The Small Heritage Towns of Colombia You Should See
Some of the small towns of Colombia are the most significant historically. If you’re looking for the best places to visit in Colombia, you should see the Pueblos Patrimonio de Colombia. The Ministry of Culture has declared these 17 small heritage towns “Assets of cultural interest”.
During our 6 months in Colombia, we visited 11 of them and would encourage you to see as many as you can.
The Heritage Towns of Colombia We Saw
These historic colonial towns are presented to you in the order we visited them, from the south to the north of Colombia.
We ended our post, The Small Towns of Colombia’s Coffee Region , with Jardín. Although it’s not technically in the Coffee Region, it was just too beautiful to leave out. It is full of colourful buildings, adorned with colourful flowers. There seems to be an unofficial competition in Colombia for who can squeeze the most flower pots on their balcony!
The town was settled by the Spanish in the late 1800s, and it hasn’t changed much in over 100years. Aside from the delight of wandering around this small town to see the colonial churches and other buildings; or sitting on one of the many colourfully painted chairs in the main plaza, drinking a tinto; there are many other activities in this town.
It is famous for the gallitos de las rocas – the Andean cock-of-the-rock; a beautiful red-plumed bird, which can be seen in the mornings and evenings in the Reserva Natural Gallito de la Roca, on the edge of town. Unfortunately, the path into the reserve was just a bit too difficult for us to descend, but for younger and fitter visitors it should pose no problem.
There are also caves and waterfalls and lovely green nature surrounding the town, and various activities like hiking, mountain biking, and paragliding are available. It’s close enough to Medellín to attract many weekend visitors from that city.
We passed through Honda on our way from Medellín to Bogotá. It’s situated on the River Magdalena, the longest river in Colombia. Several rivers and streams feed the great river at Honda, and it is known as the city of bridges.
Our intention had been to stay at least a night, somewhere in the old city. We arrived at the plaza, and parked Berta in a level spot, under the shade of a big, old tree. Coming from the mountain heights of Medellín, we couldn’t believe how hot it was at around 150m in altitude.
The old town was originally founded in 1539. It is very appealing to wander around in, with the Cathedral of our Lady of the Rosary dominating the plaza, and any number of narrow, cobbled streets filled with colourfully painted historic houses. Make sure you take a walk down Calle de las Trampas.
It reached its ‘heyday’ in the last half of the 19th century as an off-loading point, on the Río Magdalena, for goods shipped from the Caribbean coast along the river and then by road to Bogotá.
You could certainly spend some time in this heritage town, but the height of summer was not the time for us. We decided to drive on and try to find somewhere to sleep that was at least a few degrees cooler.
The next small town we reached was Guaduas, an important stopping point historically on the road from Honda to Bogotá. It was founded in 1572, abandoned, and re-founded in 1644. At 1000m high, it was much more pleasant than the heat of Honda.
It’s not one of Colombia’s colourful towns; its buildings are all white, with tiled roofs and brown doors, balconies, and other trims. It gives a certain cohesiveness to colonial buildings. Everything looks neat and well-preserved.
Constitution Plaza is a social place that is used by many locals, particularly in the evenings. It is also dominated by a beautiful church – Catedral de San Miguel Arcángel (Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel). The weather in this part of Colombia lends itself to community gatherings in the cool of the evening. We joined them after dinner and enjoyed an evening of watching how the locals spend their time.
Villa de Leyva, Boyacá
After 2 weeks in Bogotá, we were eager to re-visit another of our favourite historic towns of Colombia. We had been to Villa de Leyva twice in 2008.
This heritage town is supposed to have perfect weather! It also has the largest main plaza we have seen anywhere, surrounded by splendid white-washed, tile-roofed colonial buildings. In fact, the whole town follows the white-washed and dark woodwork, usually green or brown, theme. Even newer buildings keep to the same appearance. It has been designated a National Monument since 1954.
Make no mistake, Villa de Leyva is a tourist town. Both Colombian and International tourists flock there. We arrived just before Christmas and stayed until almost New Year – there were always people, everywhere. We compared it to the Easter holidays we had spent there in 2008 and are sure the tourist numbers have risen considerably.
If you ever get tired of wandering the streets of the colonial town that is often claimed as being the most beautiful in Colombia, there are two other places in the surrounding areas that we visited that might attract your interest:
- Museo el Fósil: a museum that is built around the skeleton of a kronosaurus. It’s the largest fossil that has been discovered in this region.
- Convento Ecce-Homo: although it is no longer a functioning monastery, it is open to the public as a museum. It has the most beautiful courtyard garden and its stone floors are full of fossils.
This area is rich in fossils. Have a close look at any stonework as you wander through the town and you will see many of them; even in the cobblestones that pave the streets. But, as I wrote the last time when we visited Villa de Leyva in 2008 :
It is easy to spend time wandering the streets of this beautiful town, but the novelty of walking on cobblestones wears off faster than the interest in the architecture.
This small heritage town seems to be ‘in the middle of nowhere’, but is famous for 2 things: being a heritage town and making footballs!
Monguí is more of a village than a town, but it has a large plaza with a church – Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Monguí – and the Convent of the Franciscans taking up one side of it. The Municipal Hall is also an impressive building, with its ground floor sloping downhill. It and the church are the only unpainted buildings around the plaza. The rest are white-washed and tile-roofed with an unusual trim colour – predominantly dark green on the woodwork, but with detailed brushwork in red and gold. Monguí looks like it celebrates Christmas all year round!
Even the ‘football factories’ were housed in historical buildings with the same colour scheme – a little incongruous perhaps, but it seems to work.
We spent less than 2 hours walking around the town, but it did impress us.
El Socorro, Santander
Historically, Socorro is famous as the birthplace of the Comunero Revolt or Commoners’ Rebellion , against the oppression of Spanish rule, in 1781. It was also the capital of the department of Santander between 1862 and 1886.
Today it’s a small, historic town that you can walk around in an hour or two. There are a couple of statues, around the Plaza de la Independencia, of people who died as a result of the revolt: José Antonio Galán, a mestizo farmer, and María Antonia Santos Plata, a peasant, who were executed by the Spanish for the parts they played as leaders of the revolution.
The colonial features of El Socorro were what interested us, and it took us only a couple of hours to walk around and see them. They have some very old and impressive buildings. But to tourists, who love adventure sports, they offer rappelling (abseiling), paragliding, canyoning, bungee jumping and paint ball.
After spending just a couple of hours in this delightful colonial town in 2008, this time we stayed 5 days. Barichara may even be our favourite heritage town of Colombia – of those we’ve seen.
The distinctive yellow sandstone, combined with white-washed, tile-roofed houses, and various coloured woodwork, makes it a real feast for the eyes. Watch out for the delicately carved sandstone surrounds of some of the lovely wooden doors. It’s built on the side of a hill, which makes it a bit of a workout sometimes, but also rewards you with some spectacular views over the rooftops to the mountains in the distance.
As well as wandering and enjoying the colonial architecture, we would recommend the following things to do in Barichara:
- Go to one of the miradors overlooking the Suarez River canyon. This was also the view from our camping place.
- Take a walk along a section of the Camino Real, down through the canyon to the small town of Guane. You can return easily by bus.
- Check out all the churches of Barichara, built from sandstone. Capilla de Jesús, next to the cemetery; Capilla de Santa Bárbara on Plaza de Santa Bárbara; Capilla de San Antonio; and of course, the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción on the Plaza.
- Visit the cemetery, where the yellow sandstone is also in abundance, marking the graves.
- Spend some time sitting in the shady central plaza and watch the world go by.
- Visit the Jorge Delgado Sierra Parque para las Artes – a beautiful garden, full of sculptures by local artists. It’s next to the Plaza de Santa Bárbara, and from the top of the garden you get an amazing view of the Suarez River canyon in one direction and the mountains in the other.
As in most places in Colombia, Barichara also offers the possibility to involve yourself in extreme sports, if that is your interest.
San Juan Girón, Santander
The municipality of Girón is actually part of the Metropolitan area of Bucaramanga, but the place to visit is the old town, full of well-preserved white colonial houses. It’s nestled in a bend of the Río de Oro, with a feeder creek running through it. This gives rise to the many bridges that it is also famous for.
We had also visited in 2008, but were keen to return. You only need an hour to walk slowly around the old town, but there are places to sit, museums to visit – although usually only open on weekends and public holidays – restaurants and tourist shops.
It is easy to see why it is included in this tourism network, and is definitely worth the short detour if you are passing by Bucaramanga on your way through Colombia.
La Playa de Belén, Norte de Santander
There is more to La Playa de Belén (literally Bethlehem Beach) than beautiful white buildings adorned with colourful terracotta flower pots, tiled roofs, and brown painted woodwork. It is also set in a quite remarkable landscape of weathered rock formations.
The town is in a relatively level valley, but it’s possible to climb to various viewpoints around it to see the settlement from above, and the surrounding landscape. We chose to climb the stair to the cemetery. It is 150m above the town, and the stair is the only access. So the dead are carried up to their final resting place.
It’s also possible to see the main sights of this village in a short time – it only has about 10 blocks! But we chose to stay 2 days. The main reason is that it is some distance from the main road, which goes to Cúcuta on the border with Venezuela. But we also stayed because the people were very friendly and helpful, especially when Berta got a flat tyre right in front of the church on the main plaza.
Santa Cruz de Mompox, Bolívar
The road into Mompox (or Mompós) is one of the worst we drove in Colombia. We’d been told the road was bad – it was. We’d been told it was really hot there – it was. But this unique place is really worth the effort to go there. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1995), as well as being a national patrimonial site of Colombia (since 1959).
Time and again, we came back to the mighty Magdalena River in Colombia. And Mompox is built right on the riverbank. This helps a little in the heat of the day, because it’s usually possible to find a shady spot with some breeze coming across the huge expanse of water.
Mompox is simply stunning. It’s like walking through a museum with so many interesting, intricate details that they are uncountable. Churches, courtyards in old mansions, plazas full of flowers and people, tree-lined streets, security doors and screens that look like wrought iron lacework, and even street art in appropriate places. The list goes on.
Mompox is up there with Barichara as our favourites of these small heritage towns of Colombia. We don’t want to tell you what to see – just go and look. But don’t miss the cemetery!
Santa Cruz de Lorica, Córdoba
Lorica was the only one of the heritage towns that we could have happily skipped. It doesn’t have the historical cohesiveness of the others. True, there are some quite spectacular colonial buildings, but they are so overwhelmed by the 20th Century, that sometimes you really have to look for them.
The most impressive part of this small town is along the river – it would probably be worth taking a boat ride to see it from that aspect. Its historic development was directly related to its position next to the Río Sinú, which was an important transportation route to the coast and the port city of Cartagena.
We were grateful we had detoured to visit Lorica, only because of its proximity to the coast. It’s just 30Km to Puerto Cispatá, where we spent several days before driving on to Cartagena.
The Heritage Towns of Colombia We Didn’t See
When we were leaving Villa de Leyva, we couldn’t decide whether we should go from there to Monguí, or directly north to San Gil and Barichara. It seemed that the roads in the area were not good, but passable. So we did some internet research and found the following information.
The National Tourism Fund, which promotes tourism throughout the country, developed the Tourism Network of Heritage Towns of Colombia – La Red Turística de Pueblos Patrimonio de Colombia .
Their website is very well-organised, with lots of information about each town, and a map showing the principal sights. We discovered that there were 17 towns in the network, and by then we had visited 4 of them. So we decided to visit Monguí, and any others we could get to during the remainder of our time in Colombia.
These are the heritage towns we didn’t see, mostly because we were unaware of them when they were near our route.
Guadalajara de Buga, Valle del CaucaWe missed Buga by less than 10Km, on our way from Cali to Armenia and Colombia’s Coffee Region. It is most famous for its Basilica, which houses the ‘Lord of Miracles’ or the ‘black Christ’ that attracts more than 3 million pilgrims a year.
When we were in Colombia’s Coffee Region, we made a lot of detours to visit many small towns. Had we known about this list of heritage towns, we would probably have made a few more. Aguadas is one of those we missed. It’s famous for the Aguadeño hat, that’s been a tradition for at least 150 years.
Salamina, CaldasSalamina is around 50Km from Aguadas. Both towns are part of the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This colourful town, so typical of the coffee region, is famous throughout Colombia for its poets, artists, and artisans. It’s also an alternative location (to Salento) to find the endemic wax palms.
Jericó, AntioquiaAnother of Colombia’s colourful towns. But Jericó is more famous for being the birth place of Colombia’s saint: Santa Madre Laura Montoya.
Had we skipped visiting Jardín, we could have visited all three of these small towns on our way out of the coffee region to Medellín. But, we wouldn’t have wanted to miss Jardín. Travelling is full of choices like these.
Santa Fe de Antioquia, AntioquiaSometimes called ‘the Mother City’, Santa Fe de Antioquia was the first capital of the state of Antioquia, before it was moved to Medellín. It is one of the oldest colonial towns and it has the oldest suspension bridge in Colombia.
Situated on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, next to Santa Marta, Ciénaga is a well-preserved colonial city that has experienced conflict: in the early 19th century between loyalists and those seeking independence; and in the early 20th century, the dispute between workers and the United Fruit Company, known as the Banana Massacre.
Of the small heritage towns of Colombia that we saw, some were smaller and took only a couple of hours to visit. Others were larger and we dedicated days to fully experience them. Some were easy to reach, others took us over unpaved, rough roads. They are all known for their colonial architecture, but some have maintained that more thoroughly than others. And all have their own individual histories that have impacted on Colombia’s history.
Here we have given our experiences of the colonial towns we did see, and your experience may be quite different. But, you’ll never know, if you don’t go.
Recommended Website (in Spanish) To Use:
The National Tourism Fund developed the Tourism Network of Heritage Towns of Colombia – La Red Turística de Pueblos Patrimonio de Colombia . If you click the individual town names a sub-page for this towns opens, where a Google map shows the location of all historic and interesting sights in this town, so you won’t miss a thing. If you use the Chrome browser with automatic translation it’s very easy to navigate. [Please note: further up in the text we linked to the English version of the same page! We find that the Spanish page with automatic browser translation is easier to comprehend.]