Travel 

Colombia’s Most Magical Mountain Villages

The most stunning Colombian pueblo is villa de Leyva. © Dreamstime/Uli Danner

Colombia’s cities have a little something for everyone. Cali is famous for its tropical climate and salsa fever. Medellín is a livable, sophisticated city with modern architecture and beautiful people. Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, offers international dining, globally renowned festivals and museums, and colonial Cartagena is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage site.

But you’ll find the real magic of Colombia in its pueblos, or villages. The best are impeccably maintained and feature whitewashed walls with brown and green trim or contrasting pastel colors. The hub of each town is its central plaza. While the main church sits on one side and restaurants and bars line the outer edges, families, friends, and neighbors congregate in the center to chat and watch the town go by. Wander along small village streets and strangers greet you like an old friend. Eat a hearty meal in a local restaurant for $3 or $4, unwind, get in touch with nature, and meet people—and do it for much less than the cost in larger cities.

It isn’t just adventurous foreigners who visit. In fact, many of Colombia’s city dwellers long for small-town life, and a popular weekend activity is what they call pueblear (visiting the little villages scattered throughout the countryside).

While some of these pueblos are well known and others are just starting to emerge on the international map, they are all beautiful in their own right and show another side to Colombia that can’t be found in its urban centers. The following are five of my favorite pueblos.

Monguí: Voted as the prettiest village in the province of Boyacá, entering Monguí is like stepping into a time machine and visiting Colombia 300 years ago. History buffs, architecture enthusiasts, and nature lovers will find Monguí an extraordinary destination. While the pueblo is famous for its small soccer-ball factories, the real draw is the impressive preservation of its streets, buildings, and churches. With an altitude higher than Colombia’s chilly capital, you’ll need a thick jacket and scarf to truly enjoy this town. Danilo Salcedo (tel. +57 320-471-3614) is a young local guide who offers tours to Páramo de Ocetá, famed as one of the most beautiful moors in the world. Very few tourists pass through this charmer, so be prepared to stop and chat with curious locals.  

Santa Fe de Antioquia: Around an hour’s drive from Medellín, this town is famous for its large number of colonial churches and for being the old capital of Antioquia. The Museo Juan del Corral, (Calle de la Amargura 11 # 9- 77, Santa Fe de Antioquia, Colombia; tel. 574-853-4605; e-mail:  museojuandelcorral@mincultura.gov.co) is a tiny museum that hosts an interesting mix of religious art, colonial artifacts, and new exhibitions. Also worth seeing is the Puente de Occidente, an imposing hanging bridge that passes over the Cauca River. The climate is a bit warmer than in Medellín, so choose a hotel with a pool to escape the heat. At night, head to one of the local bars and hang out with the townspeople and visitors from the big city. The town’s main park, named after hero Simón Bolívar, is a great place to browse handicrafts and watch life go by. You can get there via bus from Medellín’s north terminal.

Villa de Leyva: Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s most popular pueblos, and for good reason. It’s so stunning, in fact, that telenovela (soap opera) film crews can often be found filming scenes in the central plaza, said to be the largest in Colombia. The tourist influx has created an international restaurant scene and all the creature comforts necessary to fully relax and enjoy life here. Short day trips include Museo el Fósil (See: Museoelfosil.com/), home to a massive fossil from the Cretaceous Period, or a visit to Lake Iguaque. There is a walking trail that leads to a lookout behind Colombian Highlands, a hostel and eco-tour company under biologist Oscar Gilède (See: Colombianhighlands.com) – maps are provided. To get there, take a bus from Bogotá’s main bus terminal to Tunja, which is about four hours north in the state of Boyacá. Once in the terminal, take a buseta to Villa de Leyva.

A place where horses dance down the street.”

Ráquira: This gorgeous pueblo is home to Colombia’s leading potters and ceramic artists. One of the most colorful on the list, Ráquira is where you go to stock up on unique souvenirs. Some of the best buys include oversized hammocks, custom coffee mugs, and funky handmade jewelry. Those relocating to Colombia can find home furnishings here, like gorgeous wall clocks and giant pots. Bambinos, located across from the church, makes excellent pizzas and vegetarian wraps. Check out the farmer’s market over the bridge, which is home to some of the biggest pumpkins you’ll ever see. There’s not much else to do here besides shop, so if you’re short on time, it makes a good day trip from Villa de Leyva.

Jardín: This is a place where horses dance down the town’s streets and farmers line the central park drinking aguardiente (“a distilled liquor”). The people that inhabit the town are especially friendly, making Jardín a welcoming stop. Escapes into nature are everywhere. La Cueva del Esplendor, a cavern that sits at the bottom of a giant waterfall, can be reached via an epic six-hour journey on horseback. Or grab your fully-charged laptop and catch up on emails in the central park, which offers free WiFi. When facing the church, the café on the right side serves an excellent café mocha for under a dollar. Jardín is about a four-hour drive south of Medellín in the state of Antioquia and can be easily reached by bus from Medellín’s southern bus terminal.

Editor’s Note: This article was taken from a past issue of International Living’s monthly magazine. To get full access to all past and future articles and to receive the magazine in the mail or online each month, simply click on the below button to subscribe to International Living magazine at the special introductory price of $49. You will get instant access to the current issue of the magazine as well 10 years of back issues. As an added bonus, we will also send you a FREE report – How to Retire in Paradise on $30 a Day. (You can cancel your subscription at any time.)

 

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