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  • Total days on the road: 586
  • Currently in: USA
  • Miles Driven: 36821
  • Countries Visited: 17
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Unexpected Colombia

Written by Jared on July 8, 2012

The three of us at the Blue Pools in Villa de Leyva.

Start: June 24, Tyrona National Park
Finish: July 5, Guatavita
Elevation Gain: 10,000 feet
Super Friendly Colombians Met: Dozens
Colonial Towns Visited: 3
Wineries Toured: 1

The past ten days have taken us nearly 1,000 miles from the Caribbean coast to the central highlands of Colombia near the capitol city of Bogota. We've spent quite a few long days on the road and have seen plenty of spectacular scenery along the way.

It's hard to say I'm surprised about how great Colombia has been. Between fellow travelers and a long-time colleague of mine (hola Miguel!), I've heard plenty of good news about this country.

But it still feels a bit unexpected. Coming from the US, this is not a country with many positive stereotypes. Granted, we don't pay much attention to that stuff anyway, but it still affects your expectations whether you want it to or not.

When you think of Colombia, what comes to mind? FARC rebels, cocaine, drug trafficking and corrupt government officials? Sure, those problems still exist to a certain extent, but Colombia has come an incredibly long way in the past ten years.

It is not at all fair to this place and it's amazingly friendly people that much of the world focuses on the problems of its recent past. As we're discovering, there is so much more to this beautiful country.

The beach at Tayrona National Park.

Tayrona National Park was our first stop after retrieving Blue from his container cage. Situated northwest of Cartagena, it is said to be the most popular park in the country and is renowned for its pristine beaches and miles of jungle trails. All we wanted were a few days of relaxation and to get back into the camping groove. By the end we were certainly relaxed, but finding the camping groove proved difficult.

Our messy campsite at Tayrona National Park.

This has been the longest stretch we've gone without camping. After a week in the beach rental and ten nights in hotels in Panama City and Cartagena, we're a bit out of practice, as you can see from this photo.

We are no longer a well-oiled machine. But never fear, Colombia looks to be a very camper-friendly country. There will be plenty of time to straighten up our act. And to clean the Central American mildew off of our tents.

A cat uses me as a scratching post at a hostel in Minca.

After three days of lounging in the heat on the beach, we head to the nearby mountain town of Minca to cool off. The hostel we found is full of friendly people and even friendlier cats. Unfortunately, we can only stay one night. There's no internet to be found in town and the next day we're supposed to be working. Oh well.

The sunset at the hostel in Minca.

That night we're treated to a spectacular sunset. The next morning we sip our coffee and watch dozens of toucans goof off in the trees below. Finca Sans Souci is the name of the place we stayed in Minca, definitely on our list of places to come back to.

From Minca we drove back down to the beach, this time to the town of Taganga, where we spent most of our time working online. Lonely Planet warns that this place isn't what it used to be - "word got out too early", it said. It didn't seem that bad to us.

The beach in Taganga.

Taganga is certainly a destination for Colombians looking for a bit of sun and surf, but was not overrun by gringos as the guidebook implied. We could have spent at least another day here, munching on delicious seafood and napping in hammocks by the beach.

The next day began a two-day trek from the Carribean to central Colombia. Rougly 14 hours of driving in total. It would have been closer to 10 hours had it not been for a couple of one-lane bridges and idiotic drivers.

Cars and trucks pile up on the road ahead of a closed bridge.

I call it a Colombian fire drill - when a bridge has only a single lane and cars on both sides fill both lanes of traffic, prohibiting either side from crossing. The result? The military sweeps in, backs 15 trucks up, forms two additional lanes of traffic on each shoulder and proceeds to bitch out the construction workers for not keeping things under control. There's an hour and a half of our lives we'll never get back.

A panorama of a canyon we passed south of Bucaramanga.

Click for a full-sized panorama of the Chicamocha Canyon, one of the best vistas we stopped at along the route from Taganga to San Gil.

Our campsite at San Gil.

San Gil was our final destination, close to the mountains and at a comfortable elevation of around 4000 feet. We stayed at a resort/hotel which was a fantastic place to be during the day. Wifi, free coffee, plenty of space to spread out and a swim-up bar. When was the last time you camped at a place with a swim-up bar? That's what I thought.

Unfortunately, the good times did not last. On our second night the music kicked in around 10pm and didn't let up until 5am. Jessica and Kobus barely slept and woke up ready to hit the road, even though we planned to stay another night. Lesson learned: camping below a resort on the weekend is probably not the best way to ensure a good night's sleep.

The colonial town of Barichara.

After finding a (relatively) quiet cabin just up the road, we spent the day recuperating, resting and planning where to go next. We decided on the town of Barichara, a colonial village located up in the hills above San Gil. It turned out to be a great place to spend a day wandering around. It reminded us of Antigua; a well-preserved tourist town, with a healthy dose of colonial charm.

The soup kitchen in Barichara.

For lunch we stopped at an eatery on the edge of town that was filled to the brim with Colombian families on holiday. The chef, above, prepares a 25 gallon vat of the day's soup - tripe with beans, corn, potatoes and some other stuff we couldn't recognize.

The menu was fixed, a style we've become accustomed to. You pick the meat - usually a choice of beef, pork, fish or chicken - and your meal comes with soup, some veggies and a couple starch sides. This time we had yuca, potatoes, rice and peas to go with our falling-off-the-bone fried chicken.

The main square in Villa de Leyva.

From San Gil we drove a couple hours south towards Villa de Leyva. Our original plan was to drive the other direction to the mountains of El Cocuy, but none of us felt like commiting to two more long days in the car.

Instead, we head to the highly recommended Hostal Renecer. Cheap camping, honor-system beer cooler, excellent food and a wood fire grill and pizza oven. It's safe to say we could have spent a week here instead of just three nights. There is a ton to do in and around Villa de Leyva. Since our first day in town was spent working, we only had one to explore the surrounding area.

After a day plugging away online - speaking of which did you hear about interviews with Wan'drly Magazine and Never Ending Voyage, not to mention my photo and contributions to an article recently published on BBC Travel?! Plus there's an ebook coming out soon! We've been busy.

The blue pools near Villa de Leyva.

Anyway, back to what we've been up to offline. Villa de Leyva is small town in in central Colombia, considered by many to be the finest colonial village in the country. There are miles of trails, small museums, historical buildings and natural wonders to behold in the area. The first we visited were the blue pools, a series of seven clear-blue ponds set in the middle of a spectacular landscape.

A panorama of the blue pools.

Click the above for a full-sized panorama. Hard to believe we were in the jungle less than three days ago! This place reminds me of western Washington, or maybe the Sierra Nevadas in California. Most importantly, it's high up in the mountains where it's blissfully cool and dry.

Jess samples some Colombian wine at a winery.

After the hike to the pools and back we decided to yuppie-up the afternoon a bit by stopping for lunch at a local winery called Marques de Villa de Leyva. This is the first winery we've visited on our trip and it certainly will not be the last. In fact, since Mexico, this is the first local wine we've sampled period. But it won't be long until we're in Chile and Argentina, knee-deep in grape vines.

Our lunch of salami and cheese.

Of course we needed a spread to accompany the mid-day glass of vino. A plate of gouda, camembert and artesanal salami is just what the doctor ordered. It's be a long time since we've treated ourselves to something like this. Our typical lunches involve two-day-old bread, emulsified pork byproduct, yellow mustard and processed cheese.

The wine was ok, according to team wine snobs Jessica and Kobus. Definitely not worth the bottle price at the winery.

The colonial town of Guatavita.

From Villa de Leyva we drive a couple more hours southwest to the town of Guatavita, a short distance from Bogota, Colombia's capitol city. We weren't planning to visit Bogota, big cities aren't our cup o' tea, so we decided to stay at this little town instead which proved to be a wise decision.

Above is a shot of the bullfighting ring, with the town and man-made lake in the background. This is another place we could have easily stayed longer. I think Colombia's tourist motto of "the only risk is wanting to stay" may have some truth to it.

The lake near Guatavita.

This is the view through the clouds of the lake near Guatavita. It's refreshingly cool here, and a bit rainy. To say the weather reminded us of our home in Seattle would be an understatement.

A panorama of the Sacred Lake.

Click the above for a full-sized panorama. The main attraction in the area is lake, Laguna de Guatavita. At nearly 10,000 feet it appears to be a crater lake of volcanic origin. It was actually formed as the underlying area of ancient seabed gradually dissolved over time.

This lake is thought to be the basis for the myth of El Dorado. Simply put, the Spanish thought thar was gold in them thar hills, specifically underneath the lake. Many attempts to drain the lake were made, some more successful than others, but none resulted in more than a handful of gold. More than one rich aristocrat sought his fortune here and ended up bankrupt before the park was put under national protection in the 20th century.

The Finca we stayed at in Guatavita, with rainbow in the background.

Our campsite in Guatavita treated us with this spectacular rainbow just before sunset. An amazing sight to behold, especially while grilling up a $2 pound of beef loin on a charcoal fire. Livin' the good life.

Up next: We head farther west towards Medellin and spend a few relaxing days in the Zona Cafeterra.


Curious Nomad
#2 Curious Nomad 2012-07-24 06:12
Colombia has came a long way over the past decade. Coming from the U.S. I was a bit skeptical at first to visit, but when I went in March 2011 I met some of the most friendliest and hospitable people in the world. I encourage people I to visit.
Jeff Wendt
#1 Jeff Wendt 2012-07-15 15:51
I caught up with your journey in Panama, and have been enjoying reading of your adventures. I have long thought of doing something like this, so right-on you guys! I wanted to drop you a note since I have traveled to Medellin a couple of times. I have friends there if you would like a tour guide at some point. Like you, I have found Colombia to be an amazing Country... Dramatic Geography, and very friendly people. Have fun, and I look forward to more of your posts.

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