 Best Destinations

Seasoned South American travelers say Colombia is the continent’s best kept secret – beautiful, affordable and relatively undiscovered by tourism.  Though large, Colombia is easy to travel with plenty of low cost internal flights, comfortable cross-country buses and taxis everywhere.
Travelers can easily visit more than 2-3 destinations in a week with an ample selection of destinations to visit over extended periods.

This is my selection – the  15 best destinations to visit in Colombia. These are places I gladly return to time and time again.  The list is divided by topological identities: beaches, colonial towns, archaeology and cities.  For more information on each destination read  the full articles on colombiatravelreporter.com

Beaches

A view from Acronis in La Guajira

La Guajira

One of the strangest and most spectacular spots in Colombia is located at the northern most point of South American in the Guajira peninsula,  a reserve for the Wayuu – a Colombian indigenous tribe politically ruling the entire peninsula today. It’s one of most visually stunning places on earth where bare, desert landscape meets the blue turquoise of the Atlantic. The trip is a must see if coming to Colombia, not an easy trip but well worth the sacrifice. (see full article)

The beach of Sapazurro

Sapazurro

Sapzurro is one of those ideal, sleepy tropical towns in which to hide out, lay low and escape from it all. If you want to drop off the radar for a while – this is the place to do it.  Located on the southern end of the Darien Pass on the Panamanian border, it is a 15 minute boat ride from Capurgana – a small village catering to mostly Colombian tourists. There are no roads to get here; either one flies into Capurgana – $100 from Medellin to a small airstrip outside of the town or comes in by boat – $20 from  the port of Turbo. The boats leave pounding across the Gulf of Uraba a full speed through 3′-4′ chop. Not a pleasant 3 hour ride for the faint of heart or seasick prone. The difficulty getting here makes this place one of the best kept secrets in Colombia. (see full article) 

Playa Cuevita near El Valle

Bahia Solano – El Valle

Travelers who want to go see the Pacific in Colombia have their work cut out for them. This area is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, yet one of the least developed, beautiful, forgotten places in Colombia; where long swaths of pristine beaches backed by rainforest jungle spill out onto black volacanic sands while 4-6 foot waves pound the surf and 12 foot whale spouts are spotted just offshore. El Valle is an Afro-Colombian village of a few thousand people an hour’s ride on a muddy dirt road from Bahia. The town is hot and humid and isn’t much to look at but the main beach area, Playa El Almejal, a 20 minute walk north of the village, is paradise – as is Playa Cuevita a 20 minute walk south of El Valle. (see full article)

The beach at Palomino

Palomino

Palomino is one of those off-the-beaten-track beaches that are hard to forget and one where you’ll definitely want to spend more time at and probably come back to  again in the future. To get there take from Santa Marta a bus up highway 90 hugging the Atlantic towards Riohacha. It’s about a 2.5 hour trip. The bus driver will drop you off on the main highway in front of a dirt path which leads down to the beaches. Motor-taxis are parked on the highway waiting to take you down to the beach.

This is definitely a back packers paradise – a one of its kind in Colombia. It is a very laid-back, anti-stress atmosphere here with none of the boom-boom party enthusiasm of most Colombian beaches. The town caters to tourists, both Colombian and foreigners, who come  to relax, be alone and recharge their batteries.

Only about half a mile of beach in Palomino is sparsely developed. The beaches to the north and south of Palomino are empty and one can endlessly wander in any direction along the palm lined sandy beaches and rarely see a soul. (see full article – Santa Marta and the beaches north)

Beaches at Tolu

Tolu

Tolu is a sleepy little tourist town 3 hours south of Cartagena on the Caribbean Gulf of Morrosquillo. Tolu is bustling boom-boom town with music blaring from every bar, restaurant and bicycle taxi ambling along the malecon boardwalk – jut the way the Colombian tourists like it. The town caters to middle class Colombian tourists during holidays and the weekends and they want to keep it to themselves. If it’s peace and tranquility you’re looking for then it’s probably best to visit during the weekdays when the town is relatively quiet.

Everyone travels in bicycle rickshaws or what they call bicitaxis, outfitted with boom boxes and accommodating anywhere from 3-10 people. It’s a nice place to unwind in a town with everything you need. There are also numerous beaches within a 30 minute bus ride of the town definitely worth checking out: San Bernardo del Viento, Playa Blanca and the islands of San Bernardo. (see full article)

Archeology

A tomb at Tierradentro

Tierradentro

Tierradentro – located in the department of Cauca, is known for its pre-Colombian tombs. Underground tombs have been found all over the Americas – from Mexico to Argentina but their largest concentration is in Colombia. And Tierradentro is one of Colombia’s greatest pre-Hispanic attractions.

There are 162 subterranean tombs located in 4 different sites dating back to the 6th to 9th centuries A.D. Carved into volcanic rock the tombs open to the west. Spiral staircases lead to a main chambers 15 to 24 feet below the surface. The main rooms are 30-36 feet wide with supporting columns and small walled chambers where the bodies were buried. The walls were scored with geometric patterns and painted red, black and white; red representing life, black death and white the hope of passing to the next life.

The hills in the park are spectacular dotted with small farms. It’s a long hike and difficult hike up and down the steep mountains and 8 miles of narrow foot trails to visit some of the major sites. It can be easily done in two days of hiking and tomb exploration. (see full article)

a demon statue at San Agustin

San Agustin

San Agustin – is a pleasant country village in Huila where one can explore Colombia’s finest archaeological patrimony immersed in some of its most beautiful rural landscape. A few thousand years ago the people who lived in this area adorned their tombs with statues of god heads, devilish images, men in trances and man/animal figures. They believed these were creatures bridging the world of man and animals.

People have been inhabiting this steep terrain for 6,000 years. And these tombs and statues were created around 3,300 B.C. – about the time they were building the pyramids in Egypt; well before the Incas, whose civilization arose in the 13th century and was thriving when Columbus discovered the Americas. (see full article)

Colonial Towns

Mompox

Mompox

About five hours inland from the Caribbean coast is the intriguing town of Mompox – a perfectly preserved colonial town. Founded in 1537 Mompox (also spelled Mompos) was an important port city for cargo and travelers during in the colonial era. The Magdelena River splits in two just before Mompox. Back in the 1800s the branch, on which Mompox sits, silted up with mud and became innavigable for big boats – so traffic was diverted down the other branch. Mompox became a sleepy, back-water town frozen in time.

The city center is like one huge museum. All the villas in town leave their huge doors and windows open displaying quaint courtyards and sitting rooms adorned with antiques. When the cool evening breezes float in at sunset, the residents sit outside their houses on the street to cool off and chat with neighbors while bats dive down the whitewashed streets hunting for mosquitos coming up from the river. There’s a languid charm to this place, quintessential colonial Colombia. (see full article)

Barichara

Barichara

Barichara – a few hours travel south of Bucaramanga there’s the town of Barichara founded in 1741 which means in the native Guane language “place of rest with flowering trees”. The streets are made of cobblestones and the whitewashed colonial houses have been kept original. They filmed many Colombian movies here. Inside the houses remind me of Tuscany with wooden beams, terra-cotta tile floors and terra-cotta roof tiles. The town has been named one of the most beautiful villages in Colombia.

It is located in the department of Santander, a Colombian department, rarely visited, but home to a number of quaint colonial villages. Not many people know much about Santander because it’s not on the road to any significant stop in Colombia. It’s a 15 hour – 450 mile bus ride from Cartagena to the north and 250 miles and another 10 hour mountainous bus ride to Bogota to the south. Why bother? It’s one of the cheapest areas in the country offering bargain adventure, colonial lodgings, a great climate and country food. (see full article – Colonia Towns of Santander)

Plaza Major – the largest cobblestoned plaza in Colombia

Villa de Leyva – A National Monument

The department of Boyacá boasts numerous, well-preserved, Spanish colonial villages dating back to the 1700s and Spanish rule. But Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s most special towns. Considered one of the most beautiful village in Colombia, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited villages. Only a three hour trip day trip from Bogota, Villa de Leyva is never at a loss for visitors. It has been declared a national monument.  The town boasts an impressively preserved main square, Plaza Major, the biggest and the most beautiful cobblestoned-square in Colombia with 42,000 sq. feet of rock surface area. (see full article – ‘Villa de Leyva and Mongui – the beautiful villages of Boyaca’)

Main Plaza of Mongui

Mongui

Another beautiful colonial village in Boyaca is Mongui.  Located six miles northeast of the city of Sogomoso, set high in the hills, Mongui is 6,000 feet above sea level. Due to the altitude the air is cool and seemingly rather thin of oxygen.

A small town of only 5,000 inhabitants, Mongui, which means sunrise in native language, is beautiful with a large cobbled stone plaza and a magnificient Basilia built by the Franciscans in the 17th century. The church has an interesting museum. And just a couple blocks off the plaza, down Carrera 3, is the Calycanto bridge, a beautiful arched stone bridge.

Mongui is becoming famous as a traveler’s destination, not only for the village, but also as a doorway to one of the most beautiful ‘paramos’ in South America. The Páramo ia a unique environment unlike anywhere else on earth; an Páramos  ecosystem existing above the mountain’s forest line, but below the permanent snowline. (see full article)

Green hills of the coffee triangle

The Coffee Triangle

Another big tourist attraction in Colombia is an exploration of the Zona Cafetera, the ‘Triangulo del Café’ or the Coffee Triangle. Here they say the best coffee in the world is produced. A rather heated point of contention because every city and region in Colombia claims to produce, not only the country’s best coffee, but they also boast the most beautiful women .

It’s an easy trip to the coffee triangle by bus from Bogota, Medellin or Cali. It gives one the chance to explore Colombia’s evergreen interior. The triangle is composed of three cities all respective capitals of their departments: Manizales – capital of Caldas to the north, Pereira in Risaralda in the center and Armenia capital of Quindío to the south.

Well worth a visit are the towns of Salento, Filandia, the Valley of Cocora National Park and the National Coffee Park. – all located in the coffee triangle.  (see full article)

Colombian Cities

Popayan

Popayan

Popayan – Called the white city – Ciudad Blanca – or as its promotion slogan goes: more than just a white city. A colonial Spanish city founded in 1537 is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Colombia. It’s a quiet relaxed town. – easy to get around with a fair amount of tourism. It’s a university town with about 8 different state and private universities and students are everywhere. With an altitude of 5,770 feet it might get warm in the day but is always cool at night and rains and thunders almost every day.

(see full article- ‘Travel Southern Colombia: Cali, Popayan, Pasto’)

Plaza Botero in Medellin

Medellin

A dynamic, contemporary, prosperous city of 2.6 million people in Antioquia, Colombia – the heart of Colombia’s famous coffee triangle. Known as the land of the eternal spring it has a temperate climate – hot during the day and cool at night.

Not too long ago rated the most dangerous city if the world due to fighting between drug cartels, agrarian backed revolutionary groups, paramilitary groups, and a war on drugs.

Medellin is in the department of Antioquia stretching  25 kilomters through the narrow valley of Aburra between the high mountains ranges of the Central Cordillera.

The residents call themselves Paisas. They’re known for being curious, clever people and good businessmen. Also known as the Silicon Valley of Colombia, Medellin is easy to travel thanks to an excellent metro system and cable cars with plenty of restaurants, museums and enough things to see and do to easily fill up a week.  (see full articles: ‘Medellin: the land of eternal spring’ and ‘Traveling Medellin: Places to visit around Medellin’)

Cartagena seen from an old Spanish Fortress San Filipe

Cartagena

Cartagena is a  vibrant beautiful port city where cruise ships also dock. It has a beautiful historic center and is the major tourist destination for Colombia. The city has the feel of a touristy city in Spain. The city within the walls – also called the inner city or El Centro,  was where the high officials and nobility originally lived. You can easily walk most of its narrow streets strolling around in a half day.  (see full article)

Travel: San Agustin – archeology – stone sculptures – pre-Colombian mystery

Colombia has a number of ancient ruins throughout the country but the two most important archaeological sites are found in the southern departments of Huila and Cauca where stone statues and deep tombs are rooted in  countryside’s mountaintops. Located a day’s travel, one  from the other, are the pueblos of San Agustin and Tierradentro.

San Agustin – is a pleasant country village in Huila where one can explore Colombia’s finest archaeological patrimony immersed in some of its most beautiful rural landscape. A few thousand years ago the people who lived in this area adorned their tombs with statues of god heads, devilish images, men in trances and man/animal figures. They believed these were creatures bridging the world of man and animals. The animal traits can be seen in the statues eyes, canine teeth and hands.

Statue San Andres

Believing mountain tops to be very sacred places, incredible statues were brought to guard the tombs of kings and warriors dug into the mountain ridges near the town of San Agustin. Today these statues and tombs are preserved in several archaeological parks located around the village.

Looters

Farmers found most of these statues in the 1800s while plowing and digging in their fields. The main park, Bosque de las Estatuas, just outside of San Agustin, was created in 1937 to protect the statues and tombs from looters. The area had already been heavily looted over the years by gold diggers searching for gold and other precious metals.

Historical photos courtesy of Parque Arqueologico Nacional San Agustin

The 1980s – 1990s brought political turmoil and unstable times to the area. The park fell victim, once again, to widespread theft and  trafficking of archaeological remains.  And while many statues have been found in the art collections in private villas throughout the Americas and Europe, only a few have been brought back by the Colombia Institute of Anthropology.

People have been inhabiting this steep terrain for 6,000 years. And these tombs and statues were created around 3,300 B.C. – about the time they were building the pyramids in Egypt; well before the Incas, whose civilization arose in the 13th century and was thriving when Columbus discovered the Americas.

Paintings in Museum Obando

Why were these tombs and statues built? Who built them? Little is known about these cultures or what happened to these ancient Colombian civilizations. Like most of the ancient civilizations in the Americas they just disappeared or were annihilated before anyone could understand their beliefs and ways of life.

Visiting San Agustin
and its surroundings properly, one should allow at least three nights and two full days. One day to visit the town and the archaeological park ‘Bosque de las Estatuas‘ which lies just a 40 minute walk outside the town. The park has an excellent museum and about 50 statues situated on a groomed  half-mile circular path behind the museum.

Leave another day for a day long jeep tour of the outlying archaeological sites – Alto de los Idolos, Alto de las Piedras and the Museum of Obando. The jeep tour (which costs around $10-$15 per person) passes through an incredible landscape of mountains, gorges, coffee and sugar cane farms. The jeep tour stops at the beautiful waterfalls of Alto di Bordones and  Salto di Mortino, and at the head of the Rio Magdalena passing numerous other rivers that originate in the area.

a tomb entrance at Tierradentro

The straits of Rio Magdalena

One could add a third day to rent a horse and see the sites, El Tablon, La Pelota and La Chaquira – all located just outside of San Agustin. The 7 mile trek can also be done on foot.

see posthttp://colombiatravelreporter.com/travel-colombia/exploring-the-archaeological-sites-of-San-Agustin-on-horseback/

Accomodations

San Agustin has a lot of inexpensive to expensive accommodations. One can stay in town for as little as $10 a night or rent one of the hotels in the countryside just outside of town for a little more. There are a number of hotels and hostels on the road going from the town to the park. I stayed at Casa Nelly – a hostel about a 40 minute walk outside of town – or a $2 cab ride. The hostel was very pleasant and offered breakfast and a late dinner.

the market at San Agustin

Door of the church at San Agustin

Waterfall  Alto di Bordones is highest free falling waterfall in Colombia dropping 400 meters or 1,300 feet

Waterfall Salto de Mortino

To get there –  One can arrive at San Agustin by way of Cali and Popayan. It’s a grueling 5 hour bus trip from Popayan which goes over the Cordillera Occidental mountains into the paramo through the National Park of Purace. The trip cost 38,000 COP. The wild park is beautiful but the dirt road is overgrown by jungle and one can only catch an occasional glimpse of the park’s valleys and impenetrable jungle through the trees. The bus stops short of San Agustin leaving you at a fork in the road where you must flag down ‘collectivo’ jeep for the final 5 minute trip to the town of San Agustin.

One could also come from the north through the valley between the Cordilleras Occidental and the Cordilleras Oriental by way of: Bogota – El Espinal – Neiva and Pitalito – passing the Tatacoa dessert and Tierradentro en route. The border of Ecuador, which for most is usually the next travel destination, can be reached using either route



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(For more information on archeological sites in Colombia see the article: Tierradentro Tombs and Colombia’s Ancient)

Please leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have and we will get back to you.

Colombia’s Coffee Triangle – Best Places to Visit

Colombian coffee beans on the vine

Zona Cafetera – Colombia’s Coffee Triangle

Jeeps called ‘Willys’  at the market in Manizales
A finca or coffee farm in the hills of Colombia
Mountain grown coffee beans
A coffee farmer manually removing the ‘flesh’ or husk from the ‘berry’ or coffee bean
Coffee beans fermenting to remove the slimy layer of mucilage around the seed
Coffee seeds or beans drying on the farmer’s rooftop in the sun
A coffee house in the town of Sevilla. The coffee maker is a old ‘Greca’

Manizales-Pereira-Armenia: a big tourist attraction in Colombia is an exploration of the Zona Cafetera, the ‘Triangulo del Café’ or the Coffee Triangle. Here  they say the best coffee in the world is produced. A rather heated point of contention because every city and region  in Colombia claims to produce not only the country’s best coffee, but they also boast the most beautiful women.

It’s an easy trip to the coffee triangle by bus from Bogota, Medellin or Cali. It gives one the chance to explore Colombia’s evergreen interior.  The triangle is composed of three cities all respective capitals of their departments: Manizales – capital of Caldas to the north, Pereira in Risaralda  in the center and Armenia capital of Quindío to the south.

The three towns are all interesting in their own right and worthy of an overnight stay. The town of Manizales is a lively university town.  Pereira is a rough and tumble agricultural city.

Armenia is much busier than the other two cities. Here there are coffee shops all over town – most of them sporting expensive expresso coffee machines. They love their expressos here. The best area for walking is on Carrera 14. The road is closed to traffic between Parque Sucre and Parque Uribe and it’s wall to wall restaurants and shops serving coffee, jugos, arts and crafts; teaming with street vendors and busy foot traffic.

Armenia Carrera 14
A street performer on Cra. 14

Salentoin the foothills of the Cordillera mountains is the little town of Salento.  It’s a sleepy town where tourism has really taken off in the last few years. Sitting in the green valleys with the Nevado de Tolima mountains in the distance, the countryside runs right up to the town.  I stayed at the Posada del Angel and sat on my balcony watching the clouds pass through the valleys, the people coming into town on horseback as the roosters crowed and the dogs barked.

Valley of Cocora – Wax Palm Trees. In the mornings you can catch a jeep which will take you above Salento into the Valle de Cocora – 35 minutes $1.50. The jeep leaves you at a visitor center where the trail leading into the the park begins.    This fertile valley has a fascinating landscape of pines, eucalyptus  and the famous wax palms, Colombia’s national tree. A gentle 2-3 hour walk  up  the mountain (about 5 km.) takes you to the Acaime Natural reserve – the most important wax palm zone in Colombia.  There are cattle ranches, lots of wild life and streams along the way. But the trail keeps going up in the mountains. One could keep walking for days – all the way to the snow covered peaks of the Los Nevados National Park.

Jeep ride from Salento to the park
A foot bridge over a river in the park
cattle ranches along the trail
horses can be hired for a trek in the park
Wax palm trees – Colombia’s national tree
Main square in Filandia
Sipping coffee in the plaza of Filandia
A street in Filandia
Filandia

Filandia:  A lot of travelers have been complaining about an excessive presence of travelers in Salento these days. As an alternative destination,  many have been venturing to the pueblo of Filandia. Named after the Nordic country, Finland, Finlandia in Spanish,  but it has been forever misspelled Filandia.  On the road between Armenia and Pereira the town is every  bit as beautiful as Salento.

Filandia is an attractive town with paisa architecture, windows and doorways all painted in three tones of primary colors with flowers in the windows and colorful sidewalks of colored,  stamped concrete. A small village with 7,000 inhabitants, it has lots of hotels, restaurants, coffee and pastry shops and art and craft stores catering to tourists.

National  Coffee Park (Parque Nacional del Café) is a theme park located 11 km. west of Armenia near the village of Montenegro.  Founded in 1995 by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, millions have visited the park-a must see if you’re a coffee aficionado. There are numerous exhibits detailing the history, culture and process of growing and producing coffee. There are ecological  trails throughout the park where  bamboo forests, coffee and bananas are grown and processed. There are exhibits and statues on Colombian folk architecture. A coffee show features the history and culture of the region told through typical dance and song. And down in the valley there is a large amusement park with food stalls, rides, roller coasters and other delights for the kiddies. A cable car runs from the bottom of the valley to the top. One could walk down and ride back up. Entrance fee is $10.

There are plenty of hotels near the park.  I stayed at the Finca Hotel La Tata – nicely run establishment with large comfortable rooms, a pool and meals included – $40 per person per day with breakfast. Not cheap but it was right across from the park entrance.

A view of the National Coffee Park’s bamboo forests
Bamboo forests
a coffee exhibit
An old jeep used to transport coffee
a traditional country house
Statues of Colombian folklore figures
Coffee plantation bordered by bamboo forests

Agricultural Tourism, another popular option is to stay on a coffee farm.  Some of the coffee growers in the region offer agricultural tourism (much like wineries) opening their farms called ‘fincas’  to tourism – a phenomenon that started in 1994. Tourists stay with comfortable accommodations on the farm, do coffee tours, learn about the process of coffee-growing while dining, relaxing, lounging around the pools and soaking up the rich scenery of the region. It’s a good alternative industry for the coffee growers and great way for tourists to get off the beaten path

A woman at a market food stall in Manizales
cooking arepas on the street in the street
Nothing better than sipping a cup of Colombian coffee with a good view of the street