Our first 2 weeks in Colombia were somehow bittersweet. A doggy shipping company made our life miserable and we spent a lot of energy and money getting our car out of the Port of Cartagena. But it is not fair to judge a place by one bad experience and we can truly say Colombia is a beautiful country with stunning nature and friendly people. It is also expensive, especially food and fuel, some national roads are below standard with multiple tolls along the way. On the positive side, we felt save all the time, driving around even in the middle of nowhere was a great experience. No guerrilla, no paracos, no coca mafia, no road pirates. Everywhere you look is green, full of water and fresh smell. The potential of ecotourism is huge; there are still many unspoilt areas in the country which felt “wild”. Let’s hope the mining and oil industries don’t destroy this treasure. Take the opportunity to go before it gets full of tourists!
Cartagena is a beautiful colonial town full of history, lively and colourful. There are hundreds of restored houses and many have been converted in charming boutique hotels. Unfortunately we didn’t stay in any of these, but in a hostel called Casa Viena in Getsemani. It is cheap but the place is run down and has seen better times. There are plenty of other options and if booking in advance you can even get good deals in the fancy places. We suggest you spend 2-3 days strolling around and having some drinks in one of the historical plazas. There is also prostitution and drugs like in any other port town. But we felt safe even at night when sleeping in our Caravan by the Marina. The only annoyance are the very high prices, this town is expensive, even the supermarket. If you want to go to Panama by boat just check at Club Nautico. Every Wednesday is Pizza evening in Pizzeria Pacho y Guillo. The pizza is yummy, the prices are fair and you can meet some of the sailors there to get more information.
After we got our car out of the Port we went for a weekend scape to Playa Blanca in Isla Barú. It takes approximately 2 hours to get there, including a ferry crossing which is really a floating pontoon with an engine. After that you need to drive an unpaved road full of pot holes. Sundays are very busy here as Playa Blanca is a retreat for the Cartagena families which is fun to watch. After 5 pm the beach is empty and during the week it is really peaceful. You can’t park right on the beach, but at the nearby Parqueadero with no facilities, which is safe and most importantly QUIET. Always take your earplugs when camping in Colombia as everyone seems to enjoy Reaggeton at any time till morning hours. At the beach you can stay at one of the hammock/cabanas places which usually serve nice fresh fried fish. Easy going atmosphere, perfect to chill out.
We were told that the trip from Cartagena to Sta. Marta will take 3 hours, but the 250 kms drive took us almost 5 hours. Take plenty of pesos with you as there are 4 peajes on the way. The road is in good condition and with heavy military presence. In our opinion Santa Marta is not really worth except for the night life even though it is having a nice small old town. It is also full of gringos going to Ciudad Perdida. Further east is Taganga were we stayed for 2 days. This fishing village used to be small and peaceful place some years ago. Now it has become a diving mecca for many backpackers. Still it is very charming and if avoiding the weekends you can have a nice time there. The nearby beach Playa Grande is better than the one in town, just walk 20 minutes behind the mountain and you will find it. We parked our Caravan in front of the football field and had lot of fun watching the kids playing. Even the little ones are very talented and we are sure some of them will make it to the national league.
As we needed a break of the Caribbean heat we decided to drive up the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to a little mountain town called Minca. The road is in terrible condition and you really need a 4x4 car to get there. If raining it becomes a nightmare and it is not advisable to drive under this condition. From Taganga it takes around 1.5 hours. It is amazing how much the landscape changes in such a small period of time, The area is opposite Tayrona National Park and it is filled with Coffee Plantations, small farms, eco lodges and family guesthouses. Deep up in the Sierra there are still many indigenous people, but they are not keen in meeting outsiders which is normal after so many years of confrontations of guerrilla, paramilitaries, and army etc in their territory. Around Minca the nature is almost unspoilt and you can go hiking, trekking, mountain biking and so on. Our favourite spot is Pozo Azul , with very nice waterfalls where you can swim in the fresh water. Because the town is so tiny and there were no real streets to park our vehicle, we stayed at Sans Souci, which is a small farm run by a German-Colombian couple. They are very friendly people and their place is having beautiful views over the Sierra.
We left Minca and went back to Cartagena thinking we would finally get our container deposit back. Unfortunately it didn’t happen and we decided to head down directly to Bogotá and visit the shipping company headquarters. The roads in Colombia are decent but there are two annoyances: it is full of tolls and there is always a huge line of trucks and trailers moving in slow motion. So after 10 hours driving up and down reaching even 3,000 MT in one day our Nissan started to lose power. At certain point we could only drive in first or second gear. It was getting dark and we were about to reach Medellin. We thought it was wiser to stay overnight in one of the villages just outside town in our usual safe spot, a 24 hour petrol station.
Next day we visited Nissan in Medellin. They say Paisas are the most entrepreneur people in the country. We can only say we met efficient and honest people who took care of our car in the most professional way and they charged us a fair price and didn’t try to shit us. A good change to the people in the coast! They are located in Cra 52 30A. Nevertheless we decided not to stay longer as Axel was not feeling good, so we continued our trip to Rio Claro.
We read in both our guides that Rio Claro is a special place and we can confirm this. This area is a Natural Park since 1970 and it is very well preserved and beautiful. We loved having a swim in the clear waters and let ourselves go in the gentle river current. You feel like you are in the middle of the jungle but without piranhas or snakes and best of all the water is warm!! Due to its remoteness and lack of sky pollution you have the chance to see all the stars,constellations and the Milky Way. Negotiate the price of the camping usually it is 10,000COP per person but we got a 2x1 deal.
To get to Villeta from Rio Claro you have to pass by Honda. The road after Honda is damaged due to last winter heavy rains. So again it took us 6 hours to drive 170 kms. We didn’t mind because we could watch the sunset falling at the bottom of the valley through the long Magdalena River and the Western Cordillera in the background. A very special vista!
Villeta is a small village in the Cundinamarca region with an important sugarcane industry. It is not far from Bogota and has a fine hot weather which makes it popular for Bogotanos to have their weekend fincas there. We cannot be more thankful to the Gomez family who hosted us in their home and made us feel part of their family. We ate the best frijoles and patacones in the world! Our next stop Bogotá.
Bogotá is a big city with 8 million inhabitants. It is full of cars and in peak hours it gets really busy but we think the driving was less crazy than we expected. We found Bogotá very modern and dynamic and totally different from the rest of the places we have seen in Colombia so far. People are very formal in their way of dressing, no extremely tight jeans and maxi tops here!! It is chilly without being cold and bars and restaurants in the trendy areas are full every day and night. We visited the Museo del Oro which is a wonderful place to admire the pre-Columbian impressive technique as goldsmiths. La Candelaria, the old colonial town is also nice to have a walk and instead of Montserrate we went to the protected area in Cerros Orientales, which is a forest within the city with great views over Bogota. Thanks to Felipe Gomez, our Bogotano host , we discovered that special place in the early morning hours.
The road from Bogotá to Giradot is very pleasant and in good condition. We stopped in this small town on our way to Zona Cafetera. It is very popular with Bogotanos as a weekend scape. It is a good place to stretch your legs and visit the market on the main plaza. Once you pass the bridge over the Magdalena River you arrive in Flandes. We were told you can eat nice fish there, but we didn’t have time to give it a try.
After we left Giradot we thought about sleeping in Ibagué, but once we got there we didn’t like it that much and drove another hour until Cajamarca. This is a real Colombiano mountain village very friendly and full of activity but the trailers and trucks passing by didn’t let us sleep much as our parqueadero was too close to the main road. Go to Bar El Globo where locals make business, play billiard and drink a tasty tinto.
To get to Quimbaya from Cajamarca you need to pass by the Quindio Pass across the Cordillera Central, which is known as La Linea, 3,350m high. You will find beautiful mountains with good viewpoints in the summit where you can stop and relax. Quimbaya is a small town located in the heart of Zona Cafetera. We stayed at Villa Nora, a 100 year old coffee hacienda. The place looks exactly the same as when it was built. This is a very special place and we can only recommend it. The owners (Nora and Roberto) will treat you like family and will make your stay a memorable occasion.
To get to Salento from Quimbaya take the road that goes through Finlandia. It overlooks endless hills of picturesque coffee and banana plantations. Salento is a small town with brightly painted houses and a nice plaza with many shops and restaurants. It is very popular both with locals and backpackers. Up Carrera 6 is a 250 step climb with fine views over the town and Cocora valley. Unfortunately it was raining and cloudy when we were on top and couldn’t see much. We stayed at Plantation House,which is ok but nothing special. Typical backpacker place without much local flavour.
Valle de Cocora is 12km up from Salento. The road is pleasant and goes through a green valley surrounded by mountains. There are some traditional farm houses along the way with cows and horses taking endless siestas. The road finishes 5 kms beyond Acaime Natural Reserve. You need to leave your car there and hike the rough road heading downhill to the bridge over the Quindio River (there is a sign board). For the lazy ones horses are available. It was raining non-stop for 2 days and we couldn’t make it to the reserve. Up there you are supposed to have a very special vista above the cloud forests and the 60 m-high wax palms. The farm land is getting too close to the reserve and they are cutting too many palms in the area for pasto.
Popayán had to be fully restored after the March 1983 earthquake. They have done a great job as the town has retained its colonial character with beautiful old monasteries and cloisters of pure Spanish architecture. Due to guerrilla activity in the past years there are not many tourists in this town and it is a pity because we think it is really worth a visit. Don’t miss Belén Chapel; it is up in a hill with beautiful vistas over the town and the Cordillera. We were lucky to have good friends in town and they took us to a beautiful 400 year old hacienda. It is a very special place; just follow the sign before entering Popayán (Hacienda Tolibio). You can have a great coffee at the Juan Valdez branch in the main plaza opp municipality.
There are two routes to get to San Agustin, we didn’t have time to go through Puracé National Park so we took the direct route south of Puracé towards Coconuco. This road is very scenic with big areas of Páramo with the Puracé and Pan de Azúcar volcanoes in the background. A section of the road enters the park and goes through a long stretch of virgin cloud forest. The road is in very bad condition not suitable for light vehicles. It took us 3 hours to drive 62 kms. Strong military presence, very friendly and helpful as usual.
San Agustin is very peaceful but like Popayán and due to guerrilla activity in the past, this town is still having some bad reputation. It is safe to go and explore the natural surroundings and the “Valley of the Statues”. We recommend hiring horses to visit the most remote sites, it is fun and you will get a great overview of the green landscape and coffee plantations. The burial mounds and the statues, some of them 3,000 years old, are really beautiful and pretty impressive to see. We stayed at camping San Agustin, which is a local finca with camping facilities; the owner is very helpful and is having good horses, ask for Tormento! ;-)
Laguna La Cocha is very close to the border with Ecuador. It is the largest lake in south Colombia and inside of it is the Cotora Island. We had tasty trucha in one of the little restaurants by the Port and we stayed overnight parked in front of it (very quiet). The lake is pretty but unfortunately it is in the road to Mocoa which has been guerrilla territory for many years. Nowadays it is very peaceful and worth a visit if you are in the area. Good place to sleep before crossing the border.
It is funny that our last toll in Colombia was El Placer; certainly it was a pleasure travelling around this country but no so much paying 263,000COP for driving through its roads!!! The road to Ecuador is very mountainous going up and down to 3,250 mts. Nice vistas! To cross the border was very easy and straight forward in both sides. Hasta pronto Colombia!