Finding decent places to tent camp has been an ongoing struggle since leaving Mexico. Sure, there are plenty of empty parking lots, gas stations and restaurants we could pull in to, provided we could sleep in our vehicle as most overlanders do. But we prefer not to spend our nights in a tent pitched on gravel next to the highway.
Colombia has been a welcome relief from campground-sparse Central America. Not only are there plenty of campsites, there are more amazing places to spend a night in a tent than we've yet experienced on this trip. We normally publish a listing of where we spend our nights in each country, but after staying in over 60 campgrounds, we feel these five deserve extra attention. Super-friendly owners, free coffee, honor-system beer coolers, spectacular scenery and more amenities than we've seen anywhere else. You can't go wrong.
Recommended to us by our friends at Home on the Highway, this hostel/campground in Villa de Leyva was our introduction to just how awesome camping in Colombia can be. In our experience, camping at a hostel can be a risky proposition. Many are noisy and the camping areas seem to be a bit of an afterthought. Not at Hostal Renecer! Back behind the main common area and kitchen they've built several flat, grassy areas for tent campers. A rare find in these parts.
Temperatures are wonderfully cool, something we thoroughly enjoyed after months in Central America and sweltering week Cartagena. There are two common areas, one indoor and one outdoor, both with fireplaces. The upper common area has a grill, kitchen, hammocks, free coffee throughout the day and plenty of space to spread out. There's even a wood-fire pizza oven!
There's plenty to do in Villa de Leyva - horseback riding, mountain biking and many miles of hiking trails. There's a winery nearby, and the town itself, sporting the largest central square in Colombia, is a great place to go for a stroll. There is a book and maps with plenty of activities and tours in the hostel. One could easily spend weeks here and still not do everything.
La Serrana is a very popular place to stay just outside Salento. It was completely booked our entire stay, but it didn't feel crowded. I've never been able to say that about a full-up hostel before. We had several conversations with the ex-Californian owner about how he could turn a bigger profit and he flat out refused to setup a bar or party area even though it's a perfect location. He wants to keep it a chill place, and we respect that more than words can express.
The property is split into three areas - the main common area with guest kitchen (pictured below), tv room, dorms and a few private rooms. Behind the main room is another building (pictured above) containing the restaurant and several additional rooms. Back up the road towards Salento, about a five minute walk, is another property that has several very nice rooms that can be reserved via La Serrana.
The restaurant serves breakfast, a meal of two eggs, toast and a great cup of coffee is included with your stay (that's a first), and more options are available for reasonable prices. The french toast may be the best we've ever had. The restaurant also serves a set dinner that changes based on the day of the week.
The campground is located behind the restaurant, although they also let us camp in front of the restaurant nearby the parking lot. The view from our tents (pictured below) was spectacular, looking out over the coffee farms and rolling green hills this region is famous for.
There's plenty to do in the area - horseback riding and hiking, especially Valle de Cocora, are the most popular options. The town of Salento is also great to walk around in, it's about 15 minutes from La Serrana on foot. If you don't have your own wheels, reception can quickly arrange a jeep taxi to town or Valle de Cocora for a couple dollars.
Update January 2013: As we mentioned below the owner of this hostel was planning to relocate to a new place. This hostel is now closed and there is a new Casa Colombiana open in San Rafael de Antioquia. More information is available on their new website.
Kobus and I stayed here for eight days while Jessica flew back to the US for work. It's easily the most relaxing, eclectic and cheapest place we've camped in Colombia. We showed up to a French-trained Italian cook baking croissants, an Argentinian chef making pizza, and a super-friendly German ex-pat owner, Matthias, eager to help us out.
The property is split into two buildings, the main guest house with kitchen, pool table, common area and rooms. And the "upstairs" house with a couple private rooms, a small common area and a bakery. Fresh bread is available upon request, as are meals, snacks and just about anything else you might need to relax and feel at home.
La Casa Colombiana is located in the hills east of Medellin, it's refreshingly cool (some may even say cold) with a very rural atmosphere. Above the main house are dorms and several private rooms, pictured below, with wrap-around windows giving a great view of the countryside.
Matthias can help arrange tours, tell you where to fish, hike or go for a walk. He can phone up the grocery delivery service for you, or call a cab to Medellin which takes about 20 minutes. We didn't find much reason to leave, however.
Matthias and his Colombian wife Claudia are a couple of the most driven and intelligent hostel owners I've met. They aren't aiming to create a fortune, or a place that's featured in Lonely Planet. They want an ecologically responsible guesthouse that feels like home, attracts the right kind of person for longer periods of time, and is a cheaper and more relaxing alternative to Medellin hostels.
Rumor has it they will start breaking ground on a new property in several months. Meetings with architects and builders were happening while we stayed. If all goes well they will be moving, for the third and hopefully final time, to an even better location. You can read about this project on their brand new website.
Roughly a fifteen minute drive from Manizales, this coffee finca was rather difficult for us to leave after staying only two nights. La Hacienda Venecia is located on the banks of river that recently flooded. The scenery is spectacular, but the road leading to the property is washed out, we recommended you come from the north.
The camping spaces are set on flattened areas along the grassy hillside next to the guesthouse and swimming pool. Pitch down by the river for the best view.
Upon arrival we were greeted by the friendly bilingual staff and promptly given a crash course in operating their espresso machine. That's right, free espresso, around the clock. Being a proper coffee farm, they also roast, grind and sell their own beans. Straight from the source to your cup. Pictured below, the coffee roaster was in full swing morning, noon and night, filling the guesthouse with an aroma that we've come to love.
The main guesthouse offers private rooms, and a restaurant with a kitchen that guests are free to use. Set breakfasts, lunches and dinners can be provided for very reasonable prices upon request.
We spent most our time relaxing in front of the guesthouse which features a hammock-lined patio and swimming pool. The manager made nightly appearances to chat with the guests and help arrange tours to the coffee farm and surrounding areas. He is incredibly knowledgeable about the area and the coffee business. And as we've come to expect from our Colombian hosts, very friendly and helpful; willing to go out of his way to ensure we have the best time possible.
Situated in the hills east of Cali, just shy of Farallones de Cali National Park, a one-time FARC stronghold, this campground was the biggest surprise of our time spent in Colombia. We left Cali looking for (and not finding) a place nearby and stumbled across La Castellana when we hit the end of the road. To find your way here, take the road to Pance off the Pan American, follow it through town, a total of about five miles once the road turns to gravel. You'll come to a Y, stay to the right and continue another half mile to the gate.
The people who live and work at La Castellana are quite possibly the nicest folks we've ever met. From the second we arrived they went out of their way to show us around, help us get setup, and make our stay as comfortable as possible.
The property sits at the end of valley, with trails leading farther up into the mountains and the Farallones de Cali National Park. It consists of several buildings with private rooms, and dorm areas for larger groups. There's a kitchen, a few common areas, a restaurant, several grilling areas; plenty of space to spread out and explore.
To give you an idea of the generocity and friendliness of our hosts - they lit tiki torches around our tents once it got dark. We had no idea until we climbed down the hill from the restaurant! Nothing like a little ambiance before tucking in for the night.
Colombia continues to impress, especially when it comes to camping facilities for us tent-dwellers. These past few weeks, and especially these five places, have been the highlight of our tent camping experiences since our trip started 300 days and 10 countries ago. It wouldn't be hard to spend several months here bouncing from place to place, meeting awesome people and relaxing the days away.