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.
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!
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.
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’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
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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