Colombia is a country in the north part of South America. It borders Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador and north with Panama and meets the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean sea and Atlantic Ocean. The capital and largest city of the country is Bogota. The country covers an area of 1,140,000 square kilometers and has a population of 50 million. Colombia’s rich cultural heritage has been sculpted by pre-Columbian American cultures, Spanish conquerors, African slaves and other immigrants from Europe and the Middle East. Spanish is the official language of the nation, but more than 70 local dialects are also spoken.
Colombia has been inhabited by indigenous peoples such as Muisca and Tairona for 14 millennia. The Spaniards arrived in 1499 and in the middle of the 16th century colonized the area, founding the “New Kingdom of Granada”. Independence from the Spanish Empire came in 1819, while in 1903 the nation of Panama seceded leading to the present-day border of Colombia.
Since the 1960s, the country has suffered from armed conflict between government forces, left-wing guerrilla groups and far-right paramilitaries, that escalated in the 1990s.
The United States has been heavily involved in the conflict, encouraging the Colombian military to attack left-wing militias under its well-known anti-communist policies. Multinational companies such as Chiquita and Coca Cola are some of the factors that have contributed to the division and violence.
The main groups involved in the civil strife were the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN claiming the title of left-wing faction, as well as the far-right paramilitary organizations CONVIVIR, AUC, etc. The organizations were funded by kidnappings demanding ransom, robbery, extortion, drug production and trafficking. The United Nations estimates that 12% of civilian deaths were committed by FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, 80% by right-wing paramilitaries and the remaining 8% by government security forces.
Since the mid-1970s, Colombian drug cartels have become major players in cocaine production and export. Pablo Escobar was the founder of an entire “empire” based on the drug trade and the leader of the famous Medellín cartel.
Since 2005, there has been a significant improvement in security, stability, law and justice, as well as unprecedented economic growth.
Colombia has the second highest level of biodiversity in the world, with Amazon rainforests, plateaus, meadows, deserts, lakes and seas. It is the only country in South America with coasts and islands along the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Its economy is the third largest in South America, with stability and long-term growth prospects.
Colombia’s climate is mostly tropical but varies with altitude. It has a wide range of climatic zones, including rainforests, savannas, steppes, deserts and mountain climates.
With a population of about 50 million, Colombia is the third most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. In the mid-20th century, rural populations moved to the big cities and it is now one of the most urbanized countries in Latin America.
Colombia is ethnically diverse, inhabited by indigenous Spanish settlers, Africans who were transported as slaves and 20th century immigrants from Europe and the Middle East, all of whom contributed to the cultural heritage.
Many of the indigenous peoples almost disappeared during Spanish rule and others were genealogically mixed with the Spaniards creating what are called mestizos.
Colombia is a country where the arts have flourished and continue to. World-renowned artists are originated from here, such as the Literature Nobel Prize awarded Gabriel García Márquez, painter and sculptor Fernando Botero and many others.
In the Colombian mainland, the Andes are the dominant geographical feature and the main population centers are located there. Three legs of the Andes, known as cordilleras, extend to the north, the Occidental near the Pacific coast including the city of Cali, the Central including the cities of Medellín, Manizales, Pereira, Armenia and the Oriental where Bogota, Bucaramanga and Cucuta are located.
To the east of the Andes is the savannah of Llanos, part of the Orinoco River Basin, and to the southeast is the Amazon jungle. These areas make up more than half of Colombia, but are sparsely populated. To the north, on the Caribbean coast, are the important cities and ports of Barranquilla and Cartagena. The coastal plains of the Pacific are sparsely populated and covered by dense vegetation, with Buenaventura as its main port.
The main rivers of Colombia are Magdalena, Cauca, Putumayo. Also, the Orinoco and Amazon rivers form a natural border with Venezuela and Peru respectively.
Colombia. A multicultural “cartel”.
Colombia is a modern and organized country trying to get rid of the notoriety of its recent past.
The drug trade with the infamous “cocaine empire” of Pablo Escobar, the armed action of guerrillas and paramilitaries, crimes and kidnappings, made it one of the most violent and dangerous countries on the planet. Colombia is still a main scene of gangster movies.
One unlucky thing about Colombia, apart from its negative reputation, is that it’s on the same continent as the United States. Of course, this does not mean that it has so much tourist flows from that country, but thοse visiting often reproduce an exorbitantly dangerous image of the country. Articles by American travel bloggers tragically dramatize the situation, citing incidents of armed robberies and stabbings.
I confess that before each trip I am stressed about what I will encounter. The war-torn and dangerous countries I have visited have not made me underestimate the risks of routine destinations, and definitely the conditions in Colombia are not comparable to those in Afghanistan, Iraq or even neighboring Venezuela.
Reform in recent years has changed the situation radically, but still all across Latin America, some precautions need to be taken, especially at night or in isolated parts of cities.
My main fear was the decision to self drive the whole trip, something that most visitors avoid, especially in a country with big distances and difficult road conditions. Despite my previous experience, my concerns included areas of unknown danger, ambushes, the possibility of an accident or the immobilization of the vehicle in an isolated spot, all in combination with ignorance of the Spanish language.
Road trip in Colombia?
Driving in Colombia is not an easy task. In big cities, there is traffic chaos but in the national road network the situation is even worse. In a country as large as France and Spain together, with many geographical challenges and the mountainous routes of the Andes, the road network is usually limited to a single lane of traffic per direction.
Colombia lags behind in land transport infrastructure due to its inadequate road network and lack of railways.
Cargo is transported by trucks of five or more axles, the size of which makes them slow and heavy. Heavy vehicles make up the majority of highways and drivers of small and medium-sized vehicles need to overtake creating a dangerous situation. Maintenance projects that are in progress at some points, completely stop traffic for quite some time, further aggravating the situation and pushing the patience of drivers. Even on the few highways with two lanes in each direction, slow vehicles do not necessarily move in the right lane, nor is there a philosophy of facilitating the faster ones that follow, forcing them to maneuver between the lanes.
Domestic flights are very cheap in Colombia, comparable to bus transportation. For all the above reasons, the locals avoid long trips by car and on the highways mostly trucks are encountered! Also, road routes have many toll stations and although the country is cheap, the more than 20 toll crossings of our trip, costing about 12,000COP each, inflate the budget. At the stations payment is made only in cash. € 1 equals approximately to 4,300COP
My worries eventually subsided as I got to know this place better, merely maintaining some basic precautions.
The long transatlantic flight is followed by a long customs cue to enter the country, which requires neither a vaccination certificate nor a molecular test for the Covid-19 virus. Surprisingly, in Colombia everyone wears a medical mask, even infants and even solo drivers. At the airport of a modern capital one expects to find some basic items for a traveler, such as a local mobile sim card. Whoever I tried to ask with my few Spanish, was sending me in a different direction and finally there was no store anywhere. Hoping to find an open shop elsewhere in the middle of the weekend, we head to the city. We’ll use taxis or by foot on this first day of the trip. In countries like this, there is a strong recommendation for security reasons to use only official taxis, preferably through applications such as Uber and Cabify. Roads in most cities are parallel to each other and are usually named after a number. This makes it easy to navigate when the horizontal streets are called Calle and the vertical streets are called Carrera, followed by their serial number. The small hotel of our first night, although old, provided a simple but unexpectedly large apartment with living room, kitchen and complete household for just € 16. This first experience is indicative of the low cost of living across the country.
The hotel is located near one of the upper class shopping neighborhoods, called Chico. Nothing exudes the vibe of South America, the malls and international brands’ shops make Chico an area without local character. But the visitor can have a good time here enjoying remarkable restaurants and of course shopping necessities like sim card. In the restaurant some waiters speak English, but the menu is only in Spanish. For the rest of the trip we will not meet Colombians who speak even a little English. The first contact with the local cuisine is enthusiastic and so will be maintained throughout the trip. The most typical dish is Arepa, a kind of flat pie made of corn flour, plain or with various fillings. Empanadas are also a famous South American food, fried dough stuffed with various ingredients such as chicken, meat, cheese, beans. Of course beef meet is abount in the country and the variety of cutting and cooking is fascinating. Fish and seafood are also not lacking, even in areas far from the sea. So the favorite ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon and herbs) and carpaccio will be a daily treat. Another typical meal is patacones, a type of fried green banana.
The Chico area and its neighborhood where the hotel is located, seems safe even for evening walking. The jet lag finds me by the large window of the room, watching groups of sleepless youngsters on the street.
Early by dawn is the daily of waking up time, in an effort to take advantage of the day hours and cover the long distances.
The weather conditions are very different from what expected in a country of tropic zone. The wider area of Bogota is called savannah, although it has nothing to do with the image we have of the warm, arid African plains. It is essentially a plateau with an average altitude of about 2600m, which maintains a stable climate all year round with an average temperature of 14 degrees Celsius. The cloudy weather of that day brought even lower temperatures and the jacket I hesitantly packed in my luggage, proved necessary.
The historic center of Bogota, in the area called Candelaria is considered safe during the day but not as soon as night falls. Probably the same goes for the early dawn when the area is empty of people.
But as time goes by and after we enjoy a breakfast with arepas and changua (a special soup that contains milk, whole eggs and coriander), visitors and police patrols make their presence felt and walking around is relaxed. Candelaria features a typical example of colonial architecture, with old mansions, cathedrals and other Baroque and Art Deco buildings. The area is home to many universities, libraries and museums, like the Museum of gold, as well as the famous sculptor’s Botero Museum. Museums are not our travel priority, we are more interested in people and their way of life.
The view by the north side of Candelaria is captivating, adjacent are some colorful slums that adorn the foothills of the surrounding cloud-covered hills. Slums like the Egipto and Buenos Aries are unfortunately not suitable for photo tours and passers-by warn me as soon as I leave the borders of Candelaria and the police patrolled area.
If weather allows, there is another famous attraction, the top of Mount Montserate, at an altitude of 3,150m where one can enjoy panoramic views of the city. Access to the top can be done by cable car or via an uphill hiking trail that takes about an hour and a half and is only safe on the busiest weekend time. Unfortunately, apart from the dense clouds and drizzle that are a deterrent on this day, the number of local visitors on Sundays is so big that it makes waiting cue endless. Besides that, the arranged time to get the rented car is near.
The road trip
After a lot of research and prior information from a Colombian friend, the most reliable and profitable rental company is Localiza. A Renault Logan sedan will take us to approximately 2700, hard kilometers, with the finish line at the coastal city of Barranquilla.
For 14 days rental, with full insurance and delivery to another city, the cost was about € 370. It was a bit difficult to communicate with Localiza personnel who did not speak English, and also to understand of the contract terms, the insurance and other details. Gasoline prices are quite cheap, around 0.5 euros per liter, a price that Colombians consider high.
The journey begins, amid heavy traffic jams in the greater Bogota region. Street vendors sell their imaginative wares between the stalled vehicles under a light rain hazy setting.
Zipaquirá is just 50 km from Bogota, but on rush hour takes about 2 hours to get there.
The famous “Salt Cathedral” is located at 200 meters below ground, inside a salt mine. In the 1930s, workers carved a chapel on the rock as a place of prayer before beginning their daily, dangerous work. Gradually the shrine reached its current form, acquiring rooms with impressively high ceilings, a maze of diodes connecting smaller rooms and an impressively huge central hall dominated by a large marble cross. The handmade reliefs on the walls accompany many sculptures, while the walls are illuminated in a purple shade that adds a mystical feeling.
Another attraction in the underground cathedral complex is the “water mirrors”, a stone tank with clear salt water that creates optical illusions with its reflections and invisible surface. In the main hall there are sound & light shows, with scenes of cosmogony, animal kingdom and other themes, such as the popular sport of the country, cycling.
The Salt Cathedral is a popular attraction and place of worship for Colombians, but I will personally admit that I was not so excited.
From Zipaquirá it takes about 2 hours to the final destination for this day, the artificial lake Tomine. The route crosses a forested mountain pass and then farm plains, under rainy and foggy weather. After all, we are into the rainy season, but fortunately will not have more rainfalls through the duration of our trip. On late evening, we finally find the location of “F’s” farm, which will host us tonight. F is a Colombian who has lived for 7 years in Greece, speaks fluent Greek and returned to his hometown, this place of tranquility, working as a freelance documentary producer for a well-known organization and at the same time an organic vegetable producer. The exquisite wines that we shared with F, matched excellently with local beef fillet. His old, traditional rural villa, the fireplace with the lively fire, and most of all his company, made an unforgettable hospitality. The morning view of the lake from the large window of the living room, works like a magnet that tries to capture you, to make you forget for a while the stressful trip schedule. It is a fact that it’s impossible to visit every place of interest in this huge country.
Villa de Leyva
130 km of a route through green meadows, just after the beautiful town of Tunja with its typical cathedral, lead to the famous, small town of Villa de Leyva with its remarkable, traditional colonial architecture.
It is located on a high plateau surrounded by semi-desert land, with no mineral deposits, which is the reason why the city has undergone little development in the last 400 years. These unfortunate circumstances gave city the opportunity to retain much of its original colonial style and architecture, making it one of the few in Colombia to remain in this form. The streets and the large central square are paved with stone and many buildings date from the sixteenth century. Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s main tourist attractions and a popular weekend destination for Bogota citizens and foreign tourists alike. Fortunately, visitors are few on weekdays and despite initial doubts about the legality or safety of parking spaces in the alleys, the town is proving to be welcoming and relaxed. But again, apart from the picturesque cafes with the delicious breakfast dishes, there are not many things that justify spending a lot of time here. Although I avoid the process of comparisons between different places, I can’t help comparing with other traditional cities that abound in Latin America. So that I do not get too excited with this one.
Just outside the town skirts is Casa Terracota, an unusual house made as a giant piece of handmade pottery. Colombian architect Octavio Mmendoza sculpted the house entirely from clay, without using other materials to support the two-story construction. Then with a special technique he let it bake and harden under the sun, which transformed the flexible clay into a solid ceramic. It is referred to as the largest piece of pottery in the world. At the outer gate we are informed about the relatively expensive ticket, same case with all tourist spots having different prices for locals and foreigners. One detail they almost forgot to mention is that the house can only be visited externally due to lack of maintenance during the pandemic, which cancels our will to visit.
The route is exhausting one more time, with increased traffic of heavy vehicles. The main cities met are San Gil which lacks any beauty but is famous for organized activities such as rafting, kayaking, hiking and then Socorro which is picturesque and has a beautiful park under the shade of palm trees and a typical cathedral. After 5 hours and 190 kilometers, we reach the final destination of the day, Barichara.
Unlike Villa de Leyva, Barichara enchanted me! The evening lighting gives a golden hue to the traditional houses and cobbled streets. This city has a discreet tourist development that respects history and tradition, maybe one of the most beautiful places we found in Colombia. It feels like time stopped here.
At the northern end of town, near the Temple of Capilla de Santa Barbara, is the tonight’s accommodation which is incredibly elegant, surrounded by a surrounding area full of tropical vegetation, with a delicious breakfast, at an unexpectedly low price as everywhere in the country.
It’s one of the few times I think a lodging is worth mentioning: Casa de Huespedes el Cogollo
Barichara is relatively empty in the evening and this adds to its mystique vibe. There are not many restaurants available, but a table on the wooden balcony of El Puntal offers an ideal place for dinner. Weather is still a little rainy but no longer cold.
After trying to translate the menu, the order included, among other things, two different beef dishes. One was delicious, but the other did not look like beef fillet, it was thin but with fats and not a pleasant taste. I tried to explain to the waiter with help of google translator that something went wrong and they mistakenly brought pork. After a conversation with the chef, he returns with his own translation: “It is a typical taste of cow breasts”. He even showed me photos of the animal part to understand it better.
The city is quite lively during the day and strolling is enjoyable. The colonial houses with tiled roofs are perfectly preserved, the cobbled streets descend to the centre of town revealing a scenic view, the cute little balconies, the colorful doors and shutters, are the main architectural features consisting the beauty of Barichara. Middle-aged people in cowboy hats lazily enjoy the sun on the street corners, others rush to go to work, wait in queues outside the bank, while women carry food supplies. While driving in town’s alleys, we realize that there’s something wrong. Although the other drivers are polite and patient, we find that we are driving in opposite direction on one-way streets, not just in this town but throughout the trip! You won’t find anywhere the circular no-entry sign with the red background and the white horizontal line, only some discreet, narrow signs high up in the corners of buildings, with a directional arrow on a white background!
Drivers in the small towns are polite and calm, but become aggressive and dangerous on national roads. Most roads, even those connecting big cities, have only one lane per direction and the situation worsens in the Andes mountain passes.
The following day is the most difficult of the trip, with 14 consecutive hours on wheel.
Chicamocha Gorge is considered an attraction, but I did not find anything impressive on it. On the contrary, the slow speed of heavy trucks and the difficulty of overtaking did not make the route particularly enjoyable. The serpentine road reaches the low point of the gorge where the small river Umpala flows and some kitsch facilities of water slides are located. Here is one of the many delays due to road works that completely stop traffic for long time.
Bucaramanga is a big, gray and ugly city with tall buildings. Due to the proximity to the Venezuelan border, you see many families of refugees from the neighboring country, which is still in a deep economic crisis. The road improves after the city, the lanes become two in each direction but not for long. An enjoyable part of the straight route is crossing through plains with bamboo and other trees that create idyllic green domes over the road. Traffic is relatively low, since the northern and shorter route to Medellin is preferred. Our overnight destination is estimated to be the city of Marinilla, a little further from a necessary stop for a quick meal at a local eatery. A useful tip is to avoid driving at night in unknown countries with bad road network, something that could not be respected at all. So, at around 11pm we arrive in Marinilla. The situation in this city does not feel secure, the situation looks spooky. The narrow alleys are blocked by cars with dark windows stopping by, with drug dealers supplying the passengers. On the sidewalks groups of young gangs empty countless bottles of alcohol. We do not manage to locate the hotel, there is no place to park nor can we safely leave the vehicle anywhere for the night and even carry the luggage any distance to the hotel. The most sensible decision is to sacrifice the € 15 of hotel reservation and drive another hour to the final destination, Guatape. Driving on another winding road is not quite pleasant after so many hours on wheel. An incident will remind the dangers of night driving. A car from the opposite direction, in an attempt to overtake, stops just a few meters from a frontal collision with ours.
Booking.com shows as available a luxury hotel complex on the shores of a lake, at an incredibly low price of 90,000 COP (€ 20) including breakfast! Approaching the area, the GPS navigator shows direction off the asphalt road, on an uphill, dirt track with deep water holes that the small sedan could not cross. I try to approach from the other side the peninsula that showed the position, but this dirt road also becomes unreadable. It seems that such a hotel has no road, nevertheless there is no other solution than to dare to pass the car through the original, inaccessible, narrow street. With no previous sign, it appears in the dark after an open fence, a sign that says Soy Local, a valley with lush grass, luxury villas and something that looks like a hotel, even more impressive than what is displayed on the internet. The three-storey building in the shape of P, despite its volume, fits harmoniously into the surrounding area and the wooden extroverts at successive heights of the bank are connected by steps that end at the lake. This hour of calm next to the water surface that follows a lacy shoreline, is a relief to the excessive effort of the day. The beauty of the unique natural landscape of the area is fully revealed by daylight. A kayak ride and some lake swimming is not to be missed.
Guatapé is one of the most impressive places in the province of Antioquia and Colombia in general. The construction of a hydroelectric dam in the 1970s flooded the area, forming a lake system of unique beauty and favoring the real estate and tourist development of the area. The area of the lakes extends into a labyrinthine formation across the area, with the peninsulas and islands connected by road with bridges.
The main attraction of Guatapé is El Peñón, a rock formation bordering the lake aged since 70 million years ago. Two thirds of its height is below the ground, while its exposed vertical face is over 200 meters high. Guests can climb the rock via a 740-step staircase built to one side. At the top of the rock, the spectacular view of the horizon in every direction, compensates for the sweat of the ascent. The homonymous village of Guatape presents a special beauty, with the colorful wooden facades of houses and shops, but admittedly it is quite touristic.
The city of legend, the mythical place where so many movies and series about drug cartels take place, the center of the Pablo Escobar’s empire, stretches out in front of us after the exit of a tunnel. Arrays of skyscrapers scattered everywhere, rise up in the horizon, coexisting with the brick boxes of slums, under a golden evening light. There is no parking spot on the highway, but every downhill turn, gives the opportunity of another image of the city that leaves me with mouth open.
A basic condition for choosing a small hotel is to have a parking space. El Poblado is a luxurious suburb of the city, surrounded by many modern buildings adjacent to steep hills and urban forest. Most of Medellín’s trendy bars, clubs and restaurants are located in this neighborhood which is safe to walk all around the clock. Some of them have the privilege of being roof tops, offering amazing views of the city. Medellin’s countless lights shine one by one like stars in the veil of night that falls over the city.
Medellin is the second largest city in Colombia with a population of three million. In 2013 it was honored as Innovative City of the Year, but the recent past of the city is very dark. During the 1980s and 1990s, it was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with a high rate of homicides and kidnappings. Drug lord Pablo Escobar and the so-called Medellin Cartel were based here. After the end of this era and the efforts to combat illegal activities, crime and homicide rates have dropped significantly. Despite improved security in recent years, drug-related violence continues to exist. Although travel warnings still apply, people from all over the world visit Colombia safely every year for tourism, business, study and volunteer work. The Paisas, the citizens of Medellin, are proud of the progress of their city. As modern and picturesque as it may seem, one should consult the locals about the dangerous neighborhoods.
Medellin has the only metro system in Colombia and is also famous for its perfect climate, that’s why it’s also known as the “city of eternal spring”. It also bears the nickname of the City of Sculptures, as there was a local law that required each new building to invest in a work of art on public display, usually a sculpture.
The city suffers from heavy traffic especially during the day. A visit to Plaza Botero, the small outdoor park where 23 sculptures of this famous Colombian artist are installed, was a total failure as there is no parking space around. The same happened with Pueblito Paisa, a recreation area on a central hill where there is a tourist replica of a traditional village. Apart from the fact that there is no parking at the spot and one should only approach by taxi, it was not worth the little time I spent, ignoring the angry traffic policemen.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Comuna 13 slum was considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world. It was run by violent drug trafficking groups, which used this poor place as a transit route and stronghold for guerrillas, gangs and paramilitaries.
But things began to change in 2002 when the President of that time launched the controversial Orion operation, a raid by soldiers and helicopters that left dozens dead and wounded, including civilians.
In 2011 the local Mayor improved the community facilities and installed the “escaleras electricas”, a series of escalators that connected the secluded neighborhood on the hillside with the lower parts of city.
The escalators have had many criticism because of the cost of construction, in an area where residents face serious survival struggle. However, as it turned out, Mayor’s vision paid off. The escalators gave the residents new freedom and brought about a complete change in the local mentality. The children started playing in the streets and the local artists felt safe enough to go out and decorate their neighborhood.
The result was a makeover into a colorful work of art, with murals and graffitis, a colourful street art museum, where once there were bullet holes. Many murals allegorically tell the story and events of Comuna 13 which is now an important highlight for travelers. Despite the reforms, it remains a poor neighborhood and safety is limited only during the day.
There are many self-proclaimed guides who offer to accompany you and talk to you about historical events, for a small voluntary tip. As in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the panoramic view is spectacular. The locals are friendly and accustomed to tourism, some shops sell souvenirs and paintings by local artists without great taste. An elderly man struggles to hang a washed sheet, I show up to help him and he gives me a spontaneous smile. A little further on, the locals have set up a small celebration with songs and beers.
We return by UBER taxi to the car parking and from there to the opposite side of the city trying to reach Acevedo where there is a metro and cable car station. All roads have increased traffic, as well as a road along the Medellin River where parking is hard to find. Finally, in an open space that operates aa truck workshop, we trust the car there.
A footbridge connects the opposite bank of the river with modern metro and cable car stations. From Acevedo station, the route starts with the panoramic view over the slums, with stops at the stations Andalucía, Popular, Santo Domingo, Savio. The setting is as surreal as in Communa 13, the modern cable car contrasts with the poor living conditions in the brick and sheet metal settlements. Going up the hill, we leave behind the urban environment and head over a dense rainforest to the last station, Avri Park. It is an ecological nature reserve and archeological site in the northeastern region of Medellin. As a tourist destination, the cable car ticket is almost double price than the other stops ($ 10,000 COP). The park is not as interesting in my opinion as the route itself, while some hiking trails require time that we do not have. I also read testimonies from victims of armed robberies that had recently occurred on uncontrolled trails, a short distance from the park’s main facilities.
Another hard route follows, in another narrow winding road, many trucks and several traffic delays due to road construction works and also some narrow passes through towns, where traffic is allowed to one direction only by rotation. We overnight in Puerto Berrio, a small quiet settlement on the banks of Magdalena river. One of the few hotels has not any luxury but the housewife is very kind despite the language gap. In a fish tavern by the river, we order delicious fried fish. For my beers I have to go to an adjoining bar with loud music and a few patrons with gangster faces. The river waters are painted purple under the light of dawn, and our route follows Magdalena in a parallel direction.
The road leads back to the outskirts of Bucaramanga, and from there the journey becomes more enjoyable, without much vehicle traffic, through beautiful plains and enchanting wetlands. Despite the approximately 500 kilometers and eight-hour drive, Mompox welcomes us to show off its beauties.
Santa Cruz de Mompox (or Mompos) is located in the swampy tropics of northern Colombia, on the banks of the Magdalena River, the country’s main waterway. Mompox was of great commercial importance, as it connected the port of Cartagena with the mainland.
The city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded in 1540 and played a key role in the Spanish colonization of South America. The historic center has maintained a prominent architectural harmony, while most of the buildings are still used for their original purpose, providing an excellent picture of what a Spanish colonial city was like.
Mompox has three squares along the river, each with its own church. Most of the buildings in the historic center are in excellent condition. No matter how much you stay here, you will hardly get bored wandering the picturesque cobbled streets, wandering around the tasteful cafes and restaurants with delicious menus, relaxing in small hotels with captivating colonial architecture, transferring you into the vibe of another era, the one depicted in Marques literature.
After about 320km and 5-6 hours of driving, we finally face the Caribbean Sea, with Cartagena’s skyscrapers rising up in the horizon.
Cartagena, also known since colonial times as Cartagena de Indias, is a city and large port on the north coast of Colombia, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It was founded in 1533 and its strategic location between the floating rivers Magdalena and Shinou gave access to the interior of the “Kingdom of New Granada”. It thus became a major trading port between metropolitan Spain and its overseas empire, taking its name from the European city of the same name, which in turn borrowed its name from ancient Carthage. It was also the main gateway for African slaves to Latin America. The old city within the walls is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Built around a beautiful natural bay, Cartagena is one of the most beautiful, well-preserved cities in America and at the same time one of the busiest tourist destinations in Colombia.
The alleys of the city are flooded with local music and colors of crafts shops. The “Palenqueras”, the dark-skinned women in fancy multicolour traditional costumes and a fruit bowl balancing on their heads, are a trademark of the city, making a living from tourist photos.
The historic center, whose beauty and cultural significance made it world famous, is surrounded by ancient walls that embrace the city. The city is more than history, it’s also an environment of lively, cosmopolitan choices with many entertainment options, all in a pleasant tropical climate.
I am impressed by the fact that the car can enter inside the walled towns, through the narrow stone gates. Even more unexpected is the fact that there is a free parking lot, with available space. An elderly man and a drug addict appear competing for a tip, in exchange for supervising the vehicle. Of course I give a small amount, at least to ensure safety for the hours they will be there, the car will stay parked there for the next few days.
The hotel in the old town provides small rooms without much grace, after all who wants to stay in the room in a city like this? The spacious upstairs hall, with its wooden floor and balconies overlooking the bell tower of the adjacent church, the busy street below, reminds me of old memories of Havana, Cuba. The walks around the city and on top of the walls overlooking the Atlantic sea are very picturesque, but once again I admit that places with such a strong tourist traffic are not much to my liking. Cartagena, however, is the safest destination in Colombia and one can enjoy it carefree 24 hours a day.
Nearby, outside the Gulf of Cartagena, are some clusters of islands, the famous Islas del Rosario and a little further are the islands of San Bernardo. Every day, fleets of boats full of tourists head to the beaches of the islands, mainly Isla Grande and Isla Baru. The latter, in fact, as the map shows, is not really an island but a peninsula connected by a road. The intense tourist development that seems to dominate these nearby islands, leads to search for a more alternative “paradise”. It is called Isla Pirata and it is a tiny private island with only one accommodation. The luxury of this privacy is probably on offer and costs € 55 per night. In the total cost you should also calculate the speedboat transfer, which doubles the price. The island is a family property and half of it includes a couple of slightly abandoned villas. It is lushed with palm trees that provide shade when the hot sun unhides from the clouds. There is no typical sandy beach, but it has wooden piers in various places, with sunbeds and beach beds that are one step away from the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Simple huts accommodate guests, while in the two-storey main building with the grass roof, is the reception area and the restaurant. We get canoes to explore the surrounding reef and especially the underwater life. Although corals are highly damaged throughout the surrounding area, tropical marine fauna is abundant. Among other things, several Angel fish, fearless Trumpetfish, a stingray and two lobsters that roam the pillars of the pier will keep me busy all this and next day. In the evening an uninvited guest appeared in bed, which in the darkness referred to a cockroach, like the one once walked over me in Malaysia, causing me screams of disgust. Fortunately, this time it was a small crab.
From Cartagena, the next station is 250 km away and takes 4-5 hours. We pass the outskirts of Barranquilla and Santa Marta, as well as the overseas part of the road that has a lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other. We reach the outskirts of Tayrona National Park by night and although it’s deep dark, the dense rainforest is covering eyesight all around the room balcony. The last drops from the bottle of rum match this setting perfectly.
At the entrance of the national park, the ticket price costs about 55,000 COP and in addition compulsory insurance is charged as well as entrance fee for the car, that can be driven till the parking lot, 4 kms below. From there the hiking trail starts, but for those who have limited time, there are riding horses that shorten the duration. For those who still want to spend one or more nights in the camp on the main beach, then the 2 hour hiking route is not a problem. The most famous and organized beach of Tayrona Park is Cabo San Juan. It is a double beach with palm trees, soft sand and Caribbean blue, with waters safe for swimming. This is the place where most travelers spend the night or rest in the hammocks in the hut on top of the cape, between the two beaches. Needless to say, such touristy places do not entice me. A little further on, however, there are other beaches, such as Boca de Saco which is considered nudist beach, but has few visitors. The reason is the red flag that indicates the danger of waves and sea currents, as well as the signs that warn not to become part of the victim statistics. A 45′ hike leads east, to La Piscina beach which, although it’s nice for swimming, is fortunately less visited since it doesn’t offer facilities. The adjacent Playa Arenilla is not so ideal for swimming, but it is enchantingly photogenic, with smooth granite rocks, a lake with a forest and cloudy mountains in the background. The meeting with the horse guy for the return ride was here. Instead of overnight inside Tayrona park, we decided to explore the wider area.
This area is also the starting point of tourist excursions to the ruins of the famous pre-Columbian “lost city” Ciudad Perdida. To get there you need to spend 4 days hiking in the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, something very tempting as an activity. But we don’t have this timeframe and we prefer to visit another country in this trip, Costa Rica. As seen from photos, Ciudad Perdida doesn’t seem too impressive to me, and comparisons some people do with the Machu Pichu of Peru are quite inaccurate.
Such wonderful images I saw on the deserted north shores of Colombia! Just before Palomino, in places that are not mentioned by names on the map, are the most enchanting parts of this journey, the culmination and the reward of the long road trip.
A beach under the colors of the sunset, with palm trees swinging in the rustle of the wind and the fog of the wild waves creating an almost eerie backdrop. A lake flows into the ocean where young people train on the surf. And a tavern on the beach, with delicious fish and cool juices… The most idyllic travel moments are not described in words or photos.
On another beach, with a river splitting it in two, adorned by colorful empty kiosks for holiday locals, I will have a rare encounter with an indigenous family. The Kogi, meaning “jaguar” in the Kogi language, is an indigenous ethnic group (we mistakenly call “Indians”), living in the mountains of northern Colombia, one of the few traditional tribes that still survive in the country. They are descendants of the Tayrona culture that flourished before the Spanish conquest.
The Kogi, like the rest of the endangered tribes, are struggling to escape the worst effects of colonization and missionary proselytizing, maintaining their traditional way of life.
It is not easy to meet the Kogi tribe and their villages are protected from the tourist invasion. Some members of them visit the north coasts of Colombia, such as this adorable family I met. Despite their shyness, they offered me their warm smiles. The members of this tribe live in conditions of poverty and unfortunately a simple treat of food does not save the situation.
Cosmopolitan and industrial, Colombia’s 4th most populous city has nothing to offer in terms of tourist interest other than the annual carnival. Since we are not in the carnival but the rainy season, Barranquilla welcomes us with a strong storm, before saying goodbye to Colombia, with a Copa airlines flight to Costa Rica.
Colombia is maybe the most outstanding country in Latin America, but it’s still an extremely interesting destination, with great natural and cultural richness, with plenty of experiences that will be unforgettable for the visitor.
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