Colombia: South America's best kept secret

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South America » Colombia
July 4th 2008
Published: July 5th 2008
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Volcano mud bath in CartagenaVolcano mud bath in CartagenaVolcano mud bath in Cartagena

Getting down & dirty in the mud baths at Volcan de Lodo el Totumo.

Conquering our fears

Back in September 2007, when we started our travels in South America, the one country we were sure we would avoid was Colombia. However, as we travelled through South America we met more and more people who raved about Colombia and who convinced us to at least consider a visit. Colombia still has a reputation as an unsafe country, stemming from the 40 year civil war between rebel groups such as FARC or ELN and various governments. But things seem to be changing now, the security situation is vastly improving, and what was once a truly unsafe country for foreign travellers, and hence not on the itineraries of most backpackers, is nowadays just waiting to be rediscovered.

Crossing the border from Ecuador, I felt the apprehension you always feel in a new country, plus a little bit of nervousness about a country the US state department describes as full of "ongoing security concerns". There was quite a strong security presence at the border - remember, Colombia and Ecuador almost went to war a few months ago - which reminded me of border crossings to Northern Ireland 10 or 15 years ago. But we quickly felt at
Cartagena street sceneCartagena street sceneCartagena street scene

Checkmate in Plaza de San Pedro Claver
home in Colombia, discovering it wasn't so different to Ecuador - and very similar in one respect: the taxi drivers here are also maniacs!

Ipiales, the first town on the Colombian side of the border, is a nicer place than most South American border towns, but it doesn't have too many sights; it's just a regular, everyday Colombian town. I've mentioned in an earlier blog how Ecuador prices matched what they were in a two year old guide book. Unfortunately, the trend didn't continue in Colombia: based on what Hotel los Andes charged us, prices seem to have doubled. Though we did manage to negotiate 25%!o(MISSING)ff, learning a very valuable lesson too: that everything in Colombia, whether it's hotels, bus tickets, or in a market, the price is negotiable.

Many travellers bypass Ipiales and move on to Pasto or Popayan, but if you do stick around there is one fantastic sight: the Sanutario Los Lajas, a beautiful church located in a tiny village, about 7km east of Ipiales. The church is built on the site of an alleged apparition of the Virgin Mary - and quite a sight it is too, built into the rock face of
Barichara ChurchBarichara ChurchBarichara Church

Capilla de Jesus, just one of the many fine churches in Barichara.
a steep gorge. Inside the church there is a painting of the virgin in the exact spot where the apparition was sighted. But the real highlight is the church, which has more turrets and spires than Notre Dame in Paris, and whose white striking facade makes it stand out. Paths on either side of the bridge lead to viewpoints.

Getting a buzz from Colombia's biggest agricultural export

Normally when people in South America ask me where I'm from they mistake my "Irlanda" for "Holanda". I usually correct them but in Colombia I wasn't too quick to do this, especially when talking to the military. Between 2001 and January 2008, Irish visitors were required to have visas for travel in Colombia, on account of the problems with 3 Irishmen who fled the country after being convicted of training FARC rebels. While being Irish might be great were FARC to kidnap you, it's not such a popular thing with the military. However, the first army guy to ask me about seemed to think Ireland was somewhere beside Russia - fine with me!

The military are on the whole friendly, but talking to them as a tourist is like talking
Love is...?Love is...?Love is...?

An intimate moment in Parque el Gallineral.
to your teacher as a schoolkid. You always feel like you've done something wrong and you can't wait for the conversation to be over. On almost every bus journey we had to pass militaty posts on the main road. In one case all males were ordered off the bus and searched.

Months of travel in Ecuador, Peru and Chile have made me crave good coffee - and my cravings have been answered in Colombia, the world's third largest producer. All that instant coffee in the aforementioned countries should have cured me of my "proper coffee" addiction but June has found me back on 3 cups a day - and loving it! Coffee is Colombia's biggest legal agricultural export (there are no official figures for cocaine) and even in the smallest town or village you'll have no problem finding the "black gold".

We quickly realised that travelling in Cololmbia is like having an extended Spanish lesson as practically no locals speak English. Hence, it might not be the best place to start your travels in South America, especially if you don't know the language, but if you can speak and want to practise it, you'll find Colombia ideal.
Cartagena rampartsCartagena rampartsCartagena ramparts

An inappropriate shirt, perhaps, for a picture beneath the Colombian flag.

So back to our travels, after Ipiales we moved on to Pasto, one of the biggest cities in the south, though not really a tourist destination. I was hoping we'd get to climb Volcan Galeras which overlooks the city, as recommended by Lonely Planet, but the problem with a two year old guidebook is it doesn't reflect current conditions; the volcano erupted in January and is currently unclimbable. So we took things easy, trying more Colombian coffee and generally just settling in to life here. Travelling overland from bottom to top of Colombia was a tempting proposition, but we're running out of time here in South America, so we decided to catch a flight to Bogotá rather than face the 25 hour bus journey.

Santa Fe de Bogotá

Bogotá is not one of South America's most beautiful cities, but that doesn't stop plenty of travellers from falling for its charms. Cheap drugs seems to be one of them judging by some of the gringos we ran into in the city!

The highlight of the city for me was the Botero museum. Botero is Colombia's best known artist and his paintings feature large, often ridiculous, but always amusing
Botero painting Botero painting Botero painting

Botero is Colombia´s best known artists and all his paintings feature larger than life characters.
subjects. He also applies his style to classic works such as the Mona Lisa, adding a volcano in the background to give it a Colombian touch, as well as adding a few pounds to the subject! It's interesting to see how he sculpts in the same fashion.

Right beside Botero Museum is Juan Valdez, Colombia's answer to Starbucks, but with better coffee. They seem to have taken starbucks as their business model as they play similar music, sell the same type of expensive food, and offer a menu with 40 varieties of drinks. Still, it's excellent coffee and at least your money is going to a Colombian company.

While the majority of Colombians may claim to be Roman Catholics, there's no doubt who they all worship over here: Simon Bolivar, the liberator - who won independence for Colombia and 5 other Latin American countries and who is celebrated in street names, plazas, statues, and much more in Colombia. In Bogotá we visited Quinta Bolivar, one of the great man's many houses. Most houses, including this one, were given to him in gratitude by the governments of the various countries he liberated.

Into the highlands

The highland
Ruth gets high in San GilRuth gets high in San GilRuth gets high in San Gil

Our first time paragliding above the tobacoo fields of San Gil.
area between Bogotá and Bucaramanga is home to many of Colombia's finest colonial villages. We first went to Villa de Leyva, an impossibly beautiful town full of old fashioned buildings, striking white churches and the largest square of any town or city in Colombia. We stayed with an Austrian guy called Mannfred, who saw us standing on the square and offered us one of the rooms in his house for 30000 pesos. Mannfred was almost as relaxed as Villa de Levya, which, he assured as had no crime, proving this assertion by leaving his door open all the time. We did at least have a key for the room, but it was superfluous as any would be robbers could have climbed in through our window!

We quickly fell for Villa de Leyva's charms, which, in addition to the stunning churches and untouched colonial buildings included a dinosaur museum 6km to the south, where we saw the world's largest fossil of a kronosaurus. We even found time for some good hiking to the Jesus statue above town from where there were excellent views of the region.

Villa de Leyva seems to have a large population of Germans and Austrians. We spent a fun evening in the Dorfkneipe on the main square run by another Mannfred. Despite his taste for cheesy old music such as The Everly Brothers or Neil Diamond, it was an oddly atmospheric place. All the other expat Austrians and Germans were there (including our landlord) and they all had their own personalised beer glasses with their name inscribed. A couple of more days in Villa de Layva and we might also have joined Mannfred's gang!

Getting high in San Gil

We moved on to San Gil, a few hours to the north. San Gil calls itself the adventure sports capital of Colombia. The best place to stay here is Macondo Guesthoue, run by an Aussie who has lived in Colombia for many years. We even got into the spirit of adventure by trying paragliding for the first time. It was great fun, though I did have second thoughts when I saw the girl before me almost crash into a tree on take off. And third thoughts when I realised my pilot was the guy who'd been guzzling beer all afternoon. But it was a fantastic experience. The views over the tobacco fields near the takeoff site were excellent. My favourite bit was when the pilot would try a stunt, it was a feeling similiar to being on a roller coaster.

A good day trip from San Gil is to Barichara, said to be the most picturesque village in Colombia. Like Villa de Leyva, Barichara's buildings are in colonial style, though most have been restored in the last 30 years. It's a popular place for movies and during our visit what looked like one of Colombia's hugely popular soap operas was being filmed on the main square. We also found time for our first proper hike in Colombia - a return hike from Barichara to Guane, along an old colonial road which in the last few years has been restored. This was a superb hike, one of the best one day hikes we've done in South America. It was only 11km return, but there were good views and friendly locals along the way.

Before leaving San Gil we went to the Parque El Gallineral, home to hundreds of trees covered by the atmospheric barbas de viejo (old man's beards), which are like curtains hanging over the trees. All in all, San Gil was a very relaxed town, which I'd recommend to anyone travelling between Bogotá and the north coast.

Taganga - the highest number of hammocks per capita in the world! Probably...

It took a long, painful day of travelling to reach the coast. We left San Gil at 6am, reached Bucaramanga at 9am, and then travelled for 16 hours to Santa Marta. The trip normally takes 9 hours but we had to take a diversion at the start, while later there was a 3.5 hour delay in the middle of nowhere as ahead of us two lorries had crashed head on. We had already booked and paid for our room but had told them we were arriving at 6pm. We had no phone, but a very kind Colombian girl whom I'd been talking with went around asking the other passengers could we borrow a phone. When we finally arrived in Santa Marta, the bus terminal had closed, so we got dropped off in the middle of nowhere after midnight. Just what you want in a new city in Colombia. Luckily there were taxis standing by to take us to Taganga at 1am. It was just as well we had called
A hit with the ladiesA hit with the ladiesA hit with the ladies

This was the friendly lady who removed all the mud!
as our hotel had already locked its gates, but they knew we were coming so the taxi driver beeped the horn and eventually someone came to let us in!

Taganga is a seaside village on the Caribbean coast, located a few kilometres north of Santa Marta. It's hugely popular with travellers who come here to dive, to see the beaches or to just escape from it all and relax in hammocks. We were in a lovely hotel called La Casa de Felipe, which had more hammocks than guests and a beautiful terrace with views of the ocean. Walk down the promenade in Taganga and you might think you're in Haifa - first as it's full of Israelis and secondly it even has a couple of restaurants on the beachfront with signs and menus in Hebrew. Anyone who has travelled in South America will have met plenty of Israeli backpackers - in Taganga they almost outnumber the hammocks!

When we first saw Taganga, arriving in the middle of the night, it had looked like a windswept, deserted place. It's not the prettiest town, but it does have a good beach. It's almost too hot to do anything here other
Villa de Leyva marketVilla de Leyva marketVilla de Leyva market

Villa de Leyva has the largest square of any town or city in Colombia. A huge market & party, celebrating the 462nd anniversary of the town's founding, took place on this square during our visit.
than relax, and the hundreds of hammocks here are a good example of how chilled out a place it is. Somehow we stayed 7 nights in Taganga, 3 before our trek to the lost city (covered in my next blog), and 4 after, but I'm not sure exactly what we did. Sure, we went to the beach a few times, we lazed around a lot on hammocks, watched some Wimbledon - every so often you need a place to really get away from it all, and for us, Taganga was that place.

Cartagena: The most beautiful city in South America

I can't think of a nicer place than Cartagena in which to round off our travels in Colombia and in South America. We've been travelling in this great continent for 10 months and I think we left the best city for last. Cartagena takes your breath away. The old part of town, surrounded by a high defensive wall, is full of colourful colonial buildings, open squares, and many churches.

It may be the end of our South American travels but that didn't stop us trying new things...such as volcano mud baths. This unique attraction (surely unique to
Parque el GallineralParque el GallineralParque el Gallineral

Parque el Gallineral contains hundreds of trees covered in the picturesque "barbas de viejo".
Cartagena) at Volcan de Lodo el Totumo, is supposed to be good for the body, given the high mineral content of the volcanic mud. Whatever about the benefits, it's certainly great fun. About 10 people at a time can fit in the crater, and it's very difficult to move once you're in as th emud is very dense, though it's easy to be propelled if someone pushes you. Afterwards there are a bunch of local woman on hand to wash the mud off you in the laguna. I was pretty sure I could manage this myself, but before I knew what was happening she grabbed my arm, ordered me to sit down, and began washing me...very thoroughly. Let's just say she wasn't shy!

The rest of our time in Cartagena was spent wandering the streets in the old town, admiring builidings, churches and just savouring life on the Caribbean coast. It's almost too hot to do anything more strenuous.

Farewell Colombia...and South America

Having travelled in Colombia for almost a month my perception of the country has completely changed. There is no doubt Colombia still has it's problems, and there remain areas in the country controlled by groups like FARC, and hence off limits to visitors. But the situation is changing rapidly, popular support for the rebel groups is low, while the Colombian president has a very high approval rating. As I write, Ingrid Betancourt, the most high profile kidnapping victim, has been liberated, further diminishing the power of the rebels.

It's unfortunate that Colombia still only makes the news abroad for the wrong reasons. To me, it seemed just as safe as any country in South America, perhaps more safe with the high number of military around. While there are a good number of backpackers travelling in Colombia, there are very few tour operators willing to dip their feet. My advice is to come here and discover it for yourself before the crowds do!

Additional photos below
Photos: 41, Displayed: 32


Playa Grande, TagangaPlaya Grande, Taganga
Playa Grande, Taganga

Playa Grande is a 15 minute walk from Taganga, and is much quieter than Taganga's main beach.
View over BogotaView over Bogota
View over Bogota

View from Cerro de Monserrate, reached by teleferico.
Cartagena Old TownCartagena Old Town
Cartagena Old Town

Colourful colonial buildings in Cartagena.

5th July 2008

confident in colombia
So after reading of your experiences, I may now surely head north from Ecuador instead of the Peru thing. Is it possible to bus it to Bogota or would you recommend the fly? Upon leaving Bogota, I'll remember to catch Leyva, San Gil, Taganga, and most importantly--Cartagena.
5th July 2008

Lovely blog
Hi Barry, I loved reading your blog. I wanted to visit Columbia after my stay in Peru last month but it just got too complicated. The 'Botero' museum was on my list was was Cartegena. Thanks for all the info on the smaller towns. I will definitely try to get there before the hoardes. Enjoy Central America. Carolyn ( blogger name ' gunga')
6th July 2008

great read
your blog is really a great read I hope you continue to travel and have fun - be safe!
4th August 2009

Just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to write your blog. I'm planning a trip there in December but was having second thoughts but reading your blog makes me feel loads better about going.
8th December 2009

you didn't go to medellin??..... is the most beautiful city in colombia... is just amazing... beautiful women, the best parties ever... the most clean city, perfect weather... nicer peolple..... if you went to colombia, but you missed medellin.... you can't tell you were there
28th December 2009

I dont know what to think.
seems to me that you didnt like colombia 100%.. I would say 89%.. some comments for me were just kind of rude.. but anyway... colombia is a great country and I am happy that you enjoyed your stay there.
28th October 2010
Parque el Gallineral

thiz place lookz ggreous!!i would love to visit it
9th November 2010

Without a doubt, is a great review of Colombia.. You really got the feeling of the country, but just missed that we do not love Bolivar that much! I have travelled through most of the world and I definetely always find myself in love with Cartagena... maybe not the most beautifull city in the world (Rome is still the best for me in the occidental hemisfere) but definetely a jewel of latin america with a mixture of spanish, colombian and caribean architecture. I think this is one of the best reviews of Colombia that you can find in blogs!
10th November 2010

2nd November 2012

tratamientos celulitis
Good post! If you wanna to have a places to visit in latin america you need to find out a very good page before...

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