By Sacha Bunnik
Colombia had always been on my bucket list and I was lucky enough to be able to travel through this marvellous country with Marion, my mother. A lot of people when they speak about Colombia talk about safety, the FARC guerrilla movement and drugs, and sure, they all play a part of the rich history of Colombia, but they certainly don’t define it as a country. The people of Colombia are super friendly, always with a welcoming smile and a friendly “hola”…there is a huge amount of things to do, the scenery is spectacular in every sense, and the food, well you won’t go hungry that’s for sure! So, if you are thinking of visiting Colombia, don’t be put off by the stereotypes as it is one of the most rewarding and fascinating places I have ever travelled to and if I had the opportunity to go back, I would not hesitate for a minute.
This is our story as we travelled overland from Quito in Ecuador to Bogota in Colombia.
Our journey started in Ecuador. We landed in Quito, the capital, and transferred by van to the northern town of Otavalo, just south of the Colombian border. Overnighting in a traditional hacienda is the way to go in Otavalo, our hacienda (Pinsaqui) was steeped in history, playing host to General Simon Bolivar back in the day (plenty of fascinating black and white photos on the walls).
Otavalo is a wonderful place to explore as it’s the heart of the “rose and flower” growing region of Ecuador (and on a side note, Ecuador produces massive amounts of flowers and sells them all around the world). We were lucky enough to visit a rose farm to see how they grow, harvest, pack and ship these locally grown beauties around the world. I had no idea that roses came in so many assorted styles, sizes and colours.
Before we crossed the border into southern Colombia, we stopped to explore the colourful local markets in Otavalo, famous for its handicraft and farm animals. What I liked about the markets was that it was for locals, not put on for tourists. If you ever get the chance to visit this part of Ecuador make sure you include a morning visit to this market, you won’t be disappointed.
The border crossing into Colombia took about an hour, shorter than I thought it was going to be – a pleasant surprise. We continued north to the non-descript frontier town of Ipiales to overnight before heading further into Colombia the next day.
Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia
Las Lajas Sanctuary is one of the most important churches in Colombia, one of Colombia’s most popular tourist sights and also one of its most remote. The original church was built in the early 18th century from wood, but was replaced by the current stone church in 1949, making it quite modern compared to the many older churches in South America.
What makes it so interesting is its location at the bottom of a canyon in the southernmost region of Colombia – away from major populated centres, and built overhanging a river a hundred or so metres below. It’s truly stunning, with a 50-metre bridge outside the church spanning the canyon width and the fast-moving river below – make sure your camera is charged!
We visited on a Sunday and witnessed the church bursting with locals enjoying their Sunday mass, making it a very special time to visit.
The best and the most dramatic way to reach the church is by taking the gondola – it’s a short 10-minute journey. It allows you to float above the green countryside like a bird and then you first set your eyes on the church from above – truly magical.
After our morning ticking this off the bucket list, we headed to the small city of Pasto to overnight. The next day, we continued north to Popayan.
Along the way we visited the stunning Laguna de la Cocha, the second largest naturally formed lake in Colombia, located just outside of Pasto. The landscape is beautiful. The large lake is surrounded by picturesque green mountains, little rivers and villages. We enjoyed a boat ride on the lake, visited one of the islands, and followed up with coffee and cake in the village. An enjoyable way to spend the morning.
The drive to Popayan is incredibly scenic as its full of rolling mountains, dotted with little villages and farming communities, and is away from the touristy areas of Colombia. Some of the mountains in this part of Colombia even resembled old volcanoes.
The historic city of Popayan was founded by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s and still retains a lot of its original colonial architecture. What also makes Popayan special is that 17 past presidents of Colombia have come from Popayan, making it a very important political city in Colombia. This also means a lot of money has been spent making the city look and feel nice. The old part of Popayan is bursting with historic churches, plazas, convents, religious museums and art galleries, so it’s a beautiful place to wander around and explore on foot, which we did for 2 days.
Markets in Silvia, Colombia
It was an early morning start out of Popayan as we wanted to visit the morning markets in the rural town of Silvia. Locals come from all the surrounding villages to buy and sell almost anything and everything they need in life, so the markets are very colourful indeed. The traditional medicines on offer were very interesting to see and a real highlight of the market for me.
When it came to try some of the local produce, Marion was braver than I was as she sat with locals to eat some freshly made soup, which by all accounts was very tasty.
The streets of Silvia were full of colourful chiva buses. Chiva buses are unique to Colombia and Ecuador, they are used in rural areas to transport people, small livestock and most other things around, the chivas are open sided and fit about 80 people. What makes them so cool is that they are painted in bright colours, like hippy vans of the 1970’s.
San Agustin, Colombia
Our journey today was long as we travelled further inland by secondary rural roads (unpaved and a little bumpy) to the isolated town of San Agustin. San Agustin is surround by green jungle-covered hills, mountainous peaks and fast flowing rivers, and offers some of the most spectacular scenery in Colombia.
The main attraction of San Agustin is the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Archaeological Parks that dot the landscape around town. These parks are home to numerous pre-Colombian volcanic statues (over 500 in total) depicting the gods and sacred animals such as the eagle and jaguar. Marion and I had a wonderful time exploring these parks, mainly in a light drizzly rain which added to the mystic feeling of this spiritual place.
After a few days exploring San Agustin we headed north by road to Bogota, the capital of Colombia (you can read about Bogota in my next blog “24 hours in Bogota”).
The road north travels through the food bowl of Colombia, its agricultural heartland, full of farms and farming towns. We stopped in the city of Neiva to try the locally speciality, cheese bread, and wow did it taste good! Plus, it was about USD$1 for a bag of rolls – terrific value.
Did we enjoy Colombia and did we feel safe? It’s a big yes to both of those questions from me, that’s for sure. Colombia has so much to offer tourists. From colonial towns, jungle and mountain peaks to archaeological sites and cosmopolitan cities like Bogota. Colombia is changing rapidly as more tourists are discovering this amazing country, so if you want to see it at its most authentic, I would highly recommend visiting soon.
You can visit Ecuador and Colombia on our Bunnik Small Group Tour. For more details and an itinerary, click here.