Colombia 🇨🇴: Exploring Santander, Boyacá & Cundinamarca

After three weeks of family holiday across Colombia, Laura and I had a little more time before the time together in Colombia was also up for us. We decided to visit Guatavita, Tunja, San Gil, hike the Camino Real and spend some time in and around Bucaramanga for my 40th birthday. Owing to some flight changes, we also had another night in Bogota (4th time in a month!) to celebrate the Little Candles Day.

Guatavita: Quiet Colonial Pearl

Guatavitain in the region of Cundinamarca is just 75km outside of Bogota and easily reached by bus. It was our fist stop towards Santander though, owing to limited public transport options, we had to return to Bogota first. Nice village near a lake that offers lots of outdoor options on top of its colonial architecture. We skipped outdoor this time due to wet weather. Memorable remain the conversations with two (drunk) farmers in the evening … not easy to understand admittedly …

Tunja: Better impression second time round

I had been to Tunja briefly before on the way to Villa de Leyva. My memories are far from brilliant, as I stayed near the bus terminal and missed the historic center completely. This time I fixed that and explored the plaza and many streets with colonial houses. Sadly we didn’t explore the hills around the city … they look very inviting for a hike. Tunja is the capital of the Boyaca department – the main place where the Colombians grow potatoes.

San Gil: Rafting the Colombian way

San Gil is commonly considered the outdoor capital of Colombia offering sports like bungee jumping (we just went for a look, but didn’t jump), paragliding, rafting and more. We started with a visit to the botanical garden and had fun with some squirrels (and mosquitoes). San Gil is also home to a rather special delicacy … the big ass ant or “Hormigas Culonas”. Apparently it has aphrodisiac-like effects (but that could convince me either … just didn’t like the taste). At night San Gil is covered in light all around the main square with life music and a very relaxed atmosphere.

Rafting the Suarez river: In the end we decided to do rafting. Here the video. Now, i have been on previous rafting tours. Never (ever) did they spent 20mins on the safety briefing. Already there and then i felt something was coming. When we had to practice live rescue in the river, it was clear that they did this for a reason.

In the end we flipped once on a grade 5 rapid (the other boat three times!). Being under water in rapids with not exactly the best life vest was a frightening experience. You just don’t stay as calm as you should and your heart is racing and your breathing not controlled. Needless to say i was happy to get back into the boat to enjoy some more up to two meter high waves.

At the end of a memorable trip the consensus was clear – not again. People also thought that in other countries tour operators would not be allowed to expose clients to this level of risk.

Bucaramanga: Paragliding on my 40th birthday

Bucaramanga is a nice city. Quiet and tidy and with many restaurant options. To celebrate my 40th birthday we checked ourselves into the Dann Carlton hotel. Five star express into my next decade!

The birthday organisation was flawless. Paragliding over the roofs of the city, time for a bit of wellness and an amazing dinner… We even managed to recycle the helium inside my birthday balloons 😂🤣😂

Giron: This suburb of Bucaramanga can easily be reached by bus or (if coming from Bucaramanga) by Uber/Taxi. Stunning colonial architecture awaits you.

Bogota: For the fourth time …

I guess laura just didn’t want to leave! Her flight to Bogota was delayed and that meant she wouldn’t make her connection to Santa Marta that night. So we headed to downtown together and participated in the Little Candles Day celebrations – the unofficial kick-off of the x-mas season in Colombia. And after the fourth stopover in Bogota also my Colombia trip came to an end. See you in Berlin for new years!

Colombia 🇨🇴: Colonial village spotting on the Camino Real

Camino Real (‘Kings Road’) is a generic reference to a vast network of former indigenous trade routes that were subsequently paved by Spanish conquerors. We hiked about 42km from Cabrera to Los Santos (including a fair amount of climbing) while most people just hike the short 6km from picturesque Barichara to Guane. This part of the camino real was rediscovered by German Geo van Lengerke (a run-away murderer) who used his road engineering skills to support his own trade business. It also has a religious touch with virgins and other religious items on display throughout. However, it is nowhere near the pilgrimage you get to experience on the Camino de Santiago.

Day 1: Cabrera to Barichara (8km)

https://www.wikiloc.com/hiking-trails/cabrera-barichara-25092975

Catch a bus from San Gil to Cabrera from the regional bus terminal to get to the trail head. It takes about one hour once you actually leave San Gil (=when the bus is full). Pretty bad road and slow going, but nice scenery.

Cabrera is a nice little town and the actual starting point of the camino real. The first stretch takes you 400m straight uphill following the 14 stations of the cross – each depicted with a small sign. The trail is obviously less well traveled and in bad shape. As you climb up, the scenery unfolds though. Amazing views over Cabrera and the surrounding mountains. After 2km or so you top out. From here is it about 6km straight to Barichara with great views again.

Barichara is a really well maintained, clean colonial town and popular amongst tourists. Highlight for us was a super tasty dinner at Shanti. Very enjoyable evening indeed.

Day 2 – Barichara – Guane – Villanueva (14km)

https://www.wikiloc.com/hiking-trails/camino-real-barichara-guane-villanueva-18970409

We left it late to leave the hotel after a great breakfast on this rather warm 1st advent Sunday. After a little more reconnaissance of Barichara we got on the most popular section of the camino real – a 5.5km stretch to Guane. The hike is almost all the way down (adding to popularity) and well preserved for large parts. All the way you are entertained by the spectacular scenery of the Santander region.

We reached the village Guane by 11.30 for refreshments including a shot of Sabajon – mine with whisky and Laura’s with tequila. Similar to baileys and rather tasty – so we bagged two bottles (I would come to regret that decision a little bit later on).

The heat had picked up by now and the path out of Guane to Villanueva leads uphill (c600m). After the first 200m climb is the last shop on the way – we got some more liquid in and continued up.

Half way is a viewing point (mirador) with great views and after another 300m climb we reached the top and crossed over into the opposite valley where the roofs of Villanueva greeted us.

Villanueva was a lot bigger than we anticipated (given there was not a single listing on booking.com) and didn’t quite have the same charm as tiny Guane or colonioal Barichara. First up was finding a hotel… The old fashioned way! (and yes, still works!).

Back in town we sampled a few empanadas, visited a billards boozer for some beers and had dinner in a local fast food place as most restaurants where closed Sundays. What a stark difference to the tasty homemade dinner in Barichara yesterday…😔

Day 3: Villanueva – Jordan (17km)

https://www.wikiloc.com/hiking-trails/villanueva-jordan-3810015

This day promised to be an easy one. In the beginning flat and from about half way just down. So we didn’t leave too early, about 10am. We’d pay the price by way of getting grilled later in the day.

First event of the day was a lonely puppy not far from Villanueva. It seemed lost and frightened. Laura, always the animal lover, managed to feed her all our bread (=lunch) and a fair amount of water before we left it near a school where two construction workers carried out some refurbishments.

A bit further we reached a small village and enjoyed refreshments while watching locals playing ‘bolos criollos‘ – a very basic version of bowling with three pins in front of a wooden plank wall and an iron ball thrown at them (rather than bowled). Not long after we reached an amazing viewpoint into Chicamocha canyon.

 

From here the descent into the valley and ultimately the village of Jordan began. It was hot (and getting hotter with every step down) and the sun burnt relentlessly. Further, the path down has lots of loose rocks and one can slip easily. In fact, the following day a tuk tuk driver told us of occasional fatalities as people slip and fall (and no-one finds them for days on this not a well trodden path). On the flip-side, views were stunning.

Once in Jordan, a village with 70 inhabitants, we secured a bed in the only hostel around and got ourselves finally some food. Evening relaxed with some smule karaoke action going! Hallelujah. Literally.

Day 4: Jordan – Los Santos (5.5km)

https://www.wikiloc.com/hiking-trails/jordan-los-santos-28269980

The last day had arrived. The shortest day (on bloody paper that!), but with 900m of climb ahead to get out of the canyon up to Los Santos. Upon leaving Jordan we bumped into another hiker from Bogota who asked us a seemingly endless number of questions. He, however, would only hike tomorrow (well, we think he wont 🤣😂).

The path is of much better quality than yesterday’s descent and more improvements are being done as we speak. Every 100-200m of ascent little huts provide shelter from the sun. Just take sufficient water (and best some ice)… You will need it. I recommend 2.5l per person. If you run out, there is a little creek to take water about 3/4 up the way.

By midday we reached Los Santos Another beautiful village and with significantly better infrastructure than Jordan. Here we concluded our hike with a quick picture in front of the church. Time for some food (the Camino Real restaurant offers not cheap, but tasty lunch… Try the trout!).

Buen Camino everyone!

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.

Colombia 🇨🇴: Dessert & kites in Cabo de la Vela (La Guajira)

La Guajira is a department of Colombia of which i have only seen a tiny bit when visiting the beaches of Palomino with its crazy waves. This time round we found the time to see the real La Guajira – a peninsula made up of mostly wastelands and desserts not far from the border to Venezuela and (by air) not far from Aruba (Aruba 🇦🇼: Happy Island Life).

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Northernmost tip of Colombia & South America

Long journey: If you ask me, the best way to travel the 300km to Cabo de la Vela is by motorbike (ideally an Enduro, but roadbike works fine too as long as its dry) and probably with a stop. We opted for public transport instead though it is cumbersome and takes 10 hours (!) spread over 4 vehicles (Santa Marta, Riohacha, Quattrovillas, Uribia, Cabo de la Vela). The most interesting part of the journey is the 4×4 from / to Uribia where you share precious little space with lots of people and tons of boxes with ice cubes!

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Hot & dry!