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.
Mostly what you read and hear about the city of Cali goes something like this: Cali is hot. The people like to dance. But the town is short on sights and things to do so it’s o.k. to skip. The city rarely makes the list of ‘top destination in the country’. And while most travelers don’t even bother with the southern part of the country, the tourists who do visit Cali are usually passing through in route to other sites in Southern Colombia, or to Ecuador. But if you’re touring Colombia and don’t visit Cali you’re missing out on a great Colombian city.
A hot, gritty city with a real zest for life it’s called “the city of eternal summer and salsa”. Cali is one of the oldest city’s in South America. It was founded by the Spanish in 1536 – though inhabited by the indigenous peoples thousands of years prior.
At an altitude of 3,340 feet (1,081 meters), the city sprawls out over a valley floor of Cordillera Occidental mountains. It spans 216 square miles (560 meters) (216 sq. mi) with an urban area of 46 square miles (121 km). Cali is the second-largest city in the country. With a population of 2.5 million people, Cali is the third most populous city in Colombia after Bogota and Medellin. An economic powerhouse, Cali has one of the fastest-growing economies. It’s the seat of 150 multinational companies and boasts all the conveniences of modern living with numerous shopping malls and two soccer stadiums.
Producing 20% of Colombia’s G.D.P. Cali is the capital of Val de Cauca, a department producing sugar, rice, cotton, coffee and cattle. Cali is the only major Colombian city with access to the Pacific coast with major highways cutting through 75 miles of mountains to the port city of Buenaventura.
What to See and Do
Cali is not expensive. There are lots of modestly priced hotels and restaurants. I stayed on Sixth Avenue or ‘La Sexta’ – which, according the guide books, is the place to be. It’s an avenue smack dab in the city center full of clubs and restaurants and shops, well patrolled and safe to walk even late at night.
Cali is a city that can be easily be explored on foot. Walk under the shade trees along the riverbank in the historic center, admire the architecture of churches and visit the city’s many museums.
Sixth Avenue starts at Bolivar Park in the south. Cross over Puente Ortiz and you’re in the historic center. Stroll along the river on Carrera 1 which follows the Cali River winding through town. The river walk is decorated by feline statues called ‘cats on the river’ made by the artist Hernando Tejada.
There are plenty of sights to see along the way: the Ortiz bridge, the white neo-Gothic Cathedralof La Ermita, The La Merced Chapel, the Archeological Museum, the Gold Museum, Municipal theater, the Tertulia museum and many more.
The west end of the river walk ends at San Antonio park. The surrounding neighborhood has a bohemian identity with boutique hotels, upscale restaurants, vegetarian fare, cafes, hostels and alternative offerings. A lot of travelers are stay in this area.
Cali has a large central food market in the southern end of the historical center. The city has some of the best stocked wine and liquor stores I’ve found in all Colombia. And just a short taxi ride from the center the best zoo in Colombia, Zoologico de Cali, can be found. Parque del Perro is a dining district west of Cali – famous for its large statue of a dog in the square. And, of course, there’s Cali’s nightlife.
Cali’s Nightlife and Salsa Fever
Cali is famous for its steamy salsa dancing and a nightlife second to none. Self-proclaimed the ‘Salsa Capital of the World’, salsa became popular in Cali in the 1940s and 50s with the popularity of Cuban and Argentinian music. Then in the 1970s and 80s, with the Cali cartels and lots of drug money in circulation, hundreds of bars and nightclubs sprung up around the city. There are many international festivals in the city celebrating its salsa tradition, but it’s the poorest neighborhoods that keep the salsa fever alive.
There are many ‘zonas rosas’ or entertainment districts around the city filled with dance clubs and bars. After La Sexta, in the center, there’s the Barrio Granada and Juanchito. These areas are famous for their night life, lively streets, dance clubs and bars. The northern part of city is an industrial area full of working factories during the day and dance clubs and love motels at night.
The people of Cali love dancing. You can see it’s in their blood. If the music is playing in the distance somewhere and they’re moving to it. All someone has to do is turn on a radio and people start busting a move. In the plazas, in the evenings, they have free public dance exercise – crank up boom box and the salsa dancing begins. And it looks like anything but exercise.
Things to see outside of the city
Calima Lake is a beautiful lake in the mountains above Cali,
Cerro de la Tres Cruzes is a hilltop just outside of the city with 3 crosses. People like to hike the hill to the top.
Cristo Rey is another religious destination – a park above the city with a 75 foot tall statue of Christ similar to the one found in Rio de Janeiro and in Bucaramanga.
Cool things off by taking a trip up in the nearby mountains. Go find a country restaurant in the mountains or pack a picnic.
Cali is an interesting city with an electrifying atmosphere. The city’s slogan is: ‘fall in love with Cali’ ‘Enamorarte de Cali’. Fall in love, see the sights, visit the clubs, learn to salsa dance. The city will draw you in and stay with you long after you leave town.
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, archaeology and cities. For more information on each destination read the full articles on colombiatravelreporter.com
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)
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)
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)
Palomino 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)
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)
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)
San Agustin – is a pleasant country village in Huila where one can explore Colombia’s finest archaeological patrimony immersed 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)
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 innavigable 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 – 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)
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’)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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 airporteveryday. 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
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.
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 Pobladois 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 Lleras 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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 the city center. Tours last about four hours and are very informative and insightful.
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.
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.
For more on travel around Medellin see the following article:
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.
The seafront boulevard outside the old city crowded with hotels, apartaments, 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 WiFi. 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.
Getsemaniis 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 Carribbean 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Southern Colombia, while on the Pan American Highway heading to Ecuador, is often overlooked, done in a transitional hurry – a night in Cali, a night in Popayan a night in Pasto –brutal trip really – then onto Ecuador. But there would be so much to see and do in this area.
Mostly what you read and hear about the city Cali goes something like this: Cali can be skipped nothing to really see, there’s too much crime, etc. But that’s a short sell. Cali it’s actually quite an interesting city, producing 20% of Colombia’s G.D.P. Cali is the capital of Val de Cauca which is a rich agricultural area producing sugar, rice, cotton, coffee and cattle with the only port city on the Pacific, Buenaventura, reached by an easily accessible road. There’s plenty to see and do in Cali where inexpensive hotels and restaurants abound.
I stayed on Sixth Avenue – which is, according to the guide books, the place to be. It’s a short avenue full of clubs and restaurants and shops safe to walk even late at night. Sixth Avenue empties into Paseo Bolivar park. Walk over Puente Ortiz and you’re in the historic center. The historic center of Cali boasts a river walk to stroll along Rio Cali and Puente Ortiz with plenty of statues and sights to see along the way: La Merced, Museo Archeological, the Gold Museum, Municipal theater and many more.
The San Antonio park area in the higher part of town has a bohemian identity with boutique hotels, upscale restaurants, vegetarian fare, cafes, hostels and alternative offerings. Next time I will stay in this area. Cali has beautiful churches, parks, museums, markets, the best tropical zoo in the country, the largest and best stocked wine and liquor stores in Colombia and of course Cali’s nightlife.
Cali is a big city. South of the historic center is the central market and north and further outside of the center are sprawling neighborhoods. I went to the Unicentro shopping center and it was a 40 minute cab ride from the center to get there.
Cali is a city with hot and humid climate famous for its steamy salsa dancing and dance clubs/bars are all over.
The people of Cali, young and old, love dancing – you can see it’s in their blood. Music is playing faintly in the distance somewhere and they’re moving to it. All someone has to do is turn on a radio and they start dancing.In the plazas in the early evening they have free public dance exercise – crank up boom box and bust out exaggerated salsa moves. It’s so natural and they look so happy like they don’t even know they’re exercising.
Whereas in the rest of Colombia a foreigner mentioning wanting to learn to dance Salsa or Vallenato the thought makes them laugh – gringos can’t dance they’re too uptight. But in Cali you tell them you don’t dance and they get a sad face – what do you mean you don’t dance? – like you just told them you don’t enjoy eating and drinking.
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. A quiet relaxed town, it’s an 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 everywhere with lots of hotels and restaurants. With an altitude of 5,770 feet it might get warm in the day but is always cool at night. It rains and thunders almost every afternoon.
On the main square, Plaza Mayor, is the cathedral which was destroyed in a huge earthquake on a Sunday morning in June 1983 during Catholic mass killing hundreds of people. The entire town was in shambles but rebuilt. And today you can’t see a crack anywhere.
It’s fun to just stroll along the cobblestone streets of the historic center. There’s plenty to see: Puente Humilladero a 240 meter long bridge made up of 11 arches, numerous churches like the Ermita church, and the lookout over Popayan on the Morro de Tulcan in the hills over the city to the east.
Nearby Termales Aquas Hirviendas or ‘ Thermal Baths of Boiling Waters’ is a sacred site about an hour bus ride outside Popayan. For $3 you can go for a soak. There are big hot spring pools. Boiling wells of sulfur water are mixed with cold mountain spring water and channeled into the pools. Each pool has a different temp. The ritual is 15 minutes in the hot pool, get out and stand under a waterfall of ice cold mountain spring water, scream – back in the hot pool – repeat. There are a lot of locals here on the weekends but hardly anyone during the week. The locals bring boom boxes and sip Bacardi rum with Poker beer chasers pool side. There is also a volcanic spring fountain where you can drink sulfur water they call aqua soda or soda water – very diuretic.
Silvia – One of the best Markets in Colombia
Another big draw is the indigenous market in the village of Silvia on Tuesdayswhen the Guambiano tribe come to market from their four villages of Pueblito, La Campana, Guambia and Caciques. There are only 12,000 in the tribe. They speak their own language and dress in their traditional garb. At the market they sell their arts and crafts, vegetables and fruit and buy supplies like rice, beans, potatoes and farm equipment to take back. They come in colorful chiva buses and congregate around the main square. They don’t like cameras, believing photos rob them of their soul. From the main square in Silvia walk uphill to the church for a great view of the village below.
Pasto, the southernmost major city in Colombia sitting high in the Andes, is a six hour bus ride from Popayan. The road there goes though the most dramatic mountain landscape of Colombia. Pasto sits at an elevation of 8,291 feet above sea level, so unless you acclimated in Popayan or Quito, it’s normal to be out of breath here at first. Some visitors suffer acute altitude sickness with extreme headaches, swelling, aches and pains and nausea. The cure is to take drink of some of the many teas they offer like Chapil di Lulu to help ease the ill effect. Take it easy – no volcano climbing or power walking around town – and get acclimated. Bad news – avoid coffee and booze.
I stayed at a pleasant little hotel right in the city center – Hotel Casona Calle 20 no. 25-95 $14 a night all done in wood and a room with a beautiful view of the volcanoes in the distance.
Pasto is in the foothills at the base of the Volcano Galeras which can be seen from town. It is an active volcano and has erupted in 1934, 1989 and 2006. It is off-limits for hiking after some British geologists were killed there in 1992. I don’t get why people live at the base of the beast. Sure, the land is fertile and its living off the fat of the land until – that one day comes yet again.
There is plenty to do in Pasto. There are a lot of churches, museums and parks to visit. Plaza Bombona has a nice indoor artisans market.
But most people just breeze through Pasto on their way to Ecuador, another city the guide books dismiss. But the locals feel short changed. There is so much to see and do here – stay longer, they insist.
You can take a hike up to Lake La Cocha, 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 town. They do have beautiful churches here.
Also, you have to try the local specialty – guinea pig – fried or try it flattened and impaled on a spit and put on a rodent rotisserie till golden brown. Tastes like chicken? No, more like rabbit.
Pasto is also connected via paved road 250 kilometers to the coastal town of Tumaco. Tumaco is poor 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. The beautiful island tourist resort of Boca Grande is just off shore. To get there one can take a boat from Tumaco for $6.
From Bogota to Cali: take a bus to Cali. It’s about a 12 bus trip which I broke down into two days. First day I took a bus to Ibague. Then caught another bus over winding road in high mountains, a tortuous slow go journey. Stopped overnight in the city of Giradot. Got an inexpensive hotel there and took a stroll around this steamy town where they have a small bustling city center with lots of shops, stalls selling food and clothing. There are a lot of comida rapido (fast food) places there, casinos, people playing cards on the streets. It’s a town with a hot climate and a nice little tropical vibe. Day two from Giradot its an easy six hour bus ride to Cali.
Cali to Popayan: an easy 2.5 hour trip. The trip from Popayan to Pasto – $9 is 6 hours long via the Panamerican highway. It snakes through a hot tropical dessert with cactus and scrub brush before lifting up again in to the high mountains revealing some of the most dramatic scenery in Colombia. The road hugs the valley ledge looking down a steep precipice. Not a trip for those who suffer heights.
Popayan to Pasto: the road to Pasto is a six hour trip $9 via the Panamerican highway. From Popayan it goes through hot tropical desert with cactus and scrub brush, then lifts up again into the high mountains – into the clouds where it’s cold and damp. The vegetation gets deep green again and the terrain is some of the most dramatic in Colombia. The road hugs the valley slopes plunging down most of the trip, so not recommended if one suffers altitude sickness.
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