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Colombia

Colombia is a land rich in natural and manmade attractions just waiting to be discovered

Tailor-Made Holidays
To Colombia

Nowadays Colombia is very different from the country once synonymous with FARC rebels, Pablo Escobar and the Medellin drugs cartel. The reign of the Medellin cartel has long since ended and, with a recent peace accord signed with FARC, Colombia is once more a land rich in natural and manmade attractions just waiting to be discovered.

Colombia is a huge country covering over one million square kilometres. Occupying much of northwest South America, it stretches from the Central American jungles of the Darien in the north to the vast Amazon basin at Leticia in the far south. Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama (which was once part of Colombia) all share borders with the country, and its unique geographical position allows Colombia to have both Caribbean and Pacific coastlines simultaneously. There are some 3,200 kilometres of seashore in total, encircling a remarkable array of geographical and climatic regions: the wet Pacific Choco region; the mighty Amazon rainforests which covers one third of the landmass; the vast tropical savannas of the Llanos to the east that continue deep into Venezuela; the tropical Caribbean lowlands of the east; and the majestic mountains of the Andes.

Within Colombia the giant Andean chain splits into three immense ranges that run almost to the Caribbean, dividing the country into distinctive, isolated regions. The result, along with the tropical lowlands, is a stunning and unparalleled wealth of cultural, natural and geographical diversity, much of it unique and little known.

Culturally, Colombia has indigenous peoples such as the Kogi and Kamsa; burgeoning urban centres striving to innovate and reinvent themselves like Bogota and Medellin; beautifully preserved Spanish colonial towns such as Cartagena de Indias, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Caribbean coast, and Villa de Leyva in the eastern Andes; highland landscapes of rolling coffee farms; verdant wooded valleys and snow-capped volcanoes; dense rainforests in almost every corner; and possibly the most extraordinary concentration of biodiversity on the planet – the mystical Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s highest coastal range.

With all this wealth of variety, Colombia has to be seen to be believed and is without doubt one of the world’s great destinations.

A wonderful shot of an inquisitive young Gorilla in Nyungwe park

Photography by Dan Burton

Best Time To Visit Colombia

With its five distinct tropical regions and two widely different coastlines, Colombia has a range of climatic zones, each best visited at particular times of the year. Generally, though, there are two main wet seasons and two dry seasons, with the wettest months being April, May, October and half of November. The warmest and driest months are usually January, February, July and August but with today’s unpredictable weather patterns the boundaries between wet and dry are increasingly indistinct.

Colombia’s tropical latitude ensures that lowland/sea level temperatures range between the high 20s and low 30s centigrade all year round. In the Andes, where over 70% of Colombia’s population live, temperatures vary in direct relation to the altitude. Bogota at 2,600masl (metres above sea level) has a climate bordering on temperate and rainfall is more constant. Cali at 1,000masl has more distinct dry/wet seasons and temperatures are in the mid to high 20s. Generally in the Andes temperatures are very comfortable and summery, with Medellin calling itself the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ for its 23ºC average year-round temperatures. In the mountains, rain is always a possibility even in the ‘dry season’. The rainier months on the Caribbean coast tend to be between May and October.

In Colombia’s vast Amazon regions January to May and October to December are the months of highest rainfall. In the Llanos the driest months begin in November and last through to March; with a monsoon-like weather pattern prevailing during the rest of the year.

Colombia Travel

Getting There

Flight Time

12 Hours

Time Zone

GMT -5

Language

Spanish

Population

49.7 million

Highlights

What To See

Sierra Nevada De Santa Marta

Described by the IUCN as the ‘world’s most irreplaceable concentration of biodiversity’, the Sierra Nevada is indeed unique. Revered by its ancient inhabitants – the Kogi, Arhuaco, Kankuamo and Wiwa peoples – as ‘the heart of the world’ its anthropological history alone is exceptional. In the eyes of the present-day Kogi, descendants of the Tayrona, we are the ignorant ‘little brother’, a society that has yet to learn the basics of living in harmony with our precious natural surroundings. The Sierra itself is liberally littered with ancient ruins built by the Tayrona between 500 and 1,000 years ago, a people who were almost wiped out before managing to flee to their mountain hideaway and safety from the Spanish.

Located on the edge of the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta contains Colombia’s two highest peaks reaching up to 5,770 masl (18,930ft). It is just 46km as the crow flies from the sea, making it the world’s highest coastal range and one of the world’s most prominent mountain ranges. The Sierra’s sheer size (some 600,000ha or more) creates its own weather pattern, meaning an increased level of rainfall across its north-western edge where moisture-laden clouds collide with the foothills and lower mountains.

Geologically it is thought that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta split from the central Andes some 400 million years ago on its 200km journey across the north of Colombia, growing and becoming more and more isolated as it progressed. The isolation, altitude and sheer variety of ecosystems has led to the Sierra becoming Latin America’s most important centre for endemism – a typical three-day birding trip can result in an impressive list of over 20 endemics found only in the upper altitudes of the Sierra.

San Augustin

Considered the world’s largest necropolis (a cemetery with elaborate tombs and monuments), San Agustin’s Archaeological Parks are located in Huila department, in the south of Colombia, in the municipalities of San Agustín and Isnos. It contains the largest collection of pre-Colombian religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in Latin America and was also declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995.

It is believed the statues were carved between100-900 A.D, but the exact dates are unknown as well as the origin of the carvers. They vary in height and form, ranging from anthropomorphic figures to animals like birds, frogs and snakes. Throughout the entire valley and region of the Upper Magdalena watershed there are well over 500 statues, all of which were painted and buried around the tomb or sarcophagus of the interred person. It is assumed that they were intended to give protection in the afterlife. Through the study of the statues various theories have emerged that provide an insight into the customs, beliefs and worldview of this culture, particularly that which was associated with life and death.

The San Agustin Archaeological Parks are perfect for those interested in learning about one of Colombia’s most interesting and enigmatic pre-Hispanic cultures.

Rio Claro Reserve

Located in the eastern slope of the Central Andes, Rio Claro protects a 650ha remnant of what was once a great forest that extended across the Magdalena Valley, into which the Claro River drains. This humid tropical lowland forest is one of Colombia’s most important spots for endemism as many species of bird, plant, amphibian and insect can only be found here. The reserve is one of Colombia’s most beautiful natural spots, boasting a jungle-laden canyon and crystal-clear river. What makes Rio Claro so special? Aside from being part of the important Middle-Magdalena Valley bio-region, it is thought this particular area was once a Pleistocene wilderness where temperatures and forest cover remained constant while the surrounding regions underwent massive change in the ensuing epochs. Species sought refuge and, through millennia of isolation, diversified into the species we recognise today, many of which have remained isolated.

Rio Claro is also a geological marvel, a startling sheer-walled marble canyon formed after millions of years of water erosion, magnificent to behold when coupled with the beauty of the naked rock itself.

Located just three hours by road from Medellin, Rio Claro is a perfect spot for wildlife watching, birding, rafting, canyoning, tubing, zip-lining, caving and simply getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The open-sided rooms at one of the various accommodations offered by the reserve provide a clear view of the undisturbed state of the surrounding forest. Howler monkeys roar from high in the trees and toucans soar across the canopy as you make your way along the various paths through the reserve. One particularly interesting spot is the Oilbird Trail which takes you to a large cave where these strange, large nocturnal birds live, locally referred to as guacharos due to the sound they make when excited.

Rio Blanco Reserve

Rio Blanco Reserve is legendary in Neotropical birding circles. It is considered one of the best birding sites in the world, with over 350 species recorded in the 4,000ha property. The reserve protects the Blanco River watershed and its forests which range from sub-tropical and high-Andean forest through to sub-páramo and páramo habitat in its highest reaches. This massive range in altitudes delivers one of the most complete high-Andean birding experiences possible anywhere in the Americas.

With the overwhelming numbers, Rio Blanco’s main attraction isn’t just one of volume: some of its most diminutive residents have been stealing the show for over 10 years. Thanks to a well-established feeding programme, each morning it is possible to spot up to four species of the skulking antpitta family, among them the rare brown-banded antpitta (endemic) and bicoloured antpitta (near-endemic) both of which are mega-ticks for any serious birder. The tiny slate-crowned antpitta and common chestnut-crowned antpitta can also be seen feeding along with various brush-finches and fruit eaters. To witness one of the world’s most elusive bird families hop out of the undergrowth as they hear the footsteps of impending worm-heaven is a joy to behold and one of the longest-lasting memories for any birder visiting Colombia.

Rio Blanco not only features large, rainbow-like mixed feeding flocks but also some of the rarest birds found in the high Andes, such as masked saltator, rusty-faced parrot, ocellated tapaculo, red-hooded tanager and the endemic chestnut wood-quail. The place is perfect for serious birders and those wanting a nature experience that’s not too far from town – Rio Blanco lies just 40 minutes away from the city of Manizales.

 

Otun-Quimbaya Sanctuary

Otun-Quimbaya Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, located in the mid Otun River basin, has been a reference point for sustainable tourism in Colombia for many years and won various international awards. Their development of nature-focused tourism, managed and delivered by the local community, has set a benchmark that many communities in Colombia have chosen to follow.

Established in 1996 and now holding national park status, the 489ha reserve protects a number of micro-basins that feed the Otun River, which in turn provides the drinking water for nearby Pereira an hour downriver. The ecosystem is mainly sub-tropical cloud forest which elsewhere has been cleared for agriculture and coffee production.

For wildlife watchers, Otun has many attractions. The easy, winding jungle trails showcase various important species, none more so than the endemic cauca guan, a focal conservation priority for the sanctuary that was hunted to the brink of extinction. The bird has now bounced back, with Otun its national stronghold for the continued revival of the species. Other species of note that can be found with relative ease include the otherwise rare red-ruffed fruitcrow, endemic multicolored tanager, crested ant-tanager and Stile’s tapaculo.

The sanctuary, which includes a large plantation of harvestable Chinese ash (indicating previous land usage prior to the creation of the reserve), also has a healthy population of red howler-monkey. An endangered mountain tapir roaming along the road early in the morning in search of food is also not an uncommon sight in the reserve.

 

Medellín

Medellín is one of the most visually impressive modern cities in Colombia. Its pleasant climate results from temperatures which average around 22ºC all year and explains why Medellín is called The City of Eternal Spring.

Surrounded by mountains, Medellín and the region of Antioquia, of which Medellin is the capital, has developed a particular culture, characterised by the vigour and ‘Paisa’ industriousness found in many towns and throughout the coffee region, where during the 19th century one of the largest population movements in the history of Colombia occurred, know as the Antioquian Colonisation.

After a dramatic turnaround that has spanned three decades, Medellín is now a role model for other cities, all the more remarkable considering how badly it was affected by cartel violence during the 80s and 90s. Nowadays, Medellín is a forward-thinking urban centre. Various vanguard initiatives to connect the richest and poorest parts have resulted in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘World’s Most Innovative City’ in 2013. Transport, urban renovation and social inclusion are all areas where Medellin has excelled, nowhere more evident than it its excellent metro system, regarded as one of the best in the world.

Each year Medellin celebrates what is without doubt one of the most beautiful festivals in the country – the Flower Festival. Silleteros walk through the night to the city from nearby towns and carry on their backs stunning flower arrangements which vie to be the most colourful and imaginative of the occasion.

 

Los Nevados National Park

Los Nevados National Park lies in the heart of the country at the apex of the central Andes in Colombia’s Coffee Region. Within its borders there are some eight volcanoes, some extinct and collapsed, others very active such as the historically deadly Nevado del Ruiz or Kumanday (Sleeping Lion). Three have rapidly disappearing glaciers due to climate change. The highest peak (El Ruiz) rises some 5,321 metres (17,162ft) into the sky. The rugged landscape is created by the explosive giants that command this highly volcanic stretch of the Andes, which gave rise to the lush, verdant foliage and fertile soils of the warmer coffee-strewn valleys below.

One of Colombia’s most beautiful parks, Los Nevados protects some 58,300ha of various high-Andean ecosystems, among them Andean cloud forest, high-Andean forest, sub-páramo and páramo – the latter ecosystem is found in only five countries and thought to be the world’s fastest evolving: Colombia is home to over 52% of the world total. The páramo is a world of mist, lakes, dense bush grass and the emblematic, strange frailejones – thick-trunked plants with a head of furry leaves and yellow flowers, betraying their distant links to the common daisy.

The park’s entry points are the basins of the Rivers Quindio, Cardenas, Otun, Toche amongst many others, all featuring the giant sponge-like vegetation that characterises the páramo. Within the forests and across the tundra, diminutive pudu deer, puma, spectacled bear and abundant birdlife can be found, including two rare country endemics which have their strongholds in Los Nevados.

Los Llanos Orientales

Colombia’s eastern plains are called Los Llanos Orientales, a vast, flat expanse of tropical savanna, gallery forest, seasonally flooded wetlands and small hillocks. There are distinct wet and dry seasons, the latter lasting from late November through to late March and the best time to visit. During these drier months, roads are passable and the wildlife is concentrated into smaller areas as the watering holes begin to evaporate.

Possibly best known for their contribution to the independence war of the 19th century, the Llanero cowboys are a hardy people who work at rearing cattle across these expanses, often wading on horseback through chest-high waters during the monsoon-like wet season.

The acidic soil is unsuitable to most agriculture so that the Llanos has very low population density, meaning wild animals are free to roam with startling results. Flocks of scarlet ibis mixed with imposing jabiru storks, surveyed by soaring king vultures flying over multitudes of cayman and capybara: these are just some of the species that can be found here with relative ease. Immense anacondas, Latin America’s largest predator, are found here, as are Orinoco crocodile, giant anteater, puma and jaguar, all of whom enjoy an abundance of their favourite food.

 

Cocora Valley

Part of the Colombian Coffee Region, the Cocora Valley is one of Colombia’s most iconic landscapes. The valley divides into two then disappears into the cloud forests above, pockmarked by the tallest wax palms in the world (Colombia’s highly endangered national tree) some of which are 60m tall. The Cocora Valley was created some 5,000 years ago by volcanic activity in the Paramillo del Quindio, an extinct volcanic structure that lies high above in Los Nevados National Park. Cocora is a key entry point for those wanting to wander for a few days in the vast páramo of the Nevados with the valley creating a buffer which protects the pristine forests and páramo above.

Cocora, meaning Star of Water in the ancient dialect of the Quimbaya Indians who once inhabited the region, was named after the daughter of a local chieftain and symbolises the cultural heritage of this pocket of the central Andes. Accessible by road from Salento (a 25min drive away), Cocora offers excellent day hikes to local reserves through open rolling countryside and deep, lush cloud forest ravines, all of which are teeming with birdlife. Much other wildlife is also present. Andean Condors descend to collect carrion on the pastures, and camera traps frequently record puma, mountain tapir and spectacled bear as they wander along the mountain paths towards unbroken habitat bordering the valley.

Chingaza National Park

Chingaza National Park is just 50km from Colombia’s capital. Bogotanos have a special relationship with the park since it’s the capital’s main water source. Chingaza is one of the larger Andean national parks at 76,600ha and was created to protect a large and very important area of paramo, lakes and Andean forest that extends from the eastern edge of the city towards the foothills of the Llanos Orientales (Eastern Plains). Remote and well-preserved, Chingaza has made news in the past couple of years for frequent Andean spectacled bear sightings as Chingaza is a stronghold for them.

Chingaza is excellent for birding and its surrounding high-Andean forests are some of the most beautiful habitats in Colombia – gnarled trees, bright flowers and thick mosses cling from a landscape where the Hobbit would have felt at home. White-tailed deer and black-chested buzzard-eagle are but two of the many species that can be found here, along with various endemic species of frailejon, the silent sentinels that watch over the páramo, swaying in the moist wind. Chingaza is a principle birding destination for the eastern Andes and covers many species that are otherwise difficult to see, with many endemics and near-endemics shared with Venezuela to the north.

Cartagena De Indias

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 1980s, Cartagena is one of the most beautiful cities of Colombia and possibly the world. Cartagena was one of the first cities founded by the Spanish in South America and the first commercial port of Colombia, eventually during the 16th century becoming one of the most important seaports in all the Americas.

A wall around Cartagena was built at different times to protect the city from the many attacks by French and English ships. They would wait for Spanish galleons leaving the bay laden with silver and gold, of which Colombia was the main exporter in Latin America. Cartagena was dubbed The Heroic City because it endured multiple attacks and sieges over the centuries, its inhabitants having suffered hunger, drought and disease. The most cruel and significant one was the siege by the Spanish army during the re-conquest of Colombia in 1816.

Modern Cartagena has spread out from the original coral-stone walls, but within the old walled city the majority of buildings are well preserved, with 16th and 17th century architecture in colourful abundance: hence it has become one of the most popular destinations in Colombia. Its colonial Spanish-style houses with overhanging wooden balconies, ornate windows and terracotta roofs now house a mix of intimate boutique hotels, good restaurants and lively bars. Its plazas are popular gathering places and its wall perfect for enjoying the night-time breeze coming off the ocean. The nearby Islas del Rosario archipelago provides a Caribbean for those willing to take the short boat ride.

 

Caño Cristales

Caño Cristales is the local name for Colombia’s famous River of Seven Colours, an ancient waterbed that runs through one of the world’s most ancient rock formations, the Sierra de La Macarena. A pre-Cambrian range that dates back some 1.8 billion years, around seven times the age of the Andes, the vast length of time the sierra has existed has led to some extraordinary phenomena – rivers that have run for millions of years have eroded away and left some remarkable features, nowhere more evident than at Caño Cristales.

It is a collection of pools, tunnels, loops and undercuts that provide the perfect setting for the star of the show which has evolved over millions of years. The endemic aquatic plant Macarenia clavigera thrives in the fast flowing waters and, depending on the amount of sunshine, will range from a deep greenish hue to a bright blood red colour. These carpets of bubble-like vegetation burst into life during the wet season between June and November each year.

To get there you fly from Bogota to the small Llanos/Amazon town of La Macarena. From there take a small boat across the Guayabero River before taking a 4×4 to the entrance of the park. La Macarena is located in the transitional zone between the Sierra, Amazon and Llanos which makes it an excellent spot of wildlife watching: the birding here is excellent.

 

Cali

Located in the south west of Colombia, Cali is nestled at the base of the western Andes range close to Farallones National Park in the immense Cauca Valley, an area dominated by sugar cane crops which stretch some 50km to the south and 200km northwards.

Founded by Sebastian Belalcázar in 1536 (one of Pizarro’s lieutenants during the Spanish conquest) Cali remained a small city for centuries until a population explosion during the 1950s. Cali is tropical with two distinct dry seasons, yet its 1,000m altitude gives rise to fresh temperatures and nightly winds that descend from the surrounding mountains, giving Cali the perfect climate for an evening of excellent music and dining.

To the west, Cerro Cristo Rey with its eponymous Christ is King statute affords panoramic views over Cali, Colombia’s third largest city with 3,000,000 inhabitants. Cali is probably best known for being the world’s capital of salsa or Latin jazz, with typically trendy bars play thumping, hip-swinging rhythms until the early hours. Cali is one of Colombia’s only cities where its river (of the same name) runs along its original path. The Boulevard del Rio is the perfect promenade for riverside rambles and for sampling some typical pasty-type empanadas and other refreshments.

Cali is the stronghold of the Valluno culture, revealing strong African influences in its music, culture and gastronomy. It derives from the nearby Pacific Choco region which lies just over the western Andes towards the port city of Buenaventura. Fresh seafood and stew specials like arroz atollado – a mixture of stewed rice, beans, meats and other delicacies – are all part of the Cali diet and have to be sampled to appreciate fully the many flavours.

Cali is a fantastic place to go birding: with over 500 species recorded in the city municipality alone, the birding in and around Cali is unrivalled. An hour away lies the excellent San Antonio cloud forest where ornithologists frequently see over 100 species typical of the Andes in a day. Less than two hours away lies one of the most famous birding locations in the Neotropics – the Anchicaya road to Buenaventura, which runs parallel to Farallones National Park and is simply a marvellous location for birdwatching.

Bogota

At 2,600 metres above sea level and bordered to the east by the imposing Cerros Orientales (eastern hills), Bogotá is the largest city in Colombia and its national capital. With average temperatures of 17ºC throughout the year, the city provides a pleasant temperate climate for its multicultural population of eight million derived from every region of Colombia.

Bogotá offers visitors a large variety of options for all kinds of activities relating to culture, nature, history and nightlife. It boasts Colombia’s best museums – among them the world-renowned Gold Museum – and an excellent gastronomic scene. Having been the most important city during Spanish colonial times, Bogotá was also the setting for many of the most important moments in Colombia’s recent history.

Bogotá has a famously lively nightlife with a wide variety of bars and restaurants. There are also many public and cultural activities such as Ciclovía which takes place every Sunday from 7am to 2pm when the main roads of the city are closed to motor traffic so that cyclists, runners, skaters and pedestrians can enjoy Bogotá in safety and peace.

 

Amazonia

The Amazon region of Colombia covers an area of over 400,000sq km, a little over a third of the national territory. Amazonia contributes greatly to Colombia’s phenomenal biodiversity statistics and cultural heritage. This vast forested basin starts a little to the south of the River Guaviare (which divides the region from the Llanos to the north) and stretches to the Putumayo River in the south and the Atabapo and Orinoco rivers to the west. The southernmost tip of Colombian Amazonia is the Trapezium where, along its southern edge, the mighty Amazon River itself flows before entering Brazil.

The town of Leticia is located at the tip of the trapezium, on the banks of the Amazon where Brazil, Peru and Colombia meet. At just over two hours by plane from Bogota, Leticia offers an excellent opportunity to reach the region in a relatively short amount of time. Nature reserves abound with canopy towers and tree-top walkways offering amazing views over the canopy where much of the wildlife lives. In Leticia you can observe thousands of parrots of many different species flying into the main square, Santander Park, to roost for the night.

Towards the west of Leticia the real Amazon adventure begins. Various settlements of Ticuna, Cocama and Yagua indigenous peoples dominate the river banks and provide an insight into a way of life that has lasted for 10,000 years. The Mocagua community lives next to one of Amazonia’s best national parks, Amacayacu, where they are trying to retain essential knowledge of their culture, ably assisted by local lodge foundations. One such, Maikuchiga, (“the monkey’s story” in Ticuna), nurses captive primates back to life in the jungle. Further upriver on the banks of the Loretoyaco River lies the Ticuna town of Puerto Nariño, with no cars and surrounded by the impenetrable green of the Amazon.

Also in Puerto Nariño, the Natutama Foundation’s museum shows the Ticuna’s deities and worldview, allowing insight into the underwater world of the varzea forest where, when the rivers burst their banks and flood the jungle, water levels can rise over five metres. Wildlife here is abundant. Pink and grey river dolphins are a common sight both in the giant oxbow lake and the RAMSAR wetlands site of Lake Tarapoto. In the Amazon River itself, various large raptors and many species of parrot abound. There are around 10 species of primate in the area, five of which occur with some frequency including the diminutive pygmy marmoset.

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Your Very Own

Colombia Specialist

John Melton

Area Specialist

If you have any questions regarding travel to Colombia, please feel free to contact me on +44 (0)1803 866965