Next Up: Exploring Colombia and Finding The Lost City


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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.

Cartagena
The colorful streets of Cartagena, Colombia.

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.

Cartagena Streets
Tropical, colorful and sweet — Colombia's Caribbean coast.

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.

Medellín
Medellin: the public transportation gondola takes you high above the city.

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.

Colombian Coffee
Going straight to the source for Colombian coffee: Armenia.

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.

Bogota's Cathedral - Columbia
Bogota Cathedral. One of the few photos from our brief visit years ago.

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.
Tayrona National Park
Caribbean coastline inside Tayrona National Park.

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.

Lost City Trek
Found: The Lost City in Colombia's Sierra Nevada Mountains.

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.

Hike to The Lost City in the Sierra of Colombia
Sierra Nevada jungle layers unfold to the Lost City.

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!

Photo Credits: G Adventures, Marcelo Druck, Katie Bordner

Disclosure: Our trip to Colombia is provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.
About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

21 thoughts on “Next Up: Exploring Colombia and Finding The Lost City”

  1. Looks good. I am actually ‘moving’ to south America next year possibly starting in Colombia and cant wait to do the hike to the lost city

    Reply
    • Damien, we’ve met many people who moved to South America and ended up making Colombia their home — then never left 🙂

      We’ve heard great things about the Lost City trek, so when we were planning our Colombia trip that was at the top of our list. Stay tuned!

      Reply
  2. I think I understand you guys’ technicality here. As seasoned travelers, there is sometimes the urge to make lists and count what countries one has been to, how many borders were crossed, and how many passport stamps and visas one has accumulated. But as you have already said, getting inside a new country’s borders is one thing, but actually exploring it is another.

    Like you, I have also been to Colombia before, technically. It was also a 9-hour layover in Bogota, while I was flying from New York City to Lima. I got out of the airport, went to the city center, checked out the Museo del Oro, explored La Candelaria for a bit, and bought a postcard. I have a Colombian stamp in my old passport. In my country count, I do consider Colombia as a country I have been to, but I also acknowledge that 9 hours is not enough to confidently say that I have “seen” Colombia.

    One final point, before this comment becomes too long. I think the time spent in a country to make it count is somewhat proportional to its size and amount of things to see and do and explore. If we spend 4 hours in the Vatican City, most of us will not have a problem saying we have been to and seen the Vatican City. But I think even you guys would think I am cheating when I say that I have been to Slovakia, only because I was in Esztergom, Hungary, and I crossed the Maria Valeria Bridge to Sturovo, Slovakia. I was inside Slovakia for an hour, ate ice cream, and stayed long enough to have my mobile roaming change from T-Mobile Hungary to T-Mobile Slovakia. Again, I can say I have been to Slovakia, but I definitely haven’t seen it at all.

    Reply
    • Yes, there is that urge to count, make lists, to almost try and quantify your qualitative/unquantifiable travel experiences. And while it helps to explain where we’ve been to people in a concrete way, there is so much gray space behind the “number of countries visited” numbers. Maybe there’s a way to put an * next to the countries where we’ve technically been to, but don’t feel like we’ve explored. Then it gets too complicated…

      I agree that the size and diversity of experiences and places in a country definitely changes whether you can say that you’ve “been” to a place – perfect examples you gave here regarding the Vatican vs. Slovakia.

      Reply
  3. Hi Audrey and Dan,
    I have spent approx. 2 months in Colombia back in 2009, and this is an absolutely amazing country. I will not be able to give you details like markets or restaurants, as this is 6 years back now.
    There are many highlights in Colombia, of which I would definitely include La Guajira, the northernmost point of South America, an amazing desert and the place of “La Contrabanda”.
    I do not see in your plan the colonial cities Northeast of the country: Villa de Leyva & Barichara.
    When visiting San Augustin & Tierradentro, check if there is still a market in Inza, it was back then quite an experience… And push further to Popayan, this city really deserves the name of “La Ciudad Blanca”!
    Will you be in Medellin for the “Fiesta de las Flores”? Great experience… In Medellin, we haver great souvenirs of taking the cable cars with great views of the city and especially really nice encounters.
    We have written quite in details about this trip, including a summary and a budget, on our website.
    Cheers, Gilles

    Reply
    • Gilles, thanks so much for this great advice! We weren’t originally thinking of Villa de Leyva & Barichara for this next week, but as so many people have mentioned it we have to reconsider. If you had to choose only one (as that’s all we have time for before we meet the tour), would you choose visiting Barichara or San Agustin/Popoyan? We have about a day or two to make a decision 🙂

      It looks like the Fiesta de las Flores in Medellin is at the end of July/early August so we’ll miss it on this visit. Will take a look at your site for more advice – thanks!!

      Reply
      • Hi Audrey,
        This is a tough decision.
        But San Agustin is one of the oldest archeological site of the Americas, and in my opinion a must-do in Colombia.
        Papaya is also a great city, so I would rather choose San Agustin / Popayan.
        Can’t you stay another week in Colombia?
        Cheers, Gilles

        Reply
        • Hi Gilles,
          After spending time talking with our friends who live in Colombia we eventually decided on Barichara area as we didn’t have tons of time. They said that in order to do what we wanted to do in the San Agustin/Popayan we’d spend too much of our time on transport and not enjoy it as much. Unfortunately, we can’t extend our time in Colombia as we have a trek to the Balkans (Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo) coming up right afterwards.

          Thanks for your advice. Hope we make it to San Agustin next time!

          Reply
  4. You should try “ajiaco santafereño”, a delicious chicken soup with a wide variety of potatoes or “lechona”, pork stuffed with rice and typical meat of Tolima. Another. To sweeten the palate you can also enjoy wafers filled with “arequipe” (sweet made with milk and sugar) curdled with muskmelon. Good luck with the trip!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Izy, for the food recommendations!! On the lookout for these dishes- have already heard a lot about “lechona” 🙂

      Reply
  5. Hi Audrey,
    I happened upon your website while looking for info about Bolivia. I read about your work and the slogan of traveling with respect. Very cool! When I searched for my beloved Colombia, I was excited to see you all just landed there. I was also a bit surprised to see that you are going on the lost city tour, given your interest in respectful travel.
    First, well, your description of the lost city is that the descendants of the folks who created the lost city decided not to share this information with outsiders as they hold the site as a holy place. Why would you go visit it then, within your “respect” model?
    Second, I had to leave Colombia four years ago, so my info is not necessarily up to date (some things don’t change, mind you), but back then, each person who traveled to the lost city with a guide was paying a fee to their guide, who was then being forced to pay a ‘protection’ fee to the local paramilitary death squads. I would suggest asking your guides if they are paying such protection fees (vacunas they are sometimes called), and if they’re not, if you’re really safe. It’s one of those catch-22s that lead many thoughtful people to not go on the trip.
    The paramilitaries were demobillized several years ago, however, it was a bit of a sham, and many continue their organized crime, drug running, social control and social cleansing, extortion, and other less than legal activities. I would think that a good goal for respectful travel is to do your best to not contribute funds to the paramilitary/BACRIM.
    I assume that this has come up before on your travels (I have not searched your website), and if not, I hope this is a good teachable moment. Yes, it’s safe for foreigners to travel to many parts of Colombia; that doesn’t mean your presence is bringing safety to those you are visiting.

    all that being said, I hope that you have a great trip and that I’m pleasantly surprised by the good stuff you find out about your trip. Colombia is beautiful, and I’ve never met friendlier people who are more excited to share their good energy. Hopefully, socially responsible tourism is making leaps and bounds in Colombia (and throughout the Americas/world).
    lina

    Reply
    • Hi Lina,
      Thanks so much for your comment and bringing up these issues of whether the Lost City trek can indeed be respectful. We will be keeping them in mind and asking about these from the local, indigenous groups we meet when we are on the trek (mostly Wiwa, I believe).

      I understand the concern regarding visiting a holy site and this being “respectful.” Whether this trek falls under the umbrella of “respectful travel” will be determined by how the site is maintained and the inclusion of local indigenous communities in the decision-making in how the treks are developed. As I understand, the government got involved earlier and placed it on a protected heritage list to help prevent killings between two indigenous groups who were fighting about who “owned” the site.

      At the moment I believe that only 10% of the Lost City is open to trekkers or travelers, so that the majority remains off limits and in the control of the local communities. The site is also closed to travelers for several weeks a year so that the local indigenous communities can use it for seasonal ceremonies. I also understand that the local communities are involved in the decision process with the government as to how to develop socially responsible tourism here, but I will ask about this more when we are there.

      The company that we will be trekking with – G Adventures — works with the only indigenously owned operator who represents the interests of the Wiwa and Kogui indigenous groups. The goal is respectful cultural exchange that allows travelers to learn about the indigenous cultures and history of the area. I understand the big challenges with this, which is why local people are involved to determine what they want for their communities.

      There are some fees paid to local government authorities regulating the trek and protecting the area. Although technically the paramilitary groups have been disbanded, as you said it’s hard to say whether there are still similar groups operating in the area working in drugs and extortion. I hope to learn more about this when we go on the trek and hopefully have an opportunity to find out what the situation is on the ground for people living there. As you said, the goal is not to support paramilitary or unsavory groups, but instead the local communities through socially responsible tourism.

      Also, we have had a really wonderful time in Colombia in the almost two weeks we’ve been here. People have been incredibly friendly and helpful (really going out of their way) and we’ve felt very welcome and safe here. Like you, I really do hope that responsible travel is the path here so that tourism development doesn’t “ruin” the openness and hospitality of Colombians.

      Thanks again for your comment and your concerns. I’ll report back on what we find on the trek.

      Reply
  6. Sounds amazing guys! Looking forward to hearing about your adventures. We ran out of time during our SA trip a couple of years ago so also hope to return and hopefully get some tips from your trip – enjoy!

    Reply
    • Laura, we’ve really had a great time these last two weeks here and have experienced so much in a short time. The country is really quite diverse when it comes to landscape, cultures, experiences. It’s also very big, so be prepared to take some long buses or try to book flights early to get around the country for a cheap price. Stay tuned for the roundup from the trip with more Colombia travel tips and advice!

      Reply
  7. A great way to explore and very forward thinking knowing that all places change. We experience much of this with Laurels father. He only remembers names and associates with those names not on current conditions. It does worry him, we do the best we can to tell me that changes have been made.

    Be safe and take care where ever you are.

    Reply
    • Thanks, John, for your comment. We had a very good and safe trip to Colombia, and learned how much has changed in that country in the last decade. Looking forward to seeing how much more it changes in the next years.

      Reply
    • Thanks, Elaine! We certainly enjoyed the 3+ weeks we had in Colombia, but came away with an even longer wish list of places we would like to visit 🙂

      Reply
  8. To my favorite story- telling couple….cheers both of you!! it’s been 90 countries and this post here is written with the same excitement and curiousness like you’re first. Daniel and Audrey, thank you for just inspiring my world and I enjoyed reading this blog.

    Reply

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