The Tierradentro National Archaeological Park is home to what is believed to be the greatest number of cave tombs in Latin America. There are dozens of them, some dating back 1,400 years. It’s a highlight for many travelers to Colombia and the place is unlike any other archaeological site in the country. However, we were a little distracted by the firefights between Colombian soldiers and FARC rebels in the surrounding foothills when we were there…
The foothills around the Tierradentro Archaeological Park in Southern Colombia are usually peaceful.
FARC guerrillas near Tierradentro
During the more than 18 months we spent traveling in Colombia we heard many personal stories about the FARC and the ongoing violence associated with the rebel group which has been operating in the country for decades. These stories brought the grim reality of living in a country that’s been essentially fighting a civil war with guerrillas into stark relief.
But nothing prepared us for our one and only firsthand encounter with the FARC as we arrived in San Andres de Pisimbala, the village in southern Colombia which is the gateway town to the nearby Tierradentro site.
NOT what you want to see when you rock into town: Colombian soldiers in the streets of San Andres de Pisimbala after FARC guerrillas booby-trapped the local school with land mines.
And when we say “first hand” we mean the town’s school, just one block from our guesthouse, was booby-trapped with land mines, Colombian soldiers were in the streets, and FARC rebels were in the hills. When those opposing groups began shooting at and shelling each other, we hid in the kitchen of our guesthouse (La Portada Hospedaje) numbly trying to process the tense, powerless reality of being caught in the crossfire.
Structures protecting entrances to the elaborately painted and carved underground tombs at the Tierradentro Archaeological Park.
Exploring Tierradentro (finally)
Once the FARC and the Colombian soldiers had moved on, things returned to normal remarkably quickly in sleepy San Andres de Pisimbala. The Tierradentro Archaeological Park (20,000 COP or about US$7 per person for a ticket that’s good for two days) also opened up again so we finally had a chance to explore what we’d come to see in the first place.
The decorated interior of one of the man-made underground tombs at Tierradentro.
As we said, Tierradentro is unlike any other archaeological site in Colombia because it’s home to a very high concentration of elaborate cave tombs – more than 160 of them. The area has been excavated since the 1930s and experts say some of the tombs date back up to 1,400 years.
Geometric shapes in red or black pigment are the main motifs inside the tombs at Tierradentro.
The tombs exist inside man-made “caves” called hypogeas which were dug into the ground. These are accessed via hand cut steps that form steep, curved staircases that take you from ground level directly down into the dug out space – like entering a crude cellar.
Hand-cut staircases like this descend steeply into each tomb.
Once inside, the spaces are impressively large. Big enough to stand up in and walk around. There is lighting inside, but bring a flashlight to be sure you can really see the tomb decorations.
Tomb painting at Tierradentro.
Almost every interior surface is painted using red or black pigment to create geometric shapes, animals and human faces. Niches are also dug into the walls of the tombs along with carvings.
Human figures and carved niches inside a tomb at Tierradentro.
There are also two small museums on the site, but it’s the tombs, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, that are the highlight. They’re spread out over a fairly large distance on sloping hillsides, so be prepared to do some walking. And, as we said, bring a flashlight. If you have a tripod, bring that too to assist with your shots inside the tombs.
In addition to the underground tombs, the El Tablón area of the site also has carved volcanic stone statues which you can hike to when FARC rebels and Colombian soldiers aren’t trying to kill each other in the hills, which we hope has stopped since both sides signed a peace treaty in 2017.
South of Medellin farmers found the perfect conditions for growing some of the world’s best coffee. Colombian coffee from this area is so good and the coffee culture so intact that UNESCO inscribed the region as the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia. More commonly called the Coffee Triangle, this area has become popular with travelers because of the laid back people, beautiful landscapes and (of course) the coffee. Here are our top hotels in the Coffee Triangle of Colombia including hotels in Manizales, Pereira and Quimbabya.
When this five room boutique hotel opened in 2014 it ushered in a whole new level of accommodation in the coffee triangle: exclusive, romantic, stylish, modern, gourmet, adults-only. Find out more in our complete review of Hacienda Buenavista.
The small city of Pereira isn’t a tourist destination in and of itself (it’s more of a business hub), but Pereira is on the way from Medellin to the heart of the coffee region. The Sazagua, named after a chief of the Quimbaya people who used to live here, is on the outskirts of town where things are still rural and peaceful. The stately elegant hotel, which also offers a pool and a spa, makes a great break in your journey. Brass bathroom fixtures and original tile floors give the rooms a homey feel. Book room number one (pictured below) for even more space and an indoor hammock. The hotel restaurant is so good that people stop by just to eat or to have business meetings over a good meal. Bilingual waiters, a peaceful garden setting and a wide-ranging menu including homemade soups and salads (the Cesar salad was excellent with home-made dressing), pork, fish and lots of beef (the steak au poivre was succulent with a truly peppery sauce) keep everyone happy.
This working coffee farm offers a range of rooms including shared dorms with the use of a kitchen and private rooms in a restored traditional building called the Main House which dates back more than 100 years. Antique furniture, creaking original wood floors and breezy patios make it easy to relax and live like a coffee baron for a few days. There are no keys and no TVs. A good guided coffee tour, which explains coffee growing and processing, is offered and the owners also have a stable of paso fino horses and rides around the plantation can be arranged for experienced riders. Hiking and bird watching are also offered and there’s a pool. Guests returning from activities are greeted with fresh juice and the kitchen turns out delicious traditional meals. An innovative bamboo gazebo, designed by a local architect, is a great place to relax as the resident peacocks stroll the grounds.
This family run country hotel dovetails perfectly with the culture of Colombia’s coffee country. The two story house was built more than 120 years ago and it retains its traditional paint job, wide wrap around veranda and original wood and tile floors. It was loving restored and modernized as a seven room hotel a couple of decades ago and all rooms have private bathrooms and antiques from the original house. The place is perfectly built to catch the breezes and make the most of the bucolic agricultural land and Andes views that surround it. There’s a pool and a sprawling garden favored by all sorts of bird, a free coffee plantation tour is offered and excellent estate-grown coffee and gourmet traditional meals are served.
Salento is not a secret. Lots of travelers to Colombia visit the mountain town above the gorgeous Cocora Valley every year. Locals love it too. After spending weeks in Salento over four separate trips, we’ve got your insider’s travel guide to paradise including a great new hotel, the smartest days to visit and where and how to see the best of the area’s famous wax palms (it’s not where you think).
Traditional architecture and a laid back vibe bring many travelers–foreign and Colombian–to the mountain town of Salento.
Salento, a Colombian paradise
Salento was founded in 1850 and proudly wears its badge as one of the oldest towns in Quindio province. The more charming parts of town take you back in time with cobble stone streets, meticulous traditional paint jobs on original adobe buildings with terracotta roof tiles and fire-engine-red geraniums everywhere. In 2011 UNESCO named a large swath of Quindio province, including Salento, as a “Coffee Cultural Landscape”.
The main plaza and church in Salento, Colombia.
Salento is like a smaller, more tranquil version of the town of Jardin except on weekends when Salento bursts at the seams as Colombian visitors descend on town creating traffic jams in the main plaza, filling hotels (some charge higher rates on weekends) and jamming the pedestrian street lined with shops selling everything from coffee to hats. On weekdays the town slips back into a sleepy pace, so our first Salento travel tip is: avoid weekends if you want a more peaceful experience.
The road into the Cocora Valley from the town of Salento, and it just gets more and more gorgeous from here.
Finding the (best) wax palms in Salento
There are plenty of things to do in Salento including hiking, biking, horseback riding, shopping, coffee touring and tasting, playing an explosive (literally) Colombian bar game called tejo and there’s even a zip line now. But the real reason you’re there is to see the famous wax palms of Salento, right?
Wax palms in the Cocora Valley below Salento.
Wax palms are a distinct species found only in the Andes in parts of Colombia and Peru. They are the tallest palm in the world and most grow to about 150 feet (45 meters) but some shoot up to 200 feet (60 meters). They’re also the national tree of Colombia.
The Cocora Valley unfurls below Salento.
Salento sits on a ridge above the Cocora Valley which is home to some of the few remaining stands of wax palms. Most visitors take a shared jeep taxi from town down into the picture perfect valley a few miles away: green pastures, rolling hills, an ambling narrow road, babbling brooks, historic haciendas – it’s got it all. See what we’re talking about in our drone travel footage of the Cocora Valley, below.
At the head of the Cocora Valley there’s a five hour loop trail which winds through small stands of the palms. It’s picturesque and the palms are stunningly tall, like the giraffes of the palm world, but these most famous wax palms are not the best examples on offer.
Wax palms in the Cocora Valley.
It wasn’t until our second or third visit to Salento that we learned that the Cocora Valley wax palms are nothing compared to the even more amazing palms that exist in a neighboring valley on and around a finca called La Carbonera. How do we know this? Because we’ve been adopted by a magical Colombian auntie (Hi B! We miss you!) and her family owns La Carbonera.
Classic Willys Jeeps are used as taxis in Salento.
She took us to La Carbonera, which is located about about 1.5 hours from Salento on a road that includes parts of the Camino Real which Latin revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar traveled along between Ecuador and Nicaragua. So here’s our next Salento travel tip: hire a jeep taxi and driver in the main square to take you to La Carbonera. Be ready for a bumpy, dusty ride, but it’s worth it (150,000 COP or about US$50 round trip for the whole jeep which will seat 5 people in addition to the driver).
Travel tip: the wax palms on the road to a finca called La Carbonera are much denser and more impressive than those in the Cocora Valley and we can tell you how to get there.
Right from the road to La Carbonera you will see thousands of wax palms clumped in large, swaying stands which blow the palms in the Cocora Valley out of the water.
What to eat and drink in Salento
Small trout farms are abundant in the area and many restaurants sell trout in various forms. Another Salento travel tip: you will see trucha al ajillo (trout with garlic) on menus everywhere. Be aware that this dish is not simply trout cooked in garlic. Your fish will come smothered in a milky, mildly garlicy sauce. Just so you know.
Fried trout on a platter-sized patacon is a common (and delicious) dish in Salento.
Dairy products are also huge in Salento thanks to sprawling cattle farms. Get some local cheese, then head to the small supermarket on the main square, walk to the back near the produce section and look for baskets of small baguettes made daily by a local woman. Yep, that’s another tip.
Many diary products are produced in and around Salento and some are sold at this creative road side stand on the way into town.
Whatever you do, don’t leave town until you’ve tried a patacon. Usually, patacones are thick discs of boiled, pressed, then fried plantain which come as a common side dish. In Salento, a patacon is a very thin, crispy version the size of a dinner plate which is topped with cheese, chicken, trout, etc. and garnished with rich hogao which is a common Colombian sauce of chopped and simmered vegetables. You won’t find this delicious dish in many other parts of Colombia and we still crave it from time to time.
Don’t leave Salento without trying a thin, crispy patacon topped with meat, cheese and hogao.
Salento is in the so-called “coffee triangle” so there are lots of area coffee producers (some offering tours of their farms and facilities) and many cafes in town. We liked Cafe Bernabe Gourmet because the coffee was good and so was the art on the walls. Another solid place to caffeine up is Cafe Jesus Martin. We liked their coffee so much that we bought a few bags of beans to keep with us in the truck for future use in our beloved Bonjour insulated French Press.
Excellent coffee at the Jesus Martin cafe in Salento.
On weekends, open air bars open around the square under tents and they’re a great place to grab a beer and watch Colombian families. Speaking of beer, if you’ve been looking for an opportunity to play tejo, Colombia’s beloved bar game, you can do it in Salento. Here’s where to play tejo in Salento.
On the weekends enterprising locals push Colombian kids around the main plaza while their parents relax in the casual restaurants and bars around the square.
Where to sleep in Salento
There are more than 70 hostels and hotels in little tiny Salento, so choice is not the problem. During our very first visit we stayed at the stylish and peaceful Hostel Tralala, just off the main square, which has a dorm, two lovely shared kitchens which include free coffee, there’s a casita off the garden and a handful of and private rooms (70,000 COP or about US$24 for a private double with bathroom/60,000 COP or about US$20 with shared bathroom).
We also spent a few days in a one room apartment outside of town which is rented by Maria Clara who also bakes those baguettes we recommended above. It’s sunny, clean and comfortable with a large porch with a hammock. It’s a great option for families or those staying longer term, but her current rates are a bit steep for us at 120,000 COP or about US$40 per night, contact Maria Clara at claragarciamar AT hotmail DOT com or call 3133717249, she speaks English).
We also stayed at La Floresta Hostel which has a parking lot and basic but fairly clean rooms and a pretty filthy shared kitchen (55,000 COP or about US$17 per night for a private double with bathroom, there’s also a camping area and dorms).
Reserva El Cairo Hotel is a lovely new addition just a few miles from town in the Cocora Valley.
During our most recent visit to Salento we were delighted to tour the new seven room Reserva El Cairo Hotel. Located two miles (3 km) outside of town in the Cocora Valley (taxis are common and cheap), this hotel is peaceful and combines sustainability with traditional architecture. The restored building, formerly a private house, is more than 100 years old and rooms now have modern bathrooms and good beds plus a basket full of locally-made snacks. Staff members speak English and they’re passionate about service. They grow their own organic fruits and vegetables and produce their own milk, butter, eggs and chickens on their 100 acres (40 hectares) of land.
Despite the importance of Salento and the Cocora Valley as a tourist destination, the area’s UNESCO site status, and it’s standing as home to the country’s rare national tree, there’s a new plan afoot that would allow open pit mining for gold in the region. There is local backlash, so stay tuned.
In this age of travel itineraries packed to the gills with “experiential” and “immersive” experiences it’s easy to return home exhausted but still somehow lacking any real insight into the destination you visited. Santa Cruz de Mompox, Colombia (referred to simply as Mompox or Mompos) is the perfect place to remember the joy and value of doing nothing as a way of seeing everything and letting the culture, history and idiosyncracies of a place sink in naturally.
Kids enjoying the Magdalena River in Mompox, Colombia.
“You don’t travel in space in Mompox, you travel in time.”
A local Momposian shared those romantic words with us and they turned out to be true. Founded by the Spanish in 1540 in the middle of the mighty Magdalena River, Mompox became an important port town and way station for traders in the 17th-19th centuries. Mompox flourished. And then the river silted up. However, the town didn’t shrivel up and die when river trade stopped. It simply took a nap.
La Iglesia San Agustin in Mompox, Colombia was built in 1606 and is part of the Colonial heritage and architecture that have made Mompox a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mompox stirred a bit in the 1990s when it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its historical economic importance, remarkably unchanged Colonial center and collection of churches. The pace in town, which is also part of Colombia’s exclusive Pueblos Patrimonios group, is still best described as sleepy though it’s never boring thanks to a long list of local quirks and characters.
The center of Mompox is filled with intact Colonial streets like this one.
Quirks and characters in Mompox
The blindingly white Mompox cemetery is located right in the center of town and is worth a roam around. You can’t miss the grave of a local man nicknamed El Gato (The Cat). As the nickname would imply, he loved cats and after his death his family kept a fresh supply of cat food at his grave. There are now more than 45 cats living in the cemetery.
The cemetery in Mompox is home to the grave of a local man nicknamed El Gato and more than 40 cats who continue to be fed by El Gato’s relatives.
The Hospital San Juan de Dios is said to be the oldest hospital in the Americas still operating in its original location. Swing by City Hall where the Act of Independence from Spain was signed in 1810, making Mompox the first Colombian city to declare freedom from Spain.
Built in 1660, the beautifully restored Municipal Palace, aka Cloister of San Carlos, was the site of the first secondary school in Mompox. In 1809 the Universal School of Saint Peter the Apostle was founded on the site which is said to be the first university established in the Caribbean.
The beautifully restored Cloister of San Carlos is on the site of the first university in the Caribbean.
All of that sight-seeing is best done in the mornings or evenings as mid day temperatures soar in Mompox. The good news is that the streets are remarkably car-free (in part because of how hard it is to reach Mompox, more on that later). If it weren’t for a proliferation of small motorcycles, there would be more donkeys pulling carts than motorized vehicles in Mompox.
Donkeys are still a common sight in the streets of Mompox, Colombia.
Liberator and Latin hero Simón Bolívar first arrived in Mompox in 1812 when he recruited hundreds of local men to join him on his triumphant march to Caracas. Bolívar subsequently returned to Mompox many more times as he traveled up and down the Magdalena, spawning a local version of the “George Washington slept here” legend.
Piedra de Bolivar records the eight visits that Simón Bolívar made to Mompox between 1812 and 1830.
Always a political town, residents reacted to decades of tensions between Colombia’s rich Conservative Party and the poor Liberal Party in a unique way. The two parties were established in 1849. The Liberal party ruled between 1861 and 1885 and established separation of church and state. In 1885 the elite Conservative Party took power and re-established the influence of the church in Colombian politics. That, in part, lead to the “War of 1,000 Days” which raged between the two partied from 1899 to 1903. More than 120,000 Colombian died.
In Mompox, these political tensions became so fierce that town was literally divided in two with proponents of the Conservative Party living on one side of town and proponents of the Liberal Party living on the other.
Those divisions have eased, though political opinions remain strong, and Mompox today seems tranquil and united, as we saw when we stumbled upon a group of Momposians practicing a traditional dance in Plaza Concepcion. Check out our video, below.
Modern Mompox is a pleasing version of Southern US bayou country as imagined by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Colombia’s only Nobel prize winner, who was inspired by his time in Mompox. His wife was born near here and a movie version of his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold was shot in Mompox. But that’s not surprising. In Mompox time doesn’t seem to have simply stood still, it seems to have gone backward in a feat worthy of the “magical realism” the author helped to perfect. Learn more about exploring Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia, including Mompox, in the piece we did for the Biography channel’s website.
Colonial architecture on the riverfront of the Magdalena River in Mompox, Colombia.
Hotels in Mompox
The town’s existing selection of budget to mid-range family-run guest houses, which seem to outnumber actual visitors, has been augmented in post UNESCO status times by more polished (but still under US$100) offerings. The pioneer is La Casa Amarilla which is run by British expat and journalist Richard McColl and his Colombian wife Alba. The hotel is homey and fully appointed and has an enviable location on the riverfront right next to La Iglesia Santa Barbara. Guest benefit from the owners’ local knowledge.
La Iglesia Santa Barbara, built in 1630, is right on the recently-restored waterfront and right next to La Casa Amarilla hotel in Mompox, Colombia.
Richard was the only gringo in Mompox until the recent arrival of a second one who opened an Italian restaurant near the hotel and planted a nine foot tall fork in the ground in front of it.
Two boutique hotels have also recently opened in Mompox. Portales de la Marquesa opened in 2013 after a 14 month renovation of a house that dates back to 1735. Located on the riverfront, the hotel is now a chic haven with air conditioning, WiFi, fine art, original tile floors, a small pool and a lush central courtyard. You can rent individual rooms or the whole property.
The enormous suite at Portales de la Marqueza boutique hotel in a restored Colonial building in Mompox, Colombia.
Bioma Boutique Hotel opened in 2011 after a year of sometimes controversial renovations which included a fair amount of demolition and hand washing the original terracotta roof tiles. New ironwork was all produced locally and the view from the roof deck is amazing. Don’t miss the small niche to the left of the front door, a remnant of the days when the building was used as a movie theater and tickets were sold through the niche.
A guest room at Bioma Boutique Hotel in Mompox, Colombia.
Hotel reservations are not normally necessary except during Christmas, Semana Santa and the annual Jazz Festival in Mompox which is held every October.
A view of Mompox rooftops from the roof deck a the Bioma Boutique Hotel.
Eating and drinking in Mompox
Head for the square in front of the Santo Domingo Church and look for the cooks and waiters wearing shirts that say Asadero Donde Chepa. Here you’ll eat the best US$4 steak you’ll ever have along with homemade chimichurri and fantastic hot sauce.
Head to Asadero Donde Chepa in front of the Santo Domingo church in Mompox for tasty grilled meat meals at economical prices.
Then head to Plaza Concepcion and Cafe Ti where you can claim a rocking chair out front, enjoy a cold beer and watch local boys play chess on fold-up mats as bats swoop overhead and the Magdalena slowly meanders by. Look for the saxaphone on the wall outside the front door and look forward to hearing New Orleans style jazz and ragtime as you enjoy the breeze.
Locals play chess on fold out boards in front of Casa Ti on Plaza Concepcion in Mompox, Colombia.
A great economical lunch can be had at Comedor Costeña where around US$4 gets you a full plate of meat, salad, rice and a cold beverage right next to the river.
Things to do in Mompox
If you insist on “doing something” in Mompox you can visit the Museo de Arte Religioso (about US$2) for a guided tour of religious paintings and statues, silver pieces and portraits of Bolívar. The Casa de Cultura (about US$1) can also be visited. Keep your eyes open for original frescoes peeking through some walls. Just be aware that you may have to wake somebody up to let you.
Local crafts include delicate filigree jewelery and brutally sweet fruit wine but that’s about the extent of your shopping options.
You can also book a river trip on the Magdalena or to small islands within the sprawling, Mississippi-like flow.
The end of another lazy day in Mompox, Colombia as the sunset lights up the sky behind La Iglesia Concepcion.
Getting to Mompox
Getting to Mompox is tricky because the town sits in a giant depression in the Magdalena River and is surrounded by mile after mile of river, wetlands, swamps and flood plains. However, reaching Mompox has gotten easier since we were there.
When we made the trip from Aracataca it took seven hours of driving including more than 40 miles (65 km) over rough unpaved road and a “ferry” over the Magdalena River itself which consisted of three pontoons tied together with a platform on top for people and vehicles.
Our heavy truck made the whole contraption groan and pitch as we pulled on along with seven motorcycles and about a dozen people. Check it out in our video, below.
Our truck got stuck getting off the ferry on the other side of the river when a rear tire pushed the ferry backward, trapping the tire between the ferry ramp and the riverbank. It took four men to push us out in four-wheel drive. After another 20 miles (32 km) of bad road we finally reached Mompox.
Travel tip: If the route you choose takes you past a town called La Gloria make time for a brief visit because this is the birthplace of the Biblioburro, a mobile lending library on the back of a donkey. We regret not stopping.
The trip to Mompox has recently gotten much easier. The route from Aracataca is now entirely paved and a new eight mile (12 km) long bridge is scheduled to open in December 2015 which will ease access even more. A nearby airport is also being upgraded to be able to welcome more internal flights.
Everyone remembers The Alamo, but UNESCO wants us to remember far more than that. This year UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status on The Alamo and San Antonio Missions in Texas, honoring this collection of five missions, which were built by Franciscan missionaries in the 18th century, as “an example of the interweaving of Spanish and Coahuiltecan cultures, illustrated by a variety of features, including the decorative elements of churches, which combine Catholic symbols with indigenous designs inspired by nature.”
The Alamo and San Antonio Missions
The Alamo is most famous as the site where Mexican fighters trounced the “Texican” army (yes, that was the real name), a defeat which created the rallying cry “remember The Alamo” and inspired others to battle the Mexicans and ultimately take huge tracts of land for the US. But The Alamo is also a mission which is located in the center of modern-day San Antonio. The San Antonio Missions are scattered around the surrounding area. Here’s a look at The Alamo and San Antonio Missions, the newest UNESCO World Heritage Site in the US.
The Alamo, aka the Alamo Mission.
Mission Espalda, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mission Concepcion, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mission San Jose, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We’ve traveled to more than our share of world-class preserved Colonial cities, including Antigua, Guatemala and the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Both are gorgeous, but both are handily outdone by the beauty and ambiance of the restored Colonial architecture in the petite, walkable historic center of Cartagena, Colombia. Everywhere you look in this UNESCO World Heritage Site city, which was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, you see fabulous color, playful details (the door knockers are amazing, for example) and living history. Here are some of our favorite examples of colorful Colonial buildings in Cartagena.