Colombia was not on my bucket list when an opportunity arose to fill a vacancy on a preplanned tour. I admit, I left home with low expectations. But something magical happened somewhere along the beautiful Andes Mountains, and I fell in love with Colombia.
During the next 2 years, other trips were made in different regions, searching for that perfect place in the Andes to rest my overworked, burnt out body for a much-needed retirement. I am a country girl at heart and avoid big cities. Most of my journeys explore rural areas of an unspoiled 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 the rural areas. The media reports around the world regard high crime and violence in Colombia, but that is no longer the case. As a result, tourism development has been slow. Colombia’s Spanish culture — remaining from centuries-old colonization mingled with ancient Andean Indigenous cultures — refuses to wither away.
Rural Colombia is saturated with small quaint villages, warm friendly people, and mountain scenery I never tired of. Here are my picks, in no particular order, for the most charming villages in the Colombian Andes Mountains that are worth a stop along your journey.
1. Santa Fe Antioquia
In the northern part of Colombia, just 35 miles north of Medellin, sits Sante Fe Antioquia where architecture reflects Old Spain’s whitewashed buildings and cobblestone streets. Founded in 1541, this village received a coat of arms from King Phillip II of Spain, elevating its status in the church which secured additional royal funds used to build an exquisite city for distinguished residents.
Today, the village is an important Colombian historical site ensuring national attention to preserve buildings, creating a feeling of being suspended in time.
While living in Medellin for 2 months, I took a day to wander around the town square, chapels, and quarters once filled with bishops and Spanish dignitaries. A few 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 each weekend from Medellin, so reserve your tour early from a major hotel.
2. San Antonio De Pereira Neighborhood Of Rionegro
A popular day trip destination from Medellin, San Antonio de Pereira is a small neighborhood within the city of Rionegro. With its own central plaza, San Antonio de Pereira has a popular outdoor market of artisan crafts such as sombreros, belts, art, jewelry, pottery, and dulce (candy). Lots of dulce.
A popular foodie destination due to many quality bakeries, their sweet reputation dates back almost a century when the area was colonized for its fertile soil. Women churned out jams and jellies from numerous fruit trees. The soil produces nutritious grass perfect for dairy farms, and milk was added to cakes creating the dulce de leche cake.
This four-layer cake is soaked with leche (milk) and topped with a sweet frosting. At the Dulce Contigo bakery, we found 30 different flavors of cakes in long pans laid out on tables. The customer pays at the door for one plate, a fork, and tickets, one for each piece of cake desired. The cake walk begins around the tables as customers exchange tickets for a nice helping of bliss.
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 a lovely countryside.
This town surpasses 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 at my heels.
Armenia is home to the Willy Jeep Festival. The first U.S. military Jeep was introduced to Colombia soon after WWII to be used by coffee plantations because of the vehicle’s ability to operate in a rugged steep mountainous environment. Nicknamed metal mules, the Jeeps have become an important part of the coffee culture.
Pro Tips: Flying from Medellin might be a better option than driving due to heavy traffic through the Andes Valley. Armenia has a large selection of excellent hotels, as well.
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 getting the latest news firsthand. First, join them for a hearty breakfast and soak in the experience.
Next, take a short hike to the Cascada La Escalera, a double waterfall hidden in the surrounding lush gardens and forest. My favorite activity is bird watching at the Reserva Natural Jardín de Rocus where the stunning Andean cock-of-the-rock birds live.
Pro Tips: Save the Reserva Natural Jardín de Rocus trip until sunset when the birds are most active. There are numerous hiking trails, but many are not advertised 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 busiest villages in Colombia. Catering to travelers passing through 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 many options for hotels and restaurants in El Santuario.
Nestled in a valley surrounded by massive Andes Mountains, many visitors from Medellin enjoy the scenic drive and mountain views. The Spanish Colonial architecture is intact and preserved, but outdoor activities are limited to inside the park.
Pro Tip: Banks and ATM machines for U.S. credit cards are available in the downtown area and are good and safe places to get cash.
6. El Cairo
Designated a UNESCO Historic Site, this colorful Spanish Colonial village located near Colombia’s northern border is best known for its forest coffee. Unlike shade or shadow coffee, forest coffee bushes are planted under an uncut forest canopy that includes fruit trees, flowers, bamboo, and vegetables. This revived ancient technique produces a unique taste and eco-friendly product because the shaded beans stay moist, forest animals eat bugs eliminating pesticide use, and the plants gain nutrients from forest debris.
The Serraniagua Foundation sells local coffee via a small coffee shop on El Cairo’s square and also arranges tours of the El Porvenir Farm approved by the Rainforest Alliance.
Pro Tip: I highly recommend staying at the Pizzeria la Roma, a funky hostel owned by Maria, an artist specializing in turning trash into art. She also makes amazing pizzas with fresh garden ingredients.
West of Bogota surrounded by wax palm trees, Salento lies in the Cocora Valley known for amazing views of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano. Most visitors are young backpackers from around the world who come to hike the volcano and enjoy lively nightlife.
Salento offers quality hotels, cafés, music, and artisan crafts. My favorite lodge is the eco-friendly Hotel Salento Real with a gorgeous Spanish interior and solar panels for electricity.
Pro Tips: Salento is near Bogota, the largest city in Colombia, and popular for cycling and horseback riding. Make reservations early for lodging.
Located in the central Andes smack in the middle of lush forest and coffee plantations, this charming village untouched by modern architectural changes has some of the most colorful buildings in Colombia. But the best part, most tourists head over to nearby Salento keeping this sleepy little town a secret gem.
Retiring in Colombia did not happen, but if it had, this would be the place where many eco-tourism opportunities with small parks and reserves are nearby — such as the Barbas-Bremen nature reserve that resembles a true jungle complete with howler monkeys.
Filandia is also a popular Sunday afternoon day trip for Bogota residents with a passion for cycling. There are numerous uncrowded dirt tracks perfect for biking past beautiful farms and breathtaking lookouts over the Andes Mountains.
Pro Tip: Some of the most scenic views of the Andes are on the outskirts of Filandia. The best way to see them is to hop on a Chiva, a vibrantly decorated bus used as a rural public bus system.
Before You Go
Few people speak English in the rural areas, so brush up on your Spanish. There are numerous translation apps that work in Colombia, but it is best to purchase a new sim card and temporary service with a Colombian phone company. The Internet is usually free in rural areas.
Weather wise, there is no bad time to visit Colombia because of the country’s proximity to the equator. The temperature changes according to the elevation. There are dry or wet seasons but the timetable changes around the country, so check the weather patterns in the area.
Colombia hosts a world of amazing experiences, including: