by David A. G Fisher,
From the depths of the lush, dense, humid jungles, way up to the cloud-covered pinnacles of towering, ice cold, glacial peaks, Colombia is open for travel. Nestled in the upper northwest corner of the South American continent, Colombia is the heart of the American continental system. Its geography includes coasts on both the Pacific and the Caribbean, along with the northern-most extent of the great Andes mountain chain which stretches way down under to the frozen tip of Argentina. A short 82 km/51 mi after crossing the Ecuadorian border, in Pasto, Colombia, this mountainous queue separates into three cordilleras whose divergence hosts a myriad of ecological environments. Her resulting biological diversity is second to one, with Brazil holding the Heavyweight Title. Conservation International posts that “Colombia covers less than one percent of the Earth’s land surface, yet harbors 15 percent of all terrestrial diversity” (1). With the country’s territory comprising only a bit more than 1,000,000 sq km/600,000 sq mi, measuring in at just under a Texas double, this country is a biological busy-body.
Every climate imaginable is present in this unique Latin American Republic; from the rough and wet coast of the whale-spawning Pacific in the west, to the colorful and xeric coast of the Caribbean in the north, with deserts, grasslands, rain forests and temperate forests in between. If a traveler wants to observe colorful birds, discover new orchid species, search for medicinal plants, or locate reptiles and mammals, then Colombia is the place. In fact, you may want to plan on being here for a while.
With so much biodiversity, the mind doesn’t have to stretch far to imagine the variety of natural resources inherent to its particular geography. Aside from being opulent in freshwater resources, Colombian emeralds are highly coveted among gemstone collectors for a stone’s transparency and fire (2). In addition to these unique assets, some of the more common resources are coffee, bananas, flowers, copper, nickel, gold, coal, natural gas, and petroleum.
The exportation of a healthy share of these resources produces a moderately strong economy compared to the region, but concurrently general expenses are lower than its neighbors. Weigh in the effect of the dollar’s continuing downward spiral at midyear of 2008, and see how it will stretch further here than most countries out on the backpacker highway.
Among and beyond the triple-split Colombian Andes, are numerous bustling metropolis centers and enchanting, colonial towns. Santa Fe de Bogota, the capital of this Andean nation, sits in a mountain-cradled savanna at 2,640 m/8,661 ft in the eastern-most chain. Upon arrival to Bogota, a visitor will discover a modern, urban sprawl that hosts a population approaching 8,000,000 inhabitants, who are referred to as rolos (just like the candy but with a trilled r).
When arranging for a place to hang the hat and take a load off the feet, accommodations of every budget are available in quantity. There are hundreds of motels and hotels, with several hostels to choose from, that are scattered throughout the city. All one needs to do is get on the Internet and Google “Bogota accommodations”, the results will be staggering. Read some of the threads posted by fellow travelers; develop some insight on the country. And, you can pretty much count on the fact that if a place offers lodging, they also offer fresh, complimentary coffee. You are in Colombia, after all.
Some of the more attractive districts of the city in which to wet your whistle or appease your hunger are Chapinero, Rosales, Usaquen, The Pink Zone (la Zona Rosa) and 93rd Park. Except for Chapinero, which is very modest and more down-to-earth in comparison, the other areas host establishments that may well exceed many packers’ budgets. That ought not to bring a traveler down, though, as Chapinero offers more culture and a truer essence of the city’s character.
One of the main sights in this district to where people always seem to flock with the pigeons, is the church of Our Lady of Lourdes (La iglesia Nuestra Senora de Lourdes) on 63rd Street with 13th Avenue (Calle 63 con Carrera 13). Here you’ll find street vendors with their artisan crafts neatly laid out on blankets and tarps, restaurants, shops, bars, music and everything else that helps make this sector a list topper by travelers and locals alike.
Still, as enormous as Bogota is, a traveler may find other districts as equally inviting. The historic downtown center, for example, is a must see offering museums, government buildings and plazas, a colorful, historic colonial sector, and of course more food, drink and lodging. Plus, the interesting mix of people provides an optimal chance for social observation.
This city’s ever-extending geographical area comprises an excess of 1,580 sq km/612 sq mi. It is so colossal in area, that it cannot be viewed in its entirety from Montserrate. This historic landmark perched upon the principle cordillera that straddles the eastern limit of the city from north to south, hosts the iconic 17th century, white Church of Guadalupe which peers over the savanna of Bogota at 3,210 m/10,530 ft.
Montserrate can be accessed by foot which is recommended during daylight hours and accompanied if possible, by the rail-driven funicular, or by aerial tramway, all of which justify the amazing panoramic view below. Come sunset, well, you’ll just have to come and see for yourself. Be sure to confirm the operating hours of the automated descent systems or that might be undertaken on foot in the dark over the course of a steady thirty minutes; feasible, but not quite the safest recommendation.
As soon as a traveler is ready to experience the amplification of cultural contrasts in this incredibly amazing sensation of a nation, then it is time to move on. Whether arriving by land or sky, Medellin is the country’s second most populated urban area with almost 6,000,000 inhabitants. Like so many of Colombia’s municipalities, it too, rests among vegetative-covered mountains. However, unlike the capital city which is considered cold climate, Medellin is touted as the City of Eternal Spring at 1,600 m/5,239 ft, with an average year-round temperature of 24 C/75 F.
The friendly, hard-working and passionate people of this region are referred to as paisas (PIE-SAHS). They are noted not only for their ideal climate, but also for females of captivating beauty, and the savory culinary King known in every corner of Colombia as Bandeja Paisa. The Paisa platter is served with way too many calories of beans, rice, sausage, fried pork rinds, ground beef or pork, and topped with a fried egg cooked over-medium, fried bananas, avocado and arepa, which is considered typical Colombian bread. If this fails to fill a travel’s empty tank, well, live a little and order another!
Like its capital counterpart, Medellin is fully-equipped with all modern amenities in most sectors of the city. By executing the same procedure for Bogota, accommodations, restaurants, and anything else deemed necessary, can easily be located. In as much, since Medellin is nestled in the core of the coffee industry, one might imagine that fresh, complimentary coffee can be tracked down as well when lodged. Some of the other cities worth visiting are Cali, in the western chain that crawls down to the Pacific. Cali sports even a more tropical climate than Medellin, and is the Salsa music capital of the country. It is recommended to dress lightly and bring your dancing shoes. Colombia’s busiest port city of Buenaventura resides here on the Pacific, although a venture to the UNESCO Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena would be much more enjoyable and advised. Back along that western chain of Colombia’s Andean range, to the south of Cali, are other attractions like the white city of Popayan and the volcano guarded municipality of Pasto. Back up north while visiting Medellin, get a feel for Manizales and its impressive Nevado de Ruiz.
By the time a visitor acquaints him/herself with the larger cosmopolitan centers, it may be time to unwind and experience some of the more laid-back, colonial atmospheres. Among the best in show and personality is the town of Barichara, a forty minute colectivo (bus) ride from the city of San Gil, located like the capital in the eastern-most cordillera. This small, historical community is notorious for its beautiful, white architecture and easy-going way of life. Local artisan works are sold throughout the seemingly unnoticeable small shops that line the steep, brown, cobblestone streets. From Barichara visitors can book all sorts of outdoor activities like rafting on the scenic Fonce River, excursions to high-falling, tropical cascades, cave explorations, paragliding and nature hikes.
Just to the west of where this mighty mountain chain tapers down to the desert region of La Guajira in the northeast, stands the tallest coastal mountain on the planet and the loftiest mountain in the country at 5,775 m/ 18,946 ft, La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. On a clear day with maximum visibility, a visitor can stand on a palm-lined beach and peer up to the snow covered summit of this coastal, geologic Goliath. If one has the impulse to abandon the hot, white sandy beaches accompanied by a year-round Caribbean breeze, for an enduring ascent to the Sierra Nevada’s bitterly hostile peak, excursions can be booked. Again, take advantage of available resources.
If a traveler is looking for some more excitement, then reserve a five-day expedition up the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta to the remote, jungle-concealed Lost City (La Ciudad Perdida). Although you will want to check with the authorities for updated safety warnings in this sensitive region, the approaching sight and absorption of these esteemed archaeological ruins without interference from the public, is rumored to be one of the best attractions in Colombia.
To the south down by Popayan stand the carved-head ruins of San Agustin, definitely worth touring on foot or horseback. Several sites are distributed over many square kilometers which means that seeing them all in one day is not feasible. The catch to these sites is enduring an 8-hour bus ride over unpaved mountain roads. Transportation runs daily, however, this region is also classified as Red Zone’ and is unstable, so updated danger warnings best be sought prior to departure. If all is thought to be well by authorities, lodging with more free, complimentary coffee can be found near the disparate sites. Along with the Lost City, it is one of the more daring adventures down here in Colombia, so read up on current events in order to make an informed decision. Nobody comes here to get caught in crossfire.
Colombia also shares a portion of the Amazon Rainforest in its southeastern-most corner which borders with Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. This is the Amazon in its most pristine state, and is recommended to be explored before it succumbs to future destruction from deforestation. The only access to this region is by air (aside from waterways), and departing from Bogota is the most reliable. Visitors to this region from the friendly Colombian skies will not be admitted without validation of their Yellow Fever immunization received ten days prior to arrival.
Leticia is the principal population in the middle of nothing but green, green and more green. Just across a tributary by bridge is the Brazilian community of Tabatinga. All commuters are free to pass back and forth without a visa or passport. Authorities do not generally even ask for identification unless there is reasonable cause. In either community, accommodations can be made for small, privately-owned cabanas or more upscale corporate hotel chains.
Taking any number of boats to one of the various communities up or down stream is also possible on a daily basis. Basic cabana quarters and moderate hotels offer services to be had for an excursion in the Amazon, and you guessed it, more coffee. Personally guided tours are available and advised, or renting your own canoe. It is a behemoth of a region with weather patterns foreign to the visitor, so judge wisely. Traveling up a tranquil tributary by small boat, a traveler discovers the magic of the Amazon. Swimming with freshwater Pink dolphins in any of the uncountable tributaries could be one of the most surreal experiences for you, too.
These are just a handful of the attractions that await visitors from all around the globe. A majority of readers may know that until recently, Colombia was considered way off the beaten path by most travelers, and for sensible reasons. Stigmatized by more than fifty years of internal conflict between guerrilla groups and security forces, in the past few decades, narco-traffickers and paramilitary troops have only made matters worse. For this reason Colombia has long been regarded as a taboo country brimming with violence, and therefore passed over by adventurers.
However, since taking office in 2002, President Alvaro Uribe Velez has implemented security measures which have isolated the violence to specific regions of the country that can easily be avoided while enjoying the majority of its spectacular geographic and cultural diversity. With the major drug cartels already fragmented, and the internal political conflict having been diverted primarily to rural sectors, Colombia has undergone a transformation and is eager to erase its negative notoriety. Or, as Colombians refer to it, bad fame (la mala fama).
Colombia offers a verifiable abundance of new experiences that an open-minded traveler who is looking to make a diversion from the typical South American route will find. But, here in Locombia (not misspelled), as many natives refer to her, an adventurer is still fortunately hard-pressed to encounter loads of tourists, except in Cartagena’s historic district. The majority of people you will encounter are Colombians, who are eager to respond with a smile and partake in friendly discourse of the country they love wholeheartedly.
You, too, will likely begin to view Colombia in a different and refreshing light, with positive tales to share with friends back home. And no doubt, if you don’t end up staying as so many do, you will at least find yourself wanting to come back for more because Colombia welcomes an adventurer’s arrival now, more than ever before.
An interjection with some lines of caution is appropriate here. Although Colombia is relatively trouble-free for tourists and foreigners, dressing down and concealing valuables will help minimize a traveler’s risk, as it will in any part of the world. Colombians know a visitor through accent, garment and gesture, so there is no hiding it in most cases. Just the same, refrain from drawing too much attention to yourself. Modesty is always a solid policy.
Yes, there is still an ongoing, armed conflict here. Cocaine production and its narco-trafficking counterpart are just as active as ever after ten years of Washington’s Plan Colombia. Kidnappings are not yet a thing of the past. More than fifty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, many are hungry and capricious. It still pays to be cautious here in Colombia, more so than in the neighboring nations.
That having been shared, this country has undergone some very positive transformations which have facilitated increased security and safety in most regions. Even Colombians are beginning to travel by highways to the numerous destinations, getting to know their country once again. The hot spots can be avoided. Colombia is ready to be experienced and enjoyed. Do the homework and chances are a traveler might learn something about them self while getting to know one of the most intriguing and hospitable countries in Latin America.