Original City Names of Colombia

Since I’m into etymology, I thought it would be fun to learn the original city names of a few major Colombian cities. We all know the names used today but what did the settlers or the natives call these cities?  


Bogotá was originally called “Bacatá” (which means “planted fields”) by the Muiscas. It was the center of their civilization before the Spanish explorers colonized the area, and it sustained a large population. The European settlement was founded in August 6, 1538 by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and was named “Santa Fé de Bacatá” after his birthplace Santa Fé and the local name. “Bacatá” had become the modern “Bogotá” by the time it was made the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada, which was then part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, and later of the Viceroyalty of New Granada.


The first part of the name Santiago de Cali honours Saint James the apostle (Santiago in Spanish) whose feast day is celebrated on July 25. There are several possibilities for the origin of the word “Cali”. Some attribute it to a mispronunciation of the word “Lili”, the name of a local tribe. Others believe that the word “Cali” has Quechua origin, and it was brought by the Yanaconas Indians that came fromQuito serving Sebastián de Belalcázar. This theory is reinforced by the fact that near Quito there is an indigenous town named Cali Cali.


Founded in 1533 by Spaniard Don Pedro de Heredia, and named after the port of Cartagena in Spain’s Murcia region, the city was a major center of early Spanish settlement in the Americas.

The Spanish name comes from the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal, a nephew of Hannibal, about 227 BC, who called the city Qart Hadast, Punic for “new city”. When it was taken by the Roman general Scipio Africanus Major in 209 BC (Battle of Cartagena in 209 BC) it was renamed as Carthago Nova, Latin for “New Carthage” (which is somewhat humorous, as “Carthago” is a Latinization of “Qart Hadast,” thus unknowingly the Romans named the city “New New City”).


The new Spaniard settlement had five names before the actual: Aburrá de los Yamesíes, San Lorenzo de Aburrá, San Lorenzo de Aná, Valle de San Bartolomé, Villa de la Candelaria de Medellín and Medellín.

The name of the city honours Medellín of Extremadura (Spain) because some of the Spaniard conquerors, like Gaspar de Rodas, the first governor of Antioquia, came from that region of Badajoz, Spain.


The word Popayán comes from an Indian dialect. It means:

Po: Two  – Pa: Straw  – Yan: Village

Two villages with straw roofs. However there is no straw roofs in town any more although there is plenty of them in the city neighborhood.


The Site of the Kamash Indians (castilianized as Camacho or Camach) is known as the first permanent human settlement of Barranquilla. In the 16th Century, the Spanish Crown created an Encomienda adjudged to the captain Domingo de Santa Cruz as reward for his remarkable militar perform. This Encomienda disappeared in 1559 when it passed to the hands of doña Ana Ximénez, widow of Santa Cruz, who had received the Encomienda after his husband’s death. This lady was victim of an outrage coming from the second Encomendero of Galapa, Don Pedro de Barros I. This man took arbitrarily all the work force of the Encomienda of Camacho to his own Encomienda.

Many years after, between 1627 and 1637, the Estate San Nicolás de Tolentino was foundated by Nicolás de Barros y de la Guerra, great-grandson of don Pedro de Barros I, second Encomendero of Galapa. The Estate was established on the shores of La Tablaza stream. In this Estate, don Nicolás de Barros had to allow to his free workers to build their own houses inside of the limits of Estate, so that they could accomplish their agricultural chores and also the support of their families. Moreover, after don Nicolás’ death, the Estate begun to lodge another sort of inhabitants: people who, for reasons of health, age or to hold a relationship with the owner of the Estate, were allowed to live within the Estate. There were also natives from Malambo and Galapa. Over 1681, the Estate was considerated as a Site, that is a town. The Estate and its nearby sites were known as Barrancas (canoes) de San Nicolás, which later became Barranquilla.


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