If you hear the name Colombia and you think “Narcos" or “cocaine", then I have to let you in on a little secret: throw those preconceptions out the window and come to Colombia where you will have the time of your life, but don't tell anyone else. Let them have their suspicions about this gem of a country, because if everyone knew how great it was, then the whole world would descend upon Colombia and never leave.
If you can't tell yet, Colombia is our absolute favorite country that we have visited so far (we are currently in Ecuador, so we haven't gotten much farther). This is not to say that all the other countries we have been to are awful. To the contrary, we've loved our time in every place, and each one is unique and enjoyable in its own way. At the moment of writing this, we have driven from the US through every country in Central America and into South America, and it has been amazing. But Tim and I both agree that there was something particularly magical about Colombia.
One of the greatest things about Colombia is a bit ironic. Because of its turbulent recent past, Colombia has not had the onslaught of tourism and modernization that other countries have. In fact, most tourists avoided Colombia for a very long time, and it wasn't until recently, as in the past ten years, that it really started to open up.
This means that there is a certain friendliness and hospitality that comes with the Colombian people, whereas elsewhere in South America, locals may have become jaded by the constant presence of Americans, Canadians, and Europeans who come to buy up their beach-front property or overcrowd their beautiful sites.
Things of course may change, but for the moment at least, Colombia is authentic and pristine, and Colombians seem happier than the average Latin American, which is hard to do since Latin Americans are in general very happy, optimistic people. But in my opinion, Colombians were the pinnacle of joyous, and they loved to have a good time more than most. Maybe this is because it's the first time in recent history that things have been good for them. But whatever the reason, their exuberance for life was contagious.
Though the police presence is very apparent in Colombia, again, even the police were super friendly. And in comparison to the police in Nicaragua or Guatemala for example, they did not look very militaristic (i.e. dressed in camo with AK-47's slung over their shoulders). No, Colombian police were mostly young men (and even a few young women) who dressed in bright neon green, they often did not carry weapons, and would give you a thumbs up as you drove by. At first we thought it was because they liked our awesome giant motorcycle. And sometimes they gave us a smile, shout, or wave, which does suggest they think we're awesome (motorcycle travelers usually are), but actually the thumbs up simply means the road is clear ahead. Oh well.
Colombia is also a very clean country. As far as trash on the streets and even diesel fumes, I feel it's way ahead of most Central American countries. And from what we've heard from other travelers, it is the cleanest country of South America, especially compared to Peru and Bolivia.
Ah, but wait, I haven't even mentioned yet the natural wonders, biodiversity, and the incredible year-round climate that Colombia has. But perhaps one of my ultimate favorite things about Colombia is the free motorcycle lane at toll booths where all motorcycles can simply pass by the rest of the traffic as they line up and pay. At every toll, a huge smile would spread across my face and I'd think to myself, “Whoever thought of this is the best!".
So below I've described a few of the highlights of our time in Colombia. They are not in chronological order, but are in order of our favorites first. And because I'm sure you're going to want to pack your bags by the time you finish this, if you want any further advice on what to see and do in Colombia, feel free to contact us.
Off-Road in Santander
Just north of Bogotá, the capital, you will find a region of Colombia called Santander. I have no idea if this is the prettiest province since we did not visit them all, but I think we spent nearly a month total going from one little town to the next in Santander, and this is really what made us fall in love with Colombia.
Santander's most famous colonial town is Barichara, and it is probably the cutest town on the planet. Every building it constructed in a historically colonial style using the beige stone quarried in the region, and everything has been restored to perfection.
But Barichara is definitely not the only noteworthy colonial town in the region. Guane, Guadalupe, Onzaga, Cepita, there are countless others. And though many of the roads we took to these villages were unpaved or had muddy landslides covering sections due to it being the end of the rainy season, I think this all added to the mystery and seclusion. It felt like once we arrived, that these towns tucked into the mountain valleys with their church bells ringing were left untouched for hundreds of years until we came and discovered them.
You may have thought that Colombia is all a hot sweltering jungle near the equator where you would need to bring shorts and bug spray. And though that is true for some parts, much of Colombia is at a very high altitude and can get quite cold, and the perfect example of this is El Cocuy.
El Cocuy one of Colombia's many national parks, but it is very special in that the mountains of El Cocuy are so tall, they have glaciers atop them and are always covered in snow. It is also home to the world's largest flying bird, the Andean Condor. We had quite an adventure traversing some backroads near El Cocuy, all backdropped by glaciers.
El Cocuy National Park is massive and majestic, a truly wild place that feels untouched and pure. You will of course come across sparse villages in the highlands populated by poncho-wearing Andean people, and you will certainly be the only foreigner there. It's an incredible experience, and one that I will never forget.
Oh yes, and if you like coffee, then Colombia is a coffee-lover's paradise. I personally don't like coffee, but Tim drank ten cups a day.
Coffee country in Colombia (a.k.a. eje cafetero, just west of Bogotá) is also known for its chocolate farms. Coffee is not an endemic crop to the region of South America, but chocolate is, and Colombia certainly does it right. Many of Europe's chocolatiers purchase their pure cocoa from Colombia, so we thought why not go straight to the source? We did, and to see what we thought of eating the white slime around raw chocolate beans, check out our video above.
Cartagena and the Caribbean Coast
Cartagena is Colombia's colonial Atlantic seaside city, and was the first place in Colombia we visited since our sailboat from Panama docked us there. As we pulled into port, I couldn't help but gawk at the beautiful glass high-rise skyline of Cartagena's beachside apartments and cosmopolitan areas, and realized that this was not what I expected from a Colombian city at all.
But its not all sleek and modern. We unloaded the bike, did our paperwork at customs, and then spent the next few days exploring the city's other side: the historic quarter. Quaint and colorful Spanish-style buildings line streets with horses and buggies that can take you around, but the place doesn't really come to life until night, when restaurants turn into hopping bars and clubs, and the music pumping perfectly blends into the energy of Cartagena after sunset.
Cartagena is a secret no longer as it is full of people from around the world who are enjoying the heat of its dance-filled nights, its photogenic streets, and its perfect beaches. Yet it's never too late to enjoy this fun-loving coastal city at the crossroads of history and modernity.
If you were to drive east from Cartagena along the coast as we did, you'll come to an area around the city of Santa Marta that is known to have the tallest coastal mountains in the world. The beaches here are stunning with huge waves (a surfing hotspot), and are backdropped by the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevadas.
Unfortunately while we were there, a small cold I had turned into pneumonia, and I spent our days on the beach laying on my hammock barely aware of my surroundings. So if it wasn't for that, I probably would have enjoyed our amazing surroundings more. Don't worry, I took some strong pills and successfully treated my pneumonia.
Things We Missed
Because we were to give presentations at a Horizon's Unlimited event in Ecuador, we had to leave Colombia earlier than expected (though if we didn't have a deadline we may have never left). But unfortunately, that means we missed many places that we heard were great.
Here's a short list:
Well, I guess it's always good to save some things for next time.
Our Colombia Travel Tips
1) Don't be afraid to go off the beaten path. I know Colombia sounds scary, we had a whole slew of wrong ideas about the place perpetrated by the news and media before we went, but actually we did not feel unsafe at any point during our time in Colombia.
2) If you're looking to eat local, order bandeja, which means “platter" (usually consists of meat, rice, a small salad, lentils or beans, and possibly a fried plantain or a couple of arepas). It's Colombia's typical dish, and Bandeja Paisa, or bandeja from the Paisa region, has sausage and a fried egg on top. But I'm going to be honest and say that after eating this dish every day for lunch and dinner for nearly three months, we got tired of it. But try the ajiaco soup as well, since Colombians can definitely make a mean soup.
3) Take the teleféricos. These are cable cars and they are everywhere. Because Colombia is so mountainous, nearly every major city has them, and people in the cities use these cable cars as public transportation to and from work on a daily basis. They offer great views of the city, and are a fun experience. Our personal favorite was not in a city: the teleférico of Chicamocha Canyon.
4) Bring a coat. That's right, Colombia's capital, Bogotá, is 8,629 ft. above sea level (2,630 meters). So if you plan on taking any roads that crest mountains, of which there are plenty, be prepared for winter temperatures. In one day of riding, we would start off in the morning at 100 degrees F (38 C) and a few hours later, once up in the mountains, it would drop into the 30's (2 C). The weather of Colombia completely depends on altitude.
For Tim and I, Colombia was amazing, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a great place to visit. For motorcycle travelers, it's perfection, and can offer every type of road and adventure you want. And for all other travelers, whether you're into history, culture, nightlife, or nature in all its forms, from some of the world's best beaches, to rainforests, to glaciers, Colombia has it all. It's incredibly cheap, and you will be living and eating in luxury for very little money. Plus, if you live in North America and plan on flying in, you don't have to worry about jet-lag because Colombia is in the Central Time zone, depending on daylight savings.
So all in all, I have one phrase to sum up our time in Colombia, a phrase that you hear from Colombians all the time, “How wonderful!" or “¡Qué chévere!"
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