We're headed to Colombia tomorrow. We're off to see a country we were supposed to visit five years ago. We'll be on the trail for Colombian culture — from the Andes to the Pacific to the Caribbean — and to find The Lost City along the way.
Colombia. It's one of the countries that got away during the 15 months we traveled through Latin America a few years ago. We didn’t skip it because of safety concerns — in fact, even at that time ever more travelers were saying the opposite and urging us to go. We just happened to pass it at the height of rainy season and we figured we’d return when we were certain to have ample time to explore.
We didn’t expect it would take five years to return, but here we are.
We leave for Colombia tomorrow.
Note: In full disclosure, we technically have been to Colombia before. A couple of years ago, we enjoyed an eight-hour layover in Bogota, visited a friend in the city and tooled around for several hours. Dan thinks this counts. I do not.
Editor’s Note: Dan here. I’m not entirely certain what Audrey means by “counts.” Have I been to Colombia? Yes. Have I really “been to Colombia” in the Uncornered Market way. Not yet.
Colombia In My Imagination: Marquez
While many are introduced to Colombia by way of the news media – reports on things like drugs cartels and FARC rebels and the tenor of companion violence that comes with all that – I’d like to think I first met Colombia by reading Gabriel García Márquez novels, including Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez’s characters and plot lines were so vivid and outlandish, but I knew those portraits were drawn from and grounded in personal experience, composites of people and life events as Marquez had lived them.
Marquez's depictions conveyed an intensity in Colombian life, both in its joys and its sorrows. Scenes played out in colorfully painted towns and villages, albeit against the backdrop of corrupt politicians and clergy, all dashed with an undeniable Spanish colonial angst.
This Colombia intrigued me. The Colombia of emotion, of color and perhaps a touch of calamity.
So after reading and hearing about Colombia for so long, we're curious to dig in, to see for ourselves, to meet who we can, and to find what we will in the coming weeks.
Safety in Colombia
As we’ve shared our upcoming trip to Colombia with friends and family, among the first questions: “Is it safe there now?”
Dan and Audrey, meet the travel safety elephant in the room. Colombia has certainly witnessed its share of turmoil and violence, and although it isn’t competing with the likes of Singapore at the top of the list of the world's safest countries to visit, it has made a great deal of progress in the last decade on those counts. This is not to say that incidents don't still happen. However, we’ve found in our travels in nearby countries where awareness of visitor safety remains high (e.g., Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, etc.), we often find locals quite protective of us, advising us on-the-fly as to where we should and should not go.
We will remain aware and be mindful just as we would in cities anywhere — in the United States, Europe or elsewhere in Latin America. As we’ve written before, there are ways to remain safe yet open to local people and experiences.
What We Will See and Do in Colombia
We will spend a little over three weeks in Colombia, with the first week on our own and the next two and a half weeks on a G Adventures tour and Lost City Trek. Although we’ve done some research on Colombia, we are intent on gathering advice and tips as we go. So we welcome any recommendations.
Our First Week in Colombia: South or West?
We will travel independently during our first week in country. We'll spend the first couple of days at a friend’s cabin outside of Bogota, but after that we’re not entirely certain. We'd hoped to go to the Pacific Coast to the area near the town of Nuqui, but as there are no roads in that region we’re dependent upon flights and they are proving a bit problematic. So now we're considering visiting San Agustín so we can explore the 500 stone statues left in the hills by prehistoric peoples living in the area almost 5,000 years ago.
Of course, all this may change between the time we publish and the time we land in Bogota.
Update: After talking with friends here in Colombia and getting feedback from you all on our Facebook page we've decided to go to the Sierra Nevada and Barichara for the week.
What is your advice? Where would you go with a week in either Colombia’s west or south?
Colombia Experience Tour
This is the time for all those places and experiences that dance in our heads when we think of Colombia. Medellin, Cartagena, coffee plantations in the hills, beaches and jungles in the north — they all come into play during the next segment of our trip. We’ll spend almost two weeks exploring the country on the G Adventures Colombia Experience Tour.
A few highlights of this trip include:
- Bogota: Although we spent an afternoon here many years ago (I refer you to the inline argument between writer and editor, husband and wife above) we are looking forward to returning, digging in and exploring its markets, neighborhoods and art galleries.
- Armenia: We will spend time in the hills of Colombia’s main coffee-growing region, visiting coffee farms and meeting some of the people behind the coffee beans of Juan Valdez lore. We’ll also have some time to explore Salento and Cocora.
- Medellin: The prevailing reputation of Medellin was once one of violence and drugs (think: Medellin cartel), but it now stands as another example of destinations that are not static, places that have witnessed positive change and will hopefully continue to do so. We know several people who chose Medellin as their home, and have heard great things about the laid back feel of the city and the friendliness of its people.
- Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona: This is where we begin to shift gears and enjoy some of the beaches and Caribbean culture for which Colombia is famous. After all the photos we’ve seen of this region, we are trying hard to manage our expectations.
- Cartagena: This coastal city seems to be the stuff of Marquez novels – colorful, vibrant, steamy. Every time we mention Colombia to someone who has visited, they always seem to have a story of Cartagena, one that they relate with a tinge of emotion – eyes cast wistfully or a hand placed over the heart.
Lost City Trek
We end our journey with the Lost City Trek, a five-day hike in the jungle of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains, with the goal of reaching “Ciudad Perdida Teyuna,” (Spanish for “Lost City of Teyuna”). Although no one knows for certain, it is believed that Teyuna was founded around 800 A.D., some 650 years earlier than Peru's Machu Picchu. The city was a central hub of sorts for a group of villages inhabited by the Tairona (among the predecessors of today's northern Colombian inhabitants). Teyuna is composed of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside. It is connected by roads and thousands of stone stairs and was abandoned in 1599 after it was attacked during the Spanish conquest.
Rumor has it that local Kogi, Arhuaco and Wiwas indigenous groups in the area knew of Teyuna, considered it a holy place, and thus kept it to themselves. It was “rediscovered” a little over 40 years ago and opened to trekkers in 2005. So while this isn't an entirely new trek, it's not especially well known…yet.
Along the way we’ll pass through farms and villages and meet with some of the indigenous communities to learn about local culture, history and life in the region. The trail carves its way through thick jungle and follows the Buritaca River, arriving each night at a campsite conveniently located near a natural swimming pool so that we may cool off from the day's efforts.
This is a new trek for G Adventures so we’re excited to experience it before they begin offering it to travelers from mid-June of this year.
Our Trip to Colombia: How You Can Help
If you’ve traveled to Colombia and been to any of the cities or areas mentioned above, we’d love to hear your advice on markets, food, and other great experiences you’ve had. Although some of our itinerary is fixed with the tour –- in particular the destination cities — this G Adventures trip provides quite a bit of independent time so we’d love to hear your suggestions!
Any other Colombia destinations or experiences, hidden or otherwise, that you feel warrant a look or a visit, please share. We may be able to pursue them in our free time. If we cannot, our readers are sure to appreciate and benefit from your advice.
Follow Our Colombia Adventure
You can follow our adventures in Colombia using the hashtags #GadvColombia on Twitter and Instagram. We will also share updates on our Facebook and Google Plus pages. We're excited to have the opportunity to share our Colombia experience with you!