There’s almost never any debate, when the subject comes up, over which is the finest colonial city in Colombia. Nine out of 10 people will tell you it’s Cartagena… and with good reason.
But in my travels around the country, I’ve come across some small but compelling pockets of disagreement on this point. The dissenters make a good case.
This is because there are several colonial cities that could be considered “best in class,” each in its own way—including Cartagena, yes, but also including Santa Marta, also on the Caribbean, and Popayán, in Colombia’s southern mountains.
Cartagena is clearly a world treasure. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s one of the world’s few remaining walled cities. Its cobblestoned streets are lined with faithfully maintained Spanish-colonial structures whose wrought-iron balconies overflow with bright flowers, and its many parks and plazas, vibrant colors, and cheerful atmosphere provide for days of fun exploration.
The downtown sectors of Cartagena—those inside the wall—are in a state of preservation that’s unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in Spanish America. Almost 100% of the colonial buildings have been restored and are well taken care of. People come from all over the world to admire them and enjoy the atmosphere they create.
Cartagena’s tourist infrastructure is excellent, with small boutique hotels, plenty of luxury lodgings, interesting shops, cheerful sidewalk cafés, and loads of fine dining.
These offerings bring plenty of tourists… and plenty of tourist annoyances.
Everywhere you go, you are greeted by an army of vendors selling everything from Cuban cigars to tablecloths, as well as Cartagena’s fast-handed money changers, who offer the country’s best exchange rates but are also true experts at shortchanging you.
As colonial cities go in the Americas, I could argue that Cartagena is king… despite these tourist hassles.
However, just over 100 miles up the coast from Cartagena is the colonial city of Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest.
When I planned my first trip to Santa Marta, my outdated guidebook said to stay away from its colonial center, reporting that it was dirty, dangerous, and held little of interest.
So my expectations were low, meaning I was in for a surprise. Colombia’s been investing seriously in Santa Marta, and they mean business.
What I found was a city that is clearly on the move and improving by leaps and bounds. Today’s Santa Marta boasts a refurbished waterfront, a seafront promenade, beautifully restored parks, and an array of sidewalk cafés from which to take it all in. A giant cruise ship sat peacefully in the harbor.
The marina can accept 256 boats and hosts both resident yachtsmen and travelers from around the world. And, of course, the adjacent shoreline has sprouted the requisite seaside condo buildings, which are selling quickly.
The tourist infrastructure is growing in Santa Marta, in pace with the city’s downtown renovations. A handful of boutique hotels have set up shop, with larger projects under way. Still, you won’t find anywhere near the dining and lodging options that you’ll find in Cartagena, which has been a mature tourist destination for generations.
The only downside to Santa Marta is that it’s still a work-in-progress in many areas. But that’s what gives the city its upside market potential.
Travel far from the Caribbean to Colombia’s southern sierra, and you find this country’s best hidden colonial treasure of all—Popayán.
Situated at an altitude of just over 1,700 meters (5,600 feet), Popayán (pronounced poh-pah-YAHN) enjoys a mild springlike climate all year.
The historic center in Popayán is built around the central plaza in the Spanish-colonial style. It serves as the bustling social center of the city from 6 a.m. onward. The stately cathedral overlooks the square from one end, and the beautiful architecture extends outward through the entire downtown.
What’s really remarkable about Popayán is that all the buildings are uniformly white in color, with gold trim. Even the streetlamps and the accents and signs match the overall color scheme, which is maintained consistently throughout the historic center.
I found Popayán to be a comfortable place and could see myself settling here full-time. The city sees some tourists, which explains the presence of a fair number of nice restaurants and hotels. But, by and large, Popayán feels more like a place you might like to call home than a tourist mecca… far more reserved and tranquil than its Spanish-colonial counterparts on the Caribbean.
If I were choosing a colonial environment for a base in Colombia, Popayán would be my pick, thanks to the nice weather and the pleasant Andean setting.
Also, there’s another important difference between Popayán, Cartagena, and Santa Marta.
Property prices in this unsung city are half those of Santa Marta and one-third to one-quarter those of Cartagena.
If you’re looking for a colonial bargain, Popayán is the clear choice.