Colombia Adventure Travel Guide: Ideas and Inspiration
PureTravel Says: “Colombia is situated in the north west of South America and is bordered by Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Panama. It also has coastline adjoining the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Colombia is the fourth largest country in South America and is about twice the size of France. It has a population of over 44,500,000, but over 30% of this figure are under fifteen years of age. This signifies a huge population explosion by 2015. The capital city is Bogotá and the official language is Spanish. Colombia has a diverse topography. It encompasses the Andes Mountains, the Amazon rainforest, tropical grassland and coastlines along both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.”
Colombia is actually named after Christopher Columbus. The word Colombia was used to mean the territories and colonies under Spanish rule. The name was adopted as the Republic of Colombia in 1819 to include present-day Colombia, Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador.
Visitors are generally are warned to take care, especially outside traditional visitor attractions and hotspots as kidnappings, shootings and violence do still occur, despite the presence of the military and armed police. However, official government travel advisories have now relaxed and tourism is growing.
Colombia is situated on the volcanic Ring of Fire and has no less than 15 major volcanoes. Deforestation and flooding are other problems, along with water contamination. Large areas of land have been illegally deforested to plant coca.
Colombia is rich with natural resources including petroleum, coal, coffee, emeralds and gold. It grows and exports the majority of the cut flowers imported by the USA. It also produces eighty per cent of the world’s cocaine.
Colombia has a rich and diverse national heritage. Its history of Spanish colonists, African slaves and 20th century immigrants from Europe and the Middle East has produced an interesting mix and diversity. Bogotá residents have a different attitude to the highland residents. They also differ in dress, music, food and politics.
Colombians are deeply religious and follow the Roman Catholic faith. The many festivals and celebrations throughout the year are mainly religious in their origins such as the Mardi Gras Carnival and Santa Semana at Easter.
When to Go
The most popular months to visit Colombia are in the summer although the weather is constantly pleasant year-round.
Colombia is relatively close to the equator and has a tropical and isothermal climate. It is also affected by the El Nino and La Nina phenomena. Temperatures decrease with altitude so much of Colombia is quite cool, with snow on the highest peaks. The Tierra helada is the zone of permanent snow and ice which is found above 15,100 feet (4,600m).
Rainfall comes in two wet seasons, roughly in the spring and autumn. The Pacific coastal areas receive more than 200 inches (500cm) per year whilst the Gujarat Peninsula gets less than 30 inches (75cm) per year.
Holidays In Focus
Culture and History
Bogotá - Bogotá is a huge sprawling metropolis high in the mountains. It is a riot of old buildings and many high-rises which accommodate the estimated 7 million people who live here. It is always busy. It is advisable to keep to the main visitor areas and not venture into backstreets.
La Candelaria - The old part of Bogotá City is known as La Candelaria and is a lively area of small shops and ancient churches. Many of the buildings listed below are found in this area which is steeped with history.
Primary Cathedral - in Bogota is huge with many towers, spires and domes. It is situated in Bolivar Square and was built between 1807 and 1823. Other nearby buildings include the Sacred Chapel and the Archiepiscopal Palace.
The Gold Museum - or Museo de Oro is well worth spending time in. There are some amazing exhibits and extraordinary pieces. Entry is very cheap and the museum is well organized over several floors.
Bogotá Savannah Railway - At the weekends a sightseeing train runs to several outlining towns along the old railroad. It is known as the Bogotá Savannah Railway. It is an easy way to get to Zipaquira and Briceno, amongst other places.
The Ibero-American Theater Festival - The largest theater festival in the world. It takes place in Bogotá every two years. It includes many types of performing arts including theater, dance, circus, music, puppetry and performance art. Every open space is taken over for shows and street theatre.
Cartagena - The ancient walled city of Cartagena, its fortress and lovely beaches are well worth detouring to see. The tall houses with shuttered windows and iron balconies keep the narrow pedestrianized streets shady, as they were designed to do. There are many wonderful buildings in Cartagena with great historical and architectural interest. The Palacio de la Inquisicion is now a museum. The Colonial plaza is surrounded by lovely buildings on all sides. The statue of Simon Bolivar, South America’s liberator, is here along with the 16th century Cartagena Cathedral with its beautiful stonework.
San Felipe de Barajas Castle - One of the oldest buildings in Colombia and was built as a point of defence by the Spanish to repel invaders and pirates. It is possible to walk along the old walls in places, and there is a collection of souvenir shops in the arches beneath. Cartagena has a certain Colonial charm, plenty of restaurants and a lively nightlife.
Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira - This is actually a church carved in a salt mine. Curving tunnels descending to the church pass small chapels which each illustrate the final events in Christ’s life carved in the salt walls.
Tierradentro and San Agustin - This is an archaeological park in the Magdalena River Gorge in South Colombia. It was a burial place thousands of years ago, even before the Incas arrived in Colombia. The tombs are decorated and guarded by fierce stone figures, some are figures of animals and mythical creatures. It is an interesting and ancient place to visit, particularly for those with an interest in archaeology.
Popayan - Popayan is one of Colombia’s most beautiful colonial towns. It has a rich and interesting religious and cultural heritage and many beautiful buildings. It has now been fully restored after earthquake damage, and is a national monument. It is well known for its spectacular Semana Santa celebrations at Easter, with many processions and festivities.
Barranquilla Carnival - The Barranquilla Carnival dates back to the 19th century. It takes place in the four days preceding Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent. It usually falls in February or early March. The whole city is full of masquerade parades, street dances and musical events. The dances and expressions through music are diverse and multicultural, and have developed over the years as part of the culture of Colombia. There is a chosen Queen of the Carnival for each year. The carnival was declared to be a UNESCO Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Scenery and Beaches
Isla Gorgona - The Isla Gorgona is a former prison island in the Pacific Ocean. It is now a nature reserve. Visitors can still see the prison ruins along with monkeys, snakes, whales and sea turtles. It is also a popular spot for bathing, snorkelling and diving off the cliffs.
San Andres - San Andres is one of the most popular beach locations for tourists. It is a Colombian archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. It is close to Jamaica and Nicaragua making it a safe and carefree location, which is attractive to many visitors.
Superb diving can be enjoyed here in the crystal clear warm waters. There are also many white sandy beaches, good accommodation and a lively nightlife. San Andres also offers duty-free shopping.
Nature and Wildlife
The Bogotá Botanical Garden - Includes not only flowers and trees, but many restaurants and bars. There are plenty of activities in and around the gardens too.
Medellin - Medellin enjoys a temperate climate, which gives the city the name ‘The Land of the Eternal Spring’. It hosts an incredible Festival of Flowers each year, which is world-renowned. It holds two Guinness Book of Record titles for the largest outdoor flower parade and for the largest outdoor horse parade. The horse parade has over 7,000 horses and riders participating each year.
The flower decorations are true works of art; each picture or banner is made up of thousands and thousands of petals and flower heads. It is certainly a place to take many photographs. In the evenings there are many parties and events, making this a great place to head for in late July and early August.
Tayrona Natural Park - The ecotourism industry is concentrating on Colombia’s National Parks. The Tayrona Natural Park is on the Caribbean coast near the Santa Marta in Colombia and is preserved as some of South America’s most beautiful coastline. There are beautiful beaches, hammocks to rent for sleeping in overnight, food, water and surfing. There is a strong riptide so it is suitable only for experienced and professional surfers. There is also a guided walking tour, which takes visitors to the native village in the nearby mountains.
Within the Park you will see monkeys, woodpeckers, iguanas, lizards and many marine mammals. There are also big cats including jaguars, but they are rarely seen. You will need a jeep to drive around. Walking and hiking are also popular. From Arrecifes beach to La Piscina is a 15-20 minutes walk along the beach, and from La Piscina to El Cabo is another 10 minutes.
Cabo de la Vela - There is also the Cabo de la Vela on the Guajira Peninsula. It is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places in the world. It is almost a desert by the sea, as it consists mainly of sand dunes and there is no road to speak of. The poverty here is quite overwhelming, and there are many children begging for anything.
- Travel with a reputable specialist tour operator whose local knowledge will be invaluable.
- Always carry bottled water with you when you travel.
- It is easy to combine your Colombia holidays with other South American countries such as Ecuador. For example, from Tulcan, you can take a taxi to the border and get your exit stamps from the immigration office there.
- Always take a sun hat and sunscreen. Even though temperatures are cool in the mountains, the sun is at its most intense at the Equator.
- Carry a Spotter’s Guide to identify the many animals and birds you will see.
- Never hike, climb or trek by yourself. There are countless dangers and you may need help.
- Be extra vigilant for your own safety in Colombia. Do not travel alone, explore city back streets or hitchhike. Keep to tourist areas with plenty of other people around.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
- Port, Fortresses and Group of Monuments, Cartagena
- Los Katíos National Park
- Historic Centre of Santa Cruz de Mompox
- National Archeological Park of Tierradentro
- San Agustín Archaeological Park
- Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary
- Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia
Public holidays, events and festivals
1 January - Año Nuevo /New Year's Day
6 January - Día de los Reyes Magos / Epiphany
19 March - Día de San José / Saint Joseph's Day
March/April - Easter: Jueves Santo / Maundy Thursday, Viernes Santo / Good Friday
1 May - Primero de Mayo / Labor Day
Post-Easter - Ascensión / Ascension of Jesus, Corpus Christi, Sagrado Corazón / Sacred Heart
29 June - San Pedro y San Pablo / Saint Peter and Saint Paul
20 July - Declaration of Independence
7 August - Battle of Boyacá
15 August - La Asunción / Assumption of Mary
12 October - Día de la Raza / Columbus Day
1 November - All Saints’ Day
11 November - Independence of Cartagena
9 December - La Inmaculada Concepción / Immaculate Conception
25 December - Navidad / Christmas Day
By Julie Bowman