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’.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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).
Mostly what you read and hear about the city of Cali goes something like this: Cali is hot. The people like to dance. But the town is short on sights and things to do so it’s o.k. to skip. The city rarely makes the list of ‘top destination in the country’. And while most travelers don’t even bother with the southern part of the country, the tourists who do visit Cali are usually passing through in route to other sites in Southern Colombia, or to Ecuador. But if you’re touring Colombia and don’t visit Cali you’re missing out on a great Colombian city.
A hot, gritty city with a real zest for life it’s called “the city of eternal summer and salsa”. Cali is one of the oldest city’s in South America. It was founded by the Spanish in 1536 – though inhabited by the indigenous peoples thousands of years prior.
At an altitude of 3,340 feet (1,081 meters), the city sprawls out over a valley floor of Cordillera Occidental mountains. It spans 216 square miles (560 meters) (216 sq. mi) with an urban area of 46 square miles (121 km). Cali is the second-largest city in the country. With a population of 2.5 million people, Cali is the third most populous city in Colombia after Bogota and Medellin. An economic powerhouse, Cali has one of the fastest-growing economies. It’s the seat of 150 multinational companies and boasts all the conveniences of modern living with numerous shopping malls and two soccer stadiums.
Producing 20% of Colombia’s G.D.P. Cali is the capital of Val de Cauca, a department producing sugar, rice, cotton, coffee and cattle. Cali is the only major Colombian city with access to the Pacific coast with major highways cutting through 75 miles of mountains to the port city of Buenaventura.
What to See and Do
Cali is not expensive. There are lots of modestly priced hotels and restaurants. I stayed on Sixth Avenue or ‘La Sexta’ – which, according the guide books, is the place to be. It’s an avenue smack dab in the city center full of clubs and restaurants and shops, well patrolled and safe to walk even late at night.
Cali is a city that can be easily be explored on foot. Walk under the shade trees along the riverbank in the historic center, admire the architecture of churches and visit the city’s many museums.
Sixth Avenue starts at Bolivar Park in the south. Cross over Puente Ortiz and you’re in the historic center. Stroll along the river on Carrera 1 which follows the Cali River winding through town. The river walk is decorated by feline statues called ‘cats on the river’ made by the artist Hernando Tejada.
There are plenty of sights to see along the way: the Ortiz bridge, the white neo-Gothic Cathedralof La Ermita, The La Merced Chapel, the Archeological Museum, the Gold Museum, Municipal theater, the Tertulia museum and many more.
The west end of the river walk ends at San Antonio park. The surrounding neighborhood has a bohemian identity with boutique hotels, upscale restaurants, vegetarian fare, cafes, hostels and alternative offerings. A lot of travelers are stay in this area.
Cali has a large central food market in the southern end of the historical center. The city has some of the best stocked wine and liquor stores I’ve found in all Colombia. And just a short taxi ride from the center the best zoo in Colombia, Zoologico de Cali, can be found. Parque del Perro is a dining district west of Cali – famous for its large statue of a dog in the square. And, of course, there’s Cali’s nightlife.
Cali’s Nightlife and Salsa Fever
Cali is famous for its steamy salsa dancing and a nightlife second to none. Self-proclaimed the ‘Salsa Capital of the World’, salsa became popular in Cali in the 1940s and 50s with the popularity of Cuban and Argentinian music. Then in the 1970s and 80s, with the Cali cartels and lots of drug money in circulation, hundreds of bars and nightclubs sprung up around the city. There are many international festivals in the city celebrating its salsa tradition, but it’s the poorest neighborhoods that keep the salsa fever alive.
There are many ‘zonas rosas’ or entertainment districts around the city filled with dance clubs and bars. After La Sexta, in the center, there’s the Barrio Granada and Juanchito. These areas are famous for their night life, lively streets, dance clubs and bars. The northern part of city is an industrial area full of working factories during the day and dance clubs and love motels at night.
The people of Cali love dancing. You can see it’s in their blood. If the music is playing in the distance somewhere and they’re moving to it. All someone has to do is turn on a radio and people start busting a move. In the plazas, in the evenings, they have free public dance exercise – crank up boom box and the salsa dancing begins. And it looks like anything but exercise.
Things to see outside of the city
Calima Lake is a beautiful lake in the mountains above Cali,
Cerro de la Tres Cruzes is a hilltop just outside of the city with 3 crosses. People like to hike the hill to the top.
Cristo Rey is another religious destination – a park above the city with a 75 foot tall statue of Christ similar to the one found in Rio de Janeiro and in Bucaramanga.
Cool things off by taking a trip up in the nearby mountains. Go find a country restaurant in the mountains or pack a picnic.
Cali is an interesting city with an electrifying atmosphere. The city’s slogan is: ‘fall in love with Cali’ ‘Enamorarte de Cali’. Fall in love, see the sights, visit the clubs, learn to salsa dance. The city will draw you in and stay with you long after you leave town.
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.
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
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
There are dozens of lists on the web of tourist destinations in Colombia. Most of these lists are redundant outlining the most popular destinations nearly every tourist visits when traveling to, or through, Colombia. But are these must-see destinations tourist traps deserving of your precious time and hard-earned money?
What’s the difference? Tourist destinations are popular places, cities or sites heavily dependent on revenues from tourism. They market themselves as places tourists absolutely must visit when they come to the country. A tourist trap carries an obvious negative connotation. According to Webster, tourist traps are ‘places that attract and sometimes exploit tourists for their money’. Every traveler has visited a few of these in their lifetime.
Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Florence, Rome, Venice, New York, the Acropolis in Greece, Disneyland, Phuket Beach in Thailand – all valid destinations, to be sure. These are places on everyone’s bucket list. But they have also been called tourist traps. And depending on the time of year you go; they will be overrun with tourists. (Niagara Falls in the summer months is a definite tourist trap. But in the dead of winter it’s magical with hotels deeply discounted and hardly a tourist in sight.)
While most people come to South American expecting an exotic, natural, untraveled experience, they often find themselves at renown destinations, like Machu Picchu, sharing the sights with hundreds of other camera wielding tourists suffering altitude sickness.
The traveler’s dilemma is this:to avoid these destinations or join the masses and go anyway. At its best tourism is an industry providing jobs and revenue for millions of people. At its worst, tourism strains neighborhoods and eco-systems.
Colombia Destinations – the 16 Places Everybody Visits:
Colombia is developing its tourism industry. Being a large country, it has countless destinations of interest – most of them undiscovered by foreign tourism. Some say, the current, total volume of tourists in any one place in Colombia is still too little to be able to define them as tourist traps. But travelers in Colombia are continually visiting the same 16 destinations – ignoring the less illustrious sites. And the seasoned Latin America travelers say many of these top destinations are becoming, or already are, tourist traps.
Below is the standard list of Colombian destinations: cities, beaches, parks, villages and churches. If you have been reading about Colombia, you’ve seen this list before. All valid destinations. And if you visit Colombia just once, or several times in a lifetime, these are highly regarded places you should and will see. But these places are also tourist traps, especially during Colombian holidays. You have to know when to go.
These destinations are seeing more than their fair share of tourism. Overtourism is the technical term. But are they becoming or are they already tourist traps? Are they overrated? Are they worth your time and money? And are there some alternative destinations one could be visiting instead?
Bogota (Candellaria – Monserrate)
is a vibrant port city where cruise ships dock. It has a beautiful historic center and is the #1 tourist destination in Colombia. The city has the feel of a touristy city in Spain. The city within the walls – also called the inner city – or El Centro, was where the high officials and nobility originally lived. You can easily walk most of its narrow streets strolling around this area in a half day. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: Very high – especially in the historic center in the a.m. when the cruise ships disembark their passengers from 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. Also high in the Getsemani neighborhood and the nearby Islas del Rosario.
Difficulty: Easy city to get to by international flight, bus, or cruise ship. The city center is small and contained. The climate is very hot.
Off the beaten path alternative cities to visit on the Carribean: Isla Fuerte near Cartagena, Santa Marta or even Riohacha.
Worth it? Definitely merits a visit of a couple days. Many stay a week. Fly into Cartagena and after a couple days try meandering up the coast to Santa Marta or, for the more adventurous, Capurgananear the Panamanian border.
Tourist Trap? Yes, always.
A dynamic, contemporary, prosperous city of 2.6 million people it’s known as the land of the eternal spring. It’s hot during the day and cool at night. The residents call themselves Paisas. The city is easy to travel thanks to an excellent metro system and cable cars. There are plenty of restaurants, museums and enough things to see and do to easily fill a week. (see full articles: ‘Medellin: the land of eternal spring’ and ‘Traveling Medellin: Places to visit around Medellin’)
Tourist Saturation: High in the center and in the neighborhoods of El Poblado and Laureles.
Difficulty: Easy to get to by international flight or bus. A centrally located, easy city to visit in Colombia.
Off the beaten path: Alternate cities in the lower altitude mountains like Bucaramanga, Cali
People are divided when it comes to Colombia’s capital city of Bogota: they either love it or they hate it. A large cosmopolitan city of 8 million people sitting at an altitude of 8,660 feet, 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 in South America, and the world, after Quito and La Paz. It’s known for its museums, nightlife and fine food. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: medium/high in the center, at the main museums and in the neighborhood of Candelaria
Difficulty: It’s a large cosmopolitan city with extensive urban sprawl. Easy to get to by international flight or bus, centrally located in Colombia.
Off the beaten path Alternative Cities high in the mountains: Popayan, Pasto, Medellin
Worth it? If you like big cities, Bogota has a big city vibe and all the trimmings. Spend a few days in the city and then venture out to see the many sights just outside the city: Villa de Leyva, Zipaquira (the church in a salt mine), Lake Guatavita, Honda
Tourist Trap? The city is too big to really notice
The park is a tropical paradise. It’s just a 45-minute bus ride outside of Santa Marta. It’s so close one can, and maybe should, keep a hotel room in SM and go visit the park during day. Accommodations in the park are few, pricey and mostly kept for people on tours. There’s a $18 entrance fee to the park which has seen prices sky rocket in the last 10 years as the park has become a destination.
Tayrona, is known for its palm-shaded coves, coastal lagoons and rain forest. From the park entrance one must walk to the numerous beaches located within the park. The beaches at the entrance of the park get the most visitors. More isolated , distant beaches, harder to get to – up to a 3-4 hour walk each way can be reached either on foot or by motor boats leaving from Neguanje Bay in the park.
Tourism Saturation: High
Difficulty: Just a short bus ride from the city of Santa Marta. The beach is usually closed for a month for maintenance in February so check first.
Worth it? Yes, if you like pristine, undeveloped beaches in a park setting. Tayrona is not the easiest beach to get to or the most accommodating.
Tourist Trap? Yes
I like Palomino Beach, but I used to like it even more, before it became a destination. Palomino is a little village, catering mostly to the independent tourists with a beautiful beach 10 miles long. South of town, where the Palomino river empties into the ocean, a long spit of sand offers an ideal option of fresh and salt water bathing along with food tents serving up fresh fish dishes.
Tourism Saturation: I was in Palomino two years ago when the town was just another dusty, sleepy pueblo. But somewhere between then and now it became a backpacker stop. The sheer number of tourists has increased embracing a younger crowd. The town seems to be straining under the volume of tourists while all the residents are trying to cash in on their new cottage industry.
Difficulty: The beach is two hours bus ride north of Santa Marta. One must walk about a half-mile to the beach or rent a motorcycle from the main highway.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: Try the Pacific Coast just south of the town of Bahia Solano there are beautiful, desolate beaches near the town of El Valle – Playa Almejal and Playa Cuevita. Great waves, bare-bone services – hardly discovered by tourism.
Worth it? If you’re looking for a party beach with a young vibe, yes. If you want peace, quiet, there are resorts further up the beach, though a bit pricey, offering a more secluded experience.
Tourist Trap? Yes
San Andres Island
is 350 miles off the coast of Colombia and is actually closer to the mainland of Nicaragua. The island combines the diverse cultures of English, Africans, Spaniards and pirates. Visitors first spot the island’s famous sea of seven colors from the airplane. Full of white sand beaches the island is surrounded by coral reefs. During the day one can beach comb, sun bathe, dive and snorkel in the coral reefs or go shopping at the duty-free stores. At night the island comes alive with music beats of reggae, calypso and salsa.
Tourism Saturation: San Andres if very popular with Colombian tourists. Cheap all-inclusive travel deals are promoted throughout Colombia. San Andres is probably the most famous beach/island destination in the country. It’s especially crowded during the Colombian holidays of Semana Santa (the week before Easter) and during the Christmas holidays
Difficulty: One has to fly in, but the island is quite developed.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: Providencia Islands, also called Old Providence, lies 40 miles to the north of San Andres. It’s more remote and less visited. The Gorgona Islands, a former penal colony and protected ecological area, lie in southern Colombia’s Pacific.
Worth it? If you like islands and beaches and mingling with Colombians in party mode, then yes. But islands are always more expensive than beaches on the mainland.
Tourist Trap? Yes
The Coffee Zone (Salento – Cocora Valley)
is a pleasant country village in southern Colombia where one can explore the country’s finest archeological patrimony immersed in a beautiful rural landscape. People have been inhabiting this steep terrain for 6,000 years. These tombs and statues were created around 3,300 B.C. – about the time they were building the pyramids in Egypt and well before the Incas, whose civilization arose in the 13th century and was thriving when Columbus discovered the Americas.
In visiting San Agustin and its surroundings, one should allow at least three nights and two full days. One day to visit the town and the archeological park ‘Bosque de las Estatuas’ which lies just a 40-minute walk outside of town. And another day for a long jeep tour to the outlying archaeological sites – Alto de los Idolos, Alto de las Piedras and the Museum of Obando. The jeep tour (which costs around $10-$15 per person) passes through an incredible landscape of mountains, gorges, coffee and sugar cane farms. It stops at the beautiful waterfalls of Alto di Bordones and Salto di Mortino, and at the head of the Rio Magdalena. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: High in the town, especially during Colombian holidays; medium at the archeological sites.
Difficulty: Moderate. It takes a little travel time to get there by bus. The nearest airport is Garzon 46 miles (75 km.) away – national flights only. One can arrive at San Agustin by way of Cali and Popayan. It’s a grueling 5-hour bus trip from Popayan which goes over the Cordillera Occidental mountains into the paramo through the National Park of Purace. Or a 7-8 hour trip from Bogota by bus to the city of Neiva then onto San Agustin.
Off the Beaten Path Alternative: Tierradentro is a park just a few hours north of San Agustin. Only a fraction of the tourists who visit San Agustin make it to Tierradentro which I think offers the better Indiana Jones experience. Tierradentro has 162 subterranean tombs located in 4 different sites dating back to the 6th – 9th centuries A.D.
Worth it? Yes – especially if you like archeology. And the countryside is stunning.
Tourist Trap? Only during long Colombian holidays
The Coffee Zone
A visit to Colombia’s coffee region in the last 15 years meant a trip to an area known as the ‘coffee triangle’ or the ‘coffee axis’. Located between the cities of Manizales, Armenia and Perieria, this coffee country destination has been a very successful tourism/ marketing campaign launched by several adjoining regions in southwest Colombia.
Here they say the best coffee in the world is produced. A rather heated point of contention because every city and region in Colombia claims to produce, not only the country’s best coffee, but also the most beautiful women.
Foreign tourists, visiting Colombia with limited time constraints, have been flocking to this area in droves. Colombia is famous for its coffee. And the coffee triangle has been an attractive place to go and learn all about it. Here they: stay on a coffee farm ~ visit coffee roasting facilities ~ tour a handful of villages ~ go to the National Coffee Park near Montenegro ~ visit Salento ~ go to the Valley of Cocora Park to see the wax palm trees ~ buy some souvenirs ~ fly home.
Granted, it’s a great trip, and the agricultural tourism has greatly assisted the town merchants and farmers. The area is beautiful and well-run and the whole thing sells like mojitos on the beach. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: High especially in the town of Salento, medium in the Cocora Valley National Park
Difficulty: One can fly into Armenia, Manizales or Perieria from Bogota or Medellin. If you have a couple days to spare take a bus and enjoy the countryside.
Off the Beaten Path Alternative: There’s coffee farms and regions all over Colombia. My favorite coffee area is just north of the coffee triangle, containing the quaint and colorful villages of Jardin, Jerico, Aguadas and Salamina. This area is more beautiful and much less expensive. These villages, are all located within a 2-6-hour trip south of Medellin (a couple hours north of Manizales), could easily be worked around a trip visiting Medellin or a larger trip visiting the towns and sights of ‘the coffee triangle’.
Worth it: Yes, the countryside is beautiful
Tourist Trap? Yes
Ciudad Perdida (the lost city)
Ciudad Perdida disappeared into the jungle of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta during the Spanish conquest. The stone city dates back to the year 800, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu and was only discovered in the 1970s. Visiting the lost city is only accessible on foot and is one of Colombia’s most exciting and breathtaking hikes. It takes 5 days to complete the hike. Price: round trip costs $500 per person with a guide and rudimentary lodging and meals. This is one of Colombia’s most popular hikes and you will see people of all ages and fitness levels completing it.
Tourism Saturation: Medium/low due to it remote accessibility and price.
Difficulty: High. Required 5-6 hours of hiking a day for 5 days in a row, coping with rain, mud, bugs, heat and few amenities. One can fly into the closest city of Santa Marta. Most trips leave from the village of El Mamey – a 90 minute ride from Santa Marta.
Worth it: Yes – if you got the legs for it and are tolerant of spartan-like accommodations.
Tourist Trap? Not yet
One of the strangest and most spectacular spots in South American is located at the northern most point of South American in the Guajira peninsula which is a reserve for the Wayuu – a Colombian indigenous tribe. Bordering Venezuela, it’s one of most visually stunning places on earth where bare, wild desert landscape meets the blue turquoise of the Atlantic. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: medium/low – the major attraction is the village of Cabo de laVela which is the destination of the shortest 2-day trip. The 3-day trip goes to Punta Gallina and points beyond.
Difficulty: You have to hire a guide with a jeep and go with a small group. The tour varies from 2-3 days at a price of $150 – $200 per person. You ride in jeeps over rough, desert terrain, sleep in hammocks and eat fish for 3 days. There is an airport in the city Riohacha where most of the tours originate.
Worth it? Yes, if you are o.k. with spartan accommodations for a few days.
Tourist Trap? Over-tourism is a reality
Caño Cristales is a Colombian river located in the Amazon jungle. A tributary of the Guayabero River, the river is commonly called the “River of Five Colors” or the “Liquid Rainbow”. For six months of the year, Caño Cristales looks like any other river. But from about the end of June to the end of Novembere the river comes alive with red, green, yellow, blue and black hues due to the presence of an aquatic plant called macarenia clavigera.
There is no lodging or camping available at Caño Cristales. So visitors must stay in the frontier town of La Macarena, pop. 30,000.The best way to get there is by air.
To enter the Cano Cristales national park, you must be accompanied by a guide from a tour company. A maximum of 200 visitors are allowed into the park per day. Entrance fee to the park is $30 per person.
By Air: tour agencies offer package deals to the park. Fly in from Bogota and Villavicencio. The plans start at $300 for a 3 night stay not including airfare up to $700 per person for a 4 night stay including airfare to and from Medellin.
Tourism Saturation: High during the season – June-November , especially weekends and holidays.
Difficulty: By land: from Nieva to Villavicencio to San Jose de Guaviare it’s a 20-hour bus trip best divided into 2-3 days. The final leg of the trip from San José del Guaviare to La Macarena is done by air or boat and is the most expensive. It’s a 5-hour trip on the Guayabero river or an 8-hour trip in a jeep over dirt roads through the jungle.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: The rivers of Tranquilandia, Cano Rosado and Cano Sabanas, near San Jose de Guaviare, also succumb to the rainbow effect June-November. While smaller than the Guayabero River they are less controlled, easier to access and much cheaper to get to.
Worth it? Canos Cristales is at its peak from the end of June till the end of November while most foreign tourists visit Colombia December – April. It’s a long, pricey trip. But any excuse for immersion in the Amazon jungle is a good one.
Tourist Trap: Yes, during Colombian holidays
Villa de Leyva
San Gil (Barichara)
Villa de Leyva
is considered the most beautiful village in Colombia. And being within a three-hour trip of Bogota, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited villages in Colombia.
Declared a national monument, the town boasts an impressively preserved main square, Plaza Major, the biggest and the most beautiful cobble-stoned square in Colombia. The town of 13,000 inhabitants is a tourist mecca with 320 hotels, 380 restaurants and 170 stores. It is also the second most expensive city in Colombia – after Cartagena.
Tourism Saturation: High especially on weekends and Colombian holidays.
Difficulty: An easy trip by bus from Bogota or Bucaramanga in the north. Fly into Bogota.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: The Spanish colonial villages of: Mongui, Barichara, Pamplona, Playa de Belen
Worth it? Yes. Plaza Major alone is worth the experience but only if you’re in Bogota or on your way south from San Gil. Otherwise it would be hard to justify a special trip just to see Villa de Leyva.
Tourist Trap? Yes
has been nicknamed the extreme sports adventure capital of Colombia. Located between two rivers the town is larger than expected but laid back. Here there are plenty of hotels and restaurants. The town’s main park, Parque Principal, is a nice place to sit and soak in the energy of the town.
This is the place in Colombia for adventure-seeking travelers. People put up with all night bus trips from Bogota or Medellin just to get here. If you’re an adrenaline junkie and have adventure sports on your bucket list, this is your Colombian destination! Sports like river rafting, caving, rappelling, bungee jumping and paragliding are available for just a fraction of what it would cost you back home. San Gil is even cheaper than other South American adventure destinations like Banos in Ecuador.
Tourism Saturation: Moderate/high. The nearby colonial town of Barichara also sees a lot of tourism.
Difficulty: There is an airport at Palonegro a 40 mile (63 km.) from San Gil. From the Bucaramanga bus terminal, it is a three-bus hour trip; 7 hours from Bogota.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: The colonial villages of Mongui, Pamplona, Playa Belen, Curiti
Worth it? Yes, especially if you like extreme sports. Otherwise an interesting city with lots of Spanish colonial villages to visit nearby – Barichara, Guane, Curiti, Magotes
Tourist Trap? Yes, during Colombian holidays
Mompox (or Mompos)
Mompox (also spelled Mompos) was an important port city on the Magdelena River for cargo and travelers during in the colonial era. Today, Mompox is a sleepy, back-water town frozen in time. The heat and humidity in this town is oppressive, but the architecture of the center is fascinating. There are nice restaurants and boutique hotels along the river all nicely priced. The city center is like one huge museum. All the villas in town leave the huge doors and windows open displaying quaint courtyards and sitting rooms adorned with antiques. There’s a languid charm to this place, quintessential colonial Colombia. There are very few cars here. Most people stroll, ride a bicycle or take a motor-taxi. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: Medium/high
Difficulty: There’s an airport in town. From Cargatena it’s a day trip in a bus. But there is no way to get here directly by car from central Colombia. You have to take buses from Sincelejo then another to Maragane then a small ferry boat up the Magdelena River to the port of La Bodega and then a collective taxi or motor-taxi to Mompox.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: Colonial towns like Mongui, Barichara, and Buga.
Worth it? Depending on the route it can be hard to get to. There’s lots of heat and humidity. Sightseeing in the early a.m. and evening highly recommended.
Tourist Trap? No
Las Lajas Sanctuary, a catholic church located in southern Colombia about seven miles from the Ecuadorian border, is considered the most beautiful church in Colombia. It’s one of Colombia’s most important destinations for pilgrimage and religious tourism
Located outside of the Colombian town Ipiales, the church is 130 feet tall and bridges the Guaitara River 300 feet below. Colombia, being a Catholic country, once ruled by Spain, has lots of stunning churches. But Las Lajas combines impressive Gothic architecture, a unique location, incredible design and a great story. (see full article)
Tourism Saturation: High especially during Colombian holidays
Difficulty: It’s a day trip from the southern Colombian city of Pasto – a 4-hour bus trip each way due to ongoing construction work on the Pan-American highway. But if one is enroute to Ecuador, then it’s just a ten-minute bus ride from the bus station at the border town of Ipiales to the church. (There’s a baggage check at the bus station.) It’s a more convenient stop before or after making the Colombia-Ecuador border crossing. There’s an airport in Ipiales.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: there are thousands of stunning churches everywhere in Colombia like the church Senor de los Milagros in the town of Buga just north of Cali.
Worth it? Many people put this church in the top ten things to see in Colombia. If one is keen on religious tourism, then yes. It only takes a couple hours to tour the site, the church is just too far away from Pasto to merit the trip, but if you’re going to Ecuador you have to pass through Ipiales. The church is only a 10-minute taxi drive away and merits the side trip.
Tourist Trap? Yes
Zipaquira – The Salt Cathedral
Just 25 miles north of Bogota is one of Colombia’s main’s tourist sites, a symbol of Colombia’s cultural and religious patrimony. The Salt Cathedral, located in the town of Zipaquira, is an underground church built inside of a salt mine 600 feet below the surface. A religious shrine was carved in the salt cave by miners, as a place for their daily prayers, long before the original cathedral was inaugurated in 1954.
It’s an interesting destination for pilgrimage and religious tourism boasting the largest cross ever built in an underground church. Everyone comes to see the cathedral in the salt mine which is just part of a larger complex called the ‘Parque de Sal’ or the Salt Park where there is also a museum of mining, mineralogy and geology along with zip lines and rock-climbing walls. (see article). One must join a tour, offered in English or Spanish, and the tour lasts just over an hour.
Tourism Saturation: High, especially on the weekends.
Difficulty: a 1-2-hour trip from the city of Bogota by bus.
Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: thousands of stunning churches everywhere in Colombia you can see and visit for free.
Worth it? The cathedral has always been widely promoted as a ‘must-see’ tourist site in Colombia. I can’t say it’s a ‘must see’ unless, of course, religious tourism is significant to you. But if you’re on a tight schedule and debating about whether to see it or not, I’d have to go with don’t waste your time. But if you are in Bogota for a week and are looking for a destination to get out of the city – the town of Zipa and the Salt Cathedral are an interesting escape. Entrance to the site is $15 for foreigners – steep by Colombian standards.
People are divided when it comes to Colombia’s capital city of Bogota: they either love it or they hate it. A large cosmopolitan city of 8 million people sitting at an altitude of 8,660 feet, it has a cool climate throughout the year. Colombians call Bogota “the refrigerator of Colombia”. Overcast and often rainy, but when the sun shines everyone in the city is out in the streets.
The town is divided into 20 different neighborhoods. Most of them are drab, industrial barrios but some older parts of town shine with a colonial charm. Located in the center of Colombia, the capital sits on a high plateau, known as the Bogota Savanna, in a valley running north to south. At an altitude of 2,640 meters (8,660 feet), Bogota is the third-highest capital in South America, and the world, after Quito and La Paz.
The city was founded by Spanish conquistadores in 1538 after they conquered the indigenous tribe of the Muisca – the original inhabitants of the valley. Bogotá became the capital of the independent nation of Gran Colombia in 1819 and has remained Colombia’s capital ever since.
It’s hard for travelers to avoid Bogota. Back in the day, nearly all international flights arrived and departed from the capital. A trip to Colombia made the stay of a night or two in the capital inevitable. Today, international flights come and go from the major cities of Cartagena, Medellin and Cali. Even the more remote places in Colombia can be reached with a transfer in Bogota or Panama City. But when travelling by land through central Colombia, all roads lead to and from Bogota. And even the best efforts to avoid this city will prove futile. This sprawling metropolis requires a half-day of travel to enter and another half day, in stop and go traffic, trying to get out.
Where to Stay
Most travelers usually stay in the old city center called La Candelaria where many of the houses are well preserved in their original colonial style. Bogota’s best museums are located in this area as is the Zona Rosa – a nightlife district full of clubs and restaurants. Plaza de San Victorino is 10 blocks from the Candelaria neighborhood and offers the city’s cheapest meals – usually $1-$3 per dish. The backpacker saying is: ‘Stay in Candelaria and eat in San Victorino’.
Chapinero is another pleasant area to stay. It was once a seperate town that has been swallowed up by the city’s center, Chapinero, just a 10-minute cab ride from the center is a trendy neighborhood full of hotels, cafes and markets. The Zona G is located here; it’s the city’s epicenter of excellent, though pricey, gourmet dining.
Highlights: What to See and Do on your First Rendezvous
There is so much to see and do in Bogota. A city of this size needs months and multiple visits to get to know well. But if you are just passing through the city spending a day or two you can get a feel for it. Here are my highlights for your first rendezvous:
Carrera 7 runs from the city’s center all the way through Chapinero. It’s the downtown pedestrian shopping street. The street is closed to traffic for a good two miles from Plaza Bolivar all the way up to the Planetarium on Calle 26. And on Sundays they close the road to traffic for 6 miles and Bogotanians on foot and bikes fill the road.
Plaza Bolivar is the largest square in Bogota and considered the heart of the city. Here the Palacio de Justicia (justice department) the seat of Colombia’s legislature is located as is the Cathedral Primatial.
Walking west one passes through Parque Santander where the Avianca skyscraper and the Gold Museum are located. Further up Cra. 7 is the Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum.
North of Plaza Bolivar – all within easy walking distance – is the Colon Theater, the Military Museum, the Botero Museum, Casa de Moneda (the min). And further north, within walking distance of the center, is the cable car station going up to Cerro de Monserrate for a bird’s eye view of the city.
The city offers 58 museums and over 70 art galleries. If one enjoys strolling through obscure museums, and unusual galleries, Bogota is the place to be. It has the best collection of museums in Colombia.
Museo di Oro (The Gold Museum), calle 16 #5-41, located on the premises of the Banco de la Republica, is one of the finest museums in Colombia. It has 35,000 pieces of pre-Colombian gold work and 30,000 objects in ceramic, stone and textiles.
The Botero Museum Calle 11 #4-41, just 4 blocks north of Plaza Bolivar, has 123 works by Colombia’s famous artist, Fernando Botero. It also contains a large collection of modern and impressionist art which were all donated by the artist. The museum features Botero’s work – drawings, sculptures and paintings. Botero is still alive and lives in Paris. But he is originally from Medellin, which also has a square named after him, displaying 23 of his larger sculptures in a beautiful, open space. along with a museum, on the square, exhibiting his drawings and paintings. While the museum in Bogota is interesting and worth seeing, I think the one in Medellin holds his best works and is the better of the two.
Casa de Moneda Calle 11 # 4-93, next door to the Botero Museum, illustrates the history of money in Colombia – from pre-Colombian barter systems to the design and production of modern banknotes and coins.
The Museo Militar (Military Museum) Calle 10 # 4-92 is located three blocks east of Plaza Bolivar exhibits weaponry used by the Colombian military through the ages: from cannons, machine guns, uniforms, rifles and pistols.
Museo de Trajes Regionales (regional Costume Museum) Calle 10 #6-18 is one of my favorites, exhibiting traditional clothes and textiles from the different regions of Colombia.
Museo de la Esmeralda (Emerald Museum) Calle 16 #6-66 is located on the 23rd floor of the Avianca Building. Colombia is the biggest producer of emeralds of the highest quality. The museum explores everything about this mineral from how it’s mined, evaluated, cut and sold.
Teatro Colon (Colon Theater) on Calle 10 just a couple blocks north of Plaza Bolivar is Bogota’s finest theater. Built in 1892 it’s a city jewel.
Cerro de Monserrate is a church/convent perched in the mountains above the city offering a spectacular birds-eye view of the capital’s urban sprawl. It is reached by a funicular railway and a cable car. Tickets are $8 round-trip for foreigners and are obtained on site at the Taquilla Teleferico Monserrate Cra 1 and Cra 3 east. One could go there for free by climbing 1,500 steps. But the walkway runs under the cable cars and doesn’t look like an interesting hike at all. The Santuario de Monserrate church is a popular shrine and pilgrimage site. There are pricey arts, crafts and food stalls on top. It’s all a bit touristy. But the trip only takes a couple hours and it’s something everyone does when visiting Bogota.
More Things To See and Do
The city has numerous shopping centers, great parks and a very interesting night life with lots of clubs, bars and restaurants. Andres DC is the most famous steakhouse in Bogota. Though pricey, it seats 2,000 and is jammed on the weekends – a great place for people watching.
Torre Colpatria (Tower Colpatria) Cra 9 and Calle 26 is the tallest building in Colombia – 49 stories high. Go to the top for a 360-degree view of the city
There are also a number of free walking tours, food tours, graffiti tours in the city.
How to get around:
Taxis are cheap and plentiful.
Transmilenio buses, trains like subways have their own routes and run in and out from outer edges of the city to the center.
Mocoa is called a gateway to the Amazon. Located in the department of Putumayo in southern Colombia, the town is a remote gem on the fringe of Colombia’s Amazon jungle. Located in a tropical rain forest, the area is filled with turbulent rivers that feed the Amazon river.
A small, agricultural town, dedicated mostly to the production of sugar cane and cattle, Mocoa itself does not seem all that interesting. But then one learns the ordeals the town has been through. On April 2, 2017, before dawn, on a Saturday morning, the rivers Sangoyaco, Mulato and Mocoa, all which run through and around the town, flooded, overflowed and slammed through the village burying the town in an avalanche of mud, boulders and debris. The early morning disaster left 254 dead and hundreds of homes destroyed.
Today, though still rebuilding, the town is open for business. Mocoa merits a visit for a night. The main boulevard through town, Avenida Colombia, or Carrera 9, offers plenty of restaurants, bars and shops and the main square, where the cathedral of San Miguel de Macoa is located, has all the banks and government offices.
People visit Mocoa, not for the town, but for its surrounding areas. Mocoa offers access to the Amazon jungle. It’s more accessible, easier to get to and cheaper than flying 500 miles – from Bogota to the city of Leticia which is the standard ‘go to’ Amazonic destination; located deep in the jungle, it’s the place most people visit when ‘doing’ the Amazon. The area around Mocoa is a natural wonderland of turbulent rivers, waterfalls, swimming holes, dripping wet jungles teaming with wildlife, red dirt and park protected nature with well-maintained trails.
Fin del Mondo Park
Fin del Mondois a waterfall and a park near Mocoa. To get to the park take a taxi from town, down the Mocoa-Villagarzon highway to entrance of the park Fin del Mondo or ‘end of the world’. Pay a $8 park fee at the little house at the entrance of the park and then hike the trail to the waterfalls. The park is open every day but Tuesday. One could do the hike in a day. Get there first thing in the a.m. and return to Mocoa. But the park closes at 4 p.m. and the stay of a night or two in the park makes it all a lot easier.
There are basic hostels and guest houses along the way. But only one, called Fin del Mondo, has fixed restaurant and sometimes internet service. It’s $15 a night for a room and the meals are $3 each. There are mosquito nets over the beds, but on my visit, there were no flies or mosquitoes.
The next morning it’s a 4-mile hike, a climb of 1,800 feet, up the mountain, to see three magnificent waterfalls. Inlaid tree trunks and stones make a good trail for most of the way but trudging through mud is inevitable and the red jungle mud affectionately sticks to your shoes. There are six main swimming holes along the way.
The first waterfall is called Pozzo Negro or ‘black hole’ is a great swimming hole 15 feet deep with cool water and jumping rocks 20 feet high. After climbing through steaming jungles it’s like finding paradise lost.
The second waterfall is called Puente a Piedra or ‘stone bridge’. It’s a massive stone shelf serving as a bridge over the river. Miraculously, there’s a restaurant here in the mouth of a shallow cave.
The third waterfall is the namesake prize. Fin del Mondo is a waterfall that plunges 250 feet, over a sheer cliff, plunging to the Mocoa valley below. Park attendants are on hand to harness you up and let you climb to the edge of the cliff to sit and look out at the waterfall and the vast expanse of jungle below. On a clear day the village of Mocoa can be seen in the distance.
There are other waterfalls to hike to in the area just outside of the park. The Ornoyaco Waterfall is a hike off the Mocoa-Villagarzon highway just past the suspension bridge. Take the path by the bridge. It’s a 1.5 – 2-hour hike that leads to a waterfall and remote swimming hole in the middle of the jungle – a site few people ever visit.
Another waterfall in near the Fin del Mondo park is Ojo de Dios or ‘the eye of God’. This trip requires a guide. One can usually be obtained around the entrance to the park. A walk through the jungle leads to a creek gushing through a hole in the roof of an open cave – yet another swimming hole to enjoy.
Wildlife Reserves within walking distance of Fin del Mondo
CEA – Centro Esperimental Amazonica is a well run government facility that rescues and protects injured, poached and abused animals from the area. It restores them to health and, when possible, releases them back to the jungle. There’s a good guided tour leaving the entrance every hour or so. Here one can observe the many different animals from the area kept in zoo like conditions.
Another reserve, this one privately owned, is Paway. There’s a path by the bridge, just up the highway from the CEA. It’s a 15-20-minute hike up the path, most of it uphill to a gate. Ring the bell by the gate. Some German Shepherds will come and meet you followed by their owners. For a small entrance fee, they will all give you a tour of the butterfly house and the grounds where parrots and monkeys roam freely. They have accommodations here as well as a bar where you can have a drink while visiting with the monkeys and parrots.
In Macoa, everyone puts out banana tables to lure the monkeys out of the jungle. Squirrel monkeys and saddle black tamarins are always hanging about on rooftops and in the gardens.
For those interested in birding expeditions there’s Harold, an English expat in town who takes people out on informative guided bird watching tours.
Yage – the hallucinogenic jungle juice
This area of the Putamayo jungle is also well known as a place to procure and consume Yage (pronounced yah-jay). It’s a vine that grows in these areas and when combined with two other local plants – chancruna and changropanga – produces a drink that causes hallucinations.
The indigenous in the area of Macoa belong to the Pastos or Inga tribes and they have an ancient relationship with Yage (or Ayahusca as it called in Peru). They have used the plant for centuries to cure emotional disorders and for spiritual guidance. Here one can find shaman, called a Taita, who will prepare you, supply you with the drink and guide you through the experience.
Beyond Mocoa the roads come to a stop but there are rivers going into the jungle. Trips can be arranged to towns up the Caquetá River like Puerto Limon by contacting boat operators.
Deforestation of the Amazon – a World Problem
The area is remote and up until recently had been controlled by the revolutionary group FARC. They oversaw the farmers in the area allowing them to only clear 20 acres of land per family – 10 for crops, 10 for cattle pasture.
But the environmental awareness of the guerrillas was forgotten when coca cultivation come into play. With the advent of drug cartels in the area, coca leaf production soared. A lucrative cash crop, the farmers cleared more land to grow more leaves to make coca paste to sell back the cartels.
But now the FARC and the cartels are gone. The area is returning to agriculture, often with exploitative rather than sustainable practices. More people are arriving, armed with chain saws, and are clearing more jungle to raise more cattle.
Companies, many foreign owned, are cutting down the trees for lumber and clearing the land, turning forest into pasture for extensive cattle ranching. Some of these groups and families have cleared 200 – 2,000 acres of land each.
Colombia had been so preoccupied with the war that no one thought of the forests.
In the past 25 years it has been reported that the farmers have cleared and fenced off 130 million acres of Amazon forest in just Colombia alone. Ranching isn’t illegal and there’s nothing being done to stop the farmers and ranchers.
At this rate of expansion, the Amazon forest in Colombia may just disappear in the next 70 years.
The soils of the Amazon are extremely fragile. If the trees are cut, alternative crops can not be generated. Grass grows and the flora and fauna disappear. The humid Amazon grass turns into a mirror that reflects the temperature of the sun increasing the greenhouse effect and global warming.
Deforestation of the Amazon will have devastating implications for changing the planet’s climate.
I’ve been to San Agustin several times before and seen most of the archaeological statues. I’d hiked around the park above town – Bosque de las Estatuas and did the jeep tour of the sites: Alto de los Idolos, Alto de los Piedras and El Tablon. But there were some painted statues at the sites of La Pelota and La Chaquira I’d been wanting to see for a long time both of them located in the mountains above the town of San Agustin.
The draw back was the only way to get there was an 10-12-hour hike through the mountains or a 6-hour trip on horseback. Having been raised on a farm, I had plenty of experience horseback riding. But I hadn’t been on a horse in over 20 years. The cost of hiring a horse and a local guide was only $20 per person. Not feeling the hike, I figured why walk when you can ride. A simple decision, I thought, like hiring a taxi instead of walking 10 blocks to the center.
The trip was organized by my hotel in San Agustin. The guide, a local, elderly man, who lived in the village, came to the hotel in the morning wearing a cowboy hat and boots. We walked a few blocks to his house where the horses were tied up and waiting. He fed them water and sugar cane juice as he saddled them up. Then we went trotting out of the village and into the mountains.
Colombia’s finest archaeological patrimony is emerged in some of its most beautiful rural landscape. People have been inhabiting this steep terrain for 6,000 years. And these tombs and statues were created around 3,300 B.C. – about the time they were building the pyramids in Egypt; well before the Incas, whose civilization arose in the 13th century, and was thriving when Columbus discovered the Americas.
The statues at La Pelota were unique because they were the only painted statues still surviving in San Agustin. They had been dyed 3,000 years ago with colored sap from trees. Remarkably, the color was still vivid. The statues depicted a ritual of human sacrifice practiced by the people who once lived here. They would sacrifice children to the gods by clubbing them to death. It was considered and honor to be asked to offer up your newborn. Young boys were preferred.
All the statues in San Agustin are of god heads, devilish images, men in trances and man/animal figures. They believed these were creatures bridging the world of man and animals. The animal traits can be seen in the eyes, the canine teeth, and the hands.
After stopping at a local house to enjoy a cup of Colombian coffee, we rode on to see more statues carved in stone at La Chaquira. These statues sit atop a beautiful valley where the indigenous had come to pray to the Gods – an impressively scenic spot overlooking the Magdalena River roaring far below.
The ride through the mountains was beautiful and much better than walking. It was a good getting back in the saddle though little harder getting on and off than I remembered. The horses were well behaved trail horses. Not exactly barn-stormers but methodical animals that walked the same trails often. They trotted and cantered at will a little anxious to hurry things along. Towards the end of the day, it started to feel like I’d been riding a chiva bus over back-country dirt roads for the last 3 days. And when it was all said and done, I was just as happy as the horse to part ways.
The best Caribbean beaches on the mainland of Colombia are in the north, around the port city of Santa Marta. SM is a small, easy and accommodating city one can easily get the hang of in an afternoon stroll. It’s an easy city to feel at home in and a good city to use as a base for visiting numerous beaches nearby. And the climate is cooler and much less humid than other cities on the coast.
The area is in the foothills of the highest coastal mountains in the world – the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, whose highest peak, Pico Colon, is 18,946 meters high and on a clear day can be seen from the beaches below. Cold winds whip down from the mountains and cut across the top of the ocean waters. Hard and soft coral reefs and underwater mountain cliffs can be explored snorkeling from the beaches nearby.
The city of half a million people is located on the Bay of Santa Marta. The capital of the department of Magdalena, the city and was founded in 1525 by the Spanish Conquistadors making Santa Marta one of the oldest cities in South America.
There’s enough to do in the city to easily fill up a day or two. Take a stroll down the boardwalk by the sea, Malecon de Bastida. Take walk through Plaza Bolivarin the center. Visit the city’s central market, an easy stroll from the center, and see the residential part of Santa Marta and the streets where all the Colombians come to shop. For nightlife, go to Plaza de los Noviosand walk down Carrara 3 to Plaza Bolivar. This street, closed to traffic, is wall to wall restaurants and bars all with tables spilling out onto the streets.
Rodadero Beach – An Extension of Santa Marta
While there are small strips of beaches beyond the downtown boardwalk, better beaches are just a short cab ride away. Rodadero beach is just south of Santa Marta, a bus ride over some foothills. It’s a modern beach town with lots of recently built high rise apartments and hotels mostly catering to Colombian tourists. While it’s cheaper to stay here than in Santa Marta, it’s a newer development with more condos, hotels, nightclubs driven by the needs of Colombian tourism.
From Rodadero beach one can get catch a motor boat to the beach at Playa Blanca. A more remote beach, crowded on the weekends, it is pretty much desolate during the weekdays, with lots of beach side restaurants pushing inexpensive fish luncheons and copious amounts of beer.
Tagana – A Back Packers Paradise
Ten minutes to the north of Santa Marta is the town of Tagana, over the years it’s been referred to as a quaint, back packers get-away with lots of hostels, speedboats and dive shops. The town is worth a visit if you have a few hours to spare. Go there for lunch at a restaurant on the beach.
From Tagana one can catch a small motor boat north to the National Park of Tayrona – one of the most important national parks in Colombia. Tagana and Santa Marta are also near the Ciudad Perdida or ‘The Lost City‘ – an ancient, abandoned city that disappeared around the time of the Spanish conquest and was only ‘discovered’ again in the 1972. It’s a 5-day trek through jungles and mountains to visit the site.
Tayrona National Park – Boat Trips from Tagana
The boat ride from Tagana to Tayrona National Park is cheap – $18 for a round trip that lasts the day and takes people to various beaches in the park. Sounds great. But what they won’t tell you is that once you leave the harbor, you’re dealing with waves 6-8 feet in a 20-foot skiff with strong breezes 30-40 miles an hour shearing crests right off the tops of waves. Got to hand it to the guys handling the boats – they sea skills.
But the passengers are never prepared for the white knuckled sea conditions awaiting them off shore. Shortly after leaving we had to turn around and drop off a lady who was so scared, she was having a sever panic attack. Never saw anyone go so white. The trip lasts an hour and a half each way. It was extremely rough going north against the waves but coming back to Tagana, with the waves, was an almost enjoyable ride.
People submit themselves to this adventure to save a few bucks at the gate of Tayrona Park. But a much easier and safer way to get to park is by land. Buses leave people at the entrance of the park, which is just a 15-mile one-hour bus ride outside of town. Entrance to the park is a hefty $28 for foreign tourists, which explains the lure of taking a boat from Tagana – avoiding the park’s entrance fees.
Tayrona National Park
Tayrona, is known for its palm-shaded coves, coastal lagoons and rain forest. From the park entrance one must walk to the numerous beaches in the park. The beaches at the entrance of the park are the most crowded. Bahia Concha, Canaveral Beach, Arrecifis Beach, Playa Cabo San Juan del Guia and Boca del Saco (better known as the nudist beach) are one of the most visited as they are on the main trail from the park entrance – a trek that is 90 minutes each way.
Playa Brava, Playa Cristal, Palmarito and Playa Muerta are more isolated and harder to get to. They are up to a 3-4 hour walk each way. A lot of the more distant beaches can be reached by motor boats leaving from Neguanje Bay in the park. If you don’t like hiking or going by boat, there are locals renting horses and their guide services.
This stretch of coast along the park is infamous for its wicked currents and drownings. Swimming is prohibited at a number of beaches as more than 300 people have drown since the park opened in 1969. Guachakyta, Arenilla and Playa La Piscinita are the best beaches for swimming. Castillettes, Siete Olas and Playa Canaveral have strong waves and undertows and post caution signs reminding you you’re swimming at your own risk.
Palomino and Buritaca
After the park, highway 90 runs north next to the coast, below the Sierra Nevadas. There are some wonderful little beaches and undeveloped little villages along this stretch. Costeno beach and Palomino beach are undeveloped little beach towns.
Costeno Beach is a collection of hostels and small resorts, all very economical, just north of the park.
I like Palomino Beach; it has a little village with a never-ending beach with its white sands and palm trees filled with parakeets and parrots. If you like beach combing, the beach at Palomino is 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.
For a $7 they’ll rent you an inner tube, take you a few miles up the mountain on the back of a motor bike and drop you up river so you can lazily float down river back down to the sea.
I was in Palomino two years ago when the town was just another dusty, sleepy pueblo but has now become ‘a Colombian destination’. The sheer number of tourists has increased and changed embracing younger crowds.
For a more out of the way experience, I like Buritaca – a town just south of Palomino. Like the Palomino, the Buritaca River comes down from the mountains and empties into the sea. Here there’s a nice spit of white sand separating the river and the ocean for an alternate bathing experience of both fresh river and sea water. When you’re hungry just wade across the river to one of the open-air restaurants on the beach facing the ocean. They all offer a nice array of fresh fish cooked however you’d like with sides for $5 a plate.
How to Get There:
Taganga – buses run through the center of Santa Marta, up Carrera 5, to Taganga for a $1.20 one-way ticket. Don’t’ waste money on a taxi. These buses run every 10 minutes.
Palomino, Buritaca – from the main market Carrera 9 and Calle 11, Mercado Santa Marta, there’s a bus station with buses leaving every half hour to Parque Tayrona, Palomino and beyond.
Colombia is the only country in South America with access to both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. While Colombia’s Atlantic coast is taunted for all its beauty, history and culture – the Pacific coastline remains a guarded secret – like a family embarrassment they don’t want you to bring up and definitely don’t want you to visit.
There are only three access points to Colombia’s 865-mile-long Pacific coastline. Last June I visited Bahia Solano and Nuqui west of Medellin in the Choco region. A coastline only reached by boat or plane, and was impressed by its wild and remote natural beauty and pristine beaches.
This year, against the advice of everyone I talked to, I decided to visit the beaches around the port city of Buenaventura in southern Colombia a 3-hour bus ride west of Cali. Being a port city and the only major Colombian city on the coast, there’s a modern highway going to the port offering the easiest access to the Pacific coast. A six lane highway tunnels through the mountains filled with trucks transporting containers to and from the port.
OvercomingBuenaventura’s Dicey Reputation
Colombians don’t encourage tourists to visit the beaches in this area due to the infamy of Buenaventura. A port city of 400,000, 60% of Colombia’s sea imports and exports pass through this town. The city is a gold mine for some but most of the city’s residents are poor. Meanwhile, the port city has also been a major transit hub for the country’s illegal drugs. In 2007 the cocaine wars made Buenaventura Colombia’s deadliest city.
Today, while the city is still rife with unemployment, gangs and violence, the murder rate is below the national average and the city is making a move to attract tourists. There is a tourism association of 120 businesses and they argue that Buenaventura is the best-kept tourism secret in Colombia today and promises a future for the town’s work force.
The culture of the Colombian Pacific is African inflected where an overwhelming Afro-Colombian population lives largely in small, scattered communities. Most are descended from slaves brought in by the Spaniards to work in gold mines. They have preserved their ancestral heritage of music and cuisine and it has been combined with a significant indigenous influence
Buenaventura is a busy, congested city, poor with rusted tin roofs and plaster sliding off the graffiti painted walls. The center of town, running along Calle 1, is packed with hotels serving port visitors and sailors with restaurants and bars blasting salsa music.
Heading Straight for the Beaches
Most tourists arrive at the bus station and head straight to the port to catch a boat to the nearby beaches without stopping in the city. “We heard the city was too dangerous,” one tourist said.
The beaches can only be reached by boats that leave from a dock in the port. At the train station there are booths selling tickets to the beaches outside of town. A ticket costs from $15 – $20 round trip depending on the beach one is heading to. There are boats going all the way up the coast to the landlocked, Pacific coastal town of Nuqui, a $45 fare from Buenaventura, which is half the cost of an airline ticket from Medellin.
It’s a short taxi ride to a dock called the ‘Muelle Turistico’ or tourist dock. Tickets can be bought here, too. After fighting through swarms of street hawkers you wait for your boat to be readied and full of passengers. The speed boat leaves the port at full throttle heading to beaches miles north of the city.
I got off at the beach of Pianguita. The boat pulls up short of the beach making the passenger’s jump out in waist deep water wading into shore holding their bags over their heads to keep them dry. A cluster of modest hotels, bars and restaurants line the beach front at the jungle’s edge.
Accommodations are rustic with plenty of places to stay for cheap. I stayed in a hotel with a private bath which included 3 square meals a day for $20 a day. The weekdays are quiet but it picks up on the weekends.
Not Many Visitors from Outside of Buenaventura
Most of the visitors are families from Buenaventura. Very few people were from the nearby city of Cali or from any other part of Colombia for that matter. Colombians traditionally choose to go to beaches on the country’s Caribbean coast or to the islands – like San Andres. These destinations are farther and more expensive, especially for the Colombian’s living in the south.
The hotels and restaurants serve meat and chicken or fish. Fish is the obvious fresh option and comes fried or in a stew with rice, fried plantains and lemonade. There is also an abundance of shrimp here which they serve up grilled, fried, in soups and with fried rice.
The silty brown sand beach stretches along a cove. It’s a nice beach that completely disappears at high tide in the early evening. At low tide the beach is scattered with plastic left by the withdrawing tide. Being so close to a port city, floating refuse is a problem, but not more so than it is around Cartagena or any other port city in the world.
The speed boats will ferry visitors up and down the coast stopping at the neighboring beaches of La Bocana, Maguipi, Juanchaco, La Barra, and Ladrilleros. They’ll pull up at waterfalls for dip.
The water is warm and the people spend hours just standing in the shallow water talking as the pelicans dive bomb for fish. Beach vendors will crack open a coconut for a buck. At low tide one can walk to neighboring beaches La Bocana to the south and Juanacho to the north. Just be sure to get back before high tide around 4 p.m. or risk crawling through the jungle to get home. Pressed for time? It’s best to hire a motorcycle for an expedited ride back to your hotel.
At night there’s not much to do. Pianguita is a safe laid-back pueblo. The tide comes up to the break wall in front on the restaurants. Join the crowd, grab a beer or an ice cream and watch the bats swoop. A few watch a soccer game on t.v. But most watch the fishermen standing waist deep in water under the restaurant lights. Every time one of them hooks a fish the crowd applauds and cheers.
Forget the Coffee Triangle – Head for the Coffee Square
Exploring ‘the’ coffee region has become one of Colombia’s hottest destinations. While most people think there is just one coffee region, there are actually many. Coffee is grown all over Colombia. In reality, there are numerous options for learning about coffee and immersion in the country’s rural landscape all over the country.
And while there is more than one coffee region in Colombia, every one of them proudly boasts they grow the best coffee, and have the most beautiful villages, prettiest women and best culture.
But one coffee region, between Medellin and Manizales, is a secret best kept by the locals. And maybe me. This is my favorite coffee region. These villages, for the most part, are not in the guidebooks. Located in remote areas, this region offers some of the most stunning scenery in Colombia. Steep green mountains are planted to coffee, bananas, orange trees and sugar cane. Still being somewhat undiscovered everything is still surprisingly inexpensive.
In the Past – a Visit to the Coffee Region Meant One Place Only
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. It was launched by several adjoining regions in southwest Colombia.
Foreign tourists, visiting Colombia with limited time constraints, have been flocking to this area in droves. Colombia = Coffee and the coffee triangle was an attractive place learn about it. Here’s how that trip unfolds:
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, the countryside is beautiful and the whole thing sells like mojitos on the beach.
But foreign visitors have been complaining: the coffee triangle trip has become too touristy and overcrowded. The quaint villages on this route, like Salento and Filandia, are being overrun with tourists in the off-seasons. Mind you it’s nothing like the historical center of Cartagena mid-morning after 2-3 passenger ships have docked. But overtourism is when you visit a remote rural village to find the tourists outnumbering the locals.
The Alternative Coffee Region – A Must See
My favorite coffee area is north of the infamous coffee triangle, containing the quaint, colorful villages of Jardin, Jerico, Aguadas and Salamina. Let’s call it ‘the coffee square’. These villages are all located within a 2-6-hour trip south of Medellin (2-3 hours hours north of Manizales) and could easily be worked around a trip visiting Medellin – maybe Colombia’s most beautiful and entertaining city. These villages are Spanish colonial gems and the countryside between them is absolutely some of the most stunning Colombia has to offer.
Aguadas – Home of Coffee and Straw Hats
Aguadas it is often covered in morning fog an grows a delicious high-altitude coffee. Nestled in the mountains, just 78 miles north of Manizales, Aguadas, like Jardin, Salamina and Jerico are all one of Colombia’s 14 ‘pueblos patrimonio’ – the country’s most beautiful colonial villages.
Besides coffee, the town is famous for the production of Aguadenohats. Made with iraca straw fiber, these hats are said to be the best hand-woven straw hats in Colombia. Some say they are better than the Panama hats 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.
Aguadas a town with a farming culture. The people are closed and stoic – mostly well-to-do farmers. And every hour the German imported bells atop the church bells in the main square, Plaza Bolivar, play Ave Maria. The square has a fountain forged in New York in 1914. There’s a tourist office on the main square, open afternoons, proving a wealth of information.
This office and hotels will be able to help you make an appointment to visit a coffee farm that give tours and to hat weaving artisans and hat finishing factories in town. A taxi can take you to town’s old historical center in the hills just above town.
Aguadas has many small, nice hotels in the center, like Hotel Colonial, which you won’t find on booking.com, offering big rooms, private baths, hot water and Wi-Fi for only $10 a night with breakfast.
Jardin – A Beautiful, Colorful Town
This village is three-hour bus ride from Medellin – four hours from Aguadas. 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.
On the outskirts of town there are cable cars leading up in the hills. There are guides taking people up on horseback toLa Cueva del Esplendor– a cave with a waterfall inside, and trout farms in the mountains serve up lunch.
To get there take a bus direct from Medellin about a two-hour trip. Or one can come from Aguadas. It’s a bit of work making the connections but the scenery makes it all worth . Take a bus to a village called La Pintada ($8,000 cop) and down to a hot little village in the valley called La Bolambola where you catch a bus back up in the mountains to Jerico ($17,000 cop). And in a day or two take a chiva bus to the town of Andes and another bus to Jardin. A crazy trip, but a good one.
Jerico –A Real Cowboy Town
Jerico a colorful, colonial town. It’s a place where visitors can experience authentic, traditional culture. Men ride through the streets on magnificent prancing horses, tie them up outside of the stores and sit in the saddles outside of bars sipping cold bottles of beer. Coffee is grown here but beef seems to be king. The village is also a rich center for leather arts and crafts like the typical anitoqueno purses called carriels. There are also lots of wallets, belts and hand-made saddles.
Their beautiful main town square is lined with fruit and vegetable stands in the morning and festive food carts at night. There’s a lookout over the town one can walk to from the city center. Take the hundred stairs climb from the main square (called Cien Escalas) at the top turn right and stroll through the botanical gardens. In the back of the gardens you’ll find the path leading to the lookout. Used as a back drop to the town, the lookout, calledCristo Redentor or Cerro la Nubes, offers amazing views. There’s also a cable car leaving from the lookout and going up to a higher mountain top nearby.
Take a tuk for a ride around town. Arrange to visit a nearby coffee farm. Also check out the nearby waterfalls.
To get there take a bus directly from Medellin from the north bus terminal. Or for a real experience go first to Jardin. Then catch a bus to a village called Andes. From there catch an open chiva bus over the mountains to Jerico. The chiva buses only leave Andes at 6 a.m. and at 2 p.m. Andes has a nice market and a huge, interesting main square to visit if you are looking to kill time waiting for the chiva. Last I check there were only 2-3 chivas a day going from Andes to Jerico.
From Aguadas take a chiva bus to the village of La Pintada – a nice ride following La Arma river past incredible scenery – farm lands planted to coffee, banana and sugar cane.
Salamina – the San Francisco of Colombia
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. Salamina a gritty agricultural town full of jeeps, markets and vendors. The houses all have elaborate wood carved balconies. A two-hour trip outside of town there are numerous dairy farms. And along the trail one can see Colombia’s national tree, the rarewax palm.
They say the wax palm can only be seen in the Valley of Cocora in the other coffee region. But just like the coffee bushes – the wax palm can be found in this coffee zone, too.
Or Combine the Two Coffee Zones into One Visit
The city of Medellin is not farther the a 3-4 hour bus ride from the villages listed above. And the villages in the coffee square are all near the villages of the coffee triangle. Manizales is just a two hour bus ride from Salamina making it logistically feasible to visit both coffee zones, or portions thereof, in one visit.