Colombia I

Colombia - Part I

Cartagena, Santa Marta & Barichara

Jan 4th - 10th, 2023

This is the first part of a two-part blog post about my three-week trip through the beautiful country of Colombia. While three weeks sounds like quite a lot, it is barely enough to scratch the surface of this large and diverse country. (As a size comparison, Colombia is more than three times the size of Germany). Located in the north-west corner of South America, it is bordered by Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Panama. Colombia's history, particularly in the 20th century, is full of political turmoil, violence and a long-running civil war between left-wing guerrilla groups, such as the FARC and ELN, and the government. However, the country has made enormous progress in recent years, and is now probably one of the safest and more peaceful countries in Latin America. So it was high time for me to visit this fascinating and beautiful country.

I started my trip in the city of Cartagena, located in the north of country and facing the Caribbean sea. The city is the most visited place in Colombia and for good reasons. It is an absolutely beautiful and incredibly well preserved colonial city, that was once one of the most important trading ports in the Spanish Empire. I flew from Panama City, which is a short hop of less than one hour, but there are also direct flights to Cartagena from several US cities, including New York. I stayed in the beautiful Casa del Arzobispado Hotel, which is located in the old town right behind the cathedral. This was the inner courtyard of the hotel:

The city of Cartagena, founded in 1533, was one of the most important cities in Spanish colonial America and became the main trading port on the Caribbean coast for exporting Bolivian silver and importing African slaves. The former wealth of the city is still apparent in its many Andalusian style palaces and grand church buildings. This is the Palacio de Proclamación, re-named to commemorate the proclamation of independence in 1811.

Even in early January, the temperatures in Cartagena can be very hot. When I arrived it was 35 degrees (95 Fahrenheit), but it cooled down a bit over the next couple of days. Cartagena is a very walkable city, and I started my visit with a long evening stroll through the narrow lanes, which are laid out in a grid pattern and are lined by colonial buildings covered in flowers.

A typical feature of almost all of the houses in Cartagena are the covered balconies.

Cartagena was also a major religious center and boasts many beautiful and elaborate churches and monastery buildings. The 'Holy Office of the Inquisition' was established in the city in 1610. The most prominent church building is the Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría with its exquisite yellow and pink bell tower, which can be seen from almost everwhere in the old city. The cathedral, built between 1577 and 1612, was modelled after similar churches in Andalusia.

Two of the other notable religious buildings are the Santuario de San Pedro Claver on the left and the orange colored Iglesia de Santo Domingo.

Due to its strategic position and wealth the city was not only a key point of confrontations between European powers, it was also a very enticing target for pirates in the Caribbean. As a consequence Cartagena boasts the most extensive and best preserved military fortifications of any city in South America. The city walls and several large fortresses protecting key points of the bay were first built in the 16th and significantly extended in the 17th and 18th centuries. The city and its defensive walls have been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1984.

To this day the city is almost completely surrounded by the huge city walls. The Puerta del Reloj, named after the elegant clock tower that was added in the 18th century, was the main entrance gate to the city. Today the gate opens out to a large city plaza, but in the past it was protected by a draw bridge over a canal in front of the walls.

A major part of the city's defense was played by the impressive Castillo de San Felipe, which is located just outside the city walls. It is the largest fort ever built by Spain in any of its colonies. I would recommend to visit the fort early in the morning before the bus loads of tourists arrive. There is an impressive and intricate network of tunnels underneath the main fortifications.

On my way back from the fortress, I walked through Barrio Getsemani, which is the neighborhood just outside the city walls to the east of the old town. Getsemani used to be the seedy part of town, but in recent years has been transformed into a vibrant area full of cool restaurants, bars and colonial buildings covered in interesting graffiti.

The modern city of Cartagena, is located a bit away from the colonial center. With a population of just over 1 million, Cartagena is the fifth largest city in Colombia.

January is high season for Columbia, and during the day Cartagena was packed full of tourists. In order to get these tranquil shots of the empty streets, I had to wake up very early in the morning and be outside by 7:00 am.

I ended my last evening in Cartagena with a walk all around the old city on top of the city walls, and watched this spectacular sunset over the Caribbean sea.

Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park
My next stop after Cartagena was Santa Marta, a coastal city of 500,000 located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which is the tallest coastal mountain range in the world and contains Colombia's tallest mountain, the 5,700 meter high Pico Cristóbal Colón. It is a 4 to 5 hour drive from Cartagena to Santa Marta, which takes you north-east along the Caribbean coast passing the city of Baranquilla. I had booked a car and driver through, which I had used a couple of times in the past and had always experienced as reliable.

The drive was quite beautiful, particularly the second half after Baranquilla, which takes you over the  recently completed Puente Pumarejo, which is Colombia's largest road bridge spanning the mighty Magdalena river. The road then crosses a narrow land bridge right through the wetlands of Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta.

What I really like about booking car transfers on is the fact that they not only transport you door to door, but they also provide suggestions for interesting sightseeing stops along the way, which you can add for a little extra money. On this trip I included a short stop in Cienaga, which turned out to be a beautiful small colonial town I would not have known about otherwise.

Santa Marta is a popular tourist destination mainly for its beaches and natural beauty. For me the main reason to come here, was to visit the Tayrona National Natural Park, which is famous for its wildlife and stunning landscapes. I had a guided hike booked through Viator, and was picked up early morning from my hotel. Although the park is quite close to Santa Marta, the main entrance gate is on the other side, so it was about a one hour drive to get there. It turned out, that Sunday is not the best day to do visit Tayrona, since it is a very popular weekend destination for Colombians from Santa Marta, Baranquilla and even as far as Bogota. The scene at the entrance gate was a bit chaotic with hundreds of people, cars and buses. I was glad I had a guide with me, who sorted out the entrance ticket for me. From the entrance gate it is another 20 minute drive on a dirt road to the trail head. If you don't have your own driver, there are lots of shared minibuses going up and down between the trail head and the entrance gate.

Once my guide Louis and I started to hike, the crowd of people we saw at the entrance gate thinned out very quickly. (There is also an option to take a horse if you can't do the hike. Luckily there is a separate path for the horses, so hikers don't have to share the trail with trains of horses.) The first part of the trail was fairly steep, but well laid out, and they have built lots of long wooden walkways across the muddy parts. We saw a few monkeys, many beautiful birds and some huge butterflies along the way. After about an hour through the dense jungle we reached the coast and the trail continued to hug the coast line, passing several beautiful beaches. After about two hours in total we reached our destination, the stunning Playa del Cabo, which lies protected from the waves and currents in a halfmoon shaped bay.

We spent a couple of hours at the beach. I went for a swim in the refreshing Caribbean waters, and we then had a lovely lunch in one of the shacks nearby, before heading back out along the same trail. It was a great day and Tayrona National Natural Park is a beautiful place and a must visit if you find yourself anywhere near Santa Marta.

After a day relaxing in the resort and catching up on photo editing, I did a trip to Minca the following day. My driver, Manuel, from Cartagena had offered to take me there. Minca is a small village high up in the mountains, which is particularly popular among backpackers. The climate is very different up there, than at the coast. It was quite a bit cooler, but also a lot cloudier. Manuel dropped me off at the trailhead to Las Cascadas de Marinka, which was a very nice easy hike (less than 2 hours out and back) to reach these beautiful cascading waterfalls.

There is not too much to see in Minca itself, which seems to consist mostly of restaurants and backpacker hostels. This is the small Iglesia in the center of the village.

Following a nice local lunch in Minca, Manuel drove me further up into the mountains to visit the Victoria Coffee Farm, which is one of the oldest coffee plantations in Colombia. Founded in 1892 the farm still largely functions using the same machines as it did 130 years ago. On the guided factory tour we learned about the whole process from planting and harvesting to treating and shipping the beans. They only roast a small portion for their own sales here, the rest is shipped as green beans to roasters all over the world. The tour ended with some very nice cups of coffee.

Coffee is a big industry in Colombia, and one of the main export products. (Colombia is the world's third largest coffee producer, behind only Brazil and Vietnam). Mainly due to the very manual labor required, it is still an industry almost entirely dominated by small family-run farms and plantations. Colombia's economy in general is still heavily reliant on the export of commodities such as coffee, oil and gold. However, it is continuing to diversify its economy with the development of sectors such as tourism, construction and technology.

On our way back to Santa Marta my driver Manuel suggested to visit the place where Simón Bolivar, the liberator of 6 countries in Latin America, died in 1830. The Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino is a hacienda from the 17th century, which has been turned into a memorial park and museum for Bolivar. Already gravely ill when he arrived at the hacienda, Bolivar spent the last 2 months of his life here before he passed away, most likely from tuberculosis, on December 17th, 1830 at the age of 47.

This was the modest bedroom where the Liberator spent his last days. The clock in the room remains set at the exact time of this death.

The following morning I had a short flight to take me south from Santa Marta to Bucaramanga.

Bucaramanga and Barichara
Flying in I had a great view of the city of Bucaramanga, which is surrounded by green mountains. There is not too much to see in Bucaramanga itself. It is a fairly busy, commercial and slightly gritty town of about 1 million people. I went on a short walk in the late afternoon and visited the cathedral, an elegant white structure built in the early 20th century.

The main reason I came to Bucaramanga was to visit the small town of Barichara, which is considered to be the most beautiful village in Colombia. Barichara is not exactly close to Bucaramanga, but there is no other large city with an airport nearby. I had booked a day trip on Viator and was picked up by my guide and driver at 6 am from the hotel. The drive usually takes about 3 hours (if there is no traffic, more on that later), but the drive itself is worth doing. It takes you through beautiful mountains and the deep canyon of the Chicamocha river. We had some spectacular views along the way.

Driving (or as in my case being driven) in Colombia is not for the faint-hearted. The road to Barichara is the main connection between Bucaramanga and the capital Bogota, which is another 12 hours further south. As a result the road is packed with very large trucks, which my driver overtook whenever he had a chance (and many times when I didn't think he had a chance). Double yellow lines and a very curvy mountain road with no view of oncoming traffic, were no obstacles. But we arrived safely in Barichara, and it was definitely worth the long drive.

Barichara is an amazing place. It was founded in 1701 by Spanish conquistadors, and is one of the best-preserved colonial towns in all of Latin America. The town is laid out in a neat grid pattern of cobble stoned roads, surrounding the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral.

We started the tour with a visit to a local paper maker, where they still produce paper in the traditional way using various different plant fibers. We also visited the local cemetery, which displays Barichara's tradition of stone carving, before starting our walk through town.

It really looks like not much has been changed here since the 18th century. The town consists almost entirely of Andalusian style, white washed, red roofed, single story buildings, and is surrounded by stunning mounting scenery.

The 18th century cathedral is a beautiful sandstone building that glows dark orange in the sun.

With hindsight, it probably would have been better to stay a night in Barichara, which not only would have allowed me to see the town in the early morning without all the cars and tourists, but also to do some hiking in the surrounding countryside or through the canyon behind the city.

The drive back to Bucaramanga was a bit more adventurous, to say the least. We first stopped to visit a small nature park in the nearby town of St Gil, but when we left St Gil the road was at a complete standstill, no movement at all. Apparently there had been a big accident with overturned trucks several kilometers ahead, and the road was completely blocked in our direction. Not being deterred by that, my driver simply started overtaking the standing traffic by driving in the left lane, darting in and out to avoid oncoming trucks. Many other cars and a few buses did the same. After not making enough progress this way either and after getting some tips from oncoming drivers, we decided to try to get around the traffic jam on a very steep unpaved mountain path. The problem there was that a few trucks coming the other way had decided to take the same "shortcut", but the track wasn't really wide enough for that. So, we spent quite a bit of time, backing up downhill, and squeezing into tight spots on the side in order to let oncoming traffic through. There was lots of discussing and waving, but what was so remarkable to me, was that all of this chaos happened with people being in good cheer, relaxed, joking and friendly with each other. There was almost no honking and everyone tried to help each other. I tried to imagine the kind of anger, honking and shouting this kind of traffic chaos would have caused in Germany or the US. Once we made it back to the main road, the blockage seemed to have been cleared, but by now there was so much traffic on the road, that it still moved very slowly. And my driver continued to overtake trucks wherever he could. At the end the whole trip back to Bucaramanga took almost 6 hours, but I got back safely, which I actually never really doubted.

I had one more night in Bucaramanga, which also gave me a chance to sample the famous local delicatesse - hormiga colunas, literally translated big-bottomed ants. They are deep fried, salted and are sold everywhere on the street in little bags or containers. They are eaten either as a snack by itself or used as garnish on other dishes like here.

The next morning I continued my trip with a short flight from Bucaramanga to Medellin.

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