All our expectations were well exceeded in every respect- our conclusion upon our return home. At no moment did we feel unsafe, and our guides and drivers were nothing but friendly and punctual everywhere we went.
Before beginning our journey, we put together – with the amazing help of Pelecanus – an itinerary lasting a little over 3 weeks that corresponded to our interests and desires. We appreciated having all the planning done- with the help of experts- prior to our departure, and Pelecanus organized the rest so that everything worked out wonderfully.
First part of the journey: Zurich-Bogota
Our journey began in Zurich, where we caught a connecting flight from Frankfurt Main to Bogota. We were picked up from El Dorado International Airport in Bogota by Frank Spitzer (Pelecanus team member) in the early evening.
The next morning, our guide, Sebastian (Pelecanus), picked us up, and we went on a funicular ride (elevator) up to Monserrate – the local mountain and pilgrimage sight of Bogota that houses a well-known church. From here, you get a beautiful panoramic view of this city and its 10 million inhabitants while also getting a feel for the altitude at about 3000 m.a.s.l.
After a typical Colombian lunch – a rich vegetable soup called Ajiaco that was unique but quite satisfying – in one of the stylish old restaurants in La Candelaria, the old town of Bogota, we continued winding down the cobblestone streets and squares until we arrived at the Botero Museum (map). Our guide Sebastian is a historian and was able to provide us with a lot of interesting information that seemed to go far beyond the normal scope of a tour. His profound historical knowledge continually surprised and fascinated us.
The Botero Museum is a jewel. The small courtyard and café building not only exhibits works by Botero, but it also houses a collection of paintings and objects by the most renowned artists from all over the world whose works Botero had acquired. The museum is free and accessible to everyone.
That evening, we found ourselves in one of the many great restaurants in La Candelaria, where we were pleasantly surprised by the excellent quality of the food. In Colombia, however, the wine culture is not very common and thus, Colombians mainly drink beer. Therefore, you will not find local wines on the drink menus- only those from Chile or Argentina.
The next morning we found ourselves in a small hostel for breakfast, where we started our day with the “Fitness Desayuno”, consisting of fine muesli, fresh fruit with yogurt, and refreshing fruit juices and cappuccinos. We had no idea that these fresh and exotic fruits and fruit juices would be available throughout our trip in Colombia, and we were certainly not disappointed by this!
Soon after, Sebastian picked us up and drove us to the biggest market in Bogota, Paloquemao (map). First, we admired the many and colorful flowers that were offered for sale in front of the building. As we continued our journey, Sebastian discovered a stall with an entire pig stuffed with rice and meat, which looked a bit macabre to us since we were greeted by the pig’s head. Apparently the filling is considered a delicacy and so Andrea had to try it. I, however, could not overcome the sight of the pig’s head staring at me through the glass.
We then went on to the many stalls selling fruits and vegetables, some of which were unknown to us. Sebastian had the fruit sliced for us so that we could taste it. At the next booth, we were served 6 different fresh fruit juices in small glasses, and they were all delicious.
After a bit more exploring, we left the market headed for the Gold Museum, which exhibits incredible treasures from the Muisca period (the ancient indigenous peoples of Colombia). Thanks to the detailed explanations given by our guide, we received an enhanced explanation of the exhibited golden objects. That evening, we returned to the Candelaria neighborhood for another incredible dinner.
The next morning we went to El Rincon de Cajica Golf Club, which is about an hour outside of Bogota. Frank Spitzer of Pelecanus and two of his assistants, who tagged along to capture some pictures and recordings of the club with their cameras and drones, accompanied us. Upon arrival, we were provided with the necessary equipment, and two caddies accompanied us to carry our bags and clean our clubs and balls. The golf club is private and very spacious with old trees and ponds that make up an interesting 18 holes. The club only has 400 members, and it has a nice clubhouse and restaurant.
That evening we found another excellent restaurant in La Candelaria, where a proper sommelier explained the wines, but not before pouring himself a proper shot glass. Learn by drinking, I guess!!
Our next destination: Villa de Leyva
In the morning, we drove with Frank Spitzer and Valentina of Pelecanus to Villa de Leyva (map), which is about 3 hours north of Bogota. We would stay in Villa de Leyva for the night.
On the way, we stopped at the Laguna de Guatavita (map), which is the mystical place of the Muiscas (indigenous ancient people) linked to the legend of El Dorado. The previously mentioned golden treasures of the Gold Museum solidified this connection. The climb took about 2 hours and brought us to a height of over 3000 m.a.s.l. Unfortunately, we were not able to enjoy the view because it was raining. Nevertheless, one could not help but be taken in by the mysterious atmosphere the stories and explanations of the tour guide.
The whole city is committed to this historic heritage, and therefore worth seeing, as it is well preserved. New buildings are only allowed on the outskirts of the city so as not to jeopardize its historic core. Particularly impressive is the large, empty square in the center of the small town, which is surrounded by a one-story, elongated colonial buildings with wooden balconies. The city is apparently flooded on the weekend by the Bogotans and so a visit during the week is preferable.
We first visited a winery, the Marques de Villa de Leyva, that belongs to an uncle of our Pelecanus companion, Valentina. Thus, she was allowed to fly her drone over the winery and film.
There are two winegrowers here in the area and around 5 in Colombia as a whole. Colombia is not particularly known for its wine industry, but this winery grows various test grapes and is constantly experimenting to find the best ways of growing grapes in Colombia. Later that evening we found a restaurant, where we ate fettuccine that had been placed on a plate of parma cheese. Delicious.
After another night in the same hotel, we went to the Infiernito – a site where the Muiscas had built about 20 large stones in the form of a penis, which is the symbol of fertility. In addition, there were rows of stones, on whose shadow the beginning of summer and winter were determined to accordingly farm the fields. Our small, energetic guide compared the area to Stonehedge in England.
Then we went on to a short visit to the Convento Santo Ecce Homo, which is a beautiful monastery with cloister nuns. Finally, we drove to the famous Terracotta house. A red house without corners and with many small terraces and unusual perspectives within the house, the dream of an architect became a reality. The house, however, has never been inhabited and has simply become an spot of admiration for the whole world.
Traveling back to Bogotá, the Salt Cathedral
On the way back to Bogota, we made a detour to Zipaquira (map), the Salt Cathedral. With a private guide, we walked for a kilometer into the salt mine through many different lighted caves. We walked deeper and deeper into the mountain to the actual salt cathedral, which was a huge hall that had been carved out of salt. Aside from the religious element, there are also huge aisles with market stalls offering souvenirs and snacks, a beauty salon, an event hall for weddings, and much more.
Visiting San Agustin, Huila
The next morning it was time to say goodbye to Bogota and take a propeller flight to Pitalito, where our new guide, Marino, picked us up at the airport.
He drove us to his village of San Agustin, which was about 45 minutes away, and dropped us off at the Hotel Akawanka Lodge.
The hotel was located right outside the village and was made up of a large park with different sized houses and a small chapel. We stayed in the main house in a large room with a terrace and views of the surrounding area and the village. Unfortunately, there was not an area to hang our clothes, as there were only 3 hooks on the wall and a chest of drawers. The bathroom was tiny, there was only hot water in the shower, and the water in the toilet was yellowish. Nonetheless, the hotel was quiet, as we were the only guests in the hotel.
The village itself was very typical of rural Colombia. Mostly single-story houses surrounded by many small shops and restaurants and loud Motorcycles (motos). During the evening, all the residents flocked to the streets, and the town came to life!
The next morning, after our breakfast of fresh fruits, juices, coffee, toast, and queso (a relatively tasteless cream cheese), we were picked up by Marino to visit the archeological park of San Agustin.
Unfortunately, it was pouring and our rain jackets and umbrellas offered only partial protection. Marino knew a great deal about the sight, which a farmer had accidentally discovered. For the Muiscas (indigenous people), the hill must have been sacred because many tombs and extraordinary stone statues were found in the area. Even today, experts suspect undiscovered stones in the area. Gravel paths lead from statue to statue, and you could spend hours in the park simply wandering around from statue to statue; however, the constant rain motivated us to leave the area after only 3 hours and find a place to warm up in San Agustin.
The next day we met up with Marino to visit a nearby farm. On time (like all our guides during the trip), Marino stood in front of the hotel and drove us on an unpaved road leading to the farm. We were beginning to understand why many of the cars we had seen were relatively bulky and quite sturdy.
The owner of the farm welcomed us with open arms, full of joy, and we were allowed to photograph everywhere, which made us ashamed and affected by the apparent poverty and simplicity of the facility.
We trudged through the grounds with Marino who showed us where they produce cocoa, coffee, avocados, mangos, papayas, sugarcane, and other wild plants. There were also coca plants, as each household is allowed one. Since the area has a relatively stable climate with no changing season, these plants can be harvested several times a year. Thus, the farmers are all self-sufficient and bring the remainder of their product to the market.
Afterwards Marino wanted to show us the process of how sugar cane is converted into Panela. After a short search on bumpy roads, we finally found a farm where production was in progress. The sugar cane plants were pressed through two rollers, and the juice from this process is then funneled into a pan. The juice is then heated, cooked, and scooped by hand to cool, which seemed very dangerous to us. In the last tub, the liquid looked like caramel and was, again by hand, poured into square wooden forms, where within 15 minutes, large brown blocks of panela were ready for use. These were immediately packaged and labeled for transport to different markets. Incidentally, this brown sugar mixed with hot water is a popular drink in Colombia.
On the way back to the village, we drove over the Magdalena River, which is 1600 km and thus one of the longest rivers of Colombia that flows into the Caribbean.
Back in the village, I had my hair washed and blow dried in just under an hour for 10.000 pesos (SFR 3.30).
The flight from Pitalito to Medellin, with a brief stop in Bogota, once again required us to take small, propeller planes that each took about an hour. The approach to Medellin was great, as we flew over the whole city that is surrounded by different hills.
Again, a nice driver awaited us at the airport. Our hotel, Orange Suites, was a bit elevated and located in a neighborhood with many restaurants, shops, and busy streets. The room turned out to be a two-story apartment on the 9th floor with views over the city and a kitchen, living room, bedroom, 2 bathrooms, and a dressing room. A bit tired, we visited the restaurant Matriarca, located diagonally across the street. It was excellent, and the service was professional, warm, and attentive. It became our go-to place during our stay.
The next day our guide picked us up. This time it was a young lady named Sara who spoke excellent English. She drove to Guatape and El Peñol with us, which is the most famous rock in the midst of an artificial lake landscape. Here, the village of Penol was flooded and rebuilt elsewhere. Again, we benefited from traveling outside the high season (July- September and around Christmas), as the parking lot in front of the rock was empty. Sara told us that during the high season, the wait time to enter Penol is over one hour. Andrea did not miss the chance to climb the famous steep rock, with its over 670 steps, and photograph the wonderful lake landscape with the many islands and peninsulas.
Here, water sport enthusiasts will find a true El Dorado with sailing ships, motorboats, and water skis. In the village of Guatape, you will find wonderful alleys filled with small, colorful houses that present wooden images on their outer walls of peasant or campesino life. This really adds to the unique charm of the place.
The next day Medellin was on the program, and once again, Sara again was very punctual, waiting for us in front of the hotel. First, we drove to Comuna 13, which in the past was a notoriously dangerous neighborhood in Medellin that policemen used to avoid due to the various gangs that ran the neighborhood.
We were carried up the neighborhood by the “longest escalator in the world”, and along the way, we passed incredible graffiti walls, houses with tiny passageways, and steep alleyways. In between, the residents offer all sorts of souvenirs, drinks, arepas (typical corn cakes), fruit juices, and at the top we even enjoyed a group of young people who skillfully performed breakdancing and street dancing. The young inhabitants themselves, who were tired of the violence and gangs, initiated the transformation of this area from a ghetto area to a vibrant artistic comun and now tourist attraction.
Following this visit, we traveled on a very modern tram, equipped with air conditioning, to the Museum House of the Memory, which portrays an in depth history of Medellin’s recent past with the Cocaine Kings and gang wars. The museum even has newspaper articles and police reports from this period that are made available to anyone who visits, including school classes.
We spent the rest of the day strolling along the main streets of Medellin, including the main square near the cathedral that houses many of Botero’s colossal statues. The city is much greener than Bogota, with many trees and small parks, and we noticed, above all, that almost no “wild dogs” were to be seen.
The next day we took a short flight from Medellin to Pereira, and as usual, we were picked up at the airport by our regional chauffeur, Mario, who brought us to Manizales and eventually to the Hacienda Venecia (map). This hacienda is one of the area’s largest coffee plantations and has several buildings, including a hostel and a main house. We stayed in the main house for a night.
The house is built in typical colonial style with a beautiful terrace out onto the first floor. Here, we were able to observe different birds during the twilight in comfortable, upholstered armchairs and sofas. The good fairy of the house – Marta – laid a table for us on the porch and spoiled us with delicious food. The 6 peacocks of the Hacienda occasionally made a visit, and we even saw two iguanas on the small lawn in front of the veranda. This is a great spot to relax and bask in the tranquility, listening to foreign bird sounds and letting your eyes wander over the endless green hills full of coffee plants. The mind begins to wander…
The next day, after a freshly prepared breakfast, we were driven to the reception building of the Hacienda, where we got an introduction to coffee cultivation and its history. Then, led by the in-house guide, we walked through the plantation and learned more about the process. Only a very small part of the harvest is roasted for the regional market, as the largest quantities are placed directly and in raw form in a jute bag for the U.S. and Canada.
Again, Marta cooked us a delicious meal for lunch, and soon after, we were picked up by a jeep for a drive to an orchid finca. We soon realized why we needed a Jeep. We embarked on an off-road path filled with potholes and other small obstacles that required a sturdy vehicle. We crossed a small river, and after a good hour, we were at the entrance of Finca Romelia.
We descended upon a steep hill, and I was just waiting for the Jeep to spin out of control and begin uncontrollably sliding down the hill. Fortunately, after about 10 minutes of panic, the house came into view, and we returned to safe and level ground. Here, a true orchid paradise awaited us with hundreds of different orchids in all shapes and colors, along with bonsai and cacti that the owning couple breeds with a passion. One of the owners guided us through his treasured space, and you could feel his passion for these plants radiating off of him. Unfortunately, he only spoke Spanish. I was able to understand a lot, but Andrea caught very little of his explanation.
We were picked up from the hacienda by a chauffeur named Giovanni who drove us to the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano (whose last eruption was in 1985). We drove 4000 meter above sea level and descended again until arriving at the hotel Termales del Ruiz, which is nestled at 3’400 m.a.s.l. The room was cold, but fortunately, the electric stove gave some heat.
First, we wanted to experience the main attraction of this place, which was feeding the hummingbirds. We received two small pots that we could fill with sugar water. After placing the pots in our outstretched hands, a variety of different colored hummingbirds flocked to our hands within seconds and began dunking their long beaks in these pots to drink the sugar water. Without any shyness they clung to our fingers with their little feed until they had received enough and fluttered away.
For me, this was an especially touching experience.
After, we wanted to enjoy the thermal pools, so we changed into our swimsuits and entered the 40-degree water. The various pools only steamed, as the temperature of the air was quite cool.
At dinner we realized that we were one of the only people here, despite it technically being high season. The view of the surrounding mountains in the morning was phenomenal, and in the valley, you could see part of Manizales. Cows grazed through this luscious green area brimming with trees and shrubs of different kinds. At this height we even spotted many potato fields on the other side of the dome. In Switzerland the tree line is at 1800 m.a.s.l., and above that it is only bare.
Going to the traditional town Salamina
Our next driver took us to the charming town of Salamina in about 3 hours and dropped us off at our boutique hotel Casa de Lola Garcia, where we were again the only guests with a huge room. The hotel is located in the middle of the town on a very quiet street and looks like a former family house with a beautiful courtyard and several beautifully decorated rooms. In terms of meals, the hotel only offered breakfast, but with the many restaurants in town, this was not a problem. Like in most Colombian villages, the central square is called “Plaza Bolivar”, named after the freedom fighter Simon Bolivar, who founded Greater Colombia and defeated the Spanish Crown.
The next day, our local guide, who happened to be German, picked us up to visit the wax palms with us. Our driver arrived with a sturdy jeep, and we assumed that a bumpy ride awaited us. Our suspicions were confirmed when we entered onto a road under construction, filled with dirt mounds, holes, one lane-passages, and street workers directing traffic from Salamina to San Felix. It took us 2 hours to travel 18km, and we swallowed a lot of dust, despite the lowered tarpaulins.
In San Felix we made a stop to drink something warm before continuing to the valley La Samaria and its wax palms. At the top of the hill was a lonely restaurant that provided a panoramic view of the famous wax palms, reaching a staggering 50m in height. In the past, wax was extracted from the palm trees and used to make candles for the Semana Santa. The palms only grow in a certain radius around this one volcano- nowhere else on earth. Our guide and Andrea went down to the river, but for me, it was too steep. After a short summit walk, I made myself comfortable in the restaurant, and about an hour later, we were all enjoying some delicious grilled trout from this river.
Then it was time to start the dusty and exhausting way back to Salamina. We enjoyed our quiet evening on the edge of the big square with a good cappuccino and a view of the defilée of villagers around the square.
Early in the morning our driver Guillermo, who took us to the airport in Pereira, picked us up for our flight.
After our flight to Cartagena, we were picked up by two people at the airport: the chauffeur and a guide, who led us to the hotel Casa San Agustin. Located in the old town of Cartagena, it is considered one of the best in the city. Upon entering the building, we were provided with cool towels and a refreshing fruit juice to help cool us down. Our room was very spacious, including the bathroom that housed a large shower. The room was also air-conditioned, which made it pleasantly cool.
In the courtyard of the hotel was a pool, which we would certainly be using use. For the 5 o’clock tea, there was a special room, equipped with comfortable armchairs, beautiful dishes, and various whiskeys. In the hallways, there were niches of armchairs and sofas accompanied by water jugs and glasses to keep ourselves cool. By coincidence, it turned out that Frank Spitzer of Pelecanus was also in Cartagena. He led us to a wonderful restaurant for seafood, “La Cevicheria”(map). The restaurant extended partially into the street so that we were at the center of the outdoor spectacle that brings this city to life at night. We saw dancers, performers of various kinds, small bands, and colorful people in every direction. After our moderate temperatures at 2000m.a.s.l. during the days before, we felt the heat of Cartagena two-fold, even in the evening when it cooled down a bit.
The next morning our new guide picked us up, and we were amazed that instead of a car, a whole bus was available for us alone. First, we drove to the fort, which is one of the landmarks of the city. Then we drove along the 11 km long city wall, which can easily be walked, visited a monastery, stopped by the former house of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, crossed the picturesque small streets and beautiful squares, and finally ended by driving along the beautiful coastline bustling with large hotels.
Of course, at 5pm, we were not allowed to miss the famous sunset from Café del Mar. The café is located on top of the city wall and the coveted seats facing the sea are naturally occupied early in the afternoon. At 5 o’clock, however, every seat is occupied by those raising their mobiles phones to record the sunset. The hustle and bustle the streets makes you lose track of time, and before we knew it, it was time for dinner.
After a wonderful buffet breakfast at the hotel, we moved to the Hotel Conrad, just outside the city and set off for the Karibana, a nearby golf course. We were able to choose our clubs and this time, we had a golf cart. The temperature was warm, clocking in at about 40 degrees. Frank Spitzer joined us because he wanted to take shots of the golf course – with his drone. The place was well maintained and very nicely laid out with interesting holes. The second 9 holes were very close to the sea, which made it a little bit more difficult to play with the wind.
After the round we enjoyed the beach club at the hotel, which included a big pool and a nice open restaurant next to the sea. The restaurant served us fish soup, which turned out to be a small soup bowl of vegetable soup with an entire grilled fish on top. The meal looked beautiful, but unfortunately, it was a bit difficult to eat the fish. A plate was delivered soon after, which solved the problem. We could have sat here for hours, as we felt comfortable basking in the sun, the gentle breeze of the sea, and drinking the delicious fruit juices.
Frank Spitzer said goodbye and flew back to Bogota. We stayed at the Hotel Conrad, sat down in the lobby for a nice drink, and watched the many people dressed in festive dresses pass by, but at 9:00 pm, as if on orders, they all headed for the exit and left on buses. The next day we enjoyed one of the pools around the hotel, and in the afternoon, a chauffeur took us to the airport from where we flew back to Bogota. Again, Frank Spitzer picked us up and we visited one of the great restaurants in the Candelaria.
On our last day, we stayed in an interesting neighborhood, roamed the old streets full of graffiti again, bought some small gifts, and then flew back to Frankfurt in the evening and on to Zurich.
We had a wonderful journey in Colombia with many interesting experiences and encounters that at no time made us feel unsafe. Most of the people we met always asked us the same question, “What do you think about our country in Europe?” With great fervor, they asked us to pass on our positive experiences so that more travelers from Europe would come and share in this wonderful country.
I hope this blog was useful and helped you a lot. We are more than happy organizing your trip to Colombia. If you require more information, just follow the following link to the main page www.pelecanus.com.co.
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