Many travelers are convinced there are no secret spots left, no undiscovered places with awe-inspiring natural wonders where individuals can reboot without crowds. But they’re wrong. While the COVID-19 crisis has put even more pressure on “exotic” destinations from Kauai’s Na Pali Coast to Peru’s Inca Trail, there’s one country that still offers solitude, adventure, and breathtaking beauty. Colombia.
The reason is that much of Colombia has been closed to travelers for the past half-century. Vast sections of coast, jungle, mountains and plains were controlled by leftist guerillas, drug cartels and right-wing paramilitary groups. Civil unrest lasted from the 1950s through 2016 when a peace accord was signed between the majority of combatants (FARC) and the government. As one Colombian said, “Everyone in my country has been impacted by the violence. But we had to swallow the frog. Amnesty for the former guerillas has let us move forward.” There are still a few thousand combatants (mainly ELN) and coca-grows deep in the jungle, but by-and-large, the Colombian government and people have retaken their country.
At a time when many North American “must-see” spots are over-crowded (you’ll need a reservation this summer to enter Yosemite), Colombia is wide open. Travel is allowed from the U.S. with a negative COVID PCR test. There are so many natural, cultural and gastronomical treasures in the country that the difficulty is knowing where to start. Sustainable tourism is big in Colombia; enthusiastic, experienced guides help you explore pristine wilderness and picturesque villages where your presence is still as much a treat for the locals as it is for you. You could spend a lifetime exploring Colombia, but here are a few places to start.
Cycle the world’s longest hill climb
The bike culture in Colombia is world-class. In Bogota, more than 75 miles of roads are closed to cars every Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the “Ciclovia” when more than a million people get out and ride. There are thousands of miles of unpaved paths that connect small villages for gravel bike tours. And the road biking is superb.
You can tour at altitude (Bogota is at 8,400 feet) or drop down to lower elevation. Not far from Bogota, you can find the longest hill climb in the world for road cyclists. From the town of Mariquitas to “Alto de Letras” you have 50 miles of climbing with an average grade of 4 percent (from 1,500 to just over 12,000 feet of elevation). Continue to “Cerro Gualí,” making it a 62-mile-long ride (which beats out Hawaii’s Mauna Kea). Other great tours include cycling trips in the Coffee Region, in the surroundings of Medellín and also in Boyacá and Santander Departments.
Run a wild river
You could raft every day of the year in Colombia and never retrace a section of water. The country is drained by more than 150 rivers, and home to plenty of experienced guides for anything from a day-long whitewater trip to a multi-day float. The race is on to scout new rivers, so you could be part of the country’s exploration. Expect crystal-clear water, abundant bird and wildlife, and solitude. There are countless waterfalls, jacuzzi-like swimming holes, slick-rock slides and mind-blowing geologic formations. There’s the historic Magdalena and Amazon, and the colorful Caño Cristales. The Guejar River (part of the Orinoco basin) takes you through a deep canyon, with impenetrable jungle on both sides. And no matter which river you choose, chances are you’ll stop at a local farmer’s home for a robust meal and toast of Aguardiente. Salud!
Spot an Andean Condor
The hiking in Colombia is unparalleled for the diversity of terrain. The mountainous country boasts 314 eco-systems, Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, nearly 2,000 species of birds and 3,179 varieties of orchids. You can camp or stay in small family-run hostels. The ancient Camino Real winds its way through a handful of colonial villages. The official start is in the postcard-perfect village of Barichara. The four-day trek through lush jungles and spectacular valleys to the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) is not to be missed, nor are the country’s 60 national parks and Paramos (vast alpine meadows with plants that look like something out of Star Trek). And if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the great Andean Condor.
Your own private Yosemite
Climbers know that every bouldering, roped climbing, or mountaineering area in the U.S. is crowded beyond recognition. But in Colombia, climbing is a relatively new sport, with the number of great routes vastly eclipsing the number of participants. Suesca, about 60 km from Bogota, is the epicenter of the country’s climbing community.
The sandstone cliffs feature more than 300 routes, ranging from 5.5 to 5.14. Dedicated climbers’ camps provide food, shelter and even yoga. Mountains cover more than one-third of the country and aspiring alpinists can hike from the sea-level to an ice-encrusted summit. Nevado del Tolima and Nevado del Huila (at 17,958 feet, Colombia’s highest volcano), both in Parque los Nevados, are worthy prizes.
Be a cowboy
The Eastern Plains of Colombia, the Llanos region, has vast plains, copious wildlife, and a cowboy culture that make it feel like the Old West. Wake to the calls of the howler monkeys, explore the savannah forests on horseback, and learn the traditions and skills of the llaneros. The horse “safaris” reveal wildlife of all shapes, sizes, and colors, ranging from the curious diurnal burrowing owls to funny capybaras to the brilliantly vibrant toucans and scarlet ibises. With a bit more patience and time (and a great guide), you might even be lucky to spot an elusive anaconda or a shy jaguar.
Combine beer and gun powder
Second only to soccer in Colombia is Tejo. It’s like “cornhole” but a lot more exciting. You toss a heavy metal puck 60 feet to a clay-covered board with a half-dozen gunpowder-filled triangular targets in the center. They explode with a satisfying flash and loud bang. It’s easy to learn how to play and locals are happy to offer tips. There are Tejo courts everywhere in Colombia. The cost is generally a bucket full of cold beer.
Fly over one of the world’s last untouched places
The only way to visit Chiribiquete National Park is from the air. Deep inside the Amazonian jungle, this UNESCO site covers about 15,000 square miles of tropical rainforest that’s closed to everyone but indigenous tribes. In 2019, the Colombian government started allowing fly-over permits (about 15 annually). The flights cost about $2,000 per person. Highlights include tepuis (flat-topped rock formations that soar 1,000 feet above the jungle floor), uncharted rivers and glimpses of jaguar, howler monkeys, pumas and even giant otters. The park is home to more than 70,000 indigenous paintings, some dating to 20,000 B.C. A smaller version of Chiribiquete is near the town of San José del Guaviare and can be reached by road. There you’ll see 12,000-year-old rock art like you’d find at “Cerro Azul” or “Nuevo Tolima.”
Travel in international destinations is an adventure, especially if it’s your first visit. Fortunately, Colombia has some of the best-trained guides in the world to show you the ropes. Here are some of our favorite outfitters who can provide invaluable information on everything from airport transfers to where to find the best empanadas after your hike.
- FlashPacker Connect
- One Seed Expeditions
- Lost World
- Neo Tropic Expeditions
- Bogota Birding
- Longer Vacations
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