An Ever Changing Spectacle
With a bewildering and beautiful myriad of areas to see and fall in love with, what part of Colombia has stolen our man’s heart…?
Article by Marc Beale
How do you answer the question “Which is your favourite part of Colombia?” when you live in the most bio-diverse country on the planet? Surely it’s like asking a car enthusiast “Which is your favourite 911?” Last time I checked (well, I’m taking Clarkson at his word here), there are 154 different versions. So how can you possibly choose one favourite? Or maybe it’s just a case of when you know, you know. Fortunately, that’s actually the case with me. I’ve had the good fortune to travel all around this incredibly diverse country and there’s one area I keep going back to more than any other.
When I first visited Colombia and landed in Cartagena, I would have thought that it would be this magical, colonial city with its walled old town and easy-going, romantic and mesmerising mix of heat, colour, music and architecture. A little bit further up the coast you come across Colombia’s oldest city, Santa Marta. It too has a colourful old town with a colonial heritage, but this city lies at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. These snow-capped mountains almost fall into the Caribbean and so you can see the sun glistening off the snow while you lie in your hammock on the beach. That’s a pretty special sight.
Carrying on up the Caribbean coast you get to the desert region, La Guajira. Most people don’t even realise there’s desert here, given that Colombia has the seventh highest rainfall of any country and over 75% of the country’s energy is produced from hydro-power. La Guajira is sparsely populated with the country’s largest indigenous tribe, the Wayuu, who somehow survive in this barren land of salt plains, goats, sand and deserted beaches. If you like to get off the beaten track and go where few else care to venture, then this is the place for you.
Switching oceans to the Pacific, on the country’s western coastline, you get a different type of beach experience altogether. This is an area that is almost inhospitable, with dense, thick jungle covering every square inch of land right up until the cliffs fall into the Pacific. But even the sides of the cliffs have trees impossibly clinging on, so that to the eye it’s just a sea of green which merges into a sea of blue. There are hardly any roads along this coast, so boat is the de rigueur mode of transport. As a result, the eco-system is completely unspoilt by humans and you only have to walk literally a couple of metres into the jungle before it envelops you completely. Every now and then there’s a break along the coast and a palm-fringed black sand beach provides the perfect setting for a gorgeous little eco-lodge. It’s from these handful of eco-lodges that you can take boat trips to get up close and personal with the whales which arrive every year around July to play, mate and raise their young in the warm, sheltered waters. This is one of the best places in the world for whale-watching but the beauty is that it’s virtually unknown.
Moving inland away from the coastlines you can take your pick of different landscapes. The Andes split into three different ranges on reaching Colombia. These cordillera form high plains where for example Bogota is built, but they also create deep valleys in which other cities are nestled such as Medellin. As you move towards the east of the country, the valleys become wider before giving way to flat plains that stretch off to the border with Venezuela. One of these valleys, the Valle de Chicamocha in the Santander region, captures perfectly everything that is so wonderful about Colombia – beautiful mountain scenery, hundreds of varieties of flowers, an abundance of birdlife and a wealth of healthy, outdoor activities. The town of San Gil within the valley is the adventure capital of the country. There is world-class paragliding, mountain biking, white-water rafting and trekking to be had here, all surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty.
Another hidden gem, normally much more closely associated with Brazil, is the Amazon. The town of Leticia is right on the border of three countries – Colombia, Peru and Brazil – and is the gateway for visitors to this wildlife-lover’s paradise. We’ve had clients who’ve breakfasted in Colombia, lunched in Peru and watched the sun go down in Brazil. This is a place that will leave you in awe of nature. In high water season the Amazon is not just a river but a vast wetlands, everywhere navigable by boat over what would be dry land at other times of the year. Canoeing in silence through dense jungle, unsure whether each floating log is a crocodile or not, all you hear is the mating song of toucans reverberating all around you. Perfectly still lakes provide an unforgettable canvas for jaw-dropping sunsets, everything that you see in the sky reflected in the mirror-like water, while pink dolphins play around you. Experiencing the Amazon is something that every nature lover should do at least once and Colombia offers the perfect opportunity.
So now you can see the dilemma we have to not only fit the highlights of Colombia into a typical two week holiday, but also how do we give an answer to which is our favourite part of the country. Luckily for me, there’s one area that so captivates my imagination that I have no hesitation in recommending it as my must-see part of the country – the UNESCO World Heritage Site designated Coffee Region. Colombia’s coffee growing region is situated almost slap-bang in the middle of the country and it’s hard to imagine scenery that can be more perfect. The mountains tend to be a bit gentler here, more like steep hills, which roll on endlessly one after the other. The different varieties of green that you see stretching to the horizon is like a trick of the eyes, the green of grassland mixing with the green of coffee trees mixing with the green of banana plantations mixing with endless other greens of cacao trees, orange orchards and sugar-cane fields. Dotted intermittently amongst the view are 100 metre tall wax-palm trees forming cloud forests climbing up the valley walls. The volcanic earth that covers this part of the cordillera makes for the most fertile of soil, literally anything planted in the ground here springs up full of life and colour. It’s no wonder most coffee fincas are almost as proud of their gardens, all bursting with colour from a thousand varieties of flower, as they are of the little red cherry that is the finest arabica coffee bean in the world.
Next time you’re popping into your local Taylor Street Barista’s or Monmouth’s, ask them if they’ve got any Colombian for you to try. Some regions to look out for that are producing mouth-watering coffee right now are Nariño, Huila and Santander; and some tiny fincas in the Sierra Nevada are producing fantastic small-batch coffee. Or of course, you could hop on a plane and come and taste first hand all these wonderful different varieties with your very own private tasting. We have agreements with the most highly awarded coffee producers in the country, which are offering private tours for our clients. A morning’s walk around a beautiful coffee finca is the perfect start to the day, before the heat of the midday sun makes you want to kick back in your hammock for the whole afternoon, sipping a cup of the black stuff and gently dozing.
Marc is a contributing writer and co-founder of Amakuna, a boutique travel company specialising in creating bespoke holidays in Colombia. Working to create a unique and unforgettable journey, Amakuna’s local access and knowledge allows travellers to immerse themselves in what the country can offer.