SANTA FE DE ANTIOQUIA, COLOMBIA — The old man riding the dusty mule and the chiva (bus) decorated like a Christmas present look to be on a collision course as they head towards each other on one of this old colonial town’s narrow cobbled streets.
I watch the game of chicken play out from a curb-side café with my guide Juliana and wonder who will give way first.
I worry for the old man.
“Don’t worry,” says Juliana. “They’ll figure it out.”
Sure enough, at the last second the old man pulls slightly on the reins and the mule nonchalantly dodges the bus.
“See, I told you. This happens all the time here in Santa Fe and no one dies. Now go back to enjoying your santafereño (a traditional Colombian hot chocolate drink),” says the lovely guide with the charcoal eyes.
A friend in Medellín encouraged me to visit charming Santa Fe so I could admire the pueblo’s colonial architecture and “experience old Colombia.”
Above: Santa Fe's lovely colonial buildings remind visitors of its Spanish history.
There’s much to like about this handsome town that sits in a valley bordered by two of the country’s most important rivers, the Rio Cauca and Rio Tonuzco.
“Santa Fe is 3,000 feet (about 1,000m) lower in elevation than Medellín,” the guide informs me. “That’s why it’s always so hot here.”
It’s market day in Santa Fe and the colourful chiva buses are overcrowded with villagers from the nearby hill towns who have come to stock up on provisions. People are balancing precariously on the overcrowded roofs and hanging out the doors.
“The chiva is the only link for these people with the modern world,” says Juliana.
The market is full of old gaúchos (cowboys) whose craggy bronze faces bear the deep scars of spending too much time under the relentless Colombian sun.
“We call them llanero here in Colombia but elsewhere in South America they are known as gaúcho,” says Juliana of the horsemen who herd their livestock in the pastures just outside Santa Fe.
Above: The local cowboys spend a lot of time tending their herds under a blistering sun.
“They are the direct descendants of the first Colombian people,” says the guide of the Indigenous people who were treated so brutally by the Spaniards when the Europeans first arrived.
“The Spanish were afraid to step on the ground because there were so many snakes and bugs in Colombia. So the Europeans designed special chairs that were very heavy and strapped them to the backs of the Indigenous people. They carried the Europeans around everyhwere — no matter how steep the hill or hot the day,” Juliana tells me.
We meander through the market, marvelling at the local handmade trinkets for sale for just pennies, and an old lady challenges me to taste the bolas de tamarindo (tamarind candies) she’s made. The candies have a wonderful sweet and tart taste and I’m an instant fan. I buy two bags, which I consume on the voyage back to Medellín.
Above: The colourful chiva buses are the main form of transportation in rural Colombia.
Santa Fe is now a weekend retreat for many affluent citizens of Medellín who come to enjoy the shops and restaurants gathered along the narrow streets of the old town, which dates back to 1541.
Many stay at the remarkable Hotel Mariscal Robledo in the centre of town, next to the market, and soak up the history and ambiance of the former 18th-century home that the city converted into a hotel to “help save it from the wrecker’s ball,” according to the guide.
The hotel is a living museum and filled with lots of historic furnishings and traditional paintings. Its terracotta-decorated rooms look out on the eye-pleasing landscape surrounding the town and offer a real feel of what colonial Colombia was like. Its restaurant offers lots of traditional dishes — the pork loin with tamarind sauce is a taste sensation.
The best place to experience Santa Fe’s history, though, is at the delightful Juan Del Corral Museum, a storehouse of history that’s full of documents and artefacts from the town’s colonial past.
Above: The unique Puente de Occidente is one of Santa Fe's main tourist draws.
Another major tourist attraction is the Puente de Occidente, a 200-year-old suspension bridge built to connect Santa Fe with neighbouring Olaya. The bridge’s single span is supported by four pyramidal towers and Juliana tells me “this is one of our biggest tourist attractions.”
The town’s main square is dominated by the Catedral de Santa Fe de Antioquia, a glorious white structure that sits like a giant glowing crown in Plaza Bolivia. It was constructed in 1799 and elevated to Diocese of Antioquia in 1804 by Pope Pius VII when Santa Fe was the capital of the region — a status now held by Medellín.
Around the corner from the regal cathedral is the equally impressive Iglesia Santa Barbaram, a baroque-style church that’s surrounded by a delightful park teaming with tropical plants.
As the sun begins to set on Santa Fe de Antioquia, the villagers line up to board the chivas with their new-found possessions in tow — the goats purchased in the market are reluctant to board the buses — and the gas-belching bucket of bolts soon head back into the hills surrounding the town.
Juliana points the car in the direction of the Tunel de Occidente, the longest tunnel in South America which connects Santa Fe with Medellín and we return to modern Colombia.
As the tunnel swallows the car, I take one look back at old Colombia and wish I could stay a little longer.
JUST THE FACTS
• Air Canada offers flights to Cartagena and Bogota and Copa Airlines flies to Medellín via Panama City.
• Santa Fe is an hour's drive from Medellín.
• Canadians do not need a visa to visit Colombia.
• Room rates at Santa Fe's Hotel Mariscal Robledo start around $100 U.S. a night. For information, go to http://www.hotelmariscalrobledo.com/