“What’s the most beautiful country you’ve ever traveled to?” In my head echoes the answer of Ted Simon, the intrepid adventurer who in the ’70s went around the world on his Triumph motorcycle and recounted it in the classic of travel literature “Jupiter’s Travels.”
In an interview for a spanish magazine, after thinking about it for a minute, he looked me in the eye and answered: “Colombia. I still don’t understand why so many people advised me not to visit it. They told me that it was a dangerous country, and throughout my trip, I never felt in danger. What I did feel was the kindness of the people who live in one of the most beautiful lands in the world”.
Colombia is home to 10% of the Earth’s flora and fauna. It is the most biodiverse country on the planet per square kilometer, with the widest variety of amphibians and birds in the world and the third-largest number of endemic species. The key to Colombia’s enviable biodiversity lies in its varied ecosystems. It encompasses five natural regions (Andean, the Caribbean, and insular, Pacific, Orinoco, and Amazon), resulting in a palette of exuberant landscapes ranging from rainforests and tropical coasts to open wetlands, high altitude savannas, and glaciers in the high snow-capped mountains.
Keen explorers and adrenaline-filled adventurers will delight in Colombia’s vast array of unique experiences to explore its varied landscapes.
From slower-paced expeditions such as bird watching, scuba diving, jungle treks, and horseback riding to more intense adventures for adrenaline junkies, such as paragliding in the heart of the Chicamocha Canyon (the second-largest canyon in the world), waterfall rappelling, rafting, caving or mountain climbing on its numerous peaks, many of them over 4,000 meters, and even some well over 5,000 meters.
“Despite the immense extensions of Bogota, the city invites to be traveled on foot or, better yet, by bicycle. Isn’t it the best way to feel the heartbeat of a city?
I stroll through the Candelaria neighborhood, the cradle of Bogotá, and take the opportunity to taste exotic tropical fruit juices at the Perseverancia Market. A cab driver warns me about the wrong idea of approaching Montserrate to enjoy the city’s best views at more than three thousand meters. So I continue to enjoy the street art, the parks, and the city life on Sunday. It is possible to observe 250 bird species in Bogotá alone, 5 of them endemic to the city.
Thanks to the many bicycle rental companies, it is possible to explore the narrow streets and squares of the historic center’s avenues, visit its museums (the Gold Museum and the Fernando Botero Museum are two must-sees), and cycle through its parks both independently and with guided tours. But remember: you will do it in a city at 2,600 meters above sea level. So don’t rush!
Chingaza Natural Park
Its predominant ecosystems, high Andean, sub-Andean and paramo forests, are home to majestic relicts of Andean fauna and flora: condors, red and white-tailed deer, páramo tapirs, borugos, and even pumas and Andean bears, which coexist in this ecosystem with a great variety of birds and amphibians, with some frogs considered sacred and worthy of veneration by the Muisca tribes since millenary times.The Chingaza Park has 6 trails: the Cuchillas de Siecha Trail, the Buitrago Lagoons Trail, the Laguna Seca Trail, the Suasie Trail, the Las Plantas del Camino Trail, the Laguna del Medio Trail, and the Las Lagunas de Siecha Trail, which we are about to walk.
Each trail has a particular theme, and it is mandatory to hire the services of a tour guide or environmental interpreter endorsed by the Park. “Supporting the guides of the region strengthens the conservation of the Park,” says Camilo Ortega, our Local Destination Expert in Colombia, “as it contributes to the local economy of families who change activities such as livestock and crops in the moorlands, for sustainable practices such as ecotourism. In addition, the guides master the Park’s information and combine scientific and traditional knowledge to contribute to a richer experience.
“I eagerly await the appearance of the vegetation that characterizes the páramo: the Espeletias, a genus of plants of the Asteraceae family – native to Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador – commonly known as frailejones.”
At a slow pace, as the canons of high-altitude hikes dictate, I eagerly await the appearance of the vegetation that characterizes the páramo: the Espeletias, a genus of plants of the Asteraceae family commonly known as frailejones. The name ‘frailejón’ comes from its discovery during the Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada, carried out by José Celestino Mutis in 1783 during the reign of Charles III. Apparently, its appearance resembled the pointed hoods worn by the Capuchin friars in foggy conditions.
Frailejones are one of the hallmarks of the páramo, where they grow up to an altitude of 4,300 meters. They can reach up to two meters in height have broad, thick, velvety leaves and a golden yellow flower. It produces a highly prized resin, but its great value is its ability to capture moisture from the environment and store water to nourish the streams and rivers that originate in the páramo and that feed the most part Bogotá aqueduct.
We arrive at the viewpoint that gives us a beautiful panoramic view of the Siecha lagoons. It is a magical place, 3500 meters above sea level, where the three lagoons of glacial origin (Siecha, Fausto, and Las Americas). It is difficult to explain, but you can feel the echoes of mysticism that flood the area even in the stillness.
For the Muiscas, these lagoons in the mountains of Cundinamarca were sanctuaries or places of devotion where they made pilgrimages feasts and deposited offerings as a tribute to life and fertility. Curiously, in 1856 a gold raft was found in the largest lagoon, just like the one described in the Spanish chronicles of the XVI century describing the El Dorado ceremony. A famous European museum managed to get it out of the country, but its trail was lost when the ship transporting it to Germany caught fire…
“The Spaniards called it the Valley of Hell,” our guide tells me as we arrive at an astronomical observatory used by the Muiscas in pre-Columbian time”
The Valley of Hell
We head for Villa de Leyva, a town famous for its historical, cultural, and natural heritage and one of the most important tourist destinations in the country. Declared a national monument, the urban center of Villa de Leyva is a beautiful space thanks to its colonial architecture. To walk through its streets is to be transported back to the time of its foundation in 1572. The immense Plaza Mayor stands out, a space surrounded by old colonial buildings that will take you to immerse yourself in the local culture of one of the most beautiful cities in the country, which earned it to be recognized as a national monument in 1954. The truth is that I feel at home, although it is hard to think of a Spanish town as well-preserved as this one.
But beyond the rich urban center, there is a whole variety of rural landscapes well worth a pedal. So we set out to mountain bike through the desert area along dirt roads between beautiful colonial-style villas indigenous astronomical observatories. Abundant fossil remains from when this valley was a sea populated by dinosaurs. “The Spaniards called it the Valley of Hell,” our guide tells me as we arrive at an astronomical observatory used by the Muiscas in pre-Columbian times. Apparently, the Muiscas found in this place the perfect setting for the development of astronomy because the starry nights are a spectacle to be admired. For this reason, there are still observatories in the area, and renowned astronomical festivals are held.
A Destination Rediscovered by Peace
Next objective: rafting in the Güejar Canyon. We set off from Bogota towards the east, looking for the limit of the department of Meta. A journey of 240 kilometers and 5 hours by car takes us to the municipality of Mesetas. Here a chapter of the country’s recent history was written, when in June 2017, the Government and the FARC guerrilla put an end to half a century of armed conflict with the surrender of all the guerrilla’s weapons to the UN. Precisely, the Güejar Canyon and, in general, much of the department of Meta keeps unique and unrepeatable natural destinations, which have remained hidden as a result of the armed conflict for decades. We can speak, therefore, of a destination rediscovered by peace.
“Much of the department of Meta keeps unique and unrepeatable natural destinations, which have remained hidden as a result of the armed conflict for decades.”
A chapter in the country’s recent history was written here when the Government and the FARC guerrillas put an end to half a century of armed conflict.
Two kilometers from the village, we got on the rafts ready to run 18 kilometers of the Güejar river, with crystal clear waters and rapids between classes II and III. When it has a lot of water, it can reach class IV, but then it is not recommended to run it because the exits of the rapids are very delicate in those conditions. It is, in general, a calm river, very scenic, which canyons spectacularly at several points between walls of up to 60 meters; and which allows for a relaxed experience with several places to swim and observe the numerous birds that inhabit the area.
“It’s a river that has only been open to visitors for five years,” Alvaro Castañeda, manager of the rafting company, tells us. “Many locals don’t know it because it is part of the territories closed during the armed conflict in Colombia. However, it is the guides who know it because many were members of the FARC, and they know it like the back of their hand; they could run it with their eyes closed!”.