Colombia’s Most Alluring Colonial Towns You Must See

With immaculately preserved architecture, fascinating history, and evocative places to stay and dine, our local insider Caroline gives you a run down of Colombia’s most alluring colonial gems.

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Photo © iStock/ChandraDhas

Cartagena may be Colombia’s undisputed colonial queen, but the nation’s wild and beautiful landscapes are dotted with irresistibly photogenic colonial towns.

Barichara

20m northwest of San Gil is the elegant colonial town of Barichara. Founded in 1705, the town expanded from a small church where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared on a rock.

Today, wealthy Colombians and in-the-know travelers are lured by the town’s beautiful climate, upscale charms, and boho lifestyle. With it's handsome sandstone architecture, this place won't look out of place in a telenovela.

While all towns in Latin America pay homage to Bolívar, Barichara thinks outside the box: The region is famous for its "fat-ass ants", also known as hormigas culonas.

These are traditionally roasted when they come to ground in April. So hailed are these salty, peanuty-tasting creatures, they've been immortalized in no less than two monuments here in Barichara.

Mompox

Mompox. Photo credit: iStock

Isolated for centuries on the wetlands of Colombia’s longest waterway – the fabled Rio Magdelena – few places live up to their mythology quite like Mompox.

Founded in 1537, Mompox’s UNESCO-protected streets look much the same as they did in the days of Cervantes.

Kids playing soccer in Mompox. Photo credit: iStock

It was here, in 1812, that Bolívar raised an army of 400 men, which proved decisive to the liberator’s campaign to end Spanish rule in Latin America.

For all its rich cultural legacy and fiercely independent spirit, these days, the town has a decidedly slower pace – due in no small way to the scorching heat.

Popoyán

Some 132km from Cali, Popoyán is one of Colombia’s best-preserved colonial town.

This spirited university town has the nickname ‘White City’ – a nod to its signature white-on-white colonial buildings.

If you're spending more than a day here, don't miss the chance to explore the rugged mountains nearby, filled with thermal waters, waterfalls, and challenging hikes to the crater of Volcán Puracé.

Popoyán is also host to Colombia’s most extravagant Holy Week celebrations, second only after Sevilla in Spain. The religious museums and churches here are more soulful than somber.

For the foodies, the city has plenty to offer too – having garnered UNESCO kudos as a Creative City of Gastronomy.

Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva is one of South America's most evocative towns. Founded in 1572, it's a compelling antidote to the well-worn colonial cliché.

The town’s colossal square – one of the largest in Latin America at 14,000 square meters – is largely devoid of action. The extraordinary 16th-century buildings, quite rightly, steal all the glory.

Once the day-tripping hoards from Bogotá (three hours northwest by car) empty out, the real Villa de Leyva comes to life.

There's plenty on offer for outdoor-lovers too: just outside town, diverse landscapes offer fossil-hunting expeditions, hiking through páramo at the Iguaque natural reserve, as well as rappelling and zip lining at Parque Ecológico La Periquera.

San Gil

In Colombia’s north central Santander department, the earthy town of San Gil is an extreme-sports enthusiast's playground.

White water rafting, paragliding, caving, biking, rappelling, and trekking – all are guaranteed to make your heart valves squeak.

Don't just stay in town though. Within an hour’s drive, the enchanting Parque El Gallineral feels like it's been plucked from a child’s imagination.

Butterflies and dragonflies dart over streams crisscrossed with rickety bridges, spring-fed pools form a natural swimming pool, and Spanish mossy trees (barbas de viejos) that resemble beards infuse an otherworldly aura.

Landscape photographers, get ready to fall in love.

Santa Fe de Antioquia

Within striking distance of Medellín, the colonial gem of Santa Fe de Antioquia is one of Colombia’s most beguiling 16th-century cities.

Founded in 1541 by Jorge Robledo – a conquistador notorious for his unquenchable thirst for blood and gold – this former mining town was the region’s capital before Medellín assumed the mantel in 1826.

Santa Fe’s central axis is Plaza Mayor, one of South America’s most endearing squares. The dazzling Catedral Metropolitan presides here over a cinematic ensemble of single-story colonial buildings with ornately carved lintels, decorative stone work, and lush courtyards. 

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