I have been travelling through South America for more than a year now, and yet I am still amazed, and frequently surprised, by the sheer variety and diversity of its landscapes, often within remarkably close proximity to each other. The UK has its spots of natural beauty, don’t get me wrong, but the incredible range of natural beauty is one of South America’s stand out features for me. During the course of just one of many bus journeys in Peru, we left the desert of Lima, ascended to nearly 5000 metres in the Andes, then descended first through cloud forest and then through rainforest, all within the space of seven hours. In Ecuador, I cruised between a number of the Galapagos Islands, utterly amazed by a difference in environments so great that multiple endemic species could evolve and flourish just hours apart from each other. And now, we are in Colombia. My favourite country of them all so far was quick to show me that it had a lot to offer on this front. Over the last month and a half we have travelled through, hiked across, and stayed in a number of natural places which are not only outstandingly beautiful, but also unique. And that’s before we’ve even reached the Caribbean coast! So, without further ado, I present three of my top spots in Colombia of unique natural beauty:
Salento and the Valle de Cocora
The small town of Salento in central Colombia was quaint, its brightly painted buildings perfect examples of typical countryside architecture, its streets cobbled and narrow. From Salento, we hiked a loop through the nearby Valle de Cocora. We began by following a path which ran alongside a river (and at times, was the river), crisscrossing over wooden suspension bridges of questionable safety, walking through thick cloud forest. After a night of heavy rain, there were very few other people on the path/river, so the dripping forest, with its rocky river bed and groaning wooden bridges, felt like ours to explore. After walking beside the river for a while, the path peeled away and we began a steep climb up the mountainside. The forest thinned, and we emerged at the top to be greeted by spectacular views. I may have spent a year surrounded by striking landscapes but this valley still blew me away. Clouds shifted around us to reveal green peaks and grassy slopes. These slopes were covered in Colombia’s national tree, the beautiful, lanky, Quindío wax palm. Hundreds marched down the valley, many of them easily fifty metres tall. We slowly descended back into the valley, walking amid the palms (and sometimes stopping for a good hug with a chosen palm individual). Their slender trunks gave the landscape an odd, almost eerie feel, as though we were walking through a fantasy world governed by different proportions.
Our hostel was a few kilometres outside of Salento, so every morning we woke up to a misty view of the surrounding green mountains, covered in patches of coffee plantations. We couldn’t stay in the coffee region without visiting a coffee plantation. For less than the price of a chain cup of coffee back at home, we toured El Ocaso farm. Our guide, Eduardo, explained the planting and growing process, handed out baskets for us to pick the beans, and demonstrated the methods involved in sorting, preparing and drying the beans. This was all rounded off with a cup of the farm’s own coffee, subtle and quite sweet in flavour.
Guatapé and Piedra del Peñol
Guatapé, close to the city of Medellin in central Colombia, was a colourful town, many of its houses decorated with frescos of animals, people and the countryside. It was touristy, but the majority of visitors were Colombian, especially at the weekend.
The main draw was the Piedra del Peñol, a vast granite monolithic formation one kilometre outside the town. It rose two hundred and twenty metres, looking incredibly similar to Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. A zigzagging staircase had been fixed into one crack. The six hundred and fifty-nine steps to reach the top were made much more manageable with an encouraging countdown written in bright yellow paint every fifty steps. When we finished the climb, panting madly and with aching legs, the view was unlike anything I have ever seen. As the bus had driven through the countryside on the way to Guatapé, I had noticed that we passed a number of lakes. I hadn’t realised, however, that the entire area was a series of by and large forested islands set amongst vivid turquoise waterways. Like poring over an interactive map, I followed the waterways until they disappeared into clouds on the horizon, watched boats as small as ants zoom between bays, and traced roadways, incredible feats of engineering with numerous long bridges built to connect the fragmented land. The viewing platform built at the top of the rock was overcrowded with weekend tourists, which somewhat detracted from my ability to appreciate what I was seeing, but the fact that a local tourist industry had developed and was thriving simply based around the view, was testament to its beauty.
We were visiting Guatapé with Kevin and Chala, a couple of friends we have made along the way. Kev and Chala were a non-couple couple: having met whilst travelling, and living in Ireland and the Netherlands respectively, they don’t know what the future will hold. Nevertheless, the weekend was somewhat of an extended double date. On our first evening, we sat in a pizzeria for hours playing Pictionary on serviettes and rounds of Charades which had the owners and several locals laughing as our acting became increasingly over the top. The next day, after climbing the rock, we added Guess Who? to our repertoire and wandered around with serviettes tucked around our sunglasses, trying to guess which character or person was scrawled across the serviette on our own head with a series of yes and no questions. Unsurprisingly, we received a fair few odd looks for this too.
To relax after the sweaty climb up the rock, we all spent the rest of the day at a waterpark, particularly enjoying an inflatable assault course floating in an inlet, which was in no way really aimed at children.
Reserva Natural Cañon del Rio Claro
Midway along the road between the city of Medellin and the capital city of Bogota, the River Claro carves its course through a valley of marble. We spent three days in the Reserva Natural Cañon del Rio Claro. Our room was in the highest cabin in a series built into the side of the canyon. When we opened the door to our room on the evening we arrived, we leapt around excitedly for a good ten minutes, particularly delighted by an unusual feature: the absence of a fourth wall. The cabin was open-air on the side facing into the canyon, so when we woke up the next morning, the view that greeted us was incredible: the roaring river was visible far below us, the tree-covered canyon rising on either side of us.
The forest tumbled all the way down the valley to the riverbanks, where the crystalline river had carved numerous pools and stunning marble formations out of the rock, providing scenic spots for a dip in the water, or as it often turned out, a ride downstream propelled by the current. The water was amazingly clear, golden in colour where it passed over shallow pebbly sections and a beautiful green when it was deeper. Adventurous activities in the reserve were cheap, so we used them as a means for sightseeing. The rafting was only rated grade one, so basically a gentle ride down the river, but allowed us to travel several kilometres, from the powerful surge of the river in the reserve, to the wider, calmer waters further downstream, where the surrounding forest was replaced by farmland. It was a great activity for birdwatching: we spotted herons, kingfishers, and a toucan. We also stopped at a pebbly beach where large iguanas lay basking in the sun, taking to the water with a splash if we approached too closely. Just before the end of the raft’s course, we passed through a cave curving out of the cliff face, forming half a tunnel over the water. Water from the mountain dripped out of the rock to formed large calceous bulges of grey-green stalactites and lumps. We all got out to swing above the river on a rope swing.
Other adventurous sightseeing included a guided exploration of the Caverna de los Guacharos, a cave comprised of a series of caverns through which a stream ran, so that most of the time we were wading through water and even got to jump into several small pools. We exited the cave by climbing down a rope ladder through a small waterfall, where the cave stream joined the rush of the main river. From the walk through the bowels of the mountain we later moved to a canopy view of the canyon, whooshing along three ziplines strung over the river, during which I in no way pretended to be a vulture gliding over the valley. In the evenings, as we fell asleep in our lofty room, our dreams were threaded through with the buzzing of cicadas and the rush of the river.