Itinerary: Bogotá – Villa de Leyva – Popayán – Salento – Valle de Cocora – Medellín – Parque Nacional Tayrona – Cartagena
A country with an eventful past
“Colombia? Is it safe there?” That was the most common reaction when I told people I had decided to go to Colombia. A country that – apparently – still has the reputation of a country ravaged by civil war, drug cartels, violence and kidnappings. That has certainly been the case in the past, but a lot has changed.
Colombia undeniably has a troubled past. Until what we call the Middle Ages, different peoples lived in present-day Colombia: the Tairona, the Muisca, the Nariño and many others. Then in 1509 the Spaniards arrived. The conquistadores destroyed virtually everything in their path, whoever did not adapt was killed. In the colony, called the Kingdom of Granada, Spanish became the official language, Catholicism the official faith, and slaves brought from Africa were to help the colony prosper.
From the end of the eighteenth century the desire for independence became stronger and in 1810, when the Spanish king was too busy fighting Napoleon in Europe, independence was declared in the colony. The United Provinces of New Granada then consisted of the territory of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Panama. In the nineteenth century, civil wars and different regimes followed each other in rapid succession. The name of the country, which occupied a smaller territory due to partitions, changed to Republic of Gran Colombia, Republic of New Granada, Granada Confederation, United States of Colombia and finally in 1886 to Republic of Colombia. Panama was the last territory to secede from Colombia in 1903.
In the twentieth century, Colombia’s history is one of much violence. In the first half of the century, it was mainly violent confrontations between the army and rebellious workers that resulted in many casualties. In 1964 the revolutionary movement Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios Colombianos (FARC) was founded in response to bloody attacks by the army on inhabitants of rural villages. The FARC and the smaller ELN took up arms to fight the regime in Bogotá. It was the beginning of a new, bloody civil war.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Colombia also had to contend with the rise of drug cartels. Cocaine became Colombia’s most important export product during these years, thanks to the enormous demand in the United States. The rise of the cartels was accompanied by widespread corruption and violence. It was not until the mid-1990s that the power of the cartels was broken. But violence and kidnapping by the FARC remained commonplace. However, in 2012, the Colombian government and the FARC started peace talks and a final peace agreement was signed in 2017.
Since then, Colombia has gone through a major change – for the better this time. The country is safer than ever, has a stable democracy, the economy is growing and tourism is on the rise. Despite the bad reputation and the past that still haunts, Colombia has a lot to offer: a varied nature, indigenous cultures, modern cities, the Andean mountains, rainforest, and beaches on the Caribbean coast. Today the country has about 49 million inhabitants. Of these, 49% are ‘mestizo’ (mixed indigenous/European), 37% of European descent, 10% African/European and 4% indigenous.
I start my journey in the capital Bogotá, which is located in the middle of the country. Built on the site where the Muisca town of Bacatá once was, the city is located at an altitude of 2,500 meters, making it relatively cool all year round. Bogotá has eight million inhabitants and is sandwiched between the Río Bogotá on the west side and the Cerro de Monteserrate on the east side. The southern neighborhoods are mainly working-class neighborhoods and the more expensive neighborhoods can be found in the northern neighborhoods. In between is the (modern) business center and the historic center, La Candelaria.
After more than ten hours of flying I land at Bogotá airport. I smoothly pass customs and my luggage quickly appears on the belt. I have arranged transportation to my hostel in advance. The airport is located in the heart of the city, which is only a twenty minute drive. I check in and although it’s only late afternoon, I’m tired of the flight and the time difference, so I’m not doing anything today.
On my first morning in Bogotá I have breakfast in a small restaurant around the corner from my hostel, a small place where only locals come. It’s a good start to the day. I’m going to explore La Candelaria first. The historic district of Bogotá consists of old colonial buildings and narrow streets, which are not designed for the heavy traffic. The main streets are paved, the smaller ones have cobblestones and many of the old buildings are painted in different colours.
The Plaza de Bolívar is the main square of the old town. On the south side is the Capitolio Nacional, the parliament building, opposite is the modern Palacio de Justicia, where the Supreme Court sits. On the east side of the square is the cathedral and in the middle of the otherwise empty square is a statue of freedom fighter Simón Bolívar, which is actually a bit too small for the main square. On the square there are also some street vendors and especially a lot of pigeons. Personally I don’t find it really attractive.
On the corner of the square is the Casa del Florero, where the local elite protested against Spanish rule on July 20, 1810, granting Bogotá autonomy. Therefore, July 20 is still Independence Day in Colombia. A few blocks south of Plaza Bolívar is the Casa de Nariño. This is the heavily guarded presidential palace. The streets around it are closed to traffic and are guarded by heavily armed soldiers. Arriving cars are thoroughly examined for explosives.
The center north of La Candelaria is dominated by, I have to say, very ugly 1970s high-rise buildings. In any case, Bogotá is not really a very beautiful city outside the historic center. In the ‘modern’ center is the Museo del Oro (the gold museum), which I visit at the end of the morning. The museum is said to have the largest collection of gold jewelry and ornaments in the world, mostly from the indigenous cultures of South America, often thousands of years old. Inside it is a very nice museum.
In the afternoon I join a street art walk. In Bogotá there are murals everywhere you go and with a guide we walk with a large group along some of the most beautiful murals in the center and La Candelaria. Also in places you might not have gone so quickly otherwise. Very nice to do, a must for those who visit Bogotá!
On my second day in Bogotá, I walk from my hostel to the funicular station, where a cogwheel train takes you six hundred meters higher to the top of the Cerro Monteserrate. From here you have a panoramic view of the very spread-out city. It is busy with day trippers, but it is well worth going up and enjoying the view.
The Colombian version of Starbucks is called Juan Valdez and you can find them almost everywhere. So when I get back to street level I have coffee at Juan Valdez’s first. I relax for a while on their terrace (the weather is pleasantly sunny) and then I go for lunch. Lunch is the main meal in Colombia. In many places you can get a kind of ‘menu of the day’, where you get (usually well-filled) soup beforehand, a main course (usually rice with meat or fish and something from fried banana) and a dessert (often something sweet) . Usually only costs a few euros.
In the afternoon I visit the Museo Botero. The freely accessible museum is located in a beautiful colonial building with a beautiful courtyard (just like the neighboring Casa Moneda, the old ‘Mint’). The museum houses paintings by Picasso and Cezane, among others, but of course it revolves around the paintings and sculptures of Botero, the most famous artist from Colombia, known for his chubby figures (especially naked women). The rest of the afternoon I relax in my hostel. Television has been talking all afternoon about the bomb attack that took place in the early afternoon on a police school in Bogotá, in which 22 people were killed. The attack, perpetrated by the ELN (who, unlike the FARC, have not signed a peace agreement) took place in a different part of the city, so I didn’t notice it, but it is the news of the day here (and it will be for days).
Villa de Leyva
On Friday I get up early and take a taxi to the bus station, where I buy a ticket for the bus to Villa de Leyva, a small village about 3.5 hours north of Bogotá. The bus is a midsize bus with quite cramped seats and the bad roads make it a bit bumpy ride, going through a hilly and mountainous environment.
At the beginning of the afternoon we arrive in Villa de Leyva, where my hostel is located on the edge of the village. I first have lunch and then stroll in the village founded in 1572. It all looks very atmospheric and picturesque: cobbled streets, white plastered houses in Spanish-colonial architecture and with wooden verandas. The main square, Plaza Major, is the largest square in Colombia at 14,000 square meters. Admittedly, it is an impressive square, made up of large boulders and surrounded by white plastered facades of colonial buildings. In the middle is a well that was the only water supply of the village until the twentieth century. Villa de Leyva is located in a valley between the mountains and you can see the mountains above the houses all around the village.
You don’t need much time to view Villa de Leyva, but it is definitely worth a visit. After relaxing in my hostel in the evening, I take the bus back to Bogotá the next morning. From the bus station I take a taxi to the airport and from there I fly in an hour to Popayán, in the south of Colombia.
Popayán airport is super small and you can easily walk into the city from the airport. Very strange experience. Popayán also has white plastered houses, buildings and churches, but they are larger and more stately than in Villa de Leyva (in the center at least), and Popayán is a city. Appropriately nicknamed La Cuidad Blanca, the White City. Curious fact: No fewer than fifteen presidents that independent Colombia has had in the past, hailed from Popayán.
Like Bogotá, Popayán also has a checkered street pattern, with Calles east-west and Carreras north-south. The city is located in an earthquake zone and was badly hit in 1564, 1736 and 1983, but each time it was neatly rebuilt in the original style. On the north side of the center is the Puente del Humilladero, a 180-meter long stone arch bridge over the Río Molino. The heart of the old town is more of a park than a square: Parque Caldas. A green oasis is the otherwise white city, with benches and street vendors. On the south side of Parque Caldas is the cathedral, with next to it the Torre del Reloj, or the bell tower, built between 1673 and 1682. It is a very beautiful and atmospheric city. And there are few tourists.
It is a city to leasurely stroll about and the Parque Caldas invites you to relax. I do exactly that in the afternoon, with a book on a bench. The next morning I wake up so early that I can catch a bus earlier than I had planned. At the bus station of Popayán, where despite the early hour many people are already on their way, I get coffee and a ticket for the seven o’clock bus to Armenia (the town, not the country). The journey, in a microbus, takes 6.5 hours. That could be a lot faster, but the bus makes a stop in Cali, where the heavy traffic means that we are on the road at least an hour longer than if we had driven directly to Armenia.
On the way you can see that the mountains of the Andes run north-south. The Andes branches off in Colombia into three mountain ranges: the Cordillera Oriental, the Cordillera Central and the Cordillera Occidental. The country’s three major cities, Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín, are all located in the valleys between these mountain ranges. The valley in which Cali is located is wide, warm and sunny. The temperature in the bus also rises nicely.
From Armenia it is another half hour to Salento, a small village in the heart of the Zona Cafetera, a mountainous area with a subtropical climate, where the best coffee in the world is said to be grown. Salento itself consists of little more than a few streets around the central Plaza, with white stucco houses with colored windows and doors. It looks picturesque, although you have to rule out the tourists. It is the first place in Colombia where I see many tourists. At the end of Calle 6, a long staircase leads up a hill. Because of the heat (it is sunny and very hot) it is quite a climb, but on top of the hill you have a very nice view over Salento and the surrounding area.
In Salento I stay in The Plantation House, a hundred-year-old plantation house, which belongs to the Finca Don Eduardo. This equally old coffee plantation was taken over ten years ago by a Brit who now gives tours of the plantation and explains the entire process from planting a coffee bean to your cup of coffee. Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world (after Brazil and Vietnam). Where the other two grow a little Arabica and especially a lot of Robusta, in Colombia it is the other way around; here the majority of the coffee is the better quality Arabica. The vast majority of it is destined for export, so much so that Colombia imports coffee for its own consumption… The three-hour tour is very informative. I am surprised at the sight of the plantation. I had expected a field with neat rows of coffee plants, but instead the plantation is vast and situated on slopes, where the coffee plants are interspersed with banana trees, which provide shade, bamboos, palms, pineapple plants and other fruit plants. The plantation is beautifully situated on the edge of the village, with a wide view over the green hills in the area.
After I’ve had lunch in the village (the trout caught in the area, for which you would pay at least twenty euros in the Netherlands, costs only six euros here…) I sit down on the veranda in front of my room with a book. The beautiful surroundings, the peace and quiet, the temperature and the slow pace at which things go here, invite you to take it easy yourself. That suits me very fine.
The next day (it is now Wednesday) I go to a small local restaurant for a hearty breakfast. That’s necessary, because I’m going to take a long walk. Salento is a twenty minute drive from the Valle de Cocora. From the Plaza, local men drive back and forth in old American Jeeps (called “Willys”) up and down the valley. There you can take a beautiful walk. The first part goes down the valley, past grassland with some horses and cows here and there. To the left and right are mountains with meters high wax palms on the slopes. That is what the Valle de Cocora is known for: it is the only place where these trees grow. They grow up to sixty meters high and can live for a hundred years. Long, flexible trunks, with a kind of crown on top, very special.
After about 45 minutes the trail continues through a dense forest. The path is not much more than earth, stones and rocks and a number of times you cross the river Río Quindío via wobbly suspension bridges. Then there is a section that runs quite steeply up the mountain. Because you climb from 2,400 meters to more than 2,800 meters, this part is not easy. Due to the heat, the altitude and probably my physical condition, it is quite a tough climb. Once at the highest point, at the Finca la Montaña, you have a great view over the valley, with far below the path along which ran the first part of the walk. On the last part of the walk you will pass two viewpoints, at the wax palms that you have seen from the valley before, only you are now close to them. Very photogenic and you have a wide view over the valley. In short: very worthwhile!
After I have relaxed the rest of the afternoon, the next day is another travel day, with destination Medellín. I was supposed to fly in the morning, but the flight has been moved to the afternoon. Medellín is Colombia’s second largest city and has about 2.5 million inhabitants. Thanks to Pablo Escobar Gavira, Medellín was the center of the cocaine trade in Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His Medellín cartel accounted for 80 percent of cocaine exports to the United States. The downside was that at the time, Medellín was the murder capital of the country and one of the most violent cities in the world. A lot has changed since then. Medellín is now a modern and vibrant city.
I’m staying in Poblado, a nice neighborhood on the south side of Medellín, a residential area with lots of greenery and many bars and restaurants. An overhead metro line cuts through the city like an artery from north to south, taking you quickly from Poblado to the center. I get off near Plaza de Botero. On this square are 23 large bronze sculptures by Botero, who hails from Medellín. Also here you will find the Palacio de la Cultura Uribe Uribe, a large, black and gray checkered stone building in Gothic style. You may like it, but I don’t really. And that actually applies to the entire center. The high concrete construction of the above-ground metro and the stations made of concrete and steel dominate the streetscape, just like the drab 1970s high-rise buildings made of concrete and glass. And lots of traffic in between. Not a pretty city if you ask me.
Via the Parque Berrío, a small square annex park, I walk to Parque San Antonio. The northern half of this is an unsightly communist style square. The image of the sleeping Venus of Botero seems to be lost here. The southern part is a park where you have to come to in the evening for drugs and prostitution. Walking further south, I come to Plaza de Luces. The square is full of tall columns that light up at night (hence the name Square of Lights), a kind of modern work of art. They form a sharp contrast to the renovated historic market halls on the east side of the square and the bamboo trees on the other side.
A busy road runs along the square, with the historic train station of Medellín on the other side, which looks a bit lost in this place. A hideous gray office building looms behind the station and behind it is La Alpuratta, the administrative center of Medellín and the Antioquia region. The gray office buildings and the bleak square in between seem to come straight from the Soviet Union. In the middle is a strange work of art that is supposed to symbolize the struggle between good and evil.
Between the center and Poblado is the Cerro Nutibara. After a short climb you have a 360 degree view of Medellín on top. Tall buildings, all reddish brown with light gray, stretch as far as you can see. The city originated in the valley, but continued to expand far into the slopes of the surrounding hills. In the early afternoon I take the metro back to Poblado and walk to Parque Lleras, the main square of the district, a green oasis surrounded by restaurants. I take plenty of time to have lunch and relax. I’ve walked enough for today.
On Saturday morning I leave Medellín. I take the metro to the center, from there a bus to the airport and then I fly to Santa Marta in an hour. I made it easy on myself and arranged a transfer from the airport directly to the lodge where I will be staying, about an hour’s drive east of Santa Marta. The lodge is beautifully situated on a hill overlooking the jungle-clad mountains. I sleep in a cabin with a veranda and a hammock (with the above mentioned view).
In the afternoon I walk to Playa Los Angeles. Colombia is the only country that borders both the Pacific Ocean as well as the Caribbean Sea. After a short walk I am on the beach, with palm trees, the Caribbean Sea and a temperature above thirty degrees. The climate here is tropical and so it is very hot all year round. I spend the rest of the afternoon in my hammock.
The lodge is located near the entrance to the Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. This park consists of mountains with dense jungle that stretches to the sea, beaches and a marine reserve off the coast. Most of the park is not accessible, only a narrow strip along the coast. When I arrive at the entrance of the park the next morning, there is already a long line at the cash register. It is the last day before the park closes for a month and apparently more people have chosen this day to visit the park. It is extremely busy.
After you have taken a minibus into the park, you can follow a walking route through the jungle to the beach. The path is partly unpaved and partly with decking, it goes up and down and now and then you have to climb over some rocks. You walk through the dense jungle, with palm trees, ferns and lianas and unfortunately a lot of people. It looks like an amusement park, now and then you just walk into a kind of traffic jam.
After about an hour’s walk you come to a high viewpoint. And that is a very nice spot. From the rocks you can look down the coastline to Cabo San Juan, with the endless blue of the Caribbean Sea in front of you. I walk a bit further through the jungle, where I see a capuchin monkey and a red howler monkey in the trees, and walk to Aricife, which is again on the beach. You can walk even further, until Cabo San Juan, but I’ve seen it by now and walk back. Tayrona is a beautiful park, but far too busy for me.
Taxi, bus, taxi. That pretty much sums up the next day. I bought a ticket online for the bus from Santa Marta to Cartagena, but when I get to the bus station of Santa Marta, the gentleman behind the counter tells me that the bus in question is not running. However, he will transfer me to a bus from another bus company. He takes off with my online ticket and my passport and moments later he beckons me from a distance and takes me to a bus. Even earlier than originally planned, I am on my way. It’s going to be a long drive. The midsize bus does not drive faster than seventy kilometers per hour and most of the time (much) slower. He stops wherever someone is standing by the side of the road who wants to come along or whenever someone wants to get off. Or to let sellers of snacks into the bus, who naturally want to get out a little later. The distance from Santa Marta to Cartagena is 215 kilometers and that takes the bus no less than six hours. Just after six o’clock in the evening I finally arrive at my destination, a hotel in the center of Cartagena.
Cartagena is a large city with a million inhabitants, most of whom live in the sprawling residential areas west of the old center and south of it, in the middle-class neighborhood of Bocagrande, a narrow strip of land right on the coast with many (somewhat American-looking) modern high-rise buildings. However, the reason to visit Cartagena is the Centro Histórico. Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Spanish conquistadors. The old town is still almost completely walled by the city wall, La Murallas, built in the eighteenth century. You can walk on the wall around the city, with a view of the red tiled roofs of the old city on one side and the water of the Caribbean Sea on the other. It is also one of the few places where the wind provides a bit of cooling.
On the southeast side of the old town is the Plaza de los Coches with the Puerta del Reloj, the old city gate and main entrance to historic Cartagena. The square used to be where the slaves that had been shipped from Africa to Colombia were traded. The square is surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings, the square itself is the territory of countless street vendors. Around the corner is another pretty square, the Plaza de la Aduana, named after the Casa de la Aduana, a white stucco building with an arched gallery that occupies an entire side of the square. On the north side of the square is a statue of Columbus.
This part of the old town is a succession of beautiful squares, because a little further on is the Plaza de San Pedro Claver. Here too beautiful colonial buildings, but also a whole series of modern metal artworks depicting street scenes (street sellers, chess players, domino players). Unlike the other squares, Plaza de Bolívar is a park with trees, benches and pigeons. And of course a statue of Bolívar. On the eastern side of the square, the colonial Palacio de la Inquisición, home to the Spanish Inquisition for two hundred years, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, mostly opponents of the Spanish rulers.
Besides all these sights, the entire Centro Histórico is actually one big open-air museum, full of colonial buildings with shutters and overhanging wooden balconies full of plants and flowers and painted in yellow, ocher, orange and red. And narrow streets where taxis constantly maneuver and where traditionally dressed ladies want to have their picture taken with you for a fee. Most of the buildings now house restaurants and shops, many of which are aimed at tourists. The old town is beautifully preserved (much was renovated in the 1990s) and very beautiful and atmospheric.
On Wednesday morning, after coffee, I walk to the Getsemaní district. There is a more village atmosphere here, with small houses and narrow streets. But to be honest I don’t like it much. That is why I walk back to the Centro Histórico, where I do another round on the city wall, stroll down the pleasantly busy streets and relax for a while in the afternoon.
And with that, my trip to Colombia has almost come to an end. The next day awaits a taxi ride to the airport and a flight of more than nine hours back to the Netherlands. As I wrote at the beginning, Colombia indeed has a lot to offer: old colonial towns and villages, beautiful nature, good weather and friendly people. It was great trip!