In October Rob made a 9-day journey through Colombia kindly hosted by adventure specialists ‘Dragoman’. Travelling on a purpose-built overland truck along with 18 other travel consultants from various worldwide travel agencies, he reports here on his impressions of this increasingly popular South American destination which has become accessible to visitors again after many years of being effectively ‘off-limits’.
Avianca’s recently introduced direct overnight service meant that just 9 hours after setting off from Heathrow I was waking up in Bogota. A short connecting flight took me to Cartegena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast where I spent the morning happily wandering through its brightly-coloured streets.
It was easy to see why it is regarded as being the most beautifully well-preserved colonial town in Latin America. Bougainvilleas tumble brightly over wooden balconies and the many small plazas are dotted with pavement café’s which are splendid places for people-watching. The thick city walls were built to protect the Conquistadors’ plundered gold from the piratical attacks of Sir Francis Drake.
I met up with the rest of the group that evening and we enjoyed a meal and some late beers in a lively bar.
Early the next morning we boarded our wonderfully big and beefy overland truck and headed east to Tayrona National Park. Late that afternoon we left the truck at the park entrance before hiking through verdant jungle to our beach-side campsite which was our base for the next 2 days.
Tayrona is where the steep-sided Sierra Nevada mountains meet the golden sandy beaches of the Caribbean Sea. It is an area of astounding beauty and the next morning a couple of us got up early to ascend into the hills to a small hidden plateau where a small group of native Colombian tribes-people still live in traditional thatched circular houses.
The hike was worth it to see a glimpse of an ancient way of life – and also for the pleasure of diving into that lovely blue sea when returning back to the coast 2 hot and humid hours later. The beaches here are remarkable for their huge white-granite boulders that are liberally sprinkled along the sands and short distances out to sea making great diving platforms. There is great snorkeling too and the chance to take boat trips along the coast to otherwise inaccessible coves and bays. There is the chance to make an adventurous 4-day trek deep into the jungle to Ciudad Perdida (‘lost city’ ) reckoned to have been a stronghold of the Tayrona Indians from as long ago as 800 AD but only rediscovered as recently as 1972. Time did not allow us to venture there but the relatively small handful of visitors who have made this trek compare it very favourably with accessing Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail.
After enjoying some wonderful beach-time, the next day we hiked back out of Tayrona and made the long drive to the town of San Gil perched high amidst peaks of the Andes where we camped at a nearby coffee farm.
This was our base for the many high-adrenalin outdoor sports that San Gil has become famous for and the next day in various small groups we enjoyed experiencing paragliding, white-water rafting and abseiling down huge waterfalls amongst the precipitous canyons that surround the town. There is also world-class mountain-biking available and no end of superb hiking trails in the hills.
Our next stop was the charming Villa de Leyva which has been declared a National Monument such is its architectural importance as an almost completely intact example of an original colonial town. We wandered its cobblestoned alleyways and enjoyed outstanding cuisine at some of the many high quality restaurants that play host to Bogota’s rich and famous who use the town as a weekend retreat.
Villa de Leyva would make a brilliant backdrop to a spaghetti western and you expected a poncho-clad Clint Eastwood to appear from around every street corner.
After one final half-day’s drive in our trusty truck (now the scene of some fairly sharp card-playing) we arrived into the sprawling metropolis of Bogota.
Colombia’s capital is situated at an altitude of 2600m nestled amongst the green tree-clad slopes of the Andes.
A short funicular ride takes you upwards a further 500m and gives a dizzying view over the city’s many skyscrapers below.
Bogota has also become famous in recent years for the astounding degree of world-class graffiti artwork that covers much of the city’s buildings. Deprived of any media representation by the ruling right-wing government, the views of the country’s social activists are compellingly made in their huge and strikingly-colourful murals. These have drawn the attention of international street artists from all over the world who now flock to the city and join in at this crucible of politically-motivated graffiti.
A few hours in the bohemian Candelaria district in the old part of the capital is consequently a kaleidoscopically colourful experience and a fantastic way to finish our all to brief stay in the country.
Colombia has made massive strides after many years of civil war and insecurity. Today the areas of the country that are now deemed OK to travel in – effectively most of the central swathe of the country –feel safe to visit and the local people make you feel extremely welcome. I was aware that we only just scratched the surface with this whistle-stop road-trip and there is so much more to see here that deserves attention.
If you wish to hear more about the places I visited or have any safety concerns ahead of a planned trip, please get in touch and I’ll be happy to discuss. – Rob