COLOMBIA FEBRUARY 2016
The Land of Magical Realism. Colombia has shaken off the legacy of Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels, is making peace with the revolutionary guerillas (FARC) and is rebranding itself as the inspirational homeland of its illustrious native son, Nobel Prize Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As longtime admirers of Garcia Marquez’s poetic novels, Stu and I had longed to visit this enchanted country for some time and experience the magic ourselves. Colombia lives up to its new image.
For those who expressed fear for our safety, I can now testify that we were in fact in serious danger everywhere we went . . . that is danger of being killed with kindness! Colombians in general tend to be gregarious, warm and friendly. We heard many times from locals that the population is considered to be among the happiest on the planet and they seem determined to prove it. Despite our woefully inadequate Spanish, people went out of their way to communicate with us and to be welcoming and helpful, and not just those in the tourist trade.
Our itinerary covered the capital city Bogota, Barranquilla – host of the pre-Lent Carnaval, Parque Tayrona – a national park on the Caribbean, Mompox – a well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage colonial town, Cartagena – with its attractive old walled section, Providencia Island in the Caribbean sea off the coast of Nicaragua, Pereira in the coffee triangle, San Agustin and Tierradentro – magnificent archaeological areas, Zipaquira with its astounding salt cathedral and Villa de Leyva – another picturesque UNESCO colonial town.
We began our adventure in the country’s capital, Bogota, courtesy of a non-stop flight. Our first hotel, located in La Candelaria, the historical center of the city, called Hotel de L’Opera due to its proximity to the Opera House, is a small and well maintained boutique property in a colonial era house. We arrived late and were thrilled to open our curtains to a beautiful view of the old town illuminated for the evening. Bogota is nestled in the Andes at an altitude of about 2,620 meters (8,646 ft.) with the rugged peak of Monserrate at 3,152 m (10,341 ft.) towering above it. Its population of roughly 8 million is spread out over 1,587 square km (613 square miles), so getting from one end of the city to the other can take some time.
In the morning we met our guide, Fabio, who escorted us on a brief city tour that covered the hilly picturesque cobblestoned streets and squares of La Candelaria with the imposing Presidential Palace and other government buildings, the grand Simon Bolivar Square with a statue of the revolutionary hero and the 19th C Cathedral of Bogota, and the quaint Plaza Chorro de Quevada where the Spanish reputedly took control of the city in 1538. We entered the Templo La Candelaria with its simple pale yellow Mission style exterior and opulent gilded altar and side chapels.
THE BOTERO and GOLD MUSEUMS
We also had time to visit the Botero and Gold Museums. Fernando Botero is famous for his overstuffed portrayals of men and women in painting and sculpture, but his eponymous museum revealed a breadth of work that we had not expected, all of it in his distinctive style, laden with humor and sometimes political and social statements. There was even a painting of a fat skeleton, a visual oxymoron. Impressive works from artists such as Bacon, Giacometti, Calder, Lucien Freud, Dali, Moore and Grosz rounded out the excellent collection.
To say that the Museo D’Oro, located in Santander Square, is spectacular is not hyperbole, the collection is simply breathtaking and it’s brilliantly displayed and annotated. In addition to the gold ceremonial ornaments and jewelry worn by shaman and religious leaders, there were ceramics and other objects placing them in their wider historical and societal context during the periods ranging from about 200 BC to 1300 AD. The finest pieces are stored in an impressive walk-in vault.
A dramatically staged room illustrates the Golden Legend (aka El Dorado myth), a religious ceremony on nearby Lake Guatavita where a Muisca Shaman, covered in gold dust, and his assistants, would sail a raft laden with gold objects across the lake from sunrise to sunset, stopping to bathe in the middle of the lake at midday to offer the golden treasures to the Guatavita goddess. A small replica of the Golden Legend raft and figures is kept in the vault and gold plated versions are available in the excellent museum gift shop.
When we returned to Bogota at the end of our journey, we spent a few hours strolling around La Candelaria, watching street performers and browsing around shops. The main street is closed to vehicular traffic and serves as a wide pedestrian thoroughfare through the heart of the old section. We walked all the way to the National Museum only to realize that we didn’t have enough time for a meaningful visit, but we enjoyed the stroll nonetheless.
After a comfortable flight to Barranquilla we were met by Lorena, our vivacious young guide who does double duty as a teacher. Barranquilla is a large city on the northern Caribbean coast that is primarily an industrial center but it hosts the annual pre-Lent Carnaval, the second largest one after the more famous one in Rio de Janeiro. Carnaval celebrations were already in full swing and costumed partiers in the airport offered us beer and paper masks as we made our way through the terminal. Our hotel, the Dann Carlton, is a standard business style hotel, ultra clean and modern, conveniently located across the road from an upscale shopping mall. The lobby was a riot of color, all decked out with Carnaval decorations. Shots of Aguardiente, the anise-flavored national drink of Colombia, were being dispensed from a stand in the lobby attended by two attractive young women. We didn’t want to venture too far so we decided to dine in the hotel’s revolving rooftop restaurant, El Giratorio. The food left much to be desired but it was attractive and the serving team was very nice.
Day 1 - On Saturday morning we arose early and had a wonderful breakfast that included ripe fresh tropical fruits and juices and Colombian specialties. The team in the restaurant was adorable, dressed up for Carnaval, and happy to pose for a group shot. Lorena and our driver took us to a street near the Carnaval parade route and we walked the rest of the way with crowds of festively attired Colombians past food and merchandise vendors. Celebrating the African influence in the Caribbean, a typical character represented with curly hair and red and white polka-dotted dress and hair scarf was a popular costume, as was Marimonda, a comic, colorful character with a long phallic trunk and elephantine ears.
There are three days of parades, the first and most popular day features the enormous, colorful floats, beauty queens, bands, dancers, costumed characters representing celebrities, politicians, historic figures and TV and cartoon characters. During the parade we spotted Gandhi, Pope Francis, the A-Team, Popeye, Zorro, the Lone Ranger & Tonto, King Tut and many more.
Our travel agent had purchased prime seats for us in Palco #5 (a covered stand with metal bench seats) along the parade route, so we had a perfect view of the procession. As we entered, we were handed terry facecloths and paper fans to help with the heat. However, there was a stiff breeze so the temperature was more comfortable than we expected, though sun protection is wise. A traditional band attired in white pants and shirts with red accessories and the local style straw Cowboy hat played in our palco while a brass band competed across the road in one of the mini-Palcos (smaller, less comfortable, far less shade). Vendors inside the Palco sold water, beer, rum, Aguardiente and snacks and there was a row of Port-a-Potties for the use of ticket-holders so you didn’t have to miss much of the action when nature called. We took advantage of the mall across from our hotel to buy cushions to sit on (our tushies were very grateful) and I procured an insanely gaudy sequined bag to fit in a little with the locals who had decked themselves out with bling a-plenty for the occasion. When the young lady sitting next to me caught a trinket thrown from a float, I congratulated her and she promptly offered to give it to me. I declined but was once again impressed by Colombian generosity. Her kind husband also got up to summon a vendor after I failed to attract his attention to order some water.
A squad of mounted police in dress uniform on handsomely groomed horses kicked off the parade. Later a team of male police on motorcycles rode by and their female colleagues stood up on the seat behind them saluting the crowd. There were plenty of menacing skeletons with scythes reminding us of our mortality. The dancers’ costumes were gorgeous and there seemed to be two main styles of dance, traditional male and female folk dances and African inspired dances that were more athletic. The Queen of the Carnaval wore a stunning tight gold lamé dress that expanded on the bottom into a cloud of golden butterflies, a tribute to Garcia-Marquez’s famous yellow butterflies.
This evening we had dinner at a fabulous Cuban-themed restaurant called Varadero that features a live band, amazing Mojitos and excellent seafood. We enjoyed it so much we returned the next evening and enjoyed watching a suave local couple dancing among the tables to the irresistible music.
Day 2 – The second day is mostly music and folk dancing plus the colorful characters, and of course the Queen of Carnaval to greet her loyal subjects in yet another extravagant dress, this time a fantasy of red feathers. We didn’t stay for the third day which was billed as a magical entertainment. The parade didn’t start until about 3 pm that day and we had to drive to the Parque Tayrona.
After a surprisingly good lunch of roast chicken and baked potatoes at a fast food place in the mall called Kokorico, we met our guide Diva and driver Hugo, and took about a two hour drive on good roads to Merecumbe Hotel an eco-lodge located in Buritaca about 20 minutes outside the main entrance to the Parque Tayrona. The nearby town of Santa Marta is most well known as the place where Simon Bolivar, reputedly racked with tuberculosis, drew his last breath. We were greeted with our choice of the Merecumbe’s delicious fresh fruit smoothies to sip during check in and orientation. After unpacking we walked on the tranquil beach and relaxed at the resort, then enjoyed dinner under a sky jam-packed with stars. The next day Diva led us on a relatively easy hike through the national park, covering about 8 miles (about 13 km) round trip. There are changing and bathroom facilities as well as a couple of restaurants in the park.
Combining the rugged grandeur of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a branch of the Andes and one of the highest coastal mountain ranges, with the crystalline splendor of the Caribbean Sea, Parque Tayrona is a scenic marvel of nature.
Beach – Hugging the Caribbean coast, the views of the sea along the park trails are spectacular. Two of the beaches are not fit for swimming due to strong currents; however, there are three swimming beaches, Arecifes, La Piscina and El Cabo San Juan de Guia. Arecifes had too much wave action for us, El Cabo San Juan de Guia was too overcrowded with partying campers and backpackers, but in true Goldilocks fashion we found La Piscina, aptly named “the Pool” because a protecting reef assures minimal waves and mild current, to be just right. We swam in the sea and met a sociable and attractive Venezuelan ex-SAS flight attendant with her boyfriend and mother. On the way out of the park we stopped for lunch at a very nice open-air restaurant in Arecifes.
Wildlife – In addition to a variety of beautiful birds, we were extremely fortunate and thrilled to encounter a small family of adorable Cotton-Top Tamarins, aka Titi Monkeys, who are endemic to the area and highly endangered due to habitat loss. We were also pleased to get a close look at a Ñeque, the small rodent for which our casita at Merecumbe was named.
We set out early the next day with Hugo and a new guide, named Vanessa. While the roads are generally well paved, they’re also usually winding 2 lane highways, and given the large number of commercial trucks and limited passing opportunities, it’s a long, slow drive to Santa Cruz de Mompox, also referred to as Mompós. Founded in 1537 on an island flanked by Colombia’s principal river, the Rio Magdalena, and the Rio Cauca, in its heyday Mompox was a thriving commercial port, famous for its goldsmiths and still a producer of cattle, woodwork, ceramics, and filigree jewelry. It boasts a 450 year tradition of crafting rocking chairs, and you can find fine samples all around town. It was here that Simon Bolivar recruited an army to conquer Caracas in his homeland of Venezuela. Its well preserved colonial architecture earned it a UNESCO World Heritage site designation in 1995 which has helped to stimulate tourism to this historic town.
We broke up the drive with a stop in Aracataca, home town of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Hugo knew that there was a museum dedicated to the author there, but not how to find it. When he asked a man chatting with his buddies on a street corner for directions, the guy hopped on his motorbike and invited us to follow him to the site. No compensation was expected. In the location where the humble home of Garcia-Marquez’s grandparents once lived, a replica has been reconstructed with artifacts from the era and quotes from his writings painted on the white walls. Every room featured interesting information about his life and work. We greatly enjoyed the tour of the museum and stopped for lunch on our way out of town at a simple workman’s restaurant on the main road called La Criolla, which served delicious home-cooked hearty local fare, starting with a savory soup and followed by meat or fish with rice. We drank bottled water and Vanessa and Hugo drank a house made lemonade. The bill for the four of us was around 12 dollars.
When hard-working Fidel showed us to our room at the attractive Hotel Bioma and threw open the shutters leading to a balcony overlooking the central courtyard, pool and roofs beyond the hotel, we were delighted to find a family of exceedingly cute red howler monkeys hanging out on the railing, undoubtedly seeking a handout from charitable hotel guests. A teensy newborn clung upside down to its mother’s chest while a young male carried an older infant on his back. They all had a shock of blonde fur on their backs and the alpha male went for the hipster look with a well groomed bushy beard. That evening after settling in we enjoyed an excellent meal in the hotel’s elegant dining room, a fresh, delicious salad that included ripe avocado and spicy chili, and perfectly cooked tender steak with boiled potatoes, which went perfectly with a glass of Chilean Carmenere.
Hummingbirds flitted around the beautiful courtyard where charming Manuel served us a yummy breakfast that included made-to-order eggs, a plate of papaya, banana and pomelo and sweet melon juice. We took a walking tour of Mompox that began at the Plaza de La Libertad, the very place where Colombia first declared its independence from Spain on August 6, 1810, and passed through Il Convento di San Carlos, a former Jesuit convent established in 1643 that now serves as the Town Hall housing the mayor’s office and other government and administrative offices. We continued on to El Cabildo, the former seat of colonial government, where the council chamber commemorates the signing of Colombia’s declaration of independence with a grand painting. Portraits or busts of important leaders, such as Bolivar and Santander, including modern Presidents such as Alvaro Urribe, are prominently displayed along with flags and other historic objects.
The tour included the 7 most important churches in town, my favorite aptly being Santa Barbara (1613) with its ochre façade and graceful baroque bell tower with the unexpected feature of a balcony. However the most sacred church to locals might be the Basilica Menor del Santisimo Cristo de Mompox, a peach and white church established in 1606. It’s not the oldest church in town, that distinction belongs to the maroon and white San Francisco de Assisi which dates back to 1580. Its distinguishing feature is its crucifix depicting a black Jesus Christ and the mystical legend describing its provenance. On Good Friday a heavy gilded coffin made in Paris is carried around town during an 11 hour procession. We strolled around town admiring the lovely white houses with their wrought iron window grills and balcony railings. We stopped at a shop to sample their local fruit based wines, sweet grape, mango, guyaba and palm, which is considered medicinal. Mango was my clear favorite. We also visited the municipal cemetery, final resting place of famous citizens such as the poet Candelario and the revolutionary hero German Gutiérrez de Piñeres.
Families are keeping the tradition alive of painstakingly crafting filigree jewelry by hand in humble workshops around town. They start by melting the metal (silver or gold) to form wire, which is then twisted into intricate designs. The family we met had 45 years of experience in the craft and their work is exquisite.
After the town tour, we stopped for lunch at an outdoor restaurant near the river called Comedor Costeño. The grilled mojarra fish served with coconut rice and fried plantains was very tasty. Hugo drove us to a dock by the river bank where we boarded a small covered aluminum boat with 4 northern Italians. We crossed the river, piled into a trailer pulled by a motorcycle to a farm where we waited for another vehicle to take us to another branch of the river and a different boat. It was worth the uncomfortable transfer because the river was gorgeous in the soft afternoon light and teeming with birds. Among others that we could not identify we spotted snail kites, living up to their name snatching and consuming snails, majestic Colombian Eagles, another type of eagle, Jacanas, Tiger Herons stalking their prey, Amazon Kingfishers, black & white Copitos, a Woodpecker, Lapwings, Cormorants, Egrets and Creole Ducks with ducklings. Motoring on the river with its balmy breezes was a welcome respite from the crushing heat in town.
We had dinner in the back garden at La Fuerta, a pizzeria with a brick oven that produced pizza with a crust similar to flatbread. We shared a personal sized Margarita with a salad and it was enough for us
We left Mompox right after breakfast and arrived in the outskirts of Cartagena around 2 pm, and then it took nearly an hour to wind our way through chaotic traffic to the historic walled section of the city and our elegant hotel, Casa San Agustin. On the drive we stopped briefly in the town of Plata where a huge statue of a half caiman/half man embodies a colorful folk legend that Vanessa recounted to us. After sitting for about 6 hours in the car we just wanted to get outside and explore, so after our room was ready, we unpacked a few things and headed out, armed with a map from the hospitable concierge. The old section is compact and easy to navigate. We were completely charmed by the harmonious architecture, 2 story white-washed houses sheathed in colorful flowering vines with finely-carved wooden balconies and weighty doors with fanciful brass knockers. Cartagena is a sophisticated international city overrun by tourists, but how can you blame tourists from coming to admire this sparkling gem set on the Caribbean coast? We walked along the stone city wall, which winds around old town for about 10 km, and peered in churches, including the picturesque San Pedro Claver (1740’s). San Pedro Claver was a Jesuit priest whose mission was to improve the lives of African slaves in Cartagena, a sainthood truly earned. There seemed to be either a wedding in progress or preparation for a wedding at this church every time we passed. Our first afternoon we watched the bride and her distinguished father arrive in a horse-drawn carriage and descend into a mob of pastel-hued bridesmaids and attendants dressed in Afro-Caribbean styled clothing who were busy ushering the guests into the church. Clever metal statues from the modern art museum across the square by the artist Eduardo Carmona depicting people performing common jobs, such as a street cart vendor or barber, added a humorous touch to the scene. In the Parque Bolivar we watched talented folk dancers perform to traditional tunes. Later that evening we had the best dinner of the trip in Carmen Restaurant’s romantic candlelit courtyard in the Ananda Boutique Hotel.
Breakfast at the Casa San Agustin was a feast! We especially enjoyed their almohabana, a savory cheese bread, and all of the fresh ripe fruit. Our effervescent multi-lingual guide, Juliana, and driver Herman, picked us up for a half day city tour, which commenced outside the town walls atop San Lázaro Hill at the imposing San Felipe de Barajas Fort. Construction began in the 16th C with significant expansion in 1656 followed by additions and rebuilding that continued until 1769. It’s the largest Spanish fort in the Americas and well positioned to protect the city from pirates and conquerors. The whole of Cartagena spread out beneath us, the cobblestoned streets of the old town and the sleek towers of the modern city hugging the bay, which has two inlets, Boca Grande, now the affluent section of town, and Boca Chica (Big Mouth and Little Mouth). Named after Spain’s Bay of Cartagena in 1514, the city is now home to about a million people, the second largest city in Colombia. Tourism is the main industry though oil refineries and the port also bring in revenue.
Juliana related the fascinating history of the fort, including the decisive battle against the British Admiral Edward Vernon in 1741. We navigated the dark tunnels that had provided the only access to the fortress and climbed ramparts studded with cannons imported from Europe.
Next we ascended the city’s highest hill, La Popa, which means the stern of a ship, due to the shape of the monastery on it (not a reference to the Pope). A wooden monastery dedicated by Augustine priests in 1607 to the patron saint of the city, Nuestra Señora de La Candelaria, was rebuilt in later years, and now includes a whitewashed building with tile roof and an elegant brick arcade surrounding a cistern in the central courtyard. The views from La Popa are even more extensive than from the fort. Juliana pointed out the neighborhood of Getsemani, a poor neighborhood that became a backpacker hot spot and is now rapidly gentrifying, and then we descended the hill to visit it.
Young boys were playing a vigorous game of soccer in the pocket-sized main square, Trinidad, which is named for the Church that anchors it, La Santisima Trinidad (Holy Trinity). A humble independence statue honoring Pedro Romero depicts the revolutionary firebrand with a monk and a Creole man, recognizing his role in organizing people of color in Getsemani to fight for freedom. The somewhat ramshackle buildings in the neighborhood are enlivened with vibrant murals, most laden with political, historical or cultural meaning.
It was an easy walk from Getsemani to Centennial Park, built to celebrate the country’s independence. A condor, the symbol of Colombia, hovers atop a tall marble column in its center. We spotted a large iguana basking in the sun and red squirrels scampering up trees as we made our way through the park.
We entered old town through the main entrance in the wall where you’ll find a yellow clock tower built around 1921 and in the square behind it a statue of the city’s founder, Pedro de Heredia, dressed in armor. Vendors were selling coconut sweets and other snacks from stalls beneath the arcades around the square. In Customs Square, named for the old customs house with its cream walls and wooden balconies, there is a statue of Christopher Columbus, for whom the country is named despite the fact that he never set foot on its soil. Ah the cult of celebrity! Juliana pointed out that many of the houses were set up with stables on the bottom floor, where both the horses and slaves were domiciled, while the upper floor was reserved for the family. We passed the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria with its pink and white cupola and a statue of Pope John Paul II in back, commemorating the Pontiff’s visit in 1986.
The cathedral sits on the main square, Parque Bolivar, along with the Governor’s House and the scary Palacio de la Inquisicion. The Spanish Inquisition made its way to the new world in Cartagena and featured such delights as the Witch Scale. If you weighed less than 50 kg. it meant that you could fly and therefore must be a witch, which was essentially a death sentence. If you weighed more than 65 kg., you were heavy and must pay extra taxes. So 55-60 kg. would have been the ideal weight back in those days regardless of height. The museum exhibits other diabolical instruments of torture but we chose not to have a look. The Gold Museum is also found nearby and we returned to visit it later that afternoon. It’s not as astounding as the one in Bogota, but still well laid out and worth a visit.
We continued on to Plaza San Pedro and past the naval museum. The plain Iglesia de Santo Domingo squats in the square that shares its name, the oldest square in the city. Most visitors were ignoring the church and focusing on the voluptuous bronze Botero nude, Gertrudis, in front of it. Rubbing her breasts is said to bring luck in love. At the rate people were going, she’ll be flat chested before long.
Our tour was over and Juliana led us to a Caribbean restaurant named Cande, but we were so delighted with her that we invited her to join us so we could get to know her better. She was supposed to have lunch with her boyfriend, William, that day so we invited him along as well. Though Colombian, he grew up in Texas with physician parents and now owns an elegant boutique hotel called Casa La Cartujita, located a couple of blocks from our hotel. We feasted on delicious ceviche, robato and a traditional beef dish while enjoying spirited conversation. The restaurant features an open air garden as well as an attractive air conditioned room if the midday heat is too much to bear. After a leisurely lunch we stopped by William’s hotel and he gave us a tour. Intimate and tastefully decorated with a modern gourmet kitchen, rooftop patio with a dipping pool and Jacuzzi and comfortable public areas to lounge around, it looks like a terrific place to stay in the old town.
We continued our exploration with a visit to Art Gallery NH which sells a fine collection of contemporary paintings and sculpture, including Colombian artists and others, such as Warhol and Nevelson. We browsed in some handsome shops before returning to our hotel to relax and freshen up before dinner at Alma, our hotel’s restaurant. We had a prime table on the outdoor patio where local musicians entertained us with their lively sets. The food was good though we preferred their breakfasts.
We arose at an ungodly hour, gulped down a light breakfast that the night clerk graciously delivered to our room, and headed to the airport while the Saturday night revelers were still staggering back to homes and hotels. At check-in the agents decided to squeeze us onto an earlier flight to Bogota, undoubtedly possible because we only had carry-on bags, but it meant hustling to reach the gate on time. I’m glad that we had a longer layover though since it took awhile to figure out that we had to change terminals for our connecting flight and to find the bus to transfer us there. We enjoyed a large metal sculpture of a businessman swinging a briefcase outside the terminal. Before we could proceed to the gate, we had to pay about $15 each for a tourist card that is required for entry to San Andres and Providencia. If the money goes toward preservation of the environment, as they claim, it is money well spent. Both flights were comfortable and featured on demand entertainment to help pass the time.
At San Andres two to three flights had arrived around the same time overwhelming the document control kiosks and the line snaked around the entry hall in about a dozen loops and backed up the stairs to the gate area. It was like waiting in line for a Disney ride at the height of the school holidays. Although it was a domestic flight, they check documentation as if you were arriving from another country. Everyone waited patiently in line for about an hour, us among them. Talk to the Colombians and they’ll fatalistically say that there’s nothing that can be done since multiple flights are scheduled to arrive at the same time. I might suggest staggering the flight arrival times since we’re only talking about a handful of flights to reschedule. In any case, we had yet another layover before our short hop to Providencia so our travel agent had kindly arranged for a driver to pick us up and take us to lunch at La Regatta, a vibrant open air restaurant situated in a marina jam-packed with fancy yachts. The décor was marine-themed kitsch, but the striking view of the Caribbean Sea, engaging team and delicious food elevated the restaurant far above the typical tourist trap. After a looooong morning spent in airports and planes, it felt so luxurious to be buffeted by the balmy ocean breezes while consuming fresh-from-the-sea grilled fish and crisp white Spanish wine. We even went crazy and shared a dish of chocolate ice cream, a proven cure for any travel misery. It turned out that our driver, Jesus, was a tour guide with excellent command of English, so he provided a brief orientation of the island as he drove us from and to the airport as well as introducing us to the owner of the restaurant.
We boarded a small high wing turbo-prop plane with 26 other passengers for the half hour flight to Providencia, the smaller quieter island. Although the islands are the territory of Colombia, they ‘re located just off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, surprisingly close to the Corn Islands that we had visited during our Nicaragua tour a year earlier. It was no coincidence that we chose to return to this stunningly beautiful area. Upon arrival we submitted to yet another document check plus a manual inspection of luggage, so by the time we exited the airport we were ready for some relaxation. Charley, a good looking island native, greeted us warmly, dropped our bags into a waiting SUV and whisked us off to our hotel, about a 10 minute drive away. On the way he pointed out that people from these islands have more in common culturally with other Caribbean islands than they do with mainland Colombians, undoubtedly because many are descended from African slaves. The local language is an English-based Creole rather than Spanish.
Deep Blue’s cottages cling to the side of a steep cliff overlooking the sea and Crab Caye, a small offshore islet popular with visitors. Its restaurant is located across the road on the shoreline next to a dock where kayaks are available, and has a large patio with dining tables as well as indoor seating. We mounted steep steps to the office to check in and after completing the formalities headed up several flights of stairs nearly to the top of the hill to our suite, with its breathtaking views of the deep blue sea. Being Valentine’s Day we had pre-booked a romantic torch and electric candlelit dinner on the dock and we had time to unpack and unwind before heading down. It’s windy at this time of year so it was a challenge keeping the tiki torches lit. However, we credit the wind and relatively dry conditions for minimizing mosquito exposure and moderating the temperature, even though it can cause rough seas at times. The meal was a seafood extravaganza including lobster with 3 sauces, a mixed seafood platter and coconut cake with ice cream. When we returned to our room, happy for the stair climbing to work off some of those calories, we found bougainvillea petals strewn across our bed and floor and a bottle of Andre sparkling wine chilling in an ice bucket next to 2 champagne flutes. A pair of towels on our bed transformed into kissing swans completed the scene. It was peaceful at night and we slept like the dead, completely undisturbed.
After breakfast Charley and a driver picked us up and drove around to Freshwater Bay on the other side of the island to board a covered fiberglass boat for a tour of the island. Providencia is volcanic, though not active, and the rugged mountainous terrain enhances its scenic beauty. The main island, hosting only about 5,000 residents, is less than 4-1/2 miles long with one main ring road around the perimeter and a few small side roads, so it’s very easy to navigate. The best beaches are in the South West and the capital city, Santa Isabela, is on the North East side, not far from Deep Blue. We motored north along the western shoreline and Charley pointed out Lazy Hill, site of the first settlement on the island. In Santa Isabela a brightly painted wooden bridge with sea horse carvings called Lover’s Bridge connects Santa Catalina Island to the main island. Captain Henry Morgan is reputed to have used the island as a base to raid Spanish colonies and a rocky outcrop at the end of Santa Catalina resembling a man’s head is named for him. High on a nearby hill a cleft rock formation is facetiously dubbed Morgan’s Behind. From here we could see the highest point of the island all of 350 meters. Cannons on a hill in Santa Catalina mark the spot of an old fort. Mangroves line the shore, the ocean’s great incubator for all manner of sea species.
Next we pulled up closer to Frigate Island, so named for a colony of frigate birds nesting there. Adults with their distinctive circumflex-shaped wings and red throat sacs wheeled overhead while goofy looking fluffy white chicks squawked on land. Adolescents were caught in an awkward middle state with white chick bodies and brown adult wings. Pelicans calmly floated by undisturbed by the colony’s raucous activity.
We docked at Crab Caye where we found a concession stand selling coconut water and alcoholic drinks. We scrambled up a hill to the top of the Caye to enjoy the 360 degree views and also snorkeled some. We’re not sure why it’s considered a good snorkeling site. It was all sea grass rather than reef and we didn’t see any fish, though we’ve heard that turtles can sometimes be found there. The tiny islet and surrounding water was crammed with visitors and not the most enjoyable stop on our tour. We continued south to see the beaches. While South West was the longest and most lovely, Charley warned us of an algae bloom there that makes it less than ideal for bathing. We made a note to return to Machineel Bay, also known as Manzanillo Bay, a pretty sandy beach fringed by palm trees which was a better spot for swimming. Deep Blue has no beach, just a dock, so if you want the beach you have to travel a bit.
We could have gone snorkeling again in another spot but decided to skip it. We bade farewell to our young boat driver at Freshwater Beach and had a tasty lunch of fresh fried fish at Miss Elma’s, an open air restaurant attached to a small hotel consisting of bungalows on the beach. It was mid afternoon by the time we returned to our hotel and we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in loungers on our patio, enjoying the view eye-level with the soaring frigate birds and pelicans. Dinner at the hotel consisted of delectable small land crabs al ajillo and grilled snapper with coconut rice and mixed vegetable salad.
We rented Kawasaki Mules to putter around the island. The hotel has two of their own and if you rent one of theirs they can be charged to your room account. If you rent one from the external provider you have to pay cash. They're just like golf carts, with very little horsepower, but there's so little traffic on the island and it's so compact that they're perfect if, like us, you prefer not to ride on a motorbike. We parked in Santa Isabel to check out the town, which consists of a bank, a few small businesses and restaurants and cargo boats loading and unloading in the marina. We strolled across the pink, blue and yellow Lover’s Bridge to Santa Catalina. It was quiet in the early morning; a woman was hanging laundry and sociable dogs tagged along after a schoolboy. The simple houses were brightly colored and pastel benches along the path were decorated with crab cutouts.
We spotted lots of sea gulls and doves as we strolled along the path next to the mangroves and came upon a handsome heron with mottled brown feathers in the middle of the path. It had captured a crab and was attempting to swallow it. We watched at close range for a considerable amount of time until a woman with an infant in a stroller passed by causing it to fly off a short distance and continue trying to ingest the crab. Later on we found a gorgeous Yellow-Capped Night Heron with a pearl gray body, dark and light gray wings, black head with white cheeks, red eyes and the flamboyant yellow mane that inspired its name. We walked towards Morgan’s Head, passing simple guest houses and casual eateries. We climbed some stairs to find a snow white statue of the Virgin overlooking Fort Bay where a schooner with sails furled was moored off-shore. A battery of cannons nearby marks the site of the old fort that once protected the bay.
We made our way back to our Mule and set off on the east road to the south. We passed cozy island dwellings, churches and lovely sea views. We especially appreciated the whimsical bus stop shelters, one shaped like a giant manta ray sailing over a coral reef and another like a frigate bird with its red neck pouch inflated. We found the road down to Manzanillo Beach, which features a pretty stretch of white sand fringed by coconut palms and a popular beach shack, Roland’s Bar & Grill, named for its gregarious owner. We had no sooner parked the Mule in the shade of a palm and stepped out than Roland, a charismatic Caribbean gent with impressive dreadlocks came over to introduce himself and hand us a restaurant menu.
We found a shady spot beneath the trees and spent an idyllic morning enjoying the temperate sea and moderate waves and strolling on the beach before heading over to Roland’s for lunch. Patience is the key word since all of the food is cooked to order, but it was fun to hang out, sip a heavily rummy Mojito and listen to reggae, while watching a fishing boat pull up and clean the day’s catch for one of Roland’s team. Roland came over to chat with us awhile before he was called back to attend to kitchen business. Stu enjoyed grilled fish and I went for their lobster which was perfectly cooked, delicious and very reasonably priced. After more swimming we hopped in the Mule and continued around the island visiting the west side. For dinner we checked out a small restaurant on the South West road that Charley had recommended. It was a tiny place with wooden tables on a covered porch, a small garden and a bustling kitchen. The food was quite good though we preferred Roland’s.
The next morning we just went straight to the beach for another relaxing day and lunch at Roland’s, this time both of us opting for the marvelous grilled fish. We had dinner at our hotel since we were leaving fairly early in the morning.
We were pleased when Jesus met us at the airport after our puddle jumper to San Andres. We left our bags in a locked office with one of his colleagues and headed out on a brief island tour. The island, while bigger than Providencia, is still only about 27 square kilometers and was named by the Spaniards in 1510 though due to the lack of gold and water they didn’t settle there. The first settlers were the British in the 1620’s who were escaping religious persecution. They brought along slaves and proceeded to decamp to Providencia where they set up house establishing San Andres as a slave colony. While Providencia is volcanic, San Andres is hewn from coral. We were surprised to find that there is currently a thriving community of Turks and Lebanese following a wave of immigration in the 1970’s.
We drove up La Loma Flower Hill, the highest point on the island, and Jesus pointed out a Baptist church established in 1844 that was widely used as a navigational aide since a gap in the barrier reef aligned perfectly with the church steeple. He spun an inspiring tale about the minister, named Livingston, who dedicated his life to improving living conditions of the slaves by providing education and charitable services. Next we descended to the shoreline where a cluster of tacky souvenir shops encircled a natural blow hole popular with tourists. We passed typical island houses made of red mangrove wood and a naval base opposite the cruise ship dock.
Jesus had arranged a private tour of the main tourist attraction on the island (aside from the beaches), Morgan’s Cave. Our guide bypassed the throngs at the entry gate unlocking a back gate onto the property, which commemorates Captain Henry Morgan, the infamous 17th C Caribbean privateer who inspired the rum brand. The fierce Welsh Captain, an admiral of the Royal Navy, was not a pirate but a corsair, which meant that he enjoyed the sponsorship and protection of the British crown, and was free to plunder as a benefit of his military exploits. The first room in the museum illustrated the history of the coconut industry from the 16th – 18th Centuries, supplying fruit and copra. A notorious swordsman, the next room celebrated Morgan’s 38 wives, who produced 120 children by the time of his death in Jamaica at the age of 53. There’s a replica of the cave where his treasure was reputedly stashed. The best part of our visit was a Calypso dance performance. The two young women were phoning it in but the young man was really working it and a pleasure to watch.
We stopped at a traditional restaurant with an outdoor garden called Miss Celia before heading back to the airport for our flight to Pereira. The food was good but nothing to go out of the way for. The tour was a good way to kill the layover time between flights but we found Providencia to be far more satisfying than San Andres.
Pereira is the capital of Risaralda department, a mountainous interior region in the west central area of the country, a point in the Coffee Triangle, which includes the cities of Manizales in Caldas and Armenia in Quindio. Our guide, Claudia, told us that this is a main agricultural region, coffee being the primary crop, but also producing plantains, bananas, fruit and flowers. We drove straight to our hotel, the sublimely atmospheric Sazagua Boutique Hotel, situated in a lush garden outside the city. We settled into our lovely suite and whiled away some time on our spacious veranda before cleaning up for dinner. We were escorted to a romantic table on the open air patio overlooking the candlelit garden. The food was excellent as was the service. Without a car it would have been difficult to get to restaurants in the city, however, we enjoyed the food at Sazagua so much that we were happy to dine there in the evening.
Breakfast in the garden was hardy and tasty and we had time to relax on our veranda and bird watch until Claudia and the driver showed up to take us to Terraza de San Alberto in Quindio to learn about coffee. We’d learned about the process of making tea at tea plantations in China, India and Sri Lanka, and though we’d seen coffee growing in Tanzania and other countries, we knew little about the growing process.
We already knew that there are two main types of coffee, Robusto, which is lower quality, and Arabica, the highest quality. Coffee needs shade and water to grow. The rich volcanic soil, rain, altitude and temperature make this region ideal for growing Arabica beans. Of the various species grown here, all are collected and processed by hand. While it’s no surprise that Brazil produces the most coffee worldwide, it may surprise you to learn that Vietnam is the second largest producer. The U.S. and Japan are the individual countries that import the most Colombian coffee, though the European Union countries combined import more. Ironically Colombians had been low coffee consumers since the higher quality coffee was exported, however, that is changing as better quality coffee is increasingly available locally.
At San Alberto, Claudia left us with Jenny, who took us on a tour of the property, started by walking uphill to the fields. The grounds were gorgeous with abundant fruit trees, flowers, butterflies and birds among killer views of the surrounding mountains and the town of Buena Vista where many of the coffee workers reside. Hibiscus hedges border the fields of coffee to protect the plants from insects. Growing coffee is a laborious process. In the nursery seeds are planted in bamboo boxes with river sand to eliminate contaminants. It takes 3-4 months to form a plant from the seed, after which they’re transferred to black plastic bags with black soil and a fertilizer of fermented beans for 3 months. After replanting it will be 9 – 12 months before the white flowers bloom. When the flowers turn brown the green bean is produced, but it’s still 9 months more before it turns red, ripe and ready to be handpicked. The coffee plant can be pruned every 5 years and the branches are used for cooking in the workers’ kitchen. Production and quality increase each year and the plants can live up to 25 years.
Once harvested, coffee is dried under plastic to control the temperature, humidity and air flow for about 3 – 4 days. Beans are hand selected and washed, and then culled again for quality, beans that float are eliminated. The best beans are skinned by machine and the skins are used as fertilizer. The sweet outer coating is removed before it can ferment and the beans are again selected and washed and then machine dried for about 20 hours. Jenny peeled a bean and let us taste the sweet pulp. The lab samples the beans and only the best are processed further, generally only about 1/3 of the beans qualify. The beans are loaded into large burlap sacks for sale. Before consuming they are roasted and ground.
We viewed the workers’ quarters, kitchen and dining area and then went from the fields down to the tasting lab. We were given aprons and booklets. First we smelled a variety of flowers, fruit, herbs and spices and noted down what we thought they were. Jenny described the most desirable characteristics of coffee, sweetness, acidity and aroma. Then we smelled and slurped different samples and identified the characteristics and flavors. We learned about roasting styles and how it impacts quality. Light roast is apparently the highest quality as dark roast is used to disguise inferior beans.
After the tasting we sat outdoors on the patio and drank a cup of premium coffee while watching the hummingbirds flitting among the flowers. Claudia and the driver joined us for lunch at a charming place in Calarcá on the road back to our hotel called Pollo a la Carreta. The restaurant name literally describes their signature dish, roasted chicken served on a wooden plate shaped like a wheelbarrow. We had to go with the special and it was a great choice, the chicken was scrumptious! When we got back to the hotel it was quite warm so we took advantage of the beautiful pool, a perfect way to relax before another terrific dinner of empanadas and pork ribs.
We arose a bit earlier today to continue our exploration of Quindio, the smallest but richest department in the triangle, heading to the scenic Cocora Valley. On the winding roads squads of racers training for the Tour de France tackled the steep terrain in brightly colored spandex.
We passed fields of tomatoes and potatoes, groves of introduced eucalyptus trees, which are used for paper, blackberry trees and trout farms on our way to Los Nevados National Park, named for the 5 snow-capped volcanoes within its borders, two which are still active. At the park there are a couple of restaurants near the main entrance. We stopped by a kiosk to sample a popular Andean hot drink called Canelazo made with agua de panela (water with sugar cane), cinnamon, passionfruit (though traditionally lime juice is used) and optionally with either Aguardiente or rum. The rims of our glass mugs were coated with sugar. It was a tasty way to take the edge off the chilly mountain air as we admired the breathtaking scenery and hovering hummingbirds.
We headed out on a dirt trail into the woods. We were surprised to see stands of bamboo and learned that there is a species native to Colombia and Venezuela that is commonly used for construction. In this cloud forest we found the Colombian national tree called Palma de Cera (wax palm), which is endemic to the Cocora Valley and among the tallest palm tree species in the world with heights that reach 65 – 70 meters (210 – 230 ft.). They feature skinny trunks topped by circular crowns of leaves. An endangered species, these palms can live as long as 200 years and they don’t begin to reproduce until about 50 years of age. Although the fruit is inedible, yellow eared parrots can eat the seeds, and candles are fashioned from the wax.
We didn’t encounter any, but Claudia advised us that the fruit trees in the forest attract spectacled bears and monkeys, and that puma prowl these lands, though we did see a variety of birds feasting, including the beautiful Barranquero (aka Blue-Crowned Motmot) and the large Pava Caucana, another endemic species that is also endangered. We crossed a stream across a couple of rickety wooden bridges. Natives on horseback carried baskets of goods from their farms to sell in the local markets. On our way out of the park we bought some luscious mangosteens, a round fruit with a thick purplish skin and sweet white segmented fruit that tastes something like lychees. From there we drove to a lookout point with a stunning view over the mountains and valley, enjoying a snack of coconut and sugar cane candy as we drank in the landscape.
The village of Salento (established 1842, pop. 7,000) is understandably popular with tourists with its cobblestoned streets, brightly painted houses and abundant artisan shops. Restored World War II Jeeps, known as Willys, are an eccentric sight in the main square and part of the local folklore. You can even purchase little wood-carved replicas as a souvenir. We browsed around the shops and enjoyed a flavorsome lunch of grilled trout at Dende Laurita, a second floor restaurant with simple home-cooked food. From there Claudia took us to a modern coffee house in a colonial building, Jesus Martin, a brand that runs its own coffee plantation as well as cafés. The barista prepared us a mochaccino with a dog’s face traced in the foam and a cappuccino with a foam heart.
INTERMINABLE TRAVEL DAY
We were scheduled to fly early in the morning from Pereira to Bogota and connect to a small plane to Pitalito near the archaeological site of San Agustin, arriving mid-afternoon. Fog resulted in a four hour flight delay so we missed our connection in Bogota. As soon as we suspected we might miss the connection we contacted our local agent who changed our itinerary and kept us well informed about the changes. It’s a small airport without many amenities and it was very crowded since so many flights had been delayed, so it was not a very comfortable wait. In Bogota we were met by an agent who gave us our new plane tickets and transferred with us to the domestic terminal. We’d only had a snack since breakfast so we were relieved to see a Kokorico near the gate and had just enough time for a quick meal before boarding our flight to Neiva, which arrived there around 7 pm. There are very infrequent flights to Pitalito, which is only about a 90 minute drive from San Agustin, but the drive from Neiva takes about 4-1/2 to 5 hours. A young driver met us at the airport for the transfer and we arrived at our country lodge around 11:30 pm. It was the only driver on the trip who caused us any concern, passing on blind curves and hills in the dark at great speed while constantly on his mobile device. We were grateful to arrive in one piece. The road to the Akawanka Lodge was a bit muddy and our car couldn’t make it all the way but fortunately the driver must have called ahead and a couple of kind guys from the lodge arrived to rescue us in their SUV.
Our room, on the top floor of a two story whitewashed casita, was adorable, with folk art and painted furniture, but we were too tired to do more than wash up and crash, especially since we were meeting our guide at 8 the next morning. It was a long day but we were pleased that our agency was able to keep us on schedule so we didn’t have to miss any planned activities.
Upon awakening we lifted the shade and were extremely pleased at the glorious view framed in our window. We had breakfast in a room brimming with folk art. Our well-informed guide Marino and good-natured driver Jaime were to become our dear companions for the next 2-1/2 days.
Coffee, fruit and tourism are the main industries around San Agustin, a town of about 40,000 residents. The San Agustin Archaeological Park (alt. 1,760 m/5,774 ft.) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. While the park covers about 80 hectares (.8 sq km), it’s estimated that there are still about 150 sq. km that remain unexcavated. The culture discovered here predates the Maya and Inca, originating around 3300 BC and coexisting with the Egyptian Early Dynastic period. The site was abandoned around 1350 AD for unknown reasons.
San Agustin is most renowned for its basalt stone sculptures; the chief extant carvings were created during the Classic Period dating from 1st C BC to 9th C AD. The park area is considered to be a necropolis where dead were buried and deities worshipped. Four plateaux were explored, the most important being Plateau B where 3 burial mounds and 63 statues were uncovered. The statues, which can represent human, animal or abstract geometrical figures, can stand as high as 4.25 m/14 ft. and weigh up to 5 – 6 tons. Some were meant to be displayed above ground and others buried. Some of the statues remain in situ while others were moved to various locations around the site. We started at Plateau B.
The most common feature among the statues is the pointed canine teeth, suggesting the jaguar, a powerful icon in pre-Columbian Central and South American cultures. The second most prominent feature is megacephaly, disproportionately large heads that comprise about 60% of the body, no neck and short or no legs. There are about 30 different eye shapes, open shut, almond, rectangular, round, etc.
Within the burial mounds of the higher ranking individuals are dolmens, single chamber tombs shaped like giant stone tables that are designed to be underground. Warriors with weapons and religious leaders (shaman) guard the tomb entrances. Among the fabulous statues that we observed was the Midwife holding a baby upside down, a shaman with a human skull pendant hanging from his neck, an eagle with a snake in its beak and a frog with human hands. Some figures wear helmets or feather headdresses, necklaces and/or nose ornaments or moustaches. Shamans can also have capes and a sash tied to their arms. Some figures have monkeys on their heads or appear to be chewing coca leaves. Although the graves are empty and no human remains are on view, we learned that only shamans were buried in a sitting position. Other burial postures include standing, lying flat, in fetal position or prone with the legs folded up. Among the artifacts discovered were pottery and stone utensils, along with corns, beans and peanuts for the afterlife, though no metal objects. There were 3 burial stages and after the third stage the bones were placed in ossarios (funerary urns). There’s a small museum on the site, Museo Luis Duque Gomez, which we visited at the end to view some of these objects, including a black cedar child sarcophagus from around the 6th C BC.
Plateau C contained 15 statues and 49 graves though no dolmens, so it was most likely the burial area for the lower status individuals.
In addition to the burial mounds, we visited a ceremonial fountain called El Fuente de Lavapatas that consists of 3 natural pools formed from a creek and 34 carvings. . A fisherman named Ernesto Gumis had discovered the carvings and invited archaeologists to investigate them. The main pool features representations of a squirrel, a shaman with his hands up performing a ritual and a monkey face. A baby’s face is found on the second pool and might refer to a birth or fertility ritual. It was called Lavapatas since it’s believed that around the year 1900 campesinos would wash their feet here before heading to church.
Next we hiked up a steep hill to the Alto de Lavapatas, a ceremonial site with structures dating to 3300 BC. In the ritual the shaman would drink a psychogenic juice, hallucinate and vomit in order to gain knowledge about the seasons and harvests. There are round houses with stone fireplaces and 6 columns, a cemetery and evidence of a shaman’s dwelling. Obsidian (volcanic glass) tools were used to carve the basalt. We saw a figure with a tool or weapon in his right hand and a primitive warrior with an animal on his head that is probably a tapir. From this height we could see the longest of the 3 Andean cordilleras, the Magdelena River which divides eastern and central Colombia, and the Cauca River which divides the center and west.
Marino pointed out Caucho trees, which provide latex, and the many varieties of orchids that Colombia is famous for. On our way down we stopped at a farmer’s house to see their living quarters, which included a wood fired clay oven for cooking. They were raising guinea pigs in brick pens, but not as pets. They’ll end up skewered on a barbecue spit and served for dinner. We took a break at a coffee bar where we tried Aromatica, a fruit based tea. We opted for the passionfruit tea but there was also apple, berries, grapes and other kinds.
We arrived at Plateau A where there were two burial mounds and an unusual statue depicting one of the only statues without jaguar teeth. The human figure had square teeth, crossed arms and a hat like a Bishop’s miter. This is also the site of one of the most famous dolmens dedicated to a figure that archaeologists dubbed El Baron. The central statue features a man, probably a shaman, with a neck plate and feather crown holding coca leaf implements, his erect penis tied to his waist with rope. Warriors on both sides hold clubs and have monkeys on their heads with tails curled like snakes.
We walked through a trail in the forest where we found a further 35 statues, one with a tattoo on its back representing a heart shape with a bird in the middle of it. There was a figure playing a flute and an old man (el Viejo) with a wrinkled forehead. One of the masterpieces is a representation of a Rain God in a loincloth with a rainbow headdress that features monkeys at each end of the rainbow and an arrow on his back.
In the Andes there’s nothing tastier than fresh brook trout and we treated ourselves to grilled trucha with patacones (fried plantains) at El Meson in the town of San Agustin. We were amused by the Walk/Don’t Walk signs, the first we’ve seen where during the Walk phase there is a strolling figure who speeds up to a run as the time to cross gets shorter.
After lunch we drove to La Chaquira, another archaeological site with 3 rock-face carvings of figures with big round eyes and their hands raised. We had to take a path through a farm to the river to access the site, which was easily accessible thanks to stairs that had been placed among the rocks. We had a lovely view of the Magdalena River valley and spotted two high waterfalls on cliffs on the other side of the river. Marino told us that during the rainy season there are eleven falls at that location.
We finished the day’s tour at El Tablon, another site on the hill where we found 5 statues that represented a monkey with its arms up and traces of ochre dye, a woman with earrings and one with a diamond patterned skirt plus the Goddess of the Moon all decked out in a pleated skirt, breastplate, nose ring and bracelets.
We had a mediocre dinner at Akawanka Lodge but enjoyed the whimsical decorations in the dining room as well as exploring the lovely gardens on the property.
Marino decided that we should have an early start so Jaime picked us up at 4 am and we stopped for Marino at his house before hitting the road. Marino’s house is festooned with flags from at least a dozen nations flying from his front porch representing the foreign visitors he’d guided. We took the same road we’d been on coming from Neiva but Jaime is a far more cautious driver and once the sun arose we were able to enjoy the views, so it was a much less harrowing drive. We turned off the main road towards Tierradentro a couple of hours later and stopped for breakfast at a new hotel called La Plata. We all had Caldo, a hot traditional meat and vegetable soup. Tierradentro is in the southwest section of Colombia near the Cauca River. Corn is the most important crop here though yucca, potatoes, beans, garlic, coca, coffee and agave are also cultivated.
We went straight to the archaeological park and began our tour in the small museum near the entrance. Exhibits described the local system of government. There are 21 native groups and the governor carries a staff with ribbons and a silver tip. The elected officials can mediate disputes and impose punishment, which can include el cepo (the stocks), one of which was displayed in the museum. Coca grows at 1000 – 2000 meters and is not only used to renew energy and strength but shaman fortune-tellers chew it to foresee the future. We could fairly reliably predict our future if we spent much time consuming coca. We saw representations of indigenous outfits and the woven mochillas (bags) used by the locals as well as a replica of a traditional house. One of the customs among these people is called el amaño, which is a period of living together prior to marriage. There were also ceramics from the archaeological digs dating from 630 BC – 850 AD, such as funerary urns decorated with human figures. Before heading off to the archaeological sites we stopped at the home of a family selling natural juice drinks and had a refreshing juice, mango and papaya for me and pineapple, banana and orange for Stu.
Tierradentro is famous for its elaborately painted hypogea, subterranean burial chambers. We first viewed the 9 crude stone statues at El Tablon and then visited Alto del Duende which was excavated in 1940 and contains 4 hypogea. The hypogea typically face west and are accessed via steep steps, some in a spiral. The walls are whitewashed with yellow, black and red geometric paintings and face masks carved into the tops of columns. The guard at the site handed us flashlights since there is no light in the chambers. We continued to the Alto de Segovia and Alto de San Andres to view more hypogea. While they’re all similar, each has unique features. Only one included a figure with arms and legs, and one had pottery with human remains.
We stopped for lunch at La Portada a simple café with a set menu that consisted of vegetable soup, thin steak, yucca fries, rice, beans and a tomato salad with green beans. It’s the best place to eat in the area and we returned for a dinner of roasted chicken and mango salad. Although Jaime’s English was limited we were able to communicate and found him to be a delightful companion. Marino spoke excellent English and had lots of interesting tales to relate.
After lunch we drove to the Hotel Albergue Le Refugio, a modest establishment with single story rooms surrounding a central garden with a huge swimming pool. Horses roamed the property and after a dip in the pool we discovered that all of the fruit trees and a bird feeder that the housekeeper kept filled with fresh fruit attracted a variety of birds. We sat on a bench outside our room and watched the avian parade until it was time to change for dinner. Among our favorites were the handsome Spot-Breasted Woodpeckers, Saffron Finches and a sleek black bird with red markings and a white slash on its cheek that we couldn’t identify. We also watched a flock of colorful parrots in trees that were a bit too far away for photographs. When we returned after dinner a full moon illuminated the starry night sky.
NEIVA TO BOGOTA
We arose very early again for the drive to Neiva to catch our flight, passing fields of rice, pineapple, watermelon, mango and tobacco. At a farm stand we bought some mamoncillos, round green fruit on a stem with sweet pulp around a large pit and shared them with Marino and Jaime. We stopped at a roadside truck stop restaurant jammed with travelers for a delicious breakfast of almojabana (cheese bread) and hot chocolate. We only had time for the briefest drive around Neiva, but had a chance to see the monumental statue of La Gaetana, a heroic native woman who fought the Spaniards (tortured a Spaniard is probably a more accurate account) and committed suicide rather than be captured.
The airport was modern and fairly comfortable, though only the gate areas were air conditioned. Our flight was on time and uneventful and we arrived in Bogota around 2 pm. Fabio was there to greet us and drive us to our hotel in La Candelaria called The Orchids. It is a dramatic boutique in a colonial building with superlative service, hands down our favorite property of the trip. All the rooms are suites and we were assigned the spectacular Midsummer Night’s Dream, a suite that lives up to its evocative name. We decided to just relax and enjoy the pleasures of the hotel, including the free Wi-Fi. That evening we took a taxi to a different section of town to a renowned restaurant called Harry Sasson. It’s located in a beautiful old estate and the décor was chic and attractive with a lively bar and several dining rooms. We enjoyed the atmosphere more than the food, but it was still a nice evening out.
We were served an excellent breakfast in the Orchids elegant dining room and were truly sad to leave, but Fabio was coming to drive us to Villa de Leyva, a colonial town north of the city. Knowing that we’d return the following day eased our sadness. Bogota is so spread out that it took over an hour just to reach the city limits but it was a pleasant ride once we were out of town.
Our first stop was about 30 mi. north of Bogota in Zipaquira, which means the place of the chief (Zipa = important chief, Quira = place). Its claim to fame is a spectacular underground Roman Catholic Church built entirely of halite (rock salt) within a former salt mine. The original was built in the 1950’s but the mine was active until the 1970’s so it was shut down due to safety concerns. The current incarnation was constructed 200 ft. below the original from 1990 – 95 at a depth of 180 m (590 ft.). While you can attend mass at noon on Sundays in the Birth chapel, it’s mainly a tourist attraction. There’s an extensive plaza aboveground with a magnificent modern bronze statue of a miner and a colorful statue of a hand representing hope. You enter the underground via a tunnel pulsing with colored light and music that projects flags from different countries on the ceiling. There is a gift shop corridor with kiosks selling everything from tourist trinkets to fine gems. A perfect dome, 8 m/26 ft. high, symbolizing heaven and earth, can be viewed at the end of the entrance ramp. Nothing can prepare you for the church itself, which is divided into 3 naves devoted to the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ.
We started through a gallery depicting the Stations of the Cross, but they’re not the usual figurative portrayals. They’re simple abstract symbolic representations of the cross in side chapels. For example, station V where Simon helps Jesus carry the cross, there are two small pillars under the arms of the cross. Station XII where Jesus dies on the cross, the cross is illuminated with red light and looks as if it’s spattered with blood. Station XIII where Jesus is taken down from the cross is represented by a negative relief, therefore signifying the empty cross.
We then arrived at the choir loft which overlooks the central nave and which features a graceful sandstone statue of Gabriel blowing a horn. The steps of the choir represent musical notes and the circular design was engineered to improve the acoustics of the space.
Next was the Birth Nave where the patron saint of miners, the Virgin of El Rosario, graces the altar. Four columns in this nave, 12 – 16 m high and 8 m in diameter, represent the 4 evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). There’s a salt water baptismal font, a sandstone nativity sculpture and a waterfall of salt that symbolizes the River Jordan.
All this pales compared to the Central or Life Nave. An impressive space 20 m/65 ft. high and 140 m/459 ft. long, the most impressive feature is the cross carved into the wall behind the simple altar and pulpit, towering 16 m/52 ft. high, 10 m/33 ft. wide and 70 cm/2 ft. deep. The chapel is bathed in blue light and the changing colors illuminating the cross, including blood red, enhance the impact of the image. There are wooden pews and in the middle of the nave on the floor a 3 ton 2 m./6-1/2 ft. marble reproduction of part of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam Sistine Chapel painting, though the sculptors (Rodriguez and Garcia) have exaggerated the size of God’s and Adam’s outstretched hands.
On the other side of the Life Nave is the Nave of Death with its representation of the sepulcher and resurrection. There is also a 17th C crucifix of Jesus in agony.
We left the cathedral and took a quick tour of the town of Zipaquira with its charming central square. The white houses lining the square maintain their original colonial balconies with blue doors and brick red railings. Unlike most other squares there is no grand monument or statue, nor trees, just paving stones and benches around the perimeter. Like most other squares there is a cathedral, and this is a particularly lovely stone one with twin bell towers and a colorful cupola in the same colors as the surrounding buildings. The interior was even more attractive with tapestry stone columns capped with brick Romanesque arches and a simple yet eloquent nave and altar.
We were hungry for lunch and Fabio recommended a pretty café called La Petite France. The owner is a Frenchwoman married to a Colombian. Together they operate a dairy business and this light airy restaurant, which also sells cheese and other fresh produce. The food was top quality and we enjoyed grilled trout, salad and rice and fresh mango juice.
We made one more stop at El Infiernito, a sacred site in the 11th – 12th C with a crude solar observatory where the Muisca people held festivals during solstices and equinoxes that included fertility rituals. This is also a burial site for high chiefs and perhaps astronomers. Menhirs (upright stones) faced east and their shadows might have indicated the best time to plant at certain times of the year.
VILLA DE LEYVA
Fabio filled us in on the history of the town as we pulled into Villa de Leyva in the late afternoon. The town was founded in 1572, though the oldest house dates back to 1568. It was named for the first Spanish President of Colombia, Andres Diaz de la Leyva, and its official name is La Villa de Nuestra Senora de Santa Maria de Leyva. The town was declared a national monument in 1954 to preserve its uniform colonial architecture. Situated in the Boyaca department of Colombia at about 2100 m/6889 ft. the current population is roughly 9,600. The Plaza Mayor is the largest square in Colombia at about 14,000 square meters. As in Zipaquira there are no statues, fountains or trees, nor are there any benches. White buildings with ceramic tile roofs line the square and include the modest City Hall, an art gallery, two banks, 2 small hotels and family homes. The church on the square, Nuestra Senora del Rosario, is deceivingly austere from the outside, a small whitewashed building with a square bell tower and tall wooden doors in a stone portal. When we visited later we were amazed to find a dazzling gilded altar and altarpiece with statues in 12 niches that seemed incongruous with the sparsely adorned walls and plain wooden rafters of the interior.
Our hotel, Posada de San Antonio, was located a couple of blocks from the main square on another smaller and greener square. We had arranged to meet Fabio for a tour so we just unpacked and explored the hotel a bit before continuing our exploration of the town. We walked over to another area of town to the Carmelite Church and Convent of El Carmen dedicated to the town’s patron saint, La Virgen El Carmen, though we didn’t enter the church. Fabio pointed out a surrounding mountain where there is a national park at alt. 4,200 m/13,780 mi. on the shores of Lake Iguaque, a sacred place at the heart of the Muisca creation myth.
We passed a wall made of embedded ammonites 100’s of millions of years old. Locals, unaware of the value of these fossils, routinely used them for decoration. A nearby Augustinian church and convent have been converted into a music venue and cultural house. We went to see the oldest house in town (1568), currently the Hotel del Molino.
We arranged to meet Fabio in the morning and went off on our own, just walking around town, listening to the musicians playing and singing in the town square, browsing in shops and admiring the quiet charm of the town. We had dinner at El Rincon Gourmet de la Villa, a well rated restaurant where the owner plays piano for the entertainment of the guests. It was attractive and romantic and service was friendly. We liked the meal though even if it wasn’t the best food we tried. We took a walk around after dinner to enjoy the night air and the magic glow of the town lit up for the evening.
The next morning we grabbed a table in the hotel’s appealing courtyard and had one of the best breakfasts of the trip. Hot homemade corn bread and berry preserves, freshly laid eggs, ripe pineapple and papaya and rich hot chocolate. We had time before meeting Fabio so we took a walk around town to appreciate the early morning stillness. A sociable dog adopted us and accompanied us all the way back to our hotel.
We stowed our bags in Fabio’s vehicle and headed back to Bogota but not without a few stops on the way. The town of Samaca has a town square with a well landscaped garden and a Neoclassical Cathedral with tall columns and a white statue on top over the portal. We had a look there before driving to one of the most important monuments in the country, a tribute to Simon Bolivar’s historic battle for independence from Spain at the Boyaca Puente (bridge) on August 7, 1819. The colossal Independence Monument hunkers atop a hill overlooking the Teatinos River and the reproduction of the famous Boyaca Bridge that crosses it, built in 1930’s to replace the original. The monument, created by German sculptor Ferdinand von Miller, depicts Bolivar on top surrounded by 5 female statues representing the 5 liberated countries of South America (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia). A statue of Santander, another hero of the battle, is situated near the bridge along with an eternal flame. Bolivar was the strategist and Santander was the troop leader, also a lawyer, he later worked on Colombia’s constitution. There is also a plaque to honor the British who assisted with the revolution.
We took a scenic route back to the city, a high road overlooking a 20 km. reservoir that is a popular recreation area. When we arrived at The Orchids hotel we were pleased to get the Midsummer’s suite back. We asked for a nearby restaurant so we could grab lunch and they offered to make lunch for us. We agreed and had a delicious light meal in their dining room. We walked around the neighborhood before getting ready for a fun and festive dinner at Andres DC. We started the trip with the Carnaval and ended with a party so it was the perfect finish.
Hotel de L’Opera - we spent only 1 night here upon our arrival in Colombia and were satisfied. The building is handsome and well situated in La Candelaria next to the old Opera house. Our room was fairly spacious and comfortable, though nothing special. It didn't fully reflect the charm of the rest of the building. The best part was the view. We arrived at night and had a lovely perspective of the old town roofs lit up for the evening. We were on a high floor and I think we might have been in the back of the building as we weren't bothered by any street noise. We slept well. We found the front desk personnel to be cordial though not particularly warm or welcoming; however it's possible that if we stayed longer we would have experienced greater hospitality. Breakfast was not memorable (literally, we cannot recall anything about it while we have wonderful memories of meals at other places we stayed), though I do recall that the breakfast room in the central courtyard was light-filled and lovely.
The Orchids - Our absolute favorite hotel of the trip on many counts. We loved the lavish style, comfort and personalized service, and the location in La Candelaria was ideal.
All rooms are suites, named for Operas. We had the Midsummer Night’s Dream suite and it’s just spectacular! It was spotlessly clean and luxuriously decorated featuring a large bedroom with a super-comfy king size bed, a sitting area, a dresser, a desk, bottles of water (still and/or sparkling, your choice), and floor to ceiling windows that let in plenty of light but could be covered by thick curtains to block the light when you wanted to sleep, though a clock radio assured that you didn't oversleep.
The enormous bathroom provided a soaking tub, a fainting couch and a spacious vanity with two washbasins, ample plush towels and face cloths, cushy bathrobes, very good hairdryer, makeup mirror and quality toiletries, as well as a large shower stall with two rainfall heads and a toilet room that included a bidet and a dressing table with full length mirror. A staircase in the bathroom led up to a loft with closets, plenty of good quality hangers, iron and ironing board and a safe large enough for electronics. The bathroom alone was roomier than my first apartment.
Outside our room was a library with a variety of books, inviting chairs and a collection of art objects and antiques. The suites are reached by a narrow glass elevator. Free Wi-Fi with fast service was available throughout the hotel.
The team truly added to our enjoyment. They couldn’t have been kinder or more attentive and they spoke English perfectly but graciously allowed us to practice our Spanish. Every request was fulfilled efficiently and cheerfully. They accommodated us with a full cooked breakfast on the morning that we had to leave early for our flight home and also prepared a delicious lunch in the afternoon when we returned from an overnight trip to Villa de Leyva. The food was expertly prepared and very tasty, mostly made to order.
The main reception area, dining room, lounge area and all of the public spaces were opulently decorated and we loved spying the little turtles in the coi pond that graces the ground floor.
We could have happily remained there for weeks. Over and above all of the creature comforts, The Orchids is the kind of accommodation that fills you with a feeling of peace and well-being. In case you can't tell, we vey highly recommend it!
Dann Carlton – A standard business style hotel, ultra clean and modern, conveniently located across the road from an upscale shopping mall. I suspect it's the best hotel in town with all the modern amenities, but without much local character or charm. However due to Carnaval the lobby was decked out with gaudy decorations and shots of Aguardiente, the anise-flavored national drink of Colombia, were being dispensed from a stand in the lobby attended by two attractive young women. The front desk team is cordial and professional, though not warm or inviting. Checking out was a bit slow as there wasn't sufficient coverage for the amount of people checking out at that time. However, every member of the team in the ground floor restaurant where breakfast is served is delightful and the housekeepers were friendly and clearly efficient, our suite was scrupulously clean.
We had a Gran Suite, which was enormous and featured a separate sitting room with couch, table and chairs, a large bedroom with flat screen TV, closet, dresser and a good sized bathroom with all the modern amenities. The bed was comfortable and everything was well maintained. Bottled water was provided and there was a large safe sufficient for a laptop and other electronics. Unfortunately we were assigned to a low floor and the hotel is located in a busy area across the street from a large mall, so we heard street noise, and didn't enjoy a view. Because it was Carnaval there was music and announcements blasting all night long, so sleep was nearly impossible anyway even with ear plugs. However, Carnaval was a blast so it was worth losing a bit of shut-eye.
The buffet breakfast offered a wide selection of Colombian specialties, breads, pastries, cheese and outstanding fresh fruit, and you can get eggs or omelets cooked to order. I enjoyed trying the different freshly squeezed fruit juices. We never got to try the pool, gym or spa but they looked inviting. Recommended.
Merecumbe Hotel - Ñeque, our clean attractive thatched roof white-washed octagonal casita was elegantly decorated in modern minimalist style with a firm king size bed, tree-trunk nightstands, low table and chairs, an indoor hammock, wooden bench, large closet with electronic safe and a ceiling fan. The attractive open air bathroom features a cool water shower, sink and toilet alcove with luxurious Occitane soap and shampoo and good towels. We even spotted beautiful birds in the surrounding trees while using the facilities. Ñeque is at the far end of the resort, though still not far from the dining area, so our outdoor patio was very secluded. There is apparently a farm nearby and the feisty rooster roused us at inconvenient hours, however that's life in the country. The ceiling fan kept us comfortable at night and I was surprised not to encounter any mosquitoes, perhaps since it was abnormally dry due to El Nino this year.
The grounds were lovely with palm trees and flowers and while you cannot swim in the sea, it's a beautiful beach to stroll on and watch the seabirds. At night the stars are plentiful and brilliant.
The team was welcoming and friendly. The food was quite good, and included in the package, the best being their wonderful fresh fruit smoothies. We loved sitting in the dining room and spying parrots and other birds roosting in the trees. I don't believe that there was Wi-Fi or phone service, but we didn't miss it. Parque Tayrona is marvelous and Merecumbe is a perfect place to stay while you explore it. Highly recommended.
Hotel Bioma - We booked the luxury suite which included 3 balconies, 2 narrow ones overlooking an inner courtyard and a larger one with a view of the main courtyard, pool, the Church cupola and the tiled roofs of the town, so it was light and airy. The suite is more a large room, simply but beautifully decorated and featuring a rocking chair in the popular local style. The bathroom was spacious and well equipped, and everything was clean and well maintained. We had air conditioning as well as ceiling and floor fans, a mini fridge, clock radio, flat screen TV, and good storage space for our belongings, though there was no room safe. It was peaceful at night and we slept well in the large comfy bed.
We found every member of the team to be gracious and helpful, and eager to help us communicate. They handled our laundry professionally and with great care.
We ordered dinner at the hotel the first night and it was excellent! Tender steak cooked exactly to our specifications with delicious salad and potatoes. Breakfasts, served in the charming courtyard, were wonderful with fresh fruit and juice and eggs cooked to order. Highly recommended.
Hotel Casa San Agustin - The first thing I perceived as we entered the lobby was the lush floral fragrance, which we later found to persist throughout the property. After we were warmly greeted and invited to take a seat on a comfortable sofa, we took note of the elegant decor which, while modern and sophisticated, still firmly evokes the sense that you are in the Colombian Caribbean without any kitsch. After about 10 minutes cold drinks arrived. Although we'd arrived just before 3 pm, our room wasn't ready and we waited about 40 minutes before we were shown upstairs. Had we arrived earlier we would have understood the wait, but we felt that the room should have been ready by 3 pm.
The junior suite was gorgeous, spacious and well laid out with a huge comfortable bed dressed in top quality linens, a generous sitting area with couch and flat screen TV, loads of storage space for clothing and bags and a large well appointed bathroom. We had everything we needed, including plush robes and slippers and bottles of water. The room safe was capacious and Wi-Fi was fast and reliable. I was a tad disappointed that there was no view from our room since the walled enclave of old town Cartagena is so incredibly pretty.
Breakfast was superb with a wide selection of hot and cold dishes and it was one of the only places where I could get good decaffeinated coffee. Their hot chocolate was out of this world as well. On the morning that we had to leave so early they kindly arranged a light breakfast in our room before we left.
The team was always cordial and helpful and spoke very good English. In all it's a lovely place to stay in an extraordinarily lovely city. Highly recommended.
Deep Blue - We spent 4 relaxing nights at Deep Blue in the Jacuzzi Suite. We had a small balcony overlooking the Crab Caye and the deep blue Caribbean Sea with wicker table and chairs plus a huge terrace with loungers and a big round cushioned day bed with the same fabulous view. Our spacious whirlpool bath was indoors but we could open all of the windows so it was like being outdoors and we still enjoyed the view of the sea, only we had shade and it felt very private. I just wish the water in the whirlpool were a touch warmer. It was a steep climb up to our room, but we appreciated the exercise.
The bright airy suite was well equipped with a comfortable king bed, night tables, glass-topped driftwood coffee table, desk and chair, and couch. The wash room featured a spacious counter with the sink and lots of space for toiletries, benches and a closet. There was a separate enclosed toilet room and a shower room with a rainfall shower head with good flow and temperature. The decor was modern seaside chic with framed sea stars and island print fabric. There was a large room safe for valuables, air conditioning, a makeup mirror, bathrobes, hairdryer, small refrigerator and petite flat-screen TV. There was no Wi-Fi in the room and it was slow in reception but considering that you're on an island in the middle of the ocean and looking for relaxation it was just fine. The room was scrupulously clean though housekeeping could be a bit forgetful.
The restaurant is across the road by the dock with a lovely view of the water, indoor and outdoor seating. The food was good and we really liked the ladies who work there. If we return to Providencia we wouldn't hesitate to stay at Deep Blue again. Recommended.
Sazagua Boutique Hotel - When we checked in there was an initial confusion about our room assignment and when they discovered their error they rushed to correct it. And I mean rushed, they literally ran to collect our bags and move us. We're so glad they did because the spacious Premium suite we had prepaid (#10 Tucarama) was far superior to the cozy junior suite we were originally assigned. As far as we're concerned, all's well that ends well and we mention this not as criticism, but only to highlight the conscientiousness of the team at Sazagua in resolving the issue. They truly strive to provide superior service. Everyone we dealt with during our stay was gracious and helpful.
The grounds are gorgeous and the public spaces are tastefully decorated with art and antiques in an airy open-air style. Wi-Fi was reliable. Our suite was upstairs and featured a huge covered veranda with comfy chairs, table and hammock overlooking the lush gardens. We spent a good amount of time relaxing there and the amount of birds we spotted was amazing. Handsome blue grey tanagers had even built nests in the eaves so we could watch them come and go.
Inside the clean well-appointed suite had exceptionally high ceilings, attractive artwork, a library unit filled with books and art objects, a large well-dressed king size bed, night tables, comfortable chairs, and floor to ceiling glass doors leading out to the veranda with wooden shutter doors when you needed privacy. The humongous marble and wood bathroom included a couple-sized soaking tub, shower big enough for 2, dual washbasins with plenty of counter and cabinet space for toiletries, bathrobes, loads of fluffy towels, hair dryer, large clothes closet, good amenities and cushioned benches to sit on. There was a ceiling fan in the bedroom as well as an air conditioner. It was blissfully peaceful at night and we slept well. The food was delicious and plentiful at breakfast and dinner and they even offer half bottles of good wine if you don't want a full bottle. The romantic dining room faced the garden.
It was quite warm and we had an opportunity to use the heated pool, set in a pretty landscape and well maintained with lounge chairs and umbrellas. We would have gladly stayed a few more nights if our itinerary had allowed it. Highly recommended.
Akawanka Lodge - Due to flight delays we were obliged to fly to Neiva rather than nearby Pitalito as originally planned and arrived at the Akawanka Lodge around 11:30 pm after a long day in airports and a 4-1/2 hour night drive. Our driver's car couldn't make it up the dirt road to the resort, which was a bit muddy, and just when we thought we might have to carry our bags uphill in the dark for who knows what distance, kind men from Akawanka arrived in a 4WD vehicle to transport us to the lodge and usher us directly to our room.
We were too tired to do much more than wash and crash, so in the morning we were delighted to open our shutters to a spectacular view of the surrounding fields and mountains. The lodge consists of 2 story white houses with terracotta tile roofs and verandas with rustic wooden balustrades set in a lush garden accented with sculptures, paintings and folk art. Our second story room, which they termed a suite, was spacious and charming featuring wooden rafters, a chest of drawers with a butterfly painting, black & white easy chairs, a table fashioned from logs with chairs, a cow-skin rug and a big comfortable bed. A whimsical painting of what we decided was a hedgehog decorated the wall above one window. The bathroom was minuscule so we arrayed our toiletries on the dresser top, though everything was in good working order. There was plenty of hot water in the shower and I was pleased to find a hairdryer. There's no safe, however there is Wi-Fi. Everything was spotlessly clean. On the balcony outside the room there was a cozy shared seating area with a hammock. It was peaceful and we slept well both nights of our stay.
A variety of folk art and wall paintings brightened the dining room with its stone fireplace, colorful couches, tree trunk topped tables and rustic bar. Though a tad busy, we thought the overall effect was attractive and suitable for a country lodge. Breakfast was good though dinner left much to be desired. We had to depart very early for our transfer to Tierradentro before breakfast hours and they packed a sandwich for each of us, but nothing to drink.
The team was exceedingly nice and helpful and we managed to communicate sufficiently most of the time despite our inadequate Spanish. We had one small issue with our shower (totally our fault) and they came running to cheerfully assist. When checking out we were struggling to explain something and a fellow traveler kindly stepped in to help. In a 5-star hotel we'd expect the team to speak some English, but in a small country lodge such as this we consider our lack of fluency in Spanish to be our deficiency.
The stone statues at San Agustin are worth a special trip if you're interested in archaeology and Akawanka is a lovely place to stay while exploring them. Recommended.
Hotel Albergue El Refugio - The rooms are quite basic but they provide all you need for a short stay, a king bed that was comfortable enough, loads of closet space, a small but functional bathroom with hot water and decent towels. It wasn't the cleanest room we had on the trip but it was not filthy. We didn't encounter any insects but perhaps that was because it was a dry season. There was no Wi-Fi, nor I believe phone service, no in-room safe. It was quiet at night and we slept well.
The single floor white-washed units are arranged around a landscaped garden with a large pool. We had arisen at 4 am to drive from San Agustin and toured the sights before checking in later in the afternoon, so we were warm and tired and pleased to take a dip in the pool. While there we noticed that there was a feeder next to the pool that housekeeping kept filled with fruit, as well as many fruit trees, which attracted a variety of beautiful birds. We spotted parrots, spot breasted woodpeckers, thrushes, vermilion flycatchers, saffron finches and more while seated on a bench right outside our room. It was a lovely way to while away the time before dinner. A few horses roam the property adding charm, though you need to watch where you step as there is no horsey pooper-scooper service.
The young woman at the front desk was not pleasant, however the housekeeper we encountered was very nice. We left early the next day and didn't have a chance to try their breakfast, however, they packed us a very nice breakfast to go with hard boiled eggs, bread, fruit and fruit juice.
In all, unless you're very interested in archaeology I wouldn't go out of my way to visit this area or stay here. However, the archaeological sites are interesting and this is a decent place to spend a night or two.
VILLA DE LEYVA
La Posada de San Antonio is bursting with personality. Everyone we interacted with was so very warm, welcoming and helpful. In our opinion, the team is the primary attraction. The inn is well located and occupies a colonial style house with some rooms around a central courtyard, and some upstairs.
The public spaces are a hodgepodge of traditional antique style furnishings, folk art and some glaringly discordant contemporary artworks that didn't fit in with the overall ambiance in our opinion. We appreciate a mix of styles, juxtaposition of antique and modern pieces, and all kinds of art, including folk art, however, we felt that the decor mash-up tipped over in the direction of kitsch without a unified aesthetic. I'd ditch the modern pieces. But hey, what do we know, we're not interior decorators. There was also a small chapel with religious art and artifacts and an attractive dining room adjacent to the courtyard.
Our ground floor room had more charm, though it was rather dark, and due to its location we heard street noise as well as noise from other guests in the courtyard. Our wooden headboard was painted and signed by the artist and the bed was large and comfortable, flanked by two painted nightstands. There was a working brick fireplace (which we didn't use), tile floors, sofa, painted coffee table, desk, loads of closet space, shelves and hangers and a small TV. The safe was tiny, just enough room for passports and cash but not for electronics. We had windows but no view to speak of.
The bathroom was cramped but well equipped with a makeup mirror, in-wall hairdryer and toiletries. There was a window in the bathroom facing out to the courtyard, which we didn't open due to obvious privacy concerns, though the ledge served as a handy place to put our toiletries since there was no space around the sink. The shower was excellent, maybe even the best we encountered on this trip, excellent flow and well regulated temperature.
Breakfast was outstanding! Delicious homemade corn bread and berry preserves, fresh free range eggs, ripe pineapple and papaya and rich hot chocolate. In all, it's a good place to stay in an exceedingly picturesque town, clean, comfortable, and friendly. However, while in town we spotted a new boutique hotel named Casa del Arbol that looked fabulous so that one might be worth investigating.
Harry Sasson - The setting and atmosphere of Harry Sasson are lovely, a large manor house with a vibrant bar section and separate dining rooms all elegantly decorated. It's a noisy, lively place with many groups of friends and business people, and not many couples. However the décor was the best part. For such a renowned, pricey restaurant the food and service were only mediocre.
Our servers were pleasant and efficient though we were surprised that they didn't speak any English. In a small town we don't expect it but this an upscale restaurant in a section of Bogota where foreigners congregate. In any case our Spanish is adequate to read menus and order food and drink so it wasn't a major problem.
I started with a nice glass of champagne and the corvina ceviche, both good but nothing special. Stu’s Carpaccio starter was pretty good but we've had much better. For main courses, he ordered a Thai chicken curry served in a large crock and I had duck along with a glass of adequate Pinot Noir. The curry was tasty, but the duck was inedible. No one checked to see how we liked the food. When they came around to clear they noticed that Stu had not finished all of his chicken, though he'd eaten over half of it, and an English-speaking manager came around to ask him if he liked it. Meanwhile I'd touched maybe a bite or two of the duck and they never asked me about it at all. I had also ordered a side of spinach and it tasted odd so we didn't eat that either. We may have shared a dessert though I cannot recall what it might have been. At least the coffee was really good and I enjoyed it thoroughly. We couldn’t recommend this one.
Andres DC – Sister of famed party restaurant Andres Carne de Res in the nearby suburb of Chia, Andres DC is located in town and considered far more restrained. Normally Stu and I enjoy a more dignified dining experience, but we decided to try Andres DC due to its fun reputation. It was the perfect place to end a fabulous tour around Colombia which started with the immense joyous Carnaval in Barranquilla and ended with a raucous mini-Carnaval at Andres. Everything about it is totally in your face - the wild Mad-Max-as-interpreted-by-Baz-Luhrman décor, infectious music and boisterous groups of diners. There are several floors and we were seated in a booth on a kind of mezzanine between floors where we had a great view of the goings-on above and below. There's also a dance floor but we were probably there too early to see that get going.
In any other place if a group of people came to our table, showered us with heart-shaped red confetti, crowned me Queen and gave us Bienvenido sashes to wear while a band played for us, we would be a bit embarrassed or would think that it was unbearably cheesy. Here we just went with it. I even got up and danced with the welcoming committee, much to Stu’s delight and amusement.
I started out ordering a margarita from our personable and attentive server. He filled a glass and then left the shaker which contained enough for about 2 more refills. I didn't finish all of it because I wanted a glass of red wine with dinner, which was also an overly generous serving in a ceramic carafe. Both drinks were very good.
With all this entertainment we weren't expecting too much from the food. Were we mistaken! The party continued straight into our mouths! We started out sharing a sizable dish of ceviche, which was delicious, then enjoyed tender flavorful steak, without question the best beef we had during the trip, cooked to our preferred temperature (medium rare). I cannot recall what Stu ordered for dessert, probably ice cream (I'm sure that I snatched a taste or two but memory might have been a bit fuzzy by that time). I had espresso and it was excellent. All this and I think it only cost around $60, which is not cheap by Colombian standards but is a great bargain where we're from.
If you're looking for a quiet, refined experience, it's probably best to skip this one, but for a good time, call Andres DC.
El Giratorio - the Dann Carlton’s revolving rooftop restaurant. It was convenient, however the food left much to be desired, the fish did not seem fresh enough. It was attractive and the serving team was very nice. There was live music and a nice atmosphere but we couldn’t recommend it.
Varadero - Stu and I enjoyed Varadero so much that we had dinner there two nights in a row while we were in Barranquilla. The hostess was welcoming and accommodating and both times we had great tables in the room with the live Cuban band. The mojitos are fabulous and the food is delicious, particularly the seafood. I have rarely tasted such sweet and tender shrimp. The atmosphere is lively and we loved the band. One night a couple was so inspired by the music that they started dancing despite the cramped space. It was totally charming! If we danced as well as they did we might have joined in. We had no complaints about the service, both times it was attentive and personable and food and drinks were delivered in a reasonable timeframe. They allowed us to relax and enjoy the music, we didn't feel rushed at all.
The location is easy to reach and we had no problem catching a cab back to our hotel. We would recommend Varadero without hesitation, and should we ever return to Barranquilla, we know where we're having dinner.
Mompoj – The restaurant at Hotel Bioma is in a spacious room with very high ceilings and antique style furnishings and it is air conditioned. You have to order in advance if you want to dine there (I suspect it might be for hotel guests only), and the menu is limited, but it’s worth it. The food was delicious and Fidel, who seemed to do everything around the hotel, was an attentive and congenial host. Highly Recommend.
Comedor Costeño – Situated across the road from the river with indoor seating as well as an outdoor section on the river, you can enjoy tasty local specialties, such as grilled mojarra fish, served on big platters with rice and fried plantains. Service was friendly and efficient and the view is terrific. Recommend.
La Fuerta – This is a nice pizzeria with a wood fired oven, but nothing special. The garden is lovely in the evening and the team was nice. They accept cash only.
Alma – The restaurant at the Casa San Agustin Hotel is lovely with gracious service. There’s an air conditioned room as well as an open air patio which hosts live music in the evenings. Breakfasts are outstanding with a variety of fruit, bread, pastries, Colombian specialties and cooked dishes. The coffee and hot chocolate were terrific. Dinner was also good but not quite as good as you’d expect based on the fabulous breakfast, nor as good as the other restaurants we tried in town .
Carmen – This was our favorite restaurant in Colombia. Nestled in the romantic candlelit courtyard of the charming Ananda Boutique Hotel, with both indoor and outdoor tables, the ambiance of the restaurant is refined but casual. The menu is international with a local spin and though ambitious, it works. We wanted to try a variety of dishes so we went for their 7 course tasting menu, and I included the wine pairing. Every course, including the complimentary amuse-bouche, was tasty, well prepared taking full advantage of local ingredients, and creatively plated, and the accompanying wines were good matches. It’s a good value for this quality of food though a bit high priced. If you allow yourself only one splurge, this is the place. Very highly recommended!
Cande – A Caribbean style restaurant with stylish décor and an open air garden as well as an attractive air conditioned room if the midday heat is too much to bear. The clientele included a mix of locals and tourists, everyone clearly having a great time. It would be hard not to, given the delicious food and drinks. We shared fresh, piquant ceviche and I had flavorsome grilled robato (snook fish) while Stu opted for a traditional stewed beef dish that was scrumptious. Highly recommended!
SAN ANDRES AND PROVIDENCIA
La Regatta – A lively restaurant on a dock at a marina on San Andres Island. The team is friendly, the atmosphere is a bit kitschy with maritime artifacts, but it works, and the view of the water and sea breezes are lovely. The food is fresh and well prepared. A totally delightful spot for lunch.
Miss Celia – A traditional style restaurant on a side street in the main town on San Andres. There’s indoor dining with white tablecloths and a covered garden outside with a more casual vibe. The food was good but nothing special. We wouldn’t recommend it.
Roland’s Bar & Grill – A laid back beach shack on Manzanillo Beach on Providencia Island. Sit on a picnic bench, or swing in a hammock, and enjoy the reggae and beach views while waiting for your meal to be prepared. Service is slow but personable and the food is excellent and a great value, especially the lobster and grilled fish. Drinks are strong and flavorful. We heard that at night there’s a dance party.
Miss Elma’s – A casual beachfront restaurant associated with a small hotel on the West side of the island. Food is home cooked and tasty.
Deep Blue – Our Providencia hotel restaurant was ideally situated on a dock with a view of the Caribbean and Crab Caye and indoor and outdoor seating. The food was very good though juices were made from frozen packets. We enjoyed the young ladies who worked there and while it was high priced for the island, the convenience made it worthwhile.
Pollo a la Carreta – Located in Calarcá in Quindio the restaurant name literally describes their signature dish, roasted chicken served on a wooden plate shaped like a wheelbarrow. We had to go with the special and it was a great choice, the chicken was scrumptious! The kind servers dressed in traditional country outfits and there were folk artifacts throughout the dining area on a covered porch. One of our favorite traditional meals.
Dende Laurita - A second floor restaurant in Salento with simple home-cooked food. We enjoyed a flavorsome lunch of grilled trout. We cannot say if this is the best choice in Salento but it was a good meal.
Boutique Hotel Sazagua – The hotel restaurant served the best food we had in the region, breakfasts and dinners were equally delicious. I was also able to get a good half bottle of Spanish Rioja and if you can drink a full bottle there’s a decent selection. The atmosphere is romantic and elegant and the team is professional and personable. Very highly recommended.
La Portada - A simple café with a set lunch menu that consisted of vegetable soup, thin steak, yucca fries, rice, beans and a tomato salad with green beans the day we were there. It’s the best place to eat in the area and we returned for a dinner of roasted chicken and mango salad, both tasty home-cooked dishes.Content goes here