Colombia 🇨🇴: A packed family holiday in the land of contrasts & variety

Foreword

The idea of going to Colombia was born somewhere on our last ski holiday in Austria where Laura joined us for the first time. In all honesty, I never thought it would happen. After all, parents can be quick to say “yeah, good idea” only to fold later. Furthermore, in the view of my parents Colombia was a rather dangerous place (information sourced from narcotics documentaries and random news) and with a serious lack of development (my mum literally would’t take her new trainers on holiday expecting Africa like conditions!). To be fair to them, bad prejudice is widespread even though the country has come a long way since the times of Escobar and especially since the FARC agreements. For travellers of South America, including many younger ones, the journey usually starts in Peru or Ecuador and heads south from there. So plenty of views to correct on our journey ahead.

Gathering in Bogota

Already on the taxi journey from El Dorado airport in Bogota to our hotel, my mum was openly surprised how modern Bogota presented itself with its many offices of domestic and international companies. Also the hotel and the district of Candelaria (arguably one of the best areas of Bogota) went down well. Before hitting the bed after lengthy travelling, we took a stroll to find some food and ended up in a local supermarket canteen for lack of better options. Empanadas, salmon and a first taste of Colombian beer set us up for the night. Frances joined the team halfway through the night and come breakfast, the family was complete for now. Ready to explore Bogota.

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Rehn gang: First breakfast in Bogota

Monserrate, La Candelaria & Zona T

We visited Monserrate towering over the city and offering spectacular views in addition to providing a good feeling for Bogota’s huge dimensions. Next up was lunch where the Aijaco soup set a first culinary highlight before we explored the district of La Candelaria – the historic center of Bogota. We sampled Chicha (a fermented sweetcorn based drink with 1-2% alcohol) although it would remain a one off tasting, took endless pictures of the colourful houses and graffitis and recovered in a local cafe over a few cocktails.

Evenings in Bogota often lead to Zona T with lots of restaurants and bars. It was first of November and it seemed everyone was was still dressed for Halloween – what an effort people make here. memories of my first trip to Colombia in Oct 2017 when I celebrated Halloween with a bunch of locals in Cali (Cali es Cali!) A favourite of mine is the Bogota Beer Company with some tasty beers – a place I first visited with Laura and her sister Lorena (Santa Marta & Bogota: Family introduction 👧🏻 🇨🇴). The dinner at the Italian place was ok, but we didn’t make it a long night for we were all pretty tired.

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Very dog friendly homeless

Anyway, great first day. No kidnappings, no armed robberies, Bodo impressed with how well Uber works … my parents must be seriously surprised this is possible!

Zipaquira – Underground Salt Cathedral & Overground Colonial Beauty

Our second day took us outside Bogota, about an hour by Uber (yes, we were lazy). I have to note here that Uber is often the best option for a group of 4 people given low prices per person. We drove to the city of Zipaquira to visit the worlds largest underground Salt cathedral (two others you can find in Poland the guidebook told us). The current cathedral was completed not so long ago as it replaced an older version that was no longer save. To reach the cathedral, you follow a path the describes the 14 stations of the cross until you reach the highlight of the cathedral – a 10m cross.

We were all pretty hungry after the walk and hit the center of town. I have to say, just the colonial center of Zipaquira would have been worth the journey. Beautifully restored and pretty lively on this beautiful Sunday. We had lunch at the main square before wandering about town. Ahhh, before I forget … Zipaquira is the hometown of the first ever tour de France winner from Colombia – Egan Bernal, 2019.

Hello (again) Medellin

I had been to Medellin only recently with Laura, but also feel a bit like coming home everytime after the 3 weeks I spent here studying Spanish in 2017. Welcome back to myself then!

Pablo’s legacy

After checking into our new home (nice pick Frances!) for the coming threw days, we began exploring medellin in the footsteps of its most famous (be it very much disliked) son – Pablo Escobar. The government and people of medellin do their best to eradicate his legacy and speaking his name feels as prohibited as mentioning the villain Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter.

The house where he used to live no longer exists I am told (different to my visit two years ago), but you can still visit the location of his infamous prison. I say the location, for there is not much more to see. The museum has been closed following some inappropriate action of visitors. My last visit was more insightful.

From there we went on to visit the Escobar family grave in cementario jardins montesacro. That one is still there and accessible and also well cared for.

Comuna 13: Never fails to impress

We did literally the same walking tour I did two years back. With the same guide and  the same story (well, what should have changed – after all it is history). Still quite amazing. Meanwhile the tour guides house has been expanded with a roof terrace and bar for tourists. Progress (and more dinero as she no longer asks for tips at the end of the tour, but right in the middle of the comuna 13 maze – clever!).

While in the area we also headed up to La Aurora with the cable cars (departing in San Javier where tours of comuna 13 start & finish). Similar to the idea of the escalators, these metro cables link poorer neighbourhoods to the center and provide access to all kinds of services and work.

We even found time to visit plaza Bolivar with the famous statues of Colombia’s prime artist Fernando Botero. And then someone almost nicked my mobile … but I managed to fend him off. So we even got to see a little bit of street crime ;o)

Lake & house spotting in Guatape

My second visit this year after the July trip with Laura. It turned definitely into a highlight as both views from the rock and the pretty town with its colourful houses impressed. My sister was particularly taken by the colourful houses of Guatape, which ended up taking the largest share of the lovely photo-book of the holiday she put together. The men also enjoyed the place and also got to to enjoy some football while the girls went shopping.

A visit to Parque Arvi

Before the time in Medellin was finally up, we headed up the cable cars again and enjoyed a stroll in Parque Arvi. It seemed pretty large and next time I definitely would book a bike tour.

Santa Marta: Nightlife central!

We had a late flight into Santa Marta and arrived in darkness. Once we checked into the colonial house we would stay in for the coming three nights, I met up with Laura. We quickly decided to pick up the others as well for a late night drink. They immediately picked up the special vibe Santa Marta’s historic center has at night … and to my surprise we kicked off with shots! Mum included ;o) It should only be one night of many to come!

German coffee tour in Minca

After a brief visit to the city beach (must to the disliking of Laura & family … as it is not the best beach around), we headed to Minca to visit the Victoria coffee factory. The way there is rather adventurous on a road that is in a terrible shape (that might actually be too kind!). Once we arrived, however, things looked up. We bumped into the owner (well, the wife of the now deceased owner), a lovely lady from Germany who offered to do a tour in German. I was rather happy about this alas my sister … less translating to do!

Sweating in Tayrona

When in Santa Marta, visiting Tayrona park is a must. A friendly heads up – do book your tickets in advance as waiting in the queue can be rather lengthy given the shockingly slow speed of service. Once in, we hiked a few hours to Cabo San Juan. Beautiful, but given the high humidity a rather sweaty exercise. At the end, a refreshing swim and freshly fried fish waited for us. Tasty.

For the way home we booked a speedboat … wow! We get pretty wet and the aves were at times pretty intimidating I have to admit. But we made it in the end and got safely to Taganga.

Family dinner at Laura’s

Christmas came early it seemed as a nicely decorate x-mas tree greeted us at the dinner party in Laura’s house. Lot of nice food prepared and Lorena busy handing out cocktails. Main course were burritos. In between drinks and food, I was busy translating between the Deisy and my family. Great evening altogether. Muchas gracias!

Cartagena: The mystic disappearance Frances’ pendant?

The bus ride over to Cartagena was reasonably comfortable, but took ages due to several stops waiting for customers. Once in cartagena, we explored the magnificent old town finishing at cafe del mar. Great spot to enjoy sunset though it was rather wet that day. We just about managed to escape the hefty shower of a dark cloud. It poured down. Thank god we paid in time.

The second day we headed to the island of Tierra Bomba to enjoy the beach away from the hustle of the mainland. Well, we got hustled nonetheless! During a massage my sister had to take off her golden necklace … and somehow the pendant disappeared. Despite all 5 massage therapists and us looking for it, it was gone. Most likely in the pockets of the therapist herself (though a search neither yielded a result).

Back in Cartagena, we explored the beautifully restored colonial city. Amazing!

P.S. Frances got a new pendant from her best friend for x-mas … how thoughtful of her!

San Andres: Island life (again)

It is not that long ago that Laura and I spent almost two weeks on the Caribbean island of Aruba (Aruba 🇦🇼: Happy Island Life). Now we headed to the island of San Andres for the last five days of my parents in Colombia. The island is part of Colombia for historical reasons and actually located closer to Nicaragua.

I am not gonna reveal a big secret saying that we spent much time on the beach near our hotel, but there was lots more. Be it tuna fishing with local fishermen, touring the hot spots nearby like Johnny Cay by boat, cruising around the island in a golf car, diving or meeting the miss San Andres over a lovely dinner that left our chef Bodo well impressed (and all of us regret why we only came here for the last night!).

From here we headed to Bogota for a night and said goodbye to the parents. Their journey was over after 2,5 amazing weeks. They were impressed and took a very different view of Colombia home to Germany. Nice one!

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Our journey, however, was not yet finished! The jungle was calling …

Amazon: River boats, monkeys & dolphins

We used the night in Bogota to watch the new Joker movie. Scary stuff, but really well played by Joaquin Phoenix. Chapeau! I sincerely hope they do another movie and continue the story from the vantage point of the joker. Before watching, Frances sampled Canelazo and we visited the street market. Bogota already felt a little more different than a few weeks earlier. More real maybe. Next day we took off to Colombia’s southern border and the city of Leticia.

There is really not much to see in Leticia, but it is the hub and there is no avoiding it. Our task was to fix a tour. We ended up opting for a self-organised trip up the Amazon with the daily river boat service. First stop – monkey island!

Isla de los Micos

After a short night to catch one of the early boats out of Leticia harbour, we got on the river taxi. It was a grey and rainy day making the ride less pleasant. In order to keep the rain out, they covered the windows with some tarp like material meaning no view for us. Once on the island, the monkeys didn’t wait long to visit us … essentially all over us. Three, four or five monkeys at a time.  Different to the monkey I encountered in Asia, the micos are not aggressive. Just a little dirty and so the wet wipes came in handy!

Nature reserve: Jungle walk & Native village

After a few hours with the monkeys, we continued to the nature reserve. Accommodation proved difficult as the host claimed the place was fully booked though we only spotted a group of four over dinner. Well, we got a place to stay where usually the workers stayed (who were busy building a tree hut).

After lunch (where suddenly two tourist boats dumped a bunch of tourists to join the feast, we headed into the jungle to a nearby native ticuna village. awesome place. We shopped a few handmade bracelets (for COP2,000 or USD0.6) and joined a tour of the local heritage museum with one of the village leaders. Very interesting indeed! Later on, Frances and I did a jungle walk to see some of the massive trees around and listen to childhood stories of our guide.

At night the jungle really comes to life and near the pond in our resort sprung to life. We spotted frogs (in some poisonous looking colours), a small caiman, a snake and lots of other little creatures. Then it was time for bed to be up on time for our next tour.

Breakfast in the jungle

It was a 5am start though we ended up waiting a fair bit. Some idiot stole the engine of the hotels river boat overnight (something that happens frequently here apparently).

Once a replacement engine arrived, we went downriver into a side stream of the river for a bit of fishing. Frances and Laura both caught two, mainly piranhas which as I already knew from Suriname are super-tasty.  Our guide prepared a tasty breakfast with the fish, eggs, platano and hot chocolate …. jummy!

On the way back to nature reserve we also spotted some grey dolphins … well, not all of us so for them dolphin spotting had to wait.

Puerto Nariño: Simply paradise & Finally pink dolphins

Almost our last stop in the Amazon was tiny Puerto Narino. A quiet little town without motorised traffic (apart from the river taxis to Leticia or Peru and one vehicle) and with a very relaxed feeling. From here we took a great dolphin tour on Lake Tarapoto – this time seeing pink and grey dolphins, did more fishing (where I also managed to catch a few for a change) and a little swim in the lake (piranhas don’t attack unless there is an open wound somewhere). The sunsets and evenings generally are to die for. If you come here, budget a few days. It is really worth your while.

Brasil for a day: Chaotic Tabatinga!

Before heading home, we used Leticia’s position in a tri-border region to visit Brasil (no visa required here). It was rather chaotic (partly due to our own faults) and a real step down from Leticia (who would have thought!) with lots more people & poverty. While heavens were emptying themselves, we enjoyed a beer amongst locals and were unexpectedly happy once back across the border in Leticia.

Back to Bogota – hello riots, hasta luego Frances!

For Frances it was almost time to head back to Germany, but her flight didn’t depart until late at night. So we headed into Bogota (for the third time). First cause for excitement was a police stop. They had figured out that we were using an Uber against the rules. Despite our best efforts to deny it is an Uber, we had to get off. Yet we refused using a normal taxi out of principle and soon after boarded another Uber. I sincerely hope the driver won’t get into too much trouble. As an aside, by now Uber has ceased operations across Colombia.

Bogota, along with the rest of the country was now host to huge demonstrations. People were (and remain) unhappy with the president. The bus stop (transmilenio) opposite our hotel was completely smashed. Not a single pane of glass intact. As we would find out later, the same fate happened to most bus stops in the center. Later on, from the save seat of an Uber taxi, we saw demonstrations live.

Unimpressed by all this … we enjoyed sushi for dinner and found a really nice cocktail bar to finish off the trip. After three weeks we said goodbye and Frances disappeared into the night onboard an Uber taxi.

Hasta luego! Next time we meet on the ski slopes in Austria.

Peru 🇵🇪: Battling the Huayhuash circuit

Before taking my family on a tour through Colombia to see the country and meet Laura’s family, I had some time to get back into the mountains in Peru. While Peru for most means Machu Pichu, for me it meant a little bit of Lima yet mostly a lot of Huaraz – the gate to the Andes – and its surrounding mountain ranges like the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash. Admittedly, it turned into one of the most fascinating and exhausting hikes I have done.

Lima express visit

My time in Lima was limited to only two days – my first and last in Peru. Barely enough time to do a lot of sightseeing, but enough to get a feeling for the city and its colonial past. Different to what I heard about the traffic, I found the city rather sleepy. Who knows, might have been the jetlag!

Huaraz – Gate to the Andes

Huaraz is a rather unspectacular town situated at about 3,000m altitude surrounded by mountains wherever you look. Its a good base for a few days to get used to the higher altitude If you haven’t booked your tour, here is the place to do it (and for better prices than online).

My first day I spent sporting the shopping for the upcoming trek and I also had a few chats with guides. The general feedback was that we are out of season limiting climbing options. I also found a lack of experience with some of the mountains I was looking at. Best place to go is ‘Casa de Guias’ (house of guides) for some decent info.

Preparation hike no1: Churup Lake (4,450m) & Churupita lake (4,600m)

To hike Churup lake you need to get first transport to the trailhead in Pitek about 45mins by car. They run frequently and leave as early as 6am in the town center. The weather on the day was reasonably poor with quite a few wet spells. The trek sets out very easy and well marked until the upper section where you encounter some pretty steep parts with fixed steel wires. Once I arrived at the lake, it was initially all fogged up but cleared after a while. While physically not that challenging, I felt a very strong impact from altitude having been at sea leavel only 30h earlier and with just one day of acclimatisation in Huaraz. The flu I brought with me from my river adventure in London (England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿: Thames cruise on “De lachende Moor”- mayday, mayday …) didn’t help either and would be a drag for many days to come. Needless to say, I collapsed into my bed after a brief dinner consisting of painkillers to fix my head … and next day was a day off!

Preparation hike no2: A visit to Laguna 69

Second acclimatisation hike to 4,600m. Beautiful day that despite sunblock gave me a sunburn right away. The laguna is an amazing sight and well worth a hike if you don’t mind sharing with crowds. While taking some drone footage, Chris from Regensburg joined me and we ended up discussing literally god and the world until we had descended all the way back down. He had also lived in Colombia for a while and hence we had a good place to start among a few other shared interests. Near the pick up point for our bus journey back we met a Japanese cyclist how had cycled here from Alaska and continues all the way to Ushuaia in Argentina. A three year project. Wow. Jealous. Compared to Harry from Germany he was far from travelling light. I told him that the Serbian cyclist (see here) I met on my sultan’s trail bike tour will be heading up the other way soon. I bet you they’ll somehow meet …

While feeling good on the mountain, i again didn’t feel great in the bus. Tired. Compared to my time in Nepal, the huge altitude gains had me suffer. Further, i had prepared poorly for food and i think my body was asking for energy. The hot shower that day in the hotel felt especially good. I must have been in there for 20mins or thereabout. The 2 hour nap afterwards was great too! Then i felt great again and packed up to leave for Huayhuash the following morning … With 27kg in my pack as I took gear to hike, camp, eat and also to climb (a combo I would come to regret later on).

Getting to Llamac & the trailhead for the Huayhuash Circuit

Public transport to Llamac leaves very early (4.30ish my bus) and goes via Chiquian. Book tickets before (or sit on the stairs like i did). Departure point is here Transportes El Rapido (https://maps.app.goo.gl/Bgu2MyD3JzCjJhk76).

Chiquian is pretty little town where trash even collectors are cheery and play loud music on their car. The bus from here to Llamac usually departs 8am. I used the good hour i had stopover for breakfast. However, when I enquired about a ticket I was told that today there was in fact no transport at all. The one chance was to hitch with another group of tourists. I was directed to a place called “la salida’ – a restaurant that tour guys frequent, bring tourists and get their food free. Here i met a group of three hikers from Cologne that were also on the way to Huayhuash to do the valley circuit. Thankfully they were happy to take me along.

Valley circuit vs Alpine circuit

The valley circuit takes you along well trodden tails that keep you always above 4,000m and with passes as high 5,000m. It measures more than 100km depending on the starting point and is typically completed in 8-12 days. trekkers usually hire donkeys to carry equipment and food.

The Alpine circuit is shorter at about 80km, but requires technical climbing skills and good orientation for there are often no visible trails. You also have to carry your own gear and food for donkeys can’t manoeuvre this terrain. Best description for the alpine trek is this https://www.huayhuashalpinecircuit.com/

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Starting the alpine circuit – first stop Garagocha Lake

(3.6km, ⬆️ 572m,⬇️ 136m)

The journey to my trailhead (between Pocba & Cuartelwain camp site) was swift and rich in conversation. The couple from Cologne is currently on a one year journey in South America, South Africa and Asia while her friend just joined them for the trek. Great stories al around.

Map of the Classic Huayhuash circuit

By 10.30am they dropped me off and it was time to hike. The scenery was already breathtaking and soon the struggle uphill was even more breathtaking. Progress was extraordinarily slow though with that kind of weight it had to be expected. First the way led up a valley with huge weather fluctuations – sun, hail, rain, blue sky and grey clouds. For some steep bits the axes came out already on day one. Not your ordinary hike! At some stage I lost the trail and veered off to the right where a rocky cliff wouldn’t let me pass until I managed to find a way around to arrive above Garagotcha lake at 4,500m.

I cooked dinner, but panicked as my new lightweight stove didn’t seem to work well. But it was just the altitude … all cooking takes a long time. The first night was super cold despite new sleeping bag (3 season not sufficient here, mine is rated to -8/9). Further, the altitude effects didn’t help sleeping either.

Second day: ‘You shall not pass’ Garagotcha col – the ‘crux’ of the alpine circuit

(5.0km, ⬆️ 695m,⬇️ 240m)

The tent was covered in ice in the morning. I still have this bloody cold and coughing which doesn’t help up here. I made my porridge with doubledecker choco bar for breakfast. Tasty. And with a bit of sun I continued to my way up.

The day turned out really bad. First I wasted 100m in altitude hiking up the wrong side of the mountain and then ever more technical terrain that made the backpack weigh even more. Tough going as I climbed towards 5,000m. Big issue today was that I lost my sunglasses that meant no mountain climbing or glacier crossing for me this time to avoid the risk of snow blindness (and meant that I am carrying some gear like crampons and ice screws now just for fun!). I tried to find the glasses retracing my steps, but finding a black case in the midst of rubble is a bit pointless I had to acknowledge.

Eventually I made it to the Garagotcha col that includes the technically hardest bot of the circuit with a 25m, 5 rated climb. Dangeround, exposed and too hard for me after a long day especially with the backpack. The onsetting snowstorm didn’t help either. At times it felt really scary as I stood on rather porous ledges without being secured by much more than my foot and hand holds. I tried to climb ahead without the rucksack (which worked), but failed to pull the rucksack up later.

Eventually I gave up, but fixed one of my axes for safety next day and retreated to make camp on a small lake some 50m down at 4,850m. Tomorrow I will try again after what turned into another cold night.

Third day: Passed the crux, off now more climbing

(6.3km, ⬆️ 732m,⬇️ 856m)

The axe I left the day before provided a bit more mental security (about 15m up and right next to my axe are also two pitons I could have used, but didn’t see) and a ok nights sleep gave me enough firepower to get me and the rucksack up and over the col. The climb down on the other side proved ok, but yet again prove that this is not for the ordinary hiker.

Learned again that staying on the GPS path is important to avoid facing non-passable terrain. Steep descent towards to Mitucocha lake for lunch. Then up, up, up again. Eventually hopping over rocks at the top of the ridge. The ascent took me so long that I didn’t make it to Chaclan lake, but camped up high. This time with only 300ml of water.

Day four: I need water & Siula Pass

(7.4km, ⬆️ 740m,⬇️ 846m)

Really thirsty in the morning, but water had to wait. Initially up to 4,900m before the descent to the lake begins. Impressive views. Found out later that people that life here don’t even know of this lake as only few know of the alpine route. 1 liter of water disappeared quickly once i reached Chaclan.

From here the descent was meant to be easy. I chose again to try my own path only to find a seriously steep descent (well, initially I though there was no way down). Views to die for yet super exhausting. Lunch in the Carhuacocha Valley (4,150m) with sunshine.

From here, a easier path towards the three lakes (where I had to pay my first fee of 30 Soles to a lovely grandma) and up the Siula pass. Run out of time again and camped some 150m below the pass. Sadly my flint stone was not working anymore and hot meal and drink was not an option which was upsetting to say the least. Cold night. Really happy i brought hand warmers along. Need to find a lighter in the next village (especially to make hot water bottles and soup!).