Colombia - what to see

There are no direct flights from Quito to St Agustan. Best option seems to be Quito to Cali (via Bogota) or Pitalito

Journey Latin America has a good guide

All the tours from various tour companies.

I think I would probably knock out Nuqui leg if needing to save time. JLA seem to have the best knowledge. And we have been to Cartagena and Tayrona and Guajira in the north east

The trip I would look at is


The sprawling metropolis of Bogota, still fringed with shanty towns to the south, merges enchanting churches, vibrant cultural events, engaging museums and a plethora of gastronomic experiences. The Baroque and Spanish colonial architecture and plazas of historic La Candelaria are some of the city’s biggest draws, while the modern uptown zone is packed with restaurants and cafes abuzz with a new generation of “rolos” revelling in an era of peace and stability. Hop on a privately guided bicycle tour of historic central Bogota, the canvas for highly imaginative and colourful graffiti and murals, to learn about the strong social and political messages of current and past injustices conveyed by the artists. Afterwards, sample traditional Colombian cuisine at one of our favourite eateries.

I admit I didn’t have massively high expectations of Colombia’s sprawling, flat capital, which is hemmed in by the peaks of the Andes’ Cordillera Oriental. I assumed it would be an impersonal, high-rise business district of a city, and you’d do little more than fly in and out. But Bogotá does have two or three characterful elements. And while the glossy glass tower blocks exist, they sit alongside a historic core that radiates out from Plaza Simón Bolivar in a winding ribbon of churches and government palaces. This old town, known as La Candelaría, is one of the best places to see the city’s celebrated (and now more or less legally sanctioned) street art. You’ll see all kinds of murals, portraits, and stencil work just by walking around, and, with this transient art form, there’s really no telling what you might find. A guide helps when it comes to untangling the graffiti artists’ tags and subtle (or not so subtle) political connotations. My guide gave me a potted history of the deep-seated divisions between the country’s Liberal and Conservative factions, a schism that is closing today but which often plays out on the city’s underpasses and warrens of backstreets. I was struck by the beauty of one piece in particular, which depicted the face of an indigenous person. Emanating from her hair were corn kernels, a traditional Colombian food source, and a hummingbird, a national symbol.

I’d also recommend setting aside an hour or two to explore the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum), a three-storey El Dorado of more than 35,000 pre-Colombian gold items made by the country’s indigenous peoples. The finds displayed come from all over Colombia, from the southern border with Ecuador to the northern Caribbean shores. In one darkened circular room, the Sala de Ofrenda, the relics are displayed all around the perimeter: lighting artfully illuminates different glinting objects in turn. Some of the pieces are minute hair or body decorations used by Colombia’s coastal Kogi people. Others are offerings that the indigenous Muisca people would cast into lakes to placate their gods. The Paloquemao Market is located in a shabbier, more workaday area of the city, but it’s an excellent place to experience a slice of real Bogotano life. This unpretentious food market sells all kinds of fish, vegetables, meat, and flowers, but you’re really here for the pyramids of home-grown exotic fruits, which you can sample fresh from the stalls or have blended into smoothies and juices. A guide is essential to help you identify the choice pickings, but you’ll mostly be surrounded by locals bartering for produce; you’re unlikely to see many other foreign visitors. Try the lulo, a ball-like fruit in a shade of atomic tangerine that’s so pungently citrusy it’s best consumed in juice form, or the guanabana, which looks like the spiky egg of an ostrich. The taste of its soft pulp is not dissimilar to South American chirimoyas (custard apples). Then there’s granadilla. Like an orange-skinned passion fruit, it bulges with black seeds encased in a squidgy, filmy sac. Use your teeth to bite through and then suck out the seeds and the succulent, lime-tanged flesh surrounding them.


Villa de Leyva & Zipaquira

As you drive out of the capital, you soon move into a landscape of lakes and green hills scattered with identikit campesino smallholdings: a small building, a handful of crops, some tethered livestock. Sheep idle about on grassy banks in the middle of the road, impervious to traffic. I certainly didn’t expect such bucolic scenery so close to a city. It’s a three-hour drive to Villa de Leyva, a whitewashed Spanish colonial town that offers a real change of pace from Bogotá. En route, I suggest stopping off for a leg stretch at the salt ‘cathedral’ (really a working church) of Zipaquirá. Carved in an underground salt mine by God-fearing workers who wanted a place to worship, it’s a curious set of chambers designed around the 14 Stations of the Cross, each illuminated in a rainbow wash of light. At the end of the main nave, in the apse, a huge illuminated cross hangs suspended. My guide asked me how much I thought it weighed, before revealing that the cross is actually an illusionary shape carved into the halite rock. Villa de Leyva itself has the feel of a time warp about it — in 1954 it was declared a national monument and its architecture has remained unchanged since then. A drowsy, quiet town with a clutch of cobbled streets and some excellently preserved 16th- and 17th-century churches, it does rouse itself into life in the evenings which are best spent nursing a drink at a cafe on the vast central plaza — the largest cobbled square in Latin America. It’s also a good place to try your hand at traditional artisanal crafts. I had a go at weaving on a backstrap loom in a tiny place just off one of the cobbled old-town streets, and saw how hats, gloves, and ruanas (similar to ponchos) were painstakingly hand-made. After a few hours’ hard graft, I came to the conclusion that the woven garments being sold in the town’s shops suddenly seemed very reasonably priced indeed. Villa de Leyva also acts as a launch pad for various activities and experiences that may sound touristy but actually give you an even better taste of everyday Colombian life. I spent an afternoon playing the national sport (and, no, it’s not football (soccer)). Tejo involves throwing clay discs into a pit and trying to score points by hitting various small triangles loaded with (tiny, tiny) explosives. I played on a court, but the game is typically enjoyed at local watering holes. A little more extreme than backgammon or pool, perhaps.


Coffee Area - Armenia & Manizales

For most people, the area where coffee is produced forms the beating heart of Colombia, its cultural epicentre. Indeed Columbia, the third largest coffee producer in the world, grows more Arabica beans than any other nation on earth. To the first time explorer, the landscape itself seems magical: the sinewy roads through the rolling hillsides are laden with coffee plantations and each new turn offers you a fresh and spectacular panorama. The landscape produces crops teetering on the edge of plunging valleyswhich give way to broad terraces with dizzying views across this incredible scenery.Campasino (‘rural life’)continues unabated as it has done for generations: the locals harvesting coffee,plantains and many other fruits in this verdant and luxuriant land. Three departments make up the Triangulo Del Café: they run in a North-South line,following the Central Andean Cordillera. Caldas is the most northerly of the departments, followed by Risaralda and, most southerly,Quindío. The pristine snow-cappedpeaks of the Parque Natural Los Nevados gaze solemnly down from the east and the climate is accordingly one ofextremes: cold air from the lofty ridges meetsthe warm humidityof the Rio Cauca, the region’s largest river.The water course has its source in the high mountains of Cauca, thenceto its merging with the Rio Brazo and then the Rio Magdalena further north.

I thought the hills around Villa de Leyva were green, and then I came to the coffee region (it’s only an hour’s flight from Bogotá to Pereira, the gateway town). The hillsides of this high-altitude, cool-climate zone are like a ragged, emerald-bright quilt of dense vegetation, frothy coffee plants, and fields of sugar cane, oranges, avocadoes, and cacao. The high point of this region for me is the Cocora Valley, where you can take guided hikes to vantage points and see up close the area’s distinctive wax palms. They grow up to 200 m (656 ft) high and are a type of grass, not strictly a tree. Viewed from afar, their scale is deceptive. Stepping over a felled wax palm is like tiptoeing around a broken ship’s mast. Paths are mostly unmarked, so you’ll need a good guide. You’ll also have to negotiate a few horses at pasture and grazing cattle. Keep your eyes peeled for hummingbirds. Hikes easily combine with visits to the towns of Salento and Filandia to see the kaleidoscopic façades of the town’s houses. There’s a story behind them: during the dreadful period known as La Violencia in the 40s and 50s, Liberals would paint their houses red, while Conservatives’ homes were blue. Eventually, such divisions were wiped out by repainting the houses in all the shades of the spectrum. I also suggest visiting a working finca (coffee farm), where you can get a holistic overview of the coffee-making process. I toured around a finca called San Alberto, observing how the beans were organically grown, selected and ground on site, then packaged in hessian bags. At the end, I took part in an aroma and taste test. Now, I’m not a big coffee drinker, but the end result was still surprising — sweet, mild, and smooth, with no hint of bitterness.


Los Llanos & Wetlands


Spend time discovering the vast tropical wetlands that lie in the east of the Andes in search of the giant anteaters, scarlet ibis and capybaras that call these flooded grasslands and dense woodlands home. Congregating groups of capybaras and log-like spectacled caiman are more common sightings, but it is not impossible to spot some of the largest jaguars on Earth in this thrilling region

Wedged between the peaks and valleys of the snow-speckled Andes and the sweltering lowlands of tropical Amazonia, los llanos is a yawning expanse of prairies and wetlands extending across the border into Venezuela and draining into the Orinoco basin. This is Colombia profunda, sparsely populated and strikingly traditional, so off the beaten track that the only places for visitors to stay are modest farmsteads and guesthouses set within vast cattle farms, (hatos), where the cowboy lifestyle still reigns supreme. Only now is this alluring, welcoming region opening up to adventurous visitors. The tropical prairies, which morph into shimmering wetlands after rain, seethe with a breath-taking profusion of wildlife, feeding and breeding in the myriad of waterways, clinging to the branches of the trees in the patches of dry forest which groan throughout the year with an abundance of exotic birds. Monkeys squabble in the canopy, alligators sprawl on the watery beaches, giant capybara roam cross the paddy fields, anacondas slither silently across the trails, giant storks elegantly pick their way across the pasture. All this trusting wildlife happily co-exists alongside hatos’ humpy zebu cattle.



St Agustan Statues - Cali - Popayan


San Augustin statues. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

The statues present both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic features (from crocodiles, bats and jaguars), having short legs. There were found approximately 300 statues. The dates of the statues are uncertain, but they are believed to have been carved between 50–400 AD.The origin of the carvers remains a mystery, as most of the site is unexcavated, and no writings have been discovered yet. They were painted in bright colors, mainly yellow, red, black and white, but today only a few of them are still colored.

The statues vary in height, the tallest being 23 feet (7.0 m) tall. They are suspected to be funeral statuary. In other regions of the archaeological site where large burial mounds are located, you will see more intimidating figures such as snakes, frogs, and birds strategically place to stand guard for increased protecting during the afterlife. Statues of deities or carving on the ground, of both solar gods, males, and lunar gods, females. These figures and statues provide researchers with a little insight to what this civilization thoughts and perception of life and death are.

Travel to this truly off-the-beaten track attraction hidden away among the almost vertical saw-toothed hills and pinched valleys of the southern Colombian Andes. For centuries this region of exquisite highland landscapes, the territory of the Nasa indigenous tribes, was little visited owing to the rugged terrain. Access is much easier now, and the principal magnet for visitors is the series of intricately decorated pre-Columbian tombs which pit the steep mountainsides. The design, structure and striking artwork of these spell-binding burial chambers reveal the social complexity and cultural wealth of a pre-Hispanic society which flourished over 1,400 years ago, and as such have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The unspoilt village of Tierradentro and nearby small town of San Andres de Pisimbalá, still rarely visited by tourists, offer you the bonus of a prime example of “authentic” Colombia.

Popayan No two walking tours of Popayán will be the same, but that is all part of the charm of this city, which is relatively unused to tourism and still playing things by ear. It is certainly one of the continent’s great colonial masterpieces, ranking easily alongside Arequipa in Peru, Cuenca in southern Ecuador and Bolivia’s legislative capital, Sucre. Like these noble cities Popayán has the gravitas of a long and distinguished history, but is also a modern, forward looking place in love with music, art and learning. There are several universities, so the place is usually buzzing with young people strolling through the squares and congregating in the cafés and bars. Popayán was off the map for visitors during the epoch of guerrilla activity but now it is a peaceful and optimistic city with plenty to offer the sight-seer. Following severe earthquake damage many of the stately buildings were restored with deference to the Spanish colonial style, all washed in brilliant white, fringing the original grid of narrow streets. Depending on your guide and the time of day, you’ll pop into some of the many baroque churches, there are eight in the centre including five in one block. But you also gain access to some of the stunning colonnaded courtyards of religious buildings now housing anything from college offices to prisons. There are some interesting museums: tell your guide if you have a special interest in visiting any of them – and to cap it all a superb panoramic view from the top of Tulcán hill.

The countryside around Popayán is delightful, with range after range of pea-green, rucked hills adorned with ribbon-like waterfalls and pitted with lagoons and hot springs. The region is well worth exploring in its own fight, but more so if you are planning to visit the villages of the Guambiano indians. This indigenous community is easily identified by the costume which the people still choose to wear, the men sporting blue and fuchsia tunics while the women envelope themselves in deep blue shawls and cover their heads in black bowler hats. Once reserved and suspicious of outsiders they are now beginning to appreciate the benefits of inviting visitors in to their homes and craft workshops and offer you a friendly welcome. If you visit the main town Silvia on a Tuesday you’ll have the chance of browsing the renowned market bulging with fruit, vegetables and household goods: this is not a tourist affair, rather a shopping opportunity for Guambianos from the villages around which you might be tempted to visit if you are not there on a Tuesday. The market has grown in popularity recently and Otavalo Indians have moved in with their distinctive artesania, but discovering the Guambiano territory is still very much an authentic experience.

Tierradentro. Travel to this truly off-the-beaten track attraction hidden away among the almost vertical saw-toothed hills and pinched valleys of the southern Colombian Andes. For centuries this region of exquisite highland landscapes, the territory of the Nasa indigenous tribes, was little visited owing to the rugged terrain. Access is much easier now, and the principal magnet for visitors is the series of intricately decorated pre-Columbian tombs which pit the steep mountainsides. The design, structure and striking artwork of these spell-binding burial chambers reveal the social complexity and cultural wealth of a pre-Hispanic society which flourished over 1,400 years ago, and as such have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The unspoilt village of Tierradentro and nearby small town of San Andres de Pisimbalá, still rarely visited by tourists, offer you the bonus of a prime example of “authentic” Colombia. About 80km east of Popayan


Colombian Amazon

Journey by plane and up-river boat ride to the remote Calanoa Jungle Lodge, spending thrilling days exploring the rainforest on foot and by boat in pursuit of native wildlife. Head out in both the early morning and evening excursions in the company of an expert local guide, learning about the flora and fauna and searching for some of the smaller and most elusive jungle creatures. Travel atop murky brown rivers in a dugout canoe deep within the Amazon Rainforest, navigating tributaries overhung with spider monkeys and watched by countless disguised species. With luck, catch a glimpse of the iconic pink river dolphin.

The Colombian Amazon, for decades shunned by visitors concerned about security, is now peaceful and slowly opening up to tourism. Colombian families are now joined by overseas visitors keen to experience a genuine, time-ignorant Amazonian ambience before the commercial big hitters move in. Wander the mango tree-shaded streets of an unmodernised Leticia. The modestly sized but principal port hosts a thriving market with rainbow-coloured mountains of exotic fruits and freshly landed fish, and a crowded dock where fishing boats and dugout canoes jostle with traditional wooden Amazon river vessels and zippy motor launches. The river dominates the town: rickety houses on stilts crowd the waterline, and works art - sculptures and murals featuring dolphins and indigenous icons decorate public buildings and squares. If you stay at one of the modest but well-equipped hotels here you can also experience the invasion of parrots in Parque Santander at sunset – a glorious feast of colour and sound. Outside town, visit the well-run Tanimboca Nature Reserve (11km away) offering jungle walks, zip lines and kayaking, Puerto Nariño, a delightful and tranquil eco-village 75km upstream, Tabatinga on the Brazilian side of the border and Isla Rosa or San Antonio settlements on the Peruvian side. You can visit all three countries in one day. It’s only a short boat ride to visit any of a number of welcoming, unspoilt riverside indigenous settlements such as Mocagua, or Marashá in Peru. Tropical wildlife can be spotted along the river with grey and pink dolphins breaching the water’s surface on the Amazon and lagoons: a glorious sight at any time but especially at sunset.

The Amazon basin disdains political frontiers. Human and animal life here has had to submit to the dominance and resilience of the dense jungle rainforest, clinging to the banks of the river, or on or below the surface. Throughout history ignored by the powers-that-be in the capital cities, nevertheless the borders have often been disputed, no more so than in the southern corner of Colombia, where the frontiers have finally been established with Peru and Brazil. From Leticia in Colombia you can experience these three countries on a guided excursion in just one day. The border with Brazil, where Leticia meets Tabatinga, runs down an avenue within town. You’d only know you crossed it because suddenly signs are in Portuguese. Tabatinga is a bit less vibrant than Leticia, with wide straight avenues lined by shops and workshops. There’s a population of 60,000 so it’s bigger than the Colombian town, and has a more frontier feel, with relaxed-looking soldiers strolling about. Here you can visit a beauty spot by the river where there is a bar serving excellent caipirinhas – Brazil’s nation-defining cocktail. Isla Santa Rosa in Peru – rather poor and a bit scruffy - is just a short boat ride away where no doubt you can have a taste of ceviche or down a pisco sour or two. It’s not so easy to get there in the months when the river is low, but you may have the chance to visit the tiny mestizo Peruvian settlement San Antonio on the Amazon river banks, where a long abandoned drug smugglers’ airstrip has been converted into the village’s grassy main thoroughfare.

The riverbanks around Leticia and Puerto Nariño in the Colombian Amazon are quite busy with indigenous communities: fisherman can be spotted on the banks, small homesteads are surrounded by tiny fields, dugout canoes and small canopied motorised launches chug up and down. The rainforest here, however, is still relatively pristine, and with patience, a talented guide and a good pair of binoculars you should be able to compile an impressive list of observed species. Monkeys chatter on vine-choked tree trunks, sloths nestle on exposed branches high in the canopy, and cormorants, toucans, parakeets and egrets fight for space on tropical foliage below, while kingfishers flit through the tangled vegetation at water-level and any number of spiders, frogs and toads shelter on the forest floor. Most exciting of all, however, for visitors is the opportunity to spot dolphins, both grey and pink, breaching the water’s surface, graceful and unconcerned by human presence. A canoe or motor launch ride from Leticia, Puerto Nariño or Calanoa Lodge following the riverbanks or, in high water, penetrating the flooded forest, will swiftly enable you to enter this biodiverse habitat and start ticking off your wildlife observation list. A stroll along clear trails by day or night will also open up opportunities for the silent, patient observer.

It’s easier to visit an authentic indigenous community in Colombia, perhaps, than in any of the neighbouring Amazonian countries. Public riverboats sail thrice daily upriver from the principal port Leticia, calling in at riverside settlements on demand to collect and disembark schoolchildren, fishermen, and inhabitants travelling to and fro on business. The way of life in these villages has not changed much over the centuries: they live by fishing and agriculture and now also by sales of craft work such as polished wood carvings. Many of the wooden, stilted houses have no furniture except for hammocks, a few cooking pots and - well, it is the 21st century - satellite TV sets. Inhabitants are naturally friendly; local guides know individual families who welcome you into their homes, so you have the privilege of a real community experience. Perhaps the most interesting community to visit is Mocagua, just a 20-minute walk from Calanoa Lodge, where the stilt-supported, brightly painted houses are decorated with giant murals of indigenous, exotic birds and animals, and where you can have lunch at a makeshift restaurant in the home of an enterprising local family or visit the nearby monkey orphanage.

Puerto Narino - This most attractive little port, founded in 1961 and populated by local indigenous Ticuna, Yagua and Cocana people is 75km upstream of Leticia in the Colombian Amazon. You can only reach it by boat on the Amazon: public launches dock there three times a day. The 90-minute jungle-fringed ride from Leticia passes over a ‘meeting of the (differently coloured) waters’ - or you can hire a private boat so you can stop off at other communities or to get a close up of wildlife. Puerto Nariño offers an alternative base to Leticia for jungle visits, with one good hotel and a few guest houses. You can also easily visit Puerto Nariño on a day trip from Leticia or Calanoa Lodge. This lovely village has made a conscious effort to be eco-friendly and sustainable, and ingenious use of rubbish, such as hanging baskets made from plastic bottles, are a beacon of responsible enterprise. Close to the village is the Natutama Foundation, a non-profit community project (guided tours except Tuesdays) devoted to conservation, recycling and sustainability. Puerto Nariño is very dreamy and relaxing with no vehicular traffic, just a grid of footpaths lined with flowering plants and thatched, wooden houses. There are three restaurants, and a couple of gift shops by the pier. There’s also an observation tower where you can climb 68 steps (12m) for a delightful view over the village and surrounding jungle. Also popular is a boat trip to nearby Lago Tarapoto, sheltering Victoria Regia water lilies and a plethora of birdlife. There is a 5km walking trail to explore or you can visit nearby indian communities.


Nuqui and coast

On Colombia’s west coast, travel to a remote oceanfront eco-lodge to embark on daily humpback whale-watching excursions, go on kayaking trips, try your hand at surfing or simply walk along the deserted beach. The main draw here is undoubtedly seeing the whales. Humpback whales, which are among the largest of all sea mammals, migrate from the colder waters of the Antarctic and southern Chile every year to Colombia’s Pacific coast to breed. They then return to give birth a year later. Nuquí and the nearby Playa Guachalito is one of the most popular and best places to go whale watching in Colombia. It is relatively easy to access, safe, and besides the whales, boasts a spectacular and nearly deserted beach.

The mating season technically runs from June to October, and whales will be around throughout that time. However, the best time to see the whales in Colombia’s Pacific is in August. So if at all possible, try to shoot for visiting around mid-August when the whales should be both plentiful and active.

Nuquí is located in the department of Chocó, in the Western part of Colombia between the mountainous area of Baudó and the Pacific Ocean. Nuquí has great ethnic and cultural diversity as well as a hugevariety of flora and fauna. It is a goodstarting point for expeditionsto the rainforest, perhaps to look for the 147 species of birds on offer here, with lodges offering a range of guided tours. Furthermore it is ideally situated for scuba diving: at certain times Humpback whales are your companionsin the water, whilst turtles, dolphins and a plethoraof fish species are very easy to encounter, despite there being no reefs

With an annual rainfall above 10,000 cm³,the 1,300 km long Pacific Coast of Colombia is one of the most humid regions on the planet. To the north, where the Baudó Range fallsinto the ocean forming exquisite covesand stunning headlands, the Colombian Pacific rainforest contains a trulyimpressive biodiversity. The southern part is less undulating and is characterised by anetwork of rivers, thoughsome eye-catching cliffspunctuatethe coastline. Mangroves border the beaches in the Colombian Pacific rainforestand lend the visitor enviable proximity to one of nature’s most fascinating and prolific landscapes. This is the ideal destination for “eco-tourists”andthose that simply enjoy a tranquil escape, immersed in the incredible array of natural wonders.

Spend these days at leisure ortake a relaxing walk to the Waterfall of Love or the local village (included with a bilingual guide). Alternatively,there are a host of other excursions to suit allinterests and energy levels, all bookable from the lodgeat extra cost. These includehiking in the rainforest, visiting the indigenous Chori tribe, canoeing the mangroves or Rio Terco, surfing, kayaking, paddle boardingor whale watching (seasonal:usually end of June –early November).