Travel Safety in Colombia

Why am I not surprised to find the most widely downloaded sites on Colombia travel raise the question: Is Colombia Safe? It’s a question I’m always asked when I talk about my travels in Colombia. I don’t pander to those insecurities. Years of travel in this Colombia have led me to believe the question is dated and exaggerated.

It doesn’t help that the movies and t.v. shows being filmed in Colombia continue to dramatize drug trafficking and violence. Shows like Netflix’s ‘Narcos‘ exploit this image. But the Godfather saga never stopped tourists from visiting Italy.

Colombia is Not DangerousAt Least Not Anymore

Colombia’s prior reputation as a violent and unsafe country is for the most part unfounded today. Colombia was once the most notoriously violent epicenter of drugs and kidnappings. In 2000 Colombia had the highest rates of kidnapping in the world. 220,000 people died in the drug war conflict between 1958 and 2013. But since then Colombia has seen the murder rate fall from 70 people per 100,000 people to just 24 per 100,000 in 2016.

Colombia was not a safe place in 1980. But since the year 2000, the country has been getting progressively safer.

Colombia’s Complicated Past

Colombia has never known much peace. In the 100 years since the country declared its independence from Spain in 1810, the nation has lived through six civil wars. The conflicts were between liberals and conservatives. And the aggressions were violent and bloody.

The most recent Colombian conflict began in the 1960s as a low intensity war between the Colombian government, crime syndicates, right wing paramilitary groups and left wing guerrillas groups like the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (the National Liberation Army). All of the armed groups have been involved in drug trafficking and civilians were caught in the cross fire.

The dark days  of violence resulted in more than 260,000 deaths, the disappearance of tens of thousands of people and the displacement of 6 million people.

In the last decade the  Colombian government has killed or imprisoned most of the notorious  narco-traffickers and the drug trade has been pushed out of the cities and into the jungle and the country’s most remote areas.

Peace accords have been struck with the FARC The group turned over its weapons and is in the process of reorganizing a political movement.  A cease-fire was also signed with the ELN.

(For more background information, see the article: ‘Former Coca Leaf Farmers Turn to Tourism and Crop Substitution’)

Colombians tell me they feel  safe now walking the streets and country roads. But the people are still trying to come to terms with the violence they have lived through.  The war on drugs has had a toll on the country. But rather than look back, they choose to look ahead to a more promising future.

Happy to see tourists returning, they’re proud of their country. Tourism means more jobs and commerce. They just can’t believe the foreigners keep bringing up. ‘Of course it’s safe here,’ they say defensively. ‘Why go there? It’s no longer like it used to be. It’s much better now. We’ve moved on.’

A reputation as a violent and unsafe country is mostly unfounded today.

Colombia is safe now. It is becoming a new ecotourist destination, the new darling of South America. Traveling around Latin America these last few years, I feel Colombia is one of the safer countries in South America.

Colombia’s 30 years of violence had stunted the country’s tourism development. But tourism is rebounding today. Colombia received 3 million foreign visitors in 2017 according to the country’s trade ministry.

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

Still be cautious – Here’s How

When traveling, one should never throw caution to the wind. Traveling around Colombia is a far cry from rowdy vacation to a gated resort in Cancun.

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.

Small cities and villages are perfectly safe, but stay away from the even more remote areas of the country. The border areas around Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela have been declared unsafe for tourists. Check with the official travel advisories before venturing out. And when hiking into the back country it’s always advisable to hire a recommended and experienced guide.

Stay away from Illegal and Questionable Activities

When traveling in Colombia it’s much safer to keep your nose out of the vices. Stay away from drugs, prostitutes and hard drinking aguardiente bars. Don’t get sloppy drunk in public. Be careful where you go at night. A little common sense and street smarts will  prevent you from stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time. If you’re looking for trouble, you’ll find it. Or, more likely, it will find you.

Don’t walk alone at night. Take the right taxis

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 dozen pesos?

And it’s best not to just hail any taxi on the street. While the vast majority of the taxis in Colombia are legit, some cabs are not and the cabbies may be crooks. The driver could stop and let another passenger jump in the cab. Then take you to isolated spot and rob you. Scary thoughts, for sure. So have the hotel or restaurant call you a registered cab. Cabs lined at the taxi stands outside of bus stations and airports are safe. Even calling an Uber is better than grabbing just any cab on the street.

Ask the hotel and restaurant personnel if it’s safe to walk around town – where and when. They will steer your in the right direction. Most hotel managers feel responsible for your well-being

Chances of Getting Robbed

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

Let’s hope this never happens to you on your trip. But if robbed, 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. Your stuff is not worth personal injury. Your life yes, your stuff no.  

I know this capitulation goes against human nature. But it’s the smart move. If they go packing quickly they might not have time to check to see if you have more money or belongings hidden. They  might forget to grab your watch or rings. The crooks 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. When they confronted you, they already saw your stuff as theirs.

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, even in public places.

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 the safer bet. They probably won’t hurt you. But then again, some barking dogs actually do bite out of spite. If your life is in danger, then fight and yell.

As soon as possible after the robbery – go get a local police report. Never a fun way to pass a day, but necessary.  If they made off with your passport you will need the report at the embassy. Photo copies of your passport will also speed things along. The police report could also help dispute any unauthorized charges on stolen credit cards.

Wear a Concealed Money Belt

Carry a dummy wallet with maybe 50,000 COP for them to run off with. Keep you credit cards, passport and extra cash in a money belt. Or better yet back at the hotel.

I found the flat, stream-lined money belts that clip around the waist and are worn beneath your pants are the best. They are comfortable to carry and have plenty of zippered compartments.

Don’t keep your valuables in fanny packs, or in the pouches that hang by a string around your neck and go under the shirt. When they rob you they’ve been known look for those by patting your chest. It’s unlikely they will stick their hands down your pants looking for a money belt.  But don’t rule it out.

Use the hotel safe in your room when available. There are  also portable, lock boxes 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 to get  loose and run off with, but it makes it the job harder and more time consuming. 

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. I split up my credit cards and money and hide them in different places in the room, just in case.

Carry a Copy of Your Passport on the Street

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, too. That will help you quickly cancel them and replaced.

Travel with a photocopy of your passport in the streets of Colombia to use as i.d. Don’t use the original passport as i.d. Leave that at the hotel. But do keep your passport in your money belt when traveling by bus as there are often military and police road blocks and they would rather see your real passport with the Colombian entry stamp.

Beware of Strangers. Don’t Leave Drinks Unattended.

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 food or drink, applied to a cigarette 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 and withdrawing money for them. You stay fully conscience while under the influence and are happy to do whatever they ask. To the people around, you will look like you’re having a good time with your new friends. 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 being overtly nice, offering you free food, drinks and cigarettes. And don’t let them touch your face. Scopolomine can be administered through a gentle caress. Remember – if it’s too good to be true – it usually is.

Is the Food and Water in Colombia Safe?

For the most part the food in the hotels, restaurants and market stalls in Colombia is safe. If you’re eating street food (and sometimes at night that’s all there is) make sure they prepare it right in front of you. Don’t eat food that has been sitting out exposed to the heat and flies.

The tap water is actually quite safe to drink in Colombia’s major cities and towns. But if you are in remote villages it’s best to drink bottled water.

Is the Health Care Good in Colombia?

Colombia has been ranked #22 out of 140 countries for  its quality of health care by the World Health Organization. Lasik surgery was invented here in 1963 as was the pacemaker in 1958.

Dental, health care, and aesthetic procedures are safe and affordable. A lot of the dentists and doctors in Colombia have studied in Europe or North America. In fact there are a lot of people who get medical and dental procedures done in Colombia where it is much more affordable than at home.

Other bits of advice:

Don’t use ATM machines after dark. Shopping centers and banks with ATM machines inside are the best bet. And schedule your withdrawals during the day.

Take long haul buses during the day time hours. It may be tempting to take a bus during the night. You can sleep through the trip, save travel time and the cost of a hotel room. But there have been cases of buses being stopped at night and robbed. Enjoy the scenery. Take buses during the daytime hours. If time is an issue, take a plane from one town to another. Fares are usually under $100.

Don’t wear flashy or provocative clothes. Try to blend in when you’re in the cities. On the contrary, when you’re in deep rural areas, try to look a little more like a tourist. It’s less likely you will be mistaken as military, police or a DEA agent.

When on the street, keep expensive cameras, money, jewelry, etc. out of sight. In Colombia they call it ‘non dar papaya’. It means don’t be stupid and put yourself in a vulnerable situation when others could take advantage of you.

Learn a little bit of Spanish. Few people speak English or any other foreign language in Colombia.

Beware of plain clothes cops. If someone comes up to you in plain clothes saying their a cop don’t immediately hand over your documents. This is probably a scam. Police in Colombia are almost always are in uniform. Never give them your wallet or show them your money. Make them show you their badge or official i.d.

The chances of any of these things happening to you are slight. But always be aware. Stay smart and stay safe.

For more information see article: ‘Travel in Colombia. What to Expect, What to Pack, How to Stay Safe’

Pasto – Colombia’s ‘Surprise City’

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

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

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

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

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

The Volcanoes

Volcano Galeras

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

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

Lake La Cocha

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

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

For more see the article: Lake La Cocha

Las Lajas Church

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

The church of Las Lajas

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

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

For more see article on Las Lajas

Black and White Carnival January 2-7

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

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

Local delicacies

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

Access to the Pacific Coast

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

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

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

Retire in Colombia – Pros and Cons

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

Here’s the problem with retirement today:

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

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

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

A coffee machine in Pereira – the coffee zone

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

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

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

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

Why Colombia?

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

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

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

What are the pros to retiring in Colombia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the cons to retiring in Colombia?

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

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

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

*The exchange rate is volatile.

*Cars are expensive.

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

*Pollution in the major cities is bad.

*Working in Colombia doesn’t pay much.

*Crime is a concern.

Filandia

The Colombian Retirement Visa:

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

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

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

 How to make the move?

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

(See article: Snowbirds in Colombia)

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

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

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

Former Coca Leaf Farmers Turn to Tourism and Crop Substitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

coca plants planted amongs bananas and other crops

Agricultural Tourism to Supplement Farming

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

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

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

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

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

Sra. Yolima making breakfast

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

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

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

Coca Leaf Farming

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

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

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

Base Production

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

Extraction

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

A piece of coke base extracted from coca leaves

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

Drug use is rare amongst the growers

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

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

Distribution

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

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

The Background of Cocaine Production in Colombia

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

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

Government Eradication of Coca Fields

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

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

Health, Pollution and Ecological Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heritage Villages in the Coffee Zone

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

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

The main square of Jardin

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

The main square of Aguadas

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

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

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

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

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

Salamina

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

They call this town the San Francisco of Colombia.

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

The town square of Santa Fe near Medellin

Santa Fe de Antioquia is just 35 ,miles or 80 km northwest of Medellin. It is 1,000 meters lower in altitude than Medellin and therefore much warmer and humid. So if you came to Colombia and wondered where the heat was – you’ll find it here. Santa Fe was founded in 1541. It was once the capital of Antioquia until Medellin was named the capital in 1826.

The town’s historical center has remained pretty much the same since and is easily explored on foot. Santa Fe has  beautiful colonial architecture. The streets are made of cobble stones and  the house are white washed with wooden balconies The main square, Plaza Mayor, is a beautiful plaza with a water fountain and the Cathedral Metropolitana.  There are two other churches in the center and several museums to visit.

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

The Heritage Villages in the Department of Santander

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

(see article: ‘Colonial Towns in Santander’)

A street in Barichara

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

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

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

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

El Socorro – the town Basilica

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

Giron a village near the city of Bucaramanga

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

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

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

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. Later it was declared one the country’s 17 Heritage Villages.

Heritage Villages in the Department of Boyaca near Bogota

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

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

Village de Leyva

Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s special towns. Considered  the most beautiful village in Colombia, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited  villages in the country. Only a three hour trip 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 unique environment 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 recommend going with a guide. With a group of 3 or more guide services only run around $15 – $20 per person.

Just North of Bogota in the Department of Cudinamarca

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

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

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

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

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

A Town of Miracles just North of Cali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot, steamy towns down by the Caribbean coast

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

Mompox is about five hours inland from the Caribbean coast. It’s an intriguing and perfectly preserved colonial town.  Founded in 1537 Mompox (also spelled Mompos) was an important port city for cargo and travelers during in the colonial era.  

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

The Magdalena River splits in two just before Mompox. Back in the 1800s the branch, on which Mompox sits, silted up with mud and became unnavigable for big boats – so traffic was diverted down the other branch. Mompox became a sleepy, back-water town frozen in time.

The city center is like one huge museum.  All the villas in town leave the huge doors and windows open during the day and evenings displaying quaint courtyards and sitting rooms adorned with village antiques.

When the cool evening breezes float in at sunset,  the residents sit outside  their houses on the street to cool off and chat with neighbors while bats dive down the whitewashed streets for mosquitoes rising from the river.  There’s a languid charm to this place, quintessential colonial Colombia. There are very few cars here.  Most people stroll, ride a bicycle or take a motor-taxi.

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

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Houses on stilts over the lagoons of Cienaga.

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

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

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

Popayan – A Colonial City in Southern Colombia – More than just a White City

Popayan – (pronounced Popa-jan) is the capital of the department of Cauca. It is called ‘the white city’ or Ciudad Blanca due to the color of the colonial buildings and churches in its historical center.

It’s a very relaxed, attractive city with a great climate in southern Colombia. But few foreign tourists visit Popayan. When they do it’s usually just for a one-night layover on their way to Ecuador or the Colombian archaeological site of San Agustin.

This small city merits more attention than it gets. And while it may look quiet, provincial and unmemorable it’s actually charmingly refreshing. As its promotion slogan goes, ‘Popayan – more than just a white city’.

A street in Popayan

A History

This colonial city was founded by the Spanish in 1537. While there are no records of its pre-Hispanic history, it is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Colombia. During the colonial period, Popayan was an important town due to its logistical location between Lima, Quito and Cartagena. Here there were significant mines, manned for the most part with slaves from Africa, extracting gold and silver,

Great Climate

Located in southwestern Colombia, between the western and central Andean mountain ranges, Popayan has a population of 258,650. It sits at an altitude of 5,775 feet (1760 meters) above sea level, and has an average temperature of 64 degrees F. (18 °C).

Due to its altitude, the city has a very nice climate year around – warm during the day and cool at night, with a short rain shower late in the afternoon. The early settlers established sugar estates down in the hot, humid Cauca valley but went back up into the mountain town of Popayan to live and raise their families.

College Town

It’s a quiet, relaxed town that’s easy to explore.  A well-known university town, Popayan is home to 8 different state and private universities. Students are everywhere in the center and the city feels like a college town.

There are many small, family run hotels in the center, but few restaurants. Visitors complain the center is dead, lacking a vibrancy and essential services – especially in the evenings and on Sundays when it is often hard to find anything open.  But like many modern cities, the historic center houses mostly government and business offices and university buildings. 

Popayan has a sizable residential area just beyond the city’s center teaming with shopping centers and restaurants. A short taxi ride up Carrrera 9 imparts a more modern Popayan with plenty of dining and shopping options.

Earthquakes

The town of Popayan has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years after major earthquakes. The last one was on a Sunday morning of March 31, 1983. Mass was being held in the Cathedral Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion on the town’s main square of Plaza Mayor. The earthquake only lasted 18 seconds but it destroyed the cathedral killing many people – a total of 267 died in the city’s earthquake. The entire town was in shambles and much of the city’s original splendor was destroyed.

Reconstruction took more than 10 years. The cathedral was rebuilt. While the city still has some ruins and empty lots, it’s hard to see any signs of the quake today. As a result of this event, the first earthquake-seismic-design-code was established in Colombia.

Popayan’s historic downtown is rich with colonial architecture which has been preserved for more than four centuries. The cobblestone streets were almost all paved over in 1937 but current projects seek to recover the old city’s original look

It’s fun to stroll along the streets of the historic center soaking up the city’s architectural charms. 

Plenty to see and do

Puente Humilladero is a beautiful bridge 785 feet (240 meters) long made up of 11 arches. The bridge crosses a fault line between the city center and the Bolivar neighborhood connecting the central and northern zones of the city. Built in 1873, the designs were prepared by the Italian friar and a German engineer. Its well-planned design and strong construction have allowed the bridge to remain intact through many earthquakes. A park by the bridge is a gathering point for students.

Santo Domingo Church, Popayan

There are numerous churches and museums to visit in the center: the church of San Francisco, Santo Domingo, La Ermita and La Basilica with its famous Torre de Reloj, or the watchtower, which was built in the 1600s. There are many museums worth visiting like the museum of religious art and the museum of natural history.

Cerro de Moro hilltop overlooking the skyline of Popayan

The Morro de Tucan, or Cerro de Morro, is large hill overlooking the city. Where an ancient pre-Columbian pyramid structure once existed, today it is home to the large statue of the founder of the city. The hill offers a great lookout of the city below.  It’s a short climb to the top, but the stunning panoramas and sunset views make it a must-visit spot in downtown Popayan.

But some of the best things to see and do here lie just outside of the city.  After a day or two visit of the city, Popayan can then serve as a handy base to see the many interesting sites nearby.

Around Popayan

Thermal baths – Aguas Hirviendas at Coconuco

About 15 miles (25 km.) from Popayan, on the road to San Agustin, is Coconuco a beautiful spot surrounded by green hills and waterfalls. In the mountains over the town, the magical site of Termales Aquas Hirviendas (Thermal Baths of Boiling Waters) is found. Coconuco is only an hour bus ride outside Popayan. For $3 you can soak in the thermal pools.  Boiling pools of sulfur water are mixed with cold mountain spring water and channeled into the surrounding pools. Each pool has a different temp.

The spa ritual is: 15 minutes in the hot pool, get our, stand under a waterfall of ice-cold, mountain spring water, scream, jump back in a hot pool and repeat. There are a lot of locals here on the weekends but hardly anyone visits during the week. The locals bring boom boxes and sip Bacardi rum with Poker beer chasers pool side. There is also a volcanic spring fountain where you can drink sulfur water, they call aqua soda or soda water, which is very diuretic.

The Market of Silvia

Another big draw is the indigenous market in the village of Silvia on Tuesdays when the Guambiano tribe come to market from their four villages of Pueblito, La Campana, Guambia and Caciques. There are only 12,000 people remaining in the tribe. They speak their own language and dress in their colorful, traditional garb. At the market they sell their arts and crafts, vegetables and fruit and then buy supplies like rice beans, potatoes and farm equipment to take back to their villages.

They come and go in picturesque, exhaust spewing chiva buses and congregate around the main square of Silvia. They don’t like cameras believing photos rob them of their soul. But if you buy something from them, they will indulge you and pose for a shot. From the main square in Silvia walk uphill to the church for a great view of the village below.

Parque Natural De Purace (Purace National Park)

The tundra, or paramo, of Park Purace

Purace park is 534 square miles (860 square km) of volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, natural springs, waterfalls, lagoons and grasslands.  A volcanic zone in the Andes, it is S.E. of Popayan, on the road to San Agustin. It’s high-tundra (paramo) terrain. Purace, in the indigenous Quechan language, appropriately means ‘fire mountain.

The park contains many springs like the Termales de San Juan which are immersed in virgin, Andean beauty.  There are 200 types of orchids that grow here, 30 lakes and waterfalls like the Los Guachanos Cave Park Bondon waterfalls. Major Colombian rivers like the Magdalena and Cauca originate here. It is also home to a vast array of wildlife like the spectacled bear, otters, sloths, pumas, deer, eagles and Andean condors.

With the help of an indigenous guide and a day to spare, one can hike to the crater summit of the active Purace volcano 15,000 feet (4,646 meters). It’s a four-hour, 7 km. climb to the top and takes around 3-hours to descend. Technically, it’s not a particularly hard climb but the altitude makes it harder than it should be.

Semana Santa (Holy Week of Easter)

Since the 16th century, Popayan has been famous for its religious processions during the holy week proceeding Easter. The processions depict the passion and death of Jesus Christ. There are festivities all week long but the processions take place between Good Friday and Holy Saturday before Easter. Thousands of people from all around Colombia come to take part in the event.

Getting There

There is an airport in Popayan and one can fly in from any major Colombian airport. Or come by bus from the cities of Cali to the north or Pasto to the south – both relatively short trips.

A southern Colombian itinerary would require at least 10-12 days: 3-4 days taking in the sights in and around Popayan; 3 days to cross the paramo of Park Purace and to visit the archeological sites of San Agustin (a 6-hour bus trip from Popayan); 2-3 days to venture north to visit to tombs of Tierradento (a 6-hour bus trip). After Tierradentro, there’s a road from heading back to Popayan (a 4- hour bus trip). One could also visit Cali from Popayan (a 3-hour bus trip) or Pasto (a 6-hour bus trip from Popayan).

For more on see: travel in Southern Colombia

Cali – the City of Eternal Summer and Salsa

Mostly what you read and hear about the city of Cali goes something like this: Cali is hot. The people like to dance. But the town is short on sights and things to do so it’s o.k. to skip. The city rarely makes the list of ‘top destination in the country’. And while most travelers don’t even bother with the southern part of the country, the tourists who do visit Cali are usually passing through in route to other sites in Southern Colombia, or to Ecuador. But if you’re touring Colombia and don’t visit Cali you’re missing out on a great Colombian city.  

A hot, gritty city with a real zest for life it’s called “the city of eternal summer and salsa”. Cali is one of the oldest city’s in South America. It was founded by the Spanish in 1536 – though inhabited by the indigenous peoples thousands of years prior.

City Statistics

At an altitude of 3,340 feet (1,081 meters), the city sprawls out over a valley floor of Cordillera Occidental mountains. It spans 216 square miles (560 meters) (216 sq. mi) with an urban area of 46 square miles (121 km). Cali is the second-largest city in the country. With a population of 2.5 million people, Cali is the third most populous city in Colombia after Bogota and Medellin. An economic powerhouse, Cali has one of the fastest-growing economies. It’s the seat of 150 multinational companies and boasts all the conveniences of modern living with numerous shopping malls and two soccer stadiums.

Producing 20% of Colombia’s G.D.P. Cali is the capital of Val de Cauca, a department producing sugar, rice, cotton, coffee and cattle. Cali is the only major Colombian city with access to the Pacific coast with major highways cutting through 75 miles of mountains to the port city of Buenaventura.   

Cathedral La Ermita

What to See and Do

Cali is not expensive. There are lots of modestly priced hotels and restaurants. I stayed on Sixth Avenue or ‘La Sexta’ – which, according the guide books, is the place to be.  It’s an avenue smack dab in the city center full of clubs and restaurants and shops, well patrolled and safe to walk even late at night.

Cali is a city that can be easily be explored on foot. Walk under the shade trees along the riverbank in the historic center, admire the architecture of churches and visit the city’s many museums.

Sixth Avenue starts at Bolivar Park in the south. Cross over Puente Ortiz and you’re in the historic center. Stroll along the river on Carrera 1 which follows the Cali River winding through town.  The river walk is decorated by feline statues called ‘cats on the river’ made by the artist Hernando Tejada.

There are plenty of sights to see along the way: the Ortiz bridge, the white neo-Gothic Cathedral of La Ermita, The La Merced Chapel, the Archeological Museum, the Gold Museum, Municipal theater, the Tertulia museum and many more.

The west end of the river walk ends at San Antonio park. The surrounding neighborhood has a bohemian identity with boutique hotels, upscale restaurants, vegetarian fare, cafes, hostels and alternative offerings. A lot of travelers are stay in this area.  

Cali has a large central food market in the southern end of the historical center. The city has some of the best stocked wine and liquor stores I’ve found in all Colombia. And just a short taxi ride from the center the best zoo in Colombia, Zoologico de Cali, can be found. Parque del Perro is a dining district west of Cali – famous for its large statue of a dog in the square. And, of course, there’s Cali’s nightlife.

Cali’s Nightlife and Salsa Fever

Cali is famous for its steamy salsa dancing and a nightlife second to none. Self-proclaimed the ‘Salsa Capital of the World’, salsa became popular in Cali in the 1940s and 50s with the popularity of Cuban and Argentinian music. Then in the 1970s and 80s, with the Cali cartels and lots of drug money in circulation, hundreds of bars and nightclubs sprung up around the city. There are many international festivals in the city celebrating its salsa tradition, but it’s the poorest neighborhoods that keep the salsa fever alive.

There are many ‘zonas rosas’ or entertainment districts around the city filled with dance clubs and bars.  After La Sexta, in the center, there’s the Barrio Granada and Juanchito. These areas are famous for their night life, lively streets, dance clubs and bars. The northern part of city is an industrial area full of working factories during the day and dance clubs and love motels at night.

The people of Cali love dancing. You can see it’s in their blood. If the music is playing in the distance somewhere and they’re moving to it. All someone has to do is turn on a radio and people start busting a moveIn the plazas, in the evenings, they have free public dance exercise – crank up boom box and the salsa dancing begins. And it looks like anything but exercise.

Things to see outside of the city  

Calima Lake is a beautiful lake in the mountains above Cali,

Cerro de la Tres Cruzes is a hilltop just outside of the city with 3 crosses. People like to hike the hill to the top.

Cristo Rey is another religious destination – a park above the city with a 75 foot tall statue of Christ similar to the one found in Rio de Janeiro and in Bucaramanga.

Cool things off by taking a trip up in the nearby mountains. Go find a country restaurant in the mountains or pack a picnic.

Cali is an interesting city with an electrifying atmosphere.  The city’s slogan is: ‘fall in love with Cali’ ‘Enamorarte de Cali’. Fall in love, see the sights, visit the clubs, learn to salsa dance. The city will draw you in and stay with you long after you leave town.

Snowbirds in Colombia and Other Forms of Tourism

I spend my winters in Colombia. I’m retired and live 8-9 months of the year in a northern climate.  But when it gets bitter cold I gladly head south. Technically, this makes me a snowbird, or ‘un pajero de nieve’.  

I’m always trying to define, for my ever-curious, Colombian hosts, what a snowbird is and why it is I stay in their country 3-4 months a year. I explain things like the 23.5-degree tilt of the earth, the four seasons, the polar vortex, what -40 degrees feels like to breath in and why northerners migrate to warmer climates in the winter. Notwithstanding, my bird analogy remains foreign to their equatorial experience.

Colombian Holidays

It isn’t that the Colombians don’t understand the sweet art of doing nothing. They love to travel, visit family, head to the beaches, mountains and party.  And they have 18 public holidays, known as ‘festivos’, a year to do it.  Colombia has more public holidays than the any other county besides Sri Lanka and India. And when a holiday falls on a weekend or mid-week, it’s moved to the following Monday giving them a total of #8 – 3-day weekends.

What is Snowbird Tourism?

Snowbird tourism is a ‘thing’ in Colombia though misunderstood.  Snowbirds are people from northern climates who move to the southern climates during the winter. Seasonal migrants, when the snow flies in the north they move to the south in order to keep enjoying comfortable climates and outdoor activities.

Snowbird’ was a term coined in 1923 describing migrant workers from the north who came south to work in the winter. Around 1979 it was relaunched to describe retired tourists from the north living in the sunbelt areas of the USA during winter months.  Nearly 4 out of 5 snowbirds were from Canada.

Though snowbirds are of all ages, the baby boom generation (people 50-70 years old) make up the majority. In urban-slang the term has negative connotations; snowbirds are outsiders, seasonal visitors, usually old geezers who drive slowly and wear white socks with sandals. ‘Winter visitor’ is the politically correct term being encouraged.

Snowbird migration can have a big impact on the local economies. The winter visitors come and spend money, though some find temporary jobs. Some come hauling their own home – trailers, campers, motor homes and are called ‘Rvers’.  In the winters, ‘Rver’ parks in the sunbelt fill up and in the summer sit empty. Snowbirders form their own communities, associations and have newspapers and magazines and advertisers addressing their interests.

Snowbirds in Colombia

But these days the winter visitors from the north travel much further south than the southern USA sunbelt. It must be global warming.  For the well-traveled, old-hippy baby boomers, the sunbelt doesn’t end at the Mexican border. It now includes Central and South America. Snowbirds follow the sun down to Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Colombia – countries where favorable foreign exchange rates allow retirement dollars to stretch a lot further.

In Colombia I’ve met snowbirds from North America though most are from Europe – largely Germany and France. They rent apartments by the week or month in major cities like Medellin, Bogota, Cali, Cartagena and Santa Marta.

They travel between the colonial villages of Mompox, Barichara, San Gil and Villa de Leyva. They rent country homes in the mountains and coffee zones. They have extended stays in hotels and travel the beaches, mountains, islands and jungles.

Though they often stay in the more visited destinations in Colombia, it’s not uncommon to see them venture towards the more rugged and isolated parts of Colombia like Los Llanos, the Amazon, Ciudid Perdida, La Guajira and Tierradentro.

Different Types of Tourism:

While many people associate Colombia with a certain kind of tourism, there are many different types of domestic and international tourism currently in existence.  Here’s a list of touristic activities currently taking place in Colombia:

Youth tourism – fast paced affordable travel for young travelers

Recreational tourism – rejuvenating, bicycling, walking tours

Adventure tourism – extreme sports river rafting, speleology, diving

Ecotourism – venture into the countryside, environmental, wilderness exploring

Agricultural tourism – visit a coffee farm, stay on a ranch in Los Llanos

Wellness tourism – spas, quality affordable medical options, cosmetics

Cruise ship layovers – walking tours, visiting museums, markets

Volunteer tourism – learn the language, discover the country, assistance

Whale watching tours get close to the whales on Colombia’s Pacific coast

Bird watching tours – birding tours, unique bird species, photography

Honeymoon tourism – romantic getaways, must see destinations

Luxury tourism – luxury travel, tailored-made holidays, exclusive resorts

Safaris – natural wildlife watching experiences

Culinary tourism – for the foodies-visit restaurants, markets, food tours

Religious tourism – Catholic traditions, visiting sacred sights, churches

Festival tourism – the Carnival in Barranquilla, Medellin flower festival

Yoga tourism – yoga resorts, meditation, yoga on the beach, spas

Gambling tourism – best casinos in Bogota and Cartagena

Conference tourism – incentive company planned trips and tourism

Drug tourism – illegal in Colombia except for the hallucinogenic ‘Yage’

Sex tourism -while prostitution is legal, exploitation or ‘pimping’ is not

Dark tourism – going on a Pablo Escobar themed tour near Medellin

Snowbird tourism -warm destinations for older, seasonal tourists

I’m sure there are more. One could go into depth on any one of these classifications. At a later date we will.  And while these groupings categorize main travel motivations, tourists and travelers will combine many of these activities in the course of single trip.

Snowbirds are not the actual bird

The next time you hear the term snowbird, you’ll know they are not talking about the dark-eyed junco – a bird that migrates north (not south) in the winter months.  

They are talking about the baby-boomers, crazy gringos, strangers and backpackers who come to enjoy the equatorial sun.  Nice people, they say. They mind their own business. They show up around the end of the year and will probably be gone by Easter

See also articles on retiring in South America:

Retirement in Ecuador

Retirement in Panama

Popular Destinations in Colombia – Tourist Traps or Mandatory Stops?

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?

The Cities:

  • Cartagena
  • Medellin (Guatape)
  • Bogota (Candellaria – Monserrate)
Historic center of Cartagena

Cartagena

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, Capurgana near the Panamanian border.

Tourist Trap? Yes, always.

Plaza Botero – Medellin

Medellin

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

Worth it? Definitely worth the visit of a few days. Medellin is the favorite city of many expats, snowbirds and travelers. Check out the sights around Medellin like Guatape, Santa Fe or small towns in the coffee zone south of the city – Jerico, Jardin and Aguadas.  See articles: Things to do Around Medellin. Also Alternative Coffee Zones

Tourist Trap? On its way to becoming one

Playing chess on Cra. 7 in Bogota

Bogota

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 Beaches:

  • Tayrona Park
  • Palomino
  • San Andres
Beach at Tayrona Park

Tayrona Park

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.

Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: Beaches around Santa MartaPlaya Blanca, Buritaca

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

Palomino beach

Palomino

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

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 Parks:

  • San Agustin
  • The Coffee Zone (Salento – Cocora Valley)
  • Ciudad Perdida
  • La Guajira
  • Cano Cristales
A devilish statue in the park at San Agustin

San Agustin

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

Coffee beans drying on a farmer’s rooftop in the sun

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

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.

Off the Beaten Path Alternative:  Tierradentro; San Jose de Guaviare – the rock paintings of Cerro Azul

Worth it: Yes – if you got the legs for it and are tolerant of back-country accommodations.

Tourist Trap? Not yet

A beach on the desert coast of La Guajira

La Guajira

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 la Vela 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.

Off the Beaten Path Alternative: Bahia Solano, Nuqui and the beaches on the Pacific.

Worth it? Yes, if you are o.k. with spartan accommodations for a few days.

Tourist Trap? Over-tourism is a reality

Cano Cristales

Cano Cristales

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

The Villages:

  • Villa de Leyva
  • San Gil (Barichara)
  • Mompox
Plaza Major Villa de Leyva

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

San Gil

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

streets of Mompox

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

The Churches:

  • Las Lajas
  • Zipaquiria
Las Lajas church near Ipiales

Las Lajas

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

A church in the Salt Cathedral mine

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.

Tourist Trap? Yes

Bogota – What to See and Do in a 1-2 Day Stay

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.

Museums

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.

Painting by Botero – ‘The Earthquarke’

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.

The Military Museum

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.

For more on things to do in and around Bogota see: http://colombiatravelreporter.com/bogota-zipaquira-worth-seeing/