In 1975, on my first trip to Colombia I backpacked through the summer before entering a graduate program in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan. Based on my academic interests and work experience in ecology, wildland conservation, and national park management, here's a closer look at why I traveled to Colombia then, and why I'm so excited to be going back tomorrow. You should be excited about Colombia too.
In Search of El Dorado
From snowcapped Andean peaks to coffee-strewn hilltops, dense Amazon jungle and the sun-toasted Caribbean beaches, Colombia is a boon of diverse landscapes and cultures. Cue some cinematic cobblestoned towns, add a defense of Spanish fortresses, throw in the remnants of ancient civilizations leaving behind a treasure of El Dorado, and you'll find a country ripe for exploration and adventure. Reading road maps of Colombia, you need to look at relief, because traveling by land over the Andes is more up and down and curving around, than making progress in a straight line as the crow flies. Ditto for hiking too!
This is why, leaving the modern metropolis of Bogota or Medellin, travel in Colombia is an adventure. Over every horizon is another valley, a small village, a coffee farm, or protected nature reserve teeming with flora and fauna to explore. For me, the real El Dorado of Colombia are its abundant adventures to be discovered. The last time I was there in 2016 for just 10 days I rode mountain bikes, rafted through the Chicamocha Gorge (the Grand Canyon of Colombia), hiked on mountain trails, trekked on cobblestone royal roads laid down by the Spanish, and rode a mule through the jungle (to cover more ground than my two feet would carry me).
Colombia is Open for (Adventure) Tourism!
In 1975, I rode in trucks and chicken busses. On my last trip, I got around in a Toyota Innova through the Andes, a private air-conditioned van on the Caribbean coast, and flew on jet aircraft in between. Today, we utilize a comprehensive network of airline connections and a good primary road system, with 4x4 access on secondary roads into more remote regions and trailheads. People keep asking me: "Is it safe?" and "Will I be comfortable?" Yes, and yes! From my first trip to my last one, there was long-running conflict with the FARC militants, and drug cartels that wreaked havoc in the streets. A peace agreement has now been signed, and drug trafficking essentially driven back underground out of notice. Colombians are free to travel to their farms and beach houses, to live a normal life, and to welcome visitors with open arms everywhere. The country's image on an international stage and the peace agreement is attracting investment and driving tourism growth at all levels from major hotel chains to small local family B&Bs and personal guide services.
What's especially exciting for us as adventure travelers, is we still have the opportunity to make inroads where only a trickle of travelers venture because many areas have been inaccessible for so long. What this means is we are warmly received by families, local entrepreneurs, and indigenous communities in rural areas who are welcoming travelers into their communities.
Perhaps the most remote and stunning is the venerated, 'Heart of the World,' so-called by the local Kogi people who live there. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains of Tayrona National Park, isolated geologically for millenniums and politically for decades, are now open for exploration. Scientists are clamoring to study this pristine region where endemic species are abundant and new flora and fauna are still being discovered. Overall, Colombia boasts almost 20 percent of the world's bird species with over 1,950 species recorded, presenting spectacular displays of color, calls, configurations, and more birds being discovered all the time. (Read more about Birding in Colombia)
Take Comfort In Warm Hospitality
Accommodations ala The Wild Style are abundant from luxury boutique hotels in the cities, to beautifully restored haciendas and colonial homes, ecolodges in the Amazon like Calanoa Jungle Lodge, and beautiful beachfront bungalows like Hotel Barlovento enveloped in the jungle near Tayrona National Park. In the Andes you find a range of mountain lodges and cabins, some more rustic than others depending on how high and remote you go. All throughout the coffee region are a wide range from the luxurious boutique Hacienda Bambusa to the more familial coffee farm accommodations like Hacienda Combia. Charming UNESCO Heritage white-washed and cobblestone towns like Villa de Leyva and Barichara have been lovingly restored and so have our accommodations here like the 7-room colonial home Casa Terra.
Eateries And The Coffee Culture To Go With It
Juan Valdez lives on in the proud coffee culture of Colombia, but he's grown up from the Folger's generation. And, forget the international coffee chains; Starbucks just opened it's one and only store in Colombia in 2016. Colombia takes you to the root of the matter where you can stay on commercial coffee farms and learn about crop to cup including professional coffee tastings and any enjoy and kind of cup you want to be prepared by world-class baristas on the best espresso machines on the planet. And, you don't have to go to the coffee region for the best coffee: After working the field with growers and traveling all around the world from the Pacific Northwest to the coffee cultures of Europe, Jaime Duque explains what inspired him to open his coffee shop and micro-roastery tour back home in Bogota that deserves every coffee connoisseur's support.
And there's no shortage of impressive eateries featuring haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy, but what I like best are the modern restaurants dedicated to researching and sourcing Colombia's food traditions inspired by the country's cultural and biogeographical diversity, including ancient indigenous ingredients prepared for the modern palate. Some of my favorites being Abasto (Bogota), El Mercado (Barichara), and Colombian Chef Leonor Espinosa's restaurant, Misia (Bogota)--she was recently declared Latin America's Best Female Chef.
Insider Guided Tours
Here are two of my favorite guided tours in Colombia not to be missed. One way to experience Cartagena with a literary gourmet focus is a foodie tour following in the footsteps of Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, tasting all his favorite gastronomy while listening to excerpts as he describes them in his book, Love in the Time of Cholera. We hit street stands, dessert cafes, aguardiente bars, and candy stores of all sordid colors and textures.
Another is walking the streets of Medellin with Carlos Palau, an ex-cop who worked in the city during the time of Pablo Escobar's reign. Although Carlos escaped death several times, his recounting of life in the city, which most of us only know from the HBO series Narco, is a truly professional insider's perspective on a dark period in the city's history, and not unlike the man himself, how the city reigned supreme to live a new day.
Indigenous Cultures With Secrets To ShareOn the Pacific coast of Colombia, the Embera tribe reside in the coastal jungles of the Choco region that spans from Panama's Darien coast deep into the southern coast of Colombia. There are few roads here—the best way to encounter them is the take a short flight from Medellin to the little jungle town of Nuqui where there are a few ecolodge such as El Cantil Ecolodge. The Embera have developed their own community-based tourism experiences for travelers who make the effort to meander up jungle streams in motorized dugouts and walk up the beach to coastal settlements. Among many traditions we discover, is the opportunity for them to paint you in their traditional patterns with the juice of the jagua plant that stains the skin in a tattoo-like design for up to 10 days.
There are around 1.5 million indigenous people, from over 87 tribes, that make up about 3.5% of Colombia's total population. And, like many indigenous peoples of the world, they have much to share and to teach visitors from the modern world. On the Caribbean coast, in the mountains of Tayrona National Park, the Kogi live deep in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range. Having lived isolated and culturally intact for so many years, they are just beginning to open some of their villages to respectfully crafted visits by outsiders, and we have made connections with a few Kogi who are our contacts to take us there. The supreme diety of the Kogi is The Great Mother, and they believe they exist to care for the world—a world they see us destroying. To visit them is to experience the presence among a people whose belief is in "Aluna"-a kind of cosmic consciousness that is the source of all life and intelligence, something that is thinking and has self-knowledge, as described by filmmaker, Alan Ereira, who was called by the Kogi to make the film, "Aluna-The Movie," to warn the world about the impending state of nature's demise.
Colombia is a vast country, the size of Spain and France combined.....it has so many more nooks and crannies it'll take an entire lifetime to explore, but for now, we can help you delve into it. Trips to Colombia
This has been A Closer Look with Kurt Kutay