Introducing Motolombia’s Guided 4WD Tours

Now You Can Explore the Most Beautiful Parts of Colombia by 4WD

Motolombia started out as a motorcycle tour and rental company to help introduce motorcyclists to the beauty of Colombia – and in particular, its off-the-beaten track destinations. We’re talking about the sorts of places where busloads of tourists rarely venture. Not because they’re not worthy of outside attention, but quite often because they’re not so easy to reach by conventional means. But with the right set of wheels, entire parts of the country suddenly ae unlocked, making so much more of the country free to be explored.

But what if you can’t, or don’t want to ride through Colombia on a motorbike?

We’ve always felt that anyone with an adventurous spirit and a desire to see the “other” side of Colombia should still have the opportunity to visit some of these amazing but hard to get to destinations.

So, in the spirit of encouraging more intrepid souls to see Colombia beyond the “Gringo Trail”, the team at Motolombia have put together a series of 4WD guided expeditions.

The idea

Join a guided 4×4 tour, leave the driving to the experts, and see the best of “hidden” Colombia, without having to worry about getting lost or the joys of roadside “makeshift mechanicking”. Colombia is an adventure traveller’s paradise, and if you can’t go adventuring on two wheels, we say do it on four wheels! And if they’re the kind of wheels that eat dirt, mud and sand for breakfast, all the better!

Guided 4WD Tours in Colombia – Why They Are Awesome

Colombia is a country of wild, empty coastlines, remote deserts, immense mountain ranges and vast tracts of uninhabited montane forest and jungle. The sheer number of different ecosystems and wildly varying landscapes all connected with one densely concentrated patchwork make Colombia one of the most biodiverse countries on earth. It’s a country in which long-distance travel is extremely rewarding. Certainly, with some planning, it’s possible to travel throughout much of Colombia without your own transport When it comes to overland travel, your main options are:

Traveling in Colombia by bus

The majority of visitors to Colombia make use of the country’s network of public buses to travel long distances between locations, and there’s a lot to be said for that. They’re a cheap, comfortable and easy method for visiting just about all of the major cities and popular attractions in Colombia.

However, bus travel is frequently slow in Colombia. The humble autobus isn’t built for speed and agility on those twisty mountain roads (i.e. Colombia’s main highways). Then there are the inevitable traffic jams, endless passenger pick-ups, numerous roadside pit stops (always in the most uninspiring places imaginable).

Long distance travel by bus takes time (sometimes much more than the timetable/guidebook advises) and there are some places an ostensibly city and highway only vehicle simply can’t venture.

Travelling by private vehicle in Colombia

Travelling in a private vehicle shortens those huge distances considerably, allowing you to see so much more in a shorter space of time.

For those unwilling to rent and a vehicle drive themselves (understandable, given the challenging and unfamiliar conditions the first-time traveller to Colombia would find themselves up against), one option is to hire a private car and driver.

However, for long distances, this is prohibitively expensive for most travellers. Travelling in a small group can make journeying by private vehicle considerably more affordable.

Touring in a 4WD isn’t a necessity in Colombia. All the major highways are sealed and well-maintained, as are roads through the cities and many secondary roads throughout much of the country.

But some of the most spectacular places in Colombia simply can’t be accessed, or fully appreciated by conventional vehicle.

Reaching natural wonders like the incredible ‘rainbow river’ Caño Cristales, the cloud forests near Florencia and the sand dunes of Guajira desert without your own transport would mean navigating a series of plane, bus or taxi journeys, before making the rest of your way there on foot.

Instead, you could go the fastest way, which also happens, by far to be the most fun way! Overland, off-road in a mighty, mountain conquering Motolombia 4WD!

Mountains, Coasts and Jungles – Choose Your Own Adventure

To date, Motolombia have launched three separate, 10 guided 4WD tours, all covering completely unique parts of Colombia. Every tour includes an expert guide-driver per truck, all road-related expenses and accommodation. Each truck takes a maximum of three passengers. All trucks are air conditioned, all-terrain vehicles – trust us, this is as comfortable as off-roading in Colombia gets! Check out the 4WD Tour page for detailed information including full itineraries. Here’s a brief summary of what’s on offer.

10 Day Carribean Desert Tour

From the colourful colonial city of Cartagena, this tour takes you out of the hustle and bustle of the tropical tourist town to some of the wildest coastline in the entire Caribbean. As you leave the resorts far behind, a surreal landscape of barren deserts, orange sandhills, turquoise coves and vivid blue ocean begin to open around you.

  • Not far from town, the real fun begins, as we spend around 70% of our drive-time off-road!
  • Imagine driving for hours without so much as a building in sight – just empty beaches, crashing waves, arid deserts and hundreds of bird species (including the pink flamingos of Punta Gallinas).
  • We cross La Guajira with the blessing of the Wayuu people. This is their land and we’ll attempt to learn a little of their culture and history while visiting some of the local communities.
  • Guajira is famous for its massive coastal sand dunes. Drive to the top or test your stamina trudging up the crests for sensational views of the ocean and its otherworldly desert surroundings.
  • Experience epic 4×4 beach driving, fresh lobster dinners, tackle the Caribbean waves on a kite surf, and sleep in hammocks under a pristine star-studded sky.  (View Tour details)

10 Day Amazon Jungle Tour

This adventure tour focuses on the rarely visited south-central and eastern parts of Colombia, where the Andes meet the Amazon rainforest. 

  • From the handsome “White City” of Popayan and the mysterious ancient statues of San Agustin Archaeological Park, we’ll traverse magnificent mountain roads descending into the lowlands and the heart of the Colombian wilderness.
  • Go for rambling drive along jungle roads through the mist-shrouded cloud forests near Florencia.
  • From La Macarena, it’s near full-day’s trek on foot through the forest to reach Caño Cristales. Bursting with vibrant reds, pinks, yellows, oranges and greens caused by blooming aquatic flowers, the locals sometimes refer to this natural wonder of the world as the River of the Gods.
  • From the steamy jungles of La Macarena, we’ll experience an incredible transformation in the scenery as we enter the Tatacoa Desert, where we’ll spend a night glamping beneath the stars.
  • After driving from the desert to the Andean foothills, we’ll overnight in Colombia’s famous zona cafetera, home to giant wax palms and sprawling coffee plantations. (View Tour details)

10 Day Andean Mountain Tour

We’ve built a little more comfort into this luxury tour of Colombia’s scenic Andean region, crisscrossing the smooth, paved highways between some of the most enchanting Colonial villages in the country. With just a few minor sections of dirt to navigate, this trip is perfect for folks who want to get off the tourist trail and experience the authentic, rural side of Colombia without sacrificing on comfort.

  • Take a guided stroll through a working coffee plantation, soak in the waterfall pools of the gorgeous hot springs of Santa Rosa de Cabal, tour the bizarre former ranch of Pablo Escobar and explore Jardin, one of the most beautiful towns in the coffee region.
  • You’ll sleep soundly in the best hotels every night, but the highlight of this tour is undoubtedly the jaw-dropping scenery that awaits around every turn. If the weather is clear, you may even see all the way to the summit of the active volcano Nevado del Ruiz. Soaring to 5,311m above sea level, this fearsome Andean giant is one of the highest peaks in Colombia.  (View Tour details)
 

Crossing Borders with Motolombia Part 1: A Brief Guide to Motorcycle Touring in Ecuador

Yes, this is a blog about motorcycling in Colombia, and while we’re not about to skip the border for good any time soon, we’re happy to say we have plenty of love for Colombia’s neighbours too. Just like Colombia, Ecuador’s road map is one of zig-zagging mountain highways and scenic country backroutes. Split in half by the Andes Ranges, with the mighty Amazon Rainforest flanking its foothills, Ecuador’s sweeping high altitude highways and rarely-ridden jungle tracks are adventure motorcycle touring heaven.

Sound like your idea of good, fun life-changing travel?  

When they’re not criss-crossing all over Colombia, Motolombia regularly head out on guided multi-country expeditions. Several times a year, kicking off from Cali, the crew lead their leather-clad convoy into wildest South America, in search of some of the awe-inspiring riding routes on earth.

Of course, you’d need months, probably years, to truly say you “rode” this colossal continent, but if you’re short on time, Motolombia runs a 14 day South American Express, focusing on the lands directly beyond Colombia’s southern border.

Despite probably having more EPIC RIDES than any country of a comparable size   Ecuador is still a little under the radar when it comes to touring. So, with this blog’s first foray into foreign territory, we hope to give you a bit of an idea about where to go and what to expect riding in Ecuador.

Colombia-Ecuador makes a great combo trip, sine Ecuador is the only country with an overland crossing on Colombia’s southern border – making it a relatively easy place to access by bike, whether you’re riding independently or joining one of our guided tours.

 

WHAT IS MOTORCYCLE TOURING IN ECUADOR LIKE?

Ecuador is one of the smallest South American countries, but in terms of its geography and ecology, Ecuador’s diversity is almost unrivalled. Ride 20 minutes in any direction and the landscape shifts dramatically, from rugged canyons and snow-capped peaks to mist-shrouded cloud forest, steamy lowland jungle and dry, desert-like coastline.

Despite its extraordinary natural beauty, mass tourism is yet to make major inroads in Ecuador. Once you’re out of the main cities, you’re already very much off the beaten track – wild, remote and relatively traffic-free.

Imagine starting your day blasting up the 4,776m summit of an active volcano, and by sundown, eating barbecued prawns by the sea in a rustic Pacific fishing village. That’s all in a day’s ride in Ecuador.

WHY ECUADOR IS ADVENTURE RIDING PARADISE

1. It’s full of insane mountain roads with “is this real” scenery

Cutting through the country from north to south is the Andean Cordillera, a chain of snow-capped volcanoes and glaciated peaks that form the backbone of Ecuador.  Numerous highways (many of them paved) traverse the slopes and passes of this formidable mountain range, offering continuous days of exhilarating high elevation riding.

One of the loftiest is the highway snaking through Las Cajas National Park, which crests the Mirador Tres Cruces mountain pass at a breathtaking 4,100m altitude.

 

2. You you’ll beneath the shadows of giants at the Avenue of Volcanoes

Ecuador is a land of fire-breathing giants. Over 30 volcanoes, many of them highly active, tower above a valley forming the 200km long Avenue of Volcanoes. One of the most jaw-droppingly dramatic routes on the continent, it winds its way past seven volcanoes over 5,000m high. On a clear day you can see the perfectly conical summit of Cotopaxi, one of the tallest volcanoes in the world at 5,896m.

3. You can get down and dirty on miles of endless backroads

Off-road warriors will find themselves in dust-kicking heaven, with a vast network of unsealed roads winding their way through rural, remote and extremely rugged parts of the country.

It’s possible to hit the dirt within a couple of hours outside the capital of Quito. Just a hundred kilometres north of the city toward the Colonial town of Otavalo, you can find yourself navigating twisty mountain trails, climbing steeply above the clouds, before a dizzying descent into lush green forest and farmland.

A typical day of dirt riding will present plenty of technical and physical challenges – but the extraordinary views and the chance to see a side of Ecuador few tourists witness is well worth enduring the long days.  

4. You can ride from the remotest Andean reaches to the beach in a day

From one of the highest points of the longest mountain range in the world to the edge of the ocean – that’s the sort of mind-blowing variety this compact country can offer in a single day’s ride. Start your morning descending through the freeze and the fog of the western Andes and arrive in a balmy, tropical seaside town just in time to watch the sunset over the Pacific. Ecuador has 2,200km of coastline to explore, from tranquil tropical bays to worthy surf beaches and stretches of empty sand for days.

 

5. It has unique culture, cuisine, heritage and history

Ecuador has a mixed cultural make-up, drawing from various ethnicities and traditions both ancient and modern. The country has 10 spoken languages, with Spanish and the native Quechua tongue being the most common. Ecuador has the highest representations of indigenous cultures in South America, as well as a large Afro-Ecuadorian population with their own traditions, food and music.

Ecuadorian cuisine varies from region to region, from the seafood-heavy dishes of the Pacific (think fresh ceviche and tropical fruit) to warming, filling highland dishes made of pork or cuy (guinea pig) and staples like rice, potatoes and quinoa.  

Ecuador is also littered with incredible archaeological sites and Incan ruins. While none are as impressive as Peru’s Machu Picchu, they’re also almost devoid of crowds and commercialism. Ecuador’s ancient cities remain ghostly, mysterious and almost entirely swallowed by the jungle.

 

6. It’s the gateway to the Galapagos

If there’s one good reason mainland Ecuador doesn’t get enough glory, it’s probably because of that bunch of rock islands around 1,200km off its west coast.

Ecuador, is of course, the administrator of the incomparable Galapagos National Park, an isolated volcanic archipelago renowned as one of greatest wildlife-watching destinations on earth.

You won’t be taking your motorbike to Galapagos, (you’d run out of road pretty quickly anyway), but from mainland Ecuador, there are daily flights from Quito and Guayaquil.

CROSSING THE COLOMBIA-ECUADOR BORDER BY BIKE

 

If you’re entering Ecuador from southern Colombia, you’ll be using the Ipiales-Tulcan crossing on the Pan American Highway. If you’re crossing with an organised tour, all your paperwork will be sorted out at the start of your trip.

If you’re travelling independently, be ready at migracion (immigration) in Ipiales with your passport, vehicle registration and driver’s license. The name on your passport should match the name of the person your bike is registered to.

If you’ve rented a bike from Motolombia, with advanced notice, a special permit can be arranged allowing you to cross into Ecuador (but no other country).   

At Ipiales, you’ll go through the standard paperwork at migracion and then head to aduana (customs) to process the temporary vehicle import permit. Once you’re done, you’ll ride over the Rumichaca Bridge into Tulcan, where your papers will be checked and you’ll be stamped into Ecuador.

 

TIPS AND ADVICE FOR RIDING IN ECUADOR

If you haven’t read our guide to Motorcycle Safety in Colombia, much of the advice regarding urban and rural roads is also applicable to riding in Ecuador.

  • Hazards and Road Conditions: Unpredictable and occasionally reckless drivers, vehicles overtaking on blind corners, unfenced farm animals and extremely variable road surface conditions are major issues when riding in Ecuador, as are long delays caused by landslips, roadworks and broken down trucks and buses.    

 

  • Route Planning: When planning your route, be sure to take into account the shape and curvature of the roads, and the fact that road conditions can change from silky smooth to a pothole-dodging nightmare, even on major highways. Don’t plan your days based on distance alone – plan for strenuous riding and unexpected delays. A 400km ride may be a breeze where you’re from, but in much of Ecuador, it may well be a dawn to dusk endeavour.

 

  • Dealing with Altitude: Motorcycle touring in Ecuador almost invariably involves riding at high altitudes, sometimes well above 3,000m. These elevations can have pronounced effects on both you and your bike. The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to acclimatise at a slightly lower altitude first.

 

Plan your stops in towns below 2,500m in altitude before you embark on those high mountain roads. Quito sits at 2,850m – and so is actually a good base for acclimatising (despite being high enough itself to induce altitude sickness in sensitive folk for a day or two). If your route has a quite a rapid elevation gain, take frequent rest stops and most importantly stay hydrated! Dehydration will compound the effects of altitude sickness and can lead to things becoming more serious.

Unless you’re planning on mountain-climbing any 5000m peaks, the altitudes you hit while riding Ecuador generally shouldn’t cause any serious health problems. If you feel the symptoms of altitude sickness coming on (such as headache, shortness of breath, dizziness, lethargy and loss of appetite), get yourself to the nearest town or village and rest up. Don’t go any higher until you’ve fully recovered – this often takes a day or two.

 

Modern fuel injected bikes don’t suffer like older carburetted bikes from lack of oxygen at altitude causing an overly rich fuel mix due. However, you can still expect the thin air to be a slight drain on performance – a loss of about 10% power for every 1000m gained.

 

With majestic scenery from jagged mountain chains to deep blue volcanic lakes, lush valleys, arid plains, dense tropical rainforest and miles of deserted coastline, Ecuador is a hidden paradise for adventurous two-wheeled touring – well-off the beaten track and well-worth taking extra time to explore its most remote, dramatic reaches.  

Itching to get that Ecuadorian adventure underway? Check out Motolombia’s South American tours:  

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Why You Should Visit Popayán – Colombia’s 480 Year Old Colonial ‘White City’

Most people have heard of Cartagena, the colourful Spanish colonial city on the Carribean coast. Regarded as Colombia’s number one tourist destination, the name Cartagena conjures up images of a romantic, sun-kissed city of cobblestone streets, brightly painted mansions and mango coloured churches. And yet, being crowned “the Most Beautiful Colonial City in Latin America” has its drawbacks. With the crowds come the tacky souvenir stores, pointless attractions, scammers, tricksters and “tourist tax” prices. Don’t even get us started on the cruise ship passenger herds, so seem to be cramming into the city in greater numbers every year! Despite all this, Cartagena remains a truly stunning place, completely worthy of its reputation. But while Cartagena hogs the limelight, many travellers remain in the dark about Colombia’s other World Heritage listed colonial city. Nestled in the lush Valle de Pubenza is a far more laidback colonial gem. Popayán is nicknamed la Ciudad Blanca (the White City) for the whitewashed buildings that give its historic centre a stately, distinctive appearance. Still largely undiscovered by foreign visitors, Popayan is an authentic, unsanitised, tourist trap-free colonial city. It’s also nowhere near the ocean, making it safe from the cruise ship invasion for all eternity.

COLOMBIA’S SECOND COLONIAL CITY

 

The Spanish founded Popayan in 1537, one year after Cartagena, establishing it as the capital of southern Colombia before Cali eventually took its place.
Popayan’s historic downtown is a collection of beautifully preserved colonial era buildings. Dozens of striking historic landmarks, some dating back to the 16th century, are clustered around a massive central plaza, the lovely, lively Parque de Caldas.

WHAT TO SEE IN POPAYÁN

As you wander the old streets of Popayan, look out for some of the city’s most famous landmarks, including;

Iglesia de San Francisco: a lavish 18th century cathedral and one of the finest examples of Baroque style architecture in Colombia. Ask to see the ossuary, which was cracked open by an earthquake in 1983, revealing six unidentified mummies

Iglesia Santo Domingo: built in the mid-1700s, this is the city’s most spiritually important church. It’s flooded with pilgrims during Popayan’s famous Holy Week celebrations, held between Good Tuesday and Easter Saturday

Natural History Museum: within the magnificent grounds of the University of Cauca, this excellent museum is dedicated to Colombia’s amazing biodiversity

Puente del Humilladero: – this 240m long, 11-arch stone bridge was built in 1873 to connect the city centre to the northern neighbourhoods

 

POPAYÁN – WORLD HERITAGE CITY OF… GASTRONOMY?

 
 

Earlier, we described Popayan as a World Heritage Listed city. Which is true.
But while Cartagena’s fine colonial buildings brought it UNESCO recognition, Popayan’s architecture, although undeniably pretty, isn’t quite World Heritage league a la Cartagena.

In fact, Popayan received its World Heritage honours for a something else entirely. In 2009, UNESCO’s Creative Cities initiative declared Popayan the first World City of Gastronomy in Latin America.

Popayan is known for its distinctive take on the national cuisine, drawing on pre-Colombian, Spanish, African and European influences. It utilises a vast array of native ingredients, some found only in the mountains, forests and coastal areas of southern Colombia.

Must-try dishes local dishes include:

Empanadas de Pipián: Snack-sized pasties, filled with a mixture of meat, potatoes, garlic, onion and achiote

Helado de Paila: A traditional ice cream of fruit juice and ice, hand-stirred and set in a copper pot

Breva Calada: Commonly enjoyed at Christmas, this dessert is made from figs soaked in panela (brown cane sugar), served on top of white cheese

Champus: This sweet, aromatically spiced dessert drink is a blend of pineapple, sour orange, lulo, cloves and cinnamon
Salpicon Payanes: This delicious fruit cocktail is a blend of the Colombian fruits lulo, papaya, guanabana and mora

WHERE TO EAT IN POPAYÁN

 
 

Hotel Camino Real: This hotel’s owners are key players in the Congreso Nacional Gastronómico. Set in an elegant Colonial mansion, the restaurant showcases skilful cooking across an innovative menu combining French and Colombian elements

La Coescha Parillada: With smartly dressed, bowtie-wearing waiters, this restaurant has a friendly, old-fashioned vibe and specialises in giant cuts of beef cooked on an open grill

La Fresa: It might not be more than a few plastic tables and chairs, but this cheap-eatery is famous for its scrumptious empanadas de Pipián

Aplanchados Doña Chepa: This pastry shop is run by Doña Chepa, a veteran baker who’s been making her legendary aplanchados (shortbread-style flat pastries) for some 70 years

La Semilla Escondida: This French-owned bistro is a cosy spot for delicious sweet and savoury crepes

 

NIGHTLIFE IN POPAYÁN

 
 

On the surface, Popayan may look like an old, relatively unchanging place, but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a city buzzing with youthful energy and a creative, independent spirit.
Home to the prestigious educational institutions including the University of Cauca, Popayan attracts thousands of students from across Colombia every year, ensuring a lively, authentically local after-dark scene most nights of the week.
Salsa fans should check out Bar Iguana and New York. For something a little more old-school, El Sotareno is an old-time locals’ favourite, playing classic tango, bolero and ranchera. For a more chilled-out bar experience, check if there’s live music playing at Wipala, a cafe, bar, gallery and performance space in one, or cosy up at Bendito, a labyrinthine student hang-out with a pop and rock soundtrack, craft beers and tea-infused cocktails.

 

DAY TRIPS FROM POPAYÁN

 
 

Popayan is a compact city and the major sites can be seen in a day. However, it’s worth extending your stay to explore the magnificent natural landscapes of the surrounding region.

Some of the best day trips from Popayan include:

Purace National Park: A vast, rugged park protecting a swathe of Andean paramo (high altitude alpine grassland), dotted with waterfalls and thermal springs and home to a small population of endangered Andean condors. Within the park is Volcan Purace, one of the most active volcanoes in Colombia. Tour companies from Popayan offer gruelling full-day trekking trips to the top of the volcano at 4,750m.

For motorcycle riders, the two highways that cut through Purace offer hours of fun dirt and gravel mountain roads through the prehistoric-looking paramo. Silvia Tuesday Market: Silvia is a tranquil little mountain town, 60km northeast of Popayan. Every Tuesday, Silvia comes alive thanks to the weekly market, when Guambiano villagers in colourful traditional dress come to town to trade local wares.

While this authentic trading post is mainly dedicated to fresh produce and wool, the Guambiano set up stalls selling handicrafts, bead necklaces and ponchos to the few tourists who visit. Remember, this is a real market and not a tourist attraction, so please respect the local people, who are generally shy of cameras.
We highly recommend a few days absorbing the charms and natural beauty of Popayan. Two and half hours from Cali down a fast, straight highway, it’s a worthy stop for those planning to ride southern Colombia and its roads less travelled.

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8 Must-See Places in Colombia with Amazing Natural Scenery

As one of the most bio-diverse countries on earth, Colombia is made up of an incredible patchwork of wildly differing landscapes and extraordinary natural beauty. From awe-inspiring mountain ranges to mysterious cloud forest, scorching desert and rugged, surf-spattered coast, here are eight of Colombia’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders.

1. Caño Cristales

Cano cristales

Deep in the dense forests of the Sierra de la Macarena National Park lies a river with a beauty so strange and unearthly it has been called “the river that ran away from paradise”. More co mmonly, it’s referred to as “el rio de los cinco colores” (the river of five colours), since for several months each year (usually between mid-May and early December), the pools and cascades of the Caño Cristales become liquid rainbows. Bursting with vibrant reds, pinks, yellows, oranges and greens, the phenomenon is caused by the blooms of the aquatic flower, macarenia clavigera.
In an isolated range, the Sierra de la Macarena is a vast, wild tract of mixed forest, tropical jungle, shrubland and savannah. Until the mid-2000s, it was a known guerrilla hideout and completely closed to tourists.
These days, tourists can hop on a direct flight from Bogota to the small town of La Macarena, and from there enjoy a half-day hike, boat and truck trip to Caño Cristales and the surrounding swimming holes and waterfalls. Guides are mandatory inside the park and are easily hired in town.
Hardcore dirt riders can visit Caño Cristales on a guided 9 day tour with Motolombia, but heed the warning: this one’s for expert off-roaders only!

2. The Cocora Valley

Cocora valley

Beautiful scenery is everywhere in Colombia’s coffee region. Jade green mountain ranges, forested hills and verdant meadows abound. But one place in the Coffee Triangle stands out, not because it’s unlike anywhere else in the region, but because it’s unlike anywhere else on the planet.
Just east of Salento, the Cocora Valley sits in the lower reaches of the Los Nevados National Park, a broad, perennially lush valley framed by sharp peaks. What makes this valley, also known as el Bosque de Palmas (Forest of the Palms) is that sprouting out of the ground in every direction are the gigantic palma de cera (giant wax palms), the largest palms in the world and Colombia’s national tree.
Some of these strange, spindly giants (their smooth, cylindrical trunks are naked, bearing just a crown of leafy fronds at the top) tower an incredible 60m high. Seeing hundreds of these majestic trees scattered across this resplendent valley is a sight to behold. Measuring yourself up at the base of one of these behemoths and you’ll appreciate how truly tiny you appear in their presence. This is a rain-soaked region, and some days a thick, swirling mist descends on the valley. Some say the foggy weather makes Cocora even more beautiful, shrouding the valley with a mysterious, almost prehistoric air.

3. Chicamocha National Park and Chicamocha Canyon

Chicamocha canyon

54 km south of Bucaramanga, Chicamocha is a bit of a sidestep from the typical Gringo Trail, but it’s a region experienced Colombian adventure riders know and love. The park is bounded by the spines of the mountainous chain surrounding the Chicamocha Canyon.
227 km long and around 2 km deep, Chicamocha is a lush and fertile canyon, with undulating slopes carpeted in emerald green vegetation. The Chicamocha River races along the bottom in a series of rapids, which have recently gained the attention of whitewater rafters. Being not so far from San Gil, Colombia’s ‘adventure capital’ a small adventure sports industry around paragliding, climbing and camping started offering activities within the park.
There are some great day hikes and multi-day treks within the park, but for motorcyclists, it’s the 50km, 45A Route from Piedecustra to Aratoca that makes this natural wonder well worth a detour. The road winds its way along the high ridges before descending almost to the canyon floor. For a remote rural Colombia road, its surface is almost unbelievably perfect. The curves seem to go on forever, and the views are something else altogether.

4. Tayrona National Park

Tayrona national park

At its southern edges, the forests of Tayrona creep up the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. At its northern boundaries, it meets the wide bays and picturesque coves of a rugged, undeveloped slice of the Caribbean coast. To many, Tayrona is the very definition of paradise. For a beach destination with sparkling clear water and idyllic, palm-fringed stretches of white sand, Tayrona has no equals in mainland Colombia.
If you’re an avid wildlife spotter or birdwatcher, a few days exploring Tayrona’s hiking trails is a must. It’s home to a tiny primate called the cotton-topped tamarin, as well as howler monkeys, sloths, iguanas and poison dart frogs.
However, beauty has a downside. Tayrona can suffer from overcrowding, especially in the peak December-January tourist season. A sacred site to the indigenous Kogi people, Tayrona needs protection. To help the local environment recover, the park often closes for weeks directly after the peak season.

5. Tatacoa Desert

Tatacoa desert

Between Bogota and San Agustin is one of Colombia’s most surreal natural wonders. Desierto de la Tatacoa is a rugged, scorching badland. Its dry, rocky canyons form a labyrinth of eroded red cliffs and gullies. Bizarre, towering rock formations punctuate the arid landscape, which appears hauntingly void of life apart from the occasional giant cactus.
Once the hot desert sun has set, Tatacoa becomes an amazing stargazing destination. In this part of the country, there is little to no light pollution, so on clear nights, an astonishing number of stars are made dazzlingly visible. Home to an astronomical observatory, at 6:30 pm each night, you’ll have the opportunity to see the stars through a high powered telescope, with the local astronomer on hand to point out the constellations.

6. Colombia’s Pacific Coast

Pacific Colombia

Beach vacations in Colombia are synonymous with the Carribean, but Colombia (the only South American country with both Atlantic and Pacific Ocean coastline) has an entire, separate and largely-forgotten coast lapping at its western shores. The Pacific Coast of Colombia extends for 1,392 km, with the Chocó department claiming the longest stretch of seafront.
This is one of the least developed regions in Colombia, the complete opposite of the manicured attractiveness and tame beaches of the Carribean resorts. In Chocó, where the sand ends, the jungle begins. Deep inside the rainforest, waterfalls stream over mossy ledges to crash into wild rivers below. Thermal pools, hidden sanctuaries in the jungle, wait to be discovered by only the most intrepid and foot-sure adventurers. Most settlements on the Chocó coast, tiny fishing villages are isolated and poor. A lack of infrastructure makes travel here a fairly challenging prospect.
Still, modest steps are being made towards lifting-up the region’s economy through eco-tourism. The wild waves of the rugged Chocó coast harbour epic secret surf breaks. The region too, is rich in wildlife – most notably dolphins, turtles and the humpback whales who hug the Colombian coastline on their yearly migration. Whales can often be spotted from shore, but for an up close encounter, head out on a boat tour during the June to October whale watching season.

7. The Sand Dunes of La Guajira

Guajira desert

There is no place remotely like La Guajira, a tiny coastal region on the northernmost tip of Colombia, where the desert touches the Caribbean Sea. The arid landscapes of La Guajira have a desolate, almost alien beauty – cracked yellow earth, straggly clumps of cactus and tiny settlements of tin and thatched roof houses.
And then, the parched, hard earth of the plains gives way to a vast expanse of windswept sand, whose edges plummet precipitously into the crashing waves of the Atlantic below. Standing atop one of these towering dunes, you’ll find yourself gazing in wonder over the blue waters of the Caribbean and the red cliffs of the Guajira desert. This the land of the nomadic Wayuu people. The Spanish never succeeded in conquering this harsh environment and to this day, the Wayuu have managed to maintain a large part of their traditional lifestyle and culture.

8. Chicaque Natural Park

Chicaque Natural Park

The cloud forests of Chicaque remains an untouched wilderness, despite being just 30 minutes south of the crowded capital of Bogota. Well and truly in the clouds, at around 2,700m above sea level, the protected private reserve boasts some of the most magical forest scenery anywhere in Colombia. Some 300 bird species call Chicaque home, as do a dozen different mammals, including the two-toed sloth and spectacled bear.
An amazing ecotourism destination, Chicaque features miles of magnificent hiking trails, varied accommodation and numerous activities. Inside the park are nine well-marked ecological trails. It also offers a canopy walk at the top of a 200 year old oak tree, ziplines, horseback riding and guided birdwatching tours.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

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Safety in Colombia: The Motorcycle Touring Edition

Is Colombia safe? This is the single most frequently asked question about travel to Colombia. Bring up your plans to travel to Colombian in conversation and the response may well be “are you crazy?”

Mention planning to travel Colombia on a motorcycle? You’re now considered certifiably insane.

Here’s where a dose of reality comes in handy.

Colombia of course has an incredibly bleak history of violence. But with the collapse of the major crime syndicates over a decade ago, and now, the ongoing peace process between FARC and the Colombian government, the country has been undergoing a massive transformation, resulting in an incomparably safer environment for all.  

Beginning in the early 2000s, Colombia’s government substantially boosted law enforcement. Military agencies succeeded in drastically improving the overall security situation, clearing out thousands of armed rebels occupying swathes of rural Colombia. Dozens of incredible tourist sites once sealed off in remote parts of the country have been reclaimed.  

The cities are also faring better. A case in point – at the time of Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, Medellin had one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the world. By the mid-2000s, this ugly statistic had fallen by 86%.

As a visitor, it’s probably best to look at it this way. More tourists than ever are visiting Colombia. The vast majority of them come back alive. Lonely Planet ranked Colombia 2nd in their 2017 “Best in Travel” list. Hardly the kind of accolade you would bestow on a war zone.

Certainly, poverty and violence are still issues for many people living in Colombia. However, there’s nothing uniquely or worryingly dangerous about today’s Colombia from a tourist’s perspective. Visitors can travel around the country freely, by any means they wish. Motorcycles included.

GENERAL SAFETY IN COLOMBIA

 

Only a handful of the millions of tourists who visit Colombia every year fall victim to crime, and most are non-violent street crimes. On rare occasions, tourists have been targeted by armed robbers, but being pickpocketed is a far more likely scenario, particularly in crowded public places.
We won’t go into how to be street wise and avoid crime in Colombia, as there’s plenty of advice out there already – mostly basic, common-sense rules that should apply when exploring any unfamiliar city.
The best advice is to heed the popular Colombian saying, ‘no dar papaya’ (literally, don’t give papaya). In a nutshell, it means don’t make yourself an easy target, and it’s the best advice on being street wise anyone can give.

 
 

MOTORCYCLE TRAVEL SAFETY IN COLOMBIA

 

Twenty years ago, touring Colombia by motorcycle was definitely not recommended.
These days, with the massively improved security situation, riding Colombia’s highways and backroads is nothing like the risky game of ‘try not to get kidnapped’ it once was. While it’s wrong to say roadside incidents have been eliminated altogether, they are extremely rare, and tourists are not the targets of these organised plots.
Despite the threat to tourists being vastly downgraded, some governments still have travel warnings in place for parts of rural Colombia. In our view, the official travel advice issued by many governments doesn’t always apply the latest data and often exaggerates the dangers, if only to cover their own backsides in the event that you do run into trouble. Take note of their advice, but do your own research.
You should however check with your insurer to make sure you are covered in places with travel warnings against them.

PLANNING A SAFE ROUTE

 

Road conditions, and your experience level are the main limiting factors when it comes to planning routes and ride destinations in Colombia. If you don’t have much off-road experience, stick to the many beautiful sealed roads the country has to offer. The challenge of learning to handle a bike on dirt, combined with oblivious drivers, crazy truckers and all sorts of hazards you might not be used to at home can result in an unpleasant, if not downright dangerous experience.

Many rural parts of the country have poorly developed infrastructure. Even a place with some semblance of a ‘road’ can be difficult or impossible to reach by bike at certain times of the year. Heavy rain, combined with damage from trucks can turn dirt roads into impassable muddy tracks. Help can be hard to find if you end up stuck on a particularly remote stretch of road.

If you’re not sure about a particular route, ask around for advice before setting off, The knowledgeable folk at Motolombia, as well as adventure riding forums like advrider are excellent sources of first-hand information pre-trip.

 
 

RIDER SAFETY TIPS ON COLOMBIAN ROADS

 
  • Many Colombian drivers consider following road rules optional, so be ready for anything, anywhere, anytime. Trucks and buses careening around blind corners, animals wandering freely on highways and sections of road that drop away suddenly by 20cm or more. Your hazard perception skills will be tested.
  • The state of secondary roads can vary from one kilometre to the next, so using distance alone (or Google Maps) isn’t an accurate way of calculating travel times. 50km on a windy, gravelly stretch of mountain road could take 3 hours. More if you have to wait for roadworks or a landslip to be cleared. Always factor in extra time to reach your intended destination.
 
ride safety
  • Colombian roads are notorious for excessive speed bumps. They’re especially prevalent at the entrance and exists of towns along the highways. The whereabouts of these evil harbingers of discomfort is not always signposted, and if hit at speed, can cause damage to bike and rider. The same holds true for potholes, so on poorly maintained roads, slow down, and if it’s safe to do so, manoeuvre around them to avoid potentially destroying a rim.
  • Signage varies from excellent to non-existent. Beware of painted road markings that become slippery when wet
  • Watch for smaller bikes while waiting to pass vehicles. You might be trailing a truck waiting for a clear view before overtaking, when a 125cc appears on your tail, ready to pass on a blind corner. Colombian riders in general are not particularly risk averse and so not great examples to follow!
  • Don’t leave without basic equipment including a tool kit, puncture repair kit, first aid supplies and wet weather gear. Particularly in the mountains, the weather can change in an instant. A satellite GPS messenger like the Spot personal tracker is an excellent idea in case of emergency.
  • There are speed cameras, particularly at major intersections in town, and in tunnels. If do get done, expect to receive a bill of around $150US in the post about a month later.
  • Between 6PM and 6AM, riders are required to wear a fluorescent vest with reflectors and your license plate number displayed. If you rent a bike from Motolombia, this vest will be supplied. It’s not a bad idea to wear it at all times for a bit of added safety.
  • There are three types of police who can stop passers-by – military, National Police and el Transito, although big bikes are rarely stopped. If you do get waved over, you’ll usually experience nothing more than a brief, polite exchange. Nearly everyone is friendly and considerate of foreign guests, all part of why motorcycle travel in Colombia is so rewarding.

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The 10 Most Beautiful Villages in Colombia

Planning a motorcycle tour in Colombia?

There really is no better way to escape the chaos of the cities than saddling up and hitting the highway, forging onward as the traffic dwindles and then finally disappears, and empty roads open up before you, inviting a world of endless possible adventures. Of course, not all of us can afford to ride without plan or purpose. You’ll most likely want to map out the majority of your route, including picking out your stopovers, many of which will end up being small towns. In truth, many of Colombia’s small towns have little to offer besides a cheap feed and a bed for the night. On the other hand, there are some truly delightful rural pueblos and small towns which make worthy destinations in their own right.

The 10 villages on this list were picked for their aesthetic appeal and inviting, small town atmosphere. So, start planning your dream ride and be sure to visit at least a few of Colombia’s 10 Most Beautiful Small Towns.

1. BARICHARA, SANTANDER

Barichara (population 7,063) was an obvious choice for the top spot. Immensely atmospheric and visually stunning, the laidback charms of Barichara are apparent the second you set foot on its cobblestone streets. A compact colonial hillside town, Barichara sits atop a plateau overlooking the Suarez River canyon. The steep, narrow streets are lined with whitewashed, terracotta-roofed homes, and the further up you climb, the more the views of the surrounding valley intensify. Although Barichara has its share of fancy boutique hotels, it doesn’t feel like a tourist trap. Life moves at a leisurely pace, the locals are genuinely welcoming, and once the day-trippers are gone, evenings in the plaza are serene and romantic.

Barichara is 20km from the adventure tourist mecca of San Gil and 118km from the state capital, Bucaramanga.

 

2. JARDÍN, ANTIOQUIA

 

A lovely, unassuming gem couched in the emerald green hills of Antioquia, Jardin (population 14,777) is among the most visually alluring townships in the Zona Cafetera, or Coffee Triangle. With brightly painted buildings, a lively plaza perfect for people watching and plenty to see and do in the surrounding countryside, Jardin is slowly attracting a trickle of visitors straying from the gringo trail. The cable car ride to the Alto de las Flores mountain peak culminates in fantastic views Jardin’s verdant countryside.

133km south of Medellin, Jardin has enough to tempt you into several days’ stay, with excursions to nearby coffee farms, waterfalls and prime birdwatching habitats.

 

 
 

3. JERICÓ, ANTIOQUIA

 

Another overlooked town in the Zona Cafetera, Jericó (population 12,100) is mainly visited by domestic pilgrims journeying to the hometown of Colombia’s first saint, Mother Laura Montoya. Religious significance aside, Jerico is quite possibly the most picture-perfect pueblo in Antioquia (and maybe even all of Colombia), its storybook-like appearance materialising out of the misty mountains, a village-scape of elaborate old churches and immaculate streets lined with Crayola-coloured houses and flower-draped balconies.

Don’t leave without hiking up Cerro Las Nubes for a soul-stirring view of the southern Antioquian mountain ranges.

4. GUATAPÉ, ANTIOQUIA

 

Guatapé (population 5,600) is hardly a hidden secret, but as a contender for the most colourful town in Colombia, this curious little village on the shores of a massive man-made lake was bound for backpacker fame.

It’s almost impossible to pinpoint Guatape’s architecture to any particular time period. There’s a fantasy-like, Legoland quality to the block-shaped houses in meticulous, symmetrical rows, all hand-painted in bold colours and embellished with ornate frescoes (called ‘zocalos) depicting everything from family professions to forest creatures to favourite pop culture icons. Guatape’s primary attraction is the hike to the top of the nearby La Piedra Peñol, a 2,135m high monolith. 650 stairs criss-cross the bizarre-looking rock like a gigantic zipper. Reach the top and you’ll be rewarded with a rather stupendous view of the Guatape Reservoir’s meandering waterways and islands.

Guatapé is an easy two hour, 83km day trip from Medellin.

 

 
 

5. PIJAO, QUINDIO

 

Coffee tourism has swept through to the Colombian countryside in a big way, but has so far passed right over Pijao (population 10,250), an impossibly pretty little town where life feels simpler, and visitors are sure to share a few cups of arabica brew with the irrepressibly welcoming locals.

Despite being relatively unknown to the outside world, Pijao was the first South American town to join the ‘Cittaslow’ or ‘slow city’ movement, a community-based movement focusing on sustainability and preserving cultural heritage. Pijao is well worth a detour for serious coffee enthusiasts, with some of the best plantation tours and finca homestays found in nearby countryside.

 

6. VILLA DE LEYVA, BOYACÁ

 

Largely intact colonial towns are somewhat of a rarity in Colombia, which makes Villa de Leyva (population 16,984) all the more enchanting. Founded in 1572, the entire town was declared a national monument in 1954 and has remained perfectly preserved ever since, with no modern architecture detracting from its beautifully whitewashed Spanish buildings.

The focal point of the town is the Plaza Mayor. 14,000 square metres wide and completely covered in cobblestone, the largest square in Colombia is a stunning sight, framed by immaculate 16th century mansions.

Curiously, one of Villa de Leyva’s most visited attractions is not from the colonial period at all. The vaguely Gaudi-inspired Casa Terracotta just outside town is a whimsical, wonky construction made entirely from clay.

160km from Bogota, Villa de Leyva is a popular weekend escape from the city.

7. SALAMINA, CALDAS

 

Salamina (population 18,740) is a quaint coffee country town. For now, it remains unconcerned with catering to the whims of tourists and is just happy to be itself – a sleepy, deeply traditional town which just happens to boast some of the most beautiful heritage architecture of any Colombian pueblo. Coffee growers who struck wealth in the early days decorated their homes with elaborate woodwork, embellishing the doorways, balconies and window frames that give Salamina its distinctive aesthetic.

The main landmark is the all-white church, an ivory tower looming large over Salamina’s pastel-hued homes and colourful plaza.

Hot travel tip – the giant wax palms of the Valle del Cocora, Salento’s most famous tourist attraction, also grow prolifically in a valley near the village of San Felix. About 30km outside of Salamina, here you have a good chance of having the company of the trees entirely to yourself.  

 

 
 

8. MOMPOX, BOLÍVAR

 

Once a thriving port town, plonked on an island in the middle of the mighty Rio Magdalena, when the trading boom came to an end in the 19th century, Mompox seemed to simply become trapped in time, forgotten by the outside world for generations. Much of Mompox has changed little since the colonial days. It was granted World Heritage protection in 1995.

Today, Mompox is experiencing a second wave of prosperity, as tourists from Cartagena (136km to the south east) flock to stroll the nostalgia-laden stone streets of a town that resembles a Hollywood period film set, or Gabriel García Márquez’ magical, make-believe settlement of Macondo. A few of the riverside merchant mansions have been converted into bars and boutique hotels, while the silversmith workshops along Calle Real del Medio are an atmospheric highlight.

 
 

10. MONGUÍ, BOYACÁ

 

Sitting at a breathtaking 2,900m above sea level, Monguí (population 5,000) is an idyllic highland pueblo. Built on the side of a mountain, practically every corner of the town has panoramic views of the valley below. A 17th century Franciscan monastery dominates the plaza, where local farmers in their ruanas (traditional woollen ponchos) congregate to sell fresh produce. The 17th century Calicanto Bridge is watercolour-painting-picturesque, constructed from a concoction of clay, lime and bull’s blood.

The 20km road from Sogamoso is a ascends steeply through truly beautiful mountain scenery. Mongui is also a great base for exploring the surrounding paramo (Andean tundra landscape).

 

9. LA PLAYA DE BELEN, NORTE DE SANTANDER

 

La Playa de Belen (population 8,546) is a squeaky clean village with just a few streets leading to a miniature plaza dominated by the two white towers and golden domes of the San Jose church. Everything in the village – the houses, streets, sidewalks and even the potted wall plants decorating the sides of buildings – have been perfectly planned and pristinely maintained. What makes Playa truly remarkable is its otherworldly setting in a valley surrounded by undulating, weathered rock formations.

Just a few minutes outside of town is the incredible Los Estoraques Unique Natural Area, a geological wonder made up of rugged rows of erosion-worn brownstone pedestals and columns.

The 269km route from Mompox to La Playa through dry canyons and lush river valleys is one of the most spectacular rides in northern Colombia.

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A Motorcycle Mecca of Seven Million Motorbikes

WHY MOTO-TOURISTS SHOULD EMBRACE COLOMBIA’S TWO WHEELED PASSION

 

My first port of call in Colombia was Medellin. I was immediately struck by the sheer number of motorcycles plying the city’s busy streets.
Before Colombia, the last place I’d embarked on a long-distance motorcycle journey was another Latin American country, Mexico. But unlike Mexico, where cars are definitely king, in Colombia, road-goers harbour a unique passion for travelling on two wheels. We all know Colombians are renowned as some of the world’s keenest cyclists, but motorcycles too, are an integral part of life on Colombia’s highways.
Exploring Medellin on foot, I constantly found myself dodging scooters and 200c Chinese-made bikes whilst trying to navigate the city’s chaotic traffic. I also strolled past gleaming dealerships showcasing the latest Ducatis and Aprilias, and even a Royal Enfield specialist. Medellin is a city with a thriving motorcycle culture, and that’s true of Colombia in general. In many urban areas, motorbikes outnumber cars by a significant margin.

Later in Cali, we rode past an impressive of cavalcade of hundreds of sports bikes, tourers and cruisers on one of their regular Sunday rides to the nearby countryside.
Several locals explained to me how ingrained the motorcycle is in Colombian culture. Rich or poor, male or female, so many Colombians ride. And why not?
The popularity of motorcycles in Colombia goes beyond the fact that they’re an affordable mode of transport in both cities and rural areas. Ninety-five per cent of Colombians live in mountainous regions, where steep, narrow, rough and winding roads are a fact of life. Riding a moto here isn’t just practical, it’s fun.
Crazy, crazy fun.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise then to know over 7 million motorcycles (out of 13 million vehicles in total) were registered in Colombia in 2017.
For Colombians, the motorcycle represents not just freedom and discovery, but kinship with your fellow riders.
For visitors, la moto is a ticket to unlocking the Colombia beyond the major highways and well-trodden tourist trails. Travelling by bike, you’re a participant, not just a passive observer. With no barriers between you and the outside world, motorcycle travel fosters an intimate connection with the landscape, the environment and the people.
This is true of motorcycle travel everywhere of course, but for experienced riders, Colombia has something extra special.
The majestic Andean ranges dominate the western half of Colombia, carving up the land into a series of mountains and valleys that make the country a rider’s paradise, blessed with endless twisties and astonishing scenery at every turn.
Fabulous roads aside, two-wheeled touring in Colombia has other advantages thanks to the country’s strong motorcycle culture.

 
 
  • Exploring the country by motorcycle, you’re sure to meet other bikers riding for leisure or adventure – not just foreigners but locals too. Meeting fellow riders always makes for interesting conversations, and the opportunity to share advice, travel tips and recommendations
  • Since so many Colombians haven an interest in motos, the presence of a bike often captures people’s attentions and encourages them to strike up a conversation. Travelling by motorbike makes it easy to meet friendly locals from all around the country
  • Tyre and basic motorcycle repair shops are literally everywhere. Even on some of the more remote stretches of highway, you’re rarely too far from a side-of-the road shack ready to patch up that pesky puncture.
  • Dealerships for many of the major brands and quality bike mechanics carrying spare parts are present in almost all large Colombian cities
  • Foreigners have several options available for either renting or buying a motorcycle for a self-guided expedition. Don’t want to go it alone? The same rental companies also offer organised, fully guided group tours. Thanks in part to Colombia’s moto-friendly attitude, motorcycle tour operators in Colombia tend to be professionally run organisations with a wide selection of new, well-maintained machines on offer
  • Some main roads in major cities have dedicated motorcycle lanes so riders are able to breeze through traffic much faster
  • Toll roads are free for motorcycles. Hooray! When you approach a toll gate, just slip in to the designated bike lane on the far right and off you go, leaving a trail of grumbling car drivers in your wake

Whether you have four days or four months to go riding, there’s a special part of Colombia that only a passion for two wheels and a spirit of adventure can reveal.

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Cartagena – Colombia’s Most Romantic City

Lay eyes on Cartagena and prepare to be lovestruck.
A major trading port in the days of the Empire, Cartagena is Colombia’s most picturesque,
well-preserved colonial city.
Its historic centre is enclosed by 11km of fortified stone walls, built to guard against
marauding pirates. Beyond the walls is an enchanting city of cobblestone streets, brightly
coloured mansions and elaborate cathedrals overlooking parks and plazas.
Literature buffs will know the setting for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s romantic epic Love in the
Time of Cholera was almost certainly based on Cartagena, inspired by its state of decaying
charm in the late 19 th century.
Today, Old Cartagena is no longer the crumbling sailor’s outpost of Garcia Marquez’s
imagination. As Colombia’s premier tourist destination, the city has undergone an extensive
makeover. Grand homes and historic landmarks have been authentically restored. Cafes,
museums and artisan craft stores have proliferated. Even the old horse-drawn carriages
have returned, if only for the entertainment of sightseeing tourists.
Sure, Cartagena is touristy and the Old City somewhat sanitised, but romance is part of the
city’s DNA. There’s fiery passion in the Caribbean style salsa danced in the clubs and on the
streets. Couples sit hand in hand atop the city walls watching the evening sun glow red over
the Caribbean Sea. This is a city whose beauty has inspired countless poets, painters,
musicians and lovers.
So, visit Cartagena and follow your heart – and our guide on what to do in Colombia’s most
romantic city!

WANDER IN THE WALLED CITY

A contender for the most photogenic city in South America, Old Cartagena’s narrow streets are a living architectural museum. Around every corner is a piece of history – a humble stone church, a lavish cathedral, or a gothic-style bell tower. Buildings sport vibrant Colonial pastel façades and baroque wooden doors. Consider a walking tour with a guide who can fill you in on the fascinating events and personalities that shaped Cartagena’s identity.

 

CHILL OUT IN GETSEMANI

Just outside the city walls, Getsemani was a fairly notorious neighbourhood that’s experienced a recent renaissance. The scruffy backpacker hostels and shady bars are still there, but the barrio has embraced a hip, artistic vibe in contrast to Old Cartagena’s meticulous aesthetics. Neglected buildings have been revamped, street art is ubiquitous and boutique hotels and funky bars are popping up everywhere.

Getsemani is changing fast, but for now, it still manages to balance ramshackle quirkiness and cosmopolitan cool. Check it out before the rest of the world gets wind of it!

SINK COCKTAILS AT SUNSET

The western ramparts of Old Town face the Carribean Sea, creating a great sunset vantage point. A string of bars along the promenade (including the famous, and perpetually packed Café del Mar) provide the perfect opportunity to sip tropical fruit cocktails as the sun sinks below the ocean.

And what nightlife loving city would be complete without a rooftop bar or six? A newer addition is the slick Townhouse Rooftop, which provides a unique sunset perspective overlooking Cartagena’s rooftops and cathedral domes.

 

LOSE YOURSELF IN MUSIC

Yes, Cartagena has plenty of nightclubs, from traditional salsa joints to techno pumping party palaces. But there’s more to Cartagena’s nightlife than clubbing – it’s a paradise for music lovers of all persuasions.

The region has its own distinct musical stylings, blending Latin and Afro-Caribbean influences, and these can be heard in the city’s wealth of live music venues. Most play local genres like champeta and cumbia, while others cater to rock and jazz devotees. For live salsa, Café Havana is a well-loved classic, but often the best live music you’ll encounter is performed on the streets. Wherever you go in this soulful city, music is in the air.

 

ESCAPE TO A SECLUDED ISLAND

Cartagena doesn’t have mainland Colombia’s best beaches – you’ll have to go to Tayrona or the Pacific Coast for that. But Cartagena is still inextricably linked to the coast, and an island hopping cruise is high on most visitor’s agendas.

The Rosario Islands are 27 pretty coral islets scattered off Cartagena’s coast. Most day trips follow a standard itinerary, anchoring at the islands’ most famous (ie. crowded) beaches, combined with some rather unimpressive snorkelling. To get a better feel of Colombian island life, consider staying overnight. Isla Grande has several accommodation options along its idyllic white sand beaches. One of the few inhabited settlements in the Rosarios, a local indigenous population live in rustic villages, carved out of the island’s jungle interior. For a more luxurious (if less authentic) stay, the exclusive Hotel Coralina sits atop tiny, coral reef-fringed Isla Coralina, where guests relax in thatched roof bungalows and feast on top-notch food made with local Caribbean produce.  

 

OVERLOAD YOUR SENSES AT MERCADO BAZURTO

Cartagena isn’t all beauty and romance. Most tourists experience a completely different Cartagena to the one thousands of Costeños (Cartagena locals) live, work and raise their families in. Yet both fancy restaurants and working class Costeños come to the same place to buy fresh ingredients.

Mercado Bazurto is a gigantic, 24 hour indoor/outdoor market 15 minutes outside the walled city. It’s a raw slice of real life in Cartagena’s not-so-glamorous side. This is no tourist attraction. Bazurto is a gritty, grimy assault on the senses, pungent with the smells of recently slaughtered animals, their body parts dangling from iron hooks. Produce vendors sell a mind-boggling variety of fruits and flowers, while counterfeit dealers ply knock-off watches and underwear. It’s a confusing, chaotic warren of narrow passageways, prowling pickpockets, stifling heat and sweaty bodies.

It may look intimidating, but Bazurto is a cheerful place, a sort of social hub for locals. People take their families, snack on fresh food, drink cheap beer, and in true Costeño fashion, break out into the occasional impromptu jam session. What the rest of Cartagena lacks in romance, it makes up for in passion.   

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Six Reasons to Fall in Love with Medellin, Colombia

Six Reasons to Fall in Love with Medellin, Colombia

 
 

Hailed as one of Latin America’s most progressive cities, Medellin’s inspiring approach to planning and urban renewal projects have transformed this city of almost 2.5 million from a notorious hotbed of crime and constant danger to a safe, vibrant and fast-developing metropolis.

Medellin has become a favourite destination for many a traveller. Don’t be surprised to bump into tourists who’d planned to stay in Medellin for just a few days and ended up extending their stay for weeks.

Interestingly, Medellin isn’t a city overflowing with ‘attractions’ in the traditional sense. We see it more of a place to soak up and experience rather than race around from one ‘must-see’ sight to the next.

For many, this unconventionally tourist-friendly atmosphere is part of Medellin’s charm.

Here are the top six reasons we think you too will fall in love with Medellin!

1. THE PEOPLE

By far, it’s the people who make Medellin such a welcoming destination for outsiders. It’s impossible not to admire the ‘Paisas’ (people from Medellin and the surrounding Andean region) for their extraordinary resilience. Despite (and perhaps, partially because of) harbouring still-fresh memories of the horrific violence of the past decades, Medellin locals are among the most positive, energetic and warm-hearted folk you’re likely to meet in Colombia – and given just how ridiculously friendly Colombians are in general, that’s saying something.

Take the time to get to know a Paisa, whether it’s through friends, a cultural exchange program like Couchsurfing, or even or a guide on one of your tours, and they are sure to have a story to share – one that’s frequently filled with sadness, but most of all with hope and inspiration.

 

2. THE LANDSCAPE

You may have seen photos of Medellin, a sprawling metropolis surrounded on all sides by mountains, with its dozens of distinct barrios crawling their way up impossibly steep hillsides – but seeing it in person is another thing altogether. It is a bizarre, beautiful and almost impossible city, built seemingly against the laws of nature and physics.

Nestled in the fertile Aburrá Valley, Medellin’s surroundings are eternally lush and evergreen.

The best way to check out Medellin’s visually striking cityscape? From above, riding one of the gondolas on the Medellin Metrocable, perhaps the world’s most spectacular urban transit system. Make sure to take the staggeringly steep Line L to the vast natural preserve of Arvi Park to appreciate the Andean landscape in all its glory.  

 

3. THE NIGHTLIFE

Colombians are party people, and Medellin is arguably Colombia’s nightlife capital. With a scene that grows more sophisticated and cosmopolitan by the second, Medellin after dark offers something for everyone.

You can dine on a different cuisine and party with a different flavour every night of the week in the El Poblado district. Poblado’s Parque Lleras, although undeniably tacky and almost exclusively catering to gringos these days, is still worth checking out for its unrelenting, party-hardy atmosphere alone. Poblado locals tend to relax in the quieter bars and upscale eateries around the barrios of Manila and La Florida.

This is Colombia, so naturally, going out for a night of dancing is a must! In Poblado head to Kukaramakara for full-on clubbing action and live music, or El Establon for more a more intimate salsa experience. The slightly more serious Son Havana in Laureles is considered Medellin’s premier salsa spot. For something completely different, check out Dulce Jesus Mio, apparently designed to resemble a traditional Colombian pueblo, only seemingly seen through an acid-tinted lens inhabited by warped visions of American pop culture.

 

4. THE WEATHER

Known as the ‘city of eternal spring’, Medellin’s climate is almost always pleasant, with plenty of sunshine and temperatures in the mid ‘20s basically all year round. The temperature is so stable that Medellin almost never gets too hot, or too cold.  March through to May, as well as September through to November are Medellin’s official rainy seasons, and while this time of year brings cloudy periods and the occasional heavy downpour, it’s still usually warm and dry during the day, and rarely rains for hours on end.

5. ART AND CULTURE

Art and culture thrive in Medellin. It’s home to arguably Colombia’s best museum, the Museo de Antioquia, dedicated not only to pre-colonial culture and religious art, but a huge exhibit of the country’s most famous sculptor, Fernando Botero. Botero’s instantly recognisable statues, known for their disproportionately chubby features, are also scattered all though the Plaza Botero in Medellin’s Centro.

Public art has been essential to Medellin’s urban renewal, starting at the grassroots level with graffiti and murals in some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, such as Santo Domingo and San Javier (Comuna 13). Giving a voice and a united spirit to once feared and ignored communities, these public art projects allow local youths to tell their story, while bringing colour, life and creativity to the streets.    

 

6. THE VIBE

There’s no shortage of activities to enjoy in and around Medellin, from urban paragliding (!) to day trips the multi-coloured, Legoland-brought-to-life village of Guatape. But the biggest reason so many travellers fall in love with Medellin is harder to describe. Hanging out in Medellin just feels good.

Medellin is a city with a tragic past and a promising future. It still has its prickly edges to be sure, but overall, Medellin is a place of positivity and hope. Whether you’re sitting in the Metrocable, gawping and the scenery while locals simply go about their business, or dancing the night away with newfound friends in a uniquely Paisa-style club, Medellin has a vibe like no other place on earth.

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Colombia – Home of the World’s Happiest People

Ask a random person what the Colombian people are most famous for, and the answer may well depend on whether they’ve met many Colombians in their time.

Someone well acquainted with a Colombiano or two might tell you that Colombians are some of the most irrepressibly friendly folk you’re ever likely to meet. They might describe your stereotypical Colombian as energetically social, outgoing and a little boisterous at times. This ‘typical’ Colombian is passionate when speaking their mind yet almost invariably warm and polite, deeply affectionate among friends and kind to strangers. The Colombian loves to party, venerates and adores their family, and is so enthusiastic about life in general their non-Colombian friends can occasionally find them exhausting.

In other words, Colombians, as a whole, are a pretty damn happy bunch of humans.

But don’t just take our word for it.

There’s hard, scientific evidence that proves Colombians are some of the happiest people on earth.

 

COLOMBIA: HAPPINESS WORLD CHAMPIONS

 

The annual Gallup International poll attempts to rank the overall happiness of a country’s population by asking questions like: As far as you are concerned, do you personally feel happy, unhappy or neither happy nor unhappy about your life?” Whether this question is really an accurate way to measure human happiness on a collective scale is up for debate, but it seems to work well for the Colombians.

Colombia has topped the rankings for the World’s Happiest Country several times in the last few years. Most recently, they were declared the planet’s most contented citizens in 2016. In the last survey conducted in 2017, Colombia narrowly missed out on first place to the Fijians, who we’ll readily admit are worthy competitors in the World Happiness stakes.

BUT WHY ARE COLOMBIANS SO HAPPY?

 

If you’ve been to Colombia, you’ll have quickly discovered just how outwardly cheerful, positive, welcoming, and at times downright exuberant the vibe is in much of the country. Even in a big, seemingly stressful city like Medellin, you can walk the streets and expect to be greeted with genuine smiles, polite curiosity and affable conversation wherever you go.

In Medellin, I poised the question to a local Paisa. “Why are you Colombians so damn happy all the time?”

TINY TRIUMPHS IN TRYING TIMES

 

Not so long ago, life wasn’t so easy for my Paisa friend. In fact, growing up as a young man in 90s Medellin wasn’t just tough, it was downright dangerous. Even before the drug war broke out, Colombia was already weighed down by decades of conflict and political unrest. For generations of Colombians, poverty, powerlessness and the ever-present threat of violence were part of everyday life.

My Paisa friend explained that trauma and grief are an inextricable part of the Colombian collective psyche. But both despite this, and because of it, so are resilience and the determination to seek out and treasure every precious moment of enjoyment, humour and love amid times of tragedy. How else, he asked, would we Colombians have survived? “We focus on the good things in life, no matter how small.”  

FIVE MORE REASONS WHY COLOMBIANS ARE SO CHEERFUL

1. NATIONAL PRIDE

 

Colombians are a patriotic bunch and unabashedly vocal when it comes to talking up their country’s natural beauty, it’s magnificent culture and its beautiful people. They’ll tell you all about Colombian coffee (the best in the world), Colombian salsa dancers (the best), Colombian emeralds (also the best in the world) and proudly assure you that Colombian Spanish is the best Spanish spoken in the world.

 
 

2. FOOTBALL

 

Football is more than a game in Colombia, it’s a unifying force. Attend a football match in Colombia and the atmosphere is exhilarating and emotional, as parties erupt across the stadium and fans celebrate with wild abandon. At the 2014 World Cup, Colombia scored their best ever performance, making it to third place. By the way the entire nation carried on, anyone would think the championship was theirs.

 
 

3. HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS

 

With around 20 national holidays each calendar year, Colombians spend a considerable amount of time in celebration mode. A plethora of regional holidays held around the country mean even more excuses for unabashed public revelling. Expect outdoor concerts, colourful parades and public streets inundated by surging masses of enraptured dancers. Some of the most famous festivals include the Barranquilla Carnival, Medellin’s Festival de las Flores, Feria de Cali (Cali’s annual salsa fair) and the Carnaval de Negros y Blanco (Pasto’s extraordinary six day long ‘Black and White’ carnival).

 
 

4. MUSIC AND DANCING

 

Music and dance lie at the very heart of Colombian culture. Colombian music is a vibrant melting pot of Spanish, European, Afro and Latin Caribbean influences, all of which can be heard in the country’s defining genre, cumbia, with its tropical rhythms, hip-switching grooves, explosive horns and stirring vocals. Colombians embrace all styles of Latin music – the more danceable, the better! Passionate, sensual, romantic, energetic and spirited, Colombia’s love of Latin rhythms plays an undeniable role in the shared willingness to embrace the joys of life wholeheartedly.

 

5. OPTIMISM

 

An April 2013 edition of Time Magazine featured a photo of then Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on the cover and the blurb and headline “the Colombian Comeback. From nearly failed state to global player – in less than a decade”. This, in a nutshell is the story of contemporary Colombia. While things are far from perfect, they’re improving at a rate almost nobody predicted less than two decades ago. Colombia is working hard to build up and maintain a politically stable landscape. As it does so, it opens doors to a new era of economic and social progress, and a more self-empowered, optimistic and hopeful Colombia. Colombians are a people of faith – faith in a better tomorrow.

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