An overview of Colombia

By Rick Marin
This item appears on page 14 of the February 2013 issue.

North of Ecuador, the Andes mountains split into three branches, dividing Colombia into western, central and eastern regions. On an 18-day tour of Colombia, March 19-April 9, 2012, our group observed the central and western areas, including three national parks.

We spent much more time on land travel than anticipated. We found that most highways in Colombia were heavily traveled and undergoing needed repairs, making our progress slow. The very windy and steep roads in the mountains added to travel time. On the main highway between Santa Marta and Bogotá, we counted over 150 large trucks waiting to cross a single-lane bridge (our lane had the right of way).

Also, the “Footprint Colombia Handbook” is correct when it states that on Colombian highways, “Might makes right and every driver acts like he is in a road race.”

When not behind the wheel, Colombians are very congenial people, we found. Everywhere we traveled, we were greeted in a friendly manner and with extreme courtesy. Not once on our entire tour did we feel threatened nor in danger. For our group of 15, our only losses were a purse and a camera, both in the Guajira area.

Overall, Colombia’s economy seemed to be booming, and prices across the board were running 20%-50% higher than they were in Ecuador or Peru. Food prices showed less of a difference, while hotels and transportation were proportionally higher. One could expect to pay $2-$3 per hour for overland bus transportation in Colombia, where gas prices ran over $5 per gallon in 2012.

All the locals with whom I spoke had a very positive attitude about their government and their current president. The consistent comment was that dissident groups like the FARC were diminishing. It is true that there was a very heavy military presence along all the highways, and at times our chartered bus was stopped by them. Sometimes this was for short talks against crimes such as child prostitution or highway littering.

Large, ornate Catholic cathedrals continually caught our attention. Many colonial villages dating from the 16th century retain their original charm, and preservation efforts are being made in many of them. Some of the central plazas, like that in San Gil, are graced with giant, old trees that speak of many a romance beneath their mossy trunks.

We visited the modern Museum of the Caribbean in Barranquilla and the Gold Museum in Bogotá. While both were extremely well equipped and well designed, the noise generated by other visitors was so disturbing, it was almost impossible to hear our guides. Maybe a visit first thing in the morning, when they opened, would solve that problem.

Entrance fees at the parks we visited were very high ($20), but entry was free — when the rules were observed — to visitors age 68 or over (which we all were).

We chose a dugout canoe tour in Isla de Salamanca Road Park, where we saw numerous herons, large flocks of migrating ducks from Canada and a few large hawks. A friendly baby grison (relative of a ferret) won our hearts there. I was disappointed to see uninhibited poaching of fish by hook and net in the park.

If you stay in the EcoHabs in Tayrona National Park, be prepared to climb many stone steps. The walking trails there were well maintained and included numerous boardwalks. Wild animal life, however, was scarce in the coastal area of that park. The surf was rough, and on the beaches that were not appropriate for bathing there could be strong undertow or riptides.

Our route also led us across Puracé National Park one very drippy morning. A new concrete highway was being built there from San Agustín to Popayán (where all in our group wished we had more time), but muddy roads will continue to be the norm for at least a couple more years, in my estimate.

We were intrigued with “Tapir crossing” signs. (We didn’t see any tapirs, but during the trip we did see a few processions of priests and petitioners bearing tapers, it being the beginning of Holy Week.) The other two rare mammals found in Puracé are rabbit deer and spectacled bears. The park’s vegetation and the Mazamorra gorge were spectacular.

Among trip highlights was our visit to a Wayuu Indian ranchería near Uribia in the Guajira. There, in the scrub-bedecked landscape, we learned that a middle-class bride would cost her suitor a dowry payment of 50 mature goats.

I really enjoyed white-water rafting on the Rio Fonce near San Gil.

Our Magdalena River crossing from Aipé to Villavieja in the Tatacoa Desert was uniquely blessed with numerous sightings of beautiful capped herons.

The giant carved stone humanoid stelae of San Agustín were the first of their kind I have ever seen (and I have visited numerous archaeological sites in Latin America).

The old walled city of Cartagena has a charm rarely found elsewhere. Overabundant tourism there and on its offshore Rosario Islands detracts a bit from their splendor, but, in today’s well-traveled world, what can one expect from such beautiful and accessible attractions?

Fallbrook, CA