Volcanos and vinyards

Colombia mapAfter 98 days of travelling we have our first hitch. A landslide has blocked the road to Bucharamanga so we can't get from Barichara to the airport to fly to Santa Marta. After a 4am start we drive back to Bogota - fortunately there is little traffic so the journey is much quicker than driving up.

From Santa Marta it is a one hour drive to Tayrona, where we will explore the national park. Then we drive to Cartegena, Colombia's famous Caribbean resort, before flying to Medellin to see the huge changes since the drug wars of the 80s and 90s.


Finca Barlovento sunset

Finca Barlovento is a charming hotel comprised of several thatched buildings on stilts overlooking the sea and mountains of the Tayrona national park. Our basic rooms are still huge with a veranda (above left) with great views. We have come here to relax by the sea and explore the national park next door. This is a strip of forest and beach that lies between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Caribbean. The park was closed in February and we arrive here on 1st March. Over a good dinner we are shocked to hear that our fellow guests have queued four hours to get in today. Frantic calls are made to our agent to see whether our driver can go early to pick up our entry passes. He can!

At the park gate there are queues of vehicles and visitors on foot but we sail past and drive another ten minutes to reach a drop off point. Shuttle buses can bring you here if you don't have a vehicle. We join lots of mostly young visitors in a procession through the forest and up and down over ridges and boulders. After about 75 minutes we reach the first beach (no swimming due to currents) - stunning (see below) with white sand and huge granite blocks. Another 45 minutes of mostly flat walking through trees and mangroves brings us to the "Piscina" beach where we swim, relax and watch frigate birds, pelicans and terns stirring up the fish. On the way back we stop at a shack for a fish and beer lunch.

Abel Tasman NP coastline

Taranaki Falls

After a relaxing morning watching the birds and iguanas from our balcony we set out on a four hour drive to Cartagena. The busy road along the coast passes very poor villages and salt flats before reaching a huge new bridge across the river Magdelena. Barranquilla on the other side of the bridge is a huge contrast to the poverty we have seen on the road. A busy modern city with factories, high rise buildings and shops selling everything. We have just missed the carnival which happened the previous week and is the second biggest in Latin America after Rio.

The good road continues to Cartigena. Here huge modern hotels from international chains line the road as we drive into town. We cut through the city walls into a labyrinth of narrow one-way streets and are soon at our smart hotel - the Bantu - with high, cool courtyards and attractive design.

Cartagena streets

Pancake rocks

Cartagena is a world heritage site - something that in our experience always attracts large numbers of tourists. With it's pretty houses with colourful walls and wooden balconies and restored churches and museums it is popular with the cruise ships and you see a lot of groups following guides with paddles through the streets. Despite this we enjoyed exploring the town, browsing in the many jewellery shops, and walking along the city walls. The restaurants were also excellent - we enjoyed good tapas, Japanese Fusion, a terrific Cuban restaurant (La Vitrola) and another lovely restaurant by the harbour.

Herons among the mangroves

Just outside Cartagena is La Boquilla, a wetland area of shallow lagoons and mangroves. Our car drives along a beach for miles past kids practicing their football to reach our Ecotour shed. From here we are punted through the mangroves to see many herons, egrets, cormorants and kingfishers in the evening light. A few fishermen are out in little boats, migrant sandpipers are gathered in big groups and we get an huge red sunset behind the motorway flyover.

Next day we catch a fast boat from Cartegena pier to the Rosario Islands. We pass cruise and container ships, modern skyscrapers and old forts to reach a hotel on the island in about an hour. Here you can go snorkelling or diving, cycle and kayak or just relax by a small beach. We take bikes around the island and are again struck by the poverty, so close to Cartegena. People live in shacks with palm or tin rooves and fresh water has to be brought in by boat every 10 days. The ride back to town is exciting against the waves as we hide behind ponchos to avoid being too drenched by the spray.

Te Mata hike

It is fascinating to visit Medellin. Once synonymous with drug wars and murder it is now a city reborn. From landing at the airport among luscious green hills you drive into the amazing, 8.2km long, Santa Elena tunnel. Opened just 3 months ago this is one example of the investments that have broken the cycle of violence. Even more impressive are the 5 cablecars, escalators and modern metro system that have enabled the millions of residents living in the barrios on the mountainsides to get to work in the city. However the contrasts in lifestyles are still immense.

We are staying in El Poblado, just 30 minutes from the airport and reminiscent of Singapore with its smart apartments, leafy streets and flashy restaurants and bars - some with great live music. Downtown Medellin is more like any other modern South American City. There is the inevitable Simon Bolivar square, 60s and 70s era shops and offices, stores selling copies of sports brand clothing, and imposing civic buildings. Among these, a sculpture plaza has many splendid Botero bronzes and modern buildings are springing up like the "intelligent building" housing the regional utilities headquarters.

Mt Tasman (left) and Mt Cook

El Poblado district

Mt Tasman (left) and Mt Cook

Downtown Medellin, Sculpture plaza and buskers

Mt Tasman (left) and Mt Cook

Medellin urban area from Comuna 13

Most well known and celebrated is Comuna 13, a barrio which was beset by violence but now is full of street art, music, shops and cafes - and loads of tourists! These barrios were built by the campasitos (country people) who fled the violence to the city in the 1950s and 60s. The brick apartments on steep slopes frequently collapse in mud slides. Our larger than life guide, Edgar, tells us how the escalators, donated by the French Government, helped to transform the community by joining up different areas and providing access to work. The street art is fantastic but also sad often illustrating women who have lost sons and husbands, break dancers demonstrate their agility to local hiphop and we even sample a local "C13" beer.

Wild Earth Lodge

Next day we explore some sights outside Medellin. We hoped that this would allow us to see the gorgeous countryside but it is damp and misty so the views aren't great. East of the city is an enormous reservoir created in 1978. This provides Colombia with much of its electricity as well as foreign earnings from exports to Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Chile. The town of El Penol was submerged by the lake so a new town was built for its residents with an unusual "rock shaped" church.

Near to the town is the rock itself - a huge granite batholith which has become a great money-earner for its owner now that it has over 600 steps to the top. The views are impressive but would be better in clear weather. Many Colombians have built houses around the lake where small boats ferry owners to their doorsteps.

El Penol rock and Embalse Guatapé

A little further along the lake is Guatapé, a town that has become famous for its frescos, or "zocalos" on almost every building. These started as simple lambs on the side of the church but have become increasingly elaborate, often telling you something about the building or its owner. You can see more examples of these in my Colombia photo gallery here.

Next up is coffee country and deserts.

Back to Round the World here

Mt Aeolus