Colombia: An Explorer's Paradise (Part I)

My wife and I flew down to Colombia with a simple plan: spend a few weeks exploring Bogota, the coffee plantation region and Cartagena—three distinct regions, to give us a sense of place. We spent the first night in Bogota with plans to return at the end of the trip, then flew to the coffee region, Manizales, a city in the mountains on the edge of Los Nevados National Park.

The flight to Manizales was amazing and the infrastructure for domestic travel is better than anything in North America. An unexpected positive result borne of the cocaine wars, for such a long time it was unsafe to travel by road—even for a few hours’ drive—so the local airline, Avianca (one of the oldest airlines in the world) adapted by adding regular flights to smaller cities.

(As someone who works in travel, this is a dream! Thailand is set up similarly and it helped spur tourism 20 years ago on a grand scale. Unlike places like Mongolia, or Bhutan, which have low airlift, Colombia is set to easily transport people fast and comfortably.)

Undiscovered Colombia

Colombia has been little explored, leaving huge tracts of land unknown, ungoverned, and unmapped. In Colombia, we traverse a land ripe for discovery.

The plants and animals were downright Seussian, the verdant valleys greener than green eggs... well, you see where I'm going here.
The plants and animals were downright Seussian, the verdant valleys greener than green eggs and… well, you see where I’m going here.

After landing in Manizales, we spent a week exploring the region, from hiking in the Cocora Valley to visiting more than 20 hotels. Friends and family always laugh at me when I say I have to fly somewhere for work, and they think it is a vacation. But hiking, biking and meeting hotel representatives for 10 hours a day does wear you down a bit…**

We drove from north to south through the coffee region and it was fantastic. Great biking roads, plants and animals (like the wax palm) that look like something out of Dr. Seuss, and great little B&Bs to stay in. It is a lush valley, one of those places that, when you arrive, you say to yourself “I see! That’s why people live here!” Life abounds and its lushness makes for great travel and exploring. Water falls, canyons, mountains and jungles—oh my!

In talking with a friend of mine who had lived down there for a few years, I was told about a nearby tribe of people, the Nukak, who had never seen Europeans in their history and remained an “uncontacted people” until 1981. They had seen planes, but thought they were other animals travelling on invisible roads in the sky. They came out of the jungle having no concept of property or privacy, and have had an interesting time merging with the modern world.

This is the kind of place Colombia is—this mix of modern hubs like Bogota and tribes that have never seen concrete, mere miles away from each other.

After exploring the coffee region, it was off Cartagena to see the Caribe side of Colombia.

** Ok, now that I see it in writing, it doesn’t sound that tough. I have an awesome job.

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  1. Like your stories about Colombia. Sure, travelling by road nowadays is safe and secure, also for people with a wrong mindset about Colombia. An example for travellers for the first time coming to Colombia for a week:After arriving at El Dorado airport in Bogota, go to the Busterminal North and take the bus to Raquira in Boyaca. It is a 4-5 hours trip, which will lshow you the beauty of the department of Boyaca, with its colonial history. The bus will pass historicalk places, like puente Boyaca, near Tunja, Villa de leyva and final destination Raquira. It is recommended to visit the surroundings of Raquira: easy, go to the local pub and ask for a guide. He will show you by car places where a normal tourist does not go. On your way back, stay a night or two in Villa de leyva, a beautiful colonial city. And travelling back to Bogota, stay some days in Bogota to visit the most beautiful places, like Monserrate, Candelaria. After a week you will have a different vision about what is Colombia like.
    By the way, I am coming in Colombia since 1980 and have seen this country change in a good way.

    1. Thanks for the tips, in a place like Colombia, where the idea of variety is expressed in the varying landscapes even in a 30 minute drive, there are lifetimes of journeys to be had and to be explored. My next trip down there will be heading out to Boyacá! I have been re reading a W. Burroughs book of letters he wrote from Colombia to Ginsberg where he takes the same drive and it has sparked my interest.

  2. hello,

    Love that you write about Colombia! 🙂

    Also don’t forget visiting La Guajira desert. That place is magical!

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