Looking ahead to make your travel plans for 2016? Greg Haugan offers some alternative holiday ideas
You’ve been to Cartagena and it was beautiful, no doubt about that. But you don’t travel to eat at overpriced restaurants with octogenarians in Bermuda shorts. You can’t be bothered visiting Villa de Leyva, Melgar, or Villavicencio for the thousandth time this year for another puente weekend. We’ve heard all too often about the many wonders of Medellín or Cali’s salsa bars. And nobody wants to listen to yet more stories about San Andrés’ heavenly beaches.
For those of you who are tired of the same old stuff, those of you who have been there and done that, and need some travel inspiration for 2016, we bring you a new set of 10 destinations to visit in Colombia. Off the beaten path, but no less beautiful, romantic, or fun, these places are well worth a visit – and some of them might just surprise you.
Smaller and less well-known than traditional colonial destinations like Villa de Leyva or Barichara, Guadalupe is no less magical. Six hours from Bogotá, it has plenty of nature and adventure activities as well as its colonial charm. The main draw is swimming in the Las Gachas river, a brilliantly coloured stream that contrasts beautifully against a backdrop of vast mountains. José at the Hotel Bonanza in the centre of town is an excellent local guide with very reasonable prices.
Just close enough to Bogotá to make it a feasible weekend destination, Honda is a great place for a romantic getaway. Full of history and architectural richness, the town’s zigzagging cobbled streets, over 30 bridges and prime location on the Magdalena River make its nickname, “the Cartagena of Colombia’s interior”, well-deserved. On your way back to Bogotá, make a stop in Guaduas, another charming colonial village on Colombia’s list of heritage towns, less than an hour from Honda.
Buga, Valle del Cauca
Less than an hour and a half from Cali, Buga is a colonial town with a decent sized historical centre and an outrageous number of churches. Pilgrims are drawn by Buga’s basilica, which houses a crucifix that supposedly grew daily during the 16th century. Nearby you’ll find windsurfing on the impressive Lago Calima and two nature reserves. The town even has a microbrewery that supplies the Holy Water Ale Café.
San José del Guaviare, Guaviare
Not a traditional tourist destination, due mainly to safety concerns, San José has a lot to offer and is just opening up to tourism as the Colombian conflict de-escalates. There is a frankly ridiculous amount of things for visitors to enjoy, including excellent nature and bird viewing opportunities, ancient cave paintings, jungle hikes, spectacular rock formations left by prehistoric coral reefs, and an easier-to-access alternative to Caño Cristales, Tranquilandia. Even more may open up as the area becomes safer in a post-conflict Colombia. Playa Güio is a great lodging option at affordable prices.
A small departmental capital at the edge of the Llanos, on the surface Yopal has little to offer beyond its annual festival and good restaurants serving up the traditional llanero meat dish, mamona. A small number of local tourism operators are starting to change that, taking advantage of hiking and adventure opportunities outside of town. Aventur Eco Tours has a variety of activities on offer, including multi-day bicycle excursions around the department of Casanare. The flat plains of the department offer some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities in the country. And that’s saying something.
Getting back to nature
Río Claro, Antioquia
This private nature reserve is set along a beautiful river inside a lush rainforest. Though slightly pricey, the reserve organises a variety of adventure activities, including caving, kayaking and rafting, snorkeling, and a canopy zipline, in addition to a number of hikes through the rainforest.
Puracé National Park, Cauca
Approximately two hours from Popayán, Puracé is a national park protecting one of Colombia’s important páramo ecosystems. Besides the flora and fauna typical of the country’s páramos, the park encompasses the Coconuco volcano range, including a dozen or so volcanoes. A popular day hike involves climbing the Puracé volcano, with spectacular views from the top. The park also has thermal baths and sulphur mines, excellent condor-viewing opportunities, and plenty of waterfalls.
A little bit of everything
Vallenato was recently declared ‘Cultural Patrimony of Humanity’ by UNESCO. Celebrate this new status in 2016 by visiting Valledupar, the home of the accordion-based genre. Besides music, the town boasts a modest colonial centre with an enormous annual festival, and the surrounding area offers expeditions into the indigenous heartland of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, biking opportunities, and plenty of nature. The city is easily one of the most charming departmental capitals in the country.
Córdoba is one of the least loved of Colombia’s coastal departments, but there are still plentiful reasons to visit. Visit Lorica along the Sinu River, one of Colombia’s colonial heritage towns. Hang out at the beaches in San Bernardo del Viento. Buy a handmade hammock in San Antero and visit its annual Donkey Festival. Buy yourself one of Colombia’s signature sombrero vueltiao in Tuchín, the small town where they originate and which still houses plenty of artisanal sombrero-making workshops. Base yourself in Lorica and none of these destinations are much more than 30 minutes away by bus.
You don’t even need to leave the city
Primero de Mayo, Bogotá
It might not exactly count as “travel”, but if you’ve never been to the biggest party district in the city, this should be on your list of things to do in 2016. The Cuadra Picha gets a bad rep from well-heeled frequenters of more upmarket party districts like the Zona T and Parque 93, but safety concerns are probably exaggerated. Take standard precautions, and enjoy what is easily the loudest, wildest, and cheapest group of discotecas in the city.
By Greg Haugen