Valledupar – the Musical Capital of Vallenato

Valledupar is a city of a half a million people, the capital of the Cesar department and known as the birthplace and capital of vallenato music. Though a mountain town, it is very much a Colombian Caribbean city rarely visited by foreign or Colombian tourists. But during a single week in April, when they hold the prestigious vallenato music legend festival, the city is invaded by a swarm of vallenato music afficionados from all over the country.

I discovered the city by accident. On my first visit, I was leaving the Guijira pennisula on Colombia’s north Caribbean coast and heading inland to Bucaramanga and San Gil down in the province of Santander. Facing a 13 hour bus ride from Riohacha to Bucaramanga I looked for a city or town for a layover. Valledupar was the logical destination. It was just a 4 hour bus ride from Riohacha and on the road to Santander. So I bought a ticket, stopped for a night and stayed the next days to further check out the sights. I wasn’t disappointed.

The city sits on a long, fertile valley, a scorching, dry savanna, on the plains between the mountain chains of Venezuela’s Sierra de Perija and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia’s east Andes. On a clear day the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains can be seen from the city. If you are familiar with the port city of Santa Marta and Parque Tayrona, with their dramatic back drop of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Valledupar lies on the other side of the same mountain range.

Founded back in 1550, the city prospered during the colonial period. Today the city is an agricultural and commercial hub. The city center is Plaza Alfonso Lopez Valledupar, an attractive commercial/residential area of well-preserved Spanish architecture.

The main square boasts the city’s most typical restaurants – El Joe and Compe Chipuco. At the later I dined on an outdoor terrace on a late afternoon. The signature dish was chivo en salsa Chipuco which was slow cooked goat in a coconut milk sauce – delish.

Evenings and Sundays the city’s center is empty. I got a taxi and had the driver show me the city’s sights.

He took me to the Balneario Hurtada on the Rio Guatpuri. The river comes down from the Sierra Nevada mountains and passes thought the city in a river gorge formation. The Balenario is a park, swimming hole and heart of the city all rolled into one. The water comes down from the mountains. It’s cool and clean and a popular destination for the locals who enjoy diving off the rocks and bathing. On the edge of the gorge sits a huge golden mermaid – called the mirador.

Near the gorge is the park where the week long vallenato music festival takes place in April – Parque de la Leyenda Vallenata. A large park, sitting in the shade of large of mango trees, families congregate for an stroll in the cool evening air. They pose for pictures in front of the bronze statues of the valenato greats: Jorge Onate, the blind Dio Medes Diaz and Poncho Zuelta. A large American cargo plane sits in the park. Once used to run marijuana, the confiscated plane now serves as a monument for the children to play on.

The Music

Colombians love vallenato music. One week every year more than 40,000 people come to the week long music festival to hear the music. The festival was founded in 1966 and has become one of Colombia’s major musical events.

the accordion is the lead instrument of vallenato music

Vallenato is a type of ranch (ranchero) country music with origins in the songs and stories of working cowboys in the Sierra Nevada plains. Along with the cumbia it is the most popular folklorist music in Colombia. It is composed mainly of 3 instruments.

The flute, which was originally an instrument used by the Tairona people to mimic the call of a local bird called the guacharaca – which is also the name of the flute. Congo drums, or the caja, captures the beat of the African slaves. And the German accordion, was brought over by the European settlers, is the main and show stealing instrument. Guitars and piano are thrown in the mix to stirring up some vigorous dance music. Battling duets of improvisational, rapid-fire singing, over a racing accordion, is called a piqueria.

The noble prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a life long fan of the vallenato. He said the music had a way of just telling the story at hand – a style deeply influencing his written works.

There are other things to do around the city:

White rocks of La Mina

La Mina – if you want to get out of the city, La Mina is a stunning section giant white rocks carved out by the Badillo River surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountains rising in the distance. Here one can find secluded river swimming holes to occupy and enjoy. A moto-taxi can take you there from the city center for 15,000 COP.

Village of Nabusimaki

Nabusimaki is a small settlement and spiritual capital of the Arhuaca tribe. Though a grueling, four-hour drive to the village, the Arhuaco people, their dwellings and unique civilization, in a natural setting, is impressive. It costs 10,000 COP to enter the village.

Eco-parque Los Besotes – is a 1,000 hectare ecological park in the Sierra Nevada mountains 9 km. outside of Valledupar. The park contains 210 different species of birds and has 14 km. of hiking trails where one can also spot monkeys, pumas and jaguars.

How to get there:

There is a small airport in the city, the Alfonso Lopez Pumarejo airport, which can be reached by Colombian national airlines.

From Riohacha, Valledupar is 3.5 hours by bus or car – 160 km.

From Bucaramanga, it is 8 hours or 430 km.

From San Gil, Valledupar is 10 hours or 550 km.

And from Bogota it is 14 hours by bus 865 km.

For more information on Santa Marta beaches, Colonial towns in Santander and La Guajira – see the following articles:

The Best Caribbean Beaches in Colombia are near Santa Marta

Colonial towns in Santander

Travel to La Guajira Peninsula, Northern Colombia

Barranquilla throws the second largest Carnival Party in the World

Hands down the Carnival of Barranquilla is the biggest folkloric tradition and best party in Colombia with more than 2 million people participating every year.

Held the weekend before Ash Wednesday – 40 days before Easter, if you’re anywhere near the Caribbean coast of Colombia at that time, you really should venture to Barranquilla and party with the locals.

This is the second biggest Carnival in the world after Rio de Janiero.

Over 50 countries celebrate Carnival. But nobody does it like Barranquilla. A joyous festival, the Carnival of Barranquilla is a four day holiday for the locals. In 2003, it was named one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

A week before Carnival things start heating. Officially the party runs from Saturday to Tuesday – a period when the parties never end. There’s dancing, drinking, eating and colorful costume parades with live music, floats, fire breathers and famous Colombian politicians and stars.

The festivities date back to 1888. The Carnival first started as a free day for slaves who would celebrate with music, dance, food and drink. Over time African/indigenous ceremonies mingled with the church’s Christian observances. Today the Carnival has morphed into a national spectacle. It’s a melting pot of cultures: European, African and indigenous all blending together. They dance to heavy drum beats of Colombia’s musical genres: cumbia, Spanish paloteo and African congo. And by wearing the carefully crafted, colorful costumes the people seem to transfigure and explode.

The Carnival slogan is: “Quien lo vive es quien lo goza“. ‘ Those who live it, enjoy it.’ The Carnival of 2021 will be held Feb. 13-16.

The Covid 19 situation permitting, of course. But it’s hard to imagine even a plague putting a damper on the force of nature that is Barranquilla’s Carnival.

The two main parades are on Saturday and Sunday.

On Saturday it’s ‘The Battle of the Flowers’ or La Batalla de Flores which winds down street – Via 40. This is an annual tradition and has been kicking off the festivities, every year, since 1903. It starts at 1 p.m. and lasts at least six hours. The parade, headed by the Carnival’s newly crowned Queen, is jam packed with floats, blasting music, fire breathers, costumed folkloric dancers and hundreds of thousands of revelers.

On Sunday it’s the Gran Parada de Tradicion y Folclore – ‘The Great Parade of Tradition and Folklore’ starts at 1 p.m. again on Via 40. This parade has no floats but features over 300 dancing groups and plenty of music.

On Monday its the Gran Parada de Comparsas ‘The Great Parade of Performing Groups’. This fringe parade features slightly more modern music and dance: salsa, samba, cumbia, reggaeton and electronic music.

The best way to see the Carnival is get tickets to the bleachers called palcos. They can be purchased through the ticket office site – tuboleta.com. But at 360,000 COP ($100) a ticket, they are not cheap. Pricing may seem high for Colombia but consider the experience of Barranquilla’s Carnival comes in at just a fraction of the cost when compared what it would cost to see the carnivals in Rio, New Orleans or Venice.

The palcos there are no seating reservations. It’s first come first serve. Those in the know take a seat near to the top in the back benches where there is more shade during the day. Afternoons in Barranquilla are hot and muggy. Remember to pack sun screen and a hat.

A cheaper way to see the parade is to walk down along on the sides of Via 40’s parade route. The wide sidewalks and side streets along the parade route are open to the public. There are tents lining both sides of Via 40. Behind the tents there are countless vendors selling beer, drinks and food.

To get closer to the parade on the street, get a seat under a tent. For 20,000 COP ($8) you get a plastic chair and a somewhat better chance of jousting for a view of the parade. Again seating is first come first serve. To get a good street view you’ll have to stake out a spot early in the day. And if you come late you will be sitting in the back of the tent where it’s almost impossible to see the parade. Pretty much forget taking photos of the parade. But the back tent and side street experience is so unique; watching the people party, vibrate, let loose. This is the real Carnival.

In the afternoon, as the sun goes down behind the buildings, they pull the roofs off the street tents. The breeze picks up. It get cooler and you can see better.

In Barranquilla it’s an act of joy to throw flour, confetti and spray foam on each other. You will get doused with flour and foam. If you’re smart you’ll bring hand wipes, a towel and change of shirt.

When the sun goes down there are street parties all over the city. Most the merriment goes down on Calle 70 and Calle 84. Feel free to walk around. The revelers are friendly and hospitable. They will be dancing, the music will be pumping and drinks flowing freely.

Make room reservations early

Accomodations are the hardest thing to come by during the four days of Carnival in Barranquilla. Don’t wait to reserve a room as the city is near full occupancy.

I have tried to reserve a modestly priced rooms six months before Carnival only to have them cancelled a few weeks before the event. Reasons given: they were over-booked, had to squeeze more people in the room, had quoted me a price forgetting it was carnival weekend and their pricing doubled or tripled.

The city is full of mid-range hotels, hospedajes, hostels and Airbnb options. Enterprising locals rent out rooms in their homes during the holiday. But reservations can be tricky.

An upmarket area with many hotels is Calle 72 in the north part of the city, near the Buena Vista shopping mall. Here one will easily be able to book the higher priced hotel rooms. As a last minute resort many of them will be vacant before and during Carnival.

Want to see the formal festivities. Could care less about partying the night away under street the street lights? Then save a lot money staying at one of two neighboring cities: Cartagena to the south or Santa Marta to the north.

Cartagena is (just 63 miles (102 km.) from Barranquilla. Santa Marta is even closer – 43 miles (70 km.). From Santa Marta it’s just a two hour bus ride to Barranquilla.

Get to the station early in the morning as the buses fill up with people from Santa Marta on their way to Carnival. The last returning buses leave around 8 p.m.

When the music’s over

Barranquilla returns to being a gritty, port town. A place most Colombians come from and not go to. But the locals are proud of their city’s intense personality which is always on display and overflows during Carnival.

Founded as a Caribbean trading port in 1533, Barranquilla is the largest port city on Colombia’s north Caribbean coast; the fourth largest city in the country. One could come a day or two before or after Carnival to check out the city. There are plenty of things to see: museums, castles, cathedrals, parks, town squares and a zoo. Go shopping, visit the sights and eat some seafood.

Barranquilla also has some nice beaches. Playas de Salgar, 15 minutes from the city, has bathing establishments or balnearios that rent umbrellas, lounge chairs and sell food and drinks. Pradomar is a private and relaxing beach. Admission is 10,000 COP ($3). Or take an open air train from Los Flores neighborhood to the coast where the mighty Magdalena River plows into the Caribbean sea.

Then again, Cartagena and Santa Marta are just a short bus ride away.

Colombia’s Southern Caribbean Beaches: Arboletes to Tolu

Colombia’s southern Caribbean coast, south of Cartagena, is rarely visited by foreigners. Small, uncomplicated, budding resort towns with names like  Arboletes, Monitos, Puerto Escondido, San Antero, Covenas, Isla Fuerte, San Bernardo and Tolu are beautiful seaside villages and will eventually become touristic jewels. But for now, travelers seem to prefer the beaches on Colombia’s north Caribbean coast – Parque Tayrona, Palomino – places that have become a bit too popular and are already suffering from over-tourism.

Colombia’s southern Caribbean offers everything a beach bum needs: tropical sun, sandy beaches, inexpensive lodgings, restaurants serving sea food, safe environments and easy transportation. One could spend weeks slowly visiting them all and still not want to leave.

Monitos

It’s a small, remote fishing village in the department of Cordoba. To get there catch a bus in Monteria (a 2.5 hour trip) or Lorica (1 hour trip). The bus leaves you at the central plaza in town a block up from the beach. Just down the street there’s a long wooden dock going out several hundred yards into the sea. It sways and vibrates beneath the pounding surf. While there’s not a lot in town to do, it offers everything you need. Most of all vast expanse of beaches and inexpensive lodgings.

There are a couple of seedy hotels right in town. But skip these. Instead, go to the seaside restaurant on the beach called “Asi es Colombia” and ask for Sra. Cecelia Durango. She owns the restaurant and knows of various cabins right on the beach owned by the locals who rent them out by the night, week or month. If there is not a Colombian holiday going on there are plenty of inexpensive options to choose from.

The Sra. Celelia arranged for me to meet one of the village shop owners after lunch to show me some apartments. There are nice beach houses usually divided into several rooms. I paid $8 (30,000 COP) a night for a room. Each room faces the ocean, has its own bathroom and terrace with hammock. Some have common kitchens. At night the cool sea breeze comes in the open doors from the ocean and the sound of crashing waves is the only sound to be heard.

There’s a supermarket on Monito’s main square along with a wi-fi access store, shops and plenty of restaurants offering fresh seafood, lunches and dinners, for $5 a plate. At night there are a couple dozen street food vendors stationed around the plaza selling fried plantains, chicken, sausages and meat on a stick.

You can come into town in the evening, relax by the beach at night, have a few beers and walk back down the beach at night to your cabin. Monitos is safe, they assured me. Here you can leave your doors open at night and walk the beach without worry. Everyone walks or drives their motor bikes back and forth on the beach, to and from town, at all hours of the night. A nice change after the wary explorations of Cartagena’s beaches.

Isla Fuerte

Just north of Monitos is Isla Fuerte a small coral island, formed from coral detritus, located 11 km from the mainland. To get there, one can take a bus back towards Lorica and get off at the village of Paso Nuevo. Down at the harbor motor boats leave every hour to the island – a 45 minute trip is $5 round trip (15,000 COP). Morning transits see calm seas but bigger swells ensue in the afternoon. The last boats returning from the island to the mainland depart at 3 p.m.

This small island, 1.5 miles in length, is a relatively unknown gem. At the port town of Puerto Limon there are a number of restaurants and bars trying to get you to make reservations for lunch as soon as you get out of the boat. But feel free to explore the island. There are over a dozen hotels, cabins and hostels along the island’s southern shoreline with an abundance of thatched hut restaurants right on the beaches serving fresh fish, grilled lobster, cerveza offering chairs, tables, hammocks and shade.

Isla Fuerte has a population of 2,000 people and forms an island chain along with the more visited islands of the San Bernardo Archipelago and Rosario Islands. But because Isla Fuerte is the farthest island to the south and accessed from a less visited area of Colombia, it sees much less tourism. And that’s it’s charm.

You can hike all around the island in just 6 hours. The topography is composed of tropical dry forest and mangroves. The island has 80 species of birds and numerous sloths. The beaches are a Caribbean delight. At Playa San Diego, one of the coves onthe island, the beach has white sand and crystal blue waters.

The reefs surrounding the island are great for diving. Experts consider Isla Fuerte to be one of the best dive sites in the Carribean. A reef three times the size of the island is located just 10 miles off shore. There are diving centers on the island, like the Isla Fuerte Ecolodge and Diving Center, that will supply you with the necessary infrastructure.

Arboletes

Bathing in the mud volcanoes in Arboletes adjacent the Caribbean sea

Arboletes is a small, seaside village of 22,000 people on Colombia’s southern Caribbean coast. It lies north of Turbo.

The village is a Colombian tourist destination for its beaches but more so for the mud volcano just outside of town called Volcan de Lodo Arboletes. It’s an ecological park where tourists can float in a crater of warm mud 50 meters in diameter. 

Arboletes is also known for it’s sandy beaches around the town and it’s wide selection of tourist accomodations. Located in the province of Antioquia the village was founded in 1920. Arboletes means ‘land of trees.

Covenas

Covenas is a resort town on the Gulf of Morrosquillo. It is located in the department of Sucre and was established in the 1570 as a port for slave traders. When slave trading became illegal, Covenas became a meat trading port. And in 1971, with the discovery of oil in the area, it became an oil port and terminal for an pipeline from the oil fields of Venezuela.

Covenas has been a Colombian tourist town since the 1960s. The town’s sandy beaches and infrastructure offers ample services and amenities for mainly Colombian tourists. Here there are plenty of hotels, high rise apartment buildings, bars, clubs and restaurants.

a bicycle taxi on the streets of Tolu

Tolu

Is a sleepy little tourist town 3 hours south of Cartagena on the Caribbean Gulf of Morrosquillo. Also catering to Colombian tourist, on the weekends Tolu is a 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. 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.

To see the full article visit: Travel to the beaches of Tolu’

Other Coastal Towns include:

Beaches of San Antero

San Antero – a seaside fishing village just south of Tolu with nearby mangroves.

Puerto Escondido

Puerto Escondido – just north of Arboletes – a fishing village in a hidden cove with a long, wooden dock stretching several hundred yards out to sea.

Rincon del Mar

Rincon del Mar – Rincon Del Mar is a small fishing village on the Caribbean coast a short 25 minute taxi or moto from San Onofre. It has clear waters, white sand, great food and sees few tourists.  From here one can hire a boat to take you to the San Bernardo islands, Islas Mucura, Islote de Santa Cruz – the most densely populated island in the world, and Isla Titipan.

Carpugana and Zapzurro – the beaches on the Darien Pass

For more information on Colombia’s most southern Caribbean beaches near the Darien Pass – see the following article:

Capurgana and Zapzurro: Carribean villages and the Darien Pass

Arboletes: Mud Volcano on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

The Best Caribbean Beaches in Colombia are near Santa Marta

Santa Marta and the Beaches

Playa Soledad Capurgana

For more on the beaches of Colombia see the following articles:

Arboletes: Mud Volcano on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

Arboletes is a small, seaside village of 22,000 people on Colombia’s southern Caribbean coast. It lies between the cities of Turbo and Tolu.

The village is a Colombian tourist destination for its volcano and beaches. The mud volcano, called the Volcan de Lodo Arboletes, is an ecological park located just outside the village. Here tourists can float in a crater of warm mud 50 meters in diameter. The mud’s density, while resembling quick sand, actually allows people to float on top of the muck without sinking. People swim, wiggle and crawl over the mud. And since there isn’t a bottom to touch one has a strange sensation of levitating.

The mud is heated through volcanic forces deep in the earth. An active volcano, it last erupted in 2006 and 2010. Eruptions blew mud slurries and flames mixed with thermal water and gases high in the sky. Mud volcanoes are not true volcanoes because they don’t produce lava. There are over 1,000 mud volcanoes in the world but most are too hot to permit bathing.

Therapeutic Benefits of Volcanic Mud

People from around the world come to soak in this therapeutic sludge. The mud contains an abundance of minerals which have derma-cosmetological properties. Scientific studies have shown the mud contains high cleaning properties that put a deep polish on the skin. The mud also possesses mineral salts that nourish and regenerate the body along with anti-inflammatory properties. The volcanic ooze expels the body’s uric acids, stimulates circulation, relieves rheumatism, aches and pains along with a long list of other health benefits.

Arboletes is also known for it’s sandy beaches, tourist facilities hotels and restaurants. Located in the province of Antioquia the village was founded in 1920. Arboletes means ‘land of trees’. The area was once covered in trees but over the last century almost completely cleared for cattle pastures. Cattle farming is still the area’s major economic activity.

There are a number of hotels and hospedajes in town starting at $20 a night. The best hotels are Hotel Botique el Mirador and the Hotel Riviera del Sol ($64 a night). The later was built to resemble a Gothic castle. The restaurants in town serve up excellent lunches based on locally sourced seafood and beef.

The mud baths are free. Though there aren’t any facilities at the volcano – just a bath house with changing rooms and showers. But because of a water shortage in the area, most people just go down to the sea to wash the mud off off in the Caribbean’s warm salt water.

The mud volcano is located about a quarter mile outside of town. To get there one can catch a taxi in town or just walk up beach to the crater. It’s not unusual to walk the beach and see people returning from the mud baths still caked in mud.

A stone’s throw from the sea, the mud volcano maybe too close as rising sea levels have put the volcano in jeopardy of being overcome by coastal erosion. The town is currently working on erecting sea walls to protect the crater.

While mud baths are considered safe they recommend you not to let the mud get into your ear canal. Also, wear an old swim suit as the mud stains and discolors fabric.

Arboletes is a 45 minute trip from the nearest city of Monteria. It’s a 6 hour trip south of Cartagena 190 miles (307 km.); a 90 minute bus ride from Turbo 92 miles (57 km) and 287 miles; and it’s a 9 hour bus trip from Medellin 287 miles (462 km.) northwest of Medellin.

Not to be confused, there is another mud volcano 45 minutes N.E. of Cartagena called El Lodo de Totumo. It’s smaller than the mud volcano at Arboletes and it’s actually a crater. One has to climb up the crater and down into to bathe in the mud.

Mud volcano ‘El Lodo de Totumo’ near Cartagena

Monteria: a Tropical City and Pleasant Surprise

Monteria is a pleasant tropical city situated on the Sinu River not far from Colombia’s southern Caribbean coast. The city of 400,000 is off the tourist the circuit and relatively unknown to foreign tourists. Considered one of the 10 most important cities in the nation, those who visit will be pleasantly surprised.

The capital of the Cordoba region, Monteria was founded in 1777 and made its riches cattle farming. The region’s inhabitants are descendants of Zenus – an indigenous tribe of the area, Africans and Spaniards. 

I discovered the city while planning a bus trip from Medellin to Colombia’s southern Caribbean coast. A grueling 10-12 hour bus ride, depending on the destination, I was looking to break the trip up into two parts. There aren’t many places of renown along this stretch of road. An overnight stop in Monteria seemed the only logical choice as it is an 8 hour bus trip (400 km.) from Medellin and only 3o miles (50 km.)  from the Caribbean sea. In fact, Monteria is so close to the sea the locals consider themselves ‘costenos’ or coastal people. I arrived at night and spent the morning exploring the city center. Instead of leaving the same day as planned, I ended up spending a couple days.

Monteria is a hot, steamy city on the Sinu River. There is a long park running alongside the river, the heart of the city center, called Sinu park.  Take a morning walk through the park and along the river. The park is dense with trees, tropical vegetation and teaming with large iguanas, monkeys and sloths.

At several points along the park there are ‘planchones’ or passenger boats taking locals from one side of the Sinu river to the other. The flat bottom boats are pulled across the river by a ropes stretching from one river bank to the other. They say you can’t come to visit Monteria and not take a sunset ride on a planchone.

Strolling north through the park and along the river, you come to the Muelle Turistico, or tourist docks, where boats from villages along the Sinu river still dock while on business in the capital city.  The city’s big market, Mercado de los cuatro patios, is just across the street. 

A few blocks in from the river lies the main park, Parque Simon Bolivar, and nearby the cathdral of San Jeronimo. The streets are lined with shops and full of people during the day. But towards night the city center empties out early. Most of the people go to the fringes of the city where most of the city’s residents live.

As in most of Colombia, the people are leaving the city centers and moving to the outer suburbs where life is more modern with apartment towers, shopping centers and abundant night life. 

If it’s night life you’re looking for, take a taxi to the zona rosa. It’s a 10 minute taxi ride north, up the river, around Park Los Laureles. A wealthy area of Monteria, the zona rosa is flush with new restaurants, bars, shopping centers, theaters, upscale shops and discos. Grab a steak dinner at one of the restaurants. Still heart of one of Colombia’s cattle regions, the meat here is top of the line. And being so close to the sea there’s also a good selection of fresh seafood.

Monteria is definitely off the tourist path. A hot, steamy river town near the sea this city has a personality all its own.

Hot Springs in Colombia’s Coffee Triangle

The hot springs of Santa Rosa and San Vicente are located in Colombia’s magnificent coffee triangle.

Colombia’s coffee triangle is currently one of the hottest tourist attractions in the country. Not just for coffee lovers, it’s popular with tourists making their first journey into Colombia. A short plane trip from Medellin, Bogota or Cali, the coffee triangle can  be explored in a just a few days.

The coffee zone is contained within the small cities of Armenia, Manizales and Periera. And the mountain villages between these towns are settled in  Colombia’s green, luscious, breath-taking landscape. Coffee plantations are carved into the steep hillsides. Here one can hike, go horseback riding, visit a national coffee park or soak in hot springs.  

So don’t forget to pack a swim suit. While the coffee zone is inland, travelers  looking for a relaxing day of fun in the sun have the option to visit to the hot springs located in the heart of the coffee zone. Called spas or thermal resorts, these pools of hot, steamy waters are places where one can relax poolside and nurse a cold beverage under the piercing tropical sun.

Hot springs boost circulation, relieve stress, promote sleep, decongest, eliminate stress, intoxicants, body aches and pains and leaves your skin smooth and soft.

The two hot spring spas of Santa Rosa and  San Vicente are definitely worthy of a day trip or two.  These spas are well known and popular with the locals of  central Colombia. But few foreign tourists know about them. 

Both spas are located just outside of the city of Periera with Manizales to the north and Armenia to the south.  But one could stay in either of these cities and do a day trip to the spa. It’s an easy weekend getaway from Medellin and just 30 miles away from the popular village of Salento.

The 100 foot high waterfall at the shot springs of Santa Rosa

Termales Santa Rosaa place to be born

The closest city to both of these spas is Periera. With a population of 700,000, it is the most populated city in the coffee axis. For a small town experience, stay in the quaint village of Santa Rosa Cabal, an hour bus ride out of Periera. To get there take a local bus from the city’s  bus terminal to the village of Santa Rosa Cabal.

The hot springs of Santa Rosa are just a 20 minute taxi ride outside the village – $7 (20,000 COP) or catch a collective jeep or chiva bus at the market $1 (3,500 COP). On the dirt road up the mountain to the springs there’s a wide selection of hotels, cottages, apartments, camping sites and restaurants.

Santa Rosa is a nice cafetero town. It’s quintessential Colombia and, compared to Salento, rarely sees tourists. A few travelers visiting the springs choose to stay here. It has a beautiful town square –Araucarias Park, good market – La Galeria and plenty of little shops on the main street, bars, restaurants and billiard halls. There are a few modestly priced hotels in the village starting at $6 (18,000 COP) a night.

Cooling off under under the cascading waterfall

Thermales of Santa Rosa – a place to be born” is their calling card. It is a beautiful place. The spa  has an admission fee of $15 (54,000 COP) per person which includes a lunch or dinner.  There are four pools each filled with hot spring water of varying temperatures heated by some mysterious volcanic activity deep within the mountain.

Because of the alkaline nature of the waters, the thermal waters here are tasteless and odorless unlike most other hot springs that are pungent with sulfur content. This boiling water is mixed with cold water from the waterfall on the grounds. Bathe in the hot thermal pools then go over to the waterfall for a cold shower of forceful river water cascading over the rocks from 100 feet up.  

Between hot soaks and cold showers bring a book, grab a lounge chair and sit back to enjoy the cool mountain air while watching the Colombian families mix it up. There are changing rooms at the spa but bring your own lock.  There’s also free wi-fi, a bar serving up coffee, alcohol and snacks.

The spa always has a good crowd but tends to get even more crowded on the weekends. So if it’s a zen moment you’re seeking, you may consider visiting during a weekday.

There are a couple private spas a km. further up the road located in the big hotels. But Balneario Santa Rosa is open to the public and has the best hot springs. Hotel Matisses is the most prominent luxury hotel – $62 a night (200,000 COP) and offers meals, massages and yoga lessons.

The entrance of San Vicente

The hot springs of San Vicente – the most natural Thermal Spa in Colombia

While the spas at Santa Rosa are considered the most beautiful in Colombia, I find the hot springs of San Vicente much more natural, secluded and intimate. Termales San Vincente’s motto is: ‘the most natural thermal spa in Colombia’. The facilities sit in a cloud forest in the mountains at 11,800 feet (2,300 meters) above sea level. The air temperature here is always quite cool, around 50-60 degrees F. but the pools are over 100 degrees F. (30 degrees C.), the waters heated by underground volcanic activity.

Tucked in green valley, nestled between steep mountains covered in green jungle vegetation make this a perfect place for nature lovers. Here there are five pools of hot thermal water. Cold showers funneling mountain spring water are located pool side. But don’t forget to visit the natural pools down the hill near the entrance. The natural pools of Rio Termal, tucked away in the jungle vegetation, you may find to be the best.

San Vicente is a natural reserve park of 1,116 acres (472 hectares) in the middle of a National reserve park called Parque Natural Los Nevados. The first pools were constructed here in 1995.

This spa is more remote than Santa Rosa and the customer service is more on point and exclusive. There are two offices – one in the village of Santa Rosa, near Plaza Machete and another in Periera at the Avenida Circunvalar #15-62. One can make a reservation at the offices the day before departure or reserve online and arrive at the office at 8:30 a.m. to register, pay and catch the 9 a.m. bus to the the springs. The day pass is $20 (60,000 COP) per person and includes a full day at the spa, transportation, access to the pools, sauna and lunch.

San Vicente is located 18 km. an hour bus ride outside of the village of Santa Rosa. The bus leaves you at a gated entrance where a guide will lead you up the hill to the spa. There are changing rooms and lockers. Bring your own lock. After you are free to enjoy the five different pools on the property. There’s a very hot sauna built over a boiling, bubbling thermal spring with natural steam rising through wooden plank floor boards.

A full lunch is served buffet style at the restaurant. The most popular dish is locally farmed trout. There is a bar serving alcohol, coffee and snacks but, unlike most Colombian spas, no drinks can be taken pool side.

Be sure to be back down the hill at the entrance gate before 5 p.m. as the last bus back to town leaves punctually.

There are also accommodations located within the spa reserve. The San Vicente hotel goes for 250,000 COP ($70) a night per person with breakfast lunch and dinner. There are also rustic cabins on the property starting at 160,000 per person per night serving breakfast at the restaurant. The hotel offers massages, mud baths and beauty treatments. Though not inexpensive lodgings for Colombia, the surroundings justify the expense. Also, spending the night on the property includes exclusive access to the pools, sauna and thermal rivers after the park closes and everyone (including most of the staff) leave at 5.

Pasto – Colombia’s ‘Surprise City’

Pasto, the southernmost major city in Colombia, sits high in the Andes. It’s a six hour bus ride from Popayan on a road offering a look at some of the most dramatic mountain landscapes Colombia has to offer. Founded by the Spanish in 1537, the city’s name, Pasto, refers to the indigenous people, the Pastos, who inhabited the region at the time. It is one of Colombia’s oldest cities. Capital of the Narino province, it is called Colombia’s surprise city.

Since Pasto is halfway between Quito and Cali, most people just breeze through, stopping in Pasto for a transitory one night stop on their way to Ecuador or Colombian destinations north. Even guide books dismiss the city in a paragraph or two. This makes the locals feel short changed and ignored. There is so much to see and do here, they insist. You must stay longer. For the people who enjoy traveling off the beaten path, the locals are right. Pasto and its surroundings offers plenty of activities.

The historic center has some beautiful buildings and impressive colonial architecture. There are some handsome plazas in the center. Centrally located, Plaza Constitucion is the largest. But equally impressive is Plaza Narino and Plaza Carnaval. Pasto seems to have a church on every street corner. Our Lady of Mercy and the Temple Cristo Rey are the most impressive. There’s also a gold museum Museo del Oro Narino, a carnival museum, the Casa Taminango art museum and numerous parks. Plaza Bombona has a nice indoor artisans market featuring Narinese handicrafts: wood carvings, embossed leather, stone sculptures and hand-made wool clothing.

A medium size city of 500,000, Pasto sits at an altitude of 8,290 feet (2,897 meters) which is almost at high as Bogota. The city has a cool, median temperature of 55 degrees F. (13 centigrade). Tourists from the warm weather climates walk around all bundled up. The elevation causes visitors to come up a bit winded. Unless previously acclimated to the altitude in Popayan or Quito, it’s normal to be out of breath the first couple days in Pasto. Visitors who suffer acute altitude sickness may experience extreme headaches, swelling, aches, pains and nausea. The cure is to drink some of the local fruit teas like Chapil di Lulu to help ease the ill effects.

One can see most of the city sights in a day or two but don’t leave just yet. Pasto offers a good base from which to visit memorable nearby natural attractions like Volcano Galeras, Lake La Cocha and Las Lajas – the most beautiful church in Colombia.

The Volcanoes

Volcano Galeras

Pasto is in the foothills at the base of the Volcano Galeras. At 14,029 feet (4,276 meters) it can be seen on a clear day towering above the town. The locals call the volcano ‘the sleeping giant’. It is Colombia’s most active volcano and has erupted in 1934, 1989 and 2006. The crater is currently off-limits after 9 people, 6 of whom were British geologist studying the volacano, perished in the crater back in 1992. But one can still explore the base of the volcano where there are numerous ravines, rivers, lagoons and a trail leading to the Galeras Flora and Fauna Sanctuary.

But if hiking up steep volcanoes in a low oxygen environment remains high on your list, there are a couple of volcanoes nearby where where scaling the crater is allowed. The Azufral Volcano has a beautiful, green hued, crescent shaped lake, aptly named Laguna Verde, on the northwest side of the crater. And on a good day, the distant Pacific ocean can be seen from the summit of Cumbal Volcano.

Lake La Cocha

One can also take a trip to Lake La Cocha. It is the largest lake in South Colombia, which sits in the crater of an extinguished volcano just 25 km. (a 1.5 hour bus ride) from Pasto – a pleasant day trip. The village has been called Colombia’s Venice, due to the numerous canals running through the town. It’s also called Colombia’s ‘ Little Switzerland‘ due to the affluence of Swiss styles chalets in lakeside town of Puerto El Encanto.

Boats will ferry you to Corota Island in the middle of the lake where there is a floral sanctuary to explore. The port town El Encanto is touristy. Nearly all the homes on main street function as restaurants. Their specialty is fresh lake trout, either caught in the lagoon or raised in neighboring trout farms. It is prepared fried or grilled but the best version is trucha ahumada (smoked trout). Best to visit during weekdays as this is a popular, local destination fills up on the weekends.

For more see the article: Lake La Cocha

Las Lajas Church

Las Lajas Sanctuary, a catholic church located about seven miles from the Ecuadorian border, is considered the most beautiful church in Colombia. It was voted the most beautiful church in the world by the English newspaper ‘The Telegraph’ in 2015.

The church of Las Lajas

It’s a day trip from the southern Colombian city of Pasto to the Colombian border town of Ipiales. Though only 80 kilometers from Pasto, it may take up to 4 hours to travel each way due to current construction on the Pan-American Highway.

Some may find it a bit excessive for a day trip. But if you’re en route to Ecuador then the church is just a ten-minute taxi ride from the bus station in Ipiales. A visit to Las Lajas can be completed in couple hours. To continue onto Ecuador return to the bus station in Ipiales, a grab another taxi to the border (the crossing takes 2-3 hours). Coming from Ecuador, catch a bus at the terminal north-bound to Pasto.

For more see article on Las Lajas

Black and White Carnival January 2-7

If you’re in Colombia during the month of January one must see the Black and White Carnival called Carneval de Negros y Blancos. It takes place every year from Jan 2 – 7 when this mountain city comes to party. The six-day celebration draws tourists from Colombia and around the world. People take to the street in droves. Parades of floats and holiday revelers wind through the city. Everyone is dressed in colorful costumes, paint themselves with vivid creams and shower each other with white foam, flour and talcum powder.

The carnival is over 100 years old and it’s the largest carnival in southern Colombia; a fun and noisy way to bring in the new year. The day of January 5th is the black’s day and the people color their face and bodies with black cream parading through the streets shouting: ‘ Viva los negros’ or long live the blacks. January 6th is the white’s day and everyone is dusted white powder. The idea is to make all classes and ethnic groups the same for at least a day.

Local delicacies

There are unique local specialties to savor. Cuy, or guinea pig, is served fried. Or try it flattened and impaled on a spit and put on a rotisserie till golden brown. Tastes like chicken and a bit like rabbit. Also try their smoked trout, sweet baked goods, ice creams and hervidos – fresh fruit juices boiled with sugar and anise flavored liquor guaranteed to warm one up.

Access to the Pacific Coast

Pasto is also connected via paved road 250 kilometers to the coastal town of Tumaco.  Tumaco is a poor town and is also one of the  world’s rainiest areas.  There are beaches north of town where swimming is safe.  The area is one huge mangrove swamp and boatmen offer tours to a myriad of villages and settlements located within the mangroves.  The beautiful island-tourist resort of Boca Grande is just off shore. To get there take a boat from Tumaco for $6.

See article on the road from Pasto to Macoa – the most dangerous road in Colombia – called ‘the trampoline of death’

See also the article on Travel in Southern Colombia – Cali-Popayan-Pasto

Retire in Colombia – Pros and Cons

A lot of people are retiring in Colombia and other countries in Central and South America – stretching their retirement dollars and enhancing their quality of life. Why? How hard is this? Is this something anyone can do? What’s the down side? Where’s the catch?

Here’s the problem with retirement today:

A lot of people who weren’t able to save a handsome nest egg or worked for a company that didn’t supply a pension, or didn’t sock away enough of their pay checks into a 401 k are finding they can’t afford to quit work and pursue that retirement dream of life and leisure. They’ll have to keep working till they’re 70 to get full social security benefits or work as long as they possibly can, take whatever social security pension benefits they have and keep working part-time supplementing that S.S. check.

And when they can work no longer? Move into their kid’s basement? Living solely on social security requires serious budgeting, down-sizing, belt-tightening and many find they can’t resign themselves to living on noodles and rice and beans as some governments suggests.

There are also a lot of retirees who believe they have enough money saved up to retire early – in their 50’s – while they can still enjoy – as the Italians say – being a free citizen. But how? But will the money they saved be enough? The cost of living and health insurance is so expensive in Europe and North America. 

A coffee machine in Pereira – the coffee zone

So what’s the deal:
Cash out and move to a third world country where your money increases in value by 300-400%. No joke, no catch, just simple currency exchange.

And there are a lot of countries in Central and South America actually courting North American and European retirees to come, put their feet up and stay for a while: Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Ecuador are the most popular and working the hardest to lure in retirees.

(See articles on: Retire in Ecuador and Retire in Panama)

Colombia, while not actually courting pensioners to come down and move in,  does have a policy and visa permitting retirees to stay. In the last decade,  Colombia has seen a steady rise in expats, retirees and snowbirds. B But outside of maybe Medellin, the country is far from over run with expats and foreigners.

Why Colombia?

Seasoned travelers agree, while often misunderstood,  Colombia is South America’s best kept secret – beautiful, affordable and mostly undiscovered by foreign tourists. The country  is easy to travel with plenty of low cost internal flights, comfortable cross-country buses and inexpensive taxis literally everywhere.The country is beautiful, the people  friendly and the climate is perfect. Everything is very affordable and with a good service structure already in place.

  • Colombia is  rated as one of the 10 most affordable countries in the world for foreign travelers.
  • It’s one of the five friendliest
  • And one of the top 10 countries for expats to live in.
  • It has been ranked #22 out of 140 countries for  its quality of health care by the World Health Organization. Lasik surgery was invented here in 1963 as was the pacemaker in 1958.
  • With a land mass area larger than France and Spain combined, Colombia is the fourth largest nation in Latin America (440,800 square miles),  the third most populous in South America (50 million people).  With an unequaled habitat, Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world.

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

What are the pros to retiring in Colombia?

*The climate would have to be the number one reason. Depending on the altitude and area, the climate in Colombia can range from steamy jungle, to equatorial beaches to high altitude, cool mountain temps .

*The exchange rate and low cost of living make Colombia very affordable. Good hotel rooms for $10 – $25 a night, simple meals everywhere for $2 – $10-$15 in the best restaurants, taxi rides for $1 across town, beer $.50 a bottle, coffee $.25 a cup and furnished apartments for rent for $400 – $600 a month.

*Utilities are cheap – on the average of $70 a month.

*It’s close to North America. The flights take on the average of 8-10 hours with a cost of approximately $300 – $500 round trip. I recently found a one way ticket Detroit to Cali on Spirit for $87 – one way.

*Health care, dental and eye care is top notch care and very inexpensive. Many people come to Colombia for plastic surgery, surgeries, knee and hip replacements, dental and eye care. Often paying over the counter for these services in Colombia is much cheaper than the insurance policies offered in Europe and North America. After you gets the retirement visa and Colombian i.d. card you are entitled to join the Colombian health care system of POS (Plan Obligatoria de Salud) or Obligatory Health Plan which provides basic coverage to all Colombians. It costs 12% of your reported income and can be supplemented with private health insurance plans

*Colombia has a lower income requirement for retirees than other countries in central and South America. One only need to show an income of $750 a month to get a retirement visa.

What are the cons to retiring in Colombia?

*Spanish is required. Though they are teaching English in the public schools, very few people in Colombia speak anything other than Spanish.

*You will have to file taxes in Colombia if you stay longer than 183 days a year.

*The sales tax is 19% which is high. Some grocery items are exempt. Hotels for foreigners with a passport are also exempt.

*The exchange rate is volatile.

*Cars are expensive.

*It’s difficult to get a bank loan in Colombia

*Pollution in the major cities is bad.

*Working in Colombia doesn’t pay much.

*Crime is a concern.

Filandia

The Colombian Retirement Visa:

The Retirement Visa in Colombia is called the TD-7 or pensionado visa. It costs $213 to obtain. You must be able to show a proof of pension or a minimum monthly income of $750 (2.4 million Colombian Pesos) which will also cover any dependents that may be traveling with you.

This is the lowest income requirement in all of Central and South America. Costa Rica, Panama and Peru require a proof of pension of at least $1,000 a month. Just 15 days after receiving the visa you can get the national i.d. card cedulla extranjera which also entitles you to Colombian health care POS.

This visa is good for 3 years after which it can be renewed. After 5 years with a pension visa, one can apply for a resident visa. After 5 years with a resident visa you can apply to become a Colombian citizen thereby eliminating the need for a visa altogether. And Colombia allows for dual citizenship.

 How to make the move?

There are numerous possibilities. Some people sell their house and move down to the land of eternal summer – full time. Some rent for a while – easier to move if and when you get bored. Others buy a house or build one for a third of the price it would cost back home. Others buy a house as an investment, winter there and rent it out during the months they’re gone via Airbnb. Still yet, others just winter it out, snowbird style, moving from hotel to hotel or renting apartments for days or weeks at a time.

(See article: Snowbirds in Colombia)

Before buying a house and property, one should do some research. Take some time to travel around the country and see what area and climate appeals to you. Then plan an extended stay and exploratory visits before ultimately deciding on a city or village to settle in. A modern apartment in the city, or a farm house in the country starts at around $70,000 and go up from there.

Restaurants are inexpensive but if you have a kitchen supermarkets are well stocked. On a $1,000 income a month, one can pay for everything and even have enough left over to hire a gardener and a maid to come in once a week to do the yard work around the house, clean, do the wash and cook a couple meals.

There’s Wi-Fi internet all over, cable television with English channels, modern shopping malls, international chain stores and all the comforts of home.

Former Coca Leaf Farmers Turn to Tourism and Crop Substitution

Flying down a dirt path in the jungle on a motor cross bike through the mountains of southern Colombia near the town of San Jose del Guaviare, we pull up to a 50 acre farm called ‘El Chontaduro‘. We are greeted by the farm’s owners – Edilson Pinto and his wife, Yolima. They invite us in for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, arepas and fruit – all made with foods produced on their farm. The open air kitchen sits on the edge of the jungle in the middle of their farm. As we eat and talk at the table, chickens and dogs saunter in and out. Domesticated parrots and macaws fly in for a visit as a tapir slinks around looking for fallen table scraps on the dirt floor.

For more than a decade, Edilson had been a coca leaf grower. He began farming as a younger man raising cows and pigs and traditional farm crops like tropical fruits, coffee, bananas, pineapples and beans. But due to low profit margins and erratic markets, he started concentrating more on growing coca plants – Colombia’s most lucrative cash crop.

Edilson Pinto on his finca near San Jose del Guaviare in Meta

In the ongoing war on illegal drugs, the Colombian government has been working with the coca growers to obliterate the production of coca – the main element in the production of cocaine. Since 2017 they have been paying farmers to voluntarily uproot their coca fields and assisting them with crop substitutions – a long term solution in the termination of coca cultivation. So far 124,000 farmers have participated in the program which has seen limited success.

With the help of government grants, Edilson and Yolima have been converting their farm back to the way it used to be – a more traditional farm. As it was before they began growing coca plants, before they had to become illegal chemists producing coca base, before the drug pickups in the middle of the night and and before the routine raids by police.

Though the couple are glad to no longer be participants in the illicit drug trade, they are not sure about the future of farming traditional Colombian crops. While the government promotes crop substitution, there’s no guarantee of markets for their crops.

Traditional crops have had slim profit margins and will never be as lucrative as coca farming.

International farming subsidies in other countries keep the price of traditional products like cocoa, bananas and coffee, very low. But the Colombian government has no such subsidy programs for their farmers. As a result, farmers often have trouble trying to eek out living from the land.

coca plants planted amongs bananas and other crops

Agricultural Tourism to Supplement Farming

To further supplement their farming activities, Edilson and Yolima have started working with the tourist offices in San Jose del Guaviare. We were introduced through the tour guide agency – Geotours del Guaviare. The jungle area of the Meta province around San Jose de Guaviare has been slowly building a tourist trade ever since 2016 when the government made a peace treaty with the FARC guerrillas. Before the peace treaty tourists had been leery of visiting the guerrilla occupied area.

But since the treaty, Colombian and foreign tourists have been steadily arriving to explore the Amazon, traveling up the rivers, visiting Cano Cristales and the the ancient rock paintings in the Cerro Azul.

(see: San Jose del Guviare – Exploring the Amazon from the Outside In)

The Colombian couple have started working with the local tourist guides and agencies who feature them as an educational stop on their tour junkets. The couple have been opening their house, serving meals to arriving guests and teaching visitors about the plant and animal life in these mountains.

But more than a straight-forward, ecological presentation, they also tell the visitors about life in the jungle. What it’s like to be a coca farmer. How coca base is made. How toxic it is. How the drugs are moved about the jungle. And how dangerous it can be.

Sra. Yolima making breakfast

After breakfast Edilson takes us for a tour of his finca showing us the tropical fruit trees like borojo, mangoes, cocoa and bananas. The parrots follow us flying tree to tree talking in scratchy, sassy Spanish.

Edilson talks about the cattle and pigs and other animals on their farm. They live amidst a small ecological zoo. They have a domestic relationship with parrots, monkeys and tapirs and a slew of other animals who live in the wild but stop by daily for a visit and a bite to eat.

“When the parrots are no longer babies they are abandoned by their mothers. So if you start feeding them they stay around the farm and don’t fly away.” Edilson said.

Coca Leaf Farming

Edilson showed us his coffee bushes and some crops of hot peppers and yucca. Over by the edge of the jungle he had a couple rows of coca plants – tiny buses with bright green leaves. On his 50 acre farm he once had a lot of coca bushes planted. The money was good and all the farmers were doing it.

In Peru and Bolivia, coca leaves are still chewed as a source of energy. And the coke extracted from the leaves used to serve as an anesthetic in World War I. It was also a primary ingredient in the original formula of the world famous soda Coca-Cola, which saw its beginnings as a temperance drink and medicine.

Coca leaves or hojas de coca have been grown in this ancestral Andean region for centuries. It takes one ton of coca leaves to make one kilo of cocaine. A ton of coca leaves can bring a farmer $400 – $500. A kilo of cocaine can bring in $150,000, But the fruits of those profit margins are reserved for the distribution organizations higher up on the food chain.

Base Production

Edilson described the job of the coca leaf farmer. He would harvest his coca leaves 4 times a year. They would bring them down the mountain to a outbuilding on the farm with a tarp roof and a dirt floor. They would spread the leaves over the dirt floor and chop up the coca leaves with a weed whacker. Then they would sprinkle the leaves with a dusting of construction cement and load them into oil drums.

Extraction

Extraction requires a more complex and toxic recipe. They they would marinate the leaves in a mixture of gasoline, sulfuric acid, battery acid, kerosene, and other chemicals for 20 minutes. This would start the extraction process. The coke would drain from the leaves into the stringent solution which was then filtered and poured into a pan where they would boil the water reducing the liquid to a white paste.

A piece of coke base extracted from coca leaves

This was coke base, basuco, or basura – which means garbage in Spanish. And the farmers would treat base production just like that – like garbage. It was extremely toxic and clandestine work.

Drug use is rare amongst the growers

If mixed with tobacco or cannabis base can be smoked. The high lasts for two minutes and continued use is very toxic and very addictive – even more addictive than crack. Edilson and the other coca growers in the area had seen men become addicted and die. They know better and have never smoked it. They also know how many harmful chemicals are used in the production of base and how toxic it is.

“I want to talk to the tourists about the cultivation of coca and the production of base to be able to show our visitors how many toxic chemicals we put in the paste. “

Distribution

Base is as good as cash in the jungle and is often used in its place. And selling base was as easy as it was lucrative. A man would come to the farm on a motor cross bike late in the night. At the farm he would weigh the paste, pay them and leave – often without lights so as not to be stopped by the police.

The base cocaine would make its way to jungle labs where it would be transformed into powdered cocaine. Later, it was transported from the jungle and flown or shipped to lucrative markets where it is sold for hard cash.

The Background of Cocaine Production in Colombia

Today, Colombia is the major cocaine producer in the world. A 2018 report said there were 422,250 acres of coca plants in Colombia. But before the 1990s, harvesting coca leaves in Colombian was a small business. Peru and Bolivia were much larger coca producers. But then, Peru was hit with a fungus wiping out their coca production.

The drug cartels started large scale purchases of land in the jungles. Jungles were cleared and coca was planted resulting in a significant increase Colombian cocaine production. By 2004, Colombia was responsible for 80% of the word’s coca production. Colombia became the #1 producer – the USA was the #1 consumer.

Government Eradication of Coca Fields

The Colombian government responded by stepping up it’s efforts to control drug production. The rural regions had become specialized in producing coca leaves. The government focused on eradicating the coca fields instead of cracking down on the laboratories, drug traffickers, contraband boats and aircraft, cartels, paramilitaries, revolutionaries and other trafficking groups. It was a strategy with its short comings.

Starting in 2000, the Colombians cooperated with the USA in a militarized eradication of the coca fields in the country. They began widespread aerial spraying of the herbicide ‘glyphosate’. The program was called ‘The Colombian Plan’ and over $10 billion was spent over the next two decades spraying 4.4 million acres of Colombian territory (1.7 million hectares) to eradicate coca fields. Colombia was the only country that allowed aerial spraying of glyphosate for counter-drug purposes.

Health, Pollution and Ecological Issues

The program had its success and failures. Between 1990 and 2010 coca production was reduced by more than 30%. But the crop dusting planes would often miss their targets and spray fields of food crops, fish ponds and houses. This would result in killing the crops, the fish in the ponds and often small children playing out in the open. This enraged the already frustrated farmers. Soon the citizens all began reporting wide spread health complaints mostly of respiratory problems. And with their coca fields and crops destroyed the farmers often faced displacement.

But the coca leaf growing by the farmers, cartels and revolutionaries also caused large ecological problems. There was deforestation and soil erosion from extensive clear cutting of forests to expand coca production. Chemicals used in extraction were poured off into rivers and on the forest floors causing widespread chemical pollution.

Colombia suffered the worst impact of international drug war in South America. For decades now, drugs have been produced in remote parts of the country where the state has long lacked control. Many areas of Colombia have become lawless regions. The drug wars have been a threat to the national security and internal stability. Fighting drugs has cost the country and it’s people great efforts and resources.

(For more on drugs in Colombia, see the article: Yage – Colombia’s Hallucinogenic Jungle Juice

The Best Colonial Towns in Colombia – a look at the 17 ‘Heritage Villages’ of Colombia

Whether your travel focus is visiting Colombia’s beaches, jungles or big cities, it’s hard to tour Colombia and not want to visit small towns like like Jardin, Barichara or Mompox.

Most people include a visit to a couple of Colombia’s colonial villages in the course of their trip, often as a day trip away from their main destination. While others dedicate their whole trip solely visiting Colombia’s most picturesque and cultural towns.

The Colombian tourism department, ‘FONTUR’ and UNESCO, established a program in 2013 to highlight the culture, history and architecture of Colombia’s finest small towns and cities.

With the objective of enhancing tourism at a local level, the Heritage Trail, connecting 17 of Colombia’s most beautiful and significant towns, was created. The program was called: ‘Red Turistica de Pueblos Patrimonio de Colombia’ – the People’s Heritage Network.

The program’s goal is to promote regional tourism, to expand tourist structures and increase economic activity in these mostly rural communities. The program has already seen the development of new hotels, restaurants, artisan markets and related service enterprises tied to tourism.

The promotion has also been somewhat effective in reducing overtourism in the 10-20 best known destinations around Colombia – places where Colombian and foreign tourists tend to concentrate.

(see article – ‘Popular Destinations in Colombia – Tour Traps or Mandatory Stops’)

This is a list of those 17 villages. Some of these towns were already popular destinations. Others were relatively unknown. A tour to any of these colonial villages offers visitors look at Colombia’s diversity, culture, colonial architecture and the beauty of their surrounding countryside.

The Heritage Villages in the Coffee Zone

Exploring the coffee region of Colombia has become a major tourist draw in the country. Most people head to the coffee triangle between the cities of Armenia, Manzales and Periera. Four of the 17 Heritage Trail villages are located within the coffee triangle: Jardin, Aguadas, Jerico and Salamina.

(see article: ‘Exploring Colombia’s Alternative Coffee Region’)

The main square of Jardin

Jardin This small coffee town is 3-4 hour bus ride from Medellin. Jardin, means garden in Spanish, and it is one of Colombia’s prettiest towns. The colonial houses in the center are all painted in lively colors. The men wear cowboy hats. There are hundreds of tables and chairs begging occupancy in one of the most beautiful and colorful main squares in Colombia. Here people sit around, people watching, at all hours of the day and night, sipping tintos and eating pastries.

The main square of Aguadas

Aguadas   it is often covered in morning fog. Here they grow delicious high-altitude coffee. Nestled in the mountains, just 78 miles north of Manizales, this small coffee town is also famous for the production of Aguadeno hats.

Made with iraca straw fiber, these hats are said to be the best hand-woven straw hats in Colombia. Some say they are better than the Panama hats which are made in Ecuador. The women in the countryside weave the straw hat using iraca straw fibers peeled from a cactus type plant. They make the rough hats and sell them to the artisans in town who fashion the finished product.

Jerico as seen from the town look out – Cerro las Nubes

Jerico a colorful, colonial town. It’s a place where visitors can experience authentic, traditional culture. Men ride through the streets on magnificent prancing horses, tie them up outside of the stores and sit in the saddles outside of bars sipping cold bottles of beer. Coffee is grown here but beef seems to be king. The village is also a rich center for leather arts and crafts like the typical anitoqueno purses called carriels. There are also lots of wallets, belts and hand-made saddles.

Their beautiful main town square is lined with fruit and vegetable stands in the morning and festive food carts at night. There’s a lookout over the town one can walk to from the city center. Take the hundred stairs climb from the main square (called Cien Escalas) at the top turn right and stroll through the botanical gardens. In the back of the gardens you’ll find the path leading to the lookout. Used as a back drop to the town, the lookout, called Cristo Redentor or Cerro la Nubes, offers amazing views. There’s also a cable car leaving from the lookout and going up to a higher mountain top nearby.   

Salamina

Salamina is a town high in the Andes mountains of the Caldas region. The town’s main street, town square, stores and church and best real estate all sit on top of a ridge. All the other streets in town run from the ridge down the mountainsides.

They call this town the San Francisco of Colombia.

The town is a stunning 2-hour bus ride southeast from Aguadas heading to Manizales. Hands down it’s one of most beautiful roads I’ve seen in Colombia. The scenery is mind blowing. And the town doesn’t disappoint, either. Salamina a gritty agricultural town full of jeeps, markets and vendors. The houses all have elaborate wood carved balconies. A two-hour trip outside of town there are numerous dairy farms. And along the trail one can see Colombia’s national tree, the rare wax palm.

The town square of Santa Fe near Medellin

Santa Fe de Antioquia is just 35 miles or 80 km northwest of Medellin. 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.

(see article: ‘Travel around Medellin – Daytrips and places to Visit’)

The Heritage Villages in the Department of Santander

The department of Santander in Western Colombia is rarely touched by foreign tourism with the exception of San Gil which is considered the ‘adventure capital of Colombia’. Two of the Heritage villages, Barichara and El Socorro, are  near San Gil.  One village, Giron, is  located near the department’s  capital of Bucaramanga with the third, Playa de Belen,  is in the department of Norte di Santander not far from the city of Cucuta on the Venezuelan border. 

(see article: ‘Colonial Towns in Santander’)

A street in Barichara

Baricharais just a  few hours travel south of Bucaramanga. Founded in 1741, Barichara translates in the native Guane language “place of rest with flowering trees”.

The town has been called the most beautiful village in Colombia.

The streets of Barichara are made of cobblestones and the whitewashed colonial houses have been kept in their original state. They have filmed many Colombian movies here. Inside the houses remind me of Tuscany with wooden beams, terra-cotta tile floors and terra-cotta roof tiles.

Guane  – is only a 30 minute ride away from Barichara. While not one of the Heritage Villages it merits a visit seeing it is so near. The houses in town were all whitewashed colonial style like in Barichara and there was a nice church in town. The town wasn’t as clean or as well maintained as Barichara.

El Socorro – the town Basilica

Socorro is a  town outside of San Gil where the scream of the cicadas in the trees on the main square is so loud it fills the adjacent dome of the Basilica with a surreal undulating high pitched screech. The town was founded in 1683 and was influential in the history of Colombia. This is where the revolt of the Comuneros started in 1789 against Spanish rule. There a wonderful museum just up the street from the main square called ‘Casa della Cultura‘ and the ladies working there give a very nice tour.

Giron a village near the city of Bucaramanga

Giron is a perfectly preserved colonial town, just 5.5 miles, 9 km., outside of the city of Bucaramanga only the locals seem to know about. It’s an attractive town with cobbled streets and a lazy atmosphere. It reminded me of Mompox. It’s a nice town for a stroll. There’s a nice church in the main plaza and a market off to the side of the square. Down by the river there are more market stalls, tejo courts and an old bridge going over the river.

While you’re at it be sure to spend a day touring Bucaramanga, one of my favorite cities in Colombia.

Playa Belen is located in northeastern Colombia. Playa Belen is a 4 hour bus ride from the Venezuelan border town of Cucuta – now a closed border. Due to its remote location, it’s a place tourists rarely visit. But Playa and its surroundings are surprisingly stunning. A diamond in the rough located at an altitude of 5,000 feet. Distance and the isolation give this pueblo its own peculiar personality and a wierd, quirky energy.

The name of the town means ‘The Beach of Bethlehem‘ and I always thought this inland town had a beach on a river, a lake or something. But this semi-desert town is bone dry and beach-less. It was called Playa because of the fine beach-like sand of the surrounding desert constantly blowing through town.

The desert surrounding the town was declared a 1,500 acre protected park in 1988. Named ‘Los Estoraques‘, the natural park is unique in Colombia due to its wierd geological formations of columns, caves, cones and pointed pedestals formed by 4 million years of wind and water erosion. It has a medieval presence. The rocks resemble castle walls and primitive skyscrapers.

Playa is a small town. At last count there were 3 main streets, 367 homes, 2 bakeries, 6 hair salons and 16 ‘tiendas’ or party stores. There are a couple small hotels 3 miles outside of town. And the town cemetery is located on a mountain top overlooking the town.

In 1988 the department of North Santander had a competition to pick the most beautiful town in the state. Playa was determined to win. They painted the whole town white, the doors and trim of the outside buildings all brown and the roofs were already of red clay tiles. They easily won the competition. Later it was declared one the country’s 17 Heritage Villages.

Heritage Villages in the Department of Boyaca near Bogota

(see article: ‘Villa de Leyva and Mongui – the beautiful villages of Boyaca’)

Within a days travel of Bogota are two stunning villages: Villa de Leyva and Mongui. Boyacá is a cultural and historical heart of Colombia. It was once the center of the Muisca empire who the Spanish fiercely  fought to appropriate their gold.

Village de Leyva

Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s special towns. Considered  the most beautiful village in Colombia, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited  villages in the country. Only a three hour day trip from Bogota, Villa de Leyva is never at a loss for visitors.  It has also 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.

The town of 13,000 inhabitants is a tourist mecca with 320 hotels, 380 restaurants and 170 stores. It is also the second most expensive city in Colombia – next to Cartagena.

Mongui is another beautiful colonial village in Boyaca. It has also been  voted the most beautiful village in the department of Boyacá. 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 rather thin of oxygen.

It’s a small town of only 5,000 inhabitants. Mongui means sunrise in the local native language. The town boasts a beautiful large cobbled stone plaza and a magnificent Basilica 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’ or high plains in South America.

The paramo’s unique environment is unlike anywhere else on earth. Paramos can only be found in the northern Andes of South America and some isolated regions of southern Central America. But most of the paramos in the world are in Colombia.  Páramos are defined as the ecosystem existing above the mountain’s forest line, but below the permanent snowline. Known as evolutionary hot spots they are the fastest evolving regions on our planet.

One can now easily book a tour of the paramo in Mongui. Exploring  the paramo on ones own is possible but it is highly recommended going with a guide. With a group of 3 or more guide services only run around $15 – $20 per person.

Just North of Bogota in the Department of Cudinamarca

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The town of Honda sits on the banks of the Magdalena River

Honda is a small city sitting on the banks of the Magdalena River – the longest river in Colombia in the department of Tolima. It’s a 3 hour bus ride from Bogota.

Honda was founded in 1539. The golden era of the village lasted from 1850-1910 when the Magdalena River was the only means of transportation between the Caribbean coast the the inland city of Bogota.

The town’s main occupation is fishing and cattle ranching. It’s a town with beautiful scenery, grass covered hills and a vibrant night life.

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Villa Guadas is a beautiful little town in the department of Cundinamarca just 117 km. from Bogota. It’s a tourist and agricultural center of some importance with a population of 33,000 people. Being so close to the capital city many people come to this mountain town from the city to relax. The town is also well known for its cultivation of the nisporo, a tropical fruit which was brought to the area from the West Indies and thrives there today.

A Town of Miracles just North of Cali

In the southern part of Colombia, in the north valley of Cali is the town of Buga.

Buga – the famous church -Basilica Menor del Senor de los Milagros – (Lord of the Miracles)

Buga – the town of Miracles  – 46 miles (74 km) from Cali –is easily  the most the famous and visited town  in the valley. A colonial gem, Buga is a celebrated religious site, a destination for over 3 million pilgrims every year. Because this is a town where miracles happen.

Back in the 16th century, a indigenous woman, washing clothes in the river, was reported to have found a silver crucifix on the river bed.  She took it home and said the cross grew in size everyday. And then miracles began to happen. The cross became famous. Associated with divine intervention, the crucifix  was believed to have  the power to heal the sick and perform miracles.

A church was built in honor of the miracle granting crucifix which was called:  El Senor de los Milagros (Lord of the Miracles). Today the cross is on display in a special chapel inside the church.

The church, Basilica Menor del Senor de los Milagos is a  large  church with twin towers and a cupola. It was built in 1907, replacing an old church which had stood on the site since 1573.

But one doesn’t necessarily have to be a religious tourist to enjoy Buga. The town, part of the Network of Heritage Villages, was once called home by many wealthy families coming from Spain during the settlement of the new world.  Today the town preserves its  colonial historic center which is  filled with modern boutiques, hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and religious souvenir stores.

(see article: ‘The North Valley of Cali – Miracles and Massacres’)

Hot, steamy towns down by the Caribbean coast

Lorica, Mompox and Cienaga are hot, tropical towns not far from the Caribbean coast near Cartagena and Santa Marta.

Mompox is about five hours inland from the Caribbean coast. It’s an intriguing and 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.  

(see article: ‘Mompox – a backwater rivertown frozen in time’)

The Magdalena 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 the huge doors and windows open during the day and evenings displaying quaint courtyards and sitting rooms adorned with village 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 for mosquitoes rising from the river.  There’s a languid charm to this place, quintessential colonial Colombia. There are very few cars here.  Most people stroll, ride a bicycle or take a motor-taxi.

Lorica is a town on the banks of the Sinu River – the waterway that gave the town it’s life. The town lies well south of Cartagena nearer to the city of Sincelejo in the department of Cordoba. The town has an interesting historic center. There’s a nice boardwalk along the river and a beautiful riverside market with arts and crafts, hammock and riverside restaurants.

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Houses on stilts over the lagoons of Cienaga.

Cienaga is a coastal town near the Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s situated in the Magdalena department just 35 km. from Santa Marta. Built on salt flats near the sea, the city is just 5 meters above sea level and has a population of 105,000. It is known for its coastal and mountain landscape and well-preserved colonial architecture.

The major industries are fishing, marble quarrying and agriculture. Several villages around the town have built their houses on stilts over the lagoons. Cienaga is famous for cumbia music and the birth of ‘magical realism’ – a literary movement founded by the nobel prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

(see article: ‘Best Caribbean beaches in Colombia are near Santa Marta’) also ‘Santa Marta and the Beaches’