When many think of Colombia, they envision sipping fresh coffee on a sunny beach, but this country offers so much more. I recently completed our Colombia Private Journey, a newer addition to our ever-expanding catalog that explores the enchanting land of El Dorado. Here are some of my favorite experiences during this adventure.
Hiking amid unique biodiversity
Colombia’s topography consists of three separate Andean mountain ranges, which makes for vast biodiversity and fantastic hikes.
Our itinerary spans the eastern Andes, starting in Bogotá and traveling through the mountainous Santander province. After a visit to the incredible gold museum in the capital, I was whisked away to delve deeper into what makes Colombia so special. I awoke early one morning for a hike through beautiful high alpine tundra called “paramo,” a pivotal ecosystem and water source in this region. Climbing from roughly 9,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation had me winded, but I was determined to reach Laguna Iguaque, home to the origin story of the local people.
On our hikes, I walked amid large bromeliads and countless orchids, the national flower. Did you know Colombia is home to the greatest number of orchid species in the world? Some of the flowers are smaller than the size of your fingernail!
Exploring Colombia’s anthropologic history: from indigenous, to colonial, to modern
The eastern Andes are home to the Muisca indigenous community and there are numerous archaeological sites along our route where we can learn the importance and impact of these people. Though the Spanish conquistadors would tragically decimate the population in search of gold and the fabled El Dorado, descendants live on and remain active in maintaining their history.
The footprints left by the conquistadors are ever present, but that does not mean they all must be admonished and viewed with disdain. In their pursuit to convert the locals to Catholicism, the Spanish constructed beautiful colonial towns. Our trip visits both Villa de Leyva and Barichara, easily two of the best preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture in all of Colombia. A tour with a local architect offers great insight into the unique styles developed here in the Santander province.
I capped off my trip in Santander with a hike through the majestic Chicamocha Canyon—the second largest canyon in the world. Next time I am bringing my climbing gear to fully enjoy the sandstone escarpments and sweeping views over the arid desert and charging river below.
You can explore the mountains…and the coast
Wilderness Travel offers an extension to the Caribbean coast that visits Cartagena. The “Old City” of Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and reveals beautiful architecture and history. You’ll find doorways made entirely of coral and well-preserved cathedrals. What’s more, the cuisine is delicious and fresh from the land and sea. The seafood—and even street food—is a real treat!
You can also visit Medellin before the crowds
With any extra time, I recommend making a trip to Medellin to see the street art and experience the transformation of this once-dangerous city to one that is truly becoming world class.
And just an hour away in Guatape, you can enjoy the iconic view from atop Piedra Penol before relaxing with a picnic on the lake.
Colombia has the largest avian diversity in the world
Finally, after two weeks, I finished my journey in the Coffee Triangle walking amid wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world (yes, that’s me at the base of one). Colombia is also home to the greatest avian diversity in the world, and the best place for birding has to be the Otun Quimbaya Sanctuary where an ornithologist can introduce you to green jays, motmots, and even antpittas while red howler monkeys bellow in the distance.
And what would a trip be to this region without enjoying some of the world’s finest coffee? Colombia is an emerging destination. But with a sense of adventure and a leap of faith, it can truly make for a trip of a lifetime.
—Text and photos by Latin America specialist Matt Zelin, Colombia Private Journey.