While Colombia’s big cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cali get most of the press, the true heart of this incredibly diverse South American country lies in its smaller towns and cities, known as ‘pueblos’ in Spanish. My favorite pueblos (so far) are all located between 5,000—7,000 feet elevation (1,500–2,100 meters) in the Andes mountains, a barrier of three smaller ranges which roughly divide the western half of Colombia from north to south.
During my recent explorations of this region, I’ve discovered there are both similarities and differences in the way these pueblos have defined themselves. In rugged mountain regions such as the Andes, similarities are often based on geographic proximity while differences may depend on the origins of the original settlers or the hand that fate may have dealt a specific locale in the form of violent conflict or natural disaster. These aspects, in turn, have determined how each town has chosen to promote itself as Colombia becomes a budding center of tourism for both domestic and international travelers.
Since all three pueblos are similar in size and located in the Antioquia department of northwest Colombia, I’ve chosen to share my impressions of Jardín, Jericó and Guatapé in one post. Each of these towns can be easily reached by bus or car from the department’s capital, and Colombia’s second largest city, Medellín. For foreign visitors, the city’s nearby international airport in Rio Negro is less than an hour away from Medellin’s main north and south bus terminals.
I experienced each of these diverse pueblos from early December to early January when municipal governments all across Latin America ensure that the spirit of the Christmas (Navidad) season lights up every nook and cranny of each town. While larger crowds and heavier traffic can be expected during this holiday period (especially on weekends), I find it a fascinating time to travel in order to see the great lengths each town has gone to in an effort to outdo their peers with festive decorations, musical performances and even a parade tossed in here and there.
Jardin—Lively and Colorful
Over the past year, I’d read several blogs which raved about the pueblo of Jardin, located near the southern border of the department of Antioquia, and so I placed it near the top of my ‘must see’ list. On the day I went, it was a five-hour bus ride from Medellin’s south bus terminal through lush green farms and forest covered mountains.
After arriving in a new destination tired and hungry, first impressions can be deceiving. After many years of global traveling, I now try to reserve any judgement until I’ve had food, rest and given a place time to reveal its oft-hidden charms.
Jardin was one destination that didn’t disappoint. The large town square–Libertador Park–with its enormous cathedral built out of local river rocks, was every bit as lively and colorful as it had been described in those blog posts I’d read.
This central square is very welcoming with colorfully painted tables and chairs spread liberally in all directions. Many colonial towns have beautiful squares but there are often few places to sit, relax and enjoy watching the people and sights.
Libertador Park urges you to linger as locals and tourists alike do every night of the week into the wee hours. This colorful and bustling aspect of Jardín made it feel like a bigger city, rather than the small town that it is.
Besides having a lively scene in the town square, my favorite aspect of Jardín is its natural setting on a ridge surrounded by higher, lush green mountains that are home to coffee farms, cloud forests and many species of birds. The east-west orientation of the ridge on which the town sits descends dramatically to whitewater river canyons on both the town’s north and south edges, only a 5-minute walk from the main square.
Both of these river canyons—which are filled with lush vegetation–are a must for exploring and excellent places for bird watching. I saw two of my favorite Colombian bird species—the Andean cock-of-the-rock and the blue-crowned motmot–in the canyon on the south side of town where I went every afternoon for bird watching.
If you want to be assured of having a close-up view of the colorful and noisy cock-of-the-rock, just ask at any guesthouse or hotel for information about Parque Natural Jardín de Rocas. It’s located right on the edge of town in a very nice Colombian lady’s garden, but be sure to inquire about the afternoon opening hours because they can fluctuate.
For serious birders, ProAves offers tours that take you higher into the mountains to the Yellow eared Parrot Reserve where you are likely to see these rare birds. You can book through their website or again just ask at any hotel or guesthouse about their very professional and educational tours.
An easy hike away from town that’s not to be missed is the Cristo Rey monument and viewpoint. There used to be a cable car that took visitors up to this ridge, which offers a spectacular view overlooking the entire town, but it’s no longer functioning. The trail begins at the end of end of Calle 11 on the north side of Jardín, but any local will be happy to point the way.
Jardín is my kind of destination because it offers a taste of urbanity with a full dose of nature only a stone’s throw away. Visitors can tour coffee farms, hike to waterfalls and spectacular viewpoints, birdwatch or just sit in Libertador Park, sip local coffee and people watch.
Jericó–quiet, yet interesting
While Jardín has been firmly placed on the tourist track, information on Jericó, which is also located in the south of Colombia’s Antioquia department, won’t be found in any Lonely Planet guides. This sleepy pueblo is a few hours bus ride south of Medellín, or if you’re approaching from the south as I was, it’s located a dusty 3-hour bus ride north of Jardín. Since both Jardín and Jericó are located in Antioquia’s coffee-growing region, the landscapes are quite similar and coffee tours are easily booked in both places.
Although these two pueblos are similar in size and both serve as retail centers for the coffee farms in their respective areas–complete with farmers showing off their fancy moves on horseback around both towns’ central parks in the evenings–they reveal quite different personalities. While Jardín’s main square is surrounded by bars and coffee shops and all those welcoming tables and chairs which fill up with revelers each evening, Jericó’s main square is quiet with only a few park benches serving as places to rest. There is very little activity in Jericó in the evenings as the shops all close early and the only real action is the wait for the farmers and their prancing horses to appear, but even this performance is short in duration and low-key compared to the action in Jardín.
I chalked up the quiet contemplation of Jericó to the fact that it’s a religious retreat center, honoring the memory of Colombia’s only officially recognized saint, María Laura de Jesús Montoya Upegui or simply Saint Laura (Santa Laura). Saint Laura was born in Jericó, devoted much of her life to working with the indigenous peoples of Colombia and was canonized by Pope Francis in 2013. In short, Saint Laura has been turned into quite an industry intended to bring tourists and religious devotees alike to Jericó.
Photo’s, murals and mosaics of Saint Laura adorn spaces wherever one looks, from shop windows to building walls to the exterior of taxis. A visitor is obliged to visit her birthplace—which is now a house museum—as well as the beautiful church that bears her name, which is in need of exterior refurbishment.
The other must-sees in Jericó are the pueblo’s botanical garden and the Cristo Salvador viewpoint which provides a spectacular view of the town’s many church spires along with the surrounding lush mountainous landscape. Luckily, visiting both these sites is easy since the trail to the summit of Cristo Salvador begins from the botanical gardens and is an easy 10-minute walk up hill.
Jericó’s contemplative vibe and lack of tourist crowds provides a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of big city Medellín or could even be combined on a 3-day weekend with a trip to Jardín due to their relative proximity to one another.
Guatapé—Bring on the Tourist Hordes!
The pueblo of Guatapé is located in the eastern region of Antioquia, a mere 2-hour bus ride away from Medellín’s north bus terminal. In part due to its ease of access from the big city and because the pueblo’s leaders have deemed it so, Guatapé welcomes as many tourists as the narrow 2-lane road into town can accommodate on weekends and holidays. As those cars and buses that back up on the highway into town on weekends can attest, the hordes of tourists are stretching the pueblo’s infrastructure to its limits. There’s litter strewn along the main route into town (something you would never see in the aforementioned pueblos) and big construction projects are threatening the very character that has been drawing visitors to the town for decades.
Guatapé was a small, rural farm town until Medellín’s major electric company, EPM, decided to build a dam and reservoir on the town’s doorstep in the late 1960s. With a waterfront location, Guatapé was assured of becoming a tourist destination, but the pueblo’s leaders made the town even more unique by creating an initiative for citizens to create colorful reliefs (known as zócalos) on the lower half of all houses, businesses and public buildings.
Add on boat tours of the large lake and the towering nearby El Peñol de Guatapé (rock of Guatapé in Spanish) and this pueblo offers a variety of activities that few other small pueblos in Colombia can match. It’s also a full-on international destination for backpackers and photos of its colorful buildings and cobblestone streets often front the cover of Colombia’s official tourist brochures and many online travel blogs.
Guatapé holds a special place in my heart since I lived there for almost a year in order to be near a close friend I knew from my days in Oman. What eventually convinced me to move on was the careless way I felt the town was being over-developed with little regard for the natural environment. Perhaps this feeling that nature is there to be manipulated for human benefit goes back to the flooding of the original farmland when the lake was created.
The major project in the pueblo—and it’s been ongoing for the past year—is the construction of a large concrete promenade (called a malecón in Spanish) which required all the trees that once lined the waterfront street to be cut down as well as the destruction of a hill that overlooked the town. Many tons of dirt from this neighboring hillside have been used to fill in and level the waterfront on top of which tons of concrete will be added. I cannot imagine the viewpoints of Cristo Rey in Jardín or Cristo Salvador in Jericó ever being destroyed in this manner!
Many local shop keepers and other business owners have quietly voiced their disdain for this EPM-backed mega-project, but average Colombians are quite used to having disagreeable situations shoved down their collective throats by the powerful elite that control the country. I’ve been cautioned by some expats not to judge because, as they say, “Colombians need economic development,” but of course I’m quite aware of that fact.
From what I’ve experienced in other major tourist centers where I’ve lived such as Thailand, over-development at the expense of the local environment only gives a select few quick riches at the expense of long-term sustainable economic development.
So, at least for now, Guatapé is still a charming pueblo that’s doing its best to accommodate visitors, despite the dust and inconvenience brought by construction. What the future holds for this unique little pueblo has yet to be written.
A note on bus travel in Colombia:
Keep in mind that the duration of bus rides anywhere in Colombia can be unpredictable due to the poor conditions of roadways and frequent construction zones encountered on many main routes. However, since the scenery along these curving paths through the Andes is predictably gorgeous, the time passes easily. On bus journey’s of more than 4 or so hours, there’s usually a mandatory stop with plenty of time to grab a bite to eat and use the toilet facilities. Essential items to carry onto the bus are water, snacks and a scarf or handkerchief to cover your nose and mouth in case there’s blowing dust while passing through one of the many highway construction zones.