Colombia – Trek to the Lost City & Top Highlights
Travel Begins Again
If you asked me if I would be travelling anywhere back in September I would’ve sighed and assured you there was no travel in sight.
After a year and a half of international border closures, and only ankle deep in vaccinations, I was still riddled with the PTSD of lockdown life. Not to mention a ban on all non-essential travel.
The good news hit, and borders were opening to vaccinated travellers with a negative test. Some countries being a lot more easily accessible than others. Mexico, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Colombia being some of the most relaxed.
It had now been two years since I returned to Canada from life abroad in the UK, and I was itching to get my feet wet again across the globe. I had to stop living in fear. Not fear of COVID, but fear of being stranded abroad if travel regulations were to change on a dime.
Despite the complexities of international travel, I did my research and quickly booked a steal of deal on a Mexico flight. Halfway through the trip, I was already booking flights and activities for Colombia.
Granted, I barely knew anything about the country aside from the fact that it used to be considered the murder capital of the world at one point — notably the city of Medellin. However, in the past few decades it has become increasingly more safe.
Even as recently as 2021, the major drug lord Otoniel (Dairo Antonio Usuga) was captured and his minions given rehabilitation jobs. Many of them seeking work in the now booming tourism industry.
The country doesn’t like to remembered for its dark past, so skip the drug tours out of respect — even as interesting as they may seem. They don’t want to Hollywoodify and glorify the villains.
I bounced some ideas around with a friend of mine who grew up in the country, and a couple days later, I had my typical hour-by-hour master plan drafted! Despite the new face of Colombia, she advised to dress casually, ditch accessories, and keep my phone out of sight to avoid petty theft which is still commonplace.
With flight prices steadily increasing closer to Christmas (which is Summer in Colombia), I opted for a shorter 14 day trip (12 days which were usable). This meant sacrificing a few of the bigger detours and saving them for a future trip. I cringe about leaving things out and “having” to go back to a country when there are so many more countries to explore in the world.
A short trip…
What did I opt-out of? There’s a super gorgeous church in the south, but that’s pretty much the only major attraction there. It’s not worth it for a photo op. Not to mention, it’s near a potentially hazardous border with neighboring Ecuador. Caño Cristales which is a gorgeous pink river due to the Macarenia clavígera plant species, but it was the wrong time of year. Ascending the snow-capped volcano in Los Nevados park, trekking and camping in the Tatacoa Desert, and hiking in the Tayrona reserve. Some pretty big items, but hiking trips eat a huge chunk of time out of a vacation — and I had my eyes on something more exciting…
Ancient Civilizations & Ruins
Ciudad Perdida — the lost city of the ancient Tairona people can be dated back as far as 700 to 800 BC, which puts it around 650 years older than Machu Picchu in Peru! It’s a 3 to 5 day hike, depending on the fitness level you feel comfortable with. I opted to do the 4 day trek and join a handful of other random tourists.
The entire trail stretches for 44 km and ascends 2700 m worth of elevation gain! At my peak of fitness back in Canada I did Okanagan Mountain Park in one day which virtually mirrored the metrics of the journey; however, the heat and humidity being the differentiating factor.
Hikers start with their orientation in a tiny village of El Mamey after being carted from Santa Marta (the nearest large city). It’s about an hour forty-five on the highway, plus another 45 minutes 4x4ing on a dirt road.
Every day we were up before dawn at 5 am to eat a well-prepared huge breakfast with our guides and hit the trail around 6 am. A lot of rice, beans, plantains, arepas (a corn cake), fried fish, chicken, and beef.
Compared to the Salkantay Trek in Peru, it felt like glamping with vendor storefronts speckling the trail all the way to the end. They were offering all the amenities you may have forgotten. Beer, toiletries, gatorade, chips, and more. And all reasonably priced as well. The beds? While some slept in hammocks, most were bunkbeds under covered shelters with full mattresses and mosquito barriers. Flush toilets, cold showers, and even WiFi at all the camps ensured the journey could be done by travellers of all skill levels.
The first day was a nearly full-sun uncovered four-hour trek to a camp called Alfredo. I cracked out my deck of cards, rum, and taught some of the other backpackers the internationally famous Shithead game.
Day two was roughly 7 hours on trail, but we had plenty of stops on the more-sheltered route to binge on freshly cut fruit, check our e-mails, and admire the views. The Wiwa tribe was along the way, and despite enjoying their nearby waterfall for a quick photo op, we got to learn the basics of their culture. Other tribes of Arhuaco, Kogi, and Kankuamo are also along the route. There is a huge reserve encompassing their tribal areas and national park beyond that.
The girls take care of many of the domestic duties, including weaving these beautiful bags they carry around with them everywhere they go. The material is all taken from local plants. The green exterior is scraped away to access the white threads on the inside before creating what is essentially cotton threads.
The men carry around something everywhere called a Poporo. It is a hollowed out gourd where they mix seashell lime, coca leaves, and spit to continually grow a disc around it. For them, it acts like a spiritual journal.
Marrying as young as 14, men will often have multiple wives. They are a deeply spiritual people who will select a child at birth by divination (almost always a boy) to become a religious leader to become the Mamos (which means sun). Him and his mother will eat a strictly white-food diet. He’ll spend at least nine years of his life living in a cave or double walled thatched hut during the day (only to be taken out at night). The following nine years, he’ll continue his training and verbally receive all the teachings before being allowed to fully join the society. Housing is traditional round mud-brick thatch-roofed homes just like the homes of their ancestors.
Day three was the day we had all been waiting for, it was a short 30 minute walk to a cable car that zipped us across the river, and another 20 minute hike up ancient restored steps to the lost city.
The guides gave us a walking tour complete with a breakdown of the history and significance of the different areas of the ruins. Apparently the Spanish Conquistadors never actually visited the site, and it was only “rediscovered” in 1973. The tribes had ensured it was a well-kept secret from outsiders for reasons which were quite clear. Historically, the Tairona people tried to appease the Spanish by giving them some gold. Gold was a huge part of their culture and dress. However, it failed to satisfy their lust for the material. They viewed the locals as barbaric and soul-less.
Having WiFi at the summit felt fundamentally wrong, and I don’t think any of us stooped to that level! But I definitely snuck up a couple beers! We waited for the sun to illuminate the central complex and received the most amazing postcard-worthy vista. We stayed there for a while, just taking it all in.
We learned about a local leaf that is ground down to a pulp to create some of the coloring used while dying their clothes or for applying body paint. We had a chance to interact with a family currently living in huts at the ruins. Apparently there are additional ruins nearby that are not yet excavated. Located using LIDAR technology, they will never be exhumed due to a restriction from local tribes.
It was an excursion I’ll never forget and it was THE highlight of Colombia; if you’re only going go there for one thing — do the hike. A couple of my notable suggestions? Prepare for rain. Bring a backpack cover. Pack light. Bring a waterproof bag for your dirty and wet clothes. Bring extra socks, a battery pack, pesos galore, insect repellent, and lots of toilet paper!
The seaside town of Santa Marta is home to Tayrona Park – a hiking destination that also has numerous sailing and snorkeling tours. Unfortunately, I only had the evening there and delved into the very modern and lively strip of shops down third street.
Anywhere in Colombia, make sure to bargain and accept 60% of the originally voiced price. I was so desperate for an iPhone charging cable on day one of my trip I wound up paying 100,000 mil ($30) for one. Facepalm. Amateur travel mistake. Always bring your battery backup (I prefer the ones with a solar panel integrated), and TWO charging cables.
Cartagena was the first Spanish colony in the Americas, and is a seaside town on the north side of the country on the Caribbean. It features the gorgeous stone San Felipe fort which makes for a stellar sunset walk and photo-op. Cafe Del Mar is an alternative for a classy sunset dinner.
For the vibrant side of the city, a stroll through Getsemani for local artisans, live music, and incredible food is a must. It’s the spot to chow down on fresh seafood – and pay a royal price for it too!
The viewpoint at the Covenant is an easy skip. It’s not that remarkable, and the Uber and taxi drivers will charge an obscene premium round-trip.
I also did a historical walking tour of the old walled city. Littered with churches, restaurants, squares with statues and monuments, your brain will be overloaded with information!
My favourite experience was the Totumo mud volcano where you’ll climb a set of slippery stairs to the top of the short mound and get tossed into the pit of silky goo. In seconds you’ll be grabbed, flipped on your back, and given a massage (if you don’t deny quickly enough)… all for a fee. Expect to be nickled and dimed from the guy who will snag your phone to take photos of you, the guy offering sand to help give your grip on the stairs down, and the old lady who will strip you down and wash you in the nearby lake. Be vocal or go home with an empty wallet!
Many people opt in to doing the Rosario Islands boating day tour to see Playa Blanca, and other nearby beaches instead of hitting up local Playa Bocagrande. You’ll be lucky if you get more than two minutes of peace and quiet without being sold anything from chairs and umbrellas to liquor, snacks, and handicrafts there. The Rosario Islands tour was a much more laid back experience and included a trip to an ocean bar where visitors wade up to their nipples and have drinks under palm shelters after they float you over a table! Very cool.
Colombia is well known for chicas, cocaine, chocolate, and coffee. One of my favourite stops was Pereira. My mission? A Salento day trip riding horseback and hiking through the lush green coffee fields. If I was more of a coffee lover, I’m sure it would’ve been even more amazing, but I learned pretty fast that I’m insanely allergic to horse dander! The tightly integrated wax palm trees, which are the tallest in the world, struck awe into my heart and are the national tree of the country. Unfortunately, they are now endangered due to over-harvesting for Palm Sunday and candle making.
Medellin, the old murder capital of Colombia, was a surprisingly clean, well-connected, and beautiful mountain-side city. And, with chilly temperatures to match.
A solid ten degrees cooler than the cities on the north, it felt suiting when I hit up the annual Christmas lights festival which easily beat most of the displays back in Canada.
Arvi Park is an hour cab ride outside of the city and has a plethora of great hiking and cycling trails. For a more chill experience, there is a botanical walk to learn about the local foliage. Nearby is an adventure park with aerial course and more. I opted to take the 15-minute gondola ride back downtown for a panoramic view of the city as well as the opportunity to pass overtop of one of the poorer districts — without actually having to visit. Finding an Uber going to Arvi is easy, but finding one to return would have been virtually impossible.
Like many places in the world, when Uber descended, there was a huge revolt by local taxi companies. It was even illegal for a while. Police went as far as to impound vehicles when they noticed passengers riding in the rear seats of a private unmarked vehicle. After legalization, Uber drivers were angrily targeted by taxi drivers who would notice those passengers sitting in the rear, and then follow and vandalize the vehicle later. Often Uber drivers will have passengers sitting in the front to help hide from the aggression.
Other Medellin Attractions
There’s a few other cute photo stops in town like the botanical garden — a spot to mingle with the locals going for a stroll, Botero Plaza which has Fernando’s sculptures of obese and sexualized adults, the Museo de Antioquia for local art, Museo el Castillo for a castle-like heritage home with gardens, and Pueblito Paisa — a very simple hilltop market with view.
Guatapé Day Tour from Medellin
The real gem of Medellin is the day trip to El Peñón de Guatapé! Locals didn’t think much of it, and myths were aplenty with how it got there. But once Luis Eduardo Villegas López climbed it in 1954, he fell in love with the views, and saw its true value. He bought the land it sat on, and all the surrounding properties. Everyone thought that he was crazy. Climb its 650 steps for the panoramic views of the most stellar lake.
Bogota was the first and last city I spent time in. It’s a modern city with some gorgeous heritage areas like Chorro de Quevedo which is adorned by gorgeous graffiti art. Nearby, the selfie museum for some contemporary Instagram comedy or for the kids. And also a short walk to the Gondola for Monserrate — the hill overlooking the city. It was a very quick ride to the top. Stroll past elaborate statues depicting Jesus’ journey to crucification, restaurants, and a chapel.
The city is bursting with great shopping like the Usaquén flea market, or shops around Park 93. A couple of my favourite eats were the Indian Khatmandu restaurant and its belly dancers, or Gato Negro for a classy dinner.
Just outside the city are two major tourist traps.
Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá ,Bogota
First, the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá which has undergone a number of design changes over the years (the latest being 1991). An actual salt mine, the original miners had actually created a sanctuary below ground for themselves to pray in!
In the first series of chambers, walk through symbolic architecture of Christ’s journey to crucification. Events are also hosted in a number of other mini chapels within its confines. An audio tour will make sure you get your English fix for history of the place, while the Miners & Brine tours are Spanish only.
I was the first tourist that morning, and staff was still showing up by the time I had finished. When exiting, I managed to accidentally take the emergency evacuation route! No one stopped me, and I popped out into the sunlight in an area with a bunch of workers in hardhats who didn’t seem question my authority to be there. My sandals and pants now covered in cave goo!
Just like Arvi Park, it’s easy to access via transit or with Uber. Though, getting back using Uber will be challenging. Plan a return trip with transit. Uber cost is about US$25 each way.
Salto Del Tequendama, Bogota
Second, the Salto Del Tequendama to the west of Bogota. While you can’t go down to it, there’s a decommissioned heritage hotel turned museum which is presumably haunted right next to the falls with tours on weekends. Story has it people used to commit suicide by jumping off the falls. It’s quite the trek to get out to the area, and I’d suggest either hiring a private driver for US$100 or taking a tour. Transit can be complicated, and Uber basically non-existent. While there, it’s a great chance to chow down on Arepes de Choclo (a chocolate corn cake) and other local snacks while you snap a photo of the romantic atmosphere.
Cash & Conversions
There are very few times in Colombia where you’ll need cash. This surprised me. Almost everywhere was credit-friendly, minus kiosk vendors, taxis, a couple restaurants, and all the stops on the Lost City hike. USD will also be converted at different rates depending on the denomination of the bills. For instance, twenty $1 bills will be a worse rate than one $20 bill. Don’t expect many shops to take USD directly; they’ll quickly direct you to a money exchanger where the rates are atrocious.
Less than 4% of the population speaks English, but I got by very well with technological solutions as cell phone service throughout the country is excellent. When cell data service does got sporadically unreliable, despite having a signal, I learned turning on and off “Airplane Mode” can sometimes resolve it, or manually choosing a different carrier in Network Selection. The younger demographic speaks a lot more English courtesy of video gaming, music, and the internet.
The “Translate to English” feature in Safari on the iPhone was also a life saver for reading restaurant menus. Also, the camera and conversations mode in Google Translate was great for converting real-life text or vocal interactions on the fly.
Other Important Notes
Aside from the other minor safety concerns that I mentioned, there are very few other things to note. Be wary of vendors trying to slap a “free” (not free) bracelet on you, friendly females making good use of legalized prostitution, shady bartenders drugging drinks, and some taxi drivers trying to take advantage of ignorant travellers by quoting astronomical rates at the airport. Often things you’d have to be careful of in any country.
By the time I boarded my flight home, I was left pleasantly surprised with how smoothly the trip went, and how clean, friendly, and modern the entire country was. Not to mention how delicious the food: the fried fish, all the arepas, the cocktails, the chocolate EVERYTHING, and mountain-grown coffee.
Would I go back? Absolutely! The country has a spectrum of activities to keep any tourist indulged. It can never be fully experienced in a mere two weeks. Go for a month and treat yourself; throw away your legacy perceptions of Colombia.