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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Aguadenohats.
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 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, calledCristo 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 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 rarewax palm.
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.
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.
Barichara – is 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.
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 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 Boyacanear Bogota
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.
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
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.
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 justNorth of Cali
In the southern part of Colombia, in the north valley of Cali is the town of Buga.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are dozens of lists on the web of tourist destinations in Colombia. Most of these lists are redundant outlining the most popular destinations nearly every tourist visits when traveling to, or through, Colombia. But are these must-see destinations tourist traps deserving of your precious time and hard-earned money?What’s the difference?
Tourist destinations are popular places, cities or sites heavily dependent on revenues from tourism. They market themselves as places tourists absolutely must visit when they come to the country. A tourist trap carries an obvious negative connotation. According to Webster, tourist traps are ‘places that attract and sometimes exploit tourists for their money’. Every traveler has visited a few of these in their lifetime.
Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Florence, Rome, Venice, New York, the Acropolis in Greece, Disneyland, Phuket Beach in Thailand – all valid destinations, to be sure. These are places on everyone’s bucket list. But they have also been called tourist traps. And depending on the time of year you go; they will be overrun with tourists. (Niagara Falls in the summer months is a definite tourist trap. But in the dead of winter it’s magical with hotels deeply discounted and hardly a tourist in sight.)
While most people come to South American expecting an exotic, natural, untraveled experience, they often find themselves at renown destinations, like Machu Picchu, sharing the sights with hundreds of other camera wielding tourists suffering altitude sickness.
The traveler’s dilemma is this:to avoid these destinations or join the masses and go anyway. At its best tourism is an industry providing jobs and revenue for millions of people. At its worst, tourism strains neighborhoods and eco-systems.
Colombia Destinations – the 16 Places Everybody Visits:
Colombia is developing its tourism industry. Being a large country, it has countless destinations of interest – most of them undiscovered by foreign tourism. Some say the current total volume of tourists in any one place in Colombia is still too little to be able to define them as tourist traps. But travelers in Colombia are continually visiting the same 16 destinations – ignoring the less illustrious sites. And the seasoned Latin America travelers say many of these top destinations are becoming, or already are, tourist traps.
Below is the standard list of Colombian destinations: cities, beaches, parks, villages and churches. If you have been reading about Colombia, you’ve seen this list before. All valid destinations. And if you visit Colombia just once, or several times in a lifetime, these are highly regarded places you should and will see. But these places are also tourist traps, especially during Colombian holidays. You have to know when to go.
These destinations are seeing more than their fair share of tourism. Overtourism is the technical term. But are they becoming or are they already tourist traps? Are they overrated? Are they worth your time and money? And are there some alternative destinations one could be visiting instead?
Bogota (Candellaria – Monserrate)
is a vibrant port city where cruise ships dock. It has a beautiful historic center and is the #1 tourist destination in 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 this area in a half day. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: Very high – especially in the historic center in the a.m. when the cruise ships disembark their passengers from 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. Also high in the Getsemani neighborhood and the nearby Islas del Rosario.
Difficulty: Easy city to get to by international flight, bus, or cruise ship. The city center is small and contained. The climate is very hot.
Off the beaten path alternative cities to visit on the Carribean: Isla Fuerte near Cartagena, Santa Marta or even Riohacha.
Worth it? Definitely merits a visit of a couple days. Many stay a week. Fly into Cartagena and after a couple days try meandering up the coast to Santa Marta or, for the more adventurous, Capurgananear the Panamanian border.
Tourist Trap? Yes, always.
A dynamic, contemporary, prosperous city of 2.6 million people it’s known as the land of the eternal spring. It’s hot during the day and cool at night. The residents call themselves Paisas. The city is easy to travel thanks to an excellent metro system and cable cars. There are plenty of restaurants, museums and enough things to see and do to easily fill a week. (see full articles: ‘Medellin: the land of eternal spring’ and ‘Traveling Medellin: Places to visit around Medellin’)
Tourist Saturation: High in the center and in the neighborhoods of El Poblado and Laureles.
Difficulty: Easy to get to by international flight or bus. A centrally located, easy city to visit in Colombia.
Off the beaten path: Alternate cities in the lower altitude mountains like Bucaramanga, Cali
People are divided when it comes to Colombia’s capital city of Bogota: they either love it or they hate it. A large cosmopolitan city of 8 million people sitting at an altitude of 8,660 feet (2,640 meters), it has a cool climate throughout the year. Colombians call Bogota “the refrigerator of Colombia”. Overcast and often rainy, Bogota is the third-highest capital city in South America, and the world, after Quito (9,000 feet – 3,000 meters) and La Paz (11,975 feet – 3,650 meters). It’s known for its museums, nightlife and fine food. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: medium/high in the center, at the main museums and in the neighborhood of Candelaria
Difficulty: It’s a large cosmopolitan city with extensive urban sprawl. Easy to get to by international flight or bus, centrally located in Colombia.
Off the beaten path Alternative Cities high in the mountains: Popayan, Pasto, Medellin
Worth it? If you like big cities, Bogota has a big city vibe and all the trimmings. Spend a few days in the city and then venture out to see the many sights just outside the city: Villa de Leyva, Zipaquira (the church in a salt mine), Lake Guatavita, Honda
Tourist Trap? The city is too big to really notice
The park is a tropical paradise. It’s just a 45-minute bus ride outside of Santa Marta. It’s so close one can, and maybe should, keep a hotel room in SM and go visit the park during the day. Accommodations in the park are few, pricey and mostly kept for people on tours. There’s a $18 entrance fee to the park which has seen prices sky rocket in the last 10 years as the park has become a destination.
Tayrona, is known for its palm-shaded coves, coastal lagoons and rain forest. From the park entrance one must walk to the numerous beaches located within the park. The beaches at the entrance of the park get the most visitors. More isolated , distant beaches, harder to get to – up to a 3-4 hour walk each way can be reached either on foot or by motor boats leaving from Neguanje Bay in the park.
Tourism Saturation: High
Difficulty: Just a short bus ride from the city of Santa Marta. The beach is usually closed for a month for maintenance in February so check first.
Worth it? Yes, if you like pristine, undeveloped beaches in a park setting. Tayrona is not the easiest beach to get to or the most accommodating.
Tourist Trap? Yes
I like Palomino Beach, but I used to like it even more, before it became a destination. Palomino is a little village catering mostly to the independent tourists with a beautiful beach 10 miles long. South of town, where the Palomino river empties into the ocean, a long spit of sand offers an ideal option of fresh and salt water bathing along with food tents serving up fresh fish dishes.
Tourism Saturation: I was in Palomino two years ago when the town was just another dusty, sleepy pueblo. But somewhere between then and now it became a backpacker stop. The sheer number of tourists has increased embracing a younger crowd. The town seems to be straining under the volume of tourists while all the residents are trying to cash in on their new cottage industry.
Difficulty: The beach is two hours bus ride north of Santa Marta. One must walk about a half-mile to the beach or rent a motorcycle from the main highway.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: Try the Pacific Coast just south of the town of Bahia Solano. There are beautiful, desolate beaches near the town of El Valle – Playa Almejal and Playa Cuevita. Great waves, bare-bone services – hardly discovered by tourism.
Worth it? If you’re looking for a party beach with a young vibe, yes. If you want peace and quiet, there are resorts further up the beach, though a bit pricey, offering a more secluded experience.
Tourist Trap? Yes
San Andres Island
is 350 miles off the coast of Colombia and is actually closer to the mainland of Nicaragua. The island combines the diverse cultures of English, Africans, Spaniards and pirates. Visitors first spot the island’s famous sea of seven colors from the airplane. Full of white sand beaches the island is surrounded by coral reefs. During the day one can beach comb, sun bathe, dive and snorkel in the coral reefs or go shopping at the duty-free stores. At night the island comes alive with music beats of reggae, calypso and salsa.
Tourism Saturation: San Andres if very popular with Colombian tourists. Cheap all-inclusive travel deals are promoted throughout Colombia. San Andres is probably the most famous beach/island destination in the country. It’s especially crowded during the Colombian holidays of Semana Santa (the week before Easter) and during the Christmas holidays
Difficulty: One has to fly in, but the island is quite developed.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: Providencia Islands, also called Old Providence, lies 40 miles to the north of San Andres. It’s more remote and less visited. The Gorgona Islands, a former penal colony and protected ecological area, lie in southern Colombia’s Pacific.
Worth it? If you like islands and beaches and mingling with Colombians in party mode, then yes. But islands are always more expensive than beaches on the mainland.
Tourist Trap? Yes
The Coffee Zone (Salento – Cocora Valley)
is a pleasant country village in southern Colombia where one can explore the country’s finest archeological patrimony immersed in a beautiful rural landscape. People have been inhabiting this steep terrain for 6,000 years. These tombs and statues were created around 3,300 B.C. – about the time they were building the pyramids in Egypt and well before the Incas, whose civilization arose in the 13th century and was thriving when Columbus discovered the Americas.
In visiting San Agustin and its surroundings, one should allow at least three nights and two full days. One day to visit the town and the archeological park ‘Bosque de las Estatuas’ which lies just a 40-minute walk outside of town. And another day for a long jeep tour to the outlying archaeological sites – Alto de los Idolos, Alto de las Piedras and the Museum of Obando. The jeep tour (which costs around $10-$15 per person) passes through an incredible landscape of mountains, gorges, coffee and sugar cane farms. It stops at the beautiful waterfalls of Alto di Bordones and Salto di Mortino, and at the head of the Rio Magdalena. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: High in the town, especially during Colombian holidays; medium at the archeological sites.
Difficulty: Moderate. It takes a little travel time to get there by bus. The nearest airport is Garzon 46 miles (75 km.) away – national flights only. One can arrive at San Agustin by way of Cali and Popayan. It’s a grueling 5-hour bus trip from Popayan which goes over the Cordillera Occidental mountains into the paramo through the National Park of Purace. Or a 7-8 hour trip from Bogota by bus to the city of Neiva then onto San Agustin.
Off the Beaten Path Alternative: Tierradentro is a park just a few hours north of San Agustin. Only a fraction of the tourists who visit San Agustin make it to Tierradentro which I think offers the better Indiana Jones experience. Tierradentro has 162 subterranean tombs located in 4 different sites dating back to the 6th – 9th centuries A.D.
Worth it? Yes – especially if you like archeology. And the countryside is stunning.
Tourist Trap? Only during long Colombian holidays
The Coffee Zone
A visit to Colombia’s coffee region in the last 15 years meant a trip to an area known as the ‘coffee triangle’ or the ‘coffee axis’. Located between the cities of Manizales, Armenia and Perieria, this coffee country destination has been a very successful tourism/ marketing campaign launched by several adjoining regions in southwest Colombia.
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 also the most beautiful women.
Foreign tourists, visiting Colombia with limited time constraints, have been flocking to this area in droves. Colombia is famous for its coffee. And the coffee triangle has been an attractive place to go and learn all about it. Here they: stay on a coffee farm ~ visit coffee roasting facilities ~ tour a handful of villages ~ go to the National Coffee Park near Montenegro ~ visit Salento ~ go to the Valley of Cocora Park to see the wax palm trees ~ buy some souvenirs ~ fly home.
Granted, it’s a great trip, and the agricultural tourism has greatly assisted the town merchants and farmers. The area is beautiful and well-run and the whole thing sells like mojitos on the beach. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: High especially in the town of Salento, medium in the Cocora Valley National Park
Difficulty: One can fly into Armenia, Manizales or Perieria from Bogota or Medellin. If you have a couple days to spare take a bus and enjoy the countryside.
Off the Beaten Path Alternative: There are coffee farms and regions all over Colombia. My favorite coffee area is just north of the coffee triangle, containing the quaint and colorful villages of Jardin, Jerico, Aguadas and Salamina. This area is more beautiful and much less expensive. These villages are all located within a 2-6-hour trip south of Medellin (a couple hours north of Manizales), could easily be worked around a trip visiting Medellin or a larger trip visiting the towns and sights of ‘the coffee triangle’.
Worth it: Yes, the countryside is beautiful
Tourist Trap? Yes
Ciudad Perdida (the lost city)
Ciudad Perdida disappeared into the jungle of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta during the Spanish conquest. The stone city dates back to the year 800, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu and was only discovered in the 1970s. Visiting the lost city is only accessible on foot and is one of Colombia’s most exciting and breathtaking hikes. It takes 5 days to complete the hike. Price: round trip costs $500 per person with a guide and rudimentary lodging and meals. This is one of Colombia’s most popular hikes and you will see people of all ages and fitness levels completing it.
Tourism Saturation: Medium/low due to it remote accessibility and price. Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the world, receives more than 1 million visitors a year. The lost city sees around 50 hikers a day.
Difficulty: High. Required 5-6 hours of hiking a day for 5 days in a row, coping with rain, mud, bugs, heat and few amenities. One can fly into the closest city of Santa Marta. Most trips leave from the village of El Mamey – a 90 minute ride from Santa Marta.
Worth it: Yes – if you got the legs for it and are tolerant of back-country accommodations.
Tourist Trap? Not yet
One of the strangest and most spectacular spots in South American is located at the northern most point of South American in the Guajira peninsula which is a reserve for the Wayuu – a Colombian indigenous tribe. Bordering Venezuela, it’s one of most visually stunning places on earth where bare, wild desert landscape meets the blue turquoise of the Atlantic. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: medium/low – the major attraction is the village of Cabo de laVela which is the destination of the shortest 2-day trip. The 3-day trip goes to Punta Gallina and points beyond.
Difficulty: You have to hire a guide with a jeep and go with a small group. The tour varies from 2-3 days at a price of $150 – $200 per person. You ride in jeeps over rough, desert terrain, sleep in hammocks and eat fish for 3 days. There is an airport in the city Riohacha where most of the tours originate.
Worth it? Yes, if you are o.k. with spartan accommodations for a few days.
Tourist Trap? Over-tourism is a reality
Caño Cristales is a Colombian river located in the Amazon jungle. A tributary of the Guayabero River, the river is commonly called the “River of Five Colors” or the “Liquid Rainbow”. For six months of the year, Caño Cristales looks like any other river. But from about the end of June to the end of November the river comes alive with red, green, yellow, blue and black hues due to the presence of an aquatic plant called macarenia clavigera.
There is no lodging or camping available at Caño Cristales. So visitors must stay in the frontier town of La Macarena, pop. 30,000.The best way to get there is by air.
To enter the Cano Cristales national park, you must be accompanied by a guide from a tour company. A maximum of 200 visitors are allowed into the park per day. Entrance fee to the park is $30 per person.
By Air: tour agencies offer package deals to the park. Fly in from Bogota and Villavicencio. The plans start at $300 for a 3 night stay not including airfare up to $700 per person for a 4 night stay including airfare to and from Medellin.
Tourism Saturation: High during the season – June-November , especially weekends and holidays.
Difficulty: By land: from Nieva to Villavicencio to San Jose de Guaviare it’s a 20-hour bus trip best divided into 2-3 days. The final leg of the trip from San José del Guaviare to La Macarena is done by air or boat and is the most expensive. It’s a 5-hour trip on the Guayabero river or an 8-hour trip in a jeep over dirt roads through the jungle.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: The rivers of Tranquilandia, Cano Rosado and Cano Sabanas, near San Jose de Guaviare, also succumb to the rainbow effect June-November. While smaller than the Guayabero River they are less controlled, easier to access and much cheaper to get to.
Worth it? Canos Cristales is at its peak from the end of June till the end of November while most foreign tourists visit Colombia December – April. It’s a long, pricey trip. But any excuse for immersion in the Amazon jungle is a good one.
Tourist Trap: Yes, during Colombian holidays
Villa de Leyva
San Gil (Barichara)
Villa de Leyva
is considered the most beautiful village in Colombia. And being within a three-hour trip of Bogota, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited villages in Colombia.
Declared a national monument, the town boasts an impressively preserved main square, Plaza Major, the biggest and the most beautiful cobble-stoned square in Colombia. 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 – after Cartagena.
Tourism Saturation: High especially on weekends and Colombian holidays.
Difficulty: An easy trip by bus from Bogota or Bucaramanga in the north. Fly into Bogota.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: The Spanish colonial villages of: Mongui, Barichara, Pamplona, Playa de Belen
Worth it? Yes. Plaza Major alone is worth the experience but only if you’re in Bogota or on your way south from San Gil. Otherwise it would be hard to justify a special trip just to see Villa de Leyva.
Tourist Trap? Yes
has been nicknamed the extreme sports adventure capital of Colombia. Located between two rivers the town is larger than expected but laid back. Here there are plenty of hotels and restaurants. The town’s main park, Parque Principal, is a nice place to sit and soak in the energy of the town.
This is the place in Colombia for adventure-seeking travelers. People put up with all night bus trips from Bogota or Medellin just to get here. If you’re an adrenaline junkie and have adventure sports on your bucket list, this is your Colombian destination! Sports like river rafting, caving, rappelling, bungee jumping and paragliding are available for just a fraction of what it would cost you back home. San Gil is even cheaper than other South American adventure destinations like Banos in Ecuador.
Tourism Saturation: Moderate/high. The nearby colonial town of Barichara also sees a lot of tourism.
Difficulty: There is an airport at Palonegro a 40 mile (63 km.) flight from San Gil. From the Bucaramanga bus terminal, it is a three-hour bus trip; 7 hours from Bogota.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: The colonial villages of Mongui, Pamplona, Playa Belen, Curiti
Worth it? Yes, especially if you like extreme sports. Otherwise an interesting city with lots of Spanish colonial villages to visit nearby – Barichara, Guane, Curiti, Magotes
Tourist Trap? Yes, during Colombian holidays
Mompox (or Mompos)
Mompox (also spelled Mompos) was an important port city on the Magdelena River for cargo and travelers during the colonial era. Today, Mompox is a sleepy, back-water town frozen in time. The heat and humidity in this town is oppressive, but the architecture of the center is fascinating. There are nice restaurants and boutique hotels along the river all nicely priced. The city center is like one huge museum. All the villas in town leave the huge doors and windows open displaying quaint courtyards and sitting rooms adorned with antiques. 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. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: Medium/high
Difficulty: There’s an airport in town. From Cargatena it’s a day trip in a bus. But there is no way to get here directly by car from central Colombia. You have to take buses from Sincelejo then another to Maragane then a small ferry boat up the Magdelena River to the port of La Bodega and then a collective taxi or motor-taxi to Mompox.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: Colonial towns like Mongui, Barichara, and Buga.
Worth it? Depending on the route it can be hard to get to. There’s lots of heat and humidity. Sightseeing in the early a.m. and evening highly recommended.
Tourist Trap? No
Las Lajas Sanctuary, a catholic church located in southern Colombia about seven miles from the Ecuadorian border, is considered the most beautiful church in Colombia. It’s one of Colombia’s most important destinations for pilgrimage and religious tourism
Located outside of the Colombian town Ipiales, the church is 130 feet tall and bridges the Guaitara River 300 feet below. Colombia, being a Catholic country once ruled by Spain, has lots of stunning churches. But Las Lajas combines impressive Gothic architecture, a unique location, incredible design and a great story. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: High especially during Colombian holidays
Difficulty: It’s a day trip from the southern Colombian city of Pasto – a 4-hour bus trip each way due to ongoing construction work on the Pan-American highway. But if one is enroute to Ecuador, then it’s just a ten-minute bus ride from the bus station at the border town of Ipiales to the church. (There’s a baggage check at the bus station.) It’s a more convenient stop before or after making the Colombia-Ecuador border crossing. There’s an airport in Ipiales.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: there are thousands of stunning churches everywhere in Colombia like the church Senor de los Milagros in the town of Buga just north of Cali.
Worth it? Many people put this church in the top ten things to see in Colombia. If one is keen on religious tourism, then yes. It only takes a couple of hours to tour the site. The church is just too far away from Pasto to merit the trip, but if you’re going to Ecuador you have to pass through Ipiales. The church is only a 10-minute taxi drive away and merits the side trip.
Tourist Trap? Yes
Zipaquira – The Salt Cathedral
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 Salt Cathedral, located in the town of Zipaquira, is an underground church built inside of a salt mine 600 feet below the surface. 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.
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. (see article). One must join a tour, offered in English or Spanish, and the tour lasts just over an hour.
Tourism Saturation: High, especially on the weekends.
Difficulty: a 1-2 hour trip from the city of Bogota by bus.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: thousands of stunning churches everywhere in Colombia you can see and visit for free.
Worth it? 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 a 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 to get out of the city – the town of Zipa and the Salt Cathedral are an interesting escape. Entrance to the site is $15 for foreigners – steep by Colombian standards.
People are divided when it comes to Colombia’s capital city of Bogota: they either love it or they hate it. A large cosmopolitan city of 8 million people sitting at an altitude of 8,660 feet, it has a cool climate throughout the year. Colombians call Bogota “the refrigerator of Colombia”. Overcast and often rainy, but when the sun shines everyone in the city is out in the streets.
The town is divided into 20 different neighborhoods. Most of them are drab, industrial barrios but some older parts of town shine with a colonial charm. Located in the center of Colombia, the capital sits on a high plateau, known as the Bogota Savanna, in a valley running north to south. At an altitude of 2,640 meters (8,660 feet), Bogota is the third-highest capital in South America, and the world, after Quito and La Paz.
The city was founded by Spanish conquistadores in 1538 after they conquered the indigenous tribe of the Muisca – the original inhabitants of the valley. Bogotá became the capital of the independent nation of Gran Colombia in 1819 and has remained Colombia’s capital ever since.
It’s hard for travelers to avoid Bogota. Back in the day, nearly all international flights arrived and departed from the capital. A trip to Colombia made the stay of a night or two in the capital inevitable. Today, international flights come and go from the major cities of Cartagena, Medellin and Cali. Even the more remote places in Colombia can be reached with a transfer in Bogota or Panama City. But when travelling by land through central Colombia, all roads lead to and from Bogota. And even the best efforts to avoid this city will prove futile. This sprawling metropolis requires a half-day of travel to enter and another half day, in stop and go traffic, trying to get out.
Where to Stay
Most travelers usually stay in the old city center called La Candelaria where many of the houses are well preserved in their original colonial style. Bogota’s best museums are located in this area as is the Zona Rosa – a nightlife district full of clubs and restaurants. Plaza de San Victorino is 10 blocks from the Candelaria neighborhood and offers the city’s cheapest meals – usually $1-$3 per dish. The backpacker saying is: ‘Stay in Candelaria and eat in San Victorino’.
Chapinero is another pleasant area to stay. It was once a seperate town that has been swallowed up by the city’s center, Chapinero, just a 10-minute cab ride from the center is a trendy neighborhood full of hotels, cafes and markets. The Zona G is located here; it’s the city’s epicenter of excellent, though pricey, gourmet dining.
Highlights: What to See and Do on your First Rendezvous
There is so much to see and do in Bogota. A city of this size needs months and multiple visits to get to know well. But if you are just passing through the city spending a day or two you can get a feel for it. Here are my highlights for your first rendezvous:
Carrera 7 runs from the city’s center all the way through Chapinero. It’s the downtown pedestrian shopping street. The street is closed to traffic for a good two miles from Plaza Bolivar all the way up to the Planetarium on Calle 26. And on Sundays they close the road to traffic for 6 miles and Bogotanians on foot and bikes fill the road.
Plaza Bolivar is the largest square in Bogota and considered the heart of the city. Here the Palacio de Justicia (justice department) the seat of Colombia’s legislature is located as is the Cathedral Primatial.
Walking west one passes through Parque Santander where the Avianca skyscraper and the Gold Museum are located. Further up Cra. 7 is the Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum.
North of Plaza Bolivar – all within easy walking distance – is the Colon Theater, the Military Museum, the Botero Museum, Casa de Moneda (the min). And further north, within walking distance of the center, is the cable car station going up to Cerro de Monserrate for a bird’s eye view of the city.
The city offers 58 museums and over 70 art galleries. If one enjoys strolling through obscure museums, and unusual galleries, Bogota is the place to be. It has the best collection of museums in Colombia.
Museo di Oro (The Gold Museum), calle 16 #5-41, located on the premises of the Banco de la Republica, is one of the finest museums in Colombia. It has 35,000 pieces of pre-Colombian gold work and 30,000 objects in ceramic, stone and textiles.
The Botero Museum Calle 11 #4-41, just 4 blocks north of Plaza Bolivar, has 123 works by Colombia’s famous artist, Fernando Botero. It also contains a large collection of modern and impressionist art which were all donated by the artist. The museum features Botero’s work – drawings, sculptures and paintings. Botero is still alive and lives in Paris. But he is originally from Medellin, which also has a square named after him, displaying 23 of his larger sculptures in a beautiful, open space. along with a museum, on the square, exhibiting his drawings and paintings. While the museum in Bogota is interesting and worth seeing, I think the one in Medellin holds his best works and is the better of the two.
Casa de Moneda Calle 11 # 4-93, next door to the Botero Museum, illustrates the history of money in Colombia – from pre-Colombian barter systems to the design and production of modern banknotes and coins.
The Museo Militar (Military Museum) Calle 10 # 4-92 is located three blocks east of Plaza Bolivar exhibits weaponry used by the Colombian military through the ages: from cannons, machine guns, uniforms, rifles and pistols.
Museo de Trajes Regionales (regional Costume Museum) Calle 10 #6-18 is one of my favorites, exhibiting traditional clothes and textiles from the different regions of Colombia.
Museo de la Esmeralda (Emerald Museum) Calle 16 #6-66 is located on the 23rd floor of the Avianca Building. Colombia is the biggest producer of emeralds of the highest quality. The museum explores everything about this mineral from how it’s mined, evaluated, cut and sold.
Teatro Colon (Colon Theater) on Calle 10 just a couple blocks north of Plaza Bolivar is Bogota’s finest theater. Built in 1892 it’s a city jewel.
Cerro de Monserrate is a church/convent perched in the mountains above the city offering a spectacular birds-eye view of the capital’s urban sprawl. It is reached by a funicular railway and a cable car. Tickets are $8 round-trip for foreigners and are obtained on site at the Taquilla Teleferico Monserrate Cra 1 and Cra 3 east. One could go there for free by climbing 1,500 steps. But the walkway runs under the cable cars and doesn’t look like an interesting hike at all. The Santuario de Monserrate church is a popular shrine and pilgrimage site. There are pricey arts, crafts and food stalls on top. It’s all a bit touristy. But the trip only takes a couple hours and it’s something everyone does when visiting Bogota.
More Things To See and Do
The city has numerous shopping centers, great parks and a very interesting night life with lots of clubs, bars and restaurants. Andres DC is the most famous steakhouse in Bogota. Though pricey, it seats 2,000 and is jammed on the weekends – a great place for people watching.
Torre Colpatria (Tower Colpatria) Cra 9 and Calle 26 is the tallest building in Colombia – 49 stories high. Go to the top for a 360-degree view of the city
There are also a number of free walking tours, food tours, graffiti tours in the city.
How to get around:
Taxis are cheap and plentiful.
Transmilenio buses, trains like subways have their own routes and run in and out from outer edges of the city to the center.
San Jose Guaviare is small jungle town in Colombia. It’s the end of the line where the grassland plains end and the Amazon jungle begins. All the roads end here, too. From here on it’s just washed out fire trails winding through the jungle. From here one can explore the Amazon from the outside fringes.
Prone to flooding during the rains, these roads are only accessible by jeep and motocross bikes. And the rivers are navigated by dugout canoes with small, transom mounted gas motors. In May, the winter rainy season begins. The rivers rise 15-20 feet becoming torrential rapids carrying trees and jungle debris downriver making the rivers unnavigable for all but the largest boats.
The Majestic Amazon
The Amazon river basin is home to the largest rain forest on earth. Covering over 35% of Colombia’s total territory, it borders 8 different countries. The Amazon basin is roughly the size of the lower 48 states of the United States, 2.7 million square miles, and covers 40% of the entire South American continent. Made up of a mosaic of ecosystems: tropical rain forests, jungle, flooded forests and savannas – the basin is drained by the Amazon river. The second largest river in the world, after the Nile. The Amazon, by sheer volume, is the world’s largest, discharging more water than the 7 next largest rivers in the world put together.
Travel to the Amazon
Remote, impenetrable – travel to the Amazon has become difficult and somewhat expensive these days. No longer can you pay a captain to string up a hammock on his freight boat and ride the Amazon cheap – like I did in the 1970s. Since there are no roads, one has to fly into Amazon river towns like Leticia and Iquitos – a 500-mile trip from Colombia’s capital city of Bogota. And since everything is so far away it’s necessary to hire guides, tours, boats, jeeps and motor cross bikes to get around.
As an alternative, towns bordering the jungle, like Florencia, Macoa and San Jose del Guaviare are becoming more popular allowing exploration of the Amazon jungle from the outside in.
San Jose del Guaviare
Offering infinite opportunities for anyone looking for adventure, San Jose del Guaviare is relatively new to tourism and intent on expanding. But this is still a place for travelers more so than tourists. The city, which just became the capital of the Guaviare province in 1991, has a wealth of natural attractions but only sees a fraction of Colombia’s tourism.
The area encompasses nearly one-third of Colombia’s territory but only a small fraction of the country`s 49 million people.
Safe to Visit?
Until five years ago, the area had been off the tourist trail, ignored by both foreign and national tourists. A remote area, it had been a guerrilla-controlled territory for 30 years and a main producer of coca leaves and base production for the cartels. It was once considered one of Colombia’s most dangerous places. But with peace accords between the government and the revolutionary group FARC, and a major police crackdown on the jungle farmers producing coca leaves and base, the area has been declared safe to visit. Today, this past reputation is their only impediment to developing a tourism industry and a common problem on Colombia’s frontier.
San Jose has all the necessary services from which to explore the Amazon. There are inexpensive eco-lodges just outside of town, decent hotels in town ranging from $15 – $80 a night, a fair supply of restaurants, supermarkets, banks, tourist agencies and guides.
Guide Will Be Needed: Arriving in San Jose isn’t particularly difficult, but to see the sights, all of which exist in the jungles outside of town, one must hire a local guide.
I was invited by Geo Tours of San Jose to visit some of the sites around Guaviare. Geo Tours is a tour company, founded in 2015, comprised of 5 coordinators and 10 guides. These local tourist operators work alongside the communities offering sensitive and sustainable tourism involving the local people.
Geotours, probably the best known, is just one tour company offering a number of services to guided tour destinations and activities ranging from a day to a week. For a fair price they will take care of all the trip details – accommodations, meals, transportation (jeeps, motor boats), guides and entrance fees.
They offer visits to nearby Cerro Azul cave paintings, the Ciudad de Piedra, Porto de Orion and Laguna Negra. Activities include birdwatching, fishing, and ecology hikes, visits to indigenous tribes and trips down the Guaviare River to swim with the pink dolphins. Longer tours are also available like the trip to Cano Cristales – an all inclusive 4 days and 5 nights river tour for $500. Custom travel can also be arranged and services altered to fit a travelers budget. Contact them at: Facebook@geotoursdelguaviare
There are many indigenous tribes in the area. The Nukak is a tribe of hunters and gatherers who first came into contact with the outside world in 1988. Since then 50% of tribe has been wiped out by diseases such as measles and influenza to which they had no immunity. Drug trade and conflict between the guerrillas, paramilitaries and Colombian army forced the Nukaks to abandon their homes in the jungle and seek refuge in and around the town of San Jose. Still waiting for the government to return their land, they now live in improvised camps where they are marginalized. The Tukanos, another tribe, live on more prosperous reservations and encourage tourism
Rock paintings – A dive into Colombia’s ancient past
These tribes have been living in the area for the last 20,000 years. And the area is famous for its ancient rock paintings. These paintings are one of Colombia’s greatest hidden travel adventures. The paintings can be seen in the areas of Nuevo Tolima, El Raudal del Guayabero and Cerrro Azul. Relatively free of tourists, travelers usually have the paintings and the mountains pretty much to themselves.
is a mountain rising from the jungle floor and has the largest display of these ancient rock paintings dating back 12,500 – 15,000 years. Blood red paintings were daubed on the face of ancient rock formations. The paint was made with natural materials such as ocher and blood. The paintings depict the activities of past hunters who painted everything they knew about the world on these rocks. There are extinct animals, geometric patterns, rivers, canoes, men with paddles, ladders, rivers, alligators, eagles and bats. One can spend hours gazing at the walls picking out patterns and themes.
The paintings fill the cliff facings at three different levels of the mountain. The first at the bottom is the easiest to view. Then there’s a quarter mile climb through a bat filled cave to get to a second level. The cave was a place where sacrifices were made to the spirits and people were buried. The second level has the best paintings. There are more on the top, upper – third level which requires some climbing skills.
These rock paintings are still a mystery. Some say the paintings were an ancient library. Others say they paintings on the rocks were a vehicle to communicate with the spirits. There are pictures of doors to other dimensions guarded by animal spirits. Deer and tapirs protected the doors by day and the bats by night. A lot of the paintings were mysteriously painted over by the tribes as if to hide their writings from other tribes or invaders. Lichen and a natural white salt naturally bleeding from the rock have been destroying the paintings over time.
the top of the mountain, 1,100 meters above the jungle floor, there is a
stunning lookout of the vast jungle below stretching as far as the eye can see.
Ciudad de Piedra
Just 11 miles south of San Jose, out of grassy, forest, scrub land – an ancient plateau rises from the jungle. It’s an alien landscape of rock formations called ‘Ciudad de Piedra’ or City of Rocks. The rocks and caves form pathways resembling ancient streets of a ruined city. Vultures circle overhead and coral snakes hide in the rocks.
Puerto de Orion
In the Ciudad de Piedra, a rock formation, called ‘Puerta de Orion’ or Orion’s Door, can be found. It is 45 feet high 48 feet tall. In December the earth rotation allows constellation Orion to be viewed through the hole in the rocks. And when the full moon rises moon beams shine through the door like a spotlight to the desert floor.
Canos Cristales and red algae blooms
Beautiful red algae grow in the rivers here from June to November. Canos Cristales is a famous Colombian destination to observe these seasonal blooms. But Cano Cristales is an 8-hour drive by jeep from San Jose or a 5-hour trip by boat. Most people pay big bucks to fly in from Bogota to the nearby town of Macarena and stay there. But the rivers of Tranquilandia, Cano Rosado and Cano Sabanas near San Jose, while smaller, are less controlled, easier and much cheaper to get to. Just saying.
Swimming holes, waterfalls and lakes
On the edge of the Amazon there are numerous swimming holes, waterfalls, lakes and mighty rivers to visit in dugout canoes. And with the heat and humidity of the jungle, these swimming holes are a real afternoon treat. Most guides include a couple swim breaks a day in the itinerary.
is a big, deep, cool lake with plenty of wildlife: turtles, caimans, 4 species of monkeys, parrots, hummingbirds, kingfishers, herons, storks, eagles and toucans are easily sighted. We trolled around the lake being followed by the guttural baying of Howler Monkeys and squirrel monkeys jumping from limb to limb. The farmer’s houses all have parrots they have raised and leave free to roam the tree tops. The birds call out in sassy Spanish and laugh at you when you pass by.
On a motor boat trip up the Guaviere River we were followed by the famous pink dolphins. The dolphins, when they follow the boats, are actually grey. But when you swim with them, they blush and get pink when excited.
Getting There: One can fly in to the small airport at San Jose. The airline Satena operates flights to San Jose from Medellin and Bogota. Or one can travel overland. Take a bus from Bogota to Villavicencio (7-8 hours) and then another 6-7 hour bus ride to San Jose. It’s an easy two day trip through Colombia cow country with great views of Los Llanos or the great plains. Stop overnight in Villavicencio and treat yourself to a steak dinner – Los Llanos reportedly has the best beef in Colombia.
Playa Belen is considered one of the most beautiful villages in Colombia. But it is so far off the beaten path few people ever visit.
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.
Located in northeastern Colombia, Playa Belen is a 4 hour bus ride from the Venezuelan border town of Cucuta – now a closed border, it’s another 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 weird, quirky energy.
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 weird 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.
One can just leave the edge of town and wander through the rock formations of this unique landscape. But since it’s easy to get lost, a guide is recommended. And, being so close to Venezuela, they say you never know who you might run into out there. A lot of desperation across the border these days, they say. Buzzards glide in clock wise circles above cliffs. Snakes and ant eaters hide in the shadows of the rocks.
Estoraques, after which the park was named, were actually trees of Spanish origin that once grew here towering 60 feet over the desert floor. Whole forests once thrived. A valuable lumber for paper production, the tree’s resin was used as an incense. Exploited until their extinction, the last trees were seen here 40 years ago. Attempts to bring them back proved futile.
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’s 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 handily won the competition.
Today Playa is rightfully rated as one of the most beautiful Spanish colonial towns in the country and on a government list as one of the 17 most beautiful villages in all Colombia.
There are 8,500 people in town – all of them of Spanish descent. And everyone in this town belongs to one of four families: the Claro family, Arevalo, Perez and Ovallos. Everyone is a cousin and related. An attractive people, they are uncommonly tall – many well over 6 feet, with jet black hair the women wear down to the small of their backs.
But there are secrets of which they are reluctant to speak. Rumors have it many people in town suffer sever depression, frequent bouts with hysteria and other aberrations of behavior.
Some blame it on a closed uranium mine a mile outside of town. Some blame it on the homemade hooch they like to distill and consume in quantities. Its called ‘bolegancho’ – a clear aguardiente liquor with an extra heavy dose of anise and other secret desert herbs.
Yet others blame it on the town witches – a secret cult of elderly women who practice sorcery, conjuring the spirits dwelling among the deserts’ walls of sorrows.
Something may not be right but they’re not suppose to talk about such things. Especially not to the outsiders.
The town’s isolation had also recently left them at the mercy of a boss and his militia. They were affiliated with the leftist, revolutionary group – the ELN – and financed themselves through narco-trafficking and extortion. The occupation lasted for years. The dark period only ending with the boss’ natural death less than a decade ago.
Today the town people are turning to tourism in hopes of creating more jobs so the young people will stay and not leave the desert. They want to create more infrastructure. A town committee meets regularly debating how to attract more visitors.
Its been 168 days since the last rain. They’ve been irrigating their crops of onions, beans and tomatoes. The cows are forced to wander deep up the mountain ridges searching for grass.
At night the men play tejo – a bocce ball game where a direct hit explodes a firecracker in the mud. For an entrance fee of $2 they get a bottle of the home made ‘bolegancho‘ and can play tejo until late in the night under the dim lights behind the town’s tejo bar.
Playa might be too far from Colombia’s other tourist destinations to attract more than the occasional aberrant wanderer. The closest tourist towns are 10 hour bus trips – from Santa Marta on the coast in the north and to the popular extreme sports village of San Gil in the south. A visit to Playa requires at least a two day commitment. But the sights and the stories are well worth it.
Highway 37 – the road stretches from the Andean city of Pasto over the mountains and down to the jungle town of Mocoa a gateway to the Amazon. Though it’s only 121 miles between the two cities the trip takes 5-7 hours depending on how many rock and mudslides one encounters on the way.
This is the most infamous road in Colombia. It has been rated the most dangerous in Colombia and one of the worst on the continent earning the nickname ‘trampoline della muerte‘ or trampoline of death.
You know you’re in for a rough ride when the bus leaves the terminal and the passengers cross themselves and mouth small prayers asking for safe passage. Shrines and crosses litter the roadside – testament to the dangers of this narrow dirt road zig-zaging through the mountains.
This is the most jerking, bone shattering, punishing, pot-hole-filled, hair-pin-turn, cliff lined roads I’ve ever been on. I gave up counting how many times I was bounced up out of my seat and hit my head on the roof of the bus.
The only passenger buses making the trip are micro buses seating 7-8 people. The drivers are damn good. They have to be. And they work the gear shift like a slide trombone. A car and a bus can barely pass on this road.
But there are also trucks. And when one approaches head on the bus has to stop and back up to a wider shoulder. The truck squeezes past with his tires hugging the edge of the road – a sheer drop into jungle growth below.
But this is also one of the most beautiful roads in the country going through jungles, cloud forests 6,000 feet high, past waterfalls and shallow rivers washing out the road.
There are other ways to get to Macoa but they entail losing a day backtracking from southern Colombia north to Popayan and another day crossing the Andes.
Mocoa is definitely worth the arduous journey and the trip through the mountains on highway 37 is definitely one hell of a ride.
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)
Reading the travel guides on Ecuador – they talk about it how tourism has changed the country. ‘Should have been here 10 years ago when it was quaint and undiscovered,’ they say. ‘Now there are big hotels, boutique shops, robberies all over the place.’
Well, that’s not the case with Colombia. Outside of Cartagena it’s all to be discovered. There is no big corporate tourism here. In a way, Colombia has remained unchanged for the last 40 years. But there is so much pent up tourism potential.
The country is so beautiful, the people so friendly and helpful. The climate is perfect. A good service structure already exists. Everything is so affordable. Tourism is overdue and coming fast.
Is Colombia Safe?
They say Colombia is safe now. After traveling around Colombia these last few years, I feel it’s one of the safer countries in Central and South America. Colombia has just emerged from a dark era – 30 years of violence – which basically stunted the country’s tourism development. A reputation as a violent and unsafe country is mostly unfounded today.
But after three decades of violence people still down play the horror. They have put that entire chapter behind them. They look ahead happy to see tourists returning. They know the endemic violence is over they just can’t believe the foreigners keep bringing it up. ‘Of course it’s safe here,’ Colombians say defensively. ‘It’s no longer like it used to be. It will never be like it was before. It’s much better now. We’ve moved on.’
Today, the tourist office’s catchy promotional slogan is: “Colombia – the only risk is wanting to stay.”
Still, one shouldn’t throw caution to the wind as if they’re on holiday in a gated resort in Cancun. To error on the side of caution is always advisable.
City centers where there are a lot of people are generally well patrolled and pretty safe. Safety in numbers? My rule of thumb is stay away from the empty streets, poorer areas and the shady parts of town. You’ll know them when you seen them.
And when traveling in Colombia it’s best to keep your nose out of the vices. Stay away from drugs, prostitutes and hard drinking aguardiente bars. A little common sense and street smarts will prevent you from stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time.
If you booked a great deal on a nice hotel but it’s in a questionable part of town, not a problem. But take a taxi to the city center or wherever it is you’re going, day and night. Taxis are cheap. Why take a chance of a mugging to save a couple bucks?
Have the hotel or restaurant call a cab for you. Ask the hotel and restaurant personnel if it’s safe to walk around town – where and when. They know and most hotel managers feel somewhat responsible for your well-being.
Women can’t travel in Colombia alone?
Not so. According to government statistics, women traveling alone represent the major gender of foreign tourists in Colombia. I saw many women traveling alone, in groups and pairs. It takes a certain savvy attitude, to be sure along with audacity, spunk and street smarts but women can travel freely in Colombia with little harassment.
I’m a huge fan – have been for decades.
The women walk down the streets proud, graceful and cat like They know they are being watched and watch you out of the corner of their eyes; acknowledging, then just as quickly dismissing you. They are strong, independent women with a dedicated sense of family. The women run not only the households but the country. There are more female politicians in Colombia than most other countries.
And the men show old school respect and graciousness. They call you ‘caballero’ or gentleman. Looking you straight in the eye, they are ready to engage in a political discussion just to see the stuff you’re made of. But never before always offering a tinto (coffee), asking you how you woke up today and if there is anything they can do to help.
A Chiva bus (in the back) and a Tuk Tuk
Communications in Colombia are very good. For a baby-boomer I can’t believe how easy it is to travel in Colombia these days compared to 40 years ago. With just a phone one can tap into the Wi-Fi which is available in almost every hotel and restaurant in the country. Even in the most remote, rural villages I found Wi-Fi. Just ask for their Wi-Fi pass codes or (clave).
You can text, send photos, contact home, access Netflix and use apps to reach out to locals or fellow travelers. There’s face time with Skype, Messenger, Whats app. Colombian’s, both young and old, are hooked up to these platforms. With the internet you can book a hotel room, research your next destination and always hit the ground running.
Contact your local, medical, international travel clinic for up to date information.
For Colombian travel it was recommended one get a vaccination for:
Hepatitis A – for food and water transmissions
Hepatitis B – for blood and bodily fluid transmissions
Typhoid Fever – for contaminated food or water
Malaria pills – for malaria carried by mosquitoes
Yellow Fever – if you’re going to be on the coast or in the Amazon. They won’t give you the vaccine if you’re over 60 and don’t let them as it can be fatal. They say you need the Yellow Fever vaccine to get into Ecuador and Panama from Colombia but at the borders they never asked me to show mine.
Arrive with a passport that is valid for at least the next six months. Most North Americans and Europeans don’t need a visa, but do check. A visa is usually granted for a 90 day stay. Make sure to ask immigration at entry for the 90 day visa. If you need more time you can always cross the border and come back with a brand new 90-day visa.
Storing Valuables – Playing it Safe
Keep a copy of your passport in a safe place or store it in the cloud. This will help you get your passport quickly replaced at the embassy should it be stolen or lost.
While you’re at it – keep a photocopy of your credit cards in a safe place, too.
Travel with a photocopy of your passport in the streets of Colombia. Don’t use the passport as i.d. Leave that at the hotel or hidden. But keep it on your person when traveling by bus as there are military and police road blocks and they would rather see the original.
Wear a money belt
I found the ones concealed around the waist are the best and keep your passport, credit cards and cash in the belt. There are also leg belts and regular waist belts with zippered compartments to hide money. Don’t keep your valuables in fanny packs or the pouches around your neck and under the shirt. When they rob you they’ve been known to pat your chest. It’s almost inconceivable they will stick their hands down your pants looking for a money belt. But don’t rule it out.
Use the hotel safe when available. There are anti-theft , cloth portable safes with combination locks on the market. Basically they’re bags made out of hard to cut materials that lock onto a fixed object in the hotel room. They’re not impossible to get into, or get loose and run off with, but it makes it the job harder and more time consuming. Personally, I never had any problem in Colombia with anything missing from my hotel room. Hostels can be a little more sketchy. Travelers have reported some problems with valuables disappearing in hostels. I always prefer to leave my valuables in a locked hotel room rather than hauling them with me onto the streets.
Always keep an eye on your drink, never leave your drink unattended as someone may put something in it and you’ll wake up in a whole other world. The drug being used in Colombia is Scopolamine otherwise called “the devil’s breath” which is derived from a flower belonging to the Morning Glory family. The drug is odorless and tasteless and can be easily dropped in your drink or simply rubbed or blown into your face. It’s been used over the years as a truth serum.
Under this drug someone can convince you to do anything including going to different ATM’s withdrawing all your money for them. You stay fully conscience while under the influence and are happy to do whatever they ask. But in the morning you will feel hungover and remember nothing. In high doses this drug can be lethal. Always be skeptical of strangers especially if they are offering free food and/or drinks. Remember if it’s too good to be true – it usually is.
Stand there and make sure your bags get loaded into the bottom of the bus.Buses run fast and furious and more than one bag has been inadvertently left on the sidewalk and not loaded into the cargo hold.
Don’t let people run off with your bags with the pretense they’re doing you a service helping you quickly catch a departing bus, train or boat. Most of the time these guys are harmless. They’re either getting paid by the transport company to grab your business from the competitors or they’re just looking for a tip.
Don’t travel with even the smallest amount of drugs. There are police with dogs where you least expect them. This year in Colombia I saw a lot of drug sniffing dogs and police in the larger bus stations. Those dogs are good and the police have been stopping foreign tourists and making them unpack their bags right in the middle of the bus stations.
Chances of Getting Robbed
As one seasoned traveler grimly said, “If you stay in Latin America long enough, you will get robbed.”
If robbed, and I truly hope this never happens to you, just shut up and give them what they want. Your pack, what’s in your pockets, watch, jewelry, camera – whatever they want. And do it quick. Thieves are nervous and the plan is to grab and dash. Don’t mess with that plan. Give it up and send them running quickly before you start talking too much, they get nervous, or you do something stupid and end up getting hurt. It’s never worth it. If they go packing quickly they might not have time to check to see if you have a money belt or pouch. Or they might forget to grab your watch or rings. They didn’t stop you to reason with you, or to discuss their life choices, or to learn how much your stuff means to you, or how much of an inconvenience this robbery is.
Usually two men hold up a traveler when he or she is alone. It’s harder they rob travelers when they’re in a group of two or more. But it can’t be ruled out, either. Robberies usually happen on an isolated streets. And they can happen any time of the day or night.
Don’t try to fight. Not even if you’ve been trained for this. There is always a knife and/or gun present. And these are not nice people. They have stopped you and have the element of surprise and the upper hand already in their favor. Speaking as someone who has been robbed, if you just give them what they want, it’s a safe bet, they probably won’t hurt you. But then again, some barking dogs actually do bite.
As soon as possible after the robbery – go get a local police report. Never fun but necessary. If they made off with your passport you will need the report at the embassy. It could also help dispute any unexpected charges on stolen credit cards.
Colombia is hot and then it’s cool and then hot again – all depends on the altitude, so be prepared for both – often in the same day.
If you’re going to be moving around, traveling by air, taxi, bus and on foot I recommend a back pack. You’ll have to walk a short distances when traveling and a backpack makes that so much easier. They have back packs where the shoulder straps zip up into the bags which transforms the pack into a duffel bag or suitcase. This solution keeps your pack’s shoulder straps clean and free from getting snagged and ripped in the cargo hold of a bus or plane. Also keep a smaller, carry-on, day pack to keep your computer and other travel necessities. I never put this one in a cargo hold or even in the overhead, but keep it on my lap or on the floor by my feet where it can be watched at all times.
I know it’s never easy to minimize when you have to travel light and are packing for a long trip. My theory is you can always buy what you forgot when you get there. Whether you’re traveling for 2 weeks or 2 months, here’s a basic list of what I packed on my last trip to Colombia. Next time I’ll take even less.
5 pair socks low top and high top
1 tank top
1 sweater – hooded slightly heavy – Colombian buses are often air- conditioned to the absurd max.
1 down jacket which you tie up in a ball. You’ll probably only use during arrival and departure
1 pair lightweight cargo pants (those pockets are priceless)
1 pair blue jeans – can be used in formal settings too.
2 pair shorts cut to the knee (Colombian men only wear shorts at the beach.) Gringos can pull off wearing shorts but try to get shorts with a knee cut – not too short)
1 pair comfortable shorts for lounging around the hotel
1 swim suit
1 beach towel
1 pair lightweight sweat pants
2 pair flip flops or water shoes to wear at the beach another for the hotel
1 pair comfortable loafers or shoes
I pair trekking shoes – broken in.
1 baseball hat
1 rain jacket
1 collapsible umbrella
1 money belt
1 blue jean or long sleeve shirt
1 laptop 10″-11” with photo capability for Skype and watching movies
1 kindle – download books – why carry them
1 small camera
Power cords – Colombia uses the American 110 voltage similar to electrical outlets found in the United States and Canada
1 lock and key for hotel rooms, storage cribs
1 pair of swimming goggles for salt water and pools
1 pocket knife – remember to pack it in your suitcase not your carry-on
1 spoon and fork, plate, knife
Separate organizational pouches
Bottle opener/ corkscrew
Rope – for hammocks, drying wet clothes
Medicine bag/ Toiletries
Toothbrush and holder
Soap and holder
Aspirin and Ibuprofen
Prescription Medications, birth control, allergy meds, etc.
Motion sickness pills – if needed, and Altitude sickness pills
Needle and thread
Please leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have in the comment box below and we will get back to you.
When staying for an extended period of time in Colombia there are many lodging options: hostels, pensions, hotels, residencias and apartments. You can rent either for a day or for longer periods of time.
Hotel/hostel/apartment? Many people would only consider staying in a hotel when they travel. Others like the privacy and freedom of apartment living. Which is cheaper?
Multi-night stays: I usually book the first night on a sites like booking.com. The pictures, maps and reviews pretty much eliminate the element of surprise and disappointment. Staying longer than one night, always ask the hotel what’s the best price they can give for a second night. The longer you’re staying the harder you haggle. Apartments are usually already priced weekly and the more weeks you stay the cheaper it gets daily. But haggle anyway.
Hotels – for a pampered stay
Pros: Hotels are nice if you like being catered to. The rooms are cleaned every day. The sheets and towels are always clean and fresh, the bathrooms and floors are swept and mopped and everything tidied and stocked. Breakfast usually served every morning. For a fee, there’s room service, laundry pick up, maybe a restaurant and pool in the building. And no contracts. You can take it day by day.
The cons: there’s always a doorman and/or receptionist keeping an eye on your comings and goings. Anyone you want to bring beyond the reception area has to be registered and the hotel will levy the double room rate.
Maid Service: is great until it isn’t. The maids will want to get in sometime during the day to clean. Usually they start knocking on the door by 9 a.m. asking if or when they can come in to clean. Heaven forbid your floor is where they they habitually start cleaning every day. And few hotels in Colombia have the ‘Do not disturb’ hang tags you can put on your outside door knob. If you find a hotel that has those tags, steal one so you can put it outside the door of your next hotel.
Chatty Kathys: This is my pet-peeve. Other hotel guests will congregate outside your door very early in the morning and/or very late at night talking in loud voices as if they’re the only people booked in the hotel. That’s just how Colombians roll and another reason to ask for rooms far from the elevators and stairwells.
Room with a view: Everyone wants a room with a view and a balcony. Smokers, I get it. But the balconies and windows usually face the busy, main streets. Reception will not warn you of the street noise at night which usually doesn’t subside till 11 at night, starting back up at 6 in the morning. And if you’re in the Zona Rosa or entertainment district, the beat of valentato/salsa music could go on till 4 a.m. You can complain but the only thing they will do is move you to another room which may only be slightly quieter.
The inner sanctum: Most hotels have rooms with windows opening to an attractive inner courtyard or sometimes the window of your room just opens to an airshaft letting in some defused light and a little fresh air. Lousy view – check. But a better night’s sleep – check.
Domestic duties: if you’re on a short trip and want to get away from: cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundry and tidying. Then renting an apartment may not be for you.
Apartments can be cheaper than renting a hotel room, But only if you’re staying for a month or longer. Otherwise they tend to cost about the same or sometimes a little more than a hotel room. If you’re traveling with a family or group of people – renting a big apartment will be cheaper than hotel accommodations.
Hostels – a communal experience: are great if you’re on tight budget. You sleep in a room full of beds. They always have the best price. There is usually a communal kitchen for cooking your own food. It’s easier to meet people. And you encounter the most interesting travelers. I love coming to a new area and staying at a hostel for a night or two just to get the low down on what to see and what’s up to road.
The cons: sleeping in a large room. If you’re a light sleeper, you’ll never get a good night’s sleep. People coming in at all hours, partying, packing to leave in the pre-dawn hours. Sometimes you get lucky and you’re the only person in a dorm room. But for a little more money, there are private rooms to rent in hostels.
The security of your belongings is low. Some hostels have lockers or boxes you can padlock but most don’t.
And the sanitary conditions of the common kitchens is often left to be desired. The guests aren’t cleaning the way they should and management isn’t doing a daily cleaning and organization of the kitchen area.
Pros: Apartments are bigger – more living space. They can come with several bedrooms and enough beds to accommodate a small army with kitchen ware, table, chairs, 1.5 – 2 baths, towels, bedding, t.v. and all the comforts of home. Some big apartments are co-shared by different guests. Everyone has their own room and the kitchen is shared.
If you’re traveling alone, or as a couple, there are ‘apartastudios’ which are mini-apartments with a double bed, 1.5 bathrooms (always a half bath for visiting guests) they also come with kitchen ware, plates, utensils, towels, table, chairs, t.v. and sometimes air conditioning, sometimes just fans. A down-sized apartment, a little larger than a hotel room.
Apartments are usually located in residential areas slightly outside of the city in quieter areas where the locals live.
Apartments offer more privacy: You don’t have to get dressed and go downstairs for a cup of coffee in the morning. You can come and go as you please. There may be a doorman but he’s just there to keep out the riff raff and could care less who comes and goes with you. He’ll even buzz you to announce visitors.
No hotel maids wanting to know when you’re leaving so they can get in your room. In fact, your privacy is so intact there’s a chance you’ll be holed up in the apartment longer than you think – drapes drawn, sleeping in late, watching Netflix and taking uninterrupted afternoon naps.
And think of all the money you can save on restaurants by cooking your own food. Finally make that pasta dish you’ve been craving or try cooking one of those incredible fish you’ve been eyeing at the market.
Checking into an apartment is a lot more complicated. There are contracts to sign, and security deposits levied. The landlord does an inventory of everything when you arrive and again when you’re leaving, just like the hotel does with your mini-bar. Anything missing or broken comes out of your security deposit. You have to pre-pay so if anything happens, like the water being shut off or an electricity grid going for days, it’s most likely you won’t get reimbursed for the inconvenience. If this happened in a hotel you would simply leave and go to another with functioning services.
You have to do your own cleaning. There are brooms and mops there for a reason. Sheets and towels will have to be washed by you. Some apartments have washing machines and clothes line to hang the wet clothes on. If not you have to take your wash, which now includes sheets and towels, to a laundry mat or a cleaners where they charge you by the kilo.
You’ll have to go shopping: if you want to take advantage of the kitchen to cook your own food you’ll have to go shopping at the local market or supermarket. Lug the food home. (Often there are local ‘tiendas’ or small stores that will deliver to your door.) Then there’s the food prep. The cooking, the cleanup afterwards. And few apartments in Colombia have dishwashers.
Cheaper to eat out: I found it to be cheaper to eat out in Colombia than to cook. I love cooking. I spent a lot more money cooking my own food. But I ate a lot better.
Short term apartment stays in Colombia are not cheaper than hotels. Weekly rates are higher than monthly rates or year long leases.
How to find an apartment: Apartments can be found on the hotel web sites and on Airbnb. There are also agencies in town representing apartments to let. And simply walking around you’ll see signs in windows ‘Apartamento en renta’ apartments for rent. Just stop and inquire
Which one is right for you?
Sometimes the daily household chores of apartment living are welcomed if you’ve been traveling for a while. The mundane, ritualistic activity of cooking, cleaning and food shopping can be a refreshing relief. Give you things to do while enjoying a more residential as opposed to touristic experience in you new town.
A travel mix: When I travel for an extended period of time, I like a nice mix of hotels and restaurants with an occasional apartment stay. If I’m traveling hard – Colombian hotels and restaurants are fast, easy, cheap and accessible. Get in – get out. I sleep where I fall.
But sometimes I’m just tired of traveling. I know when it’s time to stop. An apartment can be a more accommodating place.
Please leave your comments, personal experiences or questions in the comment box below and we will get back to you.