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’ and 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.
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.
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.
Aguadas it is often covered in morning fog. Here they grow 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 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.
For more on the arts & crafts of Jerico and Aguadas see the article: Arts and Crafts Tourism in Colombia
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.
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.
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.
Barichara – is 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.
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 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 wierd, 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 wierd 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 are 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 easily won the competition. Later it was declared one the country’s 17 Heritage Villages.
Heritage Villages in the Department of Boyaca near Bogota
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.
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 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’s unique environment is 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 recommended 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
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, grass covered hills and a vibrant night life.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.