Colombia, te amo – travel tips

Colombia mi amores! What a vibrant place. After watching the thrilling third season of the television serie Narcos (about the history of Colombian drugs kartels), I relived my one month journey (summer 2015) through this stunning country. Salsa (read ‘Viva Musica Colombiana ‘nueva’ about contemporary Colombian Music), ceviche, amazingly friendly people, colonial architecture and overwhelming nature. From the Amazon to the caribbean ocean. From the Andes mountains to Chocó. 

Colombia has a striking and sad history. From the Spanish oppression during the colonial time until the civil war, drug traffic and political corruption in the late 20th century. Drug cartels, left (FARC) and right wing rebel groups caused many deaths and poverty. Nowadays Colombia is peaceful and stable for the most part. And many tourist discovered this lively, colorful country. Si, Colombia is hot and happening. Some parts, especially the Caribbean coast, are flooded by tourists. Also beautiful, pittoresk villages like Villa de Leyva are beloved destinations for many travellers. But there are definitely serene, authentic ‘pearls’ that are untouched by tourism, globalism and gentrification.

Market Square Instagram
Spanish colonial Church at famous main square, Villa de Leyva

Comida Colombia!
The traditional Colombian Cuisine is called Comida Criollo. It’s rich and diverse. Not only because Colombia is a fertile country with a variety of climates. Think about all the tropical fruits, plantains, cassave, coffee and cacao that Colombia produces. Also the various different cultural traditions and ethnical groups have their influence on the Colombian culinary tradition.

Meat or fish are prominent elements in a Colombian meal. At the Caribbean coast but also more inland you can indulge yourself with sublime ceviche. A meat speciality is ajiao; a Andean chicken stew with corn and potatoes. Meat lovers may well occur to bandeja paisa; a platter with sausages, rice, eggs, beans and tasty arepa’s (corn cakes). The last one is also a popular street food. Empanada’s, stuffed pastries, are also filling snacks. Pandebono is a type of bread made of cassave, corn flour, cheese and eggs. 

 

La Cevicheria
Octopus Ceviche in La Cevicheria, Cartagena

For vegetarians and vegans Colombia can be a challenging country. The Colombians are true meat lovers. In general restaurants serve traditional food. A piece of meat or fish, rice, fries. And no meal is complete without a fried plantain slice. An excess of proteins and carbohydrates; that’s how I sometimes experienced dining in Colombia. After a while I was craving for vegetables. Luckily I could score some veggies on street markets. And on every corner of the street there are little juice shacks for a good vitamin injections (with free refill). In bigger and more touristy places there are some upmarket restaurants who serve great vegetarian food.

Sapverkoper
Mango juice seller, Cartagena

Hotspots: Personal Recommendation:

Bogota
Go see colonial architecture and street art in the lively Candelaria. Museo Botero is also worth visiting. Explore Bogota by bike on a tour with Bogota Bike Tours. Walking and cycling is also great on the car free sundays.  For shopping, drinking and eating I would recommend the bohemian district Chapinero.

  • Sleeping: La Pinta (Chapinero)
  • Eating: Quinua y Amaranto (La Candelaria). Most healthy and fresh meal I ate during my entire Colombia trip. This cute restaurant is run by friendly ladies and serves nourishing lunches with quinoa, sprouted beans, avocado and other healthy ingredients.
  • Drinking: Treffen (Chapinero): colourful, psychedelic bar with strange, cartoonesk decoration.

Filandia (Zona Caferera)

El Mirador Instagram
Stunning view from ‘El Mirador’, Filandia

Actually I don’t want to tell you about Filandia, because this place is still authentic and unspoiled. This small village on a hill has amazing views on the emerald green hills of the zona cafetera. I wouldn’t mind to buy a house and spent the rest of my life in this heavenly town. Just sipping freshly brewed coffee at the pittoresk main square.  

Most travellers who are visiting the Zona Cafetera stay in Salento, which is a nice but touristy town. But Filandia is also a great base for exploring the coffee area. From here you can also visit coffee farms, rent bikes (they were free in our hostel), book horse rides or go hiking in the Valle de Cocora.

  • Sleeping: Bidea Hostel. Very welcoming staff. Pittoresk, big rooms. Free bikes.
  • Eating: Although not many people visit Filandia, there are great, high-quality restaurants. Helena Adentro serves excellent  Colombian meals.

coffee at marketsquare instagram

Coffee at the main square, Filandia

The Valley of the Sun

Lago de Tota
Lago de Tota, Valley of the Sun

Off the beaten path and a great area for ecotourism. The wonderful Finca San Pedro, just outside Sogamoso, is a great base to explore the region. It’s a nice place to stay and relax for a few days. The finca offers charming rooms (especially the rooms that are inside the house), excellent breakfast, morning yoga classes and a pretty garden with beautiful flowers and friendly animals. The English speaking staff is very helpful and provides all information you need for walks in the region.
The walk around Lago de Tota, Colombia’s largest lake, is nice. You’ll encounter several, authentic colonial villages. And the pristine, white 3015 m high Playa Blanca makes this walk really worth it. But really stunning is trekking in the Parama ecosystem: an area with lakes, grasslands and forest. The rare flora and sublime views are amazing.

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Finco San Pedro

Note 1: Bring your raincoat. It can be rainy in this area.
Note 2: Finding your way is easier when you know some basic Spanish.

Leticia – The Amazon / Rio Yavari
I always cherished a romantic desire to explore the largest river of the world. Crossing through mysterious, dense rainforest, inhabited by a huge diversity of dangerous species. Floating on a river, into the heart of darkness. Like Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

With this plan in mind we flew to Leticia, which is a nice and quiet town. We stayed in the excellent La Jangada hostel with very friendly Swiss-Colombian owners. One of the owners knows everything of the Amazon and guides also tours. After exploring Leticia we hopped on a boat for a four day tour on the Yavari river.  

11DSC05653The Rio Yavari is beautiful and sublime, especially at sunset. ‘Swimming with the dolphins’ was magical, although they are very shy and stayed far away. Walking in the rainforest with a guide who explains everything about the flora and fauna was definitely interesting. A few times we saw anaconda’s. They were of course less huge than in the movie with Jennifer Lopez. Exciting and fun was to search crocodiles in the night. The flashlight reflect their eyes (scary!). It’s also funny that you move in a ‘three country area’. One riverside could be Peru, the other one Brazil and then suddenly you are in Colombia. Altogether: a great experience.

Booking a tour:
It can be confusing to book a tour. Prices differ a lot and it seems like that they all offer more or less the same. We booked a quit expensive tour by an organization that was highly recommended by the Lonely Planet. Afterwards we and other tourists were a bit disappointed. The program was different than we agreed first. I would recommend to buy a tour from our hostel owner. He seemed reliable and very passionate about the amazon and Yavari river.

Caribbean Coast

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Rocks, jungle and sea encounter in Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona

Palomino
This pretty coast town is not so quiet anymore as Lonely Planet mentioned a few years ago. But there is a laid-back alternative vibe, influenced by the surfers community. The beach restaurants play cool music and offer great food.
Don’t go too far in the water! My partner lost almost his life in the wild sea. Luckily he got saved by some surfer rescue angels.

Sleeping: there are many nice but pricy cabins and hotels at the beachside. When we arrived everything was full or overpriced. Booking ahead is essential in high season. A bit inland the prices are lower and there are more rooms available. We stayed in a shared dorm room in an alternative, sympathetic homestay (can’t remember the name).

Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, with its beautiful white sanded beaches and lush green jungle, is definitely a mustsee. But it’s also VERY touristy. When you go there don’t miss the hike to Pueblito, a little Ciudad Perdida in Tayrona park. An exciting, adventurous hike through the tropical forest brings you to this little hidden city. I found the walk a bit challenging, because you need to climb over slippery boulders. But the trail is definitely stunning. There is not much left of Pueblito, just some foundations and stone paths. But this site is still interesting to visit. Other recommendations: the beautiful and quiet beaches Playa del puerto and Playa Caiman.

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Famous Cape in Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona

Cartagena
It’s a Disneyland, but still Cartagena’s old town is worth visiting for a day or two. The coloured colonial houses, churches and squares are pretty as a picture and appear like time stood still 400 years ago. Take a street art tour and admire also some modern, urban art.

  • Sleeping: Balcones de Venecia. Cute hotel with a romantic atmosphere. The rooms are small but pleasant, with beautiful balconies from where you can observe the bustling caribbean street life.
  • Eating: La Cevicheria. Pittoresk, small restaurant that serves amazing ceviches. Reserve ahead because this place is always fully booked.
  • Drinking: Cafe Havana: great bar with an authentic feel and live salsa. Cafe del Mar: this fancy outdoor lounge bar near the seaside with live-dj’s, has great views and cocktails.
Club Havana
Cafe Havana, Cartagena

On my wishlist for next time, but already recommended:

  • Punta Gallinas

Go to the edge of the world in Punta Gallinas: South America’s most northern point. There is absolutely nothing. Just dune desert scapes. Existential shit! Especially recommended for philosophic minded people.

Wild, gray-sand beaches, tropical jungle, thermal pools and indigenous villages.

Caribbean Island surrounded by azur-blue sea. Diving and rasta culture.

Ciudad Perdida

  • Thrilling jungle hike to the archaeological site Ciudad Perdida, built between the 11th and 14th century.

Note: safety:
Although Colombia is in general safe and peaceful, you have to be aware of danger. Some parts of Bogota can be dodgy. Even some parts of the touristy Candelaria. Don’t go out there late at night. But Chapinero is very safe and full of activity.
Wherever you are in the world it’s of course important to watch your belonging. Also in Colombia. But I often forgot my bag, wallet or phone and everytime a friendly Colombian returned them to me.

Although the rebel groups keep more quiet nowadays, there are still sometimes reports of kidnapping, especially in the deep jungles, high mountains. So don’t go alone to remote areas.

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