How do we love thee, Colombia? Let us count the ways. Having spent nearly two months in the country, Gregor and I came up with 7 things we love about Colombia.
Before I start gushing about this country, here’s an interactive map showing our route:
We drove through Colombia in two chunks:
– Cartagena to Bogota Nov 20-Dec 14, 2015
– Bogota to Ipiales Jan 14-Feb 14, 2016
In between those times, we flew from Bogota to Florida to spend Christmas holidays with friends and family.
Going back to the USA after 10 months of traveling in our van was really eye-opening. It made us appreciate the privileged lifestyle we once had in Canada, but it really made us appreciate the simple lifestyle that we now have, traveling through Latin America in our little van.
Of all the Latin American countries we’ve visited so far, Colombia is one of our favourites (a close tie with Mexico). It’s tough to express why we love this country, but I feel like I’d be hiding something if I didn’t share some of that lovin’ in this blog. So here goes…
Top 7 Things We Love About Colombia
#7 – The Landscapes
Colombia has it all: mountains, valleys, beaches, deserts, lakes. It feels so vast compared to the tiny, compact countries in Central America. Colombia has three parallel mountain chains running in a north-south direction: Cordillera Oriental (East Andes), Cordillera Central (Central Andes), and Cordillera Occidental (West Andes).
Starting at sea level at Cartagena, we criss-crossed the West Andes three times as we drove southward to Ipiales at the Ecuador border.
For hours and hours, Lucky huffed and puffed her way up roller coaster roads over 3,000 m (10,000 ft) high and then soared downhill to lush green valleys and dry deserts in between. Driving days were long, but we were rewarded with beautiful and interesting landscapes.
Colombia reminded me that I’m definitely a mountain person. I love the cooler temperatures, hiking to spectacular vistas, and being surrounded by nature.
Gregor is more of a beach person these days. He prefers the hot weather, lounging around with sand under his feet, and feeling the ocean vibe.
Lucky just keeps on going, no matter what the weather or terrain. The three of us seemed to balance each other out quite nicely in Colombia.
#6 – Colonial Towns and Cities
Colombia has some of the most interesting colonial architecture that we’ve seen in Latin America so far. Some of the towns and cities have a very distinctive character and colour, drawing both local and international tourists to their narrow streets.
It’s tough to pick a favourite town or city since each one has such a unique look and feel, but if Gregor and I were to recommend a colonial site to visit, it would be Salento. The town is so colourful and cute, and there’s lots to do in the surrounding area: coffee tours, horseback riding, hiking, bathing in thermal springs, and lots more.
# 5 – Cheap Lunches
When we visit colonial towns and cities, we love to stop for lunch at simple restaurants serving la comida corriente or set meal. This meal typically comes with a drink (fruit juice or fruit-flavoured water), soup, and a main plate consisting of meat (chicken, beef, or pork), starch (plantain, yuca, or potato), beans, rice, and salad.
What we love about these lunches: they’re delicious, hearty, and cheap! For $3-4 CAD, you get a pile of tasty home-style food that fills you up for hours. We can’t get this kind of food for that kind of money in Canada.
#4 – Mysterious Tombs
“Archeology” is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Colombia, but of the seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country, two of them are National Archeological Parks: Tierradentro and San Agustín. We visited both of these parks and were really impressed with the way the sites were curated.
Each park gives you a cute little passport with pages that get stamped as you enter different sites in the park.
The underground tombs in Tierradentro Archeological Park are truly fascinating. Steep staircases plunge several metres underground, leading to spacious burial chambers that have been chiseled out of volcanic rock. Many of the tombs are high enough to stand in and some contain elaborate pillars and paintings. The site is dated between 7th and 9th centuries AD but the indigenous Colombians that created the catacombs remain a mystery.
San Agustín Archeological Park contains over 500 stone statues that date between 6th and 14th centuries AD. They once guarded the tombs of an ancient Colombian population that archeologists don’t really know much about. Many of the statues resemble animals and masked monsters, and some are as tall as me and Gregor.
#3 – The Roads
Firstly, we love the roads in Colombia for the ingenuity that it took to built them, particularly through the Cordilleras. Secondly, we love the roads because they provide access to some pretty amazing places. Finally, the roads give us an interesting glimpse of the colourful and crazy side of Colombian culture.
So the roads are great, but the Colombian drivers…well, they’re kind of like Mexican drivers. They seem to enjoy taking their life (and the life of others) into their own hands – passing on blind corners, cutting you off at close range, and speeding like maniacs. Yes, we love the roads, but we need some serious relationship counselling with the drivers.
#2 – The Campsites
Our definition of “camping” on the Pan-American means finding a secure place where we can sleep in the van and access a toilet. This is really easy to do in Colombia, as there are lots of hostels, farms, and recreational areas that offer safe and clean camping facilities. Many of these places have beautiful views and excellent amenities such as electrical plug-ins for the van, fast wifi, communal kitchens, laundry services, and…wait for it…hot showers!
The best part about our camping experience in Colombia: we woke up to the songs of dozens of different exotic birds almost every morning.
The iOverlander app lists some great camping spots with excellent reviews from other travelers. As a result, overlanders from all over the world congregate at the same spots and keep bumping into each other as they drive either north or south.
Our strangest “campsite” was in a mechanic shop in Bogotà called Iguana 4×4. That’s where we got some work done on the van and parked Lucky for a month while we visited Florida for Christmas holidays. The shop gates were locked in the evening so we couldn’t leave the garage between 6 pm and 8 am. It was kinda weird to be trapped in a mechanic shop overnight with a bunch of other overlanders.
#1 – The People
The number one reason that we love Colombia is the people. We’ve travelled to a lot of places in the world and we think that Colombians are the most friendly group of people that we’ve encountered so far. People were exceptionally helpful and welcoming everywhere we went. Strangers gave genuine smiles and warm handshakes, and bid us cheerful greetings (buenos dias – good morning) and happy farewells (que le vaya bien – hope things go well for you).
Colombians also seem to be extraordinarily curious about overlanders. I don’t know how many times local families have approached us, asking about our trip, wanting to look inside the van, asking how much we paid for it, and requesting to take photos with us. Many have told us that it’s their dream to travel in a van like ours. Some have even invited us to visit them as we pass through their town or city. It’s really quite remarkable and makes me realize how reserved we are as Canadians.
Even the police and military personnel in Colombia are friendly. The Colombian government has a campaign to show that the military is on the your side. As you pass military checkpoints, the officers give you a “thumbs up” to show their support.
This is going to sound very corny, but many Colombians that we’ve met have a little twinkle in their eye, like there’s a carefree and mischievous dreamer inside…someone who believes in endless possibilities and trusts in the goodness of others.
For us, it’s the Colombians that make Colombia such a great place.