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In the ultimate years, Colombia as a destination is growing, and it is amazing to see this positive change in our country. However, most tourists go to the same popular places and miss out on some incredible sites and hidden gems.
You don’t want to visit the typical and popular tourist destination but rather explore the unknown terrain and look for the spirit of adventure? We identified ten top off-the-beaten-track destinations for an alternative adventure in Colombia. Some of them are difficult to reach, for others you’ll need a bigger budget, but all of them have one thing in common: all are unique in their own special way and definitively off the map for the mainstream traditional tourist.
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Maybe you have seen pictures of the colorfully dressed women (Palenqueras) selling fruits and candy in the streets of Cartagena. They make a beautiful photo motif, but very little tourists know the story of their hometown San Basilio de Palenque.
Palenquera selling sweets in the streets
Southeast of Cartagena, in the foothills of the mountain range Montes de Maria is located one of the most important historical villages of Colombia: San Basilio de Palenque. It is the first free slave town in the Americas, founded by escaped slaves from Cartagena. In the early 1600’s they opposed not only to slavery but also to the King of Spain and the colony and thus represent the African emancipation from slavery in America.
People living there today are known for their rich and unique culture, influenced heavily by their African heritage. In 2008, the small town and is cultural space was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO.
During the seventeenth century, Cartagena was one of the main hubs for the slave trade in Colombia. Some slaves escaped their oppression and founded walled communities - so-called “Palenques” - in the mountains and jungles surrounding Cartagena to offer shelter and refuge. Most of the other secret fort villages were eventually found and destroyed. San Basilio is the only Palenque town that survived and that still exists today.
Due to the isolation of the refuge, the inhabitants could preserve their unique cultural heritage for a long time. However, outside of San Basilio, Palenque’s people were often discriminated against and became victims of stereotyping which often lead them to deny their traditional customs. With the recognition of the UNESCO, a new pride for their culture emerged and now values, traditions, and language are embraced by the community.
Statue of Benkos Biohó
The town of Palenque offers a lot of different activities to dive into history and culture. First would be the statue of Benkos Biohó, founder of San Basilio. You can also visit the hair salon Belleza La Reina del Kongo, where you can learn about traditional hairstyles and how they were used to send secret messages! Music plays an important role in the town’s culture, so go visit Rafael Cassiani Cassiani (have a look at this YouTube video) or the studio of the young band Kombilesa Mi (check them out on YouTube).
What you shouldn’t miss out on is the delicious food, so have a tasty lunch in San Basilio. While you’re there, we encourage you to get taught at least a few words in the unique Palenque language to appreciate their culture!
Typical Lunch in San Basilio
The town can be easily visited on a day trip, and if you want to learn about an important part of Colombian history, get to know a piece of Africa through the culture of the Palenques, and learn their impressive history of emancipation. This village is definitely worth the visit!
You might have heard and planned a visit to the popular Comuna 13 in Medellín, once considered a no-go slum and now epitome of social innovation and fantastic street art.
Barrio Egipto is the equivalent of Comuna 13 in Bogotá: once the most dangerous neighborhood in Bogotá and characterized by violence, drug trafficking, and gang rivalry. However, this place now sees a recovery from that rough past while embracing a brighter future.
Bogotá itself is not off-the-beaten-path, but a tour to Barrio Egipto surely is! You will not hear of many travelers who went there or even know the story of this neighborhood.
Street in the neighborhood
Barrio Egipto is one of the oldest traditional neighborhoods in Bogotá and is located at the feet of the Guadalupe hill, in the south of La Candelaria’s center. Its location, close to the hills, converted the neighborhood in a strategic entrance to the city for illegal trafficking of aguardiente (a Colombian liquor). This brought a wave of criminality and conflict that affected many generations.
Today it is possible to take a tour (called “Breaking Borders”) with former gang members who want to bring change to their community through tourism. The offered tours are a great chance to break the existing borders and get to know a part of a community that would be almost impossible to reach otherwise. Although crime rates went down significantly in recent years, there is still a lot to do to truly change this neighborhood sustainably.
Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Egipto
Going on a tour there, you can support a cause that aims to demonstrate how tourism can bring positive changes to a community and give locals new perspectives, opportunities, hopes, and dreams.
In the eastern end of Colombia in the department of Guainía, three mystical stone hills stand several hundred meters above the jungle. The giant titans bordered by rivers that make up a unique landscape are called the Mavecure Hills (Cerros de Mavecure) and are one of the best-kept secrets in the country.
The three monoliths
The hills of Mavecure are a formation of three huge mounds of gray stone located 1.5 hours in a boat from the town of Inírida. The hills actually are three giant granite monoliths embedded in the jungles of the Amazonian east, named Cerro Pajarito or Bird Hill, Cerro Mono or Monkey Hill and Cerro Mavicure. They emerged in the Precambrian Era, the geologic time prior to 600 million years ago!
The local indigenous group have deep spiritual connections to these hills and consider them sacred. They call the hills “tepuyes”, a word that in their language means home or abode of the gods.
The hills can only be accessed by the river via a boat ride. It is possible to climb up the smallest one, Cerro Mavicure (175m or ft.) from which you have a great view of the other two monoliths. Up until now, it isn’t possible to ascend to the top of the other two hills. The Cerro Pajarito measures 712m or ft. The third hill, the Cerro Mono, was supposedly never climbed before (according to the local people) and has a height of 480m or ft.
The Legend of Princess Inírida:
At the foot of the Cerro Pajarito live the local Puinave people in small communities. They tell the legend of a beautiful young woman whose name was Inírida or “mirror of the sun” in English. Every man in the region wanted to marry Inírida, but she turned down all of them. One day, however, a young man gave her a powerful potion to make her fall in love with him. Unfortunately, this love potion was so strong, that the princess went insane. In her madness, she climbed all three of the hills, until eventually she ended up at Cerro Pajarito, where she fainted. The hill cannot be climbed due to its steep and slippery walls so the young man was unable to follow her. On her waking, Inírida decided to live far away from humans and finally became a part of Cerro Pajarito. To this day it is said she is watching over people, animals, and plants of the region. Everytime you pass by the hills, you are supposed to greet her with a song, in order to brighten up her day and dispel her melancholy of living alone. To show her gratitude she will let down threads of water, that shine like silver stitchery and look like a beautiful flower. Depending on her emotions, this flower will have different colors: bright when the princess is happy and dark when she is sad.
At the moment there exists little to no touristic infrastructure, so this site is for real adventure-seekers. You will need the right equipment to go, prepare for camping, and bring enough food and water. There are only a few tour agencies that offer organized tours for a higher budget.
A trip to the hills can be combined with a jungle tour and a boat ride to see the pink dolphins of the Amazon river. It is the ideal trip for people who want to spend time far away from the tourist hordes and explore Colombia’s hinterland.
At about four or five hours from the town of Pacoa in the Amazon region, sits a hidden gem for you to explore. It is the Jirijirimo stream, which in its indigenous origin means "the güio’s bed" (güio is an anaconda or a big snake living in the plains of Colombia).
Following down the Apaporis River through the Amazon jungle, you can explore one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Colombia. The stream along its route is divided into two smaller rivers forming a heart-shaped island before the wild rapids fall down an impressive rock staircase formation of 60 meters.
The impressive Jirijirimo
The surroundings of Jirijirimo and their rich nature are equally worth exploring. The jungle region is home to the Cabiyaris Indians and animals like macaws and güios.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to reach this hidden gem. There is little to no touristic infrastructure and only a few tour companies that offer tours there. The only way to stay overnight is in the nearby villages or to camp - so this destination truly promises an adventure trip!
As this off-the-beaten-track destination is situated in the Amazon region, we recommend checking your vaccinations (Yellow fever, Tetanus) and packing the right equipment for a humid climate (repellent, practical clothes etc.).
The wild stream
Guaviare is a department in the central south of Colombia. Due to its location in the Amazon jungle, the region was heavily affected by the drug trade and considered off limits for many years. This, however, has changed completely and now the department’s capital San José is opening for tourism - and there is a lot to see and do in and outside of the town!
Puerta de Orión
One characteristic of the department is its abundance of water. San José lies directly at the Guaviare river and you can easily take a canoe and go kayaking in the surrounding bodies of water.
Due to all the water, this region is very biodiverse. If you are interested to see animals like pink dolphins, caimans, monkeys, toucans, parrots, and hummingbirds in their natural habitat, the chances here are very high!
You might have heard of Caño Cristales, the rainbow river with its stunning red algae. Near San José, you also have the chance to observe this amazing water vegetation and it is less expensive than Caño Cristales and less visited too!
Worth a visit are the Laguna Negra (a water mirror in the middle of the jungle), Damas del Nare (where if you are lucky will see pink dolphins) as well as the natural pools of Los Tuneles and Las Delicias waterfall.
The Cerro Azúl hill is known for its red rock paintings from a pre-Columbian culture. It is estimated that the paintings were created by indigenous tribes about 1.000 years ago!
In the Serranía de la Lindosa you will find surreal rock formations in the so-called “Ciudad de Piedra” or Rock City. Although the rocks aren’t man-made but rather formed by nature, you feel like strolling through an ancient city with a long lost culture.
Ciudad de Piedra
Other wonders of nature to visit while in Guaviare are the caves “Los Tuneles” and the “Puerta de Orión”, a structure of rocks, where you can supposedly see the Belt of Orión during December nights.
Punta Brava is located on the Pacific Coast in the Chocó region, one of the most biodiverse regions in Colombia. It is covered in dense tropical forests that provide a home for many plant and animal species. In Punta Brava, the rainforest and the Pacific ocean merge and show their unique beauty.
Colombian Pacific Coast
This region is ideal for nature-lovers and eco-tourists who want to explore nature, the wild vegetation and the impressive Pacific Ocean. You can do a lot of different activities there e.g. swimming at the beach, hiking through the tropical forest to hidden waterfalls, and look for some birds.
Between June and September, there is a high chance to be able to observe humpback whales near the coast. Every year they travel to the warmer waters of the Pacific near the Colombian coast to mate and give birth. Should you go in that period, we definitely recommend a whale watching tour!
Jumping Humpback whale, photo by CUE Colombian Underwarter Expeditions
It is relatively easy to go there compared to other destinations. To Punta Brava and Nuquí, you can take a flight from Medellín or go by boat from Buenaventura. Although you can reach it easily and there exists touristic infrastructure, not a lot of tourists go there, keeping this place with its touch of hidden paradise.
This Caribbean Isle is part of the department of Archipelago of San Andrés and lies far away from the Colombian mainland, between Costa Rica and Jamaica. It might be one of the most common travel-dream-come-true destinations with its long white sanded beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters.
Beach at Isla de Providencia
The activities you can do there easily fill some days. Enjoying the spectacular beaches by relaxing on the warm sand and swimming in the blue ocean. Snorkeling and Scuba diving to explore the Caribbean marine life and the colorful coral reefs. Tasting delicious seafood and fresh fish.
On the island, you can also find the Old Providence McBean Lagoon National Park that is made up of coral reefs, tropical forest, mangroves, and lagoons. The Peak Forestry Reserve invites to hikes through the green nature. On Cayo Cangrejo (in English: Crab Key), a mini-island next to the main one where you can have a breathtaking view of the whole reef!
A lot of people know San Andrés Island, but not many take the extra trip to this island as there are no direct flights from the mainland (only from San Andrés). Also, going there is relatively expensive, so you should think about your travel budget if you plan to visit.
Colombia is so diverse, you even find deserts in our country! In the northernmost part of Colombia bordering Venezuela and the Caribbean sea, is the Guajira desert. In this wild landscape, the sun shines relentlessly and creates a hostile environment for most plants and animals. Most of the vast area isn’t accessible and only a few points are touristically developed.
Beach at Cabo de la Vela
The most visited area is Cabo de la Vela. This town lies on the ocean and the very dry landscape creates an intriguing contrast to the sea. It is known as a top kitesurfing spot and also famous for its great sunsets on the beach!
Punta Gallinas is the most northern point in South America, very isolated and ideal for those looking for some loneliness. There you will be able to roll down the giant Taroa dunes or visit the lighthouse.
In the Flora and Fauna Sanctuary Los Flamingos located on the Guajira peninsula, it is possible to observe endemic birds, in particular, the flamingos. Bring some binoculars to observe them from a great distance.
You need to experience this destination in order to truly understand its magic.
Only an hour away from Bogotá you can find the stunning Chingaza National Park. It is famous for its beautiful Páramo landscape, lagoons, and its wildlife. Although a lot of people know about Chingaza, it is still an unfrequented destination. The National Park is very well protected and they have a daily maximum capacity of people who are allowed to enter. A visit needs to be well organized in advance, that is why many travelers miss out this stunning site!
View in the National Park
The main activity at Chingaza National Park is hiking. There are different trails which you can take by yourself and others with which you need to book with a tour guide. It is ideal to learn about this unique ecosystem. The area is very well protected and other forms of transport such as horse riding or mountain biking are not allowed. The landscape and vegetation are incredible, and if you are lucky you will spot different animals like bears, deer, and condors. You can also camp at the park or stay at a simple shelter for an overnight trip.
The weather can be changing very quickly, so bring clothing and equipment for rain and sun! However, you should not make your visit dependent on the weather condition, the park is amazing with any kind of weather!
Another reason why many travelers do not visit Chingaza is that getting there by public transport is very difficult. You can take different buses in the direction of the park, but with this option, you’ll always have to walk from the drop-off point to get to the entrance and control post. It is doable, but we would recommend going there by private vehicle or by booking a tour.
To get more information on Chingaza and other travel destinations near Bogotá read our blog post about the Top 8 Day Trips from Bogotá.
Instead of visiting an already known destination in Colombia, it is relatively easy to enjoy untouched destinations by going to the countryside. One example is Amagá, located in Antioquia, around 1.5 hours from Medellín. It is great for a day trip and will mesmerize you with its charm! The town was known for its carbon mines and the railway.
The town’s center is very pretty and on Sundays there is the local farmer’s market.
One of the main attraction of Amagá is the old railway the Viaducto, that includes daunting bridges over deep ravines and dark tunnels. It was built to connect Medellín via Fredonia with the large rail network, as far as Buenaventura. The Ferrocarril was inaugurated in 1922, and fast-forwarded the region’s development. Thanks to the railway, the coffee culture and industry grew very fast. Today it is not used anymore, but you can still follow the rails and discover the old stories of another time.
The old railway
You shouldn’t miss out on exploring the countryside of Amagá. There are some tranquil coffee fincas to visit and enough forest and mountains to hike. You can also visit the three waterfalls of Chorros del Salto, each with different heights. This place has large green areas, ideal for camping and hiking.
It is fairly easy to travel to Amagá from Medellín taking about an hour in public bus e.g. with Rapido Ochoa and costs around 5.000 COP. With a private car, you can reach Amagá via the road very conveniently.
The three monoliths: http://www.eltiempo.com/contenido/multimedia/especiales/IMAGEN/IMAGEN-16436713-2.jpg
The Impressive Jirijirimo: http://www.colparques.net/images/jiri/1.jpg
The wild stream: http://www.colparques.net/images/jiri/2.jpg
Beach at Isla de Providencia: https://img.theculturetrip.com/768x//wp-content/uploads/2017/07/14272830203_d24a51e4ba_k.jpg
Cayo Cangrejo: http://www.eltiempo.com/contenido///estilo-de-vida/viajar/IMAGEN/IMAGEN-14350435-2.jpg
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