You are here:
Most tourists will spend their entire time in Colombia within the confines of its major cities, many limiting their escapades to Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena. This is a mistake! While you will get a dose of Colombia's unique culture via its cities, these are modern cosmopolitan centers and their inhabitants' lifestyles are eons away from the traditions of the past. Fortunately, for a taste of what I call the "real Colombia", you need only venture a bit outside the city to find it.
The old Colombia lives on in its villages and towns. There the main transport is via chiva, the brightly painted and decorated buses with the open sides, or the venerable willis (old jeeps). Sacks of produce and big bunches of bananas are piled-up on their roofs, while passengers that could not find seats hang on to every foothold and handhold they can find on the exterior of the vehicles. Many villages also have moto ratones, low cylinder motorcycles with a passenger cabin acting as the local taxi service, zipping around the cobble stone streets.
At the center of each village is a big square, almost always christened Parque Bolivar, in honor of Colombia's greatest hero, Simon Bolivar, also known as El Libertador. On one side of the plaza there will invariably be a big church, and all around there will be shops and restaurants. Many old buildings are made of tapia, a sturdy but curious construction material mainly composed of cow dung and blood (no, it does not stink!). A bit off the square, there might be a traditional butcher's shop where the various cuts of meat are hanging, unrefrigerated, at the mercy of the heat and the flies! The restaurants and bars are mostly furnished in the old fashion, with wood and raw hide chairs, or brightly painted stools. Sometimes the general store is also the bar!
If you discovered a truly authentic village, donkeys and mules will be tied to posts, and strolling at a deliberate pace through the streets are their owners, a breed of men who symbolize the hardiness of the old country: the arrieros. Much like Juan Valdez, the arriero wears a white fedora with a black band, a loose fitting guayabera shirt, a woven belt with a machete hanging from it, a poncho neatly folded on his shoulder, and high boots. These are not actors: even today in Colombia there is a need for the services of these hardy men who bring sacks of coffee, bananas and other goods to the market.
As I hinted earlier, there are scores of such villages just outside the cities, and if you venture farther afield, you will be immersed in the old country. If you are in Medellin, most people will make a day trip to Santa Fe de Antioquia, or El Retiro, both a hour or less away. If you have more time, you can make the four hour trek to Jardin (har-deen), in the coffee producing area in the south of Antioquia near the border with Choco. The only way to get there is by car or bus, though I strongly suggest you let someone who is Colombian do the driving, as these are mostly two lane roads winding up and down mountains with drivers who seem to have a death wish!
The Eje Cafetero region, a collection of three small departamentos (similar to a province), Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindio probably offer the richest traditional Colombian experience. There you will also find countless old style haciendas, the long one or two story gaily decorated buildings with tiled roofs and a wide, columned veranda all around. The road from Armenia (Quindio) to Pereira (Risaralda) has, without a doubt, the most beautiful scenery in the land, with the highest mountains of the Colombian Andes serving as the background.
Of course, if you are more adventurous, you will want to explore the best preserved village of them all: Mompox (sometimes spelled Mompós), deep within the state of Bolivar, far away from any major city. This is a Unesco World Heritage site, with good reason. My fellow blogger, Richard McColl, lives there, so I will let him tell you about it (click his tab in the sidebar!)
You have been warned -- if you have not visited the villages of Colombia, you really have not been in Colombia!