Colombia: an Undiscovered Touristic El Dorado
What comes to mind when you think of Colombia? Hopefully, it’s the magnificent nature, not crime statistics :) We’ve asked Mark, who once lived there for 9 months, what is best about this country and how not to miss the most exciting stuff.
Hi, Mark and thanks for agreeing to tell our readers more about Colombia! First, how did you end up spending months there?
I have friends who had been living there for 4 years already, and they had invited us to stay with them. It seemed like a great possibility as we wanted to escape Britain for a while and I also got work teaching CELTA English course. We lived in Bogota in a district called la Macarena – a very nice area with a lot of restaurants around.
You’ve stayed a long time in Colombia, can you tell what’s the best time for a visit?
If you are planning to visit the Pacific coast (which you should!), then May – June is the best time as you can see the whales migrating. There are whale watching tours available for booking, and it’s very entertaining. However, getting to the coast can be tricky as there are not many roads and flights are very unpredictable because of the weather.
Overall, weather in Colombia is very rainy, so make sure to take an umbrella regardless of the season. It’s also not as warm there as you may imagine, for example, Bogota is quite high, so the average temperature is about 13 degrees there, even in summer, and of course it’s raining 3/4 of the year.
Still, I’m sure Colombia is worth suffering all the rain :) Tell me more about Bogota. What are the highlights of the city?
Bogota is a former prosperous colonial city, and its well-preserved historical center is one of the few that’s still being lived in. The streets are very narrow but cozy, and there are courtyards where you can sit down and enjoy the gabled roofs and the balconies.
My favorite sight in Bogota is the Botero gallery. Fernando Botero is Colombia’s leading sculptor and painter. The museum collection consists mostly of his works with an occasional Chagall or Picasso thrown in for a good measure. The entry to the gallery is free, and the collection is spread around a huge colonial villa, so you feel a bit like being invited to enjoy a private collection in a (rich!) friend’s house.
Botero gallery is not far from Monserrate mountain, which borders the city from the east. Monserrate has the greatest views of the city and there is also a basilica on the top. On Sundays, you can join the colorful crowds heading there from the city. Sundays and state holidays are also great for hanging out if you have a bike – some streets are closed to the cars and open only to the bikes for the ciclovía event. If you go along the circuit of over 121 kilometers long you can see the non-touristic regions of the city safe and jam-free.
Speaking of safe, is the crime situation as bad in Colombia as they say?
Sadly, it’s true that there’s a lot of crime, and a lot of people get robbed or mugged. So it’s best to keep an eye on your surroundings and your money in a bank. Try not to look too much like a tourist – dress smart, like somebody with a job, not a backpacker. Walk very fast as if you live there. Avoid going out in certain areas at night, and if you must, then wear a hoodie. It’s worse for girls, you may even want to dye your hair if you’re blonde, it solves a lot of problems. You should be fine though if you’re sensible and stay on the touristic streets during your visit.
What other cities are worth visiting in Colombia?
I really recommend Cartagena! It’s a beautiful city on the Caribbean coast and really close to the place where Gabriel García Márquez was born. Here you can arrange a tour to the village where One Hundred Years of Solitude takes place and soak up the atmosphere of rural Colombia. Cartagena itself feels like an 18th-century colonial dream, boiling in the heat of the Сaribbean coast. The old town is mostly unchanged since the prosperous times, and walking its streets is like going back in time. The city is very touristy but that also means that it’s very safe.
After 6 hours on a bus from Cartagena, you can find yourself in Mompox. It’s a 16th-century river town which looks are conserved in this period because river shift brought all the river trade prosperity to an end and there was no money to rebuild the houses. Instead of spiraling from the center square the town stretches along the river. There are still a lot of traditional businesses in operation there, so if you want to get a taste of colonial life or choose a perfect rocking chair, that’s your place!
Another great place to visit is Barichara – a town 8 hours away from Santander that looks like somebody dug it out in Andalusia and threw it to Santander region for some reason. With its charming terracotta roofs and relaxed air, it’s my favorite place in whole Colombia, I could easily stay there forever! If you’re up for some exotic food tasting, go to Barichara to try fat-bottomed ants – hormigas that they toast and sell in packets as a beer snack. They are pretty expensive and considered a local delicacy.
If small and peaceful is your thing, Salento is yet another great choice for a retreat. It’s a beautiful town in the coffee region built around 1890. Again, you’ll enjoy the cute colonial buildings with a lot of colorful windows in the city center. Salento is also the birthplace of a meal called bandeja paisa. They have it for breakfast and it can rival an English breakfast in the number of calories there is! The main ingredients are kidney beans, minced meat, avocado and rice.
Being a coffee fan, I can’t fail to ask you to tell more about the coffee region you’ve mentioned! Are there good tasting/exploring opportunities?
Not only the coffee fans, but everybody should visit the coffee region! It’s so beautiful! You can order a jeep tour through the endless coffee fields or even learn how to pick up beans, roast them and make good coffee. The nature in this region is simply magical, for example, I was most impressed with the extremely tall wax palms, and a walk through a cloud forest full of birds humming among the branches was unforgettable!
Wow, that sounds great! What are other places to enjoy Colombian nature?
I’d recommend going to Minca – a small village of about 20 buildings in the middle of the rainforest close to the Caribbean coast. There’s a lot of tropical wildlife around: parrots, hummingbirds, lizards, fireflies, moths etc. Beware that the wildlife also includes the less-likeable creatures such as scorpions, snakes, and spiders, so keep your eyes open. The village provides accommodation and other facilities, and you can book guided forest tours there. The best trip from there is a 5-day long hike to La Ciudad Perdida – the ruins of an unknown civilization lost in a jungle. You get to explore the jungle, sleep in a tent and get in touch with the mysterious past – quite an adventure!
It may surprise you, but there is a small desert in Colombia! It’s called Tatacoa and has one of the most magnificently weird landscapes I’ve seen. The colorful rock formations form a maze in which you feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland. If you can, you should definitely go there at night – the night sky view is amazing! They even have an observatory there, because the conditions are so good. Around the desert, there is an ancient archeological site called San Augustin, where hundreds of stone statues can be found. You can rent a donkey and go around and explore.
And of course, you should visit the legendary El Dorado! Well, not quite, but you can go to lake Guatavita, a sacred place some 50 km from Bogota where the legend of El Dorado comes from. The lake is surrounded by mountains and is breathtakingly beautiful in its own right, but when you think that the bottom might be covered with gold… Legend says that in the times of the old civilization religious rites included dropping gold into the lake. No wonder that the colonists then spent years trying to drain the lake, but were not quite successful.
Finally, if you’re sporty and up for a challenge, you should definitely go to El Cocuy national park and explore the Andes. The full walk lasts for 5 days and the highest you’re gonna get is 4600 meters. There are some refuge huts on the way so you might not even have to sleep in a tent. The views of the valleys, lakes and glaciers are magnificent!
The way you tell it makes me go there immediately! One last question, traditionally about food :) What’s worth tasting in Colombia except the already mentioned ants, which may not be everybody’s piece of… ant?
One of my favorite dishes that is served everywhere is ajiaco – a thick soup with cream, capers, chicken, sweet corn and a special herb Galinsoga parviflora that can be found only in Colombia.
A good idea for a breakfast is a hot chocolate and cheese snack that they especially like in Bogota. Basically, you dip a piece cheese in hot chocolate using your hand. Not quite as classy as fondue but very tasty!
Be prepared for HUGE lunches when you’re in Colombia – they really take that meal seriously!
Speaking of drinks, you’ve probably heard of aguardiente – tough stuff and not very enjoyable to my taste, but you should try it at least once. Beer is not very spectacular in Colombia, although Bogota Beer Company makes some awesome dark beer close to ale.Written by Kate