Retire To Santa Fe, Colombia

Best-Kept Colonial Living Secret (Plus, Property Is A Steal)

For many, one of the biggest attractions of Latin America can be the opportunity this part of the world offers for expats and retirees to enjoy life in a Spanish-colonial setting. With their town plazas, colonial-era architecture, center-courtyard homes, and cobblestoned streets, Spanish-colonial cities provide picturesque, charming, and historic backdrops for a new life.

Colombia has its fair share of classic colonial settings. I wrote about some of the country’s most appealing Spanish-colonial options earlier this year. Resident now in Medellin, I realize that this is something I miss. Medellin is many great things, but it’s very short on the “colonial charm” factor.

I was pleased to discover, therefore, that, just over an hour away, is Santa Fe de Antioquia, a national heritage site and true colonial treasure in the heart of the department (province) of Antioquia (pronounced ahn tee OHK ya). It’s a small city that’s been beautifully maintained since it was founded in the 1500s.

My first impression of Santa Fe was that it had a larger and better-preserved historic area than I’d expected. The historic center is about 70 city blocks, and most all of the homes and shops in that zone have been maintained to an attractive and authentic architectural standard.

From the center of town, the cobblestoned streets lead you past the residents’ colonial homes, with clay-tile roofs and colorful balconies spilling flowers over their handrails. You can spend hours exploring the narrow alleyways, enjoying the little city’s seven well-kept parks and photographing the beautiful antique doors and windows.

These homes are not only attractive but also a tremendous bargain. More on this in a minute.

Santa Fe’s historic center is also dotted with small cafes, restaurants, and shops, many of which are serving food typical to the Antioquia region. This was the capital of the department of Antioquia for 242 years, until 1826, when the capital was moved to Medellin. Today–aside from its agriculture industry–it’s famous mostly as a weekend getaway for people from Medellin. A mountain tunnel was constructed in 2006 (one of the longest in the region, almost three miles) that drastically reduced the drive time to the Santa Fe area, contributing to a spike in the vacation home and tourism markets here.

Santa Fe is home to only 14,500 people, but it has more than its share of amenities, thanks to its status as a popular tourist destination. This is great for the weekend visitor, but, unless you’re involved in the tourism business (running a B&B or a cafe, for example), I suspect the presence of tourists on the weekends might grow tiresome after a while.

Many well-off people from Medellin also have country vacation homes (fincas) in the Santa Fe area. These are places where a city-dweller can enjoy a bit of land and lounge by the pool.

You need a pool, because the Santa Fe area is lower in altitude than Medellin, and warmer. The average high temperature is 91°F (33°C), with nighttime temperatures dropping to an average of 73°F. You can understand why people live in thick-walled adobe or rammed-earth homes.

And while Santa Fe offers loads of colonial charm, you won’t find the diversity of nightlife that is available in Medellin. If you’re looking for a wealth of fine-dining options or night clubs, this town would probably be too quiet for you.

On the other hand, as I mentioned, the cost of real estate here is temptingly low, lower than I expected, given Santa Fe’s status as a national heritage site and how well this historic town has been preserved.

For sale right now, for example, is a centrally located house, five blocks from the main town square. It has 1,290 square feet of living space (120 square meters) and comes with four bedrooms and three baths, as well as a garage. The asking price is US$99,000, at today’s exchange rate of 1,817 pesos per U.S. dollar. (For our purposes here, from here on out, I’ll do all of the conversions for you, but remember that real estate in Colombia is priced in pesos, so the value in dollars changes with the exchange rate, which changes, very slightly, every day.)

Also on offer right now is a colonial home in the historic center. With three bedrooms and one bath, the house has antique ceramic floors and 1,290 square feet (120 square meters), which is small by colonial-home standards. The area breaks down to about 860 square feet of living area and a 430 square-foot interior courtyard. The asking price is US$126,500.

A well-maintained older home in the historic center is listed at US$137,500. It has 1,990 square feet of living area (185 square meters), with four bedrooms, a single bath, a great location, and lots of potential.

These next two are not in the historic center but are modern homes that would make good vacation properties.

The first is a large home in the Llano de Bolivar neighborhood, with four bedrooms and three baths in 2,340 square feet of living area (223 square meters). Outside is a nice patio overlooking the swimming pool, and the property is located close to the main road and the commercial district. The asking price is US$153,000.

The second  home of this kind on offer is in a gated community, so it’s easy to lock-and-leave. It’s three-story house with 2,150 square feet of living space (200 square meters). The property has two balconies, three bedrooms, and a library, along with two-and-a-half baths. Outdoors is an open-air family room and a swimming pool, all for the asking price of US$165,000.

However, the house that really caught my attention was a true, original colonial from the early 1600s. And it’s a genuine piece of Colombian history. The house was built by Maria Centeno Toborda, who began construction around 1615 and lived in the house until her death in 1645.

Maria Ceteno was a dynamic, audacious businesswoman of her time and is referred to as the “mother of the mining industry” in this mine-rich area. She developed major gold mines in four different areas of the department, making her one of the wealthiest working women in the New World at the time. She also built a number of churches–some of which are still in use–which made her a major church patron.

Her house was remarkable when it was built, being the first house in town to be constructed with rammed earth, with a clay tile roof.

The area of the house is about 4,850 square feet (450 square meters), with six bedrooms and three baths. It’s located on a pleasant and well-landscaped city square known as Plaza Menor. There’s a church on the square, and next door to the house is the archbishop’s palace. In the Spanish-colonial fashion, the home is built around an interior courtyard…and it also has a back yard behind the house.

The current owners have been in the house for about 50 years.

The asking price is US$770,500, at today’s exchange rate of 1,817 pesos per U.S. dollar. If you’d like more information, feel free to write to the owner, Luis Fernando Carvajal, directly. He can send you photos and more information.

If it’s colonial living in Colombia that you’re looking for, be sure to add Santa Fe to your list of options. It’s fairly convenient to Medellin, offers warm weather all year, and has one of the largest selections of well-kept, reasonably priced homes that I’ve seen anywhere.

Meantime, it’s also a chance to go back to an earlier time and enjoy the tranquility and slower pace that you won’t find in the big cities.

Lee Harrison


Continue Reading: Starting A Business In Medellin, Colombia

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