The Most Beautiful Colonial Towns in Colombia

Like much of South America, Colombia was a Spanish colony from the 15th to 19th centuries. It has been independent since 1819, but the Spanish left their mark with some of the prettiest colonial towns.

San Gil

The mountain town of San Gil is 300 km north of Bogota. We stopped here as it is the only access to the highly rated colonial towns of Barichara and Guane. Although not considered a historic centre, we were surprised to find great architecture in San Gil. At the centre of this 17th century town is Parque la Libertad. The park has large trees, paved walking paths and kiosks selling ice-cream and drinks. It’s a busy park and is a great place to see locals going about their day. The buildings around the park are typical Spanish colonial and are now used as restaurants, coffee shops and stores. At one end of the park is Catedral de la Santa Cruz, built in 1791. It’s a lovely stone church with two tall towers; one for bells the other for a clock. Inside, it has brick walls and pillars leading up to a shiny golden apse. On the hilly streets around the park are many Spanish style homes with colourful exteriors and terracotta roofs.

San Gil is known as the adventure capital of Colombia. There are many opportunities to kayak, bungee jump, whitewater raft, paraglide and mountain bike. We chose to go whitewater rafting. It was too late in the day to go rafting on the Rio Suarez with Grade 5 rapids, so we went on the Rio Fonce which is said to have Grade 3 rapids. We thought it would be a pretty gentle afternoon, but it turned out to be quite adventurous. Compared to the Grade 4 rafting we did in Asia, Grade 3 in Colombia is a lot more aggressive. For the first 20 minutes we were bombarded with big waves and crashing water. It was a lot of fun, but we couldn’t imagine what Grade 5 would be like. In the calm areas where we could rest, we saw many different birds and an unusual site. There were iguanas drying themselves on over hanging tree limbs high above the river. At one spot we rafted under a bungee jumper!

Barichara

Twenty-one km from San Gil, Barichara is touted as the most beautiful colonial town in Colombia and we have to agree. It is the quintessential colonial town with cobblestone streets and rows of whitewashed homes. The homes have low roofs with typical terracotta shingles and the houses share a wall with their neighbours. The streets are very clean and the homes are in perfect condition. Their brightly painted wooden windows and doors add colour to this picturesque town. To top it off, Barichara is set on a hill and has a gorgeous mountain backdrop.

In the centre of town is the small square Plaza Principal, with park benches set under the shade of large palm trees. We stopped on a bench for lunch and watched the park fill up with locals doing the same. On one end of the square is the yellow sandstone Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción. Its grand exterior stone walls, domed roof and double bell towers is very impressive. Inside are large stone columns leading to gold leaf altar. Around the borders of the square are cute colonial buildings that are now used as restaurants and shops.

Up the hill from the square is the oldest church in the area. Capilla de Santa Barbara, built in the 17th century, is much less extravagant than the cathedral, but its humble exterior has its own charm. Further along the street is Capilla de Jesus, a very modest stone church with the town cemetery next door. We really enjoyed our day walking along the streets of this pretty town.

Camino Real

One of the most popular things to do in Barichara is to walk the Camino Real to the village of Guane. The camino was originally built by the indigenous Guane people and was restored in the 1800s. It’s a stone-paved walk traversing the valley between Barichara and Guane. It is an easy hike to get to Guane as it’s mostly downhill, but the uneven stones mean you can’t walk too fast. The trail starts by dropping straight down the side of the ravine’s ridge to the Rio Suarez valley below. It then goes along the valley between small farms. The trail is lined by trees which protected us from the hot sun, however, the trees meant that there were fewer views of the surrounding mountains than we had expected. We saw many cacti, beautiful flowered trees and large trees covered in Old Man’s Beard (or Spanish Moss). This walk is a bird lovers’ paradise. We heard many birds singing loudly as we passed and saw many colourful ones including (we think) scarlet and blue tanagers, yellow finches and mockingbirds. After an hour and a half, we reached the cute village of Guane.

Guane

Guane’s history dates back to pre-Colombian times when it was inhabited by the Guane people. Today it’s only visible history is left over from the Spanish. Guane is a smaller, less perfect version of Barichara. This small village has cobblestone streets and whitewashed homes which all lead to the centre square. It was much less busy than Barichara and the few residents we saw were working in the convenience stores and restaurants around the square. The main church, Santa Lucia, is a basic stone building with a typical Spanish bell tower.

Villa de Leyva

The colonial town of Villa de Leyva has been able to retain much of its historical charm despite being only 160 km north of Bogota. It was apparently used by the Spanish as a retreat for military officers but because of its arid location it didn’t develop and modernize like many neighbouring towns. Today it’s a popular tourist attraction as it still looks like an old Spanish town. The main square, Plaza Mayor, is a large open area with cobblestones covering the square and the surrounding streets. On one side of Plaza Mayor is Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Rosario built in the early 1600s. The large church is very different from other churches we’ve seen with its plain whitewashed walls and short stone bell tower. Inside it is like most churches in the area with a long nave and a golden apse at the front.

The streets surrounding the square are mostly cobblestone, bordered with Spanish colonial homes. They have typical whitewashed walls with colourful wooden doors and windows. What’s different is that many of the homes in Villa de Leyva are two stories. They usually have small balconies on the second floor making them look more elaborate than the other colonial towns we visited.

Immediately behind town is a small hill with a mirador (lookout point) on its top. We hiked from town for about 40 minutes to reach the lookout where we had great views of the town and the surrounding arid mountains. In typical South American style, there is a statue of Christ looking down on the town.

Eight km outside of town is an interesting archaeological site. As early as 4000BC, the indigenous people, called Muisca, created an astronomical observatory. They built 2 rows of 109 stones in a north-south orientation with one large stone in the centre. (This stone is no longer there.) The Muisca used the stones to tell the seasons according to the orientation of the shadows. This helped the Muiscas determine when to plant their crops. Surrounding this astronomical site are another 115 large monolith stones carved in the shape of phalluses. A sign on the site refers to the importance of a good harvest in relation to healthy reproduction. These stones were used in fertility rituals. This site was dubbed El Infiernito (Little Hell) by the Spanish in reference to these pagan rituals. In the centre of the complex is an underground tomb for a Muisca chief. Apparently, there are more in this site that haven’t been uncovered.


Doing the Camino Real

The trail begins at the end of Calle 4 and Carrera 10. On Calle 4 you first reach Malecon del Mirador where you can have a nice view of the valley with its red earth.The trail is over 7km long (many sites say 9km, but that’s the road distance) and loses 300m elevation. It’s an easy walk, but the cobblestones are difficult to walk on. It took us 1 ½ hrs beacuae we wanted to take our time, but also because of the stones. Remember to wear good shoes. We wore runners and were glad we didn’t wear sandals as we originally planned. We walked the path return to Barichara too and it only took 20 minutes longer. Many people take the bus back which leaves Guane every 60 minutes, but we’re glad we walked. It wasn’t a mountain hike, but was a nice walk to a pretty village and we recommend it to everyone.

How to get to San Gil

Buses leave Bogota’s Salitre bus station for the north throughout the day, many stop in San Gil. The bus ride takes 9 hours. The transportation Terminal in San Gil is 2 km from the main square. Big buses heading north or south will use this station. Taxi will cost 5,000 COP.

How to get to Barichara

Mini buses leave San Gil Terminalito (small station) on Carrera 10 every 30 min beginning at 6:30 am. The 40 min ride to Barichara is 5,200 COP and it ends at the main square in Barichara. The same buses return to San Gil. Minibuses traveling in the Santander district will use Terminalito bus station.

How to get to Villa de Leyva

From San Gil you will have to take two buses. The first is a large bus headed for to Tunja (4 hrs). From here you take a collectivo to Villa de Leyva (1 hrs). From Bogota, buses leave Bogota’s Salitre bus station for the north throughout the day, many stop in Tunja. It takes 6 hours from Bogota. Then take the collectivo to Villa de Leyva.

Coming Next: Bogota

For other pictures from Columbia click here. For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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29 comments

    • San Gil was a lot better than we expected. I can’t imagine how crazy level 5 would be! The guides were great though so I imagine it would have been amazing, lucky you!!

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  • Columbia really does have a lot to see. Glad to read that it is possible to travel there again after so many years of civil war. I remember Villa de Leyva quite fondly, one of the first places we visited on our journey through Latin America, although I had forgotten the name until I saw your pictures!

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    • We’re so pleasantly surprised by everything so far in Colombia. There are still areas that are unsafe but they aren’t places we’d go to anyway. The colonial villages are a great start to exploring Colombia.

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        • Yes we are here and I wish I posted this blog 2 days ago! We drove passed San Augustin yesterday and heard about it the first time from a lady on our bus! It was an awful drive (10 hours) on a bumpy gravel road through drug cartel area so we won’t go back. Our bus was stopped by the police and thoroughly checked for guns and drugs…kind of scary. I’ll blog about it in a week or two.

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          • We also had such scary encounters. From my “Latin American Journey” blog post: Popayan has many beautiful buildings (many destroyed a couple of years later in an earthquake in 1983) and indigenous people and markets. We were in a bar/restaurant there when suddenly approx. 15 heavily armed soldiers entered and I and all other men had to stand against a well with our hands in the air. The soldiers were very young, nervous and sweating, and they were apparently looking for guerilla members. Needless to say, it was a very frightening situation.”

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          • No, I don’t think so, but we traveled there in 1979, so my memory is a bit vague on places. If you get to the north, try to visit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park in the mountains in the north of Columbia, for which we had to get permission from local authorities of the indigenous people, the Kogi who live there.

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  • Yet another great post with fantastic photos, guys! It would be challenging to choose which place to visit as they all look absolutely amazing yet I’m not too sure about 10 hour bus journey through drug cartel area. Safe travels 😀

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    • Thanks! The towns are safe but not all areas are yet. You can fly between many of the sites instead which would be safer. We are loving it though. The people are incredibly friendly and the towns are very nice so far.

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  • Wow. The Colombian countryside is so beautiful! You did take such amazing shots and I can immediately feel the Spanish influences resonate. Amazing adventure you had there. 🙂

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  • Those are some amazing towns. I love Spanish colonial cities and have really enjoyed visiting them in Mexico, Guatemala and Cuba. I think I’d like to visit Villa de Leyva the most based on that spectacular view.

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  • Another great travel adventure from you two. Those look like very pretty towns. Interesting to read the comments. I’ve been hearing more and more about people traveling there, which surprised me at first given how much air-time Colombia got on the news when I was growing up, but that was a long time ago. Still, though I’m not happy to hear there are still dangerous areas, it’s good to be fully informed. Stay safe!

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    • Thanks, we started hearing more and more great things about Colombia from other travelers. Up until that bus ride we’ve been more on the lookout for pick pockets as in common in most South American big cities. The bus police stop was a startling realization of where we are. Overall, during the day, it’s perfectly safe in the tourist sites, but some places at nite we don’t go or take a taxi. Those pretty small towns are very safe. And the people are very friendly and helpful.

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