Colombia, I’m told, is now more peaceable than it was and safe to visit. Well, most of it. And it’s a big country. I'm supposed to be on a group tour of Colombia for two weeks, but there is only one other person in my group. Richard is clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum and it's like travelling with a very self centred demanding child. I think he's also gay. This is not going to be a romantic liaison.

I got here (to encouragingly named El Dorado Airport) via Madrid and I’ve been trying to spot the drug cartel mobsters on the plane. The glitzy ones up front I assume. I was assured that Colombia is much safer nowadays and is gearing up for tourism. That might be true and there is certainly a lot of restoration, but I’ve already seen a knife fight in the road (from the safety of a car) and been warned not to walk round Bogota on my own (great when I’m travelling alone - as I don't think I can count Richard). Apparently, muggings are almost a given in certain areas.

Colombia, the Gateway to South America - in a Nutshell

  • Colombia has territories in North and South America, as it stretches into the Isthmus of Panama, the land bridge joining the two continents. This was the only route south, so, as a result Colombia has a very diverse population. Colombia has been inhabited by various indigenous peoples, since at least 12,000 BC. Today’s heritage reflects various Amerindian civilisations, European settlement, forced African labour, as well as immigration from Europe and the Middle East
  • Colombia is named after Christopher Columbus, who ’discovered South America’. Colombia was initially intended to refer to the whole of the New World. The area now called the Republic of Colombia was known as New Granada, when it first became independent.
  • Colombia achieved independence under the renowned Simon Bolivar, who was the country's first president and is much venerated. But the years since then have been plagued by various forms of civil war. American influence led to the secession of the department of Panama, which became a country in its own right. (The Americans wanted to build the Panama Canal). Internal conflict then became more centred around the drug cartels, who were more firmly established in the last decades of the twentieth century.
  • Colombia has the second-highest level of biodiversity in the world, with areas of Amazon rainforest, mountains grasslands and deserts. It is the only country in South America with coastlines and islands along both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Wow.

Bogota, Capital of Colombia

New Year in Bogota

Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is a pleasant surprise though; a strange juxtaposition of old and new. My hotel is in colonial La Candelaria, all cobbles and red tiles, interspersed with plate glass for optimum views. Bogotá was originally founded as the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada in 1538, by Spanish conquistador de Quesada.

The main square, Plaza de Bolivar, celebrates the Great Emancipator. Around it, are the Palacio de Justicia, the Mayor of Bogotá’s offices, the oldest school in the country and the Casa de los Comuneros, named after the leaders who began the movement towards independence from Spain.

Fernando Botero Angulo who was born in Medellín has a dedicated gallery. His signature satirical style, mainly consists of people with generous proportions, and is known as "Boterismo". Zona G is for eating ( Zona Gourmet) and the Zona Rosa (or T) is for shopping centres, pubs, cafes, fashion boutiques, jewellery stores and night time entertainment. There is also a feast of museums: emerald, gold (astonishing with a permanent exhibition of some 32,000 pieces of gold, 20,000 stones, ceramics and textiles), churches (of course) and a rainbow of street art.


And a funicular up sacred Montserrate - I've been told not go to to the bottom of the lift area on my own - and especially not at night. The sunmit rises 10, 000 feet over Bogotá, Up top, are beautiful mountain views across the Andes, as well as those back across down town. And the winding paths lead to a church (built in the seventeenth century), with a shrine, devoted to El Señor Caído ("The Fallen Lord"). The track is edged with illuminated sculptures - this is how the Colombians celebrate Christmas and New Year,

Salt Mine Cathedral - Zipaquera

Now, I'm off exploring Colombia. Our first stop is a visit to a very new, huge, cathedral, carved out of the tunnels of a salt mine 200 metres underground in a halite mountain. This is the Colombian attempt to rival Poland. The name Zipaquirá refers to Zipa, the leader of the Muisca tribe and the chief of these rich salt mines. The bottom part has three sections, representing the birth, life, and death of Jesus. The icons, ornaments and architectural details are hand carved in the halite rock.

There are some interesting illuminations, but for me, this place is totally devoid of any spirituality. Apparently, the cathedral is a functioning church but it has no bishop and therefore no official status as a cathedral. Perhaps that explains it. There is more atmosphere on the roads, where the holiday traffic is terrible and the driving manic.

Villa de Leyvva, Colonial Colombia

Through pea green cattle country, to the dry glowing aridity of mountains and restored whitewashed towns, like Villa de Leyva. Located away from major trade routes, in a high altitude valley of semi-desert terrain, and with no mineral deposits nearby to exploit, Villa de Leyva has undergone little development in the last 400 years. As a consequence, it is one of the few towns in Colombia to have preserved much of its original colonial style and architecture. The streets and large central plaza are still paved with cobblestones, and many buildings date from the sixteenth century. There are museums dedicated to battles for independence from Spain and statues of Simon Bolivar.

Everyone thinks I'm married to Richard so I'm hastening to put them right. His laptop screen has been damaged and it is all he has talked about for the last three days.

Valle de Cocora

The next destination, driving from Bogota, is the Valle de Cocora. It's located in the central mountains of the  Parque Nacional de los Nevados and the home of the “Quindian wax palm”. This is the national tree of Colombia.  A wander is scheduled, so that we can marvel at the palms, but Richard has heard that there is rare bird life. So, we have to wait while he lugs his huge tripod with him, along the narrow muddy tracks. beside the river. Some of the trees reach a staggering 60 metres. But there's not a bird in sight.

Colombia Coffee Country

New Year is to be spent high in the mountains in the coffee region of Colombia. We're visiting the traditional towns of Salento ( Plaza de Bolívar with vividly painted balconies, handicrafts shops and a Cocora viewpoint) and Filandia (Plaza de Bolivar, coffee shops. viewpoint, colonial homes and viewpoint). I detest coffee, so I'm not participating in plantation tours. But the views (from the many viewpoints) are gorgeous and the villages here are more colourful and Caribbean in style. I think. I can’t see very well as the streets are piled high with bodies; the locals clearly enjoy a New Year drink.

The Colombian people are incredibly friendly (those that don’t want to rob you or run a cartel anyway). The hotels so far have been very atmospheric, although the plumbing is creaky. I'm in a beautiful old bougainvillea covered hacienda today, tiny vermilion birds zipping across the swimming pool. And a maintenance man has just walked along my veranda, carrying a sink pedestal.

An interesting last night in coffee country, as I find myself eyeballing a cockroach on my bedside table. I try to spend the rest of the night with all of me, including my head, well tucked under the sheet.

Getting to Pasto

A flight – business class this time – I assume cattle class is full – to Pasto for the Blancos y Negros carnival. Made even more interesting, as the baggage truck servicing our plane catches fire. First of all, they try to put it out by swatting at it and then they find some small extinguishers. These still don’t dampen it down fully and flames keep licking up again; a fire engine arrives ten minutes later and sorts it out. No-one thinks to move it away from the plane. Thank goodness, the bags are already loaded.

Pasto, Carnival in Colombia

In Pasto (in the south of Colombia) for four nights, my ‘small group tour’ gets really interesting. The itinerary bears little relation to the original programme I was given. We have now been included in a group with over 40 Colombian tourists. We have our own very helpful guide, who promptly goes sick, to be replaced by another, who is also lovely, but very young and inexperienced.

Initially, we are transported on a large bus, with the other tourists too (and told that our next transfer will be on a public bus) but I protest and we get our own car. Nevertheless, we still have to wait and do everything with the whole group and eat mass produced tourist food with them, which rather defeats the idea of small group travelling. My hotel room has no window - just a skylight. It's above the kitchen, which runs every machine known to man, from six in the morning till 10 at night. Then, my new 21 year old guide tells me I must have been very beautiful when I was younger. I'm confused. Is this an insult or a compliment?

On the plus side, the carnival is amazing - fabulous colour and music. It is obligatory to wear ponchos, paint your face and indulge in foam fights using giant aerosols. Unfortunately, Richard takes to this rather too enthusiastically and provokes large numbers of locals by squirting at them. Consequently, I spend rather too much time trying to escape the inevitable retaliation. We visit twice. The first procession celebrates Familia Castañeda, who journeyed to the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora of Las Lajas (see below). The procession of the master artefact makers, on the last day, takes four hours to go past.

Laguna de la Cocha

In addition, we get to do several things that aren't even mentioned on the programme - like a visit to a lake high in the mountains. This is Laguna de la Cocha or Lake Guamuez. There's a boardwalk alongside a little port, with picturesque bridges and traditional wooden houses with flowers trailing from the balconies. And gardens with guinea pig farms.

Then, a boat trip from Isla Larga with with its floating trout hatcheries, to the tiny Sanctuary of Flora and Fauna, on the island of La Corota, where we tramp in single file along the circular trail.

Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora of Las Lajas

Next surprise event, an excursion to a church built into the rock in a canyon of the Guáitara River - the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora of Las Lajas. (It's lit up at night, when it's a little gaudy). According to my Columbian guides, it is classified as the second wonder of Colombia and was designated the most beautiful temple in the world in 2015 by The Telegraph. Really?

This is a very popular pilgrimage site, for Christians from both Colombia and neighbouring Ecuador (as I'm about to discover), due to a purported apparition of the Virgin Mary here in 1754. Amerindian Maria Meneses de Quiñones and her deaf-mute daughter Rosa were caught in a very strong storm and sought refuge between the gigantic Lajas (slabs of stone). Rosa then saw a lightning-illuminated silhouette of Mary over the laja. As if this wasn't enough, a brightly coloured image of the Virgin, appeared inset in the wall of stone. There was no explanation and it is believed to have been created by divine intervention.

I can't decide whether this story or the Telegraph claim is the most credible. But the site is crowded with happy pilgrims.

Tulcán Municipal Cemetery - in Ecuador

The sanctuary visit is part of a side trip to a cemetery in Ecuador, which is fun, but a surprise to say the least.

Ecuador? We just sail over the border from Colombia, no passports required.

A cemetery? Well, it’s a very grand and elaborate one.

The caretaker, Josè Maria Azael Franco, in charge of Tulcán Municipal cemetery, took his work very seriously and created ‘a jaw-dropping topiary wonderland'. Huge marble tombs surrounded by amazingly intricate clipped hedge figures, cascades and statues. Franco died in 1985 and is buried, fittingly, in the cemetery. As he said, 'it's a place, so beautiful, it invites one to die.'

The scenery on the journey is extraordinarily beautiful, This area is known as "Tapiz de Retazos” (the Patchwork of Tapestry). There's a song about it. Most of Colombia is stretched across the Andes. This also means that I'm gasping for breath every time I go up a flight of steps.

Food in Colombia

The food in Colombia is an education. Nearly everything comes with queso - cheese - including the fruit, (especially bananas) and the delicious flat doughnuts. The specialty around Pasto is cuy - roast Guinea pig. We have been made to pay for lunch, which was supposed to be included and we have been given several lunches we didn't expect. Twice, we have been told that dinner was paid for - to my surprise - only to be told it wasn't, after we ordered it. Glorious confusion!

Getting to Popayan

The transfer to Popayan is fraught. We are told we will leave at seven, as it is a long drive. That gets changed to eight as the driver is wanted elsewhere first. He eventually turns up late, in a tiny car. It’s a real battle to get all four of us in, with our luggage (the driver and the guide don’t have any). I reflect that the public bus might have been more comfortable after all.

Imagine my astonishment, when we finally arrive in Popayan, after a six hour drive, to be asked where we want to stay. The guide insists that no accommodation has been booked and that we have to choose. I indicate our programme and the hotel listed therein. So we drive to that establishment. The guide goes in and returns shortly to say they are full. I ask has he checked for our names and he insists adamantly that he has.

The Tour of Popayan

We chase round town for half an hour, trying to find a hotel that isn't full and end up in a very nice five star place. We check in there and get settled in, only to then be told by the guide, that we should pay for this ourselves. I explain again that we have already paid for a hotel and will not be paying again, if someone has made a mistake. Many phone calls follow and a great deal of wasted time. It transpires of course that we had been booked in at the first hotel all the time. Our guide had just asked for vacant rooms when he called in. There aren’t any, as we have already booked them.

So, we have to do the walk of shame, out of the very nice hotel, receiving pitying glances from the porters, to this one, where the receptionist is rude and the walls stink of paint and only the worst rooms are left. It is now late and it is also bucketing with rain. The driver takes us up the hill to see the view, which of course we can’t see at all. And that is the whole of our tour of Popayan - which is reputed to be gorgeous.

A Night in Popayan

I spend the night without water in the basin and no hot water in the shower and no one prepared, or able to do anything about it. Our packed breakfast is one chopped up mango. I want to use Google Translate to complain to the staff on duty, but I can’t, as Richard is using it, to obsess over the lack of an f on the Spanish keyboard. The guy at the desk laughs when I eventually get to ask for a refund. 'We have your money - you're not getting it back'.

I have only a little Spanish - though enough to understand the driver moaning that he won’t get a tip because I am a typical woman, upset about a little hassle. So he doesn’t get one!

I’m now stuck at the airport in Popayan, ironically because of the bad weather. It seems that virtually all the planes on the country are grounded. Bogota airport is on the news, so we may be here sometime and will almost certainly miss the connection to Cartagena. In the end, we arrive just in time to make the original connection, but they insist we wait for the next flight. Another two hours at the airport. I hate Colombia today!!!!

Cartagena, The Jewel of Colombia

We eventually arrive in Cartagena and this mellow colonial city is beautiful. Cartagena is often referred to as the jewel of Colombia. Colourful houses with bougainvillea spattered balconies, countless battered churches in the old walled town, oodles of atmosphere. (Though it’s swarming with tourists and beastly hot.) San Felipe fortress, on San Lázaro Hill, was built in honour of Don Luis Carlos López, the poet from Cartagena, who wrote about the city. But its main purpose was to defend the city from pirate attacks. There are plenty of tunnels, passageways and guns.

The Ciudad Vieja (Old City) is the famous and picturesque part of Cartagena, with its Convent and Church of the San Pedro Claver compound. The Bovedas is the handicraft zone, a collection of archways built into the city wall, originally used to house armaments and then later as a prison. Nowadays, it’s beloved by the cruise ships.

My hotel has a terrace with views out over the old walls and huge plaza. Me encanta Cartagena! It’s a good way to finish an adventure. Before I take the plane to the Bahamas.

Bogotá or Bust

Getting to Ecuador and the Galapagos is a little too exciting. I’m on an Avianca flight to Quito via Bogotá, which has already taken off several hour late from Paris. I’ve been watching the little aeroplane on the flight map apparently flying slower and slower until the captain, unsurprisingly, announces over the tannoy that 'We have a problem with one of our engines’.

We divert to Puerto Rico Airport, which is closed. We sit in a dark airport lounge while nothing happens and no-one tells us what is going on. Eventually, there’s an announcement, in Spanish, that says (I’m told) that another plane is on its way from Bogotá to pick us up. Still nothing happens. A man runs through the lounge with a very large spanner. Half an hour later there is an announcement, in Spanish, that says (I’m told) that the engine has been fixed and we should all board. I’m not very happy about this, but everyone else complies, so I do too. Miraculously, the plane flies. Naturally, we have missed our connection to Quito.

Ecuador - in a Nutshell

  • The name Ecuador came from the word Equator - the Equator passes directly through the country
  • Quito is the capital city, but Guayaquil is the largest city and port in Ecuador. It is also the wealthiest area in the country.
  • Ecuador gained its independence from Spain, in 1822, after 300 years of Spanish rule.
  • Garbage collecting trucks play music as they drive through the cities, similar to ice cream vans in the UK
  • The United States dollar has been used as the country’s currency since a banking crisis in 1999.
  • Spanish is the official language

Quito, the Capital of Ecuador

Quito is the capital city of Ecuador, a UNESCO heritage site, at an elevation of 2,850 metres. It is the second-highest official capital city in the world, after La Paz. But I have arrived so late that I have missed most of the planned day’s sightseeing. All I recall are speeding past clusters of Spanish colonial buildings and doing a great deal of weaving and diving, to avoid the many jostling bag snatchers and pick pockets.

The Galapagos Islands

We have to fly to Guayaquil to catch a further flight to the Galapagos, almost 800 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. The name Galápagos Islands means Island of the Tortoises, but their official name is Archipiélago de Colón (Columbus Archipelago). This string of volcanic islands distributed on either side of the Equator, have both Spanish and English names and were annexed by Ecuador in 1832. They are renowned for their large number of endemic species, studied by Charles Darwin during the second voyage of HMS Beagle. These made a major contribution to Darwin's theory of evolution 'Origin of Species'. The Galápagos Islands now form the Galápagos National Park and Marine Reserve, so popular with tourists (despite the remote location) that they have to limit numbers. They are so important that they were the first listed UNESCO site.

Our first evening in the Galapagos is the epitome of balmy. I’m sharing with Kathy and we are soon ensconced in hammocks on the rooftop, beer at hand, looking out over the palm-lined bay, pelicans swooping. What more could you want?

Cruising the Galapagos

I’m hugely excited to be following in the footsteps (boat wake?) of Darwin, but everything comes at a price. The boat for our Galapagos 'cruise' is a little on the decrepit side - it is a (relatively) cheap tour. We start at unreasonably unsociable hours, after sleeping ashore. And the crossings between islands are rough. The good bits far outweigh the bad though - this is a journey to remember.

Santa Cruz to tiny South Plaza Island, to San Cristobel, Espanola Island and Punta Suarez. There are stark lava fields (peppered with scuttling scarlet crabs), prickly cactus forests, volcanic craters, mangrove lagoons, silvery sand beaches and foam lined azure waters. I’ve read that the water’s not tropically warm, as the islands are washed by the freezing Humboldt Current. Nevertheless, the snorkelling in the spectacular sunken crater of Devil's Crown at Floreana Island is also wonderful. The rays, sharks and reef fish are abundant. Baby sea lions play chicken with us, diving between our legs, whilst their parents look on indulgently. (I'm keeping my distance from the large aggressive males). At Punta Cormorant Lagoon, on Floreana, there’s a much decorated mailbox (on a post), used by 18th Century whalers. Today, you can post your cards there.

The Fauna of the Galapagos

The landscape is spectacular and the wildlife incredible. As advertised,  the animals are totally unfazed by humans wandering amongst them. And Easter is a good time to come - it’s breeding season and the waved albatrosses are in residence. They queue up, huge above the cliff edge, like aeroplanes stacking at Heathrow, waiting to glide in and out of their packed nesting area. The frigate birds are in the midst of courting, inflating their astonishing red balloon chests, the fruit bats are wheeling, the sea lions and land (and sea) iguanas are snoozing, the giant tortoises mating (humping describes it exceptionally well) and the blue footed boobies are looking impossibly cute.

We have a Swiss tour manager, Antonio and an Ecuadorian naturalist guide, Gorge. They introduce me to the joys of the margarita over dinners and hand out free tickets to the local club, when we’re finally back in something that qualifies as a town. Free tequila slammers are included with each ticket. Everyone in the group has agreed to come out, on our last night together. But, come the evening, fatigue sets in. I’m the only one in the disco with our two leaders and everyone’s free slammers are lined up all along the bar. Antonio and Gorge insist that they do not go to waste. I’m not entirely convinced this is the reason that I got food poisoning – suffice it to say that my last days’ sightseeing - a beautiful caldera - isn’t fully appreciated.

Bogotá and Bust

This has been one of the most amazing trips ever. The sights are extraordinary and the atmosphere delightful. However, there is the journey home to endure. I’m reassured to note that our Avianca plane is waiting at the correct gate when we arrive safely in Bogotá. Except that they’ve allowed a different group of passengers on and diverted us to another craft, which hasn’t arrived yet. When we finally do scramble aboard there’s an announcement (in Spanish), to the effect that this replacement doesn’t have the capacity to fly all the way across the Atlantic (very reassuring) and we have to refuel at Barranquilla, on the coast. This is duly carried out, with what looks like huge watering cans.

‘We’re finally ready,’ the captain announces and as he’s speaking all the lights go out. There is more waving of spanners and I notice the stewardesses bashing one of the hatches back into place with a hammer. I’ve seen Mike, who is sitting next to me buy rum in the duty free shop. I beg a plastic beaker off a stewardess and request that Mike fills it up. It’s the only way to survive a journey like this.

Home, James

Naturally, we are late back in Paris and naturally I’ve missed my connection to Heathrow. It’s Easter Sunday and there’s not a seat to be had on any airline. Avianca taxi me across the city and put me on a Eurostar train instead. I’m happy to be chugging along eating smoked salmon and drinking champagne, until there’s an announcement to say there’s been an accident on the line ahead and there will be a delay. I message my father to tell him not to collect me from Heathrow and arrange that he will me off the train at Gatwick Station. I will make my own way from Waterloo back south. Finally, I find him waiting on the platform. ‘I don’t know how to tell you this,’ he says, 'But I can’t remember where I’ve parked the car’.

It was still a brilliant trip.

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