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 be 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, 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 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 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, 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’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

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.

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 spartan-like 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 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

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.) 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

streets of Mompox

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

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 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/

San Jose del Guaviare – Exploring the Amazon from the Outside In

San Jose Guaviare is small, jungle town in Colombia. It’s the end of the line, where the grassland plains end and the Amazon jungle begins. All the roads end here, too. From here on it’s just washed out fire trails over soft, red sand, winding through the jungle.

Prone to flooding during the rains, these roads are only accessible by jeep and motocross bikes. And the rivers are navigated by dugout canoes with small, transom mounted gas motors. In May, the winter rainy season begins. The rivers rise 15-20 feet becoming torrential rapids carrying trees and jungle debris downriver making the rivers unnavigable for all but the largest boats.

The Majestic Amazon

The Amazon river basin is home to the largest rain forest on earth. Covering over 35% of Colombia’s total territory, it borders 8 different countries. The Amazon basin is roughly the size of the lower 48 states of the United States, 2.7 million square miles, and covers 40% of the entire South American continent. Made up of a mosaic of ecosystems: tropical rain forests, jungle, flooded forests and savannas – the basin is drained by the Amazon river. The second largest river in the world, after the Nile. The Amazon, by sheer volume, is the world’s largest, discharging more water than the 7 next largest rivers in the world put together.

Travel to the Amazon

Remote, impenetrable – travel to the Amazon has become difficult and somewhat expensive these days. No longer can you pay a captain to string up a hammock on his freight boat and ride the Amazon cheap – like I did in the 1970s. Since there are no roads, one has to fly into Amazon river towns like Leticia and Iquitos – a 500-mile trip from Colombia’s capital city of Bogota. And since everything is so far away it’s necessary to hire guides, tours, boats, jeeps and motor cross bikes to get around.

As an alternative, towns bordering the jungle, like Florencia, Macoa and San Jose del Guaviare are becoming more popular allowing exploration of the Amazon jungle from the outside in.

San Jose del Guaviare


Offering infinite opportunities for anyone looking for adventure, San Jose del Guaviare is relatively new to tourism and intent on expanding. But this is still a place for travelers more so than tourists. The city, which just became the capital of the Guaviare province in 1991, has a wealth of natural attractions but only sees a fraction of Colombia’s tourism.

Safe to Visit?

Until five years ago, the area had been off the tourist trail, ignored by both foreign and national tourists. A remote area, it had been a guerrilla-controlled territory for 30 years and a main producer of coca leaves and base production for the cartels. It was once considered one of Colombia’s most dangerous places. But with peace accords between the government and the revolutionary group FARC, and a major police crackdown on the jungle farmers producing coca leaves and base, the area has been declared safe to visit. Today, this past reputation is their only impediment to developing a tourism industry and a common problem on Colombia’s frontier.

San Jose has all the necessary services from which to explore the Amazon. There are inexpensive eco-lodges just outside of town, descent hotels in town ranging from $15 – $80 a night, a fair supply of restaurants, supermarkets, banks, tourist agencies and guides.

Guide Will Be Needed: Arriving in San Jose isn’t particularly difficult but to see the sights, all of which exist in the jungles outside of town, one must hire a local guide.

I was invited by Geo Tours of San Jose to visit some of the sites around Guaviare. Geo Tours is a tour company, founded in 2015, comprised of 5 coordinators and 10 guides. These local tourist operators work alongside the communities offering sensitive, sustainable tourism involving the local people.

Geotours, probably the best known, is just one tour company offering a number of services to guided tour destinations and activities ranging from a day to a week.  For a fair price they will take care of all the trip details – accommodations, meals, transportation (jeeps, motor boats), guides and entrance fees.

They offer visits to nearby Cerro Azul cave paintings, the Ciudad de Piedra, Porto de Orion and Laguna Negra. Activities include birdwatching, fishing, and ecology hikes, visits to indigenous tribes and trips down the Guaviare River to swim with the pink dolphins. Longer tours are also available like the trip to Cano Cristales – an all inclusive 4 days and 5 nights river tour for $500. Custom travel can also be arranged and services altered to fit a travelers budget. Contact them at: Facebook@geotoursdelguaviare

A young couple who run a cabin rental and and campsites in the countryside near San Jose del Guaviare

Indigenous Tribes


There are many indigenous tribes in the area. The Nukak is a tribe of hunters and gatherers who first came into contact with the outside world in 1988. Since then 50% of tribe has been wiped out by diseases such as measles and influenza to which they had no immunity. Drug trade and conflict between the guerrillas, paramilitaries and Colombian army forced the Nukaks to abandon their homes in the jungle and seek refuge in and around the town of San Jose. Still waiting for the government to return their land, they now live in improvised camps where they are marginalized. The Tukanos, another tribe, live on a more prosperous reservations and encourage tourism

Rock paintingsA dive into Colombia’s ancient past


These tribes have been living in the area for the last 20,000 years. And the area is famous for its ancient rock paintings. These paintings are one of Colombia’s greatest hidden travel adventures. The paintings can be seen in the areas of Nuevo Tolima, El Raudal del Guayabero and Cerrro Azul. Relatively free of tourists, travelers usually have the paintings and the mountains pretty much to themselves.

Cerro Azul

is a mountain rising from the jungle floor and has the largest display of these ancient rock paintings dating back 12,500 – 15,000 years. Blood red paintings were daubed on the face of ancient rock formations. The paint was made with natural materials such as ocher and blood. The paintings depict the activities of past hunters who painted everything they knew about the world on these rocks. There are extinct animals, geometric patterns, rivers, canoes, men with paddles, ladders, rivers, alligators, eagles and bats. One can spend hours gazing at the walls picking out patterns and themes.

You have to pass through a bat-filled cave to get to the cave paintings on the mountains’ upper tiers

The paintings fill the cliff facings at three different levels of the mountain. The first at the bottom is the easiest to view. Then there’s a quarter mile climb through a bat filled cave to get to a second level. The cave was a place where sacrifices were made to the spirits and people were buried. The second level has the best paintings. There are more on the top, upper – third level which requires some climbing skills.

These rock paintings are still a mystery. Some say the paintings were an ancient library. Others say they paintings on the rocks were a vehicle to communicate with the spirits. There are pictures of doors to other dimensions guarded by animal spirits. Deer and tapirs protected the doors by day and the bats by night. A lot of the paintings were mysteriously painted over by the tribes as if to hide their writings from other tribes or invaders. Lichen and a natural white salt naturally bleeding from the rock have been destroying the paintings over time.

Looking out over the the jungle from a lookout on Cerro Azul

On the top of the mountain, 1,100 meters above the jungle floor, there is a stunning lookout of the vast jungle below stretching as far as the eye can see.

Ciudad de Piedra


Just 11 miles south of San Jose, out of grassy, forest, scrub land – an ancient plateau rises from the jungle. It’s an alien landscape of rock formations called ‘Ciudad de Piedra’ or City of Rocks. The rocks and caves form pathways resembling ancient streets of a ruined city. Vultures circle overhead and coral snakes hide in the rocks.

Puerto de Orion


In the Ciudad de Piedra, a rock formation, called ‘Puerta de Orion’ or Orion’s Door, can be found. It is 45 feet high 48 feet tall. In December the earth rotation allows constellation Orion to be viewed through the hole in the rocks. And when the full moon rises moon beams shine through the door like a spotlight to the desert floor.

Summer red Algae blooms in local rivers – Geotours photo

Canos Cristales and red algae blooms


Beautiful red algae grow in the rivers here from June to November. Canos Cristales is a famous Colombian destination to observe these seasonal blooms. But Cano Cristales is an 8-hour drive by jeep from San Jose or a 5-hour trip by boat. Most people pay big bucks to fly in from Bogota to the nearby town of Macarena and stay there. But the rivers of Tranquilandia, Cano Rosado and Cano Sabanas near San Jose, while smaller, are less controlled, easier and much cheaper to get to. Just saying.

Swimming holes, waterfalls and lakes


On the edge of the Amazon there are numerous swimming holes, waterfalls, lakes and mighty rivers to visit in dugout canoes. And with the heat and humidity of the jungle, these swimming holes are a real afternoon treat. Most guides include a couple swim breaks a day in the itinerary.

Laguna Negra

is a big, deep, cool lake with plenty of wildlife: turtles, caimans, 4 species of monkeys, parrots, hummingbirds, kingfishers, herons, storks, eagles and toucans are easily sighted. We trolled around the lake being followed by the guttural baying of Howler Monkeys and squirrel monkeys jumping from limb to limb. The farmer’s houses all have parrots they have raised and leave free to roam the tree tops. The birds call out in sassy Spanish and laugh at you when you pass by.

Swimming with the dolphins – photo Geotours

Pink Dolphins


On a motor boat trip up the Guaviere River we were followed by the famous pink dolphins. The dolphins, when they follow the boats, are actually grey. But when you swim with them, they blush and get pink when excited.

Getting There: One can fly in to the small airport at San Jose.  The airline Satena operates flights to San Jose from Medellin, with a stop in Bogota, and from Bogota. Or one can travel overland. Take a bus from Bogota to Villavicencio (7-8 hours) and then another 6-7-hour bus ride to San Jose. It’s an easy two day trip through Colombia cow country with great views of Los Llanos or the great plains. Stop overnight in Villavicencio and treat yourself to a steak dinner – Los Llanos reportedly has the best beef in Colombia.

Playa Belen – One of Colombia’s Most Beautiful Villages

Playa Belen is considered one of the most beautiful villages in Colombia. But it is so far off the beaten path few people ever visit.

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

Playa Belen seen from the mountains

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

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

One can just leave the edge of town and wander through the rock formations of this unique landscape. But since it’s easy to get lost, a guide is recommended. And, being so close to Venezuela, they say you never know who you might run into out there. A lot of desperation across the border these days, they say. Buzzards glide in clock wise circles above cliffs. Snakes and ant eaters hide in the shadows of the rocks.

Estoraques, after which the park was named, were actually trees of Spanish origin that once grew here towering 60 feet over the desert floor. Whole forests once thrived. A valuable lumber for paper production, the tree’s resin was used as an incense. Exploited until their extinction, the last trees were seen here 40 years ago. Attempts to bring them back proved futile.

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

In 1988 the department of North Santander had a competition to pick the most beautiful town in the state. Playa was determined to win. They painted the whole town white, the doors and trim of the outside buildings all brown and the roofs were already of red clay tiles. They handily won the competition.

Today Playa is rightfully rated as one of the most beautiful Spanish colonial towns in the country and on a government list as one of the 17 most beautiful villages in all Colombia.

There are 8,500 people in town – all of them of Spanish descent. And everyone in this town belongs to one of four families: the Claro family, Arevalo, Perez and Ovallos. Everyone is a cousin and related. An attractive people, they are uncommonly tall – many well over 6 feet, with jet black hair the women wear down to the small of their backs.

But there are secrets of which they are reluctant to speak. Rumors have it many people in town suffer sever depression, frequent bouts with hysteria and other aberrations of behavior.

Some blame it on a closed uranium mine a mile outside of town. Some blame it on the homemade hooch they like to distill and consume in quantities. Its called ‘bolegancho’ – a clear aguardiente liquor with an extra heavy dose of anise and other secret desert herbs.

Yet others blame it on the town witches – a secret cult of elderly women who practice sorcery, conjuring the spirits dwelling among the deserts’ walls of sorrows.

Something may not be right but they’re not suppose to talk about such things. Especially not to the outsiders.

The town’s cathedral seen from the mountains.

The town’s isolation had also recently left them at the mercy of a boss and his militia. They were affiliated with the leftist, revolutionary group – the ELN – and financed themselves through narco-trafficking and extortion. The occupation lasted for years. The dark period only ending with the boss’ natural death less than a decade ago.

Today the town people are turning to tourism in hopes of creating more jobs so the young people will stay and not leave the desert. They want to create more infrastructure. A town committee meets regularly debating how to attract more visitors.

Its been 168 days since the last rain. They’ve been irrigating their crops of onions, beans and tomatoes. The cows are forced to wander deep up the mountain ridges searching for grass.

At night the men play tejo – a bocce ball game where a direct hit explodes a firecracker in the mud. For an entrance fee of $2 they get a bottle of the home made ‘bolegancho‘ and can play tejo until late in the night under the dim lights behind the town’s tejo bar.

Playa might be too far from Colombia’s other tourist destinations to attract more than the occasional aberrant wanderer. The closest tourist towns are 10 hour bus trips – from Santa Marta on the coast in the north and to the popular extreme sports village of San Gil in the south. A visit to Playa requires at least a two day commitment. But the sights and the stories are well worth it.

The Most Dangerous Road in Colombia The Trampoline of Death Pasto to Mocoa

Highway 37 – the road stretches from the Andean city of Pasto over the mountains and down to the jungle town of Mocoa a gateway to the Amazon. Though it’s only 121 miles between the two cities the trip takes 5-7 hours depending on how many rock and mudslides one encounters on the way.

This is the most infamous road in Colombia. It has been rated the most dangerous in Colombia and one of the worst on the continent earning the nickname ‘trampoline della muerte‘ or trampoline of death.

Small buses are used on the road Pasto-Macoa

You know you’re in for a rough ride when the bus leaves the terminal and the passengers cross themselves and mouth small prayers asking for safe passage. Shrines and crosses litter the roadside – testament to the dangers of this one-and-a-half-lane-dirt-road zig zaging through the mountains.

This is the most jerking, bone shattering, punishing, pot-hole-filled, hair-pin-turn, cliff lined roads I’ve ever been on. I gave up counting how many times I was bounced up out of my seat and hit my head on the roof of the bus.

The only passenger buses making the trip are micro buses seating 7-8 people. The drivers are damn good. They have to be. And they work the gear shift like a slide trombone. A car and a bus can barely pass on this road.

But there are also trucks. And when one approaches head on the bus has to stop and back up to a wider shoulder. The truck squeezes past with his tires hugging the edge of the road – a sheer drop into jungle growth below.

Sometimes there are guard rails to prevent vehicles from veering over the edge but most of the time the metal barriers have been washed out and replaced with a thin strips of caution tape.

But this is also one of the most beautiful roads in the country going through jungles, cloud forests 6,000 feet high, past waterfalls and shallow rivers tumbling across the road.

There are other ways to get to Macoa but they entail losing a day backtracking from southern Colombia north to Popayan and another day crossing the Andes.

Mocoa is definitely worth the arduous journey and the trip through the mountains on highway 37 is definitely one hell of a ride.

Top Spots in Colombia – 15 Best Destinations

Seasoned South American travelers say Colombia is the continent’s best kept secret – beautiful, affordable and relatively undiscovered by tourism.  Though large, Colombia is easy to travel with plenty of low cost internal flights, comfortable cross-country buses and taxis everywhere.
Travelers can easily visit more than 2-3 destinations in a week with an ample selection of destinations to visit over extended periods.

This is my selection – the  15 best destinations to visit in Colombia. These are places I gladly return to time and time again.  The list is divided by topological identities: beaches, colonial towns, archaeology and cities.  For more information on each destination read  the full articles on colombiatravelreporter.com

Beaches

A view from Acronis in La Guajira

La Guajira

One of the strangest and most spectacular spots in Colombia is located at the northern most point of South American in the Guajira peninsula,  a reserve for the Wayuu – a Colombian indigenous tribe politically ruling the entire peninsula today. It’s one of most visually stunning places on earth where bare, desert landscape meets the blue turquoise of the Atlantic. The trip is a must see if coming to Colombia, not an easy trip but well worth the sacrifice. (see full article)

The beach of Sapazurro

Sapazurro

Sapzurro is one of those ideal, sleepy tropical towns in which to hide out, lay low and escape from it all. If you want to drop off the radar for a while – this is the place to do it.  Located on the southern end of the Darien Pass on the Panamanian border, it is a 15 minute boat ride from Capurgana – a small village catering to mostly Colombian tourists. There are no roads to get here; either one flies into Capurgana – $100 from Medellin to a small airstrip outside of the town or comes in by boat – $20 from  the port of Turbo. The boats leave pounding across the Gulf of Uraba a full speed through 3′-4′ chop. Not a pleasant 3 hour ride for the faint of heart or seasick prone. The difficulty getting here makes this place one of the best kept secrets in Colombia. (see full article) 

Playa Cuevita near El Valle

Bahia Solano – El Valle

Travelers who want to go see the Pacific in Colombia have their work cut out for them. This area is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, yet one of the least developed, beautiful, forgotten places in Colombia; where long swaths of pristine beaches backed by rainforest jungle spill out onto black volacanic sands while 4-6 foot waves pound the surf and 12 foot whale spouts are spotted just offshore. El Valle is an Afro-Colombian village of a few thousand people an hour’s ride on a muddy dirt road from Bahia. The town is hot and humid and isn’t much to look at but the main beach area, Playa El Almejal, a 20 minute walk north of the village, is paradise – as is Playa Cuevita a 20 minute walk south of El Valle. (see full article)

The beach at Palomino

Palomino

Palomino is one of those off-the-beaten-track beaches that are hard to forget and one where you’ll definitely want to spend more time at and probably come back to  again in the future. To get there take from Santa Marta a bus up highway 90 hugging the Atlantic towards Riohacha. It’s about a 2.5 hour trip. The bus driver will drop you off on the main highway in front of a dirt path which leads down to the beaches. Motor-taxis are parked on the highway waiting to take you down to the beach.

This is definitely a back packers paradise – a one of its kind in Colombia. It is a very laid-back, anti-stress atmosphere here with none of the boom-boom party enthusiasm of most Colombian beaches. The town caters to tourists, both Colombian and foreigners, who come  to relax, be alone and recharge their batteries.

Only about half a mile of beach in Palomino is sparsely developed. The beaches to the north and south of Palomino are empty and one can endlessly wander in any direction along the palm lined sandy beaches and rarely see a soul. (see full article – Santa Marta and the beaches north)

Beaches at Tolu

Tolu

Tolu is a sleepy little tourist town 3 hours south of Cartagena on the Caribbean Gulf of Morrosquillo. Tolu is bustling boom-boom town with music blaring from every bar, restaurant and bicycle taxi ambling along the malecon boardwalk – jut the way the Colombian tourists like it. The town caters to middle class Colombian tourists during holidays and the weekends and they want to keep it to themselves. If it’s peace and tranquility you’re looking for then it’s probably best to visit during the weekdays when the town is relatively quiet.

Everyone travels in bicycle rickshaws or what they call bicitaxis, outfitted with boom boxes and accommodating anywhere from 3-10 people. It’s a nice place to unwind in a town with everything you need. There are also numerous beaches within a 30 minute bus ride of the town definitely worth checking out: San Bernardo del Viento, Playa Blanca and the islands of San Bernardo. (see full article)

Archeology

A tomb at Tierradentro

Tierradentro

Tierradentro – located in the department of Cauca, is known for its pre-Colombian tombs. Underground tombs have been found all over the Americas – from Mexico to Argentina but their largest concentration is in Colombia. And Tierradentro is one of Colombia’s greatest pre-Hispanic attractions.

There are 162 subterranean tombs located in 4 different sites dating back to the 6th to 9th centuries A.D. Carved into volcanic rock the tombs open to the west. Spiral staircases lead to a main chambers 15 to 24 feet below the surface. The main rooms are 30-36 feet wide with supporting columns and small walled chambers where the bodies were buried. The walls were scored with geometric patterns and painted red, black and white; red representing life, black death and white the hope of passing to the next life.

The hills in the park are spectacular dotted with small farms. It’s a long hike and difficult hike up and down the steep mountains and 8 miles of narrow foot trails to visit some of the major sites. It can be easily done in two days of hiking and tomb exploration. (see full article)

a demon statue at San Agustin

San Agustin

San Agustin – is a pleasant country village in Huila where one can explore Colombia’s finest archaeological patrimony immersed in some of its most beautiful rural landscape. A few thousand years ago the people who lived in this area adorned their tombs with statues of god heads, devilish images, men in trances and man/animal figures. They believed these were creatures bridging the world of man and animals.

People have been inhabiting this steep terrain for 6,000 years. And these tombs and statues were created around 3,300 B.C. – about the time they were building the pyramids in Egypt; well before the Incas, whose civilization arose in the 13th century and was thriving when Columbus discovered the Americas. (see full article)

Colonial Towns

Mompox

Mompox

About five hours inland from the Caribbean coast is the intriguing town of Mompox – a perfectly preserved colonial town. Founded in 1537 Mompox (also spelled Mompos) was an important port city for cargo and travelers during in the colonial era. The Magdelena River splits in two just before Mompox. Back in the 1800s the branch, on which Mompox sits, silted up with mud and became innavigable for big boats – so traffic was diverted down the other branch. Mompox became a sleepy, back-water town frozen in time.

The city center is like one huge museum. All the villas in town leave their huge doors and windows open displaying quaint courtyards and sitting rooms adorned with antiques. When the cool evening breezes float in at sunset, the residents sit outside their houses on the street to cool off and chat with neighbors while bats dive down the whitewashed streets hunting for mosquitos coming up from the river. There’s a languid charm to this place, quintessential colonial Colombia. (see full article)

Barichara

Barichara

Barichara – a few hours travel south of Bucaramanga there’s the town of Barichara founded in 1741 which means in the native Guane language “place of rest with flowering trees”. The streets are made of cobblestones and the whitewashed colonial houses have been kept original. They filmed many Colombian movies here. Inside the houses remind me of Tuscany with wooden beams, terra-cotta tile floors and terra-cotta roof tiles. The town has been named one of the most beautiful villages in Colombia.

It is located in the department of Santander, a Colombian department, rarely visited, but home to a number of quaint colonial villages. Not many people know much about Santander because it’s not on the road to any significant stop in Colombia. It’s a 15 hour – 450 mile bus ride from Cartagena to the north and 250 miles and another 10 hour mountainous bus ride to Bogota to the south. Why bother? It’s one of the cheapest areas in the country offering bargain adventure, colonial lodgings, a great climate and country food. (see full article – Colonia Towns of Santander)

Plaza Major – the largest cobblestoned plaza in Colombia

Villa de Leyva – A National Monument

The department of Boyacá boasts numerous, well-preserved, Spanish colonial villages dating back to the 1700s and Spanish rule. But Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s most special towns. Considered one of the most beautiful village in Colombia, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited villages. Only a three hour trip day trip from Bogota, Villa de Leyva is never at a loss for visitors. It has been declared a national monument.  The town boasts an impressively preserved main square, Plaza Major, the biggest and the most beautiful cobblestoned-square in Colombia with 42,000 sq. feet of rock surface area. (see full article – ‘Villa de Leyva and Mongui – the beautiful villages of Boyaca’)

Main Plaza of Mongui

Mongui

Another beautiful colonial village in Boyaca is Mongui.  Located six miles northeast of the city of Sogomoso, set high in the hills, Mongui is 6,000 feet above sea level. Due to the altitude the air is cool and seemingly rather thin of oxygen.

A small town of only 5,000 inhabitants, Mongui, which means sunrise in native language, is beautiful with a large cobbled stone plaza and a magnificient Basilia built by the Franciscans in the 17th century. The church has an interesting museum. And just a couple blocks off the plaza, down Carrera 3, is the Calycanto bridge, a beautiful arched stone bridge.

Mongui is becoming famous as a traveler’s destination, not only for the village, but also as a doorway to one of the most beautiful ‘paramos’ in South America. The Páramo ia a unique environment unlike anywhere else on earth; an Páramos  ecosystem existing above the mountain’s forest line, but below the permanent snowline. (see full article)

Green hills of the coffee triangle

The Coffee Triangle

Another big tourist attraction in Colombia is an exploration of the Zona Cafetera, the ‘Triangulo del Café’ or the Coffee Triangle. Here they say the best coffee in the world is produced. A rather heated point of contention because every city and region in Colombia claims to produce, not only the country’s best coffee, but they also boast the most beautiful women .

It’s an easy trip to the coffee triangle by bus from Bogota, Medellin or Cali. It gives one the chance to explore Colombia’s evergreen interior. The triangle is composed of three cities all respective capitals of their departments: Manizales – capital of Caldas to the north, Pereira in Risaralda in the center and Armenia capital of Quindío to the south.

Well worth a visit are the towns of Salento, Filandia, the Valley of Cocora National Park and the National Coffee Park. – all located in the coffee triangle.  (see full article)

Colombian Cities

Popayan

Popayan

Popayan – Called the white city – Ciudad Blanca – or as its promotion slogan goes: more than just a white city. A colonial Spanish city founded in 1537 is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Colombia. It’s a quiet relaxed town. – easy to get around with a fair amount of tourism. It’s a university town with about 8 different state and private universities and students are everywhere. With an altitude of 5,770 feet it might get warm in the day but is always cool at night and rains and thunders almost every day.

(see full article- ‘Travel Southern Colombia: Cali, Popayan, Pasto’)

Plaza Botero in Medellin

Medellin

A dynamic, contemporary, prosperous city of 2.6 million people in Antioquia, Colombia – the heart of Colombia’s famous coffee triangle. Known as the land of the eternal spring it has a temperate climate – hot during the day and cool at night.

Not too long ago rated the most dangerous city if the world due to fighting between drug cartels, agrarian backed revolutionary groups, paramilitary groups, and a war on drugs.

Medellin is in the department of Antioquia stretching  25 kilomters through the narrow valley of Aburra between the high mountains ranges of the Central Cordillera.

The residents call themselves Paisas. They’re known for being curious, clever people and good businessmen. Also known as the Silicon Valley of Colombia, Medellin is easy to travel thanks to an excellent metro system and cable cars with plenty of restaurants, museums and enough things to see and do to easily fill up a week.  (see full articles: ‘Medellin: the land of eternal spring’ and ‘Traveling Medellin: Places to visit around Medellin’)

Cartagena seen from an old Spanish Fortress San Filipe

Cartagena

Cartagena is a  vibrant beautiful port city where cruise ships also dock. It has a beautiful historic center and is the major tourist destination for Colombia. The city has the feel of a touristy city in Spain. The city within the walls – also called the inner city or El Centro,  was where the high officials and nobility originally lived. You can easily walk most of its narrow streets strolling around in a half day.  (see full article)

Travel in Colombia / What to Expect/ What to Pack

Couldn’t be a better time to see Colombia

Reading the travel guides on Ecuador – they talk about it how tourism has changed the country. ‘Should have been here 10 years ago when it was quaint and undiscovered,’ they say. ‘Now there are big hotels, boutique shops, robberies all over the place.’

Well, that’s not the case with Colombia. Outside of Cartagena it’s all to be discovered. There is no big corporate tourism here. In a way, Colombia has remained unchanged for the last 40 years. But there is so much pent up tourism potential.

The country is so beautiful, the people so friendly and helpful. The climate is perfect. A good service structure already exists. Everything is so affordable. Tourism is overdue and coming fast.

Is Colombia Safe?

They say Colombia is safe now. After traveling around Colombia these last few years, I feel it’s one of the safer countries in Central and South America. Colombia has just emerged from a dark era – 30 years of violence – which basically stunted the country’s tourism development. A reputation as a violent and unsafe country is mostly unfounded today.

But after three decades of violence people still down play the horror. They have  put that entire chapter behind them. They look ahead  happy to see tourists returning. They know the endemic violence is over they just can’t believe the foreigners keep bringing it up.  ‘Of course it’s safe here,’ Colombians say defensively. ‘It’s no longer like it used to be. It will never be like it was before. It’s much better now. We’ve moved on.’

Military  patrolling the countryside

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

Still, one shouldn’t throw caution to the wind as if they’re  on holiday in a gated resort in Cancun. To error on the side of caution is always advisable.

City centers where there are a lot of people are generally well patrolled and pretty safe. Safety in numbers?  My rule of thumb is stay away from the empty streets, poorer areas and the shady parts of town. You’ll know them when you seen them.

And when traveling in Colombia it’s best to keep you nose out of the vices. Stay away from drugs, prostitutes and hard drinking aguardiente bars. A little common sense and street smarts will  prevent you from stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time.

If you booked  a great deal on a nice hotel but it’s in a questionable part of town, not a problem. But  take a taxi to the city center or wherever it is you’re going, day and night. Taxis are cheap. Why take a chance of a mugging to save a couple bucks?

Have the hotel or restaurant call a cab for you. Ask the hotel and restaurant personnel if it’s safe to walk around town – where and when. They know and most hotel managers feel somewhat responsible for your well-being.

Women can’t travel in Colombia alone?

Not so. According to government statistics, women traveling alone represent a large part of the foreign tourists in Colombia. I saw many women traveling alone, in groups, or pairs. It  takes a certain savvy attitude, audacity, spunk and street smarts to be sure, but it’s a welcomed and growing reality in South America.

A Colombian picnic

Colombia people

I’m a huge fan – have been for decades.

The women walk down the streets so fresh, proud, heads up, so graceful and cat like, demurely catching you watching them out of the corner of their eyes; briefly acknowledging you and then just as quickly dismissing you. They know their power. Strong, dedicated, independent women with a dedicated sense of family. The way they call everyone ‘mi amor’. They are the ones who run not only the households but the country. There are more female politicians in Colombia than most other countries.

And the men show exemplary old school respect and graciousness. They call you ‘caballero’ or gentleman. They look you straight in the eye and are ready to engage in a political discussion right off the bat just to see the stuff you’re made of. Always offering you a tinto (coffee), asking you how you woke up today, ready to help you with any problem.

A Chiva bus (in the back) and a Tuk Tuk

Communications

Communications in Colombia are very good. I can’t believe how easy it is to travel in Colombia these days compared to 40 years ago. With just a phone one can tap into the Wi-Fi  which is available in almost every hotel and restaurant in the country. Even  in the most remote, rural villages I found Wi-Fi. Just ask for their Wi-Fi pass codes (clave).

You can text, send photos, contact home, access Netflix  and use apps to reach out to locals or fellow travelers while on the road. There’s face time with Skype, Messenger,  Whats app. And Colombian’s, young and old, are all hooked up to these platforms. With the internet you can book a hotel room for the next town, research your next destination and always hit the ground running.

Vaccinations

Contact your local, medical, international travel clinic for up to date information.
For  Colombian travel  it was recommended one get a vaccination for:

  • Hepatitis A – for food and water transmissions
  • Hepatitis B – for blood and bodily fluid transmissions
  • Typhoid Fever – for contaminated food or water
  • Malaria pills – for malaria carried by mosquitoes
  • Yellow Fever – if you’re going to be on the coast or in the Amazon. They won’t give you the vaccine if you’re over 60 and don’t let them as it can be fatal.  They say you need the Yellow Fever  vaccine to get into Ecuador and Panama from Colombia but at the borders they never asked me to show mine.

Documents

Arrive with a passport that is valid for at least the next six months. Most North Americans and Europeans don’t need a visa, but do check. A visa is usually granted for a 90 day stay. Make sure to ask immigration at entry for the 90 day visa. If you need more time you can always cross the border and come back with a brand new 90-day visa.

Getting around by jeep

Storing Valuables – Playing it  Safe

Keep a copy of your passport in a safe place or store it in the cloud. This will help you get your passport quickly replaced should it be stolen or lost.

While you’re at it –  keep a photocopy of your credit cards in a safe place, too.

Travel with a photocopy of your passport in the streets of Colombia. Don’t use the passport as i.d. Leave that at the hotel or hidden. But keep it on your person when traveling by bus as there are military and police road blocks and they would rather see the original.

Wear a money belt

I found the ones concealed around the waist are the best and keep your passport, credit cards and cash in the belt. There are also leg belts and regular waist belts with zippered compartments to hide money. Don’t keep your valuables in fanny packs or the pouches around your neck and under the shirt. When they rob you they’ve been known to pat your chest. It’s  almost inconceivable they will stick their hands down your pants looking for a money belt.  But don’t rule it out.

Use the hotel safe when available. There are  anti-theft , cloth portable safes  with combination locks on the market. Basically they’re bags made out of hard to cut materials that lock onto a fixed  object in the hotel room. They’re not impossible to get into, or get  loose and run off with, but it makes it the job harder and more time consuming.  Personally, I never had any problem in Colombia with anything missing from my hotel room. Hostels can be a little more sketchy. Travelers have reported some problems with valuables disappearing in hostels. I always prefer to leave my valuables in a locked hotel room  rather than hauling them with me onto the streets.

Always keep an eye on your drink, never leave your drink unattended as someone may put something in it and you’ll wake up in a whole other world. The drug being used in Colombia is Scopolamine otherwise called “the devil’s breath” which is derived from a flower belonging to the Morning Glory family.  The drug is odorless and tasteless and can be easily dropped in your drink or simply rubbed or blown into your face. It’s been used over the years as a truth serum.  Under this drug someone can convince you to do anything including going to different ATM’s withdrawing all your money for them. You stay fully conscience while under the influence and are happy to do whatever they ask. But in the morning you will  feel hungover and  remember nothing. In high doses this drug can be lethal. Always be skeptical of strangers especially if they are offering free food and/or drinks. Remember if it’s too good to be true – it usually is.

Stand there and make sure your bags get loaded into the bottom of the bus. Buses run fast and furious and more than one bag has been inadvertently  left on the sidewalk and not loaded into the cargo hold.

Don’t let people run off with your bags with the pretense they’re doing you a service helping you quickly catch a departing bus, train or boat. Most of the time these guys are harmless.  They’re either  getting paid by the transport company to grab your business from the competitors or they’re just looking for a tip.

Don’t travel with even the smallest amount of drugs. There are police with dogs where you least expect them. This year in Colombia I saw a lot of drug sniffing dogs and police in the larger bus stations. Those dogs are good and the police have been stopping foreign tourists and making them unpack their bags right in the middle of the  bus stations.

Chances of Getting Robbed

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

If robbed, and let’s hope this never happens,   just shut up and  give them what they want.  Your pack, what’s in your pockets, watch, jewelry, camera – whatever they want. And do it quick. Thieves are nervous and the plan is to grab and dash. Don’t mess  with that plan. Give it up and send them running  quickly before you start talking  too much, they get nervous,  or you do something stupid and end up getting hurt. It’s never worth it.  If they go packing quickly they might not have time to check to see if you have a money belt or pouch. Or they  might forget to grab your watch or rings. They didn’t stop you to reason with you, or to discuss their life choices,  or to learn how much your stuff means to you, or how much of an inconvenience this robbery is.

Usually two men hold up a traveler when he or she is alone.  It’s harder they rob travelers  when they’re in a group of two or more. But it can’t be ruled out, either.  Robberies  usually happen on an isolated streets. And they  can happen any time of the day or night.

Don’t try to fight. Not even if you’ve been trained for this.  There is always a knife and/or gun present. And these are not nice people. They have stopped you and have the element of surprise and the upper hand already in their favor. Speaking as someone who has been robbed, if you just give them what they want, it’s a safe bet, they probably won’t hurt you. But then again, some barking dogs actually do bite.

Sleeping in ‘chinchoros’ hammocks

What to pack:

Colombia is hot and then it’s cool and then hot again – all depends on the altitude, so be prepared for both – often in the same day.

If you’re going to be moving around, traveling by air, taxi, bus and on foot I recommend a back pack.  You’ll have to walk a short distances when traveling and a backpack makes that so much easier. They have back packs where the shoulder straps zip up into the bags which transforms the pack into a duffel bag or suitcase. This solution keeps your pack’s shoulder straps clean and free from getting snagged and ripped in the cargo hold of a bus or plane. Also keep a smaller, carry-on, day  pack to keep your computer and other travel necessities. I never put this one in a cargo hold or even in the overhead, but keep it on my lap or on the floor by my feet where it can be watched at all times.

I know it’s never easy to minimize when you  have to travel light and are packing for a long trip. My theory is you can always buy what you forgot when you get there. Whether you’re traveling for 2 weeks or 2 months, here’s a basic list of what I packed on my last trip to Colombia. Next time I’ll take even less.

Clothes:

  • 5 pair socks low top and high top
  • 4 T-shirts
  • 1 tank top
  • 1 sweater – hooded slightly heavy – Colombian buses are often air-          conditioned to the absurd max.
  • 1 down jacket which you tie up in a ball. You’ll probably only use              during arrival and departure
  • 1 pair lightweight cargo pants (those pockets are priceless)
  • 1 pair blue jeans – can be used in formal settings too.
  • 2 pair shorts cut to the knee (Colombian men only wear shorts at the beach.) Gringos can pull off wearing shorts but try to get shorts with a knee cut – not too short)
  • 1 pair comfortable shorts for lounging around the hotel
  • 1 swim suit
  • 1 beach towel
  • 1 pair lightweight sweat pants
  • 2 pair flip flops or water shoes to wear at the beach another for the hotel
  • 1 pair comfortable loafers or shoes
  • I pair trekking shoes – broken in.
  • 1  baseball hat
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 collapsible umbrella
  • Ear Plugs
  • 1 money belt
  • 1 blue jean or long sleeve shirt

Technology

  • 1 laptop 10″-11” with photo capability for Skype and watching movies
  • 1 Phone
  • 1 kindle – download books – why  carry them
  • 1 small camera
  • Power cords – Colombia uses the American 110 voltage similar to electrical  outlets found in the United States and Canada

Accessories

  • 1 lock and key for hotel rooms, storage cribs
  • 1 pair of swimming goggles for salt water and pools
  • 1 pocket knife – remember to pack it in your suitcase not your carry-on
  • 1 spoon and fork, plate, knife
  • Sunscreen
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Skin cream
  • Separate organizational pouches
  • Bottle opener/ corkscrew
  • Rope – for hammocks, drying wet clothes
  • Flashlight

Medicine bag/ Toiletries

  • Razor
  • Toothbrush and holder
  • Soap and holder
  • Aspirin and Ibuprofen
  • Vaseline
  • Cortisone
  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste
  • Band Aids
  • Prescription Medications, birth control, allergy meds, etc.
  • Chap Stick
  • Motion sickness pills – if needed, and  Altitude sickness pills
  • Needle and thread

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Please leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have in the comment box below and we will get back to you.

Pros & Cons: Renting an Apartment vs. a Hotel stay

Renting a Hotel vs. an Apartment

When staying for an extended period of time in Colombia there are many lodging options: hostels, pensions, hotels, residencias and apartments. You can rent either for a day or for longer periods of time.

Hotel/hostel/apartment? Many people would only consider staying in a hotel when they travel. Others like the privacy and freedom of apartment living. Which is cheaper?

Multi-night stays: I usually book the first night on a sites like booking.com. The pictures, maps and reviews pretty much eliminate the element of surprise and disappointment. Staying longer than one night, always ask the hotel what’s the best price they can give for a second night. The longer you’re staying the harder you haggle. Apartments are usually already priced weekly and the more weeks you stay the cheaper it gets daily.  But haggle anyway.

A hotel room in San Gil with a balcony and a window facing the street.
Hotel room in Pasto

Hotels – for a pampered stay

Pros: Hotels are nice if you like being catered to. The rooms are cleaned every day. The sheets and towels are always clean and fresh, the bathrooms and floors are swept and mopped and everything tidied and stocked. Breakfast usually served every morning. For a fee, there’s room service,  laundry pick up, maybe a restaurant and pool in the building. And no contracts. You can take it day by day.

The cons: there’s always a doorman and/or receptionist keeping an eye on your comings and goings. Anyone you want to bring beyond the reception area  has to be registered and the hotel will levy the  double room rate.

Maid Service: is great until it isn’t. The maids will want to get in sometime during the day to clean. Usually they start knocking on the  door by 9 a.m. asking if or when they can come in to clean. Heaven forbid your floor is where they they  habitually start cleaning every day. And few hotels in Colombia have the ‘Do not disturb’ hang tags you can put on your outside door knob. If you find a hotel that has those tags, steal one so you can put it outside the door of your next hotel.

Chatty Kathys:  This is my pet-peeve. Other hotel guests will congregate outside your door very early in the morning and/or very late at night talking in loud voices as if they’re the only people booked in the hotel. That’s just how Colombians roll and another reason to ask for rooms far from the elevators and stairwells.

Room with a view: Everyone wants a room with a view and a balcony. Smokers, I get it. But the balconies and windows usually face the busy, main streets. Reception will not warn you of the street noise at night which usually doesn’t subside till 11 at night, starting back up at 6 in the morning. And if you’re in the Zona Rosa or entertainment district, the beat of valentato/salsa music could go on till 4 a.m. You can complain but the only thing they will  do is move you to another room which may only be slightly quieter.

The inner sanctum: Most hotels have rooms with windows opening to an attractive inner courtyard or sometimes the window of your room just opens to an airshaft letting in some defused light and a little fresh air. Lousy view – check. But a better night’s sleep – check.

Domestic duties: if you’re on a short trip and want to get away from: cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundry and tidying. Then renting an apartment may not be for you.

Apartments can be cheaper than renting a hotel room, But only if you’re staying for a month or longer. Otherwise they tend to cost about the same or sometimes a little more than a hotel room. If you’re traveling with a family or group of people – renting a big apartment will be cheaper than hotel accommodations.

A typical ‘apartastudio” in Colombia
Typical kitchen in a Colombian apartment

Hostels – a communal experience: are great if you’re on tight budget. You sleep in a room full of beds. They always have the best price. There is usually a communal kitchen for cooking your own food. It’s easier to meet people.  And you encounter the most interesting travelers. I love coming to a new area and staying at a hostel for a night or two just to get the low down on what to see and what’s up to road.

The cons: sleeping in a large room. If you’re a light sleeper, you’ll never get a good night’s sleep. People coming in at all hours, partying, packing to leave in the pre-dawn hours. Sometimes you get lucky and you’re the only person in a dorm room.  But for a little more money, there are private rooms to rent in hostels.

The security of your belongings is low. Some hostels have lockers or boxes you can padlock but most don’t.

And the sanitary conditions of the common kitchens is often left to be desired.  The guests aren’t cleaning the way they should and management isn’t doing a daily cleaning and organization of the kitchen area.

Apartments

Pros: Apartments are bigger – more living space. They can come with several bedrooms and enough beds to accommodate a small army with kitchen ware, table, chairs, 1.5 – 2 baths, towels, bedding, t.v. and all the comforts of home. Some big apartments are co-shared by different guests. Everyone has their own room and the kitchen is shared.

If you’re traveling alone,  or as a couple,  there are ‘apartastudios’ which are mini-apartments with a double bed, 1.5 bathrooms (always a half bath for visiting guests) they also come with kitchen ware, plates, utensils, towels, table, chairs, t.v. and sometimes air conditioning, sometimes just fans. A down-sized apartment, a little larger than a hotel room.

Apartments are usually located in residential areas slightly outside of the city in quieter areas where the locals live.

Apartments offer more privacy: You don’t have to get dressed and go downstairs for a cup of coffee in the morning. You can come and go as you please. There may be a doorman but he’s just there to keep out the riff raff and could care less who comes and goes with you. He’ll even buzz you to announce visitors.

No hotel maids  wanting to know when you’re leaving so they can get in your room. In fact, your privacy  is so intact there’s a chance you’ll be holed up in the apartment longer than you think – drapes drawn, sleeping in late, watching Netflix and taking uninterrupted  afternoon naps.

And think of all the money you can save on restaurants by cooking your own food. Finally make that pasta dish you’ve been craving or try cooking one of those incredible fish you’ve been eyeing at the market.

The cons:

Checking into an apartment is a lot more complicated. There are contracts to sign, and security deposits levied. The landlord does an inventory of everything when you arrive and again when you’re leaving, just like the hotel does with your mini-bar. Anything missing or broken comes out of your security deposit. You have to pre-pay so if anything happens, like the water being shut off or an electricity grid going for days, it’s most likely you won’t get reimbursed for the inconvenience. If this happened in a hotel you would simply  leave and go to another with functioning services.

You have to do your own cleaning. There are brooms and mops there for a reason. Sheets and towels will have to be washed by you. Some apartments have washing machines and clothes line to hang the wet clothes on. If not you have to take your wash, which now includes sheets and towels, to a laundry mat or a cleaners where they charge you by the kilo.

You’ll have to go shopping:  if you want to take advantage of the kitchen to cook your own food you’ll have to go shopping at the local market or supermarket. Lug the food home. (Often there are local ‘tiendas’ or small stores that will deliver to your door.) Then there’s the food prep. The cooking, the cleanup afterwards. And few apartments in Colombia have dishwashers.

Cheaper to eat out: I found it to be cheaper to eat out in Colombia than to cook. I love cooking. I spent a lot more money cooking my own food. But I ate a lot better.

Short term apartment stays in Colombia are not cheaper than hotels.  Weekly rates are higher than monthly rates or year long leases.

How to find an apartment: Apartments can be found on the hotel web sites and on Airbnb. There are also agencies in town representing apartments to let. And simply walking around you’ll see signs in windows ‘Apartamento en renta’ apartments for rent. Just stop and inquire

Which one is right for you?

Sometimes the daily household chores of apartment living are welcomed if you’ve been traveling for a while. The mundane, ritualistic activity of cooking, cleaning and food shopping can be a refreshing relief. Give you things to do while enjoying a more residential as opposed to touristic experience in you new town.

A travel mix: When I travel for an extended period of time, I like a nice mix of hotels and restaurants with an occasional apartment stay. If I’m traveling hard – Colombian hotels and restaurants are fast, easy, cheap and accessible.  Get in – get out. I sleep where I fall.

But sometimes I’m just tired of traveling. I know when it’s time to stop. An apartment can be a more accommodating place.

A countryside chalet for rent in Banos, Ecuador



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Please leave your comments, personal experiences or questions in the comment box below and we will get back to you. 

Colombia: Websites, blogs, books and guides – links

As a fan and student of Colombian humanities, I’m always on the hunt for websites, blogs, travel guides (websites and printed guides ), news stories and books relating to Colombia. I’ll even read bad books and  dated, discontinued blog sites from years ago to learn of a writer’s Colombian experiences. And I always  learn something new.

Here are some of my favorite sites, travel guides and books on Colombia. If you have websites and publications you’d  think I’ve overlooked, please leave them with me in the comment box below.

For contributions to this website,  please leave me a comment and I will get back to you.

Websites – Links:

Richardmccoll.com – a freelance journalist who owns a hotel in Mompox. He has numerous recorded radio podcast online  called ‘Colombia Calling’, and a biography of books and articles studying Colombia culture and politics. His vast knowledge about Colombia is impressive.

Openmindedtraveler.com – a delightful blog about food, culture and life as an expat in Colombia by Erin Donaldson who lives in Pereira; with a lot of good information on the department of Choco.

Uncovercolombia.com – a sophisticated, photogenic blog about travel, experiences and discovering Colombia.

Colombiareports.com – the country’s leading website for news, in
English, on Colombia, travel tips and background.

Off2colombia.com – a comprehensive blog/website/ guide on traveling throughout Colombia

Discovercolombia.com – a guide on Colombia travel destinations, tours and things to do.

Expat.com  – an international expat help and support site with lots of useful information on living and working abroad.  Just click on South American and Colombia for a list of valuable links.

Honestlycali.weebly.com – an intelligent, opinionated, academic blog about banking, taxes, politics, economics, food and culture in Colombia. Straight forward ideas – ‘no sugar coating’. Talks about Cali in particular but Colombia in general.

Sarepa.com – a travel blog about living abroad and calling Colombia home – the experiences of an expat plus travel destinations in Colombia – by Sarah Duncan

Flavorsofbogota.com – a food blog/website dedicated to discovery of the best of Colombian cuisine. Plus coffee and coffee experiences by Karen Attman

HowtoBogota.com – a blog devoted to Bogota’s neighborhoods, living and working in the city by a blogger named Naiomi.

Medellinliving.com – an interesting blog/website dedicated to living and traveling around Medellin, things to do, restaurants and more.

Seecolombiatravel.com – explore, discover, believe. A website about traveling in Colombia promoting tours and travel packages with a lot of good, general information on visiting Colombia with  lots of photos.

Mytravelphotoblog.com – see his blogs on ‘destination Colombia’ with    interesting insights and photos on Ibague, Tolima

Nolongernative.com – a blog by Danielle, an American expat living in Bogota with her husband Cody. The perks and pitfalls of the expat experience in Bogota and around the world.

Colombiabirding.com – a website with information on bird watching in Colombia; promoting their  bird watching tours

Medellinguru.com – an insider guide to Medellin and expat tips on things to do, places to go, where to stay, where to eat, etc. A blog geared mostly to expats living in Medellin but also of interest to visitors.  There are some articles on travel in Colombia but most of the blog just covers  Medellin and its surroundings.

Travel guides Colombia:

There are a numerous travel guides on Colombia. Some are out of print.  Most are available on Kindle.  Here are my standard favorites still in print today:

The Rough Guide to Colombia(2015)

Colombia: Bradt Travel Guide (2018)

Moon Colombia (2017)

Lonely Planet Colombia (2017)

Frommer’s Easy Guide to Colombia (2017)

Books – Background Reading on Colombia:

Colombia Reader: History, Culture and Politics 

Short Walks from Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombiaby Tom Feiling

The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself – by David Bushnell

The New Colombiaby the Financial Times

Oblivion: A Memoirby Hector Abad

The Farc: The Longest Insurgency – by Gary Leech

The Dispossessed: Chronicles of the Desterrados of Colombia – by Alfredo Molano

Country of Bullits: Chronicles of War – by Juanita Leon

Please leave your comments and questions in the comment box below and we will get back to you.

Travel Around Medellin: Daytrips and Places to Visit – Guatape, Santa Fe, El Carmen de Viboral

Day Tripper

If you’re spending any kind of time traveling in Medellin, which is easy to do, after a couple days a get away is in order. There are a number of possible day trips from the city. They sell guided tours to a number of these places but these villages are so easy to reach with  public transit that they can and should be explored at one’s own leisure.

All of the towns are accessible by local buses that leave from the North Bus Terminal of Medellin – easily reached  with the metro. Just take the A line to Niquia and exit at the Caribe station. Leave the station, cross the overhead bridge, just outside of the station, and the North Terminal is just on the other side.

Medellin
Medellin seen from the sky

Medellin is the city I fly into and leave from every year. So I spend a considerable amount of time here. And when my friends, with limited vacation time, want me to give them a tour and intro  to Colombia – I bring them to Medellin for two reasons: one, it’s my favorite city in Colombia and two, there are so many day trips within a short distance of city center. A week goes by and everyone feels like they’ve gotten a good intro to Colombia.

Medellin is an excellent base for exploring nearby coffee towns, beautiful countrysides and picturesque colonial pueblos which makes an extended stay in Antioquia’s capital all the more interesting.

Guatape
The main square of Guatape
Guatape
A fountain in Guatape
Guatape
The malecon on the reservoir at Guatape

Guatape


Guatape, a gorgeous lakeside town just two hours outside of Medellin, is Medellin’s most popular day trip. The town is located on the River Nare, which was dammed in 1972 to create a reservoir which supplies Medellin with 30% of its energy and most of its drinking water.  Guatape is a colorful, colonial town with picturesque houses with balconies all painted in bright racing colors. The decorative wall panels located around town are called zocalos. There are a lot of shops in town catering to tourists, selling arts and crafts. The main square, Plaza de Simon Bolivar is a block off the lake and one of the most beautiful squares in Colombia. On the malecon, along the lake front, there are a number of restaurants with outdoor tables featuring locally raised trout. There are boat rides on the lake and a zip line along the beach. The town is higher in altitude than Medellin and the air is pleasantly cool.

PIedra del Penol in Guatape – a 649 stair climb to the top

La Piedra del Penol

Across the lake, about a mile walk away, is the Piedra del Penol, a bullet shaped granite rock 200 meters high. Not much to see here but there are 649 stairs to the top, if you’re so inclined. They say there’s a nice view once you get there. The Penol is just outside of town. The bus stops here before heading into Guatape, about a 10 minute ride down the road. After seeing the rock one catches another bus into the center of town. Buses leave from the North Terminal in Medellin to Guatape. The cost if 10,000 COP and it trip takes 2 hours each way. The  town gets busy on the weekends with visitors from Medellin but stays fairly quiet during weekdays.

Santa Fe, Antioquia
The main square of Santa Fe
Santa Fe
A restaurant in Santa Fe

Santa Fe de Antioquia
Just 80 km northwest of Medellin lies the small town of Santa Fe. 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.

El Carmen di Viboral
A woman handpainting the ceramics of El Carmen
El Carmen de Viboral
The town square of El Carmen – the tower is made of ceramics

El Carmen de Viboral
El Carmen de Viboral is a tiny city of about 50,000 people an hour east of Medellin. It is known for its colorful, floral ceramics. The town is full of pottery shops and workshops making it a perfect day trip to learn about Colombian ceramics and to pick up some bargain souvenirs.

Founded in 1787, ceramics had been the major industry of the city since 1898. In fact ceramic plates and broken ceramic pieces are used to decorate the town. At 800 meters above sea level, it’s nice and cool with a beautiful main square lined with large, sidewalk cafes.

El Carmen de Viboral
the different styles of ceramic hand painting in El Carmen

The Casa del Cultura hosts an interesting museum looking at the history of the ceramic industry – from the crockery making process to the typical styles of hand painting. The ceramic production of El Carmen focuses primarily on plates, cups, kitchen utensils, washbasins, vases and statues. Everything is painted by hand using a bouquet of colors.  No two pieces are exactly the same.

At one time there were 25 factories making ceramics in the town. But in the late 1970s the activity began to decline with the introduction of cheaper products imported from China. But in the 1990s the tradition started recovering. Today there are more than 27 companies producing enameled ceramics.

From the center of town take the street next to the hotel up 5 blocks.  The area, called ‘Zona Rossa’, where the ceramic shops are located. One can tour the ceramic workshops, watch the ladies hand paint the ceramics, take pictures and buy directly at the shops.  Haggling over prices is o.k. and the ceramics are very inexpensive.

I’ve  always had a hard time finding souveniers in Medellin to take home. If you’re looking for some typical, quality mementos, the ceramics of Casa de Viboral make the perfect gift. They’ll wrap them in newspaper and bubble wrap to ensure the safest  passage possible in your suitcase. A couple of the the ceramic parrots in the picture below actually made the trip  in my suitcase and survived the abuse of Spirit baggage handlers. No small feat.

El Carmen de Viboral
Ceramic shop – El Carmen
El Carmen de Viboral
Ceramic at a shop in El Carmen


(for more on Medellin, see full article on ‘Medellin: the land of eternal spring’)

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