- Staff Member: Dan Crandall
- Travel Dates: October 21-26, 2016
- Destinations: Columbia: Bogota, Santander, Pereira (gateway to the Coffee Region) and Cartagena
October 21, 2016: Bogota arrival
I arrived late at night in Bogota. Right away, I was impressed, which was a constant feeling throughout my trip in friendly Colombia, by the airport – the infrastructure in Colombia was in generally very good condition with certain key installations like airports being remarkably modern. Tonight, I stayed at the Hotel Sheraton in Bogota, a comfortable, clean mid-range hotel, maybe 15 minutes from the airport with an airport shuttle service on-site. Modern Bogota, established back in 1538, is a leading city in South America. Surrounded by green mountains, the city is a blend of colonial and contemporary architecture, with a host of impressive buildings, art museums and galleries, and a colonial historical center, attractive churches, markets, and interesting day trips nearby. A primary attraction here is the famous Gold Museum, one of the finest of its kind in the world. The Bogota Gold Museum contains 34,000 gold artifacts, plus thousands of ancient bone, stone, ceramic, and textile art pieces from a slew of fascinating pre-Hispanic societies.
October 22, 2016: Fly to Bucaramanga
Today I flew into Bucaramanga, Santander’s capital city of 1 million not far from the Venezuelan border and a classic “working” town (rather than a “tourist” town) that is ringed by high, attractive hills. I found the city center a pleasant place to stroll and gained an excellent glimpse into “real life” inside Colombia. Of particular interest to adventure travelers, however, is the paragliding center on the edge of town, which offers tandem paragliding trips that would make for a fun half-day excursion if this is of interest. I overnighted at the Hotel Dann Bucaramanga, a fine 5-star hotel with a good central location for exploring the town’s center by foot.
October 23, 2016: Mountain biking and Whitewater Rafting
This morning, we drove approximately 2 hours through the mountains until we reached the starting point, situated at 6,000 feet above sea level, for our exhilarating mountain bike descent into famous Chicamocha Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world. Passing waterfalls, coffee and tobacco farms, we rode to Jordan, a historic pueblo (town) at 1,000 feet above sea level. Jordan is an atmospheric little village along the river with a feel of an abandoned ghost town that most tourists don’t have an opportunity to see. Here we stopped at a refreshing natural pool to cool off, had a swim, and enjoyed a fantastic lunch.
Afterward, we experienced one of the top activities in Santander, whitewater rafting. Leaving our bikes behind, we boarded our waiting rafts on the Chicamocha River. We encountered some thrilling rapids and huge waves, starting with some Class III’s and increasingly larger until the last section of Class IV’s. Rafters have been known to experience huge waves, depending on the weather and the water levels. The nice thing with the Chicamocha River is that, in the case of wipeouts, there are pools at the end of each rapid which make this river runable for tourism.
Afterward, we got back into our air-conditioned van for the ride up to Barichara, a quaint colonial village. Our overnights here were at the wonderful Hotel Hicausa, a comfortable mid-range boutique hotel with loads of charm.
October 24, 2016: Waterfall Hike, Waterfall Rappel, and Caving
Rarely will you find a more enjoyable morning activity than an adventurous hike through a lush, tranquil forest up a mountain to a beautiful, gushing waterfall at the top. But that’s what we did this morning, at Juan Curi waterfall, where we found a phenomenal 600-foot high cliff with a cascade thundering down multiple rock ledges and terraces to a huge pool below. We took in the scenery and unique flora and butterflies as we hiked up. At the broad boxy ledge about 2/3rds of the way up, we got into climbing harnesses and sat through a safety briefing, among simply gorgeous scenery, for our next adventure, rappelling down the same waterfall we just hiked up. Part of the rush, especially at the start – besides the sheer height – was simply entering the oodles of water after the initial launch and making your way down by rope through this significant waterfall.
For a few in our group, this was their first time at rappelling, but even for rest of us, the adventure definitely got the adrenaline up. After making my way down the cliff, the safety guy helped me remove the harness and I dived straight into the large natural pool at the bottom of the falls, which made for excellent swimming, especially on a hot day like it was.
From there, we headed to the attractive hilltop town (aptly named) Paramo. Here, we had a delicious lunch in a beautiful little family-owned restaurant that was loaded with eccentric relics like old TV’s, record players, guitars, records, old family photos, etc., and a meditative orchid nursery in the back. After lunch, we headed underground for a subterranean adventure. Cueva del Indio (“Indian Cave”) just outside of Paramo is a mysterious limestone cave system, complete with long echoes and a fascinating variety of bats flying overhead. We donned hard hats, personal flotation devices, and flashlights to make our way through the watery darkness. We learned a bit about life underground while weaving between stalactites and stalagmites, low ceilings, bat colonies, and shallow pools. Near the end, I took the option to jump into the total blackness into a deep pool below, from where we swam out into the daylight via an underground river exit.
We returned to Barichara for our overnight. Dinner tonight was at the elegant La Nube Posada, where we were treated to a special regional highlights dinner by an amazing local gourmet chef.
October 25, 2016: Barichara walking tour and hike on the Camino Real trail to the pretty town of Guane
Our group did a nifty walking tour of Barichara this morning, en-route to the starting point for our hike on the Camino Real. Barichara is a renowned heritage village in Colombia especially for its hand-carved stone streets. We visited cathedrals, enjoyed a few spectacular viewpoints, and strolled past some wonderful colonial architecture. In fact, Barichara is dubbed “the most beautiful pueblo in Colombia.”
The edge of town is the starting point for the hike to the pretty little pueblo of Guane. This countryside hike travels approximately 9 KM along cobble, stone and dirt and is a famous if short stretch of the old “royal road,” otherwise known as the Camino Real. Birding is excellent along the trail, but watch your step since the old road is rather rugged – hiking boots were helpful. We passed attractive farms, distant hills, rolling countryside, and old rock fences from many years ago.
At the end of the hike, we reached Guane, often touted as a smaller version of pretty Barichara, home to an attractive old church, tiny white-washed homes, cobble streets, and a worthwhile paleontology museum. We ate at a brand-new hotel/restaurant, only about a block from the village’s only square, where we were served phenomenal seafood paella. We got in the van then and headed back on a quick drive to Barichara. Some in the group joined the guides for some fun mountain biking right outside of town. I met up with them and tried a special salty treat that locals enjoy with a cold one – dried ants, ants specifically known as “big ass ants.” I would call them “interesting,” but pretzels, peanuts and popcorn have absolutely nothing to worry about. I made sure to leave room for dinner tonight, which was at the tranquil Restaurante Las Cruces, an outstanding culinary project/teaching restaurant at the local center for regional arts and crafts.
October 26, 2016: Flight to Pereira
We had a 3-hour transfer flight this morning to Bucaramanga, where we connected with our flight to Pereira, a city of about 450,000 and the main gateway to the Coffee Region.
While I was busy at a conference for the next 3 nights, meaning I didn’t do any touring in Pereira, I certainly learned a lot about the Coffee Region while I was here. The countryside here is a UNESCO heritage area full of beautiful coffee estates, wonderful haciendas, glaciers, mountains and hills, hot springs, and more. Coffee tours, horse rides, nature walks, birding, treks, and hiking are all popular activities. Pereira itself is not a tourist attraction, but all around it, you’ll find a major tourism area. Armenia, El Bosque del Saman, Manizales, and Pereira form a region known as the “coffee triangle.” Many of the major sights and experiences within this coffee triangle can be reached within an hour or two’s drive. The area may remind some travelers of Chile’s Central Valley or Argentina’s Mendoza wine regions, without of course, the wine, but with lush coffee fields adorning the green rolling hills instead.
October 29-31: Cartagena
I flew to Cartagena, arriving around mid-evening. It was a breeze getting to my hotel, the Hotel Las Americas, with a convenient taxi kiosk just outside the main entrance. The airport is about 20 minutes from most entrances to the citadel, which is the main tourist zone in the city, where many hotels are located. If traveling light, it’s probably easiest just to get dropped off at an entrance and then walk to your hotel – nothing is that far away. Taxis are inexpensive, about $10-20 depending on your hotel’s location.
No other city in Latin America quite matches up with Cartagena; it’s a truly singular destination. Cartagena is an open-air spectacle that compels you to wander, strolling the countless narrow cobblestone streets and taking in all the colors of 400-year-old houses and astounding fortifications from its Colonial glory days. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cartagena dates to 1533, and the immaculate colorful colonial buildings are protected by the most complete set of fortifications in South America. Excellent restaurants, enchanting street performances, live music, cosmopolitan bars, attractive plazas, and leafy parks round out the historic inner town, while outside the city walls are beaches, resorts, and a bustling commercial city. Day trips enjoying scuba diving, white sand beaches and snorkeling are on offer on the nearby Rosario Islands and beyond, adding to the allure of Cartagena. I spent 2 nights here but 3 nights might be more ideal depending on when your departure flight is scheduled. But definitely plan on at least one full day and 2 nights to really enjoy the inner heritage zone.