A Journey Through Colombia

Bolivar Plaza and the largest church in Colombia, Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada Basílica Metropolitiana de la Imaculada Concepciòn de María en Bogotá.

We have arrived in Bogotá where we’ll spend the last 3 days of our Colombian Journey. It’s hard to believe we’ve been on the road 15 weeks and yet it seems like ages ago that we arrived in Quito.

April 24, 2015.  It was time to say Adiós to Ecuador and Hola to Colombia so we traveled by bus from Cotacachi, Ecuador (north of Quito) to the northern border town of Tulcan, Ecuador and then took a taxi to the border. After Ecuadorian immigration stamped Exit stamps in our passports we rolled our suitcases through a gauntlet of pesky money changers and across the Rumichaka Bridge to enter Colombia where we were given 90-day visas. Then we piled into a “shared” taxi with 3 others while a bungee cord strapped our luggage into the open trunk and drove up the road to the Colombian border town of Ipiales. We paused here one night specifically to visit The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Las Lajas.  

Las Lajas is visible in the center of the photo in the river gorge surrounded by farmland.


This beautiful Gothic church spans a spectacular gorge of the Guáitara River. Legend has it that an image of the Virgin Mary appeared in the mid-18th century on an enormous rock above the river. Interestingly, the church has been constructed in such a way that the rock (and image) is its high altar. 

The next day was a long travel day, a 8 1/2 hour bus made even longer due to 3 different police checkpoints!  At each stop the police would open the cargo hold and collect everyone’s IDs which they would enter into an electronic device.  I wondered why the electronic device didn’t advise them that these IDs had already been entered 30 minutes prior! One young man didn’t have any ID and each time had some explaining to do!

This is the oldest church in Popayán which is also known as the White City as many of the buildings are white.


Beautiful Popayán, one of the most traditional Colombian towns is very rich in Colonial-era architecture. Although a 1983 earthquake destroyed part of the city, much was rebuilt and restored. Located 5775 feet above sea level, Popayán has an average temperature of 68 degrees which we loved along with the sunnier skies.  It’s not a large city, but has several universities, therefore the population is young and vibrant and many of them zip around on motorcycles and scooters making street crossings more difficult than ever! 


In 2005, Popayán was declared by the UNESCO as the first city of gastronomy.  We found good food, and some of it quite cheap. 

Gooey and soft – a freshly grilled cheese and chicken arepa.

Next to the city there is a huge mound built by the Pre-Hispanics, similar to a pyramid and now covered by grass; legend says the inner structure holds golden riches. The city was conquered by the Spanish in 1537 and Spanish immigrants settled next to the Indians taking advantage of their goodheartedness and cheap labor, and teaching Catholicism to the Indians in exchange for their gold and work. This sounds very familiar to California history.  Popayán was an important stop on the Lima – Quito – Cartagena road. The scenery driving through these mountains is unbelievably beautiful. It is very green and the steep mountainsides are blanketed by farm fields. I can’t imagine traveling up and down the Andes on a mule. 

Our next stop was steamy Cali before returning to higher elevations and colorful hilly town of Salento of the Zona Cafetal (coffee growing region) where the old colonials are painted bright colors.

These are the 200′ palms of the Cocora Valley. This is a favorite stop among the young backpacker crowd of which the majority are Europeans for the hiking in the Cocorá Valley.


A danger at the end of a trip is to start giving in to weariness and to stop sightseeing. (I can kick myself for falling for it many years ago in Paris where I skipped over going to Versailles and Sacre Couer.) We were getting tired, extremely tired of bus trips, and contemplated whether or not to go to Medellin, but I’m so glad we did.

Although very large and populous (3.5 million) Medellin is a gorgeous modern city with a fantastic balmy tropical climate that wasn’t too hot or too buggy.  (The mosquitoes in Cali drove me crazy!)

Medellin’s clean and modern above ground Metro and cable car line was easy to navigate.


Medellin was home to the artist Botero – famous for his whimsical Chubbies!

We only allowed ourselves 2 full days – not enough time! I believe it may be a place we should return to for a multi-month stay. The population has a strong European heritage  and we felt we blended in a bit more.

It was hard to contemplate touring Colombia and missing the Grand Dame of Colombia, the most visited tourist city – Old Cartegena.  We had just enough time to fit her in if we could get a decent airfare and fly. Bus travel is more expensive in Colombia than in Ecuador, but national flights don’t cost much more than the bus fares.  For a little over $100 each we got flights from Medellin to Cartagena and from Cartagena to Bogotá thus saving us from hours and hours of bus rides.

Ugh! Cartagena and more specifically, the Getsemani neighborhood, was a humid, hot, muggy, messy city (the guidebook called it “gritty”). Our boutique hotel (their words, not mine) was a disappointment. Although no worse than anyplace we’d already stayed, I just hated spending more for the privilege!

The first place – the boutique hotel had both air conditioning and a mini fridge.


We decided to splurge. The next morning we checked out and taxied to a real hotel with all the amenities our budget hostels didn’t have: toiletries, hand towels, floor mats, mirrors, room safe, bedside lamp, extra pillows, luggage rack, quietness, ocean-view balcony, pool, and breakfast too! 

We needed to splurge on accommodations in Cartegena, to swim, sun and relax!

Cartagena, crumbling and old, is reminiscent of both New Orleans and Venice.


Walking some of the 11 km of walls that encircle Cartagena.


The evenings lovely cooling breezes made wandering the lanes and walls of the Old City much more pleasant.


Graffiti art in gritty Getsemani.


El Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.


This ceviche of mixed seafood was super fresh and tasty.


Tuesday we’re off for Vancouver, Canada and joining friends and family on an Alaskan cruise.  

Until next week!



List of Our Accommodations in Colombia

Ipiales: Hotel El Nogal, $28, included breakfast, 1 night

Popayán:  El Colonial Hotel, $28, included breakfast, 6 nights

Cali:  Hostal San Fernando, $34, 5 nights

Salento:  Hostal Shambala, $34, included breakfast, 3 nights

Medellin:  Black Sheep Hostal, $34, 3 nights

Cartagena:  Hostal El Pedregal, $43, 1 night

Cartagena: Hotel Corales de Indias, $97, included breakfast, 3 nights

Bogotá:  Explora Hostal, $28, 3 nights

One response to “A Journey Through Colombia

  1. Wow, Merrill – from Columbia to Vancouver?! Now that is quite the switch. Have fun on the cruise; it has been quite the learning experience following you two through your So. America adventures. And, yes, the Spanish did leave quite a legacy!

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