Colombia’s colonial history began when Rodrigo de Bastidas became the first European to set foot on Colombian soil. He established the first Spanish settlement in Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast, before kicking off the hunt for ‘El Dorado’, a legendary city of immense wealth hidden in the foothills of the Andes.
Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, in the former location of an indigenous Caribbean village. The town was named after Cartagena, Spain, where most of Heredia’s sailors had resided. From the get-go, it was the storehouse for the booty plundered from the local population, and quickly became the main port through which riches from throughout South America were shipped to Spain.
Not surprisingly, the city proved an appetizing target for plucky English pirates prowling the Caribbean, and it suffered several sieges in the sixteenth century, the most infamous led by Sir Francis Drake, during which he held the town hostage for more than a hundred days. After “the Dragon” was paid a hefty ransom to withdraw, the Spaniards began constructing the elaborate fortifications that are now the city’s hallmark.
Today, Cartagena still boasts splendours from the town’s past. Its narrow cobbled streets are lined with beautifully restored colonial buildings painted in bold colours, balconies covered in bougainvilla, and impressive churches casting their shadows across plazas. Cartagena is also home to some top-notch restaurants, wild all-night parties and beautiful beaches (More on this to come.)
Although Cartagena is the undisputed queen of Colombia’s colonial heritage, there are several other another smaller, but no less beautiful, colonial towns to visit. Popayan, in the southwest of the country, was founded in 1537 by Sebastián de Belálcazar on his march northward from Quito. Known as the “White City”, after it’s ubiquitous white-washed houses and churches, it was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1983. The savvy residents banded together to rebuild it.
Tucked away in spectacular mountains, scenic Villa de Leyva, founded in 1572, is similarly beautiful. Its main square, ‘Plaza Mayor’, is one of the largest town squares in the Americas at 120m by 120m. Incidentally, it is also home to a bakery which bakes insanely tasty chocolate bread.
But, Barichara, with its undulating stone-slab roads, clay-tiled roofs draped in bougainvillea blossoms and single storey adobe homes, is the real gem. Barichara is much less crowded and more tranquil than Villa de Leyva or Popayan, hidden in the hills above the extreme-sport mecca of San Gil.
The town is so well kept, it was declared a national monument in 1978 and, with its historical buildings restored, it now makes a popular set for Spanish-language films. We spent a very peaceful few days at Casa Oniri…Well, we say peaceful. Gunpowder shots were let off every hour, on the hour, between midnight and 4am whilst we were there. A Colombian Advent tradition, this happened every night for about a week or 10 days. On the first night, we were terrified thinking this was guerillas attacking the town but after that, we just started taking an afternoon siesta like all true Colombians.
Another rather bizarre titbit about Barichara is its love for eating ‘hormigas culonas’, literally, fat-bottom ants. The tradition dates back more than 500 years when indigenous people cultivated and devoured ants for their aphrodisiac properties. Whilst we decided not to indulge in this delicacy, all the locals insisted they are delicious.
In the heart of coffee country, Salento, whilst not a colonial town, definitely deserves a mention. It is one of the region’s earliest settlements, and its slow development means the original lifestyle and buildings of the journeymen who settled here in 1842 have barely been altered since. Rural workers clad in cowboy hats and ‘ruanas’ (Colombian ponchos) are a common sight. The colourful, wonderfully photogenic homes of thick adobe and clay-tile roofs are beautiful.