Expedition: The Great Escape: 2014-15
Adventure Time: 5 1/2 Weeks
From Mexico City we flew to Colombia’s capital – Bogota. I took to certain areas in Colombia more than others. Overall I found Colombia to be the least safe country I'd travelled to, fresh food was hard to come by and the vast majority of the tourists in the north ('Spring Break' party type) regrettably treated the country like a playground. That, paralleled with the poverty and visible crippling effects of drug abuse and disability, was hard to see.
BUT beyond the typical tourist destinations I did find wonder! Villa de Leyva, Salento, Puerto Narino (Amazon), the Tatacoa Desert and San Agustin were some of the most memorable places I'd visited on the entire expedition.
These are my highlights! Hit the links to scroll down to a specific location.
We travelled across most of Colombia by bus, stopping off at the following places:
We then flew to the Amazon and stayed in:
On our return from the Amazon we travelled to:
Colombia’s capital, Bogota took a little adjusting to. Homelessness and drug addiction was rife and safety – especially at night, was an issue. 'No segura' the hostel owners would advise when I asked for directions. Always get a taxi if you go out at night, they'd warn. This sounds bizarre but we'd just flown in from Mexico, where believe it or not, you wouldn't really question safety when walking the streets at night, or any time of day for that matter. We did have an incident when we left our hostel on the first night so always be vigilant and follow local advice when getting around.
We stayed in La Candelaria (the old town) and this is where we spent most of our time as it was quite pretty. My favourite thing about Bogota was the art scene. It is phenomenal - up there with the best - London, New York, LA, Paris. I wasn’t expecting it and I’m so glad I stayed a few days to get to know it. A must is the Graffiti Walking Tour (see below).
The main square, Plaza de Bolivar is pretty and there are a couple of decent places to eat out. The city even has its own brewery. There are enough activities you can do that will keep you occupied for 3 days or so.
Places to Stay
Alegrias Hostel - La Candelaria
OK – so here’s the deal with this place (and most accommodation in Colombia): It was a far cry from the pictures on the website and it was in serious need of some maintenance. The people who ran the hostel were very friendly but were utterly disorganised. They did not keep a system of bookings and so I guess over 90% of people who arrived who had a booking would not be on the system. All a bit of a nightmare, however, after staying in another hostel in the area, Alegria felt the safest and cleanest and the communal area was very cosy – like a home away from home. The beds in the private rooms were terrible but the cosy atmosphere, the kitchen facilities, communal areas and hot shower more than made up for it.
Things to See and Do
This MUST DO tour offers a fantastic insight into how Graffiti in Colombia has evolved into a form of social commentary and cultural expression, so not only do you see some of the best street art in the world, you also learn about the politics and socio-economic history of the country.
Register online via their website so they know to expect you (you get a little freebie at the end) or you can just turn up.
Read more about the tour and the artists in my blog: World-Class Art in Bogota, Colombia
Museo Botero (Botero museum)
The Botero Museum houses one of Latin America’s most important international art collections. The museum contains 123 works of Fernando Botero and 85 of other artists. Highlights of the permanent collection include works by Georges Braque, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet among many others.
Fernando Botero Angulo (born 1932) is a figurative artist and sculptor from Medellin, Colombia. His signature style, also known as “Boterismo” depicts people and figures in large, exaggerated volume. Everything is basically fat and chubby!
There’s even a chubby Mona Lisa!
He is considered the most recognised and quoted living artist from Latin America and his art can be found in highly visible places around the world - Park Avenue in New York and the Champs-Élysées in Paris. We loved Botero and unlike in Botero’s home town of Medellin, entrance to the museum is FREE!
Museo Historico Policia
I wish we had done this but we ran out of time. A young kid (18) doing his years service with the police force approached us in the square and told us about the tour. Here’s the Lonely Planet low down:
“This surprisingly worthwhile museum not only gets you inside the lovely HQ (built in 1923) of Bogota’s police force, but gives you a 45 minutes or so of contact time with 18-year-old English speaking local guides who are serving a one-year compulsory service with the police (interesting tales to be heard). The best parts otherwise follow cocaine-kingpin Pablo Escobar’s demise in 1993 – with a model dummy of his bullet-ridden corpse, his Harley Davidson and his personal Bernadelli pocket pistol, otherwise know as his ‘second wife.'”
A pretty-ish place to pass through. Head up the streets of La Candelaria behind the square for quaint, albeit expensive cafes and restaurants.
Go to the top of Cerro de Monserrate
Even Bogota has some breath-taking views. Take a cable car to the top of Mount Monserrate (Cerro de Monserrate) and admire the views. Don’t walk up – it can be dangerous.
The Gold Museum – Museo del Oro
We did go and sadly regretted it. It was really boring – even the audio guide didn’t help make it more interesting. A gold plate…some gold jewellery. Other people seemed to enjoy it though. I guess if you like artefacts?
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Patisserie Francaise a Peche Mignon - CALLE 9 No. 2-18
Great white chocolate cake and slightly pricey wine but hey – a few blocks up from the Botero Museum, is this cute little cafe offering all sorts of pastries and cakes and some main dishes too.
Crepes and Waffles - Ac 13 No 4 55, Bogota
This is a great chain run entirely by single mothers and women in need. Read more about it here.
There are lots of locations, including a few in Bogota. It’s cheap and there is an endless selection of savoury and sweet crepes and waffles to choose from. Really loved it here.
Villa de Leyva
This has to be my favourite town in the whole of Colombia. Sitting pretty 3.5 hours north of Bogota this little colonial village packs a punch – lovely lovely people, great food, stunning scenery, mountain biking, hiking, and a huge square surrounded by little cafes, restaurants and bars.
There are some really impressive sights to be seen around Villa de Leyva – I would stay there for a minimum of 3 days.
Sit in the square and take in the sky. It is incredible!
Places to Stay
There are lots of options in town. We stayed at Hotel El Solar.
El Solar was one of the top rated places to stay on Trip Advisor and just as cheap as local hostels in the area.
The owner, Marta, is just about the loveliest lady you’ll meet in Colombia. You’re greeted with love and affection ‘mi amore! mi amore! We had a good sized private double room and it was cheap, clean, comfortable and the water was hot! The service was great as well – we had to make a series of complicated reservations for the north and needed to use the phone. They just did everything for us – called, spoke to the owners and made the reservations. Great place!
Things to See and Do
Explore the countryside surrounding Villa de Leyva by bike
CICLOTRIP - Carrera 8 # 11-32
Just 3 blocks up from Plaza Mayor is a super friendly artist from Venezuela (Francisco) who runs an eco-friendly mountain bike business – Ciclotrip with his wife Angela. You can rent bikes or Francisco will take you on any number of bespoke cycling trips around the Villa de Leyva countryside. Trips vary from easy – to hard and you can also ask for hiking tours.
There are other tour agencies offering bikes in the area but this guy seriously knows his stuff. Cycling is his passion and he knows the terrain like the back of his hand. If it all gets too much he also has a driver on standby who can come and collect you. He also volunteers with the red cross as part of the mountain rescue team so you know you’re in safe hands! Besides the bikes he’s an excellent guide, pointing out for example the little town nearby where every year the locals stage a crucifixion…with nails! He’ll only stop at the points that really interest you, making the tour entirely bespoke and tailored to your needs/interests.
It was probably one of the BEST outdoors tours I’d done in Colombia!
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Dorfkneipe - Plaza Mayor (The main square). Decent selection of beers and a super nice spot to sit and take in the views at sunset.
Santa Lucia Pizzeria Gelateria Cafe - Carrera 10 # 10-27
There’s a whole heap of restaurants and cafes in town – this one stood out for its Gelato – they also do good pizzas and the owner is just lovely.
Panaderia Tropical de la Villa - Calle 10 # 9-16.
Eat breakfast here! This one was recommended by the locals.
It’s ridiculously cheap, fresh and delicious and the service is EXCELLENT! The coffee is also delicious.
We travelled north from Villa de Leyva and stopped off at San Gil, the adventure capital of Colombia. San Gil is actually quite small as far as towns go and was a little bit over crowded with tourists. We didn’t go out too much in town as I was definitely left with the impression that my presence wasn't really wanted and I'm not surprised. It was all a bit loud and 'Spring Breaky' - a bit taken over.
The availability to take part in sports was everywhere. We arranged white water rafting and paragliding via our hostel. Amazing experiences!
Places to Stay
Probably the most popular hostel for gringos in the whole of Colombia. There’s nothing particularly VIP about it though – there was no hot water when we were there and staff were disorganised.
It is a big hostel though and the communal areas are spread out. Besides the insects crawling around the sink, work surfaces and cupboards, the kitchen facilities were also pretty good. You could book everything, including onward bus tickets with them. Shop around for prices first if you’re on a budget. Bus tickets worked out cheaper through them, although – going back to the point of disorganised staff, when we arrived at the bus station at 6.00 am there was no record of our booking and they had to call the hostel to re-confirm, who said they didn't know anything about it... but luckily there were 2 seats left on the bus.
Things to See and Do
Paragliding over the Chicamocha Canyon (Only $170,000 COP – about £40 for 40 minutes).
The company I recommend are called Parapente Chicamocha.
You can take a camera up with you as long as it’s secured to you. You can also rent a selfie stick with camera attached for about 30,000 COP and take the memory card with you after you’ve finished. They also take pictures of you before you set off which you can download later from their Facebook page.
White Water Rafting - this was a lot of fun!
Other activities we didn’t do that were also available:
Hydrospeed or Riverboarding
Rappelling or Abseiling in Juan Curi Waterfalls (you can go there independently by bus for a small hike and swim).
Juan Curi Waterfalls & Barichara
A day trip to the nearby 180m waterfalls of Juan Curi, 20 km from San Gil on the road to Charalá is a must, as is a swim in the pool at the bottom. Buses leave San Gil frequently and take 40 minutes. (You do get charged about 5,000 entrance fee).