I am sucking wind. Gasping for breath. As in I might face-plant into the trail at any minute.

My head swims a little, does a summersault and lands me back in the sweaty, exhausted state I’ve been in for the past half hour. The smell of Eucalyptus brings me back to my senses, at least partially, like high altitude smelling salts.

The trees sway and crackle in the mountain wind, as the fog and mist rolls slowly up the valley thought the pines and Eucalyptus, oblivious to my little high altitude trial by fire going on below their towering branches.

Now lets be real here, I consider myself in pretty good shape. But it would appear the long Canadian Winter has taken its toll on me.

I wipe away a bead of sweat threatening to sting my eyeball, only to see my little brother and his long time girlfriend continue bounding up the trail in front of me. 

I am hiking up the slopes of El Sodo in Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados in central Colombia, near equal distance from Cali and Bogota, and a short ride from the stunning mountain town of Salento, Colombia. The national park is drawing me in with her otherworldly beauty, stunning views and Jurassic Park-esque flora. But at the same time it is as though she is trying to pick me apart and leave me for the Jaguars and mountain cats, testing me at every turn. A fitting metaphor for Colombia itself.

Colombia Travel Guide

For a country better known for the likes of Pablo Escobar, the international drug trade and an only recently resolved Marxists insurgency, Colombia will sneak up on you with her charms, unbelievable beauty and endless travel options.

On my first visit I was warned, berated and scolded for even considering, let alone visiting Colombia. While things were in no way great, the country has been making increasingly impressive moves to improve travel and embrace visitors. A near three-month stay by a group of friends convinced me and my partner to venture south, on a flight so cheap we almost couldn’t believe it.

Landing in Bogota as most flights do into Colombia, we set about exploring the city. Bustling, beautiful, wind-swept, high in the Andes and oh so cold and wet; we beat a hasty retreat for the northern coast, sunshine and the city of Cartagena.

Cartagena

Cartagena sits on the north coast of Colombia, butted up against the blue of the Caribbean and speckled with the colours, high bell towers and tourist bustle of a seaside Colonial town. The beautifully preserved old downtown boasts town squares, incredible restaurants and some surprisingly engaging colonial museums. While out of travelers hands, be warned that cruise ships do dock in Cartagena from time to time and the swarms of shipboard travelers can make the downtown and restaurants a challenge to navigate as well as a test of patience.

Colombia Travel Guide

Cartagena plaza shadows. Cartagena is full of plazas and squares that are at times filled with locals and markets and shops. And other times filled with tourists and cruise ship goers. It is all a game of luck and timing as to who you will find.

Colombia Travel Guide

Local fishermen prepare to depart from Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Santa Marta & Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona

We lucked out, skirting the disembarking ships, as we headed east towards the town of Santa Marta and the entrance to Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona.

Santa Marta a quaint little seaside town, with some of the best food and drink of our entire stay, is worth a night or two of exploring; with the shops and restaurants of the small downtown along Parque Camellon and Parque Simon Bolivar well worth visiting. However Santa Marta it is primarily the springboard where the backpackers and travelers embark towards Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona.

Tayrona, one of Colombia’s many national parks, is perched on the northern coast and is a well-known backpacking and tourist destination. Worth the trek in, it can be one of those travel destinations that are either a hit or a miss.

Winding trails, thick jungle, howler monkeys rattling the branches above us. The trek into the park is everything you might hope it would be. The park itself however, leaves a bit to be desired. It is not the best maintained and can be very expensive. The small beaches and coves are nice and can be a beautiful getaway, however the weather can be a roll of the dice and make for some uncomfortably damp and chilly nights.

We departed Tayrona early, back to Santa Marta and her lively boardwalk and reliably fantastic food.

Colombia Travel Guide

The view from the taxi on the drive from Santa Marta to Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona.

Colombia Travel Guide

Storks wade through the surf in Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, on the north coast of Colombia.

Cali

Looking towards the southern mountains of Colombia and the three spines of the northern Andes and you have a different story. Cali, one of the largest cities in Colombia has just about everything you could want. A bustling, swirling downtown, some of the most stunning street art and murals I have ever seen, a wonderfully diverse and fantastic food scene, all the while surrounded by towering mountains. Hiking through the mountainside trails you can look down on the downtown core, the central river slicing through the city and the sprawling favelas clinging to the hillsides.

Colombia Travel Guide

Downtown Cali, Colombia. Butted up against the coastal range of the northern Andes, Cali rolls and dips over the foothills. With a range of distinctive neighbourhoods Cali is both a fascinating and beautiful city to visit.

Colombia Travel Guide

Looking south along the mountains over the artists district of Cali, San Cayetano.

Colombia Travel Guide
Colombia Travel Guide
Colombia Travel Guide

Part dinner, part performance art, part stand up. Dinner at Micheal Lynch’s restaurant and art gallery is like no other dining experience. You sit in a gallery above the kitchen and watch as Micheal and team create your food in front of you. I would also add that it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. A Colombia travel memory for sure.

Salento

Drive north from Cali and you get into the foothill fingers of the Andes, slowly fading as they reach the northern edge of the continent. Here is where you will find Salento and the mind-bending beauty of Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados.

Without a doubt the place to stay in Salento before you venture into the park is the La Serrana campsite. Part hostel, part hotel, part glamping. It is perched on a ridge overlooking two rolling valleys and if the weather clears, stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the national park.

Colombia Travel Guide

Sunset along the side streets of Salento, Colombia. Salento is the gateway to the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, a prehistoric like jungle and mountain range.

Colombia Travel Guide

The La Serrana campsite on the outskirts of the town of Salento, with the lights of the city of Armenia in the distance.

Colombia Travel Guide

A group of parrots fly over our campsite of La Serrana on the outskirts of the town of Salento.

Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados

A short walk into Salento’s main square is where you can find transportation into the park. The old converted military jeeps rocket you up the winding road towards the park, offering the first glimpses of the scale of the mountains you are about the venture into.

With the fog swirling around the mountains and the wind rushing through the valley, you set off along the valley floor. If you are walking, watch out for the occasional cowboy and his mount, and be sure to pack some solid hiking footwear – the mud and muck of the trail and jungle make for a challenging hike.

Passing the ranching pastures and grazing cattle, you enter into the jungle portion as the trail starts to climb. Birds, bugs and jungle waterfalls assault your ears as you make your way up the valley floor. As the trail steepens and your pace switchbacks upwards you come to the halfway portion of the day trek. Perched on a ledge above the jungle floor is a guesthouse and rest stop. Here you can pause and catch your breath, sip tea, recharge for the next leg and get lost in the swarms of hummingbirds that frequent the guesthouse. Down and to the right is the trail to the wax palms; up and over, is the trail even further into the back country and up onto the mountain plateau. Be warned however this trail is not easy, the weather can change quickly and often and stops for shelter and food are far apart so pack and prepare accordingly.

Colombia Travel Guide
Colombia Travel Guide
Colombia Travel Guide

Vaqueros, or cowboys, lead horses and pack animals through Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados. The trails and pathways are rough and often caked with mud at the lower elevations, and hikers must share the trail with horses and pack animals. Once you reach the higher elevations, the animals turn back and everyone treks on foot.

Colombia Travel Guide
Colombia Travel Guide
Colombia Travel Guide

A hummingbird pitches on a branch in Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados. The park is known for its huge array of hummingbirds and other forms of wildlife.

We opt for the down and to the right option, slipping and sliding our way down to the trail that leads into the wax palm forest. However there is one catch, you must hike up and out of the valley to get to the palms; and that is where I am, doubled over, wheezing in the thin mountain air.

Collecting myself we make it to the top of the ridge and the slow, winding descent down into the wax palm forest and the end of the trek. The views from the top are jaw-dropping, mist covered mountains, green for as far as the eye can see, and groves of Dr. Seuss-esque palms, slowly swaying in the wind.

Descending out of the mountains, with the forest opening up, you wander through the valley floor spotted with towering palms, their long shadows spreading across the rolling fields. The setting is both at once so unexpected and out of place and yet irresistibly stunning and magical, Colombia itself in a nutshell.

Colombia Travel Guide
Colombia Travel Guide
Colombia Travel Guide

This national park is the only place on the planet where these wax palms grow. Creating Dr. Seuss like landscapes across the park both on the valley floor and high in the mountains.

Colombia Travel Guide

Colombia Travel Logistics

Flights

Flights inside Colombia are relatively inexpensive. Ranging from $50USD to $150USD depending on when you book them. An insider tip for flying within and from Colombia, avoid VIVA Airlines at all costs unless you have ample time or don’t have the budget to book with another airline. They are a (very) budget airline and I have heard more first hand horror stories of bumped flights, canceled flights, broken runway delays and police having to come quell crowds of angry travelers, to never want to risk it.

And that oh so cheap flight I mentioned earlier? It was with Spirit Airlines from Washington DC; round trip set us back about $300USD. On my most recent trip though, Air Canada Rouge got me direct to Bogota from Toronto, Canada for about $700CAD. Well worth the convenience and surprisingly nice flight.

Entering Colombia

For most nationalities, prior to entering Colombia give Google a quick search and make sure the rules have not changed on whether you need a visa. Canadians, a quick heads up. As of Winter 2017 a $90USD entry fee is required. On my first visit, nothing was requested. On my second, it caused a lot of confusion within the arrivals and immigration area, and may lead to a missed connection, so be aware and check ahead.

Colombia Travel Guide photos by James MacDonald