Colonial Towns in Eastern Colombia
The start of our trip thru Colombia. From Cartagena to the village of Minca at the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. After this backpacky hotspot to the colonial towns in the eastern part of the country – Mompós, Girón, and Zapatoca. A mix of wetland along Rio Magdalena and the slopes of the Cordillera Oriental.
Cartagena 2 Mesa de Santos
Minca, 6th March
We’ve got Prado out of the port, ready to explore Colombia.
Nevertheless, there’s still another important aspect of Catagena to mention: culture.
Like any other important town, Cartagena has to have its world-class cultural offers. Just to mention, some of the world’s most famous stars perform regularly in this town. We had to make the difficult choice between Michael Jackson’s and Shakira’s live concerts. Well, for quite some time we had a certain reluctance to appreciate Michael’s nose. Especially we’re always afraid it might fall off. Additionally, outside Cartagena, they insist that he has entered Nirwana many years ago. And who wants to see a nirwanized Michael Jackson.
Thus, we opt for Shakira’s live performance on Parque Fernández de Madrid.
And what a show. And the best of all – during her concert you can even order a real Italian pizza topped with mozarella and berlusconi. Maybe just a small point to mention: Dear Shakira, did you ever think about eating a little less BigMacs? Just in case, should you ever have a problem to enter a door.
Then we’re on the way to Minca, some 250 km to the east in the hills of the Sierra Nevada. A perfectly good road, landscape rather boring. Very dry flatland.
It’s our 1st road trip in Colombia. Hence, we have to get used to driving in this country.
Everything seems to be ok. The Colombies in their cars behave, slightly different for those on motos.
With some road signs, we have some more problems. Especially with those indicating another maximum speed every 50 m and those announcing speed checks.
There’s even a really mysterious case. Even after long studies, we’re not sure what the hell it means. Supposedly, when sleeping at driving don’t close your eyes completely. Still, we’re not absolutely sure about that.
There’s another slightly boring issue when driving in Colombia. On most roads, you find these nicely built small structures. But don’t think they erected them to give you and your car some shade from the fierce sun. They solely serve as a collection point to get a few 1000 Pesos from your pocket to theirs. They call it road tolls.
Shortly after Baranquilla we cross Rio Magdalena on a newly constructed, huge bridge, head on to Santa Marta, and …
… on a small road, we arrive in the afternoon in Minca.
We found a place with a view. Towards Santa Marta and the Caribbean. Definitely, the place to enjoy the cooler climate for a few days.
From Minca you can explore the hills behind the village, some waterfalls, and for those addicted to humidity’n’heat you can make the famous 4 days hike to Ciudad Perdida.
We mainly intend to use our time to arrange everything inside Prado – we never did it for a long time, and to prepare a little more for Colombia.
Still, we’re very curious to find out what’s behind Minca’s reputation as one of the few remaining original backpacky paradises.
Of course, before we got addicted to exploring the world with a car, for many years we’ve been backpacking all over the world. At that time, we surely also visited some backpacky paradises. Maybe Chicken Street in Kabul before the Soviets converted it into a gulag, or Bali’s Kuta before mass tourism arrived. Or Leh and Varanasi in India. Anyway, we have to experience Minca.
Arriving in the village, we see immediately the influence of the backpacky industry on this place. The locals converted nearly every house into a hostel, an eatery, bakery, souvenir shop, or a tour agency. And the poor Mincuies – they moved to nearby residential areas. Obviously, it’s not too hard to make some good money with poor backpackies.
Hence the village is somehow divided into pretty neat residential areas and the rather shabby backpacky bubble. Ok, we know backpacky hotspots have to be a little rundown.
Within the bubble there’s an advantage – everybody speaks at least some English. So, no danger to get lost with an unknown language.
But let’s have a look for the most important: something to munch. True, there are many eateries in Minca. And they’re pretty diversified. You find whatever a backpacky needs to feel at home: Kentucky Fried Chicken à la Mincuoise, Hotdogs with a real, cold tartar dog, Lebanese Mezzes, Italian Panini, and most important all kind of burgers – everywhere. Yeah, exactly what you find in every backpacky hotspot. Worldwide. And completely unspoiled by this local food. Well, only Tibetan Momos are missing. Shame.
Maybe just an observation that we think is a little bit shocking: Why the hell are the prizes for this backpacky food so much higher than in all places for Colombies. Maybe because food is so international, they have to import everything, or backpackies just consider everything cheap’n’local because they got some recommendations? Or, backpackies simply agree to pay for everything as long as they consider it cheap? No idea.
Of course, the Mincuies make sure that backpackies can get all these tours they are so keen on.
Should there be a cruise ship addicted guy among our esteemed readers we think it’s the same attitude if you have to visit a place on your dream trip.
Yeah, these Mincuies really offer tours to each and every place you can imagine. Hence, ultimate opportunities to make new backpacky friends, to make incredible selfies, and to get the stories to even tell the grandchildren.
Well, so far Minca – the ultimate hotspot for … whatever.
It’s true, maybe Kabul’s Chicken Street was not that much better a long time ago.
It’s a Sunday. Many Colombies arrive in Minca. Just on a day trip. Not for making a tour, or a splurge in any of those original backpacky muncheries.
They all head to the shores of the small river separating the residential and the backpacky area. On weekends dozens of restaurants open. Mainly for Asados and beer. Yeah, they’re heavily packed with people. Some really sitting in the restaurants, while others put their chair into the river to enjoy a couple of beers – Colombian tourism.
Mompós, 8th March
We’re on the way to Mompos. 1 of the oldest preserved colonial towns in Colombia. A UNESCO World Heritage.
330 km to drive. Meaning in Colombia about 6h. Quite some traffic, mostly trucks.
Landscape – boring. Dry, flat land, a few mountains far away. To change a hefty thunderstorm on the way. Still, temperature remains above 35 degrees.
Finally, we arrive in Mompós just in time for a sundowner at the beautiful riverfront.
Sitting there, we have the impression to have turned back time – at least for 150 years.
No wonder, Mompós is the oldest colonial settlement in Colombia and it was the 1st town to reach independence from Spain.
Nowadays, it struggles for more tourism. Despite all restorations and offers to visitors, it’s still considered off the beaten track by most tourists. Even if you can drive on a brand-new road and bridge from Bosconia to Mompos.
A walk along the waterfront. Along Rio Magdalena. They converted it into a pedestrian zone with numerous watering holes’n’eateries – even if there’re only a few visitors. No idea how they survive.
Strolling thru the few alleys of the town’s colonial center. Pretty different from extravagant Cartagena. No hassle, no trouble, so little happening – living here might be slightly boring. Who knows.
We even discover a place where they produce all these Saints they use for the different processions thru town. Of course, they still need some finishing work to impress the crowd.
On to the main square with its church and the famous old market.
Well, that’s laidback, calm Mompós. Surely worth a visit, even if it’s quite far off the ordinary tourist’s route. And what a difference to Minca – this all-beloved backpacky hotspot.
Last but not least a serious warning to our esteemed readers:
When in Mompos, avoid under all circumstances the restaurant Santa Coa. It’s true, it looks nice with its tables at the waterfront. The menu as well doesn’t seem to be too bad. Nevertheless, after having had dinner, Martin was seriously sick for a day. Ok, should you need sick leave, go there.
Girón, 10th March
We’re on the road again – Martin recovered from his food poisoning. 350km to Girón – a small town just a few km south of Bucaramanga. As usual in Colombia – about 8h to reach it. Not because roads are that bad, no it’s just about these trucks. They’re on every road, making up some 80% of the traffic. Many of them hardly in the condition to drive more than 40 km/h.
We follow Rio Magdalena. A landscape reminding us of Bangladesh. Water everywhere, the roads on dams.
Then some time thru hilly landscape, quite dry. A lot of palm oil is produced here. Pretty boring to drive.
The last 100km uphill. Thru the Cordillera Oriental.
Nice landscape, but takes a hell of a lot of time to drive with all these extremely slow trucks.
Finally passing thru the outskirts of Bucaramanga. Huge, ugly industrial zones until we reach Girón. Really not the place to be.
We turn to Girón – and within a few meters, we’re in a world completely different. Instead of all these factories, their emissions, the traffic involved, we’re in a medieval colonial town. You couldn’t imagine how it looked like just a minute ago.
The town, having been the provincial capital for a very long time still preserves its heritage of the 17th century. By now, also to attract visitors from neighboring Bucaramanga to recover from their home town.
Arriving at the Plaza Central it’s obvious how important the huge church for the place is. A steady stream of people going in’n’out, a whole bunch of shops selling all kinds of religious accessories, and the church bells remembering of their existence from 5.30 am onwards. And the Plaza in front of the church the place to be, and especially to sip’n’munch something.
A stroll thru Girón’s alleys to admire these beautifully restored colonial houses. Nevertheless, don’t walk too far – suddenly you find yourself in the modern, but very ugly part of town. And you’ve lost all illusion of a medieval place, where you’ll encounter a knight singing the latest Spotify hits for his beloved 1 … whatever.
And that’s all? Of course, not. Need to add the Saxo Pub. The very best place in town to sip a craft beer on its 1st-floor terrace.
Mesa de Santos, 11th March
South of Girón we’re approaching Cañon de Chichamocha. It’s said to be the 2nd largest in the world. And 1 of the must-have-seen sights in Colombia.
Ok, for that adventure we need reasonable weather. Forecast is more or less ok, maybe showers in the late afternoon. After some research, we even find on Airbnb the ultimate place to stay. Straight on the escarpment of the Mesa de Santos. Some 800m above the river. True, it’s a bit of a splurge – but a splurge you can probably not afford anywhere else in the world. More about this a little later.
We’re on the way to the canyon. Well, to start with to a side branch of it. To Zapatoca.
The drive is quite spectacular. A steep and winding road down to the river, then up on the other side. The proof that in Colombia it may be 10km as the crow flies, but 80 km as the car drives. Even if the road may look a little scary to poor American tourists used to their highways – be sure, they try to give you all protection you may need.
Zapatoca. Another colonial village high up on a plateau. Immediately you think how remote this area must be. Nevertheless, obviously, it’s a popular weekend retreat for Bucaramangies to escape the heat.
As usual, the village is dominated by a huge church on the main square.
A place to sneak around for an hour or so, then to drive on.
We drive back. Again, down to the river, on the other side up to Mesa de Santos. Unfortunately, the direct road to the escarpment is extremely bad. Finally, we’re on the way back to Girón, then another road up to our ultimate place on the top of the escarpment of Cañon Chichamocha. Our splurge.
This story and much more – in our next post. No worries, they’ll be released soon.