Top Spots in Colombia – 15 Best Destinations

Seasoned South American travelers say Colombia is the continent’s best kept secret – beautiful, affordable and relatively undiscovered by tourism.  Though large, Colombia is easy to travel with plenty of low cost internal flights, comfortable cross-country buses and taxis everywhere.
Travelers can easily visit more than 2-3 destinations in a week with an ample selection of destinations to visit over extended periods.

This is my selection – the  15 best destinations to visit in Colombia. These are places I gladly return to time and time again.  The list is divided by topological identities: beaches, colonial towns, archeology and cities.  For more information on each destination read  the full articles on colombiatravelreporter.com

Beaches

A view from Acronis in La Guajira

La Guajira

One of the strangest and most spectacular spots in Colombia is located at the northern most point of South American in the Guajira peninsula,  a reserve for the Wayuu – a Colombian indigenous tribe politically ruling the entire peninsula today. It’s one of most visually stunning places on earth where bare, desert landscape meets the blue turquoise of the Atlantic. The trip is a must see if coming to Colombia, not an easy trip but well worth the sacrifice. (see full article)

The beach of Sapazurro

Sapazurro

Sapzurro is one of those ideal, sleepy tropical towns in which to hide out, lay low and escape from it all. If you want to drop off the radar for a while – this is the place to do it.  Located on the southern end of the Darien Pass on the Panamanian border, it is a 15 minute boat ride from Capurgana – a small village catering to mostly Colombian tourists. There are no roads to get here; either one flies into Capurgana – $100 from Medellin to a small airstrip outside of the town or comes in by boat – $20 from  the port of Turbo. The boats leave pounding across the Gulf of Uraba a full speed through 3′-4′ chop. Not a pleasant 3 hour ride for the faint of heart or seasick prone. The difficulty getting here makes this place one of the best kept secrets in Colombia. (see full article) 

Playa Cuevita near El Valle

Bahia Solano – El Valle

Travelers who want to go see the Pacific in Colombia have their work cut out for them. This area is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, yet one of the least developed, beautiful, forgotten places in Colombia; where long swaths of pristine beaches backed by rainforest jungle spill out onto black volacanic sands while 4-6 foot waves pound the surf and 12 foot whale spouts are spotted just offshore. El Valle is an Afro-Colombian village of a few thousand people an hour’s ride on a muddy dirt road from Bahia. The town is hot and humid and isn’t much to look at but the main beach area, Playa El Almejal, a 20 minute walk north of the village, is paradise – as is Playa Cuevita a 20 minute walk south of El Valle. (see full article)

The beach at Palomino

Palomino

Palomina is one of those off-the-beaten-track beaches that are hard to forget and one where you’ll definitely want to spend more time at and probably come back to  again in the future. To get there take from Santa Marta a bus up highway 90 hugging the Atlantic towards Riohacha. It’s about a 2.5 hour trip. The bus driver will drop you off on the main highway in front of a dirt path which leads down to the beaches. Motor-taxis are parked on the highway waiting to take you down to the beach.

This is definitely a back packers paradise – a one of its kind in Colombia. It is a very laid-back, anti-stress atmosphere here with none of the boom-boom party enthusiasm of most Colombian beaches. The town caters to tourists, both Colombian and foreigners, who come  to relax, be alone and recharge their batteries.

Only about half a mile of beach in Palomino is sparsely developed. The beaches to the north and south of Palomino are empty and one can endlessly wander in any direction along the palm lined sandy beaches and rarely see a soul. (see full article – Santa Marta and the beaches north)

Beaches at Tolu

Tolu

Tolu is a sleepy little tourist town 3 hours south of Cartagena on the Caribbean Gulf of Morrosquillo. Tolu is bustling boom-boom town with music blaring from every bar, restaurant and bicycle taxi ambling along the malecon boardwalk – jut the way the Colombian tourists like it. The town caters to middle class Colombian tourists during holidays and the weekends and they want to keep it to themselves. If it’s peace and tranquility you’re looking for then it’s probably best to visit during the weekdays when the town is relatively quiet.

Everyone travels in bicycle rickshaws or what they call bicitaxis, outfitted with boom boxes and accommodating anywhere from 3-10 people. It’s a nice place to unwind in a town with everything you need. There are also numerous beaches within a 30 minute bus ride of the town definitely worth checking out: San Bernardo del Viento, Playa Blanca and the islands of San Bernardo. (see full article)

Archeology

A tomb at Tierradentro

 

 

 

Tierradentro

Tierradentro – located in the department of Cauca, is known for its pre-Colombian tombs. Underground tombs have been found all over the Americas – from Mexico to Argentina but their largest concentration is in Colombia. And Tierradentro is one of Colombia’s greatest pre-Hispanic attractions.

There are 162 subterranean tombs located in 4 different sites dating back to the 6th to 9th centuries A.D. Carved into volcanic rock the tombs open to the west. Spiral staircases lead to a main chambers 15 to 24 feet below the surface. The main rooms are 30-36 feet wide with supporting columns and small walled chambers where the bodies were buried. The walls were scored with geometric patterns and painted red, black and white; red representing life, black death and white the hope of passing to the next life.

The hills in the park are spectacular dotted with small farms. It’s a long hike and difficult hike up and down the steep mountains and 8 miles of narrow foot trails to visit some of the major sites. It can be easily done in two days of hiking and tomb exploration. (see full article)

a demon statue at San Agustin

San Agustin

San Agustin – is a pleasant country village in Huila where one can explore Colombia’s finest archeological patrimony emersed in some of its most beautiful rural landscape. A few thousand years ago the people who lived in this area adorned their tombs with statues of god heads, devilish images, men in trances and man/animal figures. They believed these were creatures bridging the world of man and animals.

People have been inhabiting this steep terrain for 6,000 years. And these tombs and statues were created around 3,300 B.C. – about the time they were building the pyramids in Egypt; well before the Incas, whose civilization arose in the 13th century and was thriving when Columbus discovered the Americas. (see full article)

Colonial Towns

Mompox

Mompox

About five hours inland from the Caribbean coast is the intriguing town of Mompox – a perfectly preserved colonial town. Founded in 1537 Mompox (also spelled Mompos) was an important port city for cargo and travelers during in the colonial era. The Magdelena River splits in two just before Mompox. Back in the 1800s the branch, on which Mompox sits, silted up with mud and became unnavigable for big boats – so traffic was diverted down the other branch. Mompox became a sleepy, back-water town frozen in time.

The city center is like one huge museum. All the villas in town leave their huge doors and windows open displaying quaint courtyards and sitting rooms adorned with antiques. When the cool evening breezes float in at sunset, the residents sit outside their houses on the street to cool off and chat with neighbors while bats dive down the whitewashed streets hunting for mosquitos coming up from the river. There’s a languid charm to this place, quintessential colonial Colombia. (see full article)

Barichara

Barichara

Barichara – a few hours travel south of Bucaramanga there’s the town of Barichara founded in 1741 which means in the native Guane language “place of rest with flowering trees”. The streets are made of cobblestones and the whitewashed colonial houses have been kept original. They filmed many Colombian movies here. Inside the houses remind me of Tuscany with wooden beams, terra-cotta tile floors and terra-cotta roof tiles. The town has been named one of the most beautiful villages in Colombia.

It is located in the department of Santander, a Colombian department, rarely visited, but home to a number of quaint colonial villages. Not many people know much about Santander because it’s not on the road to any significant stop in Colombia. It’s a 15 hour – 450 mile bus ride from Cartagena to the north and 250 miles and another 10 hour mountainous bus ride to Bogota to the south. Why bother? It’s one of the cheapest areas in the country offering bargain adventure, colonial lodgings, a great climate and country food. (see full article – Colonia Towns of Santander)

Plaza Major – the largest cobblestoned plaza in Colombia

Villa de Leyva – A National Monument

The department of Boyacá boasts numerous, well-preserved, Spanish colonial villages dating back to the 1700s and Spanish rule. But Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s most special towns. Considered one of the most beautiful village in Colombia, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited villages. Only a three hour trip day trip from Bogota, Villa de Leyva is never at a loss for visitors. It has been declared a national monument.  The town boasts an impressively preserved main square, Plaza Major, the biggest and the most beautiful cobblestoned square in Colombia with 42,000 sq. feet of rock surface area. (see full article – ‘Villa de Leyva and Mongui – the beautiful villages of Boyaca’)

Main Plaza of Mongui

Mongui

Another beautiful colonial village in Boyaca is Mongui.  Located six miles northeast of the city of Sogomoso, set high in the hills, Mongui is 6,000 feet above sea level. Due to the altitude the air is cool and seemingly rather thin of oxygen.

A small town of only 5,000 inhabitants, Mongui, which means sunrise in native language, is beautiful with a large cobbled stone plaza and a magnificient Basilia built by the Franciscans in the 17th century. The church has an interesting museum. And just a couple blocks off the plaza, down Carrera 3, is the Calycanto bridge, a beautiful arched stone bridge.

Mongui is becoming famous as a traveler’s destination, not only for the village, but also as a doorway to one of the most beautiful ‘paramos’ in South America. The Páramo ia a unique environment unlike anywhere else on earth; an Páramos  ecosystem existing above the mountain’s forest line, but below the permanent snowline. (see full article)

Green hills of the coffee triangle

The Coffee Triangle

Another big tourist attraction in Colombia is an exploration of the Zona Cafetera, the ‘Triangulo del Café’ or the Coffee Triangle. Here they say the best coffee in the world is produced. A rather heated point of contention because every city and region in Colombia claims to produce, not only the country’s best coffee, but they also boast the most beautiful women .

It’s an easy trip to the coffee triangle by bus from Bogota, Medellin or Cali. It gives one the chance to explore Colombia’s evergreen interior. The triangle is composed of three cities all respective capitals of their departments: Manizales – capital of Caldas to the north, Pereira in Risaralda in the center and Armenia capital of Quindío to the south.

Well worth a visit are the towns of Salento, Filandia, the Valley of Cocora National Park and the National Coffee Park. – all located in the coffee triangle.  (see full article)

Colombian Cities

Popayan

Popayan

Popayan – Called the white city – Ciudad Blanca – or as its promotion slogan goes: more than just a white city. A colonial Spanish city founded in 1537 is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Colombia. It’s a quiet relaxed town. – easy to get around with a fair amount of tourism. It’s a university town with about 8 different state and private universities and students are everywhere. With an altitude of 5,770 feet it might get warm in the day but is always cool at night and rains and thunders almost every day.

(see full article- ‘Travel Southern Colombia: Cali, Popayan, Pasto’)

Plaza Botero in Medellin

Medellin

A dynamic, contemporary, prosperous city of 2.6 million people in Antioquia, Colombia – the heart of Colombia’s famous coffee triangle. Known as the land of the eternal spring it has a temperate climate – hot during the day and cool at night.

Not too long ago rated the most dangerous city if the world due to fighting between drug cartels, agrarian backed revolutionary groups, paramilitary groups, and a war on drugs.

Medellin is in the department of Antioquia stretching  25 kilomters through the narrow valley of Aburra between the high mountains ranges of the Central Cordillera.

The residents call themselves Paisas. They’re known for being curious, clever people and good businessmen. Also known as the Silicon Valley of Colombia, Medellin is easy to travel thanks to an excellent metro system and cable cars with plenty of restaurants, museums and enough things to see and do to easily fill up a week.  (see full articles: ‘Medellin: the land of eternal spring’ and ‘Traveling Medellin: Places to visit around Medellin’)

 

Cartagena seen from an old Spanish Fortress San Filipe

Cartagena

Cartagena is a  vibrant beautiful port city where cruise ships also dock. It has a beautiful historic center and is the major tourist destination for Colombia. The city has the feel of a touristy city in Spain. The city within the walls – also called the inner city or El Centro,  was where the high officials and nobility originally lived. You can easily walk most of its narrow streets strolling around in a half day.  (see full article)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel in Colombia / What to Expect/ What to Pack

Couldn’t be a better time to see Colombia

Reading the travel guides on Ecuador – they talk about it how tourism has changed the country. ‘Should have been here 10 years ago when it was quaint and undiscovered,’ they say. ‘Now there are big hotels, boutique shops, robberies all over the place.’

Well, that’s not the case with Colombia. Outside of Cartagena it’s all to be discovered. There is no big corporate tourism here. In a way, Colombia has remained unchanged for the last 40 years. But there is so much pent up tourism potential.

The country is so beautiful, the people so friendly and helpful. The climate is perfect. A good service structure already exists. Everything is so affordable. Tourism is overdue and coming fast.

Is Colombia Safe?

They say Colombia is safe now. After traveling around Colombia these last few years, I feel it’s one of the safer countries in Central and South America. Colombia has just emerged from a dark era – 30 years of violence – which basically stunted the country’s growth. A reputation as a violent and unsafe country is mostly unfounded today.

But after three decades of violence people still deal with the nightmares and down play the horror. They have  put that entire chapter behind them. They look ahead genuinely happy to see tourists returning. They know the violence is over they just can’t believe the foreigners keep bringing it up.  Of course it’s safe here, Colombians say defensively. It’s no longer like it used to be. It will never be like it was before. But it’s much better now. We’ve moved on.

Military  patrolling the countryside

Today, the tourist office’s catchy promotional slogan is: “Colombia – the only risk is wanting to stay.” 

Still, one shouldn’t throw caution to the wind as if they’re  on holiday in a gated resort in Cancun. To error on the side of caution is always advisable.

City centers where there are a lot of people are generally well patrolled and pretty safe. Safety in numbers?  My rule of thumb is stay away from the empty streets, poorer areas and the shady parts of town. You’ll know them when you seen them.

And when traveling in Colombia it’s best to keep you nose out of the vices. Stay away from drugs, prostitutes and hard drinking aguardiente bars. A little common sense and street smarts will  prevent you from stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time.

If you booked  a great deal on a nice hotel but it’s in a questionable part of town, not a problem. But, day or night, take a taxi to the city center or wherever it is you’re going. Taxis are cheap. Why take a chance of a mugging to save a couple bucks?

Have the hotel or restaurant call a cab for you. Ask the hotel and restaurant personnel if it’s safe to walk around town – where and when. They know and most hotel managers feel somewhat responsible for your well-being.

Women can’t travel in Colombia alone?

Not so. According to government statistics, women traveling alone represent a large part of the foreign tourists in Colombia. I saw many women traveling alone, in groups, or pairs. It  takes a certain savvy attitude, audacity, spunk and street smarts to be sure, but it’s a welcomed and growing reality in South America.

A Colombian picnic

Colombia people

I’m a huge fan – have been for decades.

The women walk down the streets so fresh, proud, heads up, so graceful and cat like, sensual, demurely catching you watching them out of the corner of their eyes; briefly acknowledging you and then just as quickly dismissing you. They know their power. Strong, dedicated, independent women with a dedicated sense of family. The way they call everyone ‘mi amor’. They are the ones who not only run the households but the country. There are more female politicians in Colombia than most other countries.

And the men show exemplary old school respect and graciousness. They call you ‘caballero’ or gentleman. They look you straight in the eye and are ready to engage in a political discussion right off the bat just to see the stuff you’re made of. Always offering you a tinto (coffee), asking you how you woke up today, ready to help you with any problem.

A Chiva bus and a Tuk Tuk

Communications

Communications in Colombia are very good. I can’t believe how easy it is to travel in Colombia these days compared to 40 years ago. With just a phone one can tap into the wi-fi  which is available in almost every hotel and restaurant in the country. Even  in the most remote, rural villages I found wi-fi. Just ask for their wi-fi pass codes (clave).

You can text, send photos, contact home, access Netflix  and use apps to reach out to locals or fellow travelers while on the road. There’s facetime with Skype, Messenger,  Whatsapp. And Colombian’s, young and old, are all hooked up with these platforms. With the internet you can book a hotel room for the next town, research your next destination and always hit the ground running.

Vaccinations

Contact your local, medical, international travel clinic- like Passport Health for up to date information.
For travel in Colombia it was recommended one get a vaccination for:

Hepatitis A – for food and water transmissions
Hepatitis B – for blood and bodily fluid transmissions
Typhoid Fever – for contaminated food or water
Malaria pills – for malaria carried by mosquitos
Yellow Fever – if you’re going to be on the coast or in the Amazon. They won’t give you the vaccine if you’re over 60 and don’t let them as it can be fatal.  They say you need the Yellow Fever  vaccine to get into Ecuador and Panama from Colombia but at the borders they never asked me to show mine.

Documents

Arrive with a passport that is valid for at least the next six months. Most North Americans and Europeans don’t need a visa, but check. A visa is usually granted for a 90 day stay. If you need more time you can always cross the border and come back with a brand new 90-day visa.

Getting around by jeep

Storing Valuables – Playing it  Safe

Keep a copy of your passport in a safe place or store it in the cloud. This will help you get your passport quickly replaced should it be stolen or lost.

While you’re at it –  keep a photocopy of your credit cards in a safe place, too.

Travel with a photocopy of your passport in the streets of Colombia don’t use the passport as i.d. Leave that at the hotel or hidden. But keep it on your person when traveling by bus as there are military and police road blocks and they will want to see the original.

Wear a money belt

I found the ones concealed around the waist are the best and keep your passport, credit cards and cash in the belt. There are also leg belts and regular belts with zippered compartments to hide money. Don’t keep your valuables in fanny packs or the pouches around your neck and under the shirt. When they rob you they’ve been known to pat your chest. It’s  almost unconceivable they will put their hands down your pants looking for a money belt.  But don’t rule it out.

Use the hotel safe when available. There are  anti-theft , cloth portable safes in with combination locks, on the market. Basically they’re bags made out of hard to cut materials that lock onto a fixed  object in the hotel room. They’re not impossible to get into or get  loose and run off with but it makes it the job harder and more time consuming.  Personally, I never had any problem in Colombia with anything missing from my hotel room. I prefer to leave my valuables in a locked hotel room  rather than hauling them with me onto the streets.  Travelers have reported some problems with valuables disappearing in hostels.

Always keep an eye on your drink, never leave your drink unattended as someone may drop a horse tranquilizer in it and you’ll wake up in a whole other world.

Stand there and make sure your bags get loaded into the bottom of the bus. Buses run fast and furious and more than one bag has been inadvertently  left on the sidewalk and not loaded into cargo.

Don’t let people run off with your bags with the pretense they’re doing you a service helping you quickly catch a departing bus, train or boat. Most of the time these guys are harmless.  They’re either  getting paid by the transport company to grab your business from the competitors or they’re just looking for a tip.

Don’t travel with even the smallest amount of drugs. There are police with dogs where you least expect them. This year in Colombia I saw a lot of drug sniffing dogs and police in the larger bus stations. Those dogs are good and the police have been stopping foreign tourists and making them unpack their bags right in the bus station.

Chances of Getting Robbed

As one seasoned traveler grimly said, “If you stay in Latin America long enough,  you will get robbed.”

If robbed, and let’s hope this never happens,   just shut up and  give them what they want.  Your pack, what’s in your pockets, watch, jewelry, camera – whatever they want. And do it quick. Thieves are nervous and the plan is to grab and dash. Don’t mess  with that plan. Give it up and send them running  quickly before you start talking  too much, they get nervous,  or you do something stupid and end up getting hurt. It’s never worth it.  If they go packing quickly they might not have time to check to see if you have a money belt or pouch. Or they  might forget to grab your watch or rings. They didn’t stop you to reason with you, or to discuss their life choices,  or to learn how much your stuff means to you, or how much of an inconvenience this robbery is.

Usually two men hold up a traveler when he or she is alone.  It’s harder they rob travelers  when they’re in a group of two or more. But it can’t be ruled out, either.  Robberies  usually happen on an isolated streets. And they  happen any time of the day or night.

Don’t try to fight. Not even if you’ve been trained for this.  There is always a knife and/or gun present. And these are not nice people. They have stopped you and have the element of surprise and the upper hand already in their favor. Speaking as someone who has been robbed, if you just give them what they want, it’s a safe bet, they probably won’t hurt you. But then again, some barking dogs actually do bite.

Sleeping in ‘chinchoros’ hammocks

What to pack:

Colombia is hot and then it’s cool and then hot again – all depends on the altitude, so be prepared for both – often in the same day.

If you’re going to be moving around, traveling by air, taxi, bus and on foot I recommend some kind of back pack.  You’ll have to walk a short distances when traveling. A pack makes that so much easier. They have back packs where the shoulder straps zip up into the bags which transforms the pack into a duffle bag or suitcase. This solution keeps your pack’s shoulder straps clean and free from getting snagged and ripped in the cargo hold of a bus or plane. Also keep a smaller carry-on day  pack to keep your computer and other travel necessities. I never put this one in a cargo hold or even in the overhead but keep it on my lap or on the floor by my feet where it can be watched at all times.

I know it’s never easy to minimize when you  have to travel light and are packing for a trip. My theory is you can always buy what you forgot when you get there. Whether you’re traveling for 2 weeks or 2 months, here’s a basic list of what I packed on my last trip to Colombia. Next time I’ll take even less.

Clothes:

5 pair socks low top and high top

4 T-shirts
1 tank top
1 sweater – hooded slightly heavy – Colombian buses are often air-          conditioned to the absurd max.
1 down jacket which you tie up in a ball. You’ll probably only use              during arrival and departure
1 pair lightweight cargo pants (those pockets are priceless)
1 pair blue jeans – can be used in formal settings too.
2 pair shorts cut to the knee (Colombian men only wear shorts at the beach.) Gringos can pull off wearing shorts but try to get shorts with a knee cut – not too short)
1 pair comfortable shorts for lounging around the hotel
1 swim suit
1 beach towel
1 pair lightweight sweat pants
2 pair flip flops or water shoes to wear at the beach another for the hotel
1 pair comfortable loafers or shoes
I pair trekking shoes – broken in.
I baseball hat
1 rain jacket
1 collapsible umbrella
Ear Plugs
1 money belt

1 blue jean or long sleeve shirt

Technology
1 laptop 10″-11” with photo capability for Skype and watching movies
1 Phone
1 kindle – download books – why  carry them
1 small camera
Power cords – Colombia uses the American 110 voltage similar to electrical  outlets found in the United States and Cananda

Accessories
1 lock and key for hotel rooms, storage cribs
1 pair of swimming goggles for salt water and pools
1 pocket knife – remember to pack it in your suitcase not your carry-on
1 spoon and fork, plate
Mosquito netting
Sunscreen
Mosquito repellant
Skin cream
Separate organizational pouches
Bottle opener/ corkscrew
Rope
Flashlight

Medicine bag/ Toiletries

Razor
Toothbrush and holder
Soap and holder
Asprin and Ibuorfen
Vaseline
Cortisone
Deodorant
Toothpaste
Bandaids
Prescription Medications
Chapstick
Motion sickness pills – if needed
Altitude sickeness pills – if needed
Needle and thread

Booking.com

Please leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have in the comment box below and we will get back to you.

Pros & Cons: Renting an apartment vs. a hotel stay

Renting a hotel vs. an apartment

When staying for an extended period of time in Colombia there are many lodging options: hostels, pensions, hotels, residencias and apartments. You can rent either for a day or for longer periods of time.

Multi-night stays: I usually book the first night on a sites like booking.com. The pictures, maps and reviews pretty much eliminate the element of surprise and disappointment. Staying longer than one night, always ask the hotel what’s the best price they can give for a second night. The longer you’re staying the harder you haggle. Apartments are usually already priced weekly and the more weeks you stay the cheaper it gets daily.  But haggle anyway.

Hotel/hostel/apartment? Many people would only consider staying in a hotel when they travel. Others like the privacy and freedom of apartment living. Which is cheaper?

A hotel room in San Gil with a balcony and a window facing the street.
Hotel room in Pasto

 

 

 

 

 

Hotels – for a pampered stay

Pros: Hotels are nice if you like being catered to. The rooms are cleaned every day. The sheets and towels are always clean and fresh, the bathrooms and floors are swept and mopped and everything tidied and stocked. Breakfast usually served every morning. For a fee, there’s room service,  laundry pick up, maybe a restaurant and pool in the building. And no contracts. You can take it day by day.

The cons: there’s always a doorman and/or receptionist keeping an eye on your comings and goings. Anyone you want to bring beyond the reception area  has to be registered and the hotel will levy the  double room rate.

Maid Service: is great until it isn’t. The maids will want to get in sometime during the day to clean. Usually they start knocking on the  door by 9 a.m. asking if or when they can come in to clean. Heaven forbid your floor is where they they  habitually start cleaning every day. And few hotels in Colombia have the ‘Do not disturb’ hang tags you can put on your outside door knob. If you find a hotel that has those tags, steal one so you can put it outside the door of your next hotel.

Chatty Kathy:  This is my pet-peeve. Other hotel guests will congregate outside your door very early in the morning and/or very late at night talking in loud voices as if they’re the only people booked in the hotel. That’s just how Colombians roll and another reason to ask for rooms far from the elevators and stairwells.

Room with a view: Everyone wants a room with a view and a balcony. Smokers, I get it. But the balconies and windows usually face the busy, main streets. Reception will not warn you of the street noise at night which usually doesn’t subside till 11 at night, starting back up at 6 in the morning. And if you’re in the Zona Rosa or entertainment district, the beat of valentato/salsa music could go on till 4 a.m. You can complain but the only thing they will  do is move you to another room which may only be slightly quieter.

The inner sanctum: Most hotels have rooms with windows opening to an attractive inner courtyard or sometimes the window of your room just opens to an airshaft letting in some defused light and a little fresh air. Lousy view – check. But a better night’s sleep – check.

Domestic duties: if you’re on a short trip and want to get away from: cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundry and tidying. Then renting an apartment may not be for you.

Apartments can be cheaper than renting a hotel room, But only if you’re staying for a month or longer. Otherwise they tend to cost about the same or sometimes a little more than a hotel room. If you’re traveling with a family or group of people – renting a big apartment will be cheaper than hotel accomodations.

A typical ‘apartastudio” in Colombia
Typical kitchen in a Colombian apartment

 

 

 

 

 

Hostels – a communal experience: are great if you’re on tight budget. You sleep in a room full of beds. They always have the best price. There is usually a communal kitchen for cooking your own food. It’s easier to meet people.  And you encounter the most interesting travelers. I love coming to a new area and staying at a hostel for a night or two just to get the low down on what to see and what’s up to road.

The cons: sleeping in a large room. If you’re a light sleeper, you’ll never get a good night’s sleep. People coming in at all hours, partying, packing to leave in the pre-dawn hours. Sometimes you get lucky and you’re the only person in a dorm room.  But for a little more money, there are private rooms to rent in hostels.

The security of your belongings is low. Some hostels have lockers or boxes you can padlock but most don’t.

And the sanitary conditions of the common kitchens is often left to be desired.  The guests aren’t cleaning the way they should and management isn’t doing a daily cleaning and organization of the kitchen area.

Apartments

Pros: Apartments are bigger – more living space. They can come with several bedrooms and enough beds to accommodate a small army with kitchen ware, table, chairs, 1.5 – 2 baths, towels, bedding, t.v. and all the comforts of home. Some big apartments are co-shared by different guests. Everyone has their own room and the kitchen is shared.

If you’re traveling alone,  or as a couple,  there are ‘apartastudios’ which are mini-apartments with a double bed, 1.5 bathrooms (always a half bath for visiting guests) they also come with kitchen ware, plates, utensils, towels, table, chairs, t.v. and sometimes air conditioning, sometimes just fans. A down-sized apartment, a little larger than a hotel room.

Apartments are usually located in residential areas slightly outside of the city in quieter areas where the locals live.

Apartments offer more privacy: You don’t have to get dressed and go downstairs for a cup of coffee in the morning. You can come and go as you please. There may be a doorman but he’s just there to keep out the riff raff and could care less who comes and goes with you. He’ll even buzz you to announce visitors.

No hotel maids  wanting to know when you’re leaving so they can get in your room. In fact, your privacy  is so intact there’s a chance you’ll be holed up in the apartment longer than you think – drapes drawn, sleeping in late, watching Netflix and taking uninterrupted  afternoon naps.

And think of all the money you can save on restaurants by cooking your own food. Finally make that pasta dish you’ve been craving or try cooking one of those incredible fish you’ve been eyeing at the market.

The cons:

Checking into an apartment is a lot more complicated. There are contracts to sign, and security deposits levied. The landlord does an inventory of everything when you arrive and again when you’re leaving, just like the hotel does with your mini-bar. Anything missing or broken comes out of your security deposit. You have to pre-pay so if anything happens, like the water being shut off or an electricity grid going for days, it’s most likely you won’t get reimbursed for the inconvenience. If this happened in a hotel you would simply  leave and go to another with functioning services.

You have to do your own cleaning. There are brooms and mops there for a reason. Sheets and towels will have to be washed by you. Some apartments have washing machines and clothes line to hang the wet clothes on. If not you have to take your wash, which now includes sheets and towels, to a laundry mat or a cleaners where they charge you by the kilo.

You’ll have to go shopping:  if you want to take advantage of the kitchen to cook your own food you’ll have to go shopping at the local market or supermarket. Lug the food home. (Often there are local ‘tiendas’ or small stores that will deliver to your door.) Then there’s the food prep. The cooking, the cleanup afterwards. And few apartments in Colombia have dishwashers.

Cheaper to eat out: I found it to be cheaper to eat out in Colombia than to cook. I love cooking. I spent a lot more money cooking my own food. But I ate a lot better.

Short term apartment stays in Colombia are not cheaper than hotels.  Weekly rates are higher than monthly rates or year long leases.

How to find an apartment: Apartments can be found on the hotel web sites and on Airbnb. There are also agencies in town representing apartments to let. And simply walking around you’ll see signs in windows ‘Apartamento en renta’ apartments for rent. Just stop and inquire

Which one is right for you?

Sometimes the daily household chores of apartment living are welcomed if you’ve been traveling for a while. The mundane, ritualistic activity of cooking, cleaning and food shopping can be a refreshing relief. Give you things to do while enjoying a more residential as opposed to touristic experience in you new town.

A travel mix: When I travel for an extended period of time, I like a nice mix of hotels and restaurants with an occasional apartment stay. If I’m traveling hard – Colombian hotels and restaurants are fast, easy, cheap and accessible.  Get in – get out. I sleep where I fall.

But sometimes I’m just tired of traveling. I know when it’s time to stop. An apartment can be a more accommodating place.

A countryside chalet for rent in Banos, Ecuador



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Please leave your comments, personal experiences or questions in the comment box below and we will get back to you. 

 

Colombia: Websites, blogs, books and guides – links

As a fan and student of Colombian humanities, I’m always on the hunt for websites, blogs, travel guides (website and printed guides ), news stories and books relating to Colombia. I’ll even read bad books and  dated, discontinued blog sites from years ago to learn of a writer’s Colombian experiences. And I always  learn something new.

Here are some of my favorite sites, travel guides and books on Colombia. If you have websites and publications you’d  think I’ve overlooked, please leave them with me in the comment box below.

For contributions to this website,  please leave me a comment and I will get back to you.

Websites – Links:

Richardmccoll.com – a freelance journalist who owns a hotel in Mompox. He has numerous recorded radio podcast online  called ‘Colombia Calling’, and a biography of books and articles studying Colombia culture and politics. His vast knowledge about Colombia is impressive.

Openmindedtraveler.com – a delightful blog about food, culture and life as an expat in Colombia by Erin Donaldson who lives in Pereira; with a lot of good information on the department of Choco.

Uncovercolombia.com – a sophisticated, photogenic blog about travel, experiences and discovering Colombia.

Colombiareports.com – the country’s leading website for news, in
English, on Colombia, travel tips and background.

Off2colombia.com – a comprehensive blog/website/ guide on traveling throughout Colombia

Discovercolombia.com – a guide on Colombia travel destinations, tours and things to do.

Expat.com  – an international expat help and support site with lots of useful information on living and working abroad.  Just click on South American and Colombia for a list of valuable links.

Honestlycali.weebly.com – an intelligent, opinionated, academic blog about banking, taxes, politics, economics, food and culture in Colombia. Straight forward ideas – ‘no sugar coating’. Talks about Cali in particular but Colombia in general.

Sarepa.com – a travel blog about living abroad and calling Colombia home – the experiences of an expat plus travel destinations in Colombia – by Sarah Duncan

Flavorsofbogota.com – a food blog/website dedicated to discovery of the best of Colombian cuisine. Plus coffee and coffee experiences by Karen Attman

HowtoBogota.com – a blog devoted to Bogota’s neighborhoods, living and working in the city by a blogger named Naiomi.

Medellinliving.com – an interesting blog/website dedicated to living and traveling around Medellin, things to do, restaurants and more.

Seecolombiatravel.com – explore, discover, believe. A website about traveling in Colombia promoting tours and travel packages with a lot of good, general information on visiting Colombia with  lots of photos.

Mytravelphotoblog.com – see his blogs on ‘destination Colombia’ with    interesting insights and photos on Ibague, Tolima

Nolongernative.com – a blog by Danielle, an American expat living in Bogota with her husband Cody. The perks and pitfalls of the expat experience in Bogota and around the world.

Colombiabirding.com – a website with information on bird watching in Colombia; promoting their  bird watching tours

Medellinguru.com – an insider guide to Medellin and Colombian lifestyle with experienced expat tips on things to do, places to go, where to stay, where to eat, what to visit for both visitors and expats living in Medellin.

Travel guides Colombia:

There are a numerous travel guides on Colombia. Some are out of print.  Most are available on Kindle.  Here are my standard favorites still in print today:

The Rough Guide to Colombia(2015)

Colombia: Bradt Travel Guide (2018)

Moon Colombia (2017)

Lonely Planet Colombia (2017)

Frommer’s Easy Guide to Colombia (2017)

Books – Background Reading on Colombia:

Colombia Reader: History, Culture and Politics 

Short Walks from Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombiaby Tom Feiling

The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself – by David Bushnell

The New Colombiaby the Financial Times

Oblivion: A Memoirby Hector Abad

The Farc: The Longest Insurgency – by Gary Leech

The Dispossessed: Chronicles of the Desterrados of Colombia – by Alfredo Molano

Country of Bullits: Chronicles of War – by Juanita Leon

Please leave your comments and questions in the comment box below and we will get back to you.

 

 

 

Medellin: the land of eternal spring

 Medellin (pronounced Meda-jean)
A city street in the center of Medellin

 

A street in downtown Medellin
Plaza Botero

 

The city of Medellin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A dynamic, contemporary, prosperous city of 2.6 million people in Antioquia, Colombia – the heart of Colombia’s famous coffee triangle. Known as the land of the eternal spring it has a temperate climate – hot during the day and cool at night.

Not too long ago rated the most dangerous city if the world due to fighting between drug cartels, agrarian backed revolutionary groups, paramilitary groups, the government and years of America’s war on drugs.

Medellin was the home and headquarters of the famous  drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. But  Medellin wasn’t built on drug money as many people perceive.  Drugs are only 3% of Colombia’s GDP. The coffee boom and industrialization made Medellin a major city in Colombia.  Drugs and politics  led the cities and country sides into a dark era of violence.  The FARC, formed in the year 2000 as an agricultural people’s party, has left the jungle, made peace with the government and is forming its own political party.

A street in Medellin
Plaza Botera by night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a dark violent time when a new president, Alvaro Uribe, was elected in 2002,”  one of the local tour guides told me. “A former math teach elected on a program of law and order to stop  the drugs, violence, revolution and bombings.

He reformed poverty stricken barrios. He took on neighborhoods crowded with the homeless, drug dealers and prostitutes refurbished them, reconstructed the old town squares, moving the poor to better places where with more services and structures. He was a strong leader using American anti-drug money to finance some of the projects. He built libraries in poor barrios and the city metro which to this day is the pride of the city.

The dark era seems to be behind them.  The city is safe, vibrant and very alive and well. In 2000, only 40,000 tourists came to Colombia (a big country twice the size of France).  In 2017 there were 3 million foreign visitors – a 13% increase from the year before according Colombia’s Trade Minsitry. Visitors from the USA topped the list of visiting foreign nationals. Bogota received more than half of the visitors followed by Cartegena then Medellin.

International flights arrive to the Jose Maria Cordova International airport everyday. The city center is 28 kilometers from the airport and a taxi cab ride costs $25 or take the white city buses outside the city airport for only $5 for the 40 minute trip.

Medellin is in the department of Antioquia situated and stretched for 25 kilomters through the narrow valley of Aburra between the high mountains ranges of the Central Cordillera.

The residents call themselves Paisas. They’re known for being curious, clever people and good businessmen. Common belief  is that Paisas think they are better than the rest of Colombians.  The city was founded by the Jews and the Basque Spaniards who were escaping the inquisition of Spain.  They were isolated in a  valley between mountain chains for 400 years. Then came the coffee boom and the industrialization.  The city blossomed.

The City’s Metro System

Cable cars in Medellin

Medellin boasts a spectacular, spotless, elevated,  metro system, free of drunks, panhandlers and graffiti. For $.70 you can safely ride anywhere in the city with cable cars at the end of the tracks going up in the mountains transporting people to the  poorer neighborhoods up the mountain.   The metro is the pride of the city.

Avri Park For a longer excursion take the metro line A to Avejedo and tranfer to cable cars going to Santo Domingo. Transfer –  pay another $3 and go for a long stretch up the mountain to Avri park. The air gets cool, the wind picks up and the car starts swaying. Pack a sweater.  You can walk around the park, there are trails into the woods, tours on horseback , food stalls at the terminal park and gift stalls.  The last cable car down is at 6 p.m.

Night time in the Pablado district

Nice hotels start at $20 night. Hearty lunches $3. Coffee and beer $.50 a shot. There are friendly, informative police all over the place. Perfectly safe during the days, some places in the center are a bit suspect at night but the areas of Pablado, Park Lleras – the Zona Rosa – are teaming with tourist, great restaurants, wine bars and brews pubs. Perfectly safe at night.

El Poblado is harkened at the place to stay. It a residential upscale area of Medellin – very safe with a lot of restaurants and hotels. Tourists all seem to collect in the  trendy Park Llera district, also called the Zona Rosa which is on the south side of the city.  It’s an upscale area with a lot of night life, restaurants, clubs  and hotels.

I think both areas are overpriced and slightly over rated. If you want to be more immersed with the locals and off the beaten path, I like the Calle 70– by the stadium in the northern part of the city.  Here there are also a lot of hotels, restaurants, it’s safe to walk around at night, economical and busy with mostly people from Medellin and Colombian tourists.

Medellin is probably the second best city in Colombia for it’s range of restaurants (Bogota being the first). Everything from Italian, to Thai, Peruvian, Mexican and much more can be found here.  Like in all Colombia, European restaurants mostly  offer the best quality and variation. Colombian restaurants  often  have the same fare and presentation.  It’s economical comfort food  sometimes seeming to  lack  passion and creativity. The local dish of Medellin is the ‘bandeja paisa’ – a regional dish consisting of everything form sausages to fried pork skins, rice, beans, avocado, black pudding and arepas.  Like most Colombian dishes – this one is a brick. Be hungry or better yet  share it with someone else.

A shopping center in Medellin. The roof opens and closes when there is rain.
A ice skating rink in the shopping center Santa Fe in Medellin

There are great shopping centers in Medellin. Centro Commercial Santa Fe in Poblado area is one of the best. Built by a European architect there’s plenty of high end fashion shops. Nothing is cheap but the mall is incredible sporting an ice skating rink and a roof which opens on pleasant days and closes when it rains. A better market is Aplujarra a nine block area in old Medellin where bargains abound.

A street market in Plaza Berrio

A machete juggler in the streets of Medellin

 

 

 

 

 

Plaza Berrio is a metro stop in city center – the oldest square in the city – with  lots of movement. Old people come here to exchange old possessions for more old stuff – a  garage sale of sorts. Here there are  musicians, street peddlers, con men, show men and guinea pig gamblers. The gamble  consists of putting  three bowls in a circle on the street. Take a guinea pig out of a bag shake the animal up and down – back and forth. People put money on the bowls, the guinea pig is placed in the circle and depending on which bowl the dizzy pig goes to, you win or loose.

Parque Bolivar is a big square dominated by a big  brick church  – Cathedral Metropolitano. Lots of the  locals congregate here and it’s safe during the day but not recommended at night.

Parque Bolivar with a statue of Simon Bolivar and the Cathedral Metropolitano in the background
Cathedral Metropolitano in Parque Bolivar

 

 

 

 

 

Near the metro stop San Antonio one can explore the city’s adopted connection with the Tango. Here there’s a old tango bar, called Malaga. The walls are lined with old gramophones, photos and memorabilia of the tango world. It’s a perfect stop for  a cold beer while watching elderly couples gracefully tango the afternoon away.

Pueblito Paisa  is a miniature Antioquian village also offering a good view of the city. Here a restored, typical little Paesa village from 100 years ago has been restored on top the hill. It’s a nice place to visit during the day  and is heavily visited by locals on the weekends.

A statue of Chief Nutibara in Pueblita Piasa Park

 

A Botero statue in Medellin

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Botero painting in the museum in Plaza BoteroThe sculptor Fernando Botero is a world renown Latin American sculptor. A native of Medellin, he is considered  Cololmbia’s leading contemporary artist. His sculptures are known around the world. There are some statues and a Botero museum in Bogota his best works are displayed in Medellin. There are 20 original Botero sculptures in Plaza Botero –  a beautiful square and the most visited in the city.

A Botero statue

 

A Botero statue in Plaza Botero
A Botero statue in Park San Antonio

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Botero statue in Plaza Botero

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Botero sculptures are unique with their exaggerated proportions – some parts are big – others small. People have a relationship with these sculptures climbing up on them to have their photos taken. There is also a the Museum de Antioquia in the square with more of Botero’s work inside.

There are a few more Botero statues in the park by the bank near the San Antonio metro station. One of them , a statue of a bird, which doesn’t look at all like a Botero statue after someone left a backpack with explosives under the statue on June 10, 1995. When the bomb went off 25 people were killed. They were going to take mangled statue down but Botero himself, living in Paris at the time, wouldn’t allow it threatening to take the rest of his statues down if they moved the bird. He said the statue must  be left as a sad memory of violent times. It still stands in the park today – a memorial. The names of the 25 dead bombing victims are etched  in marble below the statue.

A good tour to take is Real City tours – realcitytours.com. The tours are free. You tip the guide at the tour’s end. Sign up on their website a day or two before. They will send you a confirmation via email. Tours meet at 9:45 at a central metro station. They break up into groups of 20 and  tour of the city center. Tours lasts  about four hours and are very informative and insightful.

Comuna 13

Comuna 13
Comuna 13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comuna 13

Comuna 13 used to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Medellin. Today it is a destination. There are graffiti tours run by companies for a price, but this is a tour you can easily do on your own.

Take the metro to San Antonio and they another to San Javier. When in San Javier there is a raised walkway that goes over to the library (biblioteca).  Around the library there’s some nice graffiti.  After the library, go back to the front of the metro station.  Take bus 221 to ‘la escaleras electricas’ or the escalators.  I found it’s easier to just take a cab.  They’ll leave you at the bottom of the hill. Follow the graffiti covered walls up to the escalators which were built to take the residents up the mountain to Comuna 13.

For a different look and feel of Medellin, Comuna 13 is worth the trip. People say it isn’t safe to wander around there, but the residents don’t seem to  mind the handfuls of tourists who venture into their neighborhood.   There are sidewalk vendors catering to them. And I never felt threatened in the least the whole afternoon I was there.

Emerging from the dark ages of violence, the people of Medellin today have no fear of bombings and stray bullets. Feeling once again free to leave their houses. Life goes on. These are peaceful times. They are genuinely happy to see tourists return.  It’s proof that times are better. The violence is over.

A street in Guatape
a street in the village of Guatape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guatape

If you’re spending any kind of time in Medellin, which is easy to do, a get away from the city is in order. Guatape’ is the most popular. It’s located next to a reservoir created by the Colombian government for a hydro-electric dam.  It’s a colorful, colonial town with everything painted in bright racing colors.  There are a lot of shops selling arts and crafts in town.  And on  the malecon along the lake front  there are a number of restaurants with patio tables featuring locally raised trout. Across the lake, about a mile walk away, is El Penol.  It’s a bullet shaped granite rock.  Not much to see here but there are 649 steps to the top, if you’re so inclined.  They say there’s a nice view on top.

There are other towns to visit around Medellin with a Spanish colonial feel to them. Santa Fe de Antioquia is a steamy hot little town with a nice city center. Other pueblos to visit are Aguadas, El Carmen and Jardin.

A restaurant in Santa Fe de Antioquia

For more on travel around Medellin see the following article:

Places to around Medellin: Daytrips – Guatape, Santa Fe, El Carmen de Viboral



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For more of Colombian cities see the following articles:

Travel to Cartagena

Bogota and Zipaquira – are they worth seeing?

Please leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have in the comment box below and we will get back to you. 

Travel Around Medellin: Daytrips and Places to Visit – Guatape, Santa Fe, El Carmen de Viboral

Day Tripper

If you’re spending any kind of time traveling in Medellin, which is easy to do, after a couple days a get away is in order. There are a number of possible day trips from the city. They sell guided tours to a number of these places but these villages are so easy to reach with  public transit that they can and should be explored at one’s own leisure.

All of the towns are accessible by local buses that leave from the North Bus Terminal of Medellin – easily reached  with the metro. Just take the A line to Niquia and exit at the Caribe station. Leave the station, cross the overhead bridge, just outside of the station, and the North Terminal is just on the other side.

Medellin
Medellin seen from the sky

Medellin is the city I fly into and leave from every year. So I spend a considerable amount of time here. And when my friends, with limited vacation time, want me to give them a tour and intro  to Colombia – I bring them to Medellin for two reasons: one, it’s my favorite city in Colombia and two, there are so many day trips within a short distance of city center. A week goes by and everyone feels like they’ve gotten a good intro to Colombia.

Medellin is an excellent base for exploring nearby coffee towns, beautiful countrysides and picturesque colonial pueblos which makes an extended stay in Antioquia’s capital all the more interesting.

Guatape
The main square of Guatape
Guatape
A fountain in Guatape
Guatape
The malecon on the reservoir at Guatape

 

 

 

 

 

Guatape
Guatape, a gorgeous lakeside town just two hours outside of Medellin, is Medellin’s most popular day trip. The town is located on the River Nare, which was dammed in 1972 to create a reservoir which supplies Medellin with 30% of its energy and most of its drinking water.  Guatape is a colorful, colonial town with picturesque houses with balconies all painted in bright racing colors. The decorative wall panels located around town are called zocalos. There are a lot of shops in town catering to tourists, selling arts and crafts. The main square, Plaza de Simon Bolivar is a block off the lake and one of the most beautiful squares in Colombia. On the malecon, along the lake front, there are a number of restaurants with outdoor tables featuring locally raised trout. There are boat rides on the lake and a zip line along the beach. The town is higher in altitude than Medellin and the air is pleasantly cool.

Across the lake, about a mile walk away, is the Piedra del Penol, a bullet shaped granite rock 200 meters high. Not much to see here but there are 649 stairs to the top, if you’re so inclined. They say there’s a nice view once you get there. The Penol is just outside of town. The bus stops here before heading into Guatape, about a 10 minute ride down the road. After seeing the rock one catches another bus into the center of town. Buses leave from the North Terminal in Medellin to Guatape. The cost if 10,000 COP and it trip takes 2 hours each way. The  town gets busy on the weekends with visitors from Medellin but stays fairly quiet during weekdays.

Santa Fe, Antioquia
The main square of Santa Fe
Santa Fe
A restaurant in Santa Fe

 

 

 

 

 

Santa Fe de Antioquia
Just 80 km northwest of Medellin lies the small town of Santa Fe. It is 1,000 meters lower in altitude than Medellin and therefore much warmer and humid. So if you came to Colombia and wondered where the heat was – you’ll find it here. Santa Fe was founded in 1541. It was once the capital of Antioquia until Medellin was named the capital in 1826. The town’s historical center has remained pretty much the same since and is easily explored on foot. Santa Fe has  beautiful colonial architecture. The streets are made of cobble stones and  the house are white washed with wooden balconies The main square, Plaza Mayor, is a beautiful plaza with a water fountain and the Cathedral Metropolitana.  There are two other churches in the center and several museums to visit.

El Carmen di Viboral
A woman handpainting the ceramics of El Carmen
El Carmen de Viboral
The town square of El Carmen – the tower is made of ceramics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El Carmen de Viboral
El Carmen de Viboral is a tiny city of about 50,000 people an hour east of Medellin. It is known for its colorful, floral ceramics. The town is full of pottery shops and workshops making it a perfect day trip to learn about Colombian ceramics and to pick up some bargain souvenirs.

Founded in 1787, ceramics had been the major industry of the city since 1898. In fact ceramic plates and pieces decorate the town. At 800 meters above sea level, the town is nice and cool with a beautiful main square lined with large, sidewalk cafes.

El Carmen de Viboral
the different styles of ceramic hand painting in El Carmen

The Casa del Cultura hosts an interesting museum looking at the history of the ceramic industry – from the crockery making process to the typical styles of hand painting. The ceramic production of El Carmen focuses primarily on plates, cups, kitchen utensils, washbasins, vases and statues. Everything is painted by hand using a bouquet of colors.  No two pieces are exactly the same.

At one time there were 25 factories making ceramics in the town. But in the late 1970s the activity began to decline with the introduction of cheaper products imported from China. But in the 1990s the tradition started recovering. Today there are more than 27 companies producing enameled ceramics.

From the center of town take the street next to the hotel up 5 blocks.  The area, called ‘Zona Rossa’, where the ceramic shops are located. One can tour the ceramic workshops, watch the ladies hand paint the ceramics, take pictures and buy directly at the shops.  Haggling over prices is o.k. and the ceramics are very inexpensive.

I’ve  always had a hard time finding souveniers in Medellin to take home. If you’re looking for some typical, quality mementos, the ceramics of Casa de Viboral make the perfect gift. They’ll wrap them in newspaper and bubble wrap to ensure the safest  passage possible in your suitcase. A couple of the the ceramic parrots in the picture below actually made the trip  in my suitcase and survived the abuse of Spirit baggage handlers. No small feat.

 

El Carmen de Viboral
Ceramic shop – El Carmen
El Carmen de Viboral
Ceramics – El Carmen

 

 

 

 

 



(for more on Medellin, see full article on ‘Medellin: the land of eternal spring’)

Please leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have in the comment box below and we will get back to you

Cartagena: is one hot mess

The fortress Castillo San Filipe in Cartagena – the old city and the new

 

Fortress San Filipe – the largest Spanish fort built in the Americas

Cartagena

 

Walls of the fortress of San Filipe de Barajas built in 1558
the walls of the old city facing the Caribbean
San Filipe
San Filipe
Canon on walls of San Filipe
Muelle de los Pegasos – a dock in the port of Cartagena
Tunnels under San Felipe foretress
Puerta del Reloj – the clock tower doorway leaving in and out of the old city
A chiva bus for tourist in Cartagena

Cartagena is a hot mess
On one hand it’s a vibrant beautiful port city where cruise ships also dock. It has a beautiful historic center and is the major tourist destination for Colombia. The city has the feel of a touristy city in Spain. On other hand, outside of historic center it’s so congested with traffic you can barely cross the street. It’s loud and dirty, sweltering hot with pesky peddlers.

The city’s full name is Cartagena de Indias – a reminder that the early Spanish navigators believed they had reached the Far East when they first landed in 1533. The core of the city was built by the Spaniards – a walled in city with impenetrable fortresses to fend off pirates, French and English attacks. Beautiful churches, plazas, convents and statues abound. After Colombia’s independence in 1821 the fortresses were irrelevant and abandoned until restoration started in 1924.

inside the city walls

The seafront boulevard outside the old city crowded with hotels, apartament towers, resorts, shows and fast food outlets.

The city within the walls – also called the inner city or El Centro was where the high officials and nobility originally lived. You can easily walk most of its narrow streets strolling around in a half day – best in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the humid mid-day heat. Here they have a big meal at mid-day and lay low or at least stay in the shade during the hot afternoon hours. There are lots of upscale hotels, shops featuring boutique European retailers, international restaurants, bars, clubs and all the plazas have free wi-fi. This part of town is one of the most expensive in Colombia with everything costing double what it costs in the rest of the country.

Plaza de Bolivar
a church in Getsamani

Getsemani is a little neighborhood just outside of the walls- called the outer city where a lot of colonial buildings still survive.  It is a little more Colombia affordable, reflecting the real Colombia of today, and there are a lot of hotels and restaurants here. But gentrification is pushing most of the locals out of this neighborhood as the corporations and merchants move in.

There are Carribean beaches here but they are big city beaches: Bocagrande within walking distance of the city where the beaches are not too tidy and crowed. Another city beach close by is Marbella which is the locals’ beach. Or one can go down to the end of the peninsula where all the big chain hotels are and the beaches are a bit better. And then there’s Bocachica on the little island of Tierrabomba where boats leave from the tourist dock Muelle Turistico at 8 in the morning for a 2 hour trip to the island’s beach costing $2.50 each way – boats return at 4.

Bazurto Market

the Bazurto market – a fish vendor
the Bazurto market – a fish vendor
a woman cooking a seafood rice at a food stall in the Bazurto market
selling avocados on a push-cart
a food stall in the market
a vendor of yuca

Another good day trip is to go to town’s central market – Bazurto Market where they sell everything from clothes to meat, seafood, fruits and vegetables. It’s a bustling city market considered one of the best in Colombia. Sanitary conditions are lax to say the least but I’ve been in worse restaurant kitchens in the USA . If you’re a little skittish skip it. But if you like markets and want a glimpse into the real life of Cartagena, it’s a must see. Don’t bring valuable possessions but do bring your street smarts.

I had a hotel in the market district for just $20 a night probably a third of what you would pay in the walled city center. Not a great neighborhood but a nice hotel with a private bath, comfortable bed, air-conditioning and cable t.v.  They had  a restaurant downstairs serving three square meals a day for just $3-$5 per meal with a nice, informative staff. It was a $2 and 5 minute cab ride to the walled city center.

For more on Colombian cities see the articles:

Medellin – the land of eternal spring

Bogota and Zipaquira – are they worth seeing?



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Bogota and Zipaquira’- are they worth seeing?

A Bogota street on a Sunday afternoon

Bogota

I’ve been to Bogota more times than I care to count, so many times that when traveling in Colombia these days  I’m doing my best to avoid it.  It’s not that I don’t like Bogota, I just don’t particularly like it either.

For me, Bogota, with a population of over 8 million people, is just another big, sprawling, traffic congested city without the eclectic, defining charm of a metropolis that lures international tourism – say a San Francisco, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, La Paz, New York or Medellin.  I’m not saying it’s a city without a wide array of merits. I do like its wonderful museums.

There are fans  who say Bogota is one of the most exciting capitals in Latin America – full of hidden adventures, fine dining and nightlife.  I  just can’t sign off on it. And I’ve met many Colombians who think like I do.  I put Bogota right there with other Central and South American capitals like San Jose, Managua and even  Mexico City and Quito- places I really don’t want to spend anymore than a day or two.

Back in the day, going to or through Colombia made it  next to impossible to avoid Bogota.  Located in the center of the country, all international flights stopped at the El Dorado airport. Going to the Amazon – you have to leave from Bogota, southern Colombia – you pass through Bogota, connecting flights to anywhere – Bogota.

But these days economical  international flights land and take off from Cartagena and Medellin (currently my favorite city in the country). And for a few extra dollars one can land at any local airport in Colombia on a transfer from airports in Panama City or Quito.

One no longer needs to land in Bogota, go to the city center, spend a cold, expensive night in the city only to make the long trip to the airport the next day disappointed over a lost vacation day. On my last bus trip from Villa de Leyva to Cali, I passed through Bogota only using the Bogota bus terminal for a transfer ride. Still, Bogota being the traffic clogged sprawling giant that it is, it still took me half a day to get in and out.

street vendor making a sugar cane beverage

 

Street vendor making a sugar cane beverage

 

Candeleria
Street portraits

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I stay in Bogota I usually stay in the old city center called La Candelaria where many of the houses are well preserved in colonial style. Here there are  the best museums, the famous Gold Museum of Bogota, the Botero Museum, the Casa de Mondeda (the mint) Plaza Bolivar and many more.  From here one can explore the downtown area, the north of the city with its bars,  restaurants and nightclubs and go by funicular to hilltop of Monserrate for a good view of the city.

selling pieces of watermelon in Bogota

 

 

 

 

 

Zipaquira’: day trips – places to see & things to do around Bogota

Just 25 miles  north of Bogota is one of Colombia’s main’s tourist sites, a symbol of  Colombia’s cultural and religious patrimony. The Cathedral of Salt is an underground church built inside of a salt mine 600 feet below the surface. It’s an interesting destination for pilgrimage and religious tourism boasting the largest cross ever built in an underground church.  Everyone comes to see the cathedral in the salt mine which  is just part  of a larger complex called the ‘Parque de Sal’ or the Salt Park where there is also  a museum of mining, mineralogy and geology along with zip lines and rock climbing walls.

Salt has been mined in the area since the pre-Colombian Muisca culture going back to the 5th century B.C.  The Spaniards established the town of Zipaquira back in 1606.  Since, miles and miles of tunnels have been dug in and around the town which still churns out 40% of Colombia’s salt.

A religious shrine was carved in the salt cave  by miners, as a place for their daily prayers, long  before the original cathedral was inaugurated in 1954.

Main cross in the Cathedral of Salt
A salt carving in the Cathedral di Sal
A salt statue in the Cathedral

There are guided tours continuously taking groups into the mine on  hour long walking tours of  the 14 stations of the cross while offering valuable insights into the history of the salt mining.  Each station has a lighted cross made of salt 16 feet high. At the end of the cave is a huge dome carved out of salt measuring 360 feet long and 66 feet high.  The cathedral can hold 8,000 people. An impressive 48 foot tall, salt carved cross is the dome’s centerpiece. There is a mass in the cathedral every Sunday at 1 p.m. for 3,000 visitors. But tickets must be purchased in advance.

The town of Zipaquira’, commonly called Zipa, is an interesting and accommodating little town with a nice central plaza, plenty of hotels and restaurants.

Admission for just the Salt Cathedral is $18 (the other museums and activities cost extra). This is not cheap by Colombian standards or even international museum standards.

The cathedral has always been widely promoted as  a ‘must-see’ tourist site in Colombia.  I can’t say it’s a ‘must see’,  unless, of course, religious tourism is significant to you. But if you’re on tight schedule and debating about whether to see it or not, I’d have to go with don’t waste your time. But if you are in Bogota for a week and are looking for a destination outside of the city – the town of Zipa and the Salt Cathedral are an interesting escape.

The  insatiable thirst for Gold

Other day trip destinations outside of Bogota would be the town of Guatavita, 35 miles from the capital. A lake by the town is where the legend of El Dorado and the secret treasures  originated. The legend of El Dorado refers  to a lost city of gold, believed to exist somewhere in South American El Dorado in Spanish means ‘the golden one’.  It was a term used to describe an annual custom of  the Muisca native people where the king would cover himself in gold dust and then dive into the lake and emerge cleansed of the gold. Other offerings of  gold, emeralds and precious offerings were thrown in the lake every year.

The Spaniards believed  Lake Guatavita was the site of the ritual. The legend was dismissed as a myth by the 19th century. But over the years, the lake has been dredged and drained and the story  verified by the discovery of small gold wire raft that now sits in exhibit at Bogota’s Museum de Oro.

The town of Guatavita is a modern town built in the colonial style when the old town of Guatavita was submerged by the reservoir.

Honda

Honda is 16 miles upriver from La Dorada.  It’s a pleasant, old colonial town founded in 1539 with many interesting colonial buildings, a covered market and many old bridges spanning the Rio Magdalena and the Rio Guali.

For more on cities in Colombia see the articles:

Medellin -the land of eternal spring

Travel to Cartagena



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Traveling Bahia Solano and El Valle – Colombia’s Pacific Coast

Travelers who want to go see the Pacific in Colombia have their work cut out for them. This area is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, yet  one of the least developed,  beautiful, forgotten places in Colombia; where long swaths of pristine beaches backed by rainforest jungle spill out onto black volacanic sands while 4-6 foot waves pound the beach and 12 foot whale spouts are spotted just offshore.

Coming into Bahia Solano from Medellin

Though only a 45 minute flight from Medellin, to get to the Pacific coast, in the department of Choco’, there’s a 400 kilometers  of  dense, sparsely populated rainforest between Cordillera Occidental mountains and the Pacific coastline. There are no roads going to the little seaside fishing villages of Bahia Solano and Nuqui’. Both are only accessible by boat or plane. But the remote, pristine Pacific coastline of Colombia makes for an unforgettable adventure,  well off the beaten path.

Bahia Solano
A street in Bahia Solano on Solano Bay

 

A boy fishing off the pier – Bahia Solano

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bahia Solano
Bahia should be a bigger tourist destination then it is.  It’s deep coastal Colombia. One feels safe here due to a sizable  military base in town – a response to a history of guerilla activity in the area. The town also has a good infrastructure.

Whale watching   But due to the difficulty of passage, Colombia’s northern Pacific coastline is rarely visited outside of the months of July and August, when the whales come into and around the bay of Bahia Solano to breed and give birth. During these two months whale lovers from around the world flock to Bahia flanked by holiday makers  from Medellin. Though the whales are easily seen from the shore, everyone in town with a boat or skiff will ferry tourists out to sea to watch the whales up close.

Hotels and Accomodations

There are hotels, hostels and restaurants which operate at capacity during the whaling months but for the rest of year they stay open though mostly unoccupied (excluding the Colombian holiday periods of Christmas and Semana Santa).

Bahia Solano is a sleepy village of 13,000 made up primarily of Afro-Colombians. The town, which was only officially founded in 1962, sits on Solano bay. The streets, unpaved, and usually muddy from the frequent rain storms, are lined with ramshackle store fronts where men from the village sit at outdoor tables drinking cold beer day and night. There are two pool halls, several local restaurants and a number of economical hotels in town.

The two best hotels in town are the Hotel Balboa and the Hotel Bahia Yubarta across the street. Both have private rooms with air and start at 80,000 COP per room. Further up the street there are a couple of nice, pleasant restaurants. Posada del Mar Bahia Solano is a friendly hotel in the center of town with rooms and starting at 60,000 COP and huts at 80,000.

But there really isn’t much reason to stay in Bahia more than a day or two. There are a couple beaches near town, but to reach them you need to take a boat from the town’s port called   Esso Pesca Artesenal.

Playa Huina, or Huina Beach, is where the locals go to party. It’s a 25 minute boat ride from Bahia and features calm waters, great for swimming, and lots of local restaurants. But the beach faces northeast and sunsets disappear in the jungle. Not being able to see the sunset on the Pacific is always a handicap.

Playa Mecana is a remote and secluded beach. It’s also a 20 minute boat ride from Bahia, 60,000 COP. Botanical gardens ‘Jardin Botanico’ are located at this beach. The area is a 177 hectar eco-reserve with tours available through the only lodge on the beach and last  2-8 hours.

They say both these beaches can be reached on foot, a feat I hold suspect due to tides. There is a road going to the port which turns into a path along the coast before it veers  into the jungle turning into a muddy trek. After a 2-3 hour ordeal they say the path passes through Playa Huina beach. Otherwise both beaches can be reached by walking the beach at low tide which is in the morning and at night. It’s at least a two hour walk there. But the beaches disappear at high tide, around 4 p.m., leaving one climbing over rocks and cliffs or waiting for the tide to receed.  For a day trip,  passage by boat seems to be the way to go. And many travelers end up staying at the little hotels on Huina beach and the Eco logde on Mecana beach.

Piscina Natural del Amor in Bahia Solano

After hiking  in the heat, there are very nice waterfalls and swimming holes with cool, fresh water  within short walking distance of the town. Piscina Natural del Amor is a natural, fresh water pool with ladders leading to more waterfalls and pools up the mountain. It is located just 100 yards from the Port Esso in town. The Salto del Chocolatal waterfall is also near town, just inland,   up the road  from the port. There is also a nice waterfall, just a 10 minute walk, from the airport. Many travelers go there for a quick dip before the flight back to Medellin.

The docks in El Valle

 

The road from Bahia Solano to El Valle
A store selling meat in El Valle
A bridge in El Valle

El Valle
But if surfing, being a beach bum and staying close to a town  is your thing then head straight to the village of El Valle 14 km southwest of Bahia. A Tuk Tuk will take you for 30,000 COP. It’s 7 km of muddy dirt road past the airport with waterfilled pot holes deep enough to fish in,  followed by another 7 km. of paved road.

El Valle is an Afro-Colombian village of a few thousand people. The town is hot and humid and isn’t much to look at but the main beach area, Playa El Almejal, a 20 minute walk north of the village is paradise. This is  where all the hotels are located.

A restaurant in Bahia Solano

Is Travel on the Coast Expensive?

Compared to the rest of Colombia everything on this coast  is rather expensive since everything is brought in by boat or plane. The hotels usually offer meals with lodging –  excellent daily offerings of quality fish like Red Snapper and Tuna are the norm.  Basic restaurants in town serve fish and rice.  Meat is only usually served upon special request. The internet here is down most of the time, and spotty and slow when it’s  up.

There is one bank in Bahia Solano but the ATM is usually starved for cash.  No one takes credit cards on the coast so make sure you come with pesos  sufficient for your stay.  Plan on at least 200,000 COP per day – on a budget less than half.

Playa Almejal volcanic sand and rocks
Low tide at Playa Almajel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playa El Almejal is a good surfing beach with nice breakers rolling onto black volcanic sands. It’s a good beach for lounging and swimming with no complaints of undertows or sharks. Here the jungle spills out onto the beach and black volcanic rock formations dot the shore.

Fishing – Playa Cuevita
Black sands of Playa Cuevita
Playa Cuevita driftwood
Playa Cuevita – the jungle spills out onto the beach

For a more secluded experience, Playa Cuevita is a beach just a 15 minute hike south of town. The longest beach on Colombia’s Pacific coast, Cuevita offers 9 miles of  isolated beach to explore.  This beach is part of the Utri National Park and no one lives  along it. They say walking the isolated beaches is  safe here. There is a turtle sanctuary 5 km. up the beach called Estacion Septiembre where turtles can be seen laying eggs and hatching between September and December.

Playa Cuevita is a beach with lots of drift wood. It’s a stunning beach walk in the morning at low tide. But in the afternoon, around 4 p.m. everyone disappears. The tide comes in quickly leaving no beach left to walk on. Where the beach ends it’s all switch grass and mangrove tree roots. Large pieces of driftwood start floating on the rising tide, drifting and spinning in the waves, making the trek back to El Valle hazardous.

Mangales or mango groves of Rio Tondo
Harwood trees in mangrove swamp of Rio Tondo

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other day trips around El Valle include a boat trip from El Valle up the Rio Tundo, a 2 hour trip through the tropical wilderness through the mangrove swamps. It leaves from El Valle – 30,000 COP per person. Look for an affable man called Fidel Castro in El Valle. He will take you wherever you want to go.

Another day trip is to the stunning waterfall and  waterhole called Cascada del Tigre. It is a 20 minute boat ride from El Valle 50,000 COP.

Residents of the indigenous village of Boroboro
Fidel Castro navigating the mangro swamps off  Rio El Valle

Another is a tour up the Boroboro river, an arm of the Rio El Valle, to the indigenous village of Boroboro. It is home to 100 indigeneous  who live in thatched huts on stilts. They fish, sell local crafts and paintings. The tour is around 60,000 COP

The Utria National Park is between the pueblos of El Valle and Nuqui. Boats travel to the park from El Valley. This trip is the most expensive of all the outings. It’s a one hour trip by boat – 60,000 COP. Entrance to the park is 16,000 COP for Colombians but 48,000 COP for foreigners. Then one has to obtain a guide to explore the park – yet another 50,000 COP. I heard complaints that there’s not much to see on this trip: a boardwalk from the interpretation center into the coastal mangroves, a trip by boat across the bay to Playa Cocalito and then by boat to Playa Blanca for lunch.

(I tend to boycott these national sites when I learn foreigner visitors are charged 300% more than the national residents. I’ve had discussions and I  know the Colombians think it’s fair. So I argue if they think it would be fair if on their next visit to Disneyland they had to pay 300% more than the nationals at the gate.)

How to get there:
There are a number of small airlines flying from Medellin and Quibdo to Bahia Solano. The two largest ones are Satena and ADA which leave from the little airport in the center of Medellin, Enrique Olaya Herrera, – a lovely airport just a convenient cab ride from anywhere in the city, landing  in Bahia’s tiny airport Jose Celestino Mutis  1.5 km south of the downtown waterfront. (Cost of the flight – around 300,000 COP each way).

The flights are very weather dependent and can be delayed for hours or cancelled. My flight from Medellin to Bahia was delayed for 6 hours due to inclement weather in Bahia and the return flight was cancelled until the next day. Since there was no internet in El Valle I didn’t find out about the cancellation until I got to the airport. But Satena did pay for an airconditioned hotel room in Bahia for the night and picked up the tab for dinner and breakfast. It gave me a chance to visit Bahia again.  Just make sure you leave at least 48-72 hour margin of time to return to Medellin and not be pressed for time.

There are also cargo boats that depart from the Pacific port of Buenaventura further south (West of Cali) and go to Bahia Solano. The trip takes 24-36 hours – 150,000 COP.

Planes also go from Medellin to the fishing village of Nuqui’ on the Pacific further south of Bahia and El Valle. There are also small fast boats that make the trip from El Valle to Nuqui at 6 a.m. on Mondays and Fridays 60,000 COP each way.

To visit both Bahia Solano and Nuqui it would probably be better to fly into one town, take the boat to get from Bahia or Nuqui , and fly out of the other town. A flight can usually be obtained at either  airports a day or two before.

The Humpback Hostel on Aljemal beach
A hut at Don Ai’s on Aljemal beach

 

 

 

 

 

Places to Stay in El Valle on Aljamel beach:
Don Ai’s–  has huts/cabins with full bathrooms right on Playa Almejal – 120,000 COP per day with 3 good meals included.
The Humpback Turtle Hostel – owned by an American with his Colombian wife. 60,000 COP private room, 39,000 dormitory, 25,000 hammock with 3 meals a day.
Punta Rocca – rooms 110,000 COP a day for private rooms with bath and 3 meals.
El Morro Hosteria – more upscale, right on the beach, English spoken – 280,000 COPa day for a private room with bathroom and breakfast.
El Almejal Ecolodge and Rainforest Reserve – also upscale, minimum stay 3 nights with meals 1,050,000 COP per person.

Please leave your comments, personal experiences or questions in the comment box below and we will get back to you.

(For more on Colombia’s Beaches see the following articles:)

Capurgana and Zapzurro – Colombia’s beaches on the Darien Pass

Santa Marta and the beaches of Colombia’s North

La Guajira Peninsula – Northern Colombia

The Beaches of Tolu

 

Making a canoe out of lumber
Leaping lizards



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Travel to La Guajira Peninsula, Northern Colombia

Going to Punto di Gallina by boat
Desert of Guajira
Desert flats of Guajira on the road to Bahia Portete the flattest and easiest part of the journey
Getting stuck in the desert

 

 

 

 

 

One of the strangest and most spectacular spots I’ve ever seen in South American is located at the northern most point of South American in the Guajira peninsula which is a reserve for the Wayuu – a Colombian indigenous tribe, which politically rules the entire peninsula. It’s one of most visually stunning places on earth where bare, desert landscape meets the blue turquoise of the Atlantic.

The trip is a  must see if coming to Colombia, not an easy trip but well worth the sacrifice. This is not a trip to do alone but not impossible if you take it slow – jeep ride by jeep ride. But it is recommended one hire a tour guide from the Wayuu tribe. It’s cheaper to find a tour in the peninsula’s largest city and transport hub of Riohacha where for $165 one can find a three day tour of the Guajira all included with: a guide who only speaks Spanish and the local dialect of the Wayuu. The meals are all fish (excellent whole fish meals of red snapper, sea bass and lobster), and the lodging is hammocks under lean-to thatched roofs on desolate Atlantic beaches. One can book Guaijara tours in Santa Marta and Cartagena but it’s cheaper in Riohacha. A fact that doesn’t escape the local residents:  more foreign tourists visit Guijira than Colombians, they report

The Landscape

Did I mention there are no roads on the peninsula, just Toyota four wheel jeeps banging across the dramatic desert landscape? They swear by Toyota’s here and after seeing the beating they put these vehicles through on a daily basis, I’ve become a supporter of the off-road vehicle. But the stops they make – in the middle of nowhere where the desert meets huge, empty, Atlantic beaches – no lights, no internet, no cell connection – just lizards, buzzards, grazing goats, flamingos, cactus and the Wayuu– mind blowing stuff.

Kite surfing school in Cabo
Sleeping in hammocks an overnight stop on the tour in Punto Gallinas
Cabo de la Vela fishermen and kite surfers meet

In three days we saw the salt flats of Manaure where they pump ocean water over dessert flats creating salt from evaporating sea water. Fishermen hand flung fishing nets and fished for shrimp in still, beautiful bays.

One the first day we stopped for a swim at Pilon di Azuri a beautiful beach on a bluff with red dirt, white sands and volcanic rock. The second beach was Arcoinis or rainbow beach where a brisk hike up a wind swept mountain takes you to a statue of the Virgin Mary its peak.

Cabo de la Vela is the destination for the first day. It’s a little village on as beautiful still bay with a kite surfing school operating in the midst of the Wayuu fishermen. Here there are plenty of bars and restaurants and hostels where you can rent a hammock in thatched roof huts or under lean-tos on the beach for the night. The tours come all included with lodging and meals. There are one day or two day tours to Cabo which is actually not that hard to get to (a four hour trip from the capital – Uribia).

Beyond Cabo – Though most 2 day tours end at Cabo, the most scenic route is to continue up to the settlement Punta Gallinas via a three day tour. Here lies the most beautiful part of the peninsula: beautiful bays like Bahia Hondita, Azucar beach (Sugar Beach) and Arconis Rainbow  beach. 

The dunes of Toroa are a two hour jeep ride outside of Cabo.  The jeeps drive up to the crest of the dunes and leave you off to explore the dunes which spill down to incredible beaches. Here you can swim and sun bathe and everyone in my tour group agreed, the dunes offer by far the most beautiful and remote beaches they had seen in all Colombia.

Punta Gallina 

Dunes of Toroa

We spent the night in Punta Gallina at the Hospedaje y Restaurant Luzmila where we would spend two nights. We were assigned our hammocks and treated to a wonderful fish and lobster dinner. And the last night before dinner we took off for the lighthouse to see the sunset.

Dining room at Hospedaje y Restaurant Luzmila
Dinner of fish of the day

 

 

 

 

 

The lighthouse at Bahia Hondita the northernmost part of South America
A view from Acronis
Acroinis – a statue of the Virgin Mary sits on top of the mountain
Punta Gallinas

Punta Hondita

The lighthouse at Punta Hondita is the northernmost part of South America. This remote spot with its lighthouse on a bumpy knoll was where the Pablo Escobar’s planes would land. The lighthouse was the marker to find the primitive airstrip. The Wayuu were paid to see nothing. The Colombian airforce would occasionally get word of a contraband landing fly over and drop bombs on the drug running planes. Bomb craters along the road are now a tourist attractions.

Colombians have no authority on the peninsula. The Guajira remains a lawless reservation where contraband reins. The Wayuu, being a border tribe, have both Venezuelan and Colombian citizenship. They bring in cheap gasoline from Venezuela, whiskey from Panama and openly sell them on the peninsula. The police have border controls every 3-4 miles to stop every vehicle and control what they transport but they can’t control what they sell. Next to a police barricade the Wayuu Indians sell contraband gasoline at $.70 a gallon – Colombian price $2.50 a gallon.

Cooking goat

A rustic desert kitchen at Hospedaje y Resturant Luzmila

Being a desert – water is at a premium here. But they know how to find wells in the desert. How? First someone in the village has a dream, then they go and dig for water at the spot he or she saw in the dream. Apparently dreams are more than just symbolic here. Then there are solar panels to power pumps that pull the water from the wells. The water is free for all in the tribe. People haul water around in the back of trucks and in plastic urns tied on the sides of donkeys

The Wayuu are physically small in stature the men only 5’ tall the women shorter. They are stoic – answer questions with grunts and like to watch your every move. There is no private property for the Wayuu. A matriarchal society, the women hold the political power, their families run the clans. If a family wants to move his or her house they go to the mother’s clan, get approval and just move their house to another spot. The mother’s clan is responsible for solving all conflicts.

Mango groves

 

 

 

 

 

A Wayuu girl
A woman selling bags  in Cabo
Wayuu women

Definitely a barren landscape reminding me of Carlos Castaneda books – the desserts of North Mexico or Sergio Leone spaghetti western flicks filmed in the desserts of Sicily. Don’t think I could live here long but there’s a stark peace to the arid landscapes and star filled skies – so simple, seemingly lifeless, infinite, and void. The people living here are poor but scratch out a living from their environment through fishing, tourism, weaving hand bags, goat farming, salt and coal mining and contraband. The Colombian government doesn’t seem to care about the Guajira reservation and the Wayuu seem happy living well outside the box – leaving things the way they are and for them the way they should be.

It was a long day trip back across the desert.  It was a Saturday and there were kids all over putting ropes across the road to stop your car so they could come up and ask for money.  We soon depleted our stash of candy and cookies to give them.  Towards late afternoon we arrived at  the town of Urbia, – the largest town and the indigenous capital city of Guijara and stopped at the market.

Kids asking for cookies and candy along the road
market at Urbia
The salt flats of Guajira
Harvesting salt from sea water

(For more on the top beaches of Colombia see the following articles:)

Santa Marta and the beaches north

Traveling Bahia Solano, El Valle and Colombia’s Pacific Coast

Travel to the beaches of Tolu

Capurgana and Zapzurro – Carribean beach villages on the Darien Pass



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