Alternative Colombia bucket list: Off-the-beaten-path destinations to explore

You know what they say, once a dreamer, always a dreamer, and despite living the dream in sunny Cartagena – the hottest (literally!) destination in Colombia for tourists – I still have an ever-growing bucket list of places to visit in Colombia. There are so many places to explore in Colombia aside from Cartagena, Bogotá, and Medellín! So here goes my “one day” bucket list, which I hope to honour in its entirety some day, and replace it with a new, even more obscure list of dream destinations.

Chocó

Due to its more difficult-to-reach location (i.e. Viva Air does not offer budget flights here) and its tumultuous history with the FARC and paramilitaries, Chocó is a relatively unexplored region of Colombia. Life certainly isn’t the easiest for the Chocoano citizens, of whom the majority voted “No” in the “Peace Referendum” of 2016 – not because they were against peace, but on the contrary; they are some of the Colombian citizens who have been most affected by the internal war in Colombia, and thus the ones who needed the Peace Agreement to be fair and beneficial, and not pandering to the requests of the FARC. Chocó region is nestled amongst miles upon miles of lush green jungle. It is hot, with high levels of rainfall and therefore has high levels of humidity all year round. Chocó is where the Pacific ocean meets the Americas, and so the seas are deep blue and wild, very unlike the calm, crystalline waters of the neighbouring Caribbean Sea. You can go whale watching during humpback whale season, or go hang out with turtles. If you’re into eco-tourism, surfing, and wild but beautiful nature, and aren’t going to worry about messing up your manicure, Chocó is the place to go. Think endless, empty beaches, lush rainforests and little wooden cabins, waterfalls, and wild animals. An absolute dream!

Where to visit: Bahía Solano, Nuquí, El Valle, Capurganá
What to do: Go between July and November, which is whale-watching season. Stay in Mama Orbe (they also accept volunteers if you want to stay longer! *daydreams about quitting job to go swim with whales in the Pacific*)

Leticia, Amazon Region

Photo from Flickr by by Gabriel Prehn Britto

Although not necessarily an “unknown” part of Colombia, the Amazon region is often skipped by backpackers for several reasons: lack of budget, preparation, or information. While a list of “the best hostels in Cartagena de Indias” is easy to come across, the Amazon seems like one big, intimidating, green question mark over the south-eastern corner of Colombia. Since I was about 15 years old, I have dreamed of going to the Amazon and seeing pink river dolphins, anacondas, and enormous, carnivorous plants. I have been told that there are different benefits to going in wet season (January – April) vs. in dry less wet season (July and August). Although more rain = more mosquitos, it also means more flora and fauna, so bigger, more extravagant plants, and a higher likelihood to see the incredible native animals such as birds and freshwater dolphins. And with all the tragic news about the Brazilian and Bolivian Amazon, there has never been a better time to go and experience this incredible and precious natural phenomenon.

Where to visit: Start off in Leticia, and take a tour from there, making sure you bring your passport to stamp in and out of neighbouring Brazil and Peru.
What to do: My plan when I go is to do a tour (there is one which lasts a week in which you visit Brazil and Peru), stay in a treehouse, and I would love to volunteer at Fundación Maikuchiga looking after monkeys. The absolute dream!

Ráquira, Boyacá

Image from colombia.com

I was recently talking to a friend who is a seasoned traveller and all-round girl crush material, who told me about Ráquira, the home of artisan crafts in Colombia. Famous for ceramics, Ráquira is often overlooked for its equally cute and much more famous neighbour Villa de Leyva. Averaging 20ºC in the daytime all year round, and around 7ºC at night, this region in Colombia is far from the tropics, and perfect for cozying up in the evening under a blanket with a hot canelazo (a warming alcoholic drink made with Aguardiente and cinnamon that I tried in Guatavita). The locals are known for being extremely friendly and polite, and, similar to Villa de Leyva, the colonial architecture gives it a quaint and charming air.

Where to visit: Walk around the centre of town to take in all the sights, and when you are done, there is also the Desierto de la Candelaria nearby.
What to do: Go with an empty suitcase and fill it up with local crafts – plant pots and ceramics, hammocks, and general trinkets. Thats what I plan to do, at least!

Providencia

Image from Flickr by Waywuwei

Providencia is the more exclusive, more expensive older brother of neighbouring San Andrés Island. The very fact that it is harder (or pricier) to get to means the virgin beaches are completely empty, leaving you the white sand beaches and Caribbean sea to enjoy in blissful solitude; no sellers, just total peace and coconut-sipping photo opportunities. Or so I’ve heard *sighs*.

In terms of weather, Providencia is the real deal in terms of your typical Caribbean island: hot all year round, with a warm and welcoming
Dry season is from January to May, and watch out for hurricane season towards the end of the year.

How to get there: You can get to Providencia from San Andrés by plane or ferry.
What to do: Make the most of the crystal-clear waters and go diving or snorkelling to check out the sting rays, tropical fish, and baby sharks.

Desierto de la Tatacoa, Huila

Image from Hugo Rua on Flickr

This incredible place has long been on my bucket list – it is a full-on desert, just a couple of hours drive from cold and rainy Bogotá. There is also a dreamy eco-hotel that I obsessively follow on Instagram where you can sleep in thatched-roof eco huts and glamping-style huts. The best time to go is during the meteorite showers, as the lack of light pollution means that the stars can be seen perfectly. Rumour has it that the Tatacoa desert is highly charged with indigenous and ancestral energy, as well as being home to thousands of ancient fossils.
Music fans can also check out the Festival de Tatacoa in October where the famous Boiler Room DJs will be playing under the stars. I have my tickets already and cant wait to explore this incredible corner of the earth!

How to get there: From Bogotá, you can get a bus to Neiva, which will take 4-5 hours. Then, from the Terminal de Transportes (bus station) in Neiva, you can get a direct bus to Desierto de la Tatacoa (2 hours), or take a bus to Villa Vieja and then a moto-taxi.
What to do: I am dying to stay in Bethel Bio-Luxury Hotel. Another option is to go to the festival. You can also go for a day trip, making sure to take plenty of water and sunscreen! If you’re on a budget, you can rent a tent for $20.000 COP and camp in the desert!

Tolima

Image by Alejandro Bayer on Flickr

Tolima, nestled between Bogotá and Cali, is a big producer of coffee, and its capital, Ibagué, maintains pretty warm temperatures all year round, averaging around 28ºC. In the region, however, you can find snow-capped mountains in the 5221m tall Nevado del Tolima (linked if you want to give the trek a go – dont think I’ll be attempting it any time soon though!), and the capital is host to Colombia’s National Festival of Colombian music – celebrating all things music-related in the Music Capital of Colombia. If you are going to visit Salento, a big favourite of the “Gringo Trail”, you may just want to drop in and visit Ibagué, which is close by.

Where to go: It seems like there is plenty to do in Ibagué city centre, as well as many beautiful places to escape to in nature. The Botanical Gardens are home to over 500 species of plants, and Parque Museo La Martinica offers stunning views of the city from a viewpoint.
What to do: Go mountain-climbing, listen to some Colombian music (the music festival takes place in March), visit some endangered orchids, Tolima has it all! Fun fact: Tolima is right above Huila, where the Tatacoa Desert is located (see above), so they will both fit in nicely in your itinerary.

Tuparro National Park, Vichada

Image from Flickr by Giovanny Pulido

Vichada, one of Colombia’s 32 departamentos (regions) that is very rarely mentioned. To be honest, I had never even heard of it before I started this fascinating investigation. It’s kind of hard to find information on this place, as there isn’t much organised tourism. However, what I did found sounds absolutely incredible, and 100% worth visiting one of the few little-explored corners of Colombia, a country that is becoming increasingly touristic (or maybe I have just lived in Cartagena for too long, and the idea of travelling somewhere with no other tourists sounds too tempting!).
Bordering with Venezuela, Tuparro National Park takes up a hefty green chunk on the map of Colombia, but only receives around 300 visitors a year. This is just due to its remote location and the lack of advertising by tourist agencies. German biologist Alexander Von Humboldt described it as the “eighth wonder of the world”, and just the sheer size of it has be absolutely awestruck. There are several indigenous tribes living within the park, the Guahibos and the Cuibas, the latter of whom apparently do not have contact with the outside world. Only a tiny percentage of the park’s 548,000 hectares has been explored, which I find absolutely fascinating (and kind of comforting – there are places in the world humans haven’t ruined yet!). You wont be allowed to enter unless you have your yellow fever, tetanus, and measles injections.

How to get there: That is the question! So you can get a bus from Bogotá (Salitre bus terminal) to Puerto Carreño. It takes around 20 hours, and costs between $120-150.000 COP. You can break it up by travelling from Bogotá to Puerto Gaitán, staying the night there, and the next day from Puerto Gaitán to Puerto Carreño.
Once you are in Puerto Carreño, you can take a jeep to Casuarito. Then, you have to cross the River Orinoco to Puerto Ayacucho, which is actually in Venezuela. From there, you can get boats which go to the mouth of the river Tomo. Once you get there, you will reach the entrance of the National Park (1.5 hours journey in total). You can also fly from Bogotá to Puerto Carreño but a quick look at Skyscanner tells me that it is pretty pricey.
What to do: This national park is all water, as it is the meeting place of many rivers – Orinoco, Tomo, Tuparro, and Vichada. So you can travel along the water to see the incredible landscapes, as well as visiting indigenous communities and graveyards.

Caquetá

Similar to the Chocó region, Caquetá was also deeply affected by the armed conflict in Colombia. In fact, 90% of Caqueteños were victims of the armed conflict between the FARC and the paramilitaries. After the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, the region has been left alone in recent years, meaning the locals can start building up tourism in the region, with all the wonderful things on offer in this practically untouched part of the world. The region of Caquetá starts in the western cordillera of the Andes, and ends in the Amazon basin, and is known as the “Golden Gate to the Amazon”. I found it fascinating reading about this largely unexplored region, and was saddened by the tragedy and havoc wreaked on locals by the armed conflict. When I visit, I want to feed squirrel monkeys, visit waterfalls, hike canyons, and hang out with the locals.

Where to visit: I definitely want to visit Chiribiquete National Park (is it open to the public yet?), the largest tropical rainforest national park in the world. It gives me peace knowing that, although so much of the Brazilian rainforest is at risk thanks to people like Bolsonaro, at least there are protected national parks which ensure that the natural phenomenon of the Amazon rainforest is protected from idiotic money-hungry politicians and corporations. Chiribiquete was controlled by the FARC, and still remains one of the most unexplored places in the world. Reserva el Danubio, photographed above, looks like an incredible place to visit, too.
What to do: Hiking, tubing, swimming, birdwatching, and generally taking in the best of nature in a region that has been largely untouched by tourism.


So, there you have it. My personal bucket list of places to explore in Colombia – a little more adventurous than Tayrona Park or Guatapé (you should definitely visit those too!). Whether it takes me one year or 20 years to tick everything off the list doesn’t matter, as long as we always travel with an open mind and an open heart.

Did I miss anywhere? Which place is at the top of YOUR bucket list?

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