One of the reasons why I loved Colombia so much are the colonial cities! Unlike many other countries we visited, where historical centers were dilapitaded, the great majority of the colonial towns were super well preserved and picturesque—original stone alleys, small pastel-colored buildings, iron varandas hanging above calles with ivies and drying clothes, handfuls of craft shops, and dozens of coffee shops. However, the best part about Colombia—especially small pueblos —is the people! We were so warmly welcomed by everyone: dozens of kids “toured” our tiny rv, people were easily charmed by Kai (our dog), we got invited a couple of times to spend the night at someone’s house, and everyone just radiated happiness. Sooo….I’m basically saying, “if you go to Colombia, go to these 5 historical towns—they are a must!!”.
Ahhhh….what can I say about Barichara besides that it’s considered by many to be Colombia’s most beautiful town? The pueblo is located in the state of Santander, up in the mountains, and is the perfect balance between tranquility—red stone streets framed by white colonial houses—and adventure—such as the Camino Real Para Guane, an old brick path through the countryside to the cutest village ever. One of the factors why we personally enjoyed Barichara so much was the campsite we “lived” at for a few days, Guaimaro Campsite, whose owners are a lovely Dutch couple. Guaimaro sits on top of a mountain, facing the valleys of Santander, and is loved by all sorts of travelers; we befriended overlanders from Kenya, US, and Spain, and shared so many experiences on hikes and over buttery popcorn buckets. Also, huge plus—every morning they bake the BEST BREAD ON EARTH (I rarely eat bread, and still couldn’t resist eating it every morning).
As for Barichara itself, please, do yourself a favor and take a good camera…you will surely need it. There are a few ancient chapels, Capilla de Jesus (built in 1714) is one of the most famous, even though its facade is quite raw; similarly, a terracota-colored cathedral is located in the main plaza, the Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepcion. I believe touring the town by foot is the ideal while stopping to try local goodies, admire the colonial architecture, and check out the views—highly recommend trying the cheese at Don Queso (even the hormiga culona/ant one), and to stop at El Mirador, a beautiful lookout. Another delicious place we enjoyed is the Shanti, a superb healthy restaurant where the owner blesses the food, and the famous Gringo Mike’s Burguer joint (their PB and nutella milkshake is awesome).
Villa de Leyva
Villa de Leyva, even though it’s another colonial town, is quite different from Barichara due to its proximity to Bogota, making it a covered “high-end” destination. The town is beyond charming and perfect for strolling around; additionally, we were fortunate enough to participate at the Festival de los Cometas, a nationally famous kite festival—the city buzzed with tourists from all over Colombia. Also, we had an extra “family member” for a couple of weeks, my sister’s friend, Sophia, who flew over from Washington, US, to travel with us. Due to the festival, we spent the majority of our days surrounded by people. The city vibrated with music, and the sky was filled by kites of every shape and color; the central plaza was transformed into a kite competition zone, dozens of cafes and restaurants were crowded with families, and the main cathedral held hourly services. Besides its architectural beauty, we found Villa de Leyva to be a delicious cuisine destination, our favorites: La Galleta Pastelaria, the best milhojas in town, a regional dessert; the Museo del Chocolate, a super cute and tasty chocolate shop—try their sugar-free alfajores, they were my absolute favorite—and a fun restaurant, as well as a tiny chocolate museum; and Café Los Gallos, a small joint for coffee, arepa, and sugar lovers. Besides the city, there were numerous outdoors activities such as horseback riding, thermal waters, and hikes!
Guatape was probably my favorite colonial city, even though we only spent one day touring the bright-colored town. Guatape means “stones and water” in Quechua, the language of the Incas, and was named in honor of a famous cacique of the regional tribe. In the year of 1811 Guatape was founded by the Spaniard Don Francisco Giraldo y Jimenez, where the majority of the population lived as farmers and miners. Nowadays, the town is painted in bright colors by its inhabitants, who decorated their homes with fresco-like window fringes and panels called zocalos; thus, each zocalo depicts a different image–sunflowers and roses, mountains and waterfalls, people and animals–many times helping tourists figure out what a store offers, such as bread loaves zocalos for bakeries. I’m not sure when they exactly started this type of house “theme” in Guatape; however, I know they have done a major reformation to the town, turning a once dilapidated city into one of the the jewels of the Andean Colombia.
While staying in the region, we spent a few nights parked in this lakefront hostal and enjoyed bonfires at night, as well as paddle boarding during the mornings. Nowadays, Guatape and its surroundings are famous throughout Colombia for their beauty and uniqueness—hundreds of islets spread across the lake, green mountains, and the magical pueblo of Guatape. The best way to appreciate the landscape is by climbing Piedra del Peñol, an extremely high rock with 740 steps carved into it, sounds tiring right? But it’s so worth the ascend! From El Peñol, we grabbed a tuki-tuki to Guatape and from there walked around the pueblo. The city wasn’t like anything I had ever seen…everything seemed to have popped out straight from a fairy tale: the beautiful carvings on the houses and terraces, the stone alleys, and the hundreds of colorful paintings on the walls of stores, restaurants, and homes. A famous restaurant is Don de Sam, whose curry is very good; I personally loved visiting Essencia Del Sol, an Arab-style tea house with blood-red walls, detailed tapestries, and velvety cushions on the floor (customers don’t sit on chairs). Also, I highly recommend Gelato Dulce Amore—their sugar-free flavor of Coco Limon & Almendras is very refreshing.
Unlike the other towns we visited in Colombia, Salento, besides being very picturesque, is a place whose activities evolve around numerous hikes, tours on coffee plantations, wild Jeep and horseback rides, and biking to many popular sites. We stayed in Salento around 3-4 days, and I loved it very much. Besides touring the town everyday, we went horseback riding with Cabalgatas, Caminos y Trochas de Salento (+57 310 522 4141) through the mountains to Finca Las Acacias, a coffee plantation, where we learned everything about the long process of producing high-quality coffee: from planting and harvesting, to selecting and roasting the grains, and eventually grinding and serving a delicious hot expresso. The following day we woke up very early, walked to town, hopped on a Jeep—Maria, Sophie, and I dangled from the back—and drove off to Cocora Valley to hike a 14-16 km trail across the hills, forests, and valleys. I honestly don’t recommend taking a guide (which we did and saw there was no need to); however, I do recommend taking plenty of food or stop along the way at the small restaurant up on the mountains. The little sendero is beautiful, starting on farm fields crowded with cows, ascending through thick forests until reaching the summit—where fire-colored flowers spread on the fields—then descending the mountainside to find the highest palm trees (around 60 m/180 ft tall) in the world swinging lazily from one side to the other. The Valley of Cocora , once called Cocorá , was named after the princess of the Quindio, the regional tribe, and means “star of water”. On our way back, after 5 hours of hiking, we grabbed a bite to eat at Cafe La Finca, which offered delicious homemade arepas. Also, I absolutely adored Salento Brunch (I ate there twice a day everyday hehe)—they offer phenomenal burgers!
Popayan, also known as the “white city”, was the last colonial town we visited in Colombia. The charming city is almost entirely composed of white colonial buildings, several cathedrals, one of Colombia’s most prestigious universities, the University of Cauca, and a beautiful plaza which stands in the heart of Popayan. We stayed a few days in the city, enjoying our last week in Colombia, and were surprised at arriving in the middle of one of the most famous culinary events in the country–the White City Food Festival (Popayan is considered by UNESCO’s a gastronomic destination)! From the first day we strolled about the city and spent quite some time degustating Colombian culinary from all over the country: the rustic bandeja de paisa from the Medellin region, a traditional farmer’s meal consisting of pork, sausage, beans, rice, eggs, and avocado; the famous ajiaco soup from Bogota, which is made of potatoes, pollo, corn, and guasca leaves; and also the richly flavored Colombian food from the Pacific coast (my absolute favorite), which has the influence of the Afro-Latin culture, and is cooked with creamy coconut sauce, fresh seafood, and exotic spices.
Some popular spots to visit in Popayan are El Morro del Tulcan, a lookout where one can observe the entire city from; the Humilladero Bridge, a historical bridge built in 1873, interconnecting Popayan’s downtown to the suburbs; and of course, the many, many churches such as San Francisco, Santo Domingo, La Erminata, and a handful of others.