Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Chiquinquirá

Day Tripping in Santa Fe de Antioquia

Within a week of my arrival to Medellín, I found myself strolling the cobblestone main square of historic Santa Fe de Antioquia for the first time.

The bustling center was awash with the warm amber glow of streetlights as the sky overhead morphed from blue to black.  Moto taxis puttered through the busy streets and vendors cooked up mouthwatering Colombian treats whose scents beckoned to me from meters away.  The energetic buzz of life renewed my own energy, despite having just completed a rather grueling 35km mountain biking tour with Colombian Bike Junkies in the surrounding hills.

Having only lasted an hour at most, this brief encounter with Antioquia’s former capital left me intrigued.

Needless to say, when the opportunity arose a few months later to take a personalized tour of this historic mountain pueblo, I jumped at the chance. Santa Fe de Antioquia, Colombia

My fiercely independent travel style (read: cheap) typically causes me to shy away from such organized tours. This time, however, I happily made an exception; my days in Colombia were dwindling and, quite honestly, I felt overwhelmed by a smattering of other tasks on my plate which would have made planning my own trip all the more stressful.Moto taxis in Santa Fe de Antioquia, Colombia

Furthermore, I suspected I’d learn a great deal more traveling with a knowledgeable tour guide than I would by aimlessly cruising the streets on my own.  My detective skills aren’t quite up to snuff, after all, nor did I have unlimited time on my hands for getting lost, missing buses or any of the other blunders that typically accompany DIY tours.

So, one hot January morning, I hopped in my tour guide’s car to be whisked along the carretera al mar (highway to the sea) toward Santa Fe de Antioquia.

First, we passed through the Fernando Gómez Martínez tunnel, a tunnel so long (it’s the longest in Latin America) it broadcasts its very own radio station from inside.  We meandered past banana and coffee plantations as we descended from the mountains toward sea level; we watched as the landscape transformed from lush and leafy green to arid, dusty and brown.Rio Cauca, Colombia

All the while my guide, Camilo, recounted tales of Santa Fe de Antioquia’s early inhabitants.  Settled by a Spanish Marshall named Jorge Robledo in 1541, the city’s location on the west bank of the Cauca River (the second largest in Colombia after the Magdalena River) was ideal for mining the region’s gold.  The abundant wealth afforded rather cushy lifestyles to a select few; an heiress by the name of Maria Centeno was rumored to own more than 600 slaves.

Before entering the city, a quick pitstop took us to the Puente de Occidente (Bridge of the West), a structure that, despite its rather drab (dare I say hideous?) appearance, has become a national symbol of pride.  No, this one-lane wooden bridge spanning the Cauca River isn’t much to look at; its fame has everything to do with its engineer, a man by the name of Jose María Villa V.Overlooking the Cauca River

I was rather surprised to learn that Jose María Villa V is revered in Colombia for his participation in the construction of New York’s very own Brooklyn Bridge, though admittedly I’m still not sure to what extent he actually contributed.  This information was shocking not only for the glaringly obvious fact that his own bridge pales in comparison, but it’s also quite well known that the construction of Puente de Occidente was stalled on numerous occasions as a result of María Villa’s nasty drinking habit.

At about midday, we strolled across the bridge and scaled the hillside to take in the river valley from a new vantage point.  Perched next to a statue of the Virgin Mary, I found it easier to appreciate Puente de Occidente–good from far, far from good.Puente de Occidente Virgen del Puente de OccidenteCatedral Basílica Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción

Once in the city, we enjoyed a refreshing juice in the main plaza–guanábana (soursop) for me–before heading to Portón del Parque for lunch.

In contrast to Medellín’s mild spring-like climate, Santa Fe de Antioquia scorches.  Following lunch, I sucked down my third coffee of the day in a desperate attempt to regain the energy that the midday sun had sapped from me.

The afternoon was jam-packed with sightseeing and more history lessons.  We stopped at the Hotel Mariscal Robledo (named for the city’s founder), the former residence of many of Santa Fe’s elite; we revered the important religious buildings including La Iglesia de Santa Bárbara, the oldest standing church in the city; we delighted in the beautiful colonial architecture and old-world charms we uncovered around every street corner.Iglesia de Santa Barbara, Santa Fe de Antioquia, ColombiaColonial architecture in Santa Fe de Antioquia Colonial charm in Santa Fe de Antioquia

Last, but certainly not least, we perused the stalls surrounding the main plaza and sampled a few sweets for good measure.  I’m not one for collecting kitschy souvenirs, but I do love to browse and strike up conversations with vendors.Market in Santa Fe de Antioquia Tropical fruit in the main plaza of Santa Fe de Antioquia

Overall, I couldn’t have been happier with my day spent with Camilo and Medellín City Services (read my full review of the tour here).  If you’ve got ample time in Colombia, I’d highly recommend a day trip to Santa Fe de Antioquia whether it’s with an organized tour or not.

As with the rest of Colombia, the history fascinates, the atmosphere captivates, and the people charm.

Do you prefer organized tours or independent travel?  A little of both?

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  • Reply Jason March 12, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    Looks like a cute, old town!

    I generally prefer independent travel, but on most of the handful of occasions I have been talked into signing up for organized tours over the last few years (a city tour of Lima and a cycling tour of Bangkok come to mind), I’ve neither regretted the money nor the time spent on the outings. They can really save some legwork, and with a friendly, knowledgeable guide, a fun group, and an itinerary consisting of the sorts of activities one is looking for, I think they’re great. Even if I think I’m adept at getting a good feel for a place on my own, I certainly don’t have the connections or knowledge that tour guides have so I always end up feeling like I’ve seen or done something I wouldn’t have been able to see or do had I decided to explore on my own 🙂

    • Reply La Mochilera March 13, 2015 at 11:19 am

      I’m with you, Jason. Every time I take a guided tour I’m glad I spent the extra money. On very rare occasions, I’ve had less-than-inspiring guides, but I think that’s the exception, not the norm. I’m definitely appreciating having some of the legwork already done for me as I get older!

  • Reply Justine March 12, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    I would love to go here. I just have such a thing for towns like this! I am definitely not a big fan of organized tours, partially because I’m too cheap. I can’t stand not being able to go at my own pace, and I always get really pissed when a trip to the local artisan market is tacked on to the tour, which always seems to happen! But, despite these things, sometimes organized tours can be so much more informative. It’s awesome that you were able to get such a clear idea of Santa Fe de Antioquia through your tour guide. I think I’m starting to realize that, sometimes, tours are a great option.
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    • Reply La Mochilera March 13, 2015 at 11:21 am

      The thing that was great about a personal tour was that I got to dictate the pace. If I wanted to linger a little longer in one spot or skip something altogether, I got to do just that. But private tours are way expensive usually (this one was an assignment for Medellin Living so luckily I didn’t have to splash out myself) so I totally get why you’d want to avoid them, and group tours are way less intimate. My favorite tours of all are free walking tours! The guides are usually awesome and you only pay what you want!

  • Reply Jeremy Scott Foster March 12, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    Oh this place looks so cool! I wish I went!
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    • Reply La Mochilera March 13, 2015 at 11:22 am

      You didn’t miss much! It was similar to Guatape in a lot of ways, but less charming!

  • Reply Katie March 14, 2015 at 11:07 am

    Looks beautiful! We were in Colombia a while back, but never made it to Medellin or here 🙁
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    • Reply La Mochilera March 15, 2015 at 12:24 pm

      I hope you still enjoyed your time in Colombia! There is SO much to see…the coast, the mountains, the coffee region, etc. You’ll just have to come back! 🙂

  • Reply Howard @ Backroad Planet March 14, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    What a beautifully executed post with lovely photographs and engaging story, Leah! Glad I found your site! My parents were missionaries to Latin America, and I lived in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay as a child. So your article brought back many memories. Although we traveled to many other countries, I never made it to Colombia, other than airport layovers in Bogotá. Perhaps I will make it there someday . . . . Cheers!
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    • Reply La Mochilera March 15, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      Thanks so much, Howard! It’s a shame you didn’t make it to Colombia, but spending time in those other countries sounds pretty amazing. Those are three Latin American countries I have spent little-to-no time in myself, so I hope to make it to all of them one day as well.
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  • Reply Meg Jerrard March 14, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Beautiful photos Leah! We are also firecly independent when it comes to travel and shy away from tours for the same reason, though we do make an exception now and then, and there are some instances where you really can benefit from the local knowledge of a tour guide. This sounds like it was a great tour and I would probably make the exception if we were visiting Colombia too. Thanks for the great post!
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  • Reply Travelwith2ofus March 14, 2015 at 7:02 pm

    Santa Fe de Antioquia has some beautiful features, but I don’t think I can visit it for more than two hours. Been to Colombia but went to Cartagena.

    • Reply La Mochilera March 15, 2015 at 12:30 pm

      There’s not a whole lot to do there, that’s for sure. A few hours would certainly suffice! Cartagena is lovely too, but too hot for me!

  • Reply RaW | Ramble and Wander March 15, 2015 at 10:28 am

    I must say I’m intrigued about the tunnel that broadcasts its very own radio station from inside I had to Google it up to see how long the tunnel actually is, heh! Quite amazing, actually!
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    • Reply La Mochilera March 15, 2015 at 12:27 pm

      Haha I considered trying to hold my breath the whole way through it but figured I’d probably just end up passing out… 😉
      La Mochilera recently posted…Friday Snapshots: Coming HomeMy Profile

  • Reply Dave Briggs March 15, 2015 at 10:36 am

    I passed through Medellin a few years ago, but you certainly saw more of it than i did! I have also come around to thinking that from time to time, a guide is the best way to get a view of a city or place.
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    • Reply La Mochilera March 15, 2015 at 12:28 pm

      Yes, from time to time is about right. I wouldn’t take tours exclusively; sometimes I much prefer wandering at my own pace and going wherever I like without worrying about seeing the “main attractions.”
      La Mochilera recently posted…Friday Snapshots: Coming HomeMy Profile

  • Reply Yvonne March 15, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    This looks amazing. I have always wanted to go to Colombia. How long were you there for?
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    • Reply La Mochilera March 15, 2015 at 12:29 pm

      Colombia is fabulous! I spent 5 weeks there in 2013 and this time around I stayed for about 4.5 months. I highly recommend it! 🙂
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  • Reply Raphael Alexander Zoren March 15, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    Very nice colonial town, Ms. Mochilera! PS. You look totally fab in your photos!!!
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  • Reply Jenna March 15, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    Gorgeous photos! Looks like such a great area! We always like a bit of both in regards to tours–we prefer going on our own, but sometimes it’s nice to have a fun group of people to hang with and a bit more background/inside info from the guides!
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    • Reply La Mochilera March 17, 2015 at 10:56 am

      Thank you, Jenna! And you make a good point, group tours can be a great way to meet people while traveling! 🙂
      La Mochilera recently posted…Explore the ElementsMy Profile

  • Reply Mary March 15, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    I knew there was a reason I was dying to get to Colombia. So much great information on such a misunderstood place. Thanks for sharing.
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  • Reply Gloria @NomadicChica March 15, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    What a beautiful city I would must go back to Colombia to visit it, was not able to get there when I traveled there. Great article and beautiful shots too! Thanks for sharing!
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