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When we spent fifteen months travelling through Latin America several years ago, Colombia was the country that “got away” from us. Although we missed it that time around, it always remained in the back of our heads as a destination to which we hoped to explore. Not only had we heard so much from other travellers about how Colombia was one of their favorite countries, but we wanted to experience for ourselves a place where peace and stability had returned after decades of guerrilla warfare and narco-trafficking violence.
Although we researched Colombia as a destination before our trip, we were still surprised not only by the diversity, but also the sheer size of the country – imagine the United Kingdom, Germany, and France combined. The Andean mountain range splits into three branches in Colombia, and you’ll find the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the northeast, Caribbean Sea in the north, Pacific Ocean in the west, and Amazon in the southeast. Across these regions you’ll find not only shifts in landscapes, but also in culture, people, and cuisine. In other words, Colombia offers travellers plenty of options.
Here are just a few of the favorite and most memorable experiences from our recent trip to Colombia.
1. Visiting coffee country
When we sit down with our morning coffee, we don’t often consider where it came from or what went into making those beans. Our visit to Colombia’s coffee country helped bring a greater appreciation to and perspective on the process and people behind one of our favorite drinks.
During the visit, we learned about the entire coffee process, including planting a bush, harvesting coffee berries, removing the pulp, drying the beans, and finishing them with a roast. One fact we found especially interesting: 100 kg (220 lbs) of coffee berries typically yields only 13 kilos (29 lbs) of roasted coffee beans.
Colombia is the world’s third-largest producer of coffee (trailing only Brazil and Vietnam) and grows mainly Arabica beans in places of moderate to high elevation. Thankfully, unlike other coffee-producing cultures nearby, Colombia also saves a bit of its own production to be consumed at home in its own local cafés.
After visiting a coffee farm, it’s worth stopping off in the town of Salento to wander its colourful streets and grab a superb cup of coffee from Jesus Martin café If you’re anything like us, you’ll end up with several bags of beans to take with you.
2. Trekking in the Cocora Valley
Not too far from the coffee farms of Quindio, you’ll find the Cocora Valley; a cloud forest that the unique and towering – up to 68m (223 ft) tall – protected wax palm calls home. Our trek began in the valley, from which we climbed to almost 2,700m (8,858 ft) towards Acaime Peak. Along the way, we paused at overlooks to admire the atmosphere and views of towering cloud-wrapped palms. Although it appeared as though rain might ruin our trek, it turned out to be just enough to provide the cloud forest with the touch of atmosphere it needed.
3. Hiking and swimming at Tayrona National Park
Moving north to the Colombian Caribbean coast, we spent a day hiking and swimming at Tayrona National Park. The first part of the day includes a trek through tropical forest, where you might find monkeys – red howlers, capuchins, and titis – and if you’re lucky, an agouti, a large forest rodent known for enjoying fruit so much that it forgets where it has buried its stash.
The trail continues, revealing protected coves and more forest until you reach Cabo San Juan beach. An afternoon where you find yourself relaxed and refreshed serves as a reward well earned for your hours spent hiking.
(And yes, the water is as clear and delightful as it appears.)
Note: Not all the beaches at Tayrona National Park are safe for swimming due to rough surf, so be certain to read the signs before jumping in!
4. Wandering through the streets of Old Town Cartagena
Cartagena – even the name itself sounds kind of steamy and exotic. Located on the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena is Colombia’s second-oldest city and was for centuries an important Spanish colonial trading center. Most importantly, this is where Spanish colonialists stockpiled their spoils – gold, in particular – before shipping it all home to Mother Spain. As a result, the core of the old town remains a labyrinth of streets flush with old colonial homes punctuated by churches and grand plazas.
Cartagena is one of those cities where it’s best to just put away the map for a few hours and allow yourself get lost. As it is a walled city, you can’t go too far… or get too lost.
We also recommend taking a short walk over to the Getsemani neighbourhood, just outside the Old Town center. This neighbourhood was originally where escaped slaves and the poorer classes lived, but today it features a cool, colourful vibe further emphasized by some terrific street art.
5. Mud-bathing, Totumo Volcano
Does floating atop a “mud volcano” that is 2,300m (7,546 ft) deep sound like fun?
It ought to.
At the Totumo mud volcano near Cartagena, you climb down a ladder only to be engulfed in buoyant mud (you float, so it’s not in the least bit strenuous), get a mud massage for USD1.50, and then hang out suspended in the mud as your skin takes in over 55 different minerals.
Once you’ve soaked in all the mud you can handle, stagger down to the nearby lake where a group of women will scrub you down to make sure you’re clean (for another USD1.50). An unusual experience, but one that will make you laugh and break more than a few smiles for time to come. You’ll thank us for later for the recommendation when your skin feels so soft, too.
6. Urban transformation, Medellín
Medellín was once a place synonymous with cocaine, drugs, and murder, especially during and just after the life of Pablo Escobar and the reign of his Medellín Cartel. But a lot has changed in Medellín in the last ten years, making this city one of the fastest-growing and entrepreneurial in the region. Interestingly enough, urban planning has a lot to do with it.
The city invested in cable cars as part of the public transport system to connect its poorer neighbourhoods in the hills with others throughout town. In addition, botanical gardens and other public spaces have been built to provide opportunities and safe places for people of all socio-economic groups to hang out and learn.
As one of the young boys we met there told us, “We used to be at war with the barrio down the hill. Now we have built a bridge that connects us.”
7. Trekking to the Lost City of Teyuna
This 46km (28 mi) trek takes you through the jungles, hills, and rivers of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to reach the 1,200+ rock steps that lead you to the "Lost City" of Teyuna. This ancient capital city of the Tayrona civilization is believed to date back to AD 800. As there are no written records and tomb thieves looted much of the site in the 1970s, a good deal about this place remains a mystery.
Four indigenous groups – Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo – inhabit the area and are believed to be the descendants of the Tayrona people. They act as protectors of the Lost City and the surrounding mountains. One aspect of the trek that makes it so special is that your guide will come from one of these communities (usually Wiwa or Kogi) and share with you his culture, traditions, and his community’s relationship with nature along the way.
8. Appreciating street art in Bogotá
While many people use Bogotá solely as a transit point, we suggest that you spend a day or two there, particularly if you appreciate street art. The quantity and quality of street murals in this city is impressive; they’ll often carry an underlying social or economic message, giving you a sense of the political pulse of the city.
Spend some time wandering the streets of the Candelaria neighborhood, especially around Plaza Chorro de Quevedo, where you’ll spot some of the largest street murals. It might seem strange at first that some of Bogotá‘s oldest buildings – dating back from as far back as 500 years ago – would be home to some of its most popular street art, but it demonstrates the appreciation and acceptance of street art in Bogotá and its growing integration into the city’s aesthetic and identity.
Note: If you have an interest in street art, sign up for a Bogotá Graffiti Tour that runs every day at 10am. Their tour guides know a lot of the street artists personally and can provide background on the actual pieces, the development of the street art scene, political and social issues, recommended restaurants, and more.
Want to experience Colombia yourself? G Adventures runs a number of departures encompassing a wide range of departure dates. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.