Colombia is right at the northern tip of South America. It’s bordering countries are Brazil, Ecuador,Panama, Peru and Venezuela. Colombia also can boast that it is the only South American country with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It’s climate is great with tropical conditions along the coast and eastern plains, then cool with less humidity in the highlands, nice to have the option of both. The currency being used is the Colombian Peso (COP) and you feel like a millionaire when you withdraw from the ATM’s as it’s all hundreds of thousands. For example 600,000.00 COP is roughly Euro 225, disappointing really….
People have the opportunity to dive amongst corals, climb volcanic slopes, visit indigenous tribes, trek in the Amazon rain-forest, chill on beautiful beaches and last but not least visit and spend time on coffee farms which was what we were really looking forward to.
Well many people said ‘Oh you are going to drive through Colombia’, we said YES, and I think those people didn’t know how to react. Most people think of drug runners and rebel conflicts but tourists are rarely affected by this. For us it was our plan to go all the way to the very southern tip of South America which we did , and we would have felt cheated if we didn’t mange to go all the way North, hence Colombia.
We were fully aware of its past history, after all who isn’t, but people who had driven through before us had only good reports, and so far we can vouch for this warm and welcoming country to tourists. Columbia is voted the HAPPIEST country in the world. We know that parts are still dangerous, so naturally we steer away. Colombia has cleaned up its act regarding drug cartels and guerrilla warfare to some extent.They now sell way less bullet proof cars too..
We haven’t done as much wild camping here as in the rest of South America for obvious security reasons. This can be a bit of a pain as you have to be a little bit more organised…..The roads mainly in the south are armed with police and military all carrying machine guns, as the FARC is still active in some areas, so once you get used to that, it’s no problem. After a while you don’t even notice them. When we have been stopped, which has been quite a few times, it’s all smiles and thumbs up. They usually just want to see our papers for the truck, so they hop up on the step beside Merv , stick their head into the cab, ( curiosity we reckon on seeing a foreign vehicle) and generally just have a chat . In fact in all of the countries we have been to in South America, Colombia Aduana (customs) were the only people to say ‘Welcome to their Country’ as they stamped our passports as we entered Colombia from Ecuador. Oh, they even gave me a seat while waiting in the aduana office, first time to be offered a seat by a Latin American, so we reckoned hey that’s a good start.
Ipiales was our first town in Colombia coming north. Our reason for stopping was to buy insurance (Called SOAT) for our truck as our Policy that we bought in Europe before leaving did not cover Colombia, the only country in South America it did not cover… I wonder why… We were able to buy it in a supermarket very quick and easy.
On the edge of this town we visited the religious pilgrimage site of Santuario de Las Lajas. Quite a unique little place with the church built into the side of a mountain . Getting through the town , or not getting through in our case , was a bit of a challenge due to its narrow one way streets.
We spent a couple of days on an Eco- Farm outside the charming little town of Salento in a the midst of rural coffee area, with rolling lush green hills and many hairpin bends.Yet again small little streets to navigate our way through hence adding to its mystique. It is surrounded by mountains which are rich in character, and once there you really don’t want to leave. The locals have a saying that the town is full of short streets but long memories , I guess this is true now that I have visited there. Hiking the local countryside is the prime activity in this area and we opted for the hike to see Palms de Cera,( Wax Palms ) as these rank amongs the tallest in the world, up to 60m. We had a super view of fields of green grass and hills from our truck , nice sunsets, and each morning at about 6am we heard the milking machine start…. Bliss.. Salento also has the best curry house in South America!
We hit a new mechanical issue as we went along, the brakes would not release fully after use! The poor old mog was slowing down, and not very keen to climb hills. We found they released themselves after a 1 hour stop, and would be fine for some more kilometers , but the problem would come back after a while. The full technical issue was discussed over on benzworld, but for us it meant a day searching for unimog brake seals in Colombia. We would have had more luck searching for gold nuggets in the rivers, but we were in the capable hands of local mechanic Christian, who helped us search high and low. We did get to experience a few local dishes at lunchtime, and can safely state that we will never be having CHICKEN FEET SOUP again! Finally we were directed to the local seal expert who decided to make some for us using a larger seal, a jewellers lathe and some sharp tools. We ended up with a rebuilt brake master cylinder! We also found the problem was in a tiny valve, cleaned it out and all is well! After 3 nights spent on the side of the road we were back on track. Christian spent the whole day with us hoping on buses from one town to another until we found somebody who could help us. ( he was supposed to be in his own job) . He could not have done enough for us, such hospitality.
Moving again we were now off to find and stay on a Coffee Farm . We drove through many rolling plantations and terraced slopes which were hemmed by banana plants , bamboos and coffee bushes. You could stop at quite a few places to sample , a bit like a wine tour , except your high from caffeine rather than vino. For me way way too many coffees, haven’t needed much sleep since, lol. Most of these coffee farms are hidden down winding little lanes and are accompanied by lovely wooden houses all painted in bright colours. We stayed on Hacienda Venecia which really was an oasis of tranquility. There were two types of accommodation , the hostel and the main house. The main house is built of 100 year old typical bamboo and is beautiful, stunning. Of course we stayed in the truck but were able to use all the facilities , including free coffee 24/7 as you would expect! We parked overlooking one of its coffee fields. The tour is excellent and yet again another place we didn’t want to leave…..
We stopped in the city of Medellin . In the 1980’s Medellin was one of the most murderous cities on the planet as it was under the control of drug lord Pablo Escobar. Since his death it has blossomed into a city of considerable elegance, although some dark unsafe areas still remain. We parked our truck for two nights on the street and we had no problems, in fact everybody living in the area was keeping a close eye on it for us, so happy days. This city is pleasantly warm year round with an average annual temperature of 22 degrees C. Here we picked up our pal Owen who travelled with us all the way North to the Caribbean Coast . For part of the way to the coast we passed through lush mountainous areas and sleepy villages, many many hairpin bends . The road was so so busy with trucks, we fitted right it, and were amazed when we met a normal car, they were far and few between. Oh so many trucks! Along by the roadside there were many little restaurants to eat at, all simply done with tables and chairs outside , colourful table cloths and even some hammocks to snooze in after your lunch. Snoozing to avoid the mid-day heat is a big thing here.
After driving for a few days pretty non-stop it was time to relax and chill on the beaches along the coast for a few days. It was very hot but with a balmy breeze thankfully, and I don’t think the temperature ever went below 28 degrees C, not even at night… so sleeping in the truck was very warm and sticky. Here we met up with our friends Jurgen and Ruth, also Maki so it was time to catch up over a few cool Colombian beers and fresh fish as we made plans to travel together for the next while .
For me it’s always difficult to leave the warmth, but we still had more places on the list to visit. As Colombia is such a big country you have to travel long distances to reach the really cool places. Many places are off the beaten track and without your own transport they are not easy accessible. Parque Nacional El Cocuy was one such place and even though the locals told us that from a particular village called Onzaga it would only take four hours, it was more like forty-four hours. We had to park up overnight as the terrain we were traveling on was full of pot-holes, broken roads, no tarmac in some places, and generally just bumpy all the way, so it was a very slow drive. In fact some-times we were driving blind as we were not even on the map. Mind you the scenery made up for it. This parque is a hiker’s paradise with endless possibilities for hiking, trekking and camping. It is home to many snow-capped mountains, glacier lakes and beautiful valleys. We spent two days hiking, most enjoyable. During the day the weather was lovely, but once the sun went down it was very cold, after all we were over 4,000 m.a.s.l.. We spent four nights in the park and we were spoilt for choice as to where to park our trucks. It was great to be back wild camping again. Mind you we were low on water so we had to dedicate a few hours collecting it from the river, oh such fresh water.
Mongui was a beautiful little town, all painted with white walls and green shutters. Like most towns in Colombia even the smallest of smallest towns/villages have very decorative churches. Here I went in search of a birthday cake for Merv. After visiting most shops in town , eventually I was successful , and ended up with some chocolate cake, his favourite. He was very surprised indeed. Yet again this town had small little streets to maneuver through , but never the less we managed, and ended up on a dirt track which took us to our parking spot for the night overlooking the small town below. Oh it was tranquil, no other lunatics would even venture this way, only us. In order to reach these little quaint places you have to travel on very small roads, so to get everywhere takes much longer then anticipated.
Lake Tota also took us a while to get to, due to lack of local knowledge, and trying to find a map here is next to impossible. Every little town we went through we would ask directions (not always correct information given) so eventually we would end up in our given destination. Many places I don’t think were used to tourists so we were always given big smiles and waves. For example in one little town we stopped to buy charcoal where we saw a “Se Vende Carbon” sign. Turns out they were selling something similar to coal, and we wanted “Carbon de pollo” – Charcoal for cooking chicken! The guy from the store said he would help us get some, so took Merv on a long and complicated trip through the town asking each chicken bbq place could they spare some charcoal! After a search of some womans kitchen , going through their restaurant, we got a bag and were on our way. This man would not take a tip , so Merv really had to insist. He was just so pleased to help a tourist that was in his town, as I said before the Colombians are such warm people. Lake Tota is well known by the Colombians, but only recently has it reached the major travel guides, so it is still a little undiscovered by tourists, great for us. It has a beautiful white sandy beach and is famous for trout fishing. No problem parking our trucks here. Unfortunately the weather was not in our favor so we only parked for one night here.
So it was on to the long awaited Villa de Leyva. Oh it didn’t disappoint. This is a beautiful preserved town, a stunning whitewashed colonial town with cobbled streets. It has the largest plaza in Colombia edged by bottle green shuttered buildings with window boxes full of flowers, also lined with many cafes, restaurants and a German Pub.! Little mews type shops sell handicrafts, and many back streets have charming hotels and cafe’s. Strolling through the Plaza at dusk is something quite spectacular as here you join tourists and locals alike as they sit on the steps of the cathedral and the plaza sipping wine and beer, before deciding which restaurant to have dinner it. Really one is spoilt for choice. Guess we might have to stay here sometime in order to sample all the town’s culinary delights. Not to mention the French Bakery. Villa de Leyva is certainly up there as one of the nicest places in all of South America for us. The Saturday fruit and vegetable market is a must, a great place to sample some local dishes and as always served with a smile.
Right now, we are trying to decide on what happens next. Till next time……