Colombia is formerly known as Nueva Granada (New Granada) and was an important colony of Spain. To witness the remnants of this part of Colombian history, one can visit the remaining colonial cities in Colombia. The most important of the cities is of course Cartagena. Villa de Leyva and Popayan are also beautiful colonial towns that are popular with visitors for various reasons. Santa Marta is mentioned here because it is the oldest colonial city in Colombia. It is not however, a beautiful city. Most tourists go there as a jumping point to the Tayrona, Ciudad Perdida and La Guajira. For first time visitors to Colombia, Cartagena (on a coast) and Villa de Leyva (on a mountainous valley) are sufficient to give a taste of the Colonial history of Colombia.
It is hot and humid, but it is a beautiful city. We spent three days there just walking around the centre. We stayed in Santo Domingo neighborhood. We spent a day walking around San Diego area. And for half a day we went to San Felipe Castle (an old fort with amazing tunnels). We decided to forgo the Rosario Islands/Playa Blanca in Baru, since we were going to Tayrona and La Guajira. We joined a free walking tour one afternoon for about 3 hours (our guide likes to talk). Cartagena also has interesting restaurants and ice cream places. We definitely were never hungry there. I really like Carmen and La Cevecheria (link to food blog) and La Mulata Cartegenera.
Beautifully dressed “palenquera” ladies – ladies with fruit trays on their heads – add to the beauty and attraction of Cartagena. I was lucky to have one started posing for me for a small tip (you can also buy their fruits).
Upon arriving in Cartagena, we can tell that there is some upscale tourisms there. We passed many shops of European brands and shops selling gowns and trendy expensive clothing. Same goes with the restaurants and hotels selection. I had to admit after our Airbnb stay in La Candelaria, Bogota, I insisted on a very nice hotel in Cartagena. We stayed in Casa Gastelbondo, which was an old house converted into four-room hotel with rooftop Jacuzzi and pool. Very spoilt of me. And it was a great decision because we had a great location and great place, so we escape often during the day back to our hotel from the oppressive humidity and heat.
Bocagrande is nothing interesting and can be skipped. Beach is not amazing. The walk is hot and long. We did see a nice sunset from there, while walking back to the Centre. Café del Mar for sunset is overrated. I rather just sit on the wall and bring my own drink.
While walking around San Diego, a portion of the old walls have big window opening in which we could sit and escape the heat. That was a nice indulgence and it was free!
On the way to Santa Marta, we stopped by the Totopo mud volcano. It was so petite! And there was a long line of young backpackers wanting to take a dip in the mud. Something I happily missed! Luckily we did not actually go out of our way to go there!
We had a nice stay in Cartagena and I was quite sad to leave.
Villa de Leyva
My first impression upon arriving at the famous Plaza Principal of Villa de Leyva is a feeling of awe. Apart from the crowd, it looked exactly like the ancient and modern photos of it I had seen online. The buildings have not changed for hundreds of years. The colonial white washed buildings, wooden window frames, and the cobblestone streets brought one back to a few centuries ago.
Upon walking around the town, though, we were uncomfortable. There were too many cars, too many tourists, and too many tourist-oriented places. Nothing personal, but we are hoping the Bogotenos are gone soon, as Leyva is one of their favorite getaway for the long weekends.
Our hotel is located in the Plaza Principal and the building itself is priceless. A staff here informed us that the building has been in the owner’s family (she is now 103 years old) since 340+ years ago. It is a priceless building. It has two pretty courtyards, a comfortable dining and sitting room, and wonderful service staff. Unfortunately, my room is sub-par upon further inspection. I like it that it is bright, and it has comfortably spacious room and bathroom. However, when I inspect the pillow, I found many hairs. On the bedsheet I saw brown stains and hairs also. Luckily, I am over my monthly bad-mood sessions, and I am taking it in stride. I have brought my silk sleeping bag, and I will just sleep in it for tonight. It is late and they have even turned out the lobby lights, although we know the staff sleeps on site. It just seemed so petty to make a big drama out of it.
We did small excursions out of Leyva too. In the morning, we hiked for about two hours on the path behind Renacer hostel, where we could get to a lookout point to see Leyva from bird’s eye view.
In the afternoon, we hired a taxi to visit a few places outside of Leyva. We went to Santo Domingo Ecce Homo monastery. It has an amazing murals from 17th century and book collections. The Virgin Mary grotto is also eerily arresting.
Leyva is also known to be the site of the discovery of fossils in Colombia. We went to the fossil museum to see Kronosaurus fossils.
We stopped by the winery, but it was nothing to speak of. We paid for a tasting (we skipped the tour), but there was only one wine. This can be skipped, especially if you are a wine connoisseur. As a finale, we stopped by these five natural blue lakes (pozos azules). We had a nice half hour walk to enjoy the view.
The centre of Popayan is a beautiful colonial city, which reminded me of Merida, Yucatan in Mexico. The streets, the sidewalks, the types of bus passing through, and Plaza Caldas all give me a deja-vu feeling of being back in Merida. It has its own charms and personalities. The buildings are white washed in colonial style. They are not old buildings though. They were rebuilt in Colonial style after the 1983 earthquakes. We enjoyed walking around downtown Popayan, but there is not much. Skip it if you are pressed for time. The best part of Popayan was the empanadas de pipian – we went twice two days in a row.
I noticed that here the men are more forward and flirty, than in Bogota and Villa de Leyva. We also met two young students. They kindly took us to our destinations when we asked for directions. They were really lovely people. They were both law students in University of Cauca (apparently the best in Colombia). They also care a lot about how Colombia is viewed by the outside world. We had a mini discussion on our ten-minute walk together.
We also happened to be in Popayan on a Tuesday, so we decided to go to Silvia to check out the indigenous weekly market. The Guambiano Indians still wear their traditional outfits, but it is not the case for the other Indian groups there. If you have been to Chichicastenango market in Guatemala, this excursion can also be skipped. The Silvia market is small and relatively uninteresting compared to the one in Chichicastenango. We had a nice trout there. We paid USD16 for four dishes of trout plus juices.
In reality, Popayan is famous for its Semana Santa procession, and most tourists come only during this period.