Southern Colombia

Our last few weeks in Colombia were spent exploring a few final spots in the south. We had already passed the 3 month mark in Colombia and were eyeing Ecuador, so the only way to go was south! 

From Bogota was the first of many long drives to the Tatacoa Desert. We were looking forward to wild camping among the unique landscapes much different from what we’d seen the last half year traveling through Colombia and Central America. We found that, but also we found BUGS. LOTS AND LOTS OF BUGS. The first spot we stopped at gave us a beautiful sunset and at that moment we had a bug invasion. So we packed up, hit the road again. It was dark out, and we avoid driving at night whenever possible – but those bugs were relentless. We found a less buggy but less windy sight down the road and as we tried to sleep in that heat we swore we wouldn’t stay here a second night. Morning came, we packed up, cranked up the AC, and enjoyed some sightseeing from the car. 

The next day was a second day of driving long distances. Luckily the roads here were good and there wasn’t much traffic, so it was almost relaxing to not scream at all the crazy drivers! We stopped in San Augustín for two nights. Not that it was a particularly beautiful town, but we needed a break from driving! We visited the local Archaeological site, our first in South America. This is a UNESCO world heritage site because it is “the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America.” Pretty cool, right?! We also ran into a couple guys in town that had been in our Spanish school in Medellín while walking to town. Small world, literally! 

Out of San Augustín we visited a nice waterfall off the main road, Salto de Bordones, and enjoyed a Lulo Juice with a view of the falls. Such a lovely and relaxing moment before the total chaos of the road ahead. Let’s not relive that moment, but suffice it to say it was the worst road we’d taken in Colombia. We spent the night at some hot springs, hoping to unwind and relax. Turns out these hot springs have so much sulpher that it was like soaking in a pool of rotten eggs. After about 10 minutes of soaking, we couldn’t take any more and left. 

Next stop was Silvia! This tiny mountain village is known as the Switzerland of Colombia.. we can’t really agree with that, but it was a pretty location none the less. Silvia is famous for its market day. On Tuesdays the Guambiano (local indigenous people) come into town to sell their goods. It was a smaller market, but not touristy like other famous markets we’ve visited. We loaded up on fruits and veggies and enjoyed being the only Gringos there in the morning! We also attempted to go for a bike ride out to nearby villages. Unfortunately, the bikes we borrowed were pretty clunky and the roads full of rocks and potholes, so we didn’t make it too far. 

After the proclaimed Switzerland of Colombia, we found the place that really deserves the title – Laguna de la Cocha. We felt like we could have been sitting at Thunersee or Obersee, complete with cows grazing on the hillside and a German speaking host at the campsite! We spent two nights just soaking in the views and cooking up Rösti. 

Final stop and final log drive of Colombia was to the Santuario Las Lajas.  The drive was typical awful, with lots of roadwork and insane truck drivers. Then we got to this beautiful santuario and could relax. It is the spot where most southbound PanAm’ers spend their final night in Colombia, or northbound their first. It was a good way to say goodbye to Colombia before our adventures in Ecuador begin! 


Bogotá

From the Zona Cafetera, we had a couple of days to drive to Bogotá in order to meet incoming guests! Yolanda, who has been out to meet us in Belize and Honduras, and Hung, Rachel’s friend from college, flew in over Thanksgiving week to check out a bit of Colombia with us!

First up was a long, stressful drive from Manizales to Bogotá. Most of the way was windy and hilly, with only two lanes and a lot of traffic. We got stuck for construction and angrily yelled from our car at drivers making unsafe maneuvers and scaring us half to death. Really, we won’t miss these drives when the trip is over. It’s just a necessary evil when overlanding South America (and we hear it’ll get worse..)

After two days driving we arrived in Guatavita and stayed near the lake. The town was relocated after a dam was built and the resevoir behind it flooded the old village. No wonder the town is so clean and well kept! It is also famous for the legend of El Dorado.

The Laguna de Guatavita, a crater lake, was one of the most important sacred places for the Muisca people who lived in this area before the Spanish arrived. As part of their sacred ceremonies they sacrificed golden jewellery by sinking them into the lake. The Spanish heard of that ceremony and the legend of El Dorado was born. The colonial rulers tried multiple times to dry out the lake to get the gold out, more or less successful and many indigenous workers died in the efforts. The lake was declared a National Heritage in 1965 and since then all efforts have been stopped.

We planned to spend a couple days north of Bogota with Yolanda and Hung, so we arranged to meet in the village of Nemocón. We toured the salt mine in the village, which is similar to the more famous Salt Cathedral, but half the price and less religious. They proudly show off how the movie “The 33” was shot here about the Chilean miners trapped for 69 in a mine.

We managed to squeeze 4 people, lots of suitcases and a wiener dog into the Landy to drive half an hour to Suesca, our home for the next two nights. The town itself is sleep and uninteresting, but the main draw of the town is rock climbing. Hung, Yolanda and Ben climbed while Rachel took pictures and Mitzi chilled out in the sun.

We stayed a week in the heart of touristy Bogota, La Candelaria. We found a lovely Airbnb with a friendly host Alejandra and adorable dog Toby. Toby was probably the highlight of our time in Bogota – no insult to the city, but he was just that stinking cute.

Our first stop in the city was Plaza Bolivar and shortly thereafter lunch at La Puerta Falsa. The restaurant is the oldest in Bogota and know for their great typical local cuisine. We all had Ajiaco, a very delicious and filling chicken soup. No need for dinner after this one. We wandered the Candelaria neighborhood, had a drink and introduced our friends to Obleas. They are large wafers filled with Arequipe, and the local style is also with cheese, jam and condensed milk. All the stands selling them advertise with a photo of Mick Jagger. Apparently he passed through Bogota 2 years ago and ate an Oblea – he probably doesn’t remember but they sure do!

For Thanksgiving dinner we threw the budget out the window and visited the fanciest and probably most expensive restaurant in all of Colombia. No better time to do that than with good friends visiting! At Restaurant Leo we had a 16 course tasting menu with all kinds of new and unique ingredients from across Colombia. Not every course was delicious (but some really were amazing), but they were all really unique.

In a city as big as Bogota (with a population the size of Switzerland), we needed to do a bit more than just eat and sightseeing. Chores had to be done. For Ben, that meant taking the Landy to the mechanic and getting a lot of work done. For Rachel that meant taking Mitzi into the vet for a check-up and dental cleaning. Both Landy and Mitzi are in good health and ready for another year on the road!

A couple other Bogota highlights: Gold Museum, Botero Museum, hike up Monserrat (500m over 2.2km at elevation, it’s a butt kicker), Sunday flea markets, street art, eating lots more good food and shopping!


Eje Cafetero

The next stretch of road is one we’d been really looking forward to: Zona Cafetera. As an avid coffee lover (meaning a person you shouldn’t talk to before their morning coffee) the fields of coffee are a special kind of beauty to Rachel.

Zona Cafetera is south of Medellín, but first we had a couple places to check out north of the city. First: Decathlon! The French sports store opened a second Colombian store up and we haven’t been so excited to go shopping probably ever.

Loaded up on gear for the Andes ahead, we went to check out the Piedra de Peñol. The Piedra is just a big old rock with a staircase to the top. And where there are things to climb up, we climb up! Our plans to visit cutsie old town Guatapé nearby were thwarted by a bike race shutting down all the roads into town. Well, plenty of cute towns surely await us ahead, so we turned around and camped back near Medellín.

Our first glimpse of Zona Cafetera was the village Jerico. We had some lunch and poked around town, really digging the cute and colorful budings. From there we took the scenic back roads to Jardín – past fields and fields of COFFEE! Coffee as far as the eye can see. This is how I imagined Colombia would look like.

Jardín is another cute town with cute colorful buildings. There’s a nice hike above town and colorful shops and coffee shops around the town square.

The second day we went with a nice Dutch couple who’s also travelling on the Panamericana to Cueva del Esplendor – a big old waterfall crashing into a cave. The tour there involves riding in the back of a Willy – old Jeeps used like a mini bus. After a short but steep downhill hike, we arrived at the impressive waterfalls.

We read of a local who opens her house every afternoon to tourists to watch the Andean Cock of the Rock for a small fee. We were lucky and it was in the middle of mating season: the birds put on a great show!

We spent the last night a bit outside of Jardín in a beautiful garden setting, watching more birds, learning how the traditional fire stove works and just enjoying life.

From Jardín was a muddy backroad adventure to San Felix. Heavy rains turned the dirt road into a muddy mess and the Landy was more brown than black afterwards. San Felix introduced us to Wax Palms for the first time. We took a hiking tour through a primary forest and learned about the growth phases of the palms. The wax Palm is protected in Colombia, so when fields are clear cut for agriculture, the palms remain standing. These 40ish meter tall trees are imposing, but a sad reminder of how much clear cutting takes place.

South from San Felix was yet another of many long drives in Colombia to Manizales. Around the city we visited simple yet relaxing hot springs on the side of Volcano Nevado del Ruiz and visited the village Filandia and stayed at a small coffee Finca owned by a French couple. Here Ben had the chance to rescue a classic Land Rover and coffee at the same time! The Finca uses an old Landy to collect coffee at the end of the work day and it broke down before coming back up. Ben drove down and towed it back up, full of coffee beans and workers.

After Filandia we were able to extend the temporary import of the car and then visited the wax Palm valleys around Salento. The town of Salento itself was overly touristy and the first village we found to be too cutesie. We hiked in the Cocora Valley with the crowds, then spent a night Valle de la Carbonera. This valley is only accessible by vehicle or long bike ride, so it felt remote and had even more wax palms than Cocora or San Felix. We spent a quiet night overlooking the valley.

We covered a lot of ground in two weeks in the area, so for our last couple days we relaxed. First up on the relaxation schedule were the fancy hot springs San Vincente. These are natural hot springs but built up with a resort around them. Various pools, a hot river and saunas greeted us, as well waterfalls and a breakfast buffet. At these hot springs we also met Erika and Nicolas, a Swiss couple driving the Panamericana in their Land Rover Discovery. It’s also there where we ran into “Adone vamois?” again. We met these Argentinian travellers in Minca, Armenia while extending the TIP and now here again.

The next day it was a short drive to our last destination before the long drive to Bogota. Rachel’s best friend’s neighbors, Macgill and Lorencita, have a home in Colombia where they spend holidays visiting family. They invited us to their amazing home looking over Santa Rosa de Cabal and treated us to a lovely dinner. Mitzi had run of the yard and wore herself out checking out every corner and rolling in the grass. We relaxed in the yard and slept in that morning before the stressful drive east. It was the perfect end to two lovely weeks in the region!

Medellín

We spent four weeks in Medellín to attend Spanish school and explore the city. Our Spanish school Colombia Immersion was wonderful and we can recommend them to anyone! It is a fun and interactive program where we spent plenty of time working on grammar but also working on conversation and having fun. We aren’t paid by the school, don’t worry! We just the liked them a lot.

The city of Medellín turned out to be a bit of a love-hate experience. I’ll start with a bit of the hate, so if you’re not interested you can skip the next 3 paragraphs and see all the pretty pictures below 😉 We arrived in the city after a few hours on the road and dealing with traffic. The road descended into the city from above and we caught our first view of the skyline… and the smog. Our first lesson about the city: It’s industrial. And that isn’t so pretty. Excitement for the city wasn’t too terribly high at this point. It isn’t pretty but at least it is very interesting. It was the home of Pablo Escobar, aka The Infamous Criminal, aka He Who Shall Not Be Named. Not too long ago it was the most dangerous city in the world with an insanely high homicide rate.

Sounds like the kind of place you want to spend a month, right? Obviously, things have turned around for the city and it is now a tourist hotspot. The city is hugely popular with backpackers who usually stay in the party district Poblado. Unfortunately for us, the buzz around the city led to high expectations and a lot of letdowns.

A lot of the excitement for Medellín also comes from glamorization of Escobar in pop culture from shows like Narcos. We have to admit to not having seen the show and not being too interested in that aspect. We were amused to find out our school was in the building The Infamous Criminal was killed and see tour buses stop by daily. Wonder how many photos were snapped of the building with Mitzi taking a pee break out front?

Enough of that, what did we do with a month in the city? We stayed in the residential neighborhood Laureles and we ate a lot of good food, drank a lot of good coffee, good beer, and visited Starbucks more times than I would like to admit. And of course, learned a lot of Spanish! We toured a lot of neighborhoods as well.

Centro with Real City Free Walking Tours

Our guide gave an interesting and well summarized history of the city and the armed conflict. We visited the sights of center city, most notably the bronze statues of Fernando Botero. Highly recommend to anyone visiting Medellín, for 2 days or 2 months or 2 years!

La Sierra

This barrio was originally an illegal settlement in the hills above Medellín. Folks that moved to the city to escape the violence in the countryside didn’t have anywhere to live, so they found undeveloped space on the hillsides above the city and built their own homes. There was no infrastructure, sewage, roads, or electricity. And the physical separation from Medellín made it hard for people to find work. The paramilitaries, Guerrillas, and Cartel moved in and violence broke out. The history in La Sierra is shared by many other neighborhoods. La Sierra became famous for a documentary made of the violence in their neighborhood. After the violent groups were removed by force, the city put a huge effort into transforming it. They have invested in public spaces, good schools, and public transportation. A cable car now connects the neighborhood and the city below, which opens work opportunities for people in this community. The cable car is connected to the metro network and center of the city by a new tram line. Along the tram line are beautiful works of public art – from colorful graffiti to detailed mosaics depicting the history of the city and its rejuvenation.

Comuna 13

The most famous Barrio transformation of Medellín is Comuna 13. Similar to La Sierra, the formerly dangerous neighborhood was transformed and today it is a tourist highlight. Outdoor escalators and public art draw in tons of tourists.

Poblado, Ciudad del Rio and Pueblito Paisa

We spent a day exploring the more popular parts of the city on foot. Poblado and Ciudad del Rio are a hipster’s dream come true. Pueblito Paisa is a pretend village on a hill in the middle of the city – but more impressive was the nice view.

Eating our way through Medellín

The gastronomic scene in Medellín is great and we took full advantage. From cheap lunch specials for about $3, to sampling of exotic fruits and local craft beer. A favorite coffee shop near our Airbnb received all their coffee from the neighborhood La Sierra, and a pastry shop not much further was started by a Swiss couple in the 1930s and gave us a taste of home. We learned to make Patacones (twice fried plantains) with our school and enjoyed a wide variety of international foods, from Korean BBQ to Lebanese Schwarma to Italian style pizza to Argentinian empanadas. In spite of all this eating, we managed to skip the one dish Medellín and the surrounding region is most known for: the Bandeja Paisa.

Piensa Rosa

To help burn all the calories off, Rachel signed up for a 10km run in the city and managed not to come in last place! It wasn’t a very scenic run, but fun to participate in a local event.

Exploring Beautiful Boyocá

Iza, Dessert Capitol of Colombia

After burning tons of calories on the trails of El Cocuy, we found the perfect place to eat them back: Iza, dessert capitol of Colombia. This tiny village has 20 different shops all selling the same assortment of desserts. How do you pick a dessert shop when they’re literally all the same? You pick 2 at random and try out a few different cakes! The desserts aren’t worth a long detour, but if you’re already nearby it is worth a stop!

Lake Tota and Monguí

The largest lake in all of Colombia is Lake Tota. We stopped at a small Pueblito Viejo, or recreation of a small town, along the shores. We learned a bit about the indigenous tribes, conservation efforts as well as peering around the cute outdoor museum.

We had expected to spend a night or two in the area, but the area didn’t have many other activities to offer so we headed up to the village of Monguí. This is another of Colombia’s many charming villages, but we haven’t tired of them yet so we enjoyed a long walk through the village. We splurged on dinner at a nice restaurant and had interesting local dishes. Ben had fish from Lake Tota and Rachel had a curry like dish with vegetables from the Paramos (Andean high plains). We couldn’t name a single vegetable in the dish. The best was a purple tuber kind of like a yuca – anyone know this?!

Villa de Leyva

We spent 3 days in the charming and popular village Villa de Leyva. The claim to fame here is the largest stone square in Colombia, but there we many more impressive things to enjoy here. First up was the short but steep hike to a viewpoint of the city. The walk up was enjoyable and view was great, but we kept seeing a Bible passages spray painted all the way up with a big one on the Jesus statue up top. It seemed a bit odd to spray paint a religious figure this way, so we googled this later and it was anti-Idiology passages. Post hike we grabbed a beer at our first BBC Bodega and explored the many cute streets in town. The nice things with tourist towns is a lot of places for ice cream, and we found some great shops.
Just outside of town we went to the Casa Terracotta. This is basically a giant house shaped pottery project. Fun to explore and imagine living here!
Our last adventure around the village was a short hike to Paso del Angel. We have really enjoyed the Colombian countryside such as here.

Finca San Luis and the long drive to Medellín

We gave ourselves 3 days to do the drive from Villa de Leyva to Medellín. We had Spanish classes starting and didn’t want to arrive in the city frazzled from a long day on the road or in the dark. Our first night was at Finca San Luis in the middle of nowhere. It was a stunning property and the only downside was not having more time to spend here! The finca is a chocolate farm that also offers tours, but we didn’t have time to do that and make it to Medellín. The next day we covered half of the distance but most of the time since it was the gravel portion of the drive. The last portion of the drive into Medellín was a test of nerves. Colombians are some of the nicest people we’ve met but they get crazy behind the wheel. We were just getting used to Colombian style driving, but on a busy two lane highway it just gets crazy! And crazier yet in a city like Medellín – but that’s for another blog post.

El Cocuy National Park

El Cocuy National Park is a high elevation gem tucked away in eastern Colombia. Although it is a stunning location, there aren’t too many tourists here. Access to the park is time consuming and it requires a bit of planning and money to organize the permits required to enter the park. In addition access to the park for tourists has been limited or completely blocked during the last 4 years. The popular 5 day trek through the park is completely closed and now only 3 day hikes are available. The day hikes are tough and scenic all day events, gaining 1000m or more and up to elevations of 4800m or more. The other catch keeping some people out is the requirement to have a guide, which costs around $40 (USD) a day on top of the entrance fee.

The roads to the park are long and winding, taking you up and down and around mountains with beautiful views into valleys, through quaint villages and through other worldly landscapes. The drive time is many many hours when coming from any other major destination, so we split the journey from Barichara up into two days. We caravanned with Tyler and Meghan since we planned to share a guide in El Cocuy with them. We made a lot of stops on the way to enjoy views and poke around towns. It was so beautiful that the drive alone to us was worth the detour! We spent a night at a hostel in the village La Uvita and, were given a very traditional breakfast – cup of coffee, soup with beans and tripe, and hot chocolate with cheese. Who knew chocolate and cheese was such an amazing pair?!

We arranged the guide and permits at the National Park office in the town Güicán. We decided on two hikes: Ritacuba Blanco and Laguna Grande. Then we headed up to camp near the trailhead of Ritacuba Blanco and were greeted by pouring rain! Oh boy, did we just drop a bunch of cash on permits and guides to walk around in the freezing rain for two days?! We were camped in the parking lot of Hacienda Peñas Blances, owned by a lovely family that made us feel warmly welcomed in spite of the freezing cold rain.

The first night we all had headaches from the sudden change in elevation – We came from 1500, spent one night at 2500, and had settled in at 3750m. After lots of water, some coffee and standing in the very welcome morning sun we felt a lot better. The Hacienda owner suggested a short hike to a small lake outside the National Park boundaries to help us acclimate. It was only 2 hours of hiking and great views to the mountains and glaciers. For travelers interested in seeing El Cocuy but aren’t ready to take on the strenuous and high altitude hikes or just can’t be bothered with the permits, this is a great way to see El Cocuy.

The next morning we were up before the sun and ready to hike! The trailhead of Ritacuba Blanco is at 3950m and only goes up from there. We hiked past fields of Frailejones, a shrubby plant unique to the Paramos of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. The Paramos are the high alpine tundra of the Andes. There were beautiful views to the valley below and up hills and more hills… and the hills just seemed to get harder as we got higher. Not long after we finally caught view of the glacier around 4600m, the altitude got the better of Rachel. There is really not much oxygen up there! Turns out, if you start getting symptoms of altitude sickness at 4300m, they’re only going to get worse as you continue up. It was another 250m to the top, and absolutely no way could we continue on… but still, it is really, really hard to accept defeat and turn around.

We had luckily planned a day off in between the hikes to give a chance to recoup after Ritacuba Blanco. We took it easy, explored some viewpoints by car and took the long way via El Cocuy village to our campsite for the next night. We stayed outside Hacienda La Esperanza, which conveniently is located right at the trailhead for Laguna Grande

Hike number two started us at a slightly lower elevation of 3700m. The first two hours took us over gentle hills and past beautiful landscapes in the Valle de las Frailejones. Then we came to the first steep climb of the hike up to just above 4000m. Even though free of altitude sickness at this point, Rachel was feeling the same as two days prior and knew getting to the top was unlikely. Instead of cutting Ben’s hike short again to accompany the dizzy hiker down, Rachel turned around at this point – again, really REALLY hard to admit defeat, even though it was 100% the right decision. The group continued on to Laguna Grande, which was thick in the clouds when they arrived. They got back to the cars just minutes before the heavy rain set in. After 9 hours of hiking, Ben had a quick dinner, changed into pajamas and went right to bed.

We spent a total of 6 days in this remote and slightly off the beaten path location. In spite of the difficulties with the elevation, it was totally worth the visit. We lucked out with the weather and had a lot of sunshine for the time of year.

Adventures in Santander

Bucamaranga

Not only a fun city name, also a bustling metropolis!
After yet another long drive day heading into Bucamaranga – we’re sensing a theme here – we got to enter the chaos of another Colombian city. Ben is getting pretty good at handling the traffic and apparent lack of rules, and Rachel is getting better at not screaming. We attempted to do some shopping in the city, but after getting turned around a few times, we finally arrived at our destination to discover we’re too tall for the garage. Then we headed about an hour east from the city to find a campsite, only to find the young girl working at that moment to be unhelpful and unwilling that we got frustrated and just left.

A side note: On the way back west towards the city, we saw a string of people on foot with blankets and large backpacks – Venezuelan refugees. In the last years the economic situation in Venezuela is so dire and resources are so scarce that many are leaving for other countries. We were on the road between the border town Cútuta and Buchamaranga, which is a route taken by many. (More about the situation in Cúcuta from a more educated source: National Geographic).

We wound our way back through Bucamaranga and ended up at a site with an amazing view over the city. We also got to watch paragliders taking off and landing in the evening.

 

The next day we went to visit the cute, quaint village of Gíron. Only on this day, it was busy celebrating a big religious festival. The streets were packed, cars were pushing their way through, and we felt not so charmed. After a quick bite (Crispy wafers filled with Arequipe) we decided to move on. There are sure to be many cute villages ahead, so no reason to fight the crowds here.

 

Chicamocha Canyon

After a relatively short and beautiful drive we arrived in the Chicamocha Canyon. We had a lovely campsite there. We hoped to do some hiking but only found dirt roads available for walking. We did however find another activity to keep us busy — Paragliding! Rachel wasn’t feeling up to the adventure (meaning, not enough energy to overcome a fear of heights) but Ben excitedly joined our friends Tyler and Megan for a twirl above the canyon.

 

From the Canyon we headed off to check out a local swimming hole, Balneario Pescaderito. There are little pools along a river that locals enjoy bathing and jumping into. We walked upriver to find a nice spot to jump in – only Ben was crazy enough to jump into the freezing water.

 

San Gil and Rafting Rio Suarez

After our less than quiet night of dog orchestras, we woke up to Rachel’s Birthday! We made an early departure for the town of San Gil and signed up for a rafting adventure on the Rio Suarez. This is a popular activity for tourists in the area and we had a lot of fun riding the rapids. It was mostly pretty easy and fun rapids, except for the last one. The highlight of the river is one Level 5 rapid that our boat hit wrong and rode down backwards. Nobody fell out, but we had to sit down in the boat as it slowly turned into a floating kiddie pool. Luckily the water is warm, and once we got out of the boat we quickly dried off while enjoying the lunch feast provided to us.

 

In the evening after rafting, we had another exciting new experience – playing Tejo! This is basically a game where you throw stones at bags of gunpowder, trying to make them explode. There are more nuanced details regarding point system. But in the end, the main goal is to make a boom and drink beer, because the entry fee to play is half a crate of beer!

 

Barichara

Barichara claims to be the most beautiful village in Colombia, and it definitely was charming. The landscape surrounding the village makes the drive in stunning and the village has been well preserved. There are viewpoints to the village from above or to the surrounding valleys and hills, a cute town square, good coffee and plenty of shops for tourists to hop into.

We stayed at a newly opened campground just outside the village and enjoyed the spot. A Dutch couple who’s owning and restoring an old tabaco finca recently opened up their home to Overlanders. Guaimaro Campsite is a great starting point for a walk along the Camino Real and is beautifully restored. This 9km cobblestone trail took us to another cute village, Guane. The walk was beautiful but the cobblestones not so relaxing, therefore we hopped a bus back to Barichara instead of walking back. Then we took another even more beautiful trail back to camp!

In town we picked up some local delicacy – Las hormigas culonas, or leaf cutter ants. Ben popped one right in, and after some pep talk Rachel popped one in, too. They weren’t really our sort of snack, but not as bad as expected. So we tried it, got some protein, and probably won’t go for that again.

 

Barichara has more to offer than we had time to explore, since we wanted to get over to El Cocuy before our scheduled classes in Medellin. All of Satander was lovely and worth spending time exploring!

Colombia from Cloud Forests to Deserts

Our next stretch of road in Colombia took us to three very different climates: The cloud forests of Minca, the hot and humid swampiness of Mompox, and the dry deserts around Los Estoraques.

Minca

Coming from the hot and humid coast, Minca felt like heaven. It is only a 30 minute drive from Santa Marta, but you gain enough altitude to leave a lot of the heat behind and enter a green and comfortable cloud forest. The town itself is quite small with only a few restaurants and coffee shops, but it has plentiful hostels and campsites. The proximity to the Caribbean coast makes it a popular destination for backpackers and overlanders alike. In spite of this, we found Minca charming.

We only stayed in Minca a few nights. The first morning Ben used to do some car maintenance in the first cool temperatures since we got the car back in Cartagena. Sarah had brought Ben some spare parts for the Landy so he could fix a few things before we hit the long drives ahead.

The second day we hiked up to the Finca Victoria. The little unassuming spot has a restaurant and delicious coffee, plus they brew some really nice beer up there. Our plan to have a quick coffee turned into an early lunch and we set out back to camp around 11. With the cool temperatures in Minca comes the risk of afternoon rain showers, so we wanted to be back before 1, when most of the rain starts. But our luck today… the rain came early. And hard. We were only halfway down when it started to rain a bit. Nothing a seasoned Seattleite and Swiss can’t handle. But then the skies opened up and it dumped. We were soaked, and poor Mitzi shivering for our last half hour walk. On the plus side: We weren’t hot!

Mompox

From Minca, we drove back down towards the coast and said our goodbyes to Caribbean as we drove away for the last time on this trip. We then had a long drive towards Santa Cruz Mompox. Between the Caribbean and the main cities in the center of the Colombia, there are a lot of flat, hot, muggy and sparsely populated regions. As tourists this means not much to do other than drive. We stopped in Aracataca to see the house Gabriel Garcia Márquez was born, then drove on to Santa Cruz de Mompox.

Mompox is as hot an muggy as Cartagena even though we were pretty far inland. The Magdalena River valley is an important transport route from Cartagena to the interior of Colombia, but it is all very swampy. There was no chance we could get any sleep in the Landy in that weather, so we checked ourselves into a hotel. Coincidentally our friends Megan and Tyler were there too. We hung out and had dinner with them in town after the sun had set and got to exchange a bit of ideas on where to go in Colombia. Turns out we were all heading to the same destination the next day!

Los Estoraques

It was another long drive day from Mompox to the town of La Playa de Belén. We had dirt roads out of Mompox, well maintained highways for a ways, then winding mountain roads up to the town. The views on our last hour of driving were beautiful! These long drive days are painful when we just go through flat regions, but once we hit the hills and mountains the views make it worthwhile.

The village La Playa de Belén is tiny but adorable. We immediately parked the Landy and had a look around – and found some ice cream. The climate is warm but dry – perfect after hot and humid. We liked it so much we spent two nights camped in a parking area by Los Estoraques Natural Area.

Los Estoraques are a protected area with tons of hoodoos, like a smaller version of Bryce National Park. Visitors aren’t allowed to visit most of the park, just a small hiking trail on the edges with views into the rest. The area we camped and hiked was privately owned, which the Park boss isn’t a fan of. We got to witness the park boss try to scare us away, but the land owner stuck around in the evening to make sure he the guy left us alone. Weird situation between those two guys. We guess the park boss doesn’t like someone making money off his proximity to the protected area. Well, whatever. No problems for us, and we really enjoyed this spot and the adorable town of La Playa de Belén!

Colombia – Caribbean Coast

It only took 15 months and 50,000km, but we made it to South America!

Cartagena

First impressions of Cartagena: hot and muggy. We spent a few nights near the harbor since Ben needed to get the Landy out of the container. The area was convenient for that but not much else. After we checked in we figured we should walk to the old town since it was only a couple km away. With 90% humidity amd temperatures reaching the low 30s, we were covered in sweat by the time we got to the city walls.

Weather aside, Cartagena is beautiful! The buildings are colorfully restored and you feel like you are walking through a scene from Gabriel García Márquez novel – if it weren’t for all the other tourists and street peddlers. Outside the old walled city is the neighborhood Getsemani, which was just as charming but a little less overwhelmed by tour groups. After we freed the Landy, we moved to a hotel in this part of town. The street art in this area is also more interesting to stroll past. We found a nice spot for coffee on a quiet and colorful street amd we were a short walk from cheap and delicious food in the Manga neighborhood.

San Basilio de Palenque

We spent about a week total in Cartagena. First to get the Landy out of the container and then Rachel’s sister Sarah came to visit. From the city we took a day trip with her to San Basilio de Palenque. The town was founded by escaped slaves and was the first free town in all the Americas. The history is incredible and we recommend reading more about it on Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Basilio_de_Palenque
Our tour guide told us a lot about the town, invited local musicians to play traditional music and got us to dance, and finally took a walk through town i the sweltering heat.

Volcano Totumo

Rachel and Sarah took another day trip together to the mud volcano Totumo. This is a tiny active volcano full of mud that people jump into to splash around like pigs. Bathing in the mud is alleged to have healing powers. We can’t confirm this claim, but it was a strange and amusing experience.

Taganga and Tayrona NP

We then spent a few days further Northeast along the Caribbean coast. We spent 3 nights in taganga, formerly a tiny fishermans village and now gateway to Tayrona National Park, cheap diving and nice beaches. We spent a day swimming and splurging on food and drinks at Playa Grande. The nect day we went diving out in Tayrona.

From Taganga Sarah headed back to Cartagena to catch her flight home and we headed into the mountains in Minca in search of cooler weather!

San Blas Islands

Panama and Colombia are connecting by a thin peninsula of thick jungles and no roads. Getting a car around involved stuffing it in a container and putting it on a cargo ship. Getting ourselves around there were two options: Fly or Sail.

We chose to sail.

The San Blas Islands are a beautiful archipelago off the coast of Panama. There are many boats taking tourists on a 3 day tour of the islands followed by a day and a half open sea journey to Cartagena (or vice versa). The boats take off from Puerto Lindo on the Caribbean coast of Panama and after 9 hours sailing arrive in the beautiful San Blas Islands. The islands are inhabited by the Kuna people (read about them on Wikipedia). We slept aboard our sailboat, the Big Fish 1, with daily activities of swimming, snorkeling, napping, eating, sunbathing.. And laughing at the guys on our boat as they got ridiculously drunk and sunburned.

After 3 days in paradise, we spent 2 nights and 1 day at sea. We lucked out with calm seas and had no sea sickness. The last night got a bit rough for a bit and Mitzi nearly threw up, but we managed to resettle her and no damage done.

Only a few boats accept dogs on board so we had to book our date well in advance through Blue Sailing. We wanted to sail mid-August, but there were only boats heading out early and late August that would take Mitzi, so we went with the later date. Less than 2 weeks before our departure, we were informed by Blue Sailing that the owner of the boat we booked had spontaneously decided to sell it (found out later, the new captain had nearly sunk the boat with passengers on board – which we would have been on board for had we sailed early August!!). But Blue Sailing had arranged for another boat to take us, with the same departure date as before. The boat doesn’t normally take dogs, but they were amazing and accommodating to Mitzi!

There isn’t much more to say about this trip, except that it was beautiful and we really appreciated the crew on the Big Fish 1! Captain Jari, First Mate Luis, and Crew/Cook Priscilla.

Extra Information: Sailing San Blas with a Dog

  • Most important part of this trip is finding a dog friendly captain and boat. Our friends at @justwanderinthrough took this trip at the same time as us on another boat and had a very stressful time. Ask for details about rules your captain has regarding your dog – Captain Jari is a dog lover and the crew were wonderful. They took her to shore on the dingy for pee breaks any time we asked.
  • If you expect rough seas, bring Dramamine for you and your dog! Mitzi was fine without, but the last day was a close call.
  • We heard some conflicting information about dogs not being allowed on the islands anymore. The Kuna government had issued a statement that dogs should no longer be brought into the San Blas, but this obviously isn’t enforced. The crew said this had to do with the locals not wanting their dogs and foreign dogs getting into fights. We saw one sign on one island stating no dogs allows – so we just steered Mitzi clear of this area. The Kuna we met on the islands loved Mitzi – particularly on the last island we visited where she had 3 very happy little girls gushing over her.
  • When nature calls, your dog gets a private shuttle to pee on a wide sand beach. What a lucky pup! While at sea, we brought a cheap bath mat to set on deck for Mitzi to pee on. We cut a hole in the corner that we could loop some string around to dunk into the water for cleaning. This worked well for us, since Mitzi has the habit of peeing on bath mats – for once a benefit!
  • The paperwork for entering Colombia with a dog by boat is simple and tough by air. This shouldn’t be your only deciding factor, but it helped tip the scales in favor of sailing for us.