‘Magical Realism’ –this is the official slogan of Procolombia, the national tourist board of Colombia. What was magic and real about Colombia? I was on a two week tour to find out what was behind this.
The tourist board introduced this campaign in 2013 to entice tourists to this emerging destination, previously known for its ongoing drug cartels, and years of violence and instability. Finally a peace deal was signed in Cartagena in September 2016.
Bogota, the capital, is at a lofty 2600m above sea-level. It’s the fourth highest capital in the world after La Paz, Quito and Thimpu. No wonder then, that my heart was beating more than usual when I walked up the stairs to my room on the first day. Bogota is 5 hours behind GMT, 6 hours during British summer time. Temperatures here are similar to the UK, so no problems with getting used to a different climate, at least not in the first few days. Locals were wearing thick down jackets, for me it was like a summer’s day in the Lake District!
My hotel was in a superb location to explore Bogota and surrounding area. Byron, a local city guide who was wrapped up against the cold, walked us round La Candelaria district, the cobbled historical quarter, home to preserved colonial buildings, the Plaza de Bolivar (every town has one, it was Simon Bolivar who fought for independence), the Gold Museum and Botero Museum. I quickly got up to speed on the Spanish colonial era, the importance of gold in Colombia and the chubby specialism of local artist Botero. There were lots of police at all the tourist sites, so I felt completely safe. As in any city, there are certain no-go zones for tourists, particularly at night.
A cable car ride took us to Cerro Monserrate (3200m) for the bird’s eye view of this huge city – it was a revelation to see the urban sprawl down below us. A church on the summit of Monserrate draws pilgrims and tourists alike, largely because of the 17th century statue of the Fallen Christ. A walk through tropical gardens passing the 14 Stations of the Cross led us back down to the cable car station. At this time of day, given that jetlag was starting to kick in, the exercise was welcome.
Flowers, Food and Salt
It was 6.30am, the body clock was still adrift, but a visit to Paloquemao market brought renewed energy. The sweet smell of thousands of flowers filled the air. There were roses of every possible shade of pink and red, freesias, lilies. Colombia is the second largest exporter of flowers after Holland. Inside the busy market hall, people were going about their daily business selling fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and household goods. Who knew that there were potatoes which were white with red stripes, and twisted like a helter skelter? We tasted arepas (ground maize flatbread), empanadas (fried stuffed pastries), and tropical fruit native to Colombia, such as lulo, uchuwa, zapote. No wonder I had been instructed to have a light breakfast that morning.
Next we headed to the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral. This structure carved entirely out of salt is only one of three in the entire world, the other two being in Poland. Mesmerising colours of blues and reds drew me deep into the vast underground space, until I reached the grand finale of the nave and its colossal cross.
Zona Cafetera, Hummingbirds and a Remote Hacienda
The next week was spent travelling around the mountainous regions of Quindio, Risaralda, and Caldas, fanning out like spokes on a wheel from the town of Manizales. The area is renowned for its coffee culture, the cloud forest with its tropical birds and animals, and outstanding landscapes and scenery.
Accommodation during the week is split between colourful Salento, the Otun-Quimbaya national park, and a privately owned remote farmhouse hacienda with its own outdoor thermal hot pool and horseriding possibilities. This was definitely my favourite accommodation of the whole trip, although each place I stayed at had its own merits and character.
There was such a diverse range of activities and walks, it’s hard to pull out one particular highlight, so here is a selection of what I did during this week in the Zona Cafetera: Walks vary from a gentle stroll around Salento, to a bird watching walk in the early dawn light, to a full day hike in the mountains at altitude. An easier and a harder walk are on offer on some of these days.
Visit a local NGO supporting a project in urban Manizales using social actions to generate change.
Take a walking tour through a coffee plantation, where I learnt about the coffee production process from bean to cup
Enjoy a ride in a Jeep Willy from Salento to Corcora with its wax palm trees reaching to the sky. Hike through the cloud forest to the Acaime reserve to observe tiny hummingbirds that darted between the feeders.
Play a game of Tejo – a game only known in Colombia – a bit like boules, except that instead of a jack ball, we hit a target with a puck, and if lucky, it explodes with gunpowder. Even better with some beer!
Walk through the Otun Quimbaya national park in search of howler monkeys and excellent bird life including the rare and endemic Cauca Guan and the Red-ruffed Fruitcrow – I saw all three. The canopy of trees above my head was a perfect playground for the orange howler monkey and its family. I heard them before I saw them, and spent moments watching them as they played and scampered in the dawn light. Listening to the call of the birds in the early morning was indeed magical. If you’re lucky, you may spot a tapir.
Hike along the river Otun, one of the best preserved river basins in South America, ascending through cloud forest to dramatic waterfalls.
Relax in the outdoor thermal hot pool at Hacienda La Quinta after a breathtaking walk in the high level paramo of Los Nevados National Park (this is at 3900m-4200m above sea level so it does literally take your breath away)
There is a free day, in amongst all this diverse activity. You could just relax in the Hacienda, or take a horse (you can be led, if you’re not a competent horserider) or walk to the nearby ‘Bromeliads’, or ‘Waterfalls’. The horses are used to carrying people, and they are also available to take you from the vehicle access point to and from the hacienda if you don’t want to walk.
Are you ready to book yet?
Caribbean Influences and Indigenous Tribes
So far, each day had been so different and exciting with new experiences, but I still had a few more days in this intriguing country. It was time to fly to Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. Another first for me, I had never stood on a Caribbean beach and watched the waves lapping up onto the shore. The heat and humidity on the coast and inland in this part of Colombia was quite a contrast to the cooler climates experienced in Bogota and the area around Manizales.
Cartagena is a lively UNESCO listed World Heritage site, and a local city guide ensures you get the most out of your time here. Alex explained the history of the key sites within the old walled town, he pointed out the building where the peace deal was signed, and took us to the fortress above the town, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, which dominates the skyline. Built in the 17th century, the fortress has withstood every battle and attack, with a network of tunnels designed with the intention of confusing the enemy, and protecting the inhabitants. New meets old in this city of two halves, with the Boca Grande and its high rise apartment blocks visible from the ramparts of the fortress.
Sounds of salsa music drifted up to us, and after an impromptu spot of salsa dancing within the fortress walls, our curiosity got the better of us and our guide hastened us to the source, a softball game. It was evident this part of Cartagena is not on the general tourist route, we were made very welcome and enjoyed a Colombiana beer whilst watching the game.
The final stop of the tour was a 4 hour drive east along the coast, at the Playa Koralia beach hotel and close to the Tayrona National Park. Bedrooms are in individual straw huts, set within the tropical hotel grounds, each with hammocks, mosquito nets and outside bathrooms but within a private wall. Both the bar and the dining room are steps away from the beach and the Caribbean. Squirrels and iguanas can be seen in the grounds, and the sounds of the cicadas and other nocturnal animals can be heard long into the night.
Early the next morning, we met our guide and set off on our walk through the Tayrona National Park. The Tayrona National Park straddles both the coast and forest covered mountains and is home to some 56 endangered species. Tamarind and howler monkeys were visible but the numbers of people walking along the trail meant that many others, including poisonous snakes (phew) were not on show that day.
We followed a track which took us up through the tropical rainforest with a detour to visit a Kogi indigenous tribal village, a world away from the modern one I inhabited. Straw huts, and pure white clothing, no modern conveniences. Kogi are the last surviving world of the Inca and the Aztecs, direct descendents of the Tairona culture who built lots of stone structure and pathways in the forest. I also spotted a Coca tree, innocuous in itself without added chemicals to create the destructive cocaine, but the Kogi chew the coca leaves to keep them going for hours on end at high altitude. Further along we came to the Pueblito, where remains of more than 500 dwellings have been discovered, further proof of an early civilisation in this coastal area. A tricky descent, often across large boulders (not to be attempted in the wet, and only for really fit walkers) brought us down through the forest to the coast at Cabo San Juan. From there it was an undulating path along stretches of beach and forest with glimpses of tamarind monkeys, to the end of our final walk, the reward was a beer overlooking the beach as the sun dipped behind the sea.
Colombia did not disappoint, it delivered in more ways than I expected it to with a diversity and variety of landscape and culture that I had not anticipated. What of the tourist board publicity? It certainly is magical, and it is very real, in an unpolished kind of way. What’s more, I would now put Colombia in my top 5 favourite countries ever visited.