Colombia was not on my wish list when an opportunity arose to fill a vacancy on a planned tour. I confess that I left the house with little expectation. But something magical happened somewhere along the beautiful Andes mountains, and I fell in love with Colombia.
Over the next 2 years I made more trips to different regions, looking for the perfect place in the Andes to rest my overworked and exhausted body in preparation for a well-deserved retirement. I’m a country girl at heart and avoid the big cities. Most of my trips explore rural areas with preserved and authentic landscapes and cultures.
One of the side effects of the terrible drug cartel wars that lasted for many years was that very little changed in rural areas. Media reports around the world point to a high rate of crime and violence in Colombia, but this is no longer the case. As a result, the development of tourism has been slow. Colombia’s Spanish culture – a remnant of centuries-old colonization mixed with ancient Andean indigenous cultures – refuses to wither away.
Rural Colombia is saturated with quaint little villages, friendly people, and mountain scenery that I never tire of. Here are my picks, in no particular order, for the most charming villages in the Colombian Andes that are worth stopping by along your journey.
1. Santa Fe Antioquia
In the northern part of Colombia, just 35 miles north of Medellin, is Sante Fe Antioquia where the architecture reflects the whitewashed buildings and cobbled streets of old Spain. Founded in 1541, this village received a coat of arms from King Philip II of Spain, elevating its status in the church which secured additional royal funds used to build an exquisite town for distinguished residents.
Today, the village is an important Colombian historical site securing national attention to preserve the buildings, creating a sense of being suspended in time.
While living in Medellin for 2 months, I took a day to wander around the town square, chapels and neighborhoods once filled with bishops and Spanish dignitaries. Some must-see places are the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Archiepiscopal Palace, the Museum of Religious Art and the Plaza Mayor Juan de Corral.
Pro Tip: Hundreds of tourists arrive every weekend from Medellin, so book your tour early from a major hotel.
2. San Antonio De Pereira Rionegro Neighborhood
A popular destination for a day trip from Medellin, San Antonio de Pereira is a small neighborhood in the city of Rionegro. With its own central plaza, San Antonio de Pereira has a popular open-air market of handicrafts like sombreros, belts, art, jewelry, pottery and soft (Candy). Lots of sweetness.
A popular foodie destination due to many quality bakeries, their sweet reputation dates back nearly a century when the area was settled for its fertile soil. Women made jams and jellies from many fruit trees. The soil produces nutritious grass perfect for dairy farms, and milk has been added to cakes to create dulce de leche cake.
This four-layer cake is soaked in leche (milk) and covered with a sweet glaze. At Dulce Contigo Bakery, we found 30 different flavors of cakes in long pans laid out on tables. The customer pays at the door for a plate, fork and tickets, one for each piece of cake desired. The cake walk begins around the tables as customers exchange tickets for a good helping of goodness.
Pro Tip: Medellin’s public bus system is modern and easy to use. Buy a ticket at the central metro station for a comfortable bus ride through beautiful countryside.
This town goes beyond the definition of a village but has a small town feel. Founded in 1889 and renamed in 1930, Armenia is located in the heart of the “Coffee Cultural Landscape” declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Several coffee plantations are open to the public for tours. Mine included picking coffee beans with a friendly donkey chasing me.
Armenia hosts the Willy Jeep Festival. The first American military Jeep was introduced to Colombia shortly after World War II for use by coffee plantations due to the vehicle’s ability to operate in a rugged and steep mountainous environment. Nicknamed metal mules, Jeeps have become an important part of café culture.
Pro tips: Flying from Medellin might be a better option than driving due to heavy traffic in the Andes Valley. Armenia also has a large selection of excellent hotels.
A charming village just a 4-hour drive south of Medellin, Jardín is known for its well-preserved, brightly painted houses with hand-carved balconies that surround a large plaza filled with flowers, tables, and locals entertaining the latest first-hand news. First, join them for a hearty breakfast and soak up the experience.
Then, take a short hike to Cascada La Escalera, a double waterfall hidden in the lush gardens and surrounding forest. My favorite activity is birdwatching at the Reserva Natural Jardín de Rocus where the beautiful Andean birds live.
Pro tips: Book the Reserva Natural Jardín de Rocus trip until sunset, when the birds are most active. There are many hiking trails, but many are unadvertised, so ask your hotel manager for directions or how to hire a guide.
5. El Santuario, Risaralda
As the gateway to the Tatama National Natural Park, El Santuario is one of the liveliest villages in Colombia. Catering to passing travelers seeking the beauty of this important national park, many are birdwatchers and orchid enthusiasts. Only rustic cabins are available in the park, but there are plenty of hotel and restaurant options at El Santuario.
Nestled in a valley surrounded by massive Andes mountains, many visitors to Medellin enjoy the scenic drive and mountain views. The Spanish Colonial architecture is intact and preserved, but outdoor activities are limited inside the park.
Pro Tip: Banks and ATMs for US credit cards are available downtown and are good, safe places to withdraw cash.
Designated a UNESCO Historic Site, this colorful Spanish colonial village near Colombia’s northern border is best known for its forest coffee. Unlike shade or shade coffee, forest coffee trees are planted under an uncut canopy that includes fruit trees, flowers, bamboo and vegetables. This revived ancient technique produces a unique taste and an eco-friendly product as shade beans stay moist, forest animals eat insects eliminating the use of pesticides, and plants obtain nutrients from forest debris.
The Serraniagua Foundation sells local coffee through a small cafe in El Cairo Square and also organizes tours of the Rainforest Alliance-approved El Porvenir farm.
Pro Tip: Highly recommend staying at Roma Pizzeria, a funky hostel owned by Maria, an artist who specializes in turning trash into art. She also makes amazing pizzas with fresh ingredients from the garden.
West of Bogota, surrounded by wax palms, Salento is in the Cocora Valley known for its breathtaking views of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano. Most visitors are young backpackers from around the world who come to hike the volcano and enjoy the vibrant nightlife.
Salento offers quality hotels, cafes, music and crafts. My favorite lodge is the eco-friendly Salento Real hotel with a beautiful Spanish interior and solar panels for electricity.
Pro tips: Salento is near Bogota, Colombia’s largest city, and popular for biking and horseback riding. Make early reservations for accommodation.
Located in the central Andes, amidst lush forest and coffee plantations, this charming village untouched by modern architectural changes boasts some of the most colorful buildings in Colombia. But the best part, most tourists head to neighboring Salento, keeping this sleepy little town a secret gem.
Retiring to Colombia hasn’t happened, but if it did, it would be where lots of ecotourism opportunities are with small parks and reserves nearby – like the Barbas Nature Reserve- Bremen which looks like a real jungle with howler monkeys.
Filandia is also a popular Sunday afternoon day trip for cycling-loving Bogota locals. There are plenty of uncrowded dirt tracks perfect for cycling past beautiful farms and breathtaking viewpoints of the Andes.
Pro Tip: Some of the most picturesque views of the Andes can be found on the outskirts of Filandia. The best way to see them is to hop on a Chiva, a brightly decorated bus used as a rural public bus system.
Before you leave
Not many people speak English in rural areas, so brush up on your Spanish. There are many translation apps that work in Colombia, but it’s best to buy a new SIM card and temporary service from a Colombian phone company. Internet is generally free in rural areas.
Weather-wise, there is no bad time to visit Colombia due to the country’s proximity to the equator. The temperature changes according to the altitude. There are dry or wet seasons, but timings change across the country, so check the weather conditions in the area.
Colombia is home to a world of incredible experiences, including: