Colombia, a country that has it all: stunning beaches, tropical islands, mountain tops covered with snow, romantic colonial cities, colorful street art, good food and all this topped op with the cheerful rhythm of Salsa! This country has well overcome its dark history off drugs and the resulted wars among the concurring cartels. The only thing left is to beat the image, don`t hesitate, this upcoming, safe country is attracting more and more travelers with his extensive hospitality and smile.
Most international flights arrive in Bogota. Although this city will not show you the most charming site of Colombia, it`s definitely worth staying here for a day or two.
1. Combine overcoming your jetlag with a gravity tour. The best graffiti tour in town is organized by `Bogota graffiti tour` (http://bogotagraffiti.com/). Done by artists themselves or gallery owners who are close befriended with the artists. The tour explains about different styles, artists and meanings of the paintings. Especially those continuing south, this is a must! Most artists are from South America and you`ll recognize their work, style and messages along the way. Definitely give an extra indebt dimension during your travel. Sign up on their website a day before and leave a tip at the end between COP$20.000 – 30.000.
2. Always fascinated by the shiny metal? The gold museum combines explaining techniques of mining cold and purifying it, with national history. Good time spent for the curious souls among us. Those who can overcome their hangover on Sunday get in for free. Tue-Sat COP$3000. Open Tue-Sat 9am- 6pm, Sun 10am-4pm.
3. Step into the footsteps of the old pelgrims and visit Bogota`s highest tourist attraction `Cerro de Monserrate`. This 3,152 m. high mountain has not only a church, restaurants, cafeteria, souvenir shops and other touristic facilities. It also gives a stunning view over the city. Sportive travelers can climb up by foot (1500 steps, 60-90 min). Go either in a group during the week or in the weekend when hordes of other citizens keep an eye out on each other. The chills among us, don`t worry, you can take the cable car (telefèrico) up. Leaves from Monserrate station. Roundtrip Mon-Sat COP$15,400, Sun COP$9000. Open Mon-Sat 6:30am-midnight, Sun 630am-6:30pm.P.S. In need of any electronics? Laptops, cellphones, cameras, GoPro etc. All can be bought for bargain prices at the several-city-blocks-big electronic mall San Andresito. Open every day from 9am-6pm. Catch a bus from Calle 19 or direct your taxi to Carrera 38 btwn Calles 8 & 9.
Best stories and reviews heard about Alegria`s hostel, Cranky Croc and Casa Platypus. Demand is high, so might be worth making a reservation.
Colombia is one of the cheapest places to visit the green oasis around the Amazon river. Leticia is the `big apple` to start you mosquito buzzing adventure.
Unfortunately no main roads go there, and guerilla groups make it unsafe to travel there on the maze of dirt roads. Flights leave twice a day from Bogota, one by COPA airlines and one by LAN. Check the internet for the most economical price. For overland crossings from Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, scroll down.
Best place to stay
Apart from a dazzling amount tours and travel packages, Leticia doesn`t have much to offer, unless you like the sight of bad maintained buildings, crazy scooter drivers, street dogs and all of this topped up with a descent amount of well spread trash. As flights arrive in the morning I firmly recommend to take a taxi to the dock and buy a boat ticket to Puerto Nariño. The ticket office can be found within a small shopping mall. Just ask around for it and people will point you in the right direction. Tickets are COP$30.000 and the boat leaves 3 times a day (around 7am, 11am and 4pm, but it`s Colombia so times change regularly) and takes around 2,5 hours, depending on how many times the captain stops on the way to get some extra passengers in order to make some money to put in his own pocket. Make sure you got enough cash on you before you leave with the boat, as there are no ATM`s in Puerto Nariño.
Puerto Nariño is lovely little eco-village. Good atmosphere, clean and cute little houses raises high above the ground on their high pawls to protect them from the floods in rainy season. Stock up with latest supplies in food and walk 20 min to `Alto del Aguila`. Pretty straight forward walk, but again ask regally for the way. For the chills, don`t worry, you can also take a water taxi there (5 min). Ask around on the dock and negotiate the price.
`Alto del Aguila` is a true little paradise, within a paradise. The owner is an eccentric, cheerful and extremely hospitable holy man, which lasts in many travelers memory forever. Together with his monkey`s, dogs, cats and parrots (of which one woman-heel-biting) it forms a cozy and laid-back atmosphere. Enjoy feeding the parrots and monkey`s every afternoon. Keep pots and pans closed in the kitchen as monkey`s may try to bugler into the common area. You can choose between a private cabin or a dorm (around COP$20.000). There is a laundry machine which is free for use. There is no internet. Cheap excursion (around COP$20.000 as well) can be arranged to spot grey and pink river dolphins, go piranha fishing or do jungle walks.
Crossing to Peru, Ecuador and Brazil
For anybody who has a romantic image of a cruise through the Amazon river, wake-up! Amazon crossings are (apart from the fast boat between Santa Rosa and Iquitos) far from luxurious, uncomfortable and unreliable when it comes to departing- and travel time. To summarize, every traveler experiencing an Amazon crossing (including myself) describe it as a true, intense and unforgettable experience which they`ll never do again. But hey, it gives the good stories at the end. For a more detailed description of this journey check out my travel diary `Row, row, row your boat`.
A cute laid back little town, 50 km north of Bogota. Although many tourist only make a daytrip here to the beautiful underground Salt cathedral (COP$20,000) it`s definitely worth hanging around for at least a night before making your way to the more touristic Villa de Leyva. The main square has some cosy cafes, bars and restaurants to hang out with locals. Also hostel Zipaquira is definitely worth chilling out for a bit (Calle 2 nr. 6-30), this museum-alike-hostel has privates and dorms. A spacious covered patio and somewhat chaotic kitchen. A bit hard to find as there are is no sign above the door. Look for a big wooden door, covered with a gravity painting, next to a small shop.
Buses from Bogota to Zipaquira leave regally.
Villa de Leyva
Take a bus from Zipaquira (around 3h) or directly from Bogota (around 4h). This highly touristic, but stunning Colonial town is a true retreat. Walk on cobble stone streets along white houses, covered in colorful flowers while enjoying lovely chocolates or find yourself a bike- or horse tour. Please note that prices in this town are high for Colombian standards, so budgeteers should consider only staying here for only a day or 2.
This not so well known national park is more than worth the hassle and picturesque drive to get there. Beautiful trails along snow top peaks on an average altitude of 3000m. Hiking for days without crossing any other person, this is definitely a must-go for every outdoor traveler.
From Villa de Leyva take the bus to Tunja. In Tunja the bus to El Cocuy passes through twice a day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon/evening (note: it is Colombia, so no guarantees on bus departures). Coming from Medellin take a bus to Bucaramanga, there switch buses to Capitanejo. Sometimes you are lucky and a direct bus from Capitanejo leaves to El Cocuy, sometimes you`ll have to take one or two local buses. People are very helpful here, so for sure you`ll find your way.
Once in El Cocuy, you`ll have to stay the night. The cheapest way to get into the park is by the lechero (milktruck), which leaves at 5am from the main square. You`ll find several Hostels and Hotels for varied prices. We stayed in a hostel on Calle 7 (coming from the square, first one on your left side). A very simple and rustic accommodation, but cheap (COP$12,000), good meals (COP$6000 incl. soup and drink), hot showers, and surprisingly good WiFi. After dumping your luggage in a room, go to the Nacional Park office to register on Calle 8, nr. 4-74. Foreigners pay COP$36,500. Don`t let them fool you for signing up for a mandatory insurance. If you are insured for hiking and mountaineering abroad, you only have to show them approval of your own insurance.
Once all the paper work is done, you can go and find yourself accommodation in the park. There are several offices where you can book a lodge in the national park or buy or rent mountain- and camping gear. Although camping is allowed in El Cocuy and can be a nice adventure, keep in mind that the weather is extreme in the National Park. It`s stone freezing cold during the night strengthened with strong winds and no hot water to warm yourself up in the morning. Plus if you need to hire your gear at the office, it won`t safe you that much money at the end either. My advice; reconsider.
Refugios (mountain lodges) are a bit more expensive, but worth the comfort. There is no hot showers, but the owners don`t mind you boiling water on the stove and using it to bath. Refugios on the borders of the park are less expensive, but will also give you an extra 3-4 hours of walking a day to get to the highlights.
If you stay in refugios, you don`t need to bring your sleeping bag. They provide warm blankets. The rest of your stuff you can leave behind at the tourist office where you booked your refugio or rent your camping gear. There are no shops or ATM`s in the national park, but if you (hitch) hike through La Capilla during your stay you can fill up with simple supplies like bread, canned food, some cookies, etc. Water can be found in the streams or waterfalls and is extremely suitable for drinking. We also boiled the water from the tap and used this to drink, was all good.
Getting into the park
In the morning be ready at the plaza at 5am. A milk truck (COP$10.000) will leave from here between 5am and 6 am. Ask locals which one goes to the park, as there are several. Ask the driver to drop you of at the entry of the park. Dress up warm, including gloves and a beany. Once the truck gets in the mountain it`s pretty chill.
To get a good idea of the national park, spend at least two nights in Ecorefugio de montaña `Sisuma`. From here you can visit the tree lagoons and the next day get your feet in the snow around the top of `El pan de Azucar`. Single travelers should consider hiring a guide to do this last track. Once explored the area, make your way back to the entry of the park by foot and head to La `Capilla` to take a milk truck to a cross point in the direction of `Parada Sierra Nevada` and walk the last 4 kilometers. Those who want to safe themselves an 18 kilometer hike, can also walk to cabaña `Guaicani`. The owner has a jeep and for around COP$50,000 he`s more than happy to give you a hitchhike.
`Sierra Nevada` is owned by a farmer’s couple. The kitchen is massive and free of use (although it`s definitely worth asking the lady of the house what meal she has to offer as she is a great cook). The rooms have warm blankets and private bathrooms. No WiFi. Don`t feel shy to light up the fireplace in the dining area to warm yourself up after a long hike.
From the farm you can hike to `Laguna de los verdes` or challenge your calves and climb up to one of the highest points in the park `ItaU`wa Blanco` (5330m). Again single explores should consider taking a guide on the last hike.
Once the calves are sore and supplies are running out, walk to the cross point down the road in the early morning to take a milk truck to Guican, from here a bus leaves to El Cocuy.
Although some travelers will be a bit disappointed once arriving in Medellin by the lack of ancient architecture, be warned! Its lovely people, numerous bars, restaurants, tours and good vibes will soon put you under its spell. Many travelers take at least one or two weeks before they`re able to leave with a broken heart.
Hostel `Casa Kiwi` is a good base to start exploring the town. It`s a bit more expensive than the rest, but you get what you pay for. Close to the major bars and restaurants, pubic-hair-free bathrooms, disinfected-clean, extremely well equipped kitchen with sharp knives! Tv-room, rooftop terrace with swimming pool and several hangout areas with hammocks. Great vibes and great crew.
1. Absolute musts are the free walking tour by Real City Walking Tours. The `chico` who runs this tour company, named Pablo coincidently, is probably the most passionate and enthusiastic guide you`ll ever get. Reserve your place at http://www.realcitytours.com/
2. Dive into the history of sex, drugs and Pablo by `Paisa Road` (http://paisaroad.com/tour-pablo-escobar) Visit historical sites like Pablo`s grave while learning more about the heavy consequences on this country of powdering your noise.
3.Take a metro cable up to `Parque Arvi`. While the cable car pulls you up the mountain, the view over the city is stunning. Once the car makes his way over the hilltop, you`ll feel miles away from civilization while gliding the last piece of the track over treetops. Once on top you can enjoy great hikes through the park or enjoy homemade food on the little market.
Get your travels to the next level and learn or improve your Spanish. Lauren, a Medellin local, is your best bet here. She speaks fluent English and is well known by travelers as someone who teaches in a very simple and effective manner. You can contact her on whatsapp +57 317 501 1970. Private lessons at the time of writing are COP$35.000 per hour.
This green `Mekka` is true must for every Colombian traveler. Take a `collective` (shared taxi) from Santa Marta and take some time to relax at `Casa Loma` or `San Souci`. Pick a hammock, take a book, go for a hike, spot some birds, the world is yours.
Immerge into the romantic vibes of the old colonial times. Very touristic, yes, and higher prices, but definitely worth spending a couple of days. Take a walking tour, roam around the cobble stone street, visit the fort and get some good cocktails and beers.
Those wishing to powder their nose, be warned! Drug dealers in Cartagena don`t f$&k around. Regally, drug dealers blow `magic dust` in the eyes of their costumers, take them to an ATM and let them empty their bank accounts. Big groups are simply threatened with a knife of gun to do the same. Believe me, Cartagena is a super safe city. Even for a woman it`s no problem walking out at night. But appealing to `the dark side of the force`, is asking for trouble.
It`s definitely worth checking out the hotels as well. Hostels are often overpriced and full. A good hotel is `Marlin` a couple of buildings from hostel Mamallena in Calle 30. For the same price as a dorm in a hostel, you`ll get a private room here (if shared with another person), including private bathroom and communal kitchen. Good WiFi.
Casa en El Aqua
It`s all in the name; house in the water. This slice of paradise in the middle of the Caribbean is spreading word throughout Colombia. Blow up the floating cushion, grab a bear and float around on the rhythm of some Ibiza tunes. An absolute must is the plankton tour in the night, where they take you to the mangroves to swim among the Alumni plankton. Welcome to a live version of Avatar!
As availability is tight, it is recommended to book ahead. No WiFi.
Direct boats are leaving from Cartagena or ask around for current bus schedules.
Local chicos with afro`s playing domino`s the whole day, fishing boats parked on the beach, blue sea, white beaches embraced by coral reefs and surrounded by the ever green mountain peaks of the Darien gap. A highly popular destinations among Colombians, but surprisingly unknown among backpackers. Most travelers use this place only as a stop over to and from the San Blas islands. But if you load up with cash (there is no ATM`s in town) and immerge into this reggaeton-laid-back town, you`ll love it. Sip a juice on the beach, go the Natural swimming pools and order the best platanos with tuna and lemonade you`ll ever had. Take a hike through the jungle to `En Cielo` and enjoy a refreshing dip underneath the waterfall.
1. Enjoy the buzzy, chilled out vibes at hostel La Bohemia (https://www.facebook.com/labohemianaturalhostal). The owners organize cheap tours into the Darien and to indigenous Guna villages. Often meals are cooked together and on regular basis parties are organized in the local reggae bar. No WiFi here people, talk and socialize with each other!
2. Food and nature lovers should definitely try to get a room into `Cabinas Darius` (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Caba%C3%B1a-Darius-Capurgana/282157711816320). The owner Nery cooks amazing healthy meals with fresh ingredients. Sit back in one of the hammocks and enjoy the iguanas, parrots and monkey`s jumping along the garden. Rooms are all privates with private bathroom. No WiFi.
The best way to get into the oasis alike town is taking a bus to Necocli. And take boat from there in the morning to Capurgana. Don`t let people confuse you by saying you have to go to Turbo. The boats leaving from Turbo are unsafe, more expensive and very slow.
San Blas Islands
Although these islands are part of Panama and not Colombia, it`s definitely worth making a little sidestep in your trip. An archipelago of 365 perfect coconut islands is a true paradise. A popular way to travel through the island is making a 4 or 5 day trip to Panama City. There is mainly 3 ways to do this;
Tip: Whether going independent or on a tour to the islands. You`ll make friends for life by bringing a soccer ball, balloons, pens, etc. for the children. Trust me, these simple tools will turn your trip in an even more unforgettable experience.
Direct travel between Colombia and Panama
Those who decided to skip the San Blas islands, are you really sure? You`ll definitely going to miss out on a major highlight of your trip. If you’re still sure you want to skip it; there is three ways to go:
After a burn-out it was time for a change. I quit my job, sold my stuff and bought a one-way ticket to the Dominican Republic. What was supposed to be a 4 month adventure turned into one year and counting......
Photo by: Vanessa Marques Barreto