South America’s Most Diverse Country?
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
In summer 2009, I spent 7 weeks in Colombia and discovered Salento & the Zona Cafetera; Popayan, San Agustin, Tierradentro & the Desierto de Tatacoa; Bogota; Villa de Leyva, San Gil, Barichara & Bucaramanga; Medellin (during the Feria de las Flores); Santa Marta, Taganga & Tayrona National Park; Rioacha & La Guajira (up to Punta Gallinas) and last but not least Cartagena de Indias.
In summer 2016, I also traveled 7 weeks there and visited Villa de Leyva, Monguí, Barichara & San Gil; Riohacha & La Guajira (up to Punta Gallinas); Medellin (during the Feria de las Flores); Jardín, Salento & the Zona Cafetera; El Chocó (Bahia Solano); Bogota; Caño Cristales; Popayan & San Agustin; and last but not least Cartagena de Indias.
Why Travel To Colombia?
Let’s start with the big concern many people have. YES, traveling in Colombia is safe, very safe! Actually, Colombia is one of the safest countries in South America, as far as I can tell. It is light years from its disreputable image of a country of drugs and guns.
Colombia is probably South America’s most diverse country, and somehow has everything this stunning continent offers: beautiful beaches; deep rainforests; deserts; high mountain ranges & Andean highlands; lush & green, temperate fertile agricultural land; wild rivers; coffee plantations; very diverse colonial cities; high waterfalls; wildlife watching opportunities…
True, there is not “the one big highlight” like Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls, Salar de Uyuni or Rio de Janeiro, but a vast number of places offer impressive, very different experiences.
Moreover, Colombia is turning increasingly popular and has been opening fast over the last 10 years. On the positive side, the once very insufficient infrastructure has significantly improved, and now caters for all requirements and budgets, especially in the main touristic centers, but also in much more remote areas. The downside is that Colombia is also changing at high speed, and places that were quiet and Off The Beaten Track are now on the main touristic paths. So it is definitely the right moment to enjoy this country, before it turns too popular and changes even more.
Last but not least, you have the Colombians… Some of the most gentle and open people, so hospitable and proud of their country (the place you are is always the best in some field)!
Challenges Organizing The Trip – What Would I Have Wished To Know?
You should spend enough time preparing a trip to Colombia, as tourism is still rather new in most parts of the country. There are a few points you should not overlook before you go:
- Distances are great in Colombia, and travel time is even greater! The country is crossed by three different mountain ranges, so traveling by road can be grueling… Consider flying on some legs, if you want to avoid very long nights in chilly buses.
- The climate is as diverse as the topography of this country… Add to this major differences in altitude (ranging from sea level to more than 3.000 meters), and you understand that the climate might be challenging for travelers, with perfect weather conditions in some parts of the country and very poor conditions in others… Moreover, it is a green country, and this lush vegetation doesn’t come out of nowhere. So be ready to partly forget the bright sunshine you might have expected and accept some cloudy weather and even a few days of rain!
- If some areas are now very touristy and offer a very well developed tourism infrastructure (Bogota, San Gil, Salento, Medellin, Santa Marta, Cartagena de Indias…), catering for all budgets and all expectations, many parts of the country remain quite Off The Beaten Track and the infrastructure might be quite underdeveloped. If you are going to the south of the country or especially in El Choco, be well prepared, as you might not find everything that you expected, for instance transport…
- Learn some Spanish! Except in some touristic centers, you will encounter only very few people who know even the basics in English. As a consequence, Spanish will be your only way to communicate!
- Beware of peak season and festivals! Twice I experienced the Feria de las Flores and twice I wasn’t prepared enough… Book hotels months in advance, and places for parades through an agency, as this is the only way for foreigners. This is true for peak season like Christmas / New Year or the Semana Santa all over the country, and large events like the Carnival in Baranquilla (South America’s second largest carnival after Rio de Janeiro) or the Semana Santa’s processions in Popayan.
- Colombia has no “one big highlight” but many diverse and impressive travel experiences and places. The “Wow Effect” won’t be there most of the time, though. The highlight of Colombia resides in its diversity & in the number of experiences. You will not appreciate this country in one week, but will need more time to let the many different experiences create little by little a whole picture, like many little brush strokes create an impressionist painting. All in all, Colombia might not be South America for beginners, but a South America that true aficionados will love!
Highlights Of The Trip
- The people of Colombia, so very gentle & helpful – Try to go out of the main touristic locations, and try to learn a few words of Spanish… And you will encounter some of the most welcoming and warm-hearted people on this planet!
- Cartagena de Indias – Probably the most popular place in Colombia, and deservedly! Cartagena is a breathtaking colonial city that offers many highlights. No trip to Colombia is complete without discovering Cartagena!
- The Colonial Cities of Santander & Boyacá, and not only the two most famous ones, Villa de Leyva & Barichara, but also the more remote, picturesque villages around Sogamoso, like Monguí. Add to these San Gil, Colombia’s capital for outdoor activities like paragliding (ideally over the Canyon del Chichamocha), white water rafting on the Rio Suarez or any adrenaline-pumping activities of that kind, and you have an amazing area where you can spend at least one week!
- Caño Cristales, the newest of Colombia’s National Parks – Accessible since only 3 years, the “River of Five Colors” is considered by Colombians as the most beautiful river in the world! Why? From July to November, the riverbed is colored yellow, green, blue, black, and especially red, due to the Macarenia Clavigera, a reddish endemic algae that flourishes especially in the rapids of the river.
- The Zona Cafetera, not limited to Salento and the beautiful Valle de Cocora, the very touristic heart of this vast area south of Medellin. Jardín, further north, was definitely a highlight of my both trips!
- Colombia’s South, with the archaeological sites of Tierradentro & San Agustin, Popayan, a “Ciudad Blanca” that really deserves the name, Silvia & the Guambiano Market on Tuesdays, and last but not least the Desierto de Tatacoa on the way back to Bogota – This makes a great loop, partly really Off The Beaten Track.
- The empty and breathtaking beaches of La Guajira, Colombia’s Wild, Wild East! True, the northernmost part of South America is no longer a well-kept secret, and tours start every day to Punta Gallinas, but this remains a highlight of any trip to Colombia.
- Parque Nacional de Tayrona – Scenic white sandy beaches, framed by palm trees leaning into the emerald green water… You could not ask for more. Well, maybe yes, actually: less tourists!
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
As soon as you leave the main tourist destinations, like Bogota; San Gil; Salento; Medellin; Santa Marta, Minca, Palomino & Tayrona; Cartagena de Indias…), you come a lot closer to some Off The Beaten Track experiences…
The most remarkable ones were:
- Monguí, near Villa de Leyva
- Jardín, south of Medellin
- Colombia’s South: Popayan, San Agustin & Tierradentro, which are actually quite challenging to reach…
- But the climax was definitely reached in El Chocó – You should plan any trip there very carefully, as transport will be a major challenge, and activities unreliable, as you will not find sufficient people to share costs…
What Will I Especially Remember?
- Very gentle & helpful people, trying hard to welcome visitors as best as they can, proud that actually visitors from other countries / other continents come to their country / their city. This is unfortunately far less true for the Caribbean Coast, which seem to be both another country and another culture…
- Great pride to be Colombian and the wish to show the good sides of the country to visitors. Every place is “amazing” and “the best” for something!
- A very clean and well-organized country, where things run astonishingly well (except on the Caribbean Coast, which you unfortunately find rubbish everywhere).
- A country made of small highlights that add up to an impressive experience, so you keep on moving around…
- A clearly identifiable “Gringo Trail” (Bogota, San Gil, Medellin, Salento, Minca / Palomino / Tayrona), where foreigners congregate. Apart from those places? You will meet very few “Gringos”!
- “A la orden”, a phrase which can be heard all day, meant to encourage you to buy something or to offer a service without being pushy
- “Vallenato” music non stop in some parts of the country…
What Would I Do Differently / Things I Didn’t Like?
- Food gets a bit monotonous if you stick to a cheap fare. Breakfast with the inevitable eggs and sweetish bread & lunch over Comida Corrientes with “Pollo con arroz y frijoles”
- Many aspects of the Caribbean Coast: extreme noise, with people playing music at full blast every weekend and holiday; lots of plastic garbage everywhere and actually few nice beaches, either on islands or in national parks
- Unpredictable weather in July & August, especially in the south.
- Visit Medellin during the Fiesta de las Flores only with a reservation for a liveable accommodation.
- Travel at a lower pace: traveling in Colombia is challenging and tiring, with huge travel times, especially in the south
- Drug & prostitution “in your face” where younger Gringos congregate, especially in Medellin…
- Stay at the Poblado Park Hostel in Medellin, one of the worst and most expensive hostels I have ever experienced.
- Go to El Chocó without sufficiently researching the area: beware that there are only 2 boats a week (Mondays & Fridays) between Nuquí & Bahia Solano.
Is It Safe?
YES, Colombia is safe! There is strictly no reason to be paranoid… I spent altogether 14 weeks in Colombia and neither did I encounter any problem myself, nor did I meet anyone who actually had problems (first hand). Of course you hear all those horrible stories, but if you stay alert and exercise some sound judgment, you should be absolutely fine!
Some of the basic rules are:
- Do not flash valuables except if you really feel it is safe
- Only carry with you what you need, your hotel room is much safer, especially in the evening, than some back streets. Especially: do not take your passport with you!
- Always have some cash with you that you can eventually hand to someone turning nasty. Not being able to give anything in case of an armed assault can be lethal!
- Carry two wallets, one with small change for everyday needs and one with credit cards and larger amounts of money if need be.
- Never leave your belongings unattended on the beach.
- And last but not least: always take cabs at night in larger cities, and have those cabs called from a restaurant or a bar to be sure they are safe. This is all the more true if you have had a few Cervezas…
Best Time To Visit Colombia
The country’s proximity to the equator means its temperature varies little throughout the year. The best time to visit Colombia is in the dry season, between December & March and to a lesser extend in July & August.
But beware: the climate is as diverse as the topography of this country… Add to this major differences in altitude (ranging from sea level to more than 3.000 meters), and you understand that the climate might be challenging for travelers, with perfect weather conditions in some parts of the country and very poor conditions in others… Moreover, it is a green country, and this lush vegetation doesn’t come out of nowhere. So be ready to partly forget the bright sunshine you might have expected and accept some cloudy weather and even a few days of rain!
Communication (Language Barrier?)
Communication can be really challenging in Colombia if you do not speak some Spanish, especially in more remote areas. So learn some Spanish before you leave…
Getting Around In Colombia
Travel time is significant in Colombia, and is even greater when you move further south. So plan accordingly, and consider flying some legs to save time!
Note that transports have significantly improved over the last years, and that you partly find extremely comfortable buses at least on some legs, like those “Doble Piso”, with a great “VIP zone” on the ground floor”. But beware of icy temperatures on long distance busses, and take warm clothes along!
European citizens do not need a visa to enter Colombia, and can stay up to 90 days.
Photography In Colombia: As Diverse As Travel Photography Can Be
Offering an immense diversity of experiences, you have a wide range of photo opportunities in Colombia:
- Architecture in Colonial Cities
- Landscapes in many parts of the country (beaches, mountain ranges, deserts, coffee plantations…)
- Wildlife (especially ornithologists will love Colombia; but there are other opportunities like Whale Watching in El Chocó…)
- People, especially down south or in La Guajira
It is hence challenging to give overall recommendations, except maybe that you should take your whole equipment along, as you will need everything from wide angle to tele-lenses, a tripod for architecture photography at night in Colonial cities, a Polarization Filter to enhance contrasts and reduce light during the day, for instance for landscape photography, …
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Colombia
Conclusion About Colombia…
Colombia is a great destination to travel, with an immense diversity to discover and enjoy, the kindest people you can imagine, picturesque colonial cities, magnificent scenery, some of the oldest archaeological sites of the Americas and if this is what you are looking for, great places to party.
Nevertheless, Colombia has no “one big highlight” but many diverse and impressive travel experiences and places. The “Wow Effect” won’t be there most of the time, though. The highlight of Colombia resides in its diversity & in the number of experiences. You will not appreciate this country in one week, but will need more time to let the many different experiences create little by little a whole picture, like many little brush strokes create an impressionist painting. All in all, Colombia might not be South America for beginners, but a South America that true aficionados will love!
“El riesgo es que te quieras quedar”. The risk is you may want to stay, as the Colombian Tourist Board’s clever slogan claims!