After thirty hours rocking at sea, we awoke to the sunrise in Cartagena. We disembarked and hopped in a cab that took us to Hotel Villa Colonial where we stayed during our five days in Cartagena. Located in the travel friendly Getsemani neighborhood in walking distance to the sights, it was a wonderful place to stay at nearly half the price of the other hotels and even hostels around but was just as nice.
After a little rest and recovery, we wandered around the old city and marveled at the beautiful old buildings along the cobblestone streets, each a different, sunny color with wooden balconies spilling over with bright bougainvilleas. Colombia immediately felt different from Central America somehow. I cant really put my finger on it, but the colors, the heat, the music, the people, the whole vibe was new to us and we loved it.
The next day began the arduous process of getting the van out of the port. Luckily, our shipping partners, Johnny and Patricia, were staying in a hostel just around the corner from us. Aron and Johnny spent three entire days running around to various offices at the two shipping yards, paying fees, getting papers signed and stamped, and trying to navigate through the extremely convoluted process. In the meantime, Patty and I strolled around Cartagena and dreamed as we browsed jewelry shops featuring Colombia’s famous emeralds.
When Aron and Johnny finally succeeded in getting the cars out of the port, we celebreated by enjoying our last day in Cartagena together. We walked around and sampled all the streetfood we could find: fresh squeezed orange and mandarine juice, various ceviches, a soft fried bread stick sort of like a donut with cheese in the middle, and Colombias’s famous arepas- a fried corn patty filled with egg, meat, or cheese.
Once our appetites were fulfilled, we visited the Castillo San Filipe, a huge stone fortress lined with canons overlooking Cartagena. Along with an immense stone wall surrounding the entire old city, the fortress was built to fend off pirates and to store gold. We heard that gold was found stashed in some of the historic buildings of the city during their recent renovations.
Strolling one last time through the old city, we enjoyed the warm breeze and the beautifully lit up night.
We parted ways with our new friends as they headed to big city life in Medellin while we headed southeast to do some camping and enjoy the outdoors in the Andes mountains of Colombia.
Colombia is enormous compared to the countries we traveled through in Central America. We set out feeling a little lost but headed in the direction of San Gil, a town known as a base for outdoor adventure sports like kayaking, paragliding, and mountain biking. While it looked like a short distance on the map, it took us an entire two days of driving to make it there.
In the middle of our second day of driving, the scenery changed from flat, green farmland to magnificent mountains. We drove through the stunning Chicamocha Canyon and winded up the sides of the mountain while enjoying spectacular views.
San Gil turned out to be a good choice and is a small town nestled in the mountains surrounded by a plethora of outdoor opportunities. Of all the options, we decided to check out Cascadas Juan Curi, a series of beautiful waterfalls that more adventurous folks rappel down. We camped at a finca (farm) along a creek fed by the waterfalls. The farm was run by a sweet little elderly señora who invited us in for agua de panela, a Colombian specialty which is sort of like hot sugar water with cinnamon. Panela is a natural sugar that is everywhere and in everything in Colombia.
In the evening we hiked twenty minutes up the lush canyon until we reached the first waterfall. A series of ladders and climbing ropes led to more waterfalls up the way. The scenery and the waterfalls themselves were absolutely stunning and miraculously we had them all to ourselves.
The next day after some van maintenance we packed up to visit the quaint little colonial village of Barichara, a place preserved 300 years in time. Rows of white buildings with terra cotta roofs lined the little cobblestone streets of the sleepy village surrounded by rolling hills. The area kind of reminded us of a small, old version of Santa Barbara in California.
From Barichara we walked to the nearby even smaller colonial village of Guane via the Camino Real, a famous old stone path that passed by farms and goat herders.
Our next stop deeper in the mountains and at a higher elevation was Villa de Leyva, another beautiful old colonial village. With similar architecture and style as Barichara but larger and more populated, Villa de Leyva was a wonderful place to be for a few days. There are so many outdoor activities to do in the area one could easily spend two weeks here.
We camped at Hostal Renacer, a beautiful spot just outside of town with lovely views and a huge fire pit which we sat around each evening with fellow travelers drinking beer, sharing stories, and making pizzas.
Here we slowed down a bit and spent a lot of time relaxing and cooking at the hostal. I had a bit of a cold with a relentless cough so we took it easy and did a little hike at Paso de Angel (Angel’s Pass), a walk along a narrow mountain ridge with beautiful views of the valleys below.
We spent a morning wandering through the cobblestone streets of Villa de Leyva and visited the Saturday market. It was hard not to buy everything, the rows of stands with fresh, colorful produce were magnetizing: sweet mountain blackberries, freshly shelled beans, baby papayas, and all kinds of other local fruits and veggies.
After a few mellow days, we headed three hours east to Lago de Tota, Colombia’s largest lake. Along the way we passed by a variety of little mountain villages, each with a beautiful church peeking out over the buildings.
At 10,000 feet elevation, Lago de Tota was icy cold and was surrounded by small farms growing onions, potatoes, and other crops, creating a pretty patchwork of greens and purples all around the shore. Fuzzy sheep and cows grazed on the hillsides and all the locals wore warm woolen ponchos to keep out the chilly mountain air. I really think this was one of the most beautiful, scenic places we have visited on our trip.
We camped under the full moon at Playa Blanca, a white sand beach on the shores of the lake. Although the setting was gorgeous, we were driven away by the icy wind that blew across the lake in the morning.
Near the lake, we visited Mongui, another beautiful, quaint, colonial town. The mountain setting and the locals walking around in traditional woolen ponchos and sombreros added to the tranquil beauty. We strolled around and shared a local specialty of fresh trout in mandarin sauce at a cozy little restaurant.
So far, Colombia has been one amazingly beautiful place after another. So much so that we are getting accustomed to waking up in new, breathtaking places. Not to mention, the Colombians we have met are some of the kindest, friendliest, most helpful, and most enthusiastic people of our entire trip. They love their beautiful country and are proud to share it with travelers.
Only halfway through the country, next we cross the Andes mountains to visit the Zona Cafetera, Colombia’s coffee zone.