A Brief History of Colombia

Simon-bolivar

Colombia’s history is as rich, surprising, startling and complex as its geography. It’s this history that has led to a blending of people and cultures unique in all of Latin America. 

When you look at the country’s tumultuous, often brutal history, it’s almost miraculous that Colombia has survived at all – let alone functioning successfully enough to now be attracting record foreign investment and a growing number of tourists year-on-year. 

Sure, the country has a long way to go in many aspects. But for the international traveller, the Colombian experience will hopefully leave you full of positivity and hope. 

If you want to try and “understand” Colombia, the best place to start is learning about its history.

Interested in seeing some of Colombia’s most important historical sites for yourself? Check out our Motolombia tour recommendations at the bottom of this post.

COLOMBIA’S FIRST PEOPLE

Colombia has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years. Unlike the empire-building Inca and Maya, Colombia’s first people, such as the Musica and the Tairona, developed small hunter-gatherer societies. 

We still know relatively little about the lives of Colombia’s original people. What we do know about pre-Colombian society comes from three main archaeological sites in particular – San Agustin, Tierradentro and Ciudad Perdida (“The Lost City”).

THE SPANISH INVASION

While Colombia took its name from Christopher Columbus, the Spanish explorer never set foot on Colombian soil. It was a companion of Columbus’, Alonso de Ojeda who became the first European to land on Colombia’s Atlantic coast in 1499.

During his exploration of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region, Ojeda was astounded by the wealth of the natives. The local Tairona were skilled metal workers, fashioning exquisite ornaments from the rich gold deposits at the foothills of the mountains. What they saw gave birth to the legend of El Dorado – a mysterious city of gold, deep in the jungle and overflowing with untold treasures.

On an obsessive quest to discover this mythical city, the Spanish built their first permanent settlement in Santa Marta, with Cartagena following shortly thereafter. Indigenous tribes who resisted were easily overcome by the superior weaponry of the conquistadors.

By 1549, the region was declared a Spanish Colony, with Bogota as its capital. Back then, Colombia included modern-day Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama. 

The Spanish never did find their El Dorado, but they struck serious gold nonetheless. An estimated $639,000,000 worth of gold was mined from Colombia from the conquest until 1886.

The Spanish went about spending their newfound wealth on gilded cathedrals and lavish mansions, relying on their indigenous “subjects” for labour. However, outbreaks of European diseases swept through indigenous communities, significantly reducing the labour force. 

The Spanish sorted out the worker shortage by sending for ships full of slaves from Africa, setting up Cartagena as the Caribbean’s most important slave-trading port. 

The Caribbean and Pacific regions, where the Spanish originally docked their slave ships, remain home to Colombia’s largest Afro-Caribbean populations. 

Over time, the three racial groups –  Europeans, Africans and indigenous Colombians began to mix. Today, many Colombians are mestizos (of European-African ancestry) and mulatos (of European-African ancestry). However, class divisions cut deep, and the Spaniards kept a tight fist around their political power and wealth.

Colombian tribe

INDEPENDENCE UNLOCKED

After almost 300 years of Spanish subjugation, the native populace decided to make an organised stand. 

Enter “The Liberator”, Simon Bolivar, hero of the independence movement. Bolivar had already spent a decade fighting the Spanish in his native Venezuela when his ragtag army of 2,500 men trudged across the flood-swept plains of Los Llanos and the frozen mountain pass of the Paramo de Pisba on their way to stop Spanish reinforcements from reaching Bogota. 

On 7 August 1819, Bolivar’s men successfully intercepted the Spanish troops. The legendary Battle of Boyacá ended with the royalists surrendering after two hours, and Bolivar marched into Bogota without resistance. Although the fighting continued for several more years, the day is recognised as the definitive moment Colombia gained independence.

1819 marked the formation of a new, independent republic, known as “Gran Colombia”, made up of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. Bolivar was elected President, and Francisco de Paula Santander became Vice President. 

Gran Colombia was to be a short-lived dream. Bitter rivalry between the two leaders and simmering regional tensions soon saw Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America swiftly disintegrating. In 1828, in attempt to hold on to power, the “Liberator” appointed himself dictator, but resigned in 1830, by which time Venezuela and Ecuador had seceded from Gran Colombia. 

The debacle left Colombia in a deeply unstable state. No less than seven civil wars broke out between 1851 and 1891, with much of the conflict due to antagonism between the country’s two political parties – the Conservatives (supported by the landowners and the Catholic Church) and the workers’ party, the Liberals.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

These warring factions sowed the seeds for another century of political violence. 

Although the early 20th century saw a brief period of peace as the coffee industry brought newfound prosperity to the nation, Colombia remained staunchly divided into two opposing camps. 

In 1899, a full-blown civil war, the War of a Thousand Days killed, tens of thousands on both sides. In 1903, a seriously freaked out Panama bowed out of its union with Colombia and became independent. 

The struggle between the Conservatives and the Liberals erupted again in1948, with one of the bloodiest civil conflicts in modern history. 

La Violencia, took place between the paramilitary forces of the Liberal Party and the Colombian Conservative Party, consisting mainly of armed self-defence groups and military units. The war cost up to 300,000 lives and neither side was victorious. A military coup toppled the Conservative government in power. Military rule remained in place until 1957, when both parties agreed to overthrow the junta.

That year, the leaders of the two parties signed a power-sharing pact known as the National Front. This would mean that, for the next 16 years, the two parties would alternate in the presidency every four years. Sound reasons able? Well, they also banned all other parties from participating in national politics.

THE RISE OF FARC

Resentment soon began to brew, as the Conservative-Liberal cooperation did little to address the vast inequalities that plagued Colombia, thanks to a Colonial legacy of unjust land distribution and an impoverished mestizo and indigenous underclass.  

Colombia was ripe for an armed communist insurgency. Among the outlawed political groups that formed during the 1960s were the Russian-backed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known to the world as FARC.

A guerrilla movement who claimed to be fighting for Colombia’s poor, FARC waged a terrorist-style war against the government for 55 years, until the 2016 peace treaty signalled the end of the world’s longest continuous civil conflict. 

As communism began to crumble, FARC lost the support of Moscow and turned to kidnapping, extortion and the drug trade to finance its struggles. As FARC territory encompassed vast swathes of prime coca-growing countryside, they became entangled with the drug cartels who were growing in power thanks to the rise of the cocaine trade, creating both allies, enemies and yet more violence.

La Farc

THE ‘NARCOS’ PART

The cocaine boom of the 80s saw cartel leaders like Pablo Escobar begin amassing incredible wealth, and even political aspirations.

Backed by the US, the Colombian government launched an offensive against the cartels. The cartels asserted their dominance by bombing banks, government buildings, newspaper offices and even a passenger plane. 

After a decade long manhunt, Escobar was finally tracked down and killed in Medellin in 1993. 

Escobar’s death had little effect on the drug supply. However, his death, along with several other high-profile arrests, lead to the eventual dismantling of highly organised crime syndicates. Numerous smaller enterprises and gangs took their place, often cooperating with the increasingly influential Mexican cartels. 

From the late 80s until the mid-2000s, Colombia was as dangerous for the average civilian as ever, with gang warfare on the streets and FARC continuing their campaign of bombings and kidnappings in the countryside.

Colombia elected Alvaro Uribe as president in 2002, pinning their hopes on his anti-gang, anti-drugs and anti-guerrilla campaign. 

Uribe immediately stepped up military action against the guerrillas, successfully liberating many regions from FARC control and restoring a stability Colombians hadn’t experienced in years. 

Still, Uribe’s aggressively pro-military stance was criticised as failing to address abuses committed by the armed forces themselves (a primary reason ordinary people took up arms with FARC in the first place).

Pablo Escobar

PEACE… AT LAST?

In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos was elected president. Although his campaign was supported by Uribe, Santos surprised the world by instigating peace talks with FARC. A treaty was conceived, to be ratified by referendum, but narrowly missed majority support. 

A revised Peace Accord was approved in November 2016. The historic deal finally put an end to Colombia’s two-party system, allowing former FARC members to create their own political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force. The accord also decreed that perpetrators of human rights abuses on both sides on the conflict must be held accountable and restricted from political participation. 

Most FARC members have disarmed willingly, but whether the negotiations will end the violence entirely remains to be seen. So far, progress has been met with numerous hurdles. Still, the vast majority of ex-FARC remain in support of peace. Like the rest of Colombia’s 49 million inhabitants, they are tired of conflict. 

Their hope is that the next generation of Colombians only knowledge of war and violence will be relegated to the history books.

peace treaty colombia

MOTORCYCLING IN COLOMBIA NOT EXCITING ENOUGH? HOW ABOUT A BIT OF HISTORY ON THE SIDE?

There’s much more to Motolombia’s tours than riding around dominating the roads like a modern day, motor-powered conquistador. 

We want you to fall in love with the country. That means getting to know the people and culture and how history has influenced their identity.   

Ancient history buffs should look into tours with visits to important historical landmarks.  

If you’re fascinated by American pre-history, the aptly-named Tomb Raider visits the mystical stone sculptures of San Agustin and the underground burial chambers of Tierradentro. 

Our Desert Guajira Challenge takes us to the least developed corner of Colombia. The local Kogi and Wiwa people are direct descendants of the Tairona, and still hold on to some of their millennia-old traditions. This tour starts in Cartagena, the most beautiful of all Colombia’s colonial cities.

No matter which tour you choose, you’ll be stopping off in picturesque Spanish-era villages from the gold rush days and interacting with the many diverse cultures of Colombia – a country striving for success against the odds and smiling all the while.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

Colombia moto tours

The Final Frontier: Trans Amazonian Challenge

52 Days, 8,000 Miles, Eight Fascinating Countries

South America’s reputation as a motorcycle touring paradise is legendary. This single continent encompasses all the ingredients of the motorcycle journey of a lifetime. And we’re not just talking about the roads themselves, as intoxicatingly thrilling and enchanting as they are.

What makes a long-distance journey through this continent of extremes a truly unforgettable experience is every part of the adventure combined. In a few days riding, you’ll discover an incredible richness and diversity of cultures, a friendly and welcoming local people, and landscapes that are both instantly dramatic and thrillingly changeable from day to day – from the world’s longest mountain range to dry desert canyons, wind-swept coastline and lush rainforests, teeming with wildlife

Introducing Motolombia’s Trans Amazonian Challenge

Every year, around the beginning of summer, an intrepid crew of riders take part in Motolombia’s Trans Amazonian Challenge. This expertly guided and fully supported tour takes in eight countries in 52 Days, from the coffee-covered hills of Colombia’s evergreen Andean lowlands to the towering snow peaks of Peru and Ecuador to the mysterious ‘Three Guianas’ on the northern Atlantic Coast to the pink dolphin-inhabited Amazonian waterways of Brazil and the towering tropical falls of Venezuela.

Forty-two of these days will involve riding, almost entirely on some of the most epic motorcycling roads on the planet.

We understand that for most people, a ride like this is a truly once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

We know what you’re thinking. If you’re undertaking a 12,875km (8,000 mile) journey from the northern Andean mountains of Colombia to the Amazon Basin and beyond, you had damn well better be having the time of your life!

It’s not all that often that you get 52 days in a single year to just go out and ride into the wilderness, so we’ve planned a route that packs more diverse and spectacular scenery into 52 days than seems geographically possible.

No two days are ever the same, and we can almost guarantee that every day be full of sights, scenes and moments where one can scarcely believe their own eyes.

Who is Motolombia’s Trans Amazonian Challenge For?

First and foremost, we schemed up the Trans Amazonian Challenge with the serious adventure motorcycle rider in mind.

Because this tour is about showing you the absolute very best of the enormously diverse northern region of South America, we regularly leave the comfort of the tarmac and venture on to remote backroads and rarely used mountain trails. As any off-road rider knows, take that turn off and you never know what sort of conditions lie ahead until their staring you in the face.

You’ll reach altitudes of over 5,000m climbing (with two wheels and an engine thankfully!) the freezing cold Andean passes.

When we hit the rainforest (although it is technically the dry season) – it’s a safe bet you’re gonna get rain – so expect all kinds of mud-related mayhem, with high humidity and sweltering summer temperatures thrown into the mix.

If all this sounds like great fun, the Trans Amazonian might just be for you. In order to join this tour, it’s s essential that you are a highly skilled, continuously practiced long-distance rider. Some days can get extremely physical, so it’s important that you’re fit, healthy condition, with plenty of off-road experience under your belt.

This type of ride requires both individual stamina and social and teamwork qualities conducive to teamwork. Only with each other’s support can we make sure any obstacles are navigated around safely and each individual rider is given the help they need.

Do I Need My Own Bike?

Because of the duration of this expedition and the at times highly demanding terrain, many riders prefer to bring their own bikes, either shipping them out to Colombia or riding them from elsewhere in the Americas.

If you wish to bring your own bike, we welcome you as well, as taking on this type of tour with a machine you’re comfortable and familiar with will help you get set up and acclimated to the conditions and riding styles far more easily.

Of course, not everyone can bring their own motorcycle halfway across the road with relative ease, so a variety of late-model hire bikes, fresh out of the Motolombia garages are available to rent.

Can Non-Riders Still Come Along for the Journey?

Pillions: Riders, you can take a pillion, provided they’ll put up with nearly two months of some seriously bone-rattling off-road riding, and a considerable amount of dust, mud and general filth.

As a self-proclaimed “professional pillion rider”, my advice to anyone thinking of accompanying their soul mate or best motorcycle-riding buddy on this trip is to make sure you’re super comfortable first with long days of riding pillion on rough and often extremely windy roads. And be prepared to give massages to aching necks, backs and arms at the end of the day.

4X4 Passengers: On this tour, our motorcycle convoy will be escorted from the rear by a 4×4 support vehicle. Pillion riders can join our expert driver over the same roads and trails our riders will be using if they need a rest from the bike.

Introducing Motolombia’s Trans Amazonian Challenge

Every year, around the beginning of summer, an intrepid crew of riders take part in Motolombia’s Trans Amazonian Challenge. This expertly guided and fully supported tour takes in eight countries in 52 Days, from the coffee-covered hills of Colombia’s evergreen Andean lowlands to the towering snow peaks of Peru and Ecuador to the mysterious ‘Three Guianas’ on the northern Atlantic Coast to the pink dolphin-inhabited Amazonian waterways of Brazil and the towering tropical falls of Venezuela.

Forty-two of these days will involve riding, almost entirely on some of the most epic motorcycling roads on the planet.

We understand that for most people, a ride like this is a truly once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

We know what you’re thinking. If you’re undertaking a 12,875km (8,000 mile) journey from the northern Andean mountains of Colombia to the Amazon Basin and beyond, you had damn well better be having the time of your life!

It’s not all that often that you get 52 days in a single year to just go out and ride into the wilderness, so we’ve planned a route that packs more diverse and spectacular scenery into 52 days than seems geographically possible.

No two days are ever the same, and we can almost guarantee that every day be full of sights, scenes and moments where one can scarcely believe their own eyes.

Who is Motolombia’s Trans Amazonian Challenge For?

First and foremost, we schemed up the Trans Amazonian Challenge with the serious adventure motorcycle rider in mind.

Because this tour is about showing you the absolute very best of the enormously diverse northern region of South America, we regularly leave the comfort of the tarmac and venture on to remote backroads and rarely used mountain trails. As any off-road rider knows, take that turn off and you never know what sort of conditions lie ahead until their staring you in the face.

You’ll reach altitudes of over 5,000m climbing (with two wheels and an engine thankfully!) the freezing cold Andean passes.

When we hit the rainforest (although it is technically the dry season) – it’s a safe bet you’re gonna get rain – so expect all kinds of mud-related mayhem, with high humidity and sweltering summer temperatures thrown into the mix.

If all this sounds like great fun, the Trans Amazonian might just be for you. In order to join this tour, it’s s essential that you are a highly skilled, continuously practiced long-distance rider. Some days can get extremely physical, so it’s important that you’re fit, healthy condition, with plenty of off-road experience under your belt.

This type of ride requires both individual stamina and social and teamwork qualities conducive to teamwork. Only with each other’s support can we make sure any obstacles are navigated around safely and each individual rider is given the help they need.

Do I Need My Own Bike?

Because of the duration of this expedition and the at times highly demanding terrain, many riders prefer to bring their own bikes, either shipping them out to Colombia or riding them from elsewhere in the Americas.

If you wish to bring your own bike, we welcome you as well, as taking on this type of tour with a machine you’re comfortable and familiar with will help you get set up and acclimated to the conditions and riding styles far more easily.

Of course, not everyone can bring their own motorcycle halfway across the road with relative ease, so a variety of late-model hire bikes, fresh out of the Motolombia garages are available to rent.

Can Non-Riders Still Come Along for the Journey?

Pillions: Riders, you can take a pillion, provided they’ll put up with nearly two months of some seriously bone-rattling off-road riding, and a considerable amount of dust, mud and general filth.

As a self-proclaimed “professional pillion rider”, my advice to anyone thinking of accompanying their soul mate or best motorcycle-riding buddy on this trip is to make sure you’re super comfortable first with long days of riding pillion on rough and often extremely windy roads. And be prepared to give massages to aching necks, backs and arms at the end of the day.

4X4 Passengers: On this tour, our motorcycle convoy will be escorted from the rear by a 4×4 support vehicle. Pillion riders can join our expert driver over the same roads and trails our riders will be using if they need a rest from the bike.

What Should I Most Look Forward To?

The reason we’ve chosen this part of South America for our 52-day circuit (starting and ending in our homebase of Cali, Colombia) is because it has absolutely everything.

If you want a run-down of the famous attractions, World Heritage archaeological sites, colourful cities and stunning natural landmarks you’ll witness on this expedition, head to our Trans Amazonian Challenge tour page. for a reasonably comprehensive list of “goalposts”.

Remember, this is an anything-can-happen, remote area expedition, and routes and destinations can change on the fly, should weather or road conditions decide to throw a spanner in the works.

Yes, we’ll be visiting the Nazca Lines, Machu Picchu, the Amazon River Basin and Angel Falls and every one of them will absolutely blow your mind.

But you’ll be equally moved by the warmth and friendliness of the South American people, from the villagers allowing a glimpse into their age-old traditions to guests who visit few and far between, to the exhilarating pace and permanently festive atmosphere of the metropolises.

While lots of guests begin their journey most keen on getting to the “bucket list” sites, they end up taking away is much more than a checklist of destinations.

What makes the Trans Amazonian Challenge not just a tour, but a genuine adventure is that this is a rite of passage of sorts. A secret journey shared by a tight-knit band of like-minded travellers, venturing into lands few outsiders have ever looked upon.

It’s the riding itself, the unpredictability the teamwork and the camaraderie that develops over a 52-day journey that’s tough, exciting and full of moments of overwhelming beauty and intensity. It’s sense of both individual accomplishment and shared experiences, that make the Trans Amazonian Challenge what it is.

And what it is, is not just one of the coolest two-wheeled expeditions in all of South America, but the journey of an absolute lifetime.

Other Things to Know

For more practical info – prices, inclusions, accommodation, optional activities, and (maybe soon) a possible start date for 2020 (subject to change according to weather conditions), you’ll find most of what you need over at the Trans Amazonian Challenge tour page.

More information will be added closer to the proposed kick-off date. It’ll be here before you know it, so register your interest ASAP.

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8 Must-See Places in Colombia with Amazing Natural Scenery

As one of the most bio-diverse countries on earth, Colombia is made up of an incredible patchwork of wildly differing landscapes and extraordinary natural beauty. From awe-inspiring mountain ranges to mysterious cloud forest, scorching desert and rugged, surf-spattered coast, here are eight of Colombia’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders.

1. Caño Cristales

Cano cristales

Deep in the dense forests of the Sierra de la Macarena National Park lies a river with a beauty so strange and unearthly it has been called “the river that ran away from paradise”. More co mmonly, it’s referred to as “el rio de los cinco colores” (the river of five colours), since for several months each year (usually between mid-May and early December), the pools and cascades of the Caño Cristales become liquid rainbows. Bursting with vibrant reds, pinks, yellows, oranges and greens, the phenomenon is caused by the blooms of the aquatic flower, macarenia clavigera.
In an isolated range, the Sierra de la Macarena is a vast, wild tract of mixed forest, tropical jungle, shrubland and savannah. Until the mid-2000s, it was a known guerrilla hideout and completely closed to tourists.
These days, tourists can hop on a direct flight from Bogota to the small town of La Macarena, and from there enjoy a half-day hike, boat and truck trip to Caño Cristales and the surrounding swimming holes and waterfalls. Guides are mandatory inside the park and are easily hired in town.
Hardcore dirt riders can visit Caño Cristales on a guided 9 day tour with Motolombia, but heed the warning: this one’s for expert off-roaders only!

2. The Cocora Valley

Cocora valley

Beautiful scenery is everywhere in Colombia’s coffee region. Jade green mountain ranges, forested hills and verdant meadows abound. But one place in the Coffee Triangle stands out, not because it’s unlike anywhere else in the region, but because it’s unlike anywhere else on the planet.
Just east of Salento, the Cocora Valley sits in the lower reaches of the Los Nevados National Park, a broad, perennially lush valley framed by sharp peaks. What makes this valley, also known as el Bosque de Palmas (Forest of the Palms) is that sprouting out of the ground in every direction are the gigantic palma de cera (giant wax palms), the largest palms in the world and Colombia’s national tree.
Some of these strange, spindly giants (their smooth, cylindrical trunks are naked, bearing just a crown of leafy fronds at the top) tower an incredible 60m high. Seeing hundreds of these majestic trees scattered across this resplendent valley is a sight to behold. Measuring yourself up at the base of one of these behemoths and you’ll appreciate how truly tiny you appear in their presence. This is a rain-soaked region, and some days a thick, swirling mist descends on the valley. Some say the foggy weather makes Cocora even more beautiful, shrouding the valley with a mysterious, almost prehistoric air.

3. Chicamocha National Park and Chicamocha Canyon

Chicamocha canyon

54 km south of Bucaramanga, Chicamocha is a bit of a sidestep from the typical Gringo Trail, but it’s a region experienced Colombian adventure riders know and love. The park is bounded by the spines of the mountainous chain surrounding the Chicamocha Canyon.
227 km long and around 2 km deep, Chicamocha is a lush and fertile canyon, with undulating slopes carpeted in emerald green vegetation. The Chicamocha River races along the bottom in a series of rapids, which have recently gained the attention of whitewater rafters. Being not so far from San Gil, Colombia’s ‘adventure capital’ a small adventure sports industry around paragliding, climbing and camping started offering activities within the park.
There are some great day hikes and multi-day treks within the park, but for motorcyclists, it’s the 50km, 45A Route from Piedecustra to Aratoca that makes this natural wonder well worth a detour. The road winds its way along the high ridges before descending almost to the canyon floor. For a remote rural Colombia road, its surface is almost unbelievably perfect. The curves seem to go on forever, and the views are something else altogether.

4. Tayrona National Park

Tayrona national park

At its southern edges, the forests of Tayrona creep up the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. At its northern boundaries, it meets the wide bays and picturesque coves of a rugged, undeveloped slice of the Caribbean coast. To many, Tayrona is the very definition of paradise. For a beach destination with sparkling clear water and idyllic, palm-fringed stretches of white sand, Tayrona has no equals in mainland Colombia.
If you’re an avid wildlife spotter or birdwatcher, a few days exploring Tayrona’s hiking trails is a must. It’s home to a tiny primate called the cotton-topped tamarin, as well as howler monkeys, sloths, iguanas and poison dart frogs.
However, beauty has a downside. Tayrona can suffer from overcrowding, especially in the peak December-January tourist season. A sacred site to the indigenous Kogi people, Tayrona needs protection. To help the local environment recover, the park often closes for weeks directly after the peak season.

5. Tatacoa Desert

Tatacoa desert

Between Bogota and San Agustin is one of Colombia’s most surreal natural wonders. Desierto de la Tatacoa is a rugged, scorching badland. Its dry, rocky canyons form a labyrinth of eroded red cliffs and gullies. Bizarre, towering rock formations punctuate the arid landscape, which appears hauntingly void of life apart from the occasional giant cactus.
Once the hot desert sun has set, Tatacoa becomes an amazing stargazing destination. In this part of the country, there is little to no light pollution, so on clear nights, an astonishing number of stars are made dazzlingly visible. Home to an astronomical observatory, at 6:30 pm each night, you’ll have the opportunity to see the stars through a high powered telescope, with the local astronomer on hand to point out the constellations.

6. Colombia’s Pacific Coast

Pacific Colombia

Beach vacations in Colombia are synonymous with the Carribean, but Colombia (the only South American country with both Atlantic and Pacific Ocean coastline) has an entire, separate and largely-forgotten coast lapping at its western shores. The Pacific Coast of Colombia extends for 1,392 km, with the Chocó department claiming the longest stretch of seafront.
This is one of the least developed regions in Colombia, the complete opposite of the manicured attractiveness and tame beaches of the Carribean resorts. In Chocó, where the sand ends, the jungle begins. Deep inside the rainforest, waterfalls stream over mossy ledges to crash into wild rivers below. Thermal pools, hidden sanctuaries in the jungle, wait to be discovered by only the most intrepid and foot-sure adventurers. Most settlements on the Chocó coast, tiny fishing villages are isolated and poor. A lack of infrastructure makes travel here a fairly challenging prospect.
Still, modest steps are being made towards lifting-up the region’s economy through eco-tourism. The wild waves of the rugged Chocó coast harbour epic secret surf breaks. The region too, is rich in wildlife – most notably dolphins, turtles and the humpback whales who hug the Colombian coastline on their yearly migration. Whales can often be spotted from shore, but for an up close encounter, head out on a boat tour during the June to October whale watching season.

7. The Sand Dunes of La Guajira

Guajira desert

There is no place remotely like La Guajira, a tiny coastal region on the northernmost tip of Colombia, where the desert touches the Caribbean Sea. The arid landscapes of La Guajira have a desolate, almost alien beauty – cracked yellow earth, straggly clumps of cactus and tiny settlements of tin and thatched roof houses.
And then, the parched, hard earth of the plains gives way to a vast expanse of windswept sand, whose edges plummet precipitously into the crashing waves of the Atlantic below. Standing atop one of these towering dunes, you’ll find yourself gazing in wonder over the blue waters of the Caribbean and the red cliffs of the Guajira desert. This the land of the nomadic Wayuu people. The Spanish never succeeded in conquering this harsh environment and to this day, the Wayuu have managed to maintain a large part of their traditional lifestyle and culture.

8. Chicaque Natural Park

Chicaque Natural Park

The cloud forests of Chicaque remains an untouched wilderness, despite being just 30 minutes south of the crowded capital of Bogota. Well and truly in the clouds, at around 2,700m above sea level, the protected private reserve boasts some of the most magical forest scenery anywhere in Colombia. Some 300 bird species call Chicaque home, as do a dozen different mammals, including the two-toed sloth and spectacled bear.
An amazing ecotourism destination, Chicaque features miles of magnificent hiking trails, varied accommodation and numerous activities. Inside the park are nine well-marked ecological trails. It also offers a canopy walk at the top of a 200 year old oak tree, ziplines, horseback riding and guided birdwatching tours.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

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Cartagena – Colombia’s Most Romantic City

Lay eyes on Cartagena and prepare to be lovestruck.
A major trading port in the days of the Empire, Cartagena is Colombia’s most picturesque,
well-preserved colonial city.
Its historic centre is enclosed by 11km of fortified stone walls, built to guard against
marauding pirates. Beyond the walls is an enchanting city of cobblestone streets, brightly
coloured mansions and elaborate cathedrals overlooking parks and plazas.
Literature buffs will know the setting for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s romantic epic Love in the
Time of Cholera was almost certainly based on Cartagena, inspired by its state of decaying
charm in the late 19 th century.
Today, Old Cartagena is no longer the crumbling sailor’s outpost of Garcia Marquez’s
imagination. As Colombia’s premier tourist destination, the city has undergone an extensive
makeover. Grand homes and historic landmarks have been authentically restored. Cafes,
museums and artisan craft stores have proliferated. Even the old horse-drawn carriages
have returned, if only for the entertainment of sightseeing tourists.
Sure, Cartagena is touristy and the Old City somewhat sanitised, but romance is part of the
city’s DNA. There’s fiery passion in the Caribbean style salsa danced in the clubs and on the
streets. Couples sit hand in hand atop the city walls watching the evening sun glow red over
the Caribbean Sea. This is a city whose beauty has inspired countless poets, painters,
musicians and lovers.
So, visit Cartagena and follow your heart – and our guide on what to do in Colombia’s most
romantic city!

WANDER IN THE WALLED CITY

A contender for the most photogenic city in South America, Old Cartagena’s narrow streets are a living architectural museum. Around every corner is a piece of history – a humble stone church, a lavish cathedral, or a gothic-style bell tower. Buildings sport vibrant Colonial pastel façades and baroque wooden doors. Consider a walking tour with a guide who can fill you in on the fascinating events and personalities that shaped Cartagena’s identity.

 

CHILL OUT IN GETSEMANI

Just outside the city walls, Getsemani was a fairly notorious neighbourhood that’s experienced a recent renaissance. The scruffy backpacker hostels and shady bars are still there, but the barrio has embraced a hip, artistic vibe in contrast to Old Cartagena’s meticulous aesthetics. Neglected buildings have been revamped, street art is ubiquitous and boutique hotels and funky bars are popping up everywhere.

Getsemani is changing fast, but for now, it still manages to balance ramshackle quirkiness and cosmopolitan cool. Check it out before the rest of the world gets wind of it!

SINK COCKTAILS AT SUNSET

The western ramparts of Old Town face the Carribean Sea, creating a great sunset vantage point. A string of bars along the promenade (including the famous, and perpetually packed Café del Mar) provide the perfect opportunity to sip tropical fruit cocktails as the sun sinks below the ocean.

And what nightlife loving city would be complete without a rooftop bar or six? A newer addition is the slick Townhouse Rooftop, which provides a unique sunset perspective overlooking Cartagena’s rooftops and cathedral domes.

 

LOSE YOURSELF IN MUSIC

Yes, Cartagena has plenty of nightclubs, from traditional salsa joints to techno pumping party palaces. But there’s more to Cartagena’s nightlife than clubbing – it’s a paradise for music lovers of all persuasions.

The region has its own distinct musical stylings, blending Latin and Afro-Caribbean influences, and these can be heard in the city’s wealth of live music venues. Most play local genres like champeta and cumbia, while others cater to rock and jazz devotees. For live salsa, Café Havana is a well-loved classic, but often the best live music you’ll encounter is performed on the streets. Wherever you go in this soulful city, music is in the air.

 

ESCAPE TO A SECLUDED ISLAND

Cartagena doesn’t have mainland Colombia’s best beaches – you’ll have to go to Tayrona or the Pacific Coast for that. But Cartagena is still inextricably linked to the coast, and an island hopping cruise is high on most visitor’s agendas.

The Rosario Islands are 27 pretty coral islets scattered off Cartagena’s coast. Most day trips follow a standard itinerary, anchoring at the islands’ most famous (ie. crowded) beaches, combined with some rather unimpressive snorkelling. To get a better feel of Colombian island life, consider staying overnight. Isla Grande has several accommodation options along its idyllic white sand beaches. One of the few inhabited settlements in the Rosarios, a local indigenous population live in rustic villages, carved out of the island’s jungle interior. For a more luxurious (if less authentic) stay, the exclusive Hotel Coralina sits atop tiny, coral reef-fringed Isla Coralina, where guests relax in thatched roof bungalows and feast on top-notch food made with local Caribbean produce.  

 

OVERLOAD YOUR SENSES AT MERCADO BAZURTO

Cartagena isn’t all beauty and romance. Most tourists experience a completely different Cartagena to the one thousands of Costeños (Cartagena locals) live, work and raise their families in. Yet both fancy restaurants and working class Costeños come to the same place to buy fresh ingredients.

Mercado Bazurto is a gigantic, 24 hour indoor/outdoor market 15 minutes outside the walled city. It’s a raw slice of real life in Cartagena’s not-so-glamorous side. This is no tourist attraction. Bazurto is a gritty, grimy assault on the senses, pungent with the smells of recently slaughtered animals, their body parts dangling from iron hooks. Produce vendors sell a mind-boggling variety of fruits and flowers, while counterfeit dealers ply knock-off watches and underwear. It’s a confusing, chaotic warren of narrow passageways, prowling pickpockets, stifling heat and sweaty bodies.

It may look intimidating, but Bazurto is a cheerful place, a sort of social hub for locals. People take their families, snack on fresh food, drink cheap beer, and in true Costeño fashion, break out into the occasional impromptu jam session. What the rest of Cartagena lacks in romance, it makes up for in passion.   

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Want to Tour Colombia by Motorcycle and Wondering About Weather?

Colombia has the Perfect Climate for Riding – 365 Days a Year

 
 

Encountering a gaggle of gringos on touring motorcycles is no longer a strange occurrence in Colombia. Hit the highway and you’re bound to spot the conspicuously bulky bikes of least a few adventure riders from abroad.

The country’s rider-friendly climate is just one of the countless reasons motorcycle touring has become more and more popular in Colombia.

Because its borders encompass the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, the Eastern Andes and the Amazon, Colombia is divided into five climatic zones.  

What that means for riders is there’s really no bad time to come to Colombia. While one region might be in the midst of a soggy month of monsoon, other regions will be pleasantly dry and sunny.  

Perfect motorcycle riding weather, year-round

 
 

Given Colombia’s proximity to the equator, the country’s weather is quite stable and consistent, and isn’t really defined by typical summer and winter seasons. In much of Colombia, daily temperatures tend to fluctuate very little throughout the year, and like other equatorial countries, the country doesn’t suffer through harsh winters.

What does vary from season to season is the average amount of rainfall each particular region experiences. However, rainy seasons in most of Colombia tend to be very short, only lasting a few months of the year.

In reality, most of Colombia’s popular motorcycling routes can be ridden all year round without having to worry too much about weather. The only exception might be if you’re planning long stretches of remote, off-road riding. In that case, your best strategy would be to research the climate specifics of each region and plan a route around avoiding the big wet as much as possible.    

All Colombia’s major cities and most tourist destinations have good to excellent sealed roads that are rarely adversely affected by normal, year-round weather conditions. And except for the country’s tropical rainforest regions, all-day rain is a rare occurrence. As a general rule, even in the height of monsoon, downpours last an hour or two and occur a couple of times throughout the day.

Of course, just like anywhere else in the world, the weather is never totally predictable. In Colombia, if a bout of bad weather does strike, it can and does cause havoc on the roads. This is especially true in mountainous, landslide-prone areas.

Like planning for any other long-haul ride, keep an eye on the forecast and your ear to the ground. Watch for news reports on extreme weather events and ask locals and fellow riders if you should be on the look out for any hazards.

 

BELOW WE’VE LISTED SOME OF COLOMBIA’S MOST POPULAR TRAVEL DESTINATIONS AND THE BEST TIMES TO VISIT THEM.

 

Bogota and Surrounds

While more rain hits Bogota in April and May and September through to November, Bogota is often described as having four seasons in one day. Wet weather gear is a good idea no matter what month you visit. Bogota sits at 2,600m elevation and is the gateway to some great high altitudetouring routes, so warm, layered clothing and good gloves and footwear are essential.

Medellin and Surrounds

Medellin and its mountainous surrounds enjoy continuous spring-like weather, with an average temperature of 22°C year-round. Short showers every few days aren’t uncommon, although there are two distinct rainy seasons – March through May, and September through to early December. During the wet seasons, a couple of heavy downpours a day between breaks of clear weather are the norm.

Caribbean Coast

Hot and humid year-round, the Caribbean coast typically has two brief rainy periods, May to June and October to November. The rest of the year remains more or less dry. Like many tropical locations, monsoon rains tend to come down hard and fast in the late afternoon or evening (providing some welcome respite from the heat), while mornings usually offer clear conditions.

Zona Cafetera

The Zona Cafetera ideal is for growing coffee thanks to its mild climate and decent rainfall year-round. You can expect almost every day in the Zona Cafetera to offer up a mix of pleasant sun, short showers and the occasional heavy downpour. Low mist hanging over the roads can cause reduced visibility, although it certainly adds atmosphere to the region’s already lush and scenic green surrounds.

Eastern and Southern Andes Region

Cali is the usual jumping off point for exploring this relatively untouristed region. Around Cali, daytime temperatures hover around 30°C (86°F), with a little more rain falling between March to May and October to November.

The remote Andean routes to the east and south of Cali offer the chance to delve into some extreme off-road adventure riding. This is a vast region of volcanic peaks and deep canyons, where dramatic changes in landscape seem to arise around every corner. These are some the most fertile regions in the Andes and rain falls frequently year-round. The heaviest rains tend to occur in March and April and October to December, when the risk of landslides is greatest. Plan back-up routes and be prepared to back-track in case of extreme weather conditions or closures due to damaged road surfaces.

On the other hand, if you stick mainly to the many excellent paved roads in the Colombian Southern Andes (like the beautiful stretch of the Pan American Highway between Cali and Pasto), riding in this region is easily doable year-round.

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Colombia – One of the Most Biodiverse Countries on Earth

There’s no doubt about it, Colombia has arrived on the global tourism stage in a big way. It’s not just an improved international perspective on safety that’s led to Colombia’s rise as one of the world’s fastest growing tourism destinations. Back in 2008, the Colombian tourism board ran a series of ads touting the country’s cultural, historical and natural wonders.

While many travellers are familiar with Colombia’s cities – the charmingly colonial Cartagena, the stately metropolis of Bogota and the buzzing urban playground of Medellin, it’s Colombia’s still largely undiscovered natural wonders that are perhaps its most valuable tourism assets.

One Nation – Dozens of Unique Ecosystems

 

Biodiversity refers to the variety of and variability of plants, animals and other lifeforms in a given region.

If you were to guess which country claims the title of ‘Most Biodiverse’, and immediately thought of Brazil (the country whose borders contain the majority of the Amazon Rainforest), well, you’d be right.

What far fewer people realise is the country coming in a close second for biodiversity lies right across the Brazilian border. Neighbouring Colombia is home to a confirmed 1,845 species of bird – more than anywhere else on the planet. Colombia is second in variety of plant species, amphibians, butterflies and freshwater fish, third in reptiles and fourth globally in biodiversity of mammals. One in every 10 species of living flora and fauna on record can be found in Colombia.

So how is a country around seven times smaller than Brazil almost comparable in terms of biodiversity? A quick glance at a map yields a compelling explanation.

 

Fringed by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, with an inland border cutting through the Amazon Rainforest, Colombia is carved into several distinct regions by the Andean mountain ranges. Within the country are 53 million hectares of forest and 22 million hectares of savannas, arid zones, wetlands and snow-capped mountain peaks. Its coasts are home to tropical coral reefs, lagoons, mangroves and jungle-flanked beaches. Fourteen per cent of the country is comprised of protected national parks, natural parks and sanctuaries.

 

Why Biodiversity is the Key to Colombia’s Tourism Future

 

Many of Colombia’s least developed areas – the Amazon regions, the Pacific Choco region, and the eastern plains – are also among its most biodiverse. Unfortunately, the biodiversity of these regions is under pressure from industry (particularly mining and deforestation), causing the destruction of wild habitats and disrupting the natural balance of sensitive ecosystems.

There’s little doubt the most remote communities in Colombia are in need of infrastructure, funding and employment opportunities. Now, environmental groups in Colombia are pushing for these regions to embrace their biodiversity and support ecotourism initiatives that help protect diversity rather than industries which contribute to its destruction. With ecotourism among the fastest growing tourism sectors in the world, Colombia is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the boom and conserve its precious environmental resources at the same time.

 

Four of Colombia’s Best Ecotourism Adventures

 

Caño Cristales, Serranía de la Macarena National Park

Possibly the most iconic natural wonder in Colombia, Caño Cristales (known as ‘the River of Five Colours’) is the name given to the Guayabero River tributary, which due to a unique phenomenon caused by the brightly coloured blooms of an aquatic plant called macarenia clavigera, becomes a shimmering rainbow of vibrant colours between June and December each year. While bright pink is the most common colour, the river’s shallow, crystalline waters run with a variety of hues including blue, green, yellow and orange. Outside the season, the park is closed to visitors to allow the surrounding environment to recuperate, and eco protection rules are strictly enforced including mandatory guides, a cap of 200 visitors per day, a ban on sun screen and insect repellent when visiting the water and limited areas where swimming is permitted.

Motolombia visits Caño Cristales once a year on the epic River of the Gods guided off-road expedition, giving you an entirely unique perspective of the park’s ruggedness and isolation beyond the standard tourist trail.

Chingaza National Park

Less than half a day’s ride from Bogota, this enormous National Park makes for both an accessible and challenging expedition through a range of unique Andean ecosystems. Ranging in altitude from 800m to 4,000m, the park encompasses vast swathes of silent paramo wetlands, alpine woodlands and snow-capped mountain ranges. Guided multi-day hikes provide you with the chance to observe rare wildlife such as the jaguar, puma, woolly monkey, mountain tapir and spectacled bear.  

El Cocuy National Park

300km north of Bogota, El Cocuy is perhaps the most visually striking national park in the Colombian Andes. Home to Colombia’s largest glacial land mass, Cocuy’s dramatic landscape is alternately lush and desolate, consisting of wind-swept valleys, glacier-gouged lakes, frozen tundra and mist-shrouded forest. The park offers several trails ranging from day-hikes to endurance-testing weeklong expeditions. Experienced climbers can tackle the permanently icy summits of El Concavo (5,200m) and Pan de Azúcar (5,120 m).

Wildlife Expeditions in Los Llanos

Well off the beaten path, Los Llanos is an area of vast tropical grassland spanning north western Colombia and southern Venezuela. For wildlife enthusiasts, Llanos is perhaps the most productive region in the country for up-close encounters with animal inhabitants including anteaters, anacondas, jaguars, capybaras, caiman, armadillos, capuchins, howler monkeys and ocelots. It’s a veritable birder’s paradise, supporting thriving populations of waterfowl, macaws and birds of prey. The immense size and relative inaccessibility of Los Llanos mean guided excursions are the best way to explore this environmentally and cultural unique Colombian region. Just a few eco-conscious operators organise wildlife and birdwatching focused trips out of the regional capital of Yopal, a 40-minute flight from Bogota.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

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