A Life in Travel

8 minutes reading time (1509 words)

Kutay Family Adventure to Colombia


In early April, Anne and I met our son Tarek in Medellin. He was headed north concluding a 3 month backpack adventure through Chile and Argentina, so we planned to meet in Colombia for a 12-day family adventure from coast to coast. Colombia borders two continents and two seas, bridging incredible biodiversity, cinematically colorful colonial towns with cobblestoned streets, coffee-strewn hilltops, Amazon jungle, high Andes and pristine beaches. In addition, with its ancient civilizations, 87 indigenous tribes, and a fascinating contemporary story of peace, reconciliation and nature conservation, Colombia is ripe for exploration and adventure. We covered a lot of ground on our trip and what we discovered most was how easy and comfortable it is to travel to Colombia, and how much Colombians await with open arms as tourism begins to flourish.

Wild Pacific Choco Coast
Our first goal of the trip was to see the remote jungles and beaches of the wild Pacific Coast of Colombia. Still disconnected from the rest of the country by roads, we flew by twin-engine prop from Medellin to the outpost town of Nuqui. From here, visitors typically take a boat up or down the coast to ecolodges ensconced in the rainforest overlooking pristine beaches. There are indigenous Choco communities, long walks on deserted beaches, hikes in the rainforest with howler monkeys, and here along this wild stretch Colombian coast from June through October is some of the world's best whale watching. 

Hiking on pristine beaches in and out of the coastal rainforests of Colombia's Pacific coast.

What other city is known by so many names and we found Medellin lives up to them all: The Flower City, Capital of the Mountains, Forever Spring, City of Innovation, City of Change, and The Educated City. Our local guide, Nico, introduced us to his home town mostly walking and using public transportation for two days. There's an eclectic mix of architectural styles represented in buildings constructed and renovated in recent decades out of the abundant passion and payload of narcotraffickers, so locals also affectionally refer to their home as the "City of Narcotectura." Medellin is one of the most modern and livable cities in the world. It's fascinating to visit, but it's also attracting many ex-pats to live and retire there. It's so easy to get around walking on busy pedestrian promenades all connected on a public transit system linking buses and light-rail throughout the valley, with a spider web of aerial trams and modern escalators that have connected the poor neighborhoods of the steep hillsides with the rest of the city. 

We were invited into the modest studio of a street artist who shared his personal story.

Here in Medellin is the story of drug cartels, their demise, and the rise of local communities seeking a better life, a safe home to raise their families, and new opportunities for kids to grow, learn and find meaningful work. Nico took us on a beautiful walk through Comunal 13, one of the poorer hillside neighborhoods were bullet holes from gang fights and drug wars are covered over by colorful artistry, street dancing, libraries, local schools and social service organizations, including community-based tourism initiatives proudly welcoming visitors see and hear their story. We stayed in the lovely and popular El Poblado neighborhood full of restaurants, bars and boutique hotels.  

Riding the aerial tram system of Medellin.

A fun and fascinating day outside of Medellin is a drive through the beautiful countryside to the colorful town of Guatape. It's the picture you most often see in tourism promotions representing the colorful towns of Colombia. This is another great story of a Colombian town that recently recreated itself by sharing its story in bright colors highlighted with zocalos (reliefs) recounting its history and daily life on the facades of its buildings. 

Guatape church and main plaza.

Escobar's Summer Retreat
Nearby on a peninsula of land on Guatape Lake, it's worth the short boat trip to "Manuela", one of Pablo Escobar's many luxurious retreats, this one named after his daughter. Here, we met the family of Escobar's top security guard of this property. Escobar was killed before he ever resided here, and the place is now in ruins, but the visit is a fascinating opportunity to learn first hand from a family who shares their story as a legacy of this part of Colombia's history. It turns out, since the family never left the land, they are now in the final stage of claiming a legal right of ownership and have plans to renew the property, as a boutique resort, and to use it to tell their personal story of cartel life as an opportunity support the surrounding communities. 

Meeting the former head of security for one of Pablo Escobar's luxury retreats, and his son Johnny, who gave us a personal tour and shared his family story.


Cartagena is a colorful old town restored and persevered as a UNESCO Heritage Site, inside fortress walls where gold was collected before transport to Europe. Today, it's a treasure trove of cobblestone streets with bougainvillea covered balconies and gayfully painted colonial architecture where the Afro-Caribbean culture thrives in music, dance and art. Of course, what draws visitors here is supported by an abundance of boutique accommodations and shops, gourmet restaurants, rooftop sunset bars, and an irresistible draw to walk and walk and walk through the streets and along the fortress walls. We organize a half-day orientation walk with a local historian and architecture specialist, and offer another afternoon foodie walk visiting all of Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's, favorite streets, squares, parks and eateries of the author while listening to excerpts of "Love In the Times of Cholera" making the Magical Realism of the Noble-Prize winner come alive. 

Tayrona National Park
It's a 4.5 hour drive north from Cartagena to one of the most beautiful national parks in the world. It's best to allow at least two full days to explore Tayrona National Park and surrounding Santa Marta mountains. One day to hike through the park and along the coast, and the other to spend a day visiting a Kogi village and/or hiking in the surrounding mountains. There's much more to do here as well if you want to spend more time birdwatching in one of the world's highest concentrations of biodiversity and endemism due to the close proximity of snow-capped peaks of the Santa Marta range to adjacent lowland the tropical coast.   

Hiking through the jungle of Tayrona National Park on an ancient indigenous stone path to reach the sea.

Kogis Village Visit
There are four indigenous tribes in this area, and the Kogis refer to their homeland as "the heart of the Earth." We rode horseback and hiked one day through the jungle and along the beach of Tayrona National Park passing through "El Pueblito," a beautiful archaeological park and sacred site of the Kogis tribe where they gather to hold sacred payment to the Earth ceremonies to honor our Pachamama and counter the damage to the living systems of the planet by modern civilization. It's possible to visit a Kogis village with permission accompanied by a local guide as we did one morning. You can learn more about what they have to teach us and the alarm they have sounded in widely available online documentary: Aluna The Movie. 

We had a rare opportunity to sit with Kogis in a small village of the Santa Marta foothills.

We concluded our adventure with two days in Bogota including an afternoon guided walk through the colonial and bohemian neighborhood of La Candelaria which is an easy walk to the main plaza and cathedral of Bogota including the fabulous gold museum and art gallery of Colombia's revered painter Botero. We also timed our visit to Bogota on a weekend which helps to avoid traffic, but especially so that we could ride bikes on the Sunday Ciclovia when major arterial streets are closed for families and athletes to run and cycle through the city. It draws musicians, street artists and public aerobics street classes. A highlight of the Ciclovia is riding to the nearby Usaquen Sunday market, one of the biggest street markets we've ever seen, chock full of art, crafts, gourmet foods, drink, and plenty of entertainment. We highly recommend it! 

Weekends in Bogota are lively at night as well. We stayed at the Sofitel in the La Rosa district, just around the corner from the popular nightlife center of the city, but especially the amazing Andres Carne de Res restaurant in the El Retiro shopping center, a fun steakhouse which a vast menu beyond the carne of arepas, ceviche and other Colombian specialties, two dance floors, and décor of hearts and positive messages creating good vibes in a good times family and friends atmosphere unlike any other. 

This review is just some of the territory and a few of the experiences we covered in 12 days. Call us to speak with me or Kelsey Wenger, our Colombia Program Director, learn more about our explorations through Colombia and see all our Wildland Adventures in Colombia that we offer in addition to custom trip planning where and when you want to go.  

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