The Secret Heart of Colombia

The Secret Heart of Colombia

Style: TravellerCultural discovery away from the crowds
Duration: 17 days
Type: GroupTravel with a small group of other travellers


Day 1 – Bogota

Arrive in Bogota and transfer to the hotel, located in the historic heart of the city. The rest of the day is at leisure to either explore or relax. If you have arrived early you may wish to visit the interesting Gold Museum which is very close to the hotel, housing one of the most important collections of pre-Hispanic metallurgy in the world, offering an insight into this lucrative but controversial activity which has brought wealth, war and fortune-seekers to Colombia’s shores for many centuries. Overnight Hotel Casa Deco, or similar. No meals.

Day 2 – Bogota sightseeing

Spend the first full day on tour in Bogota exploring this vibrant city on foot and by vehicle. Firstly take a guided walk around La Candelaria – the historical centre of Bogota with colonial and baroque style buildings and cobblestone streets and plazas, and visit the Emerald Museum which catalogues the country’s rise to being the world’s largest emerald producer (make sure you bring ID) and then the San Francisco Church, a sixteenth century delight which still draws pilgrims as the oldest Christian site in the city. Continue to the Paloquemao for a visit to the bustling and colourful public market, essentially an authentic farmer’s market on an epic scale: a genuine cornucopia of foods and eating places, wander through the myriad of stalls and perhaps sample an arepa or pan de bono. Continue for spectacular views of Bogota City from one of its mountainous peaks at the Monserrate monastery, a seventeenth century shrine to ‘The Fallen Lord’. Overnight Hotel Casa Deco, or similar (BL)

Day 3 – Bogota - Zipaquirá – Raquira - Villa de Leyva (Overall approximate driving time today - 4 hours)

Drive to the famous Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, carved into the tunnels of a salt mine, and experience the surreal journey into the heart of the mountain’s holy site. From here, continue as far as the charming village of Raquira, famous for its handicrafts and pottery. After a short break to admire local craftsmen’s skills, continue to the beautifully preserved and traditional town of Villa De Leyva, characterised by its clusters of white-washed colonial-style buildings and sweepingly elegant central square. Overnight Hotel Hospederia La Roca, or similar. (BL)

Day 4 – Villa de Leyva sightseeing

Spend the morning exploring Villa de Leyva, visiting the central plaza with its churches, restaurants and handicraft shops. Take a guided walk through its atmospheric streets, many boasting huge cobblestone paving that boast colourful bougainvillea spilling from balconies, patios, courtyards and white-washed buildings with pan-tiled roofs. Continue to the “Santo Ecce Homo” Dominican convent, constructed in 1620 by the Spanish from local stone, studded with a profusion of fossils.  The site offers a real window on the colonial era and religious missions from Europe. Having passed through the delightful gardens, within you will find a dozen beautiful galleries adorned with religious art and impressively informative guide materials. Later, continue to the extraordinary Museo el Fósil, which houses the 7 metre long remains of a crocodile-like ancestor, the Kronosaurus, dated between 100 and 150 million years old, and beached here when the whole area lay on the shores of a tropical sea. Finish the tour at the Casa de Terra Cotta, claimed by architect Octavio Mendoza to be the largest piece of pottery in the world. Explore the whimsical rooms inside, fashioned entirely from clay, baked hard by the sun. The afternoon is at your leisure to further discover this charming town. Overnight Hotel Hospederia La Roca, or similar (BL)

Day 5 – Villa de Leyva – Tunja – Bogota – Girardot (Overall approximate driving time today - 6 hours)

Leaving Villa de Leyva behind, drive back towards Bogota taking an alternative scenic back-road via Tunja, capital city of the department of Boyacá. Stop at the most important monument in Colombian history: the Boyacá Bridge, a tiny, white-washed stone crossing which belies its national significance. On that site Simón Bolívar won his most decisive battle against Spanish settlers which directly paved the way for independence from the Spanish Empire and the establishment of ‘Gran Colombia’. On arrival back in Bogotá, pay a visit to the foundation of Hogar de Paz and learn about their vital work to shelter and support adolescents with family difficulties by supporting them via community projects.  Finally, continue south to Girardot. Overnight Hotel GHL Style Neiva, or similar. (BLD)

Day 6 - Girardot – Tatacoa Desert – San Agustin (Overall approximate driving time today – 6½ hours)

After breakfast start the journey to Neiva along the reliable tarmac of Route 45 which gradually gives way to narrower roads alongside which are villages with clusters of houses amidst scattered woodland approaching Villavieja and enter the unanticipated transformation of topography that is the Tatacoa Desert. A trip through the arid scrub will pass the labyrinthine profusion of eroded dry gullies in ochres and greys which make for some stunning photographic opportunities. Afterwards, drive through a vivid landscape, rising through dramatic mountain-scenery with the Rio Cabrera and then the Rio Ambica as constant companions. As the route winds around the edges of hills and wooded ridges, near the archaeologic hotspot of Colombia – San Agustin. Spend the next 3 nights imbibing the splendour of the area and its archaeological wonders. Overnight Akawanka Lodge, or similar. (BL)

Day 7 – San Agustin archaeology

Spend today exploring the village of San Agustin and its surrounds. Visits on offer will include the Archaeological Park, which comprises three main sites within San Agustin: Las Mesitas, the Fuente de Lavapatas, and the Bosque de Las Estatuas, all of which will astound and bemuse you in equal part. The day ends with a fascinating visit to the Archaeological Museum which will provide fascinating context to what was seen throughout the day. Overnight Akawanka Lodge (BL)  

Day 8 – San Agustin - Rio Magdalena – (Overall approximate driving time today is 1.5 hours)

After breakfast, depart to the famous Rio Magdalena Strait. Here, the longest river in Colombia narrows to a raging torrent just 2 metres wide which will have you reaching for your cameras. En route back to San Agustin, visit a "trapiche", a traditional factory which produces typical panela (unrefined sugar) from sugar cane where the cane juice is pressed by a simple old-school press. Once back at the hotel, the rest of the day will be at leisure to relax or familiarise yourself with the local area. Overnight Akawanka Lodge or similar (BL)

Day 9 – San Agustin - Popayan (Overall approximate driving time today - 4½ hours)

After breakfast, continue to Popayan stopping at Village Isnos where nearby we will observe some impressive tombs and statues at Alto de Los Idolos, dating from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD. In all, 16 tombs and 17 sculptures were built on an ambitious man-made platform between two hills. The region’s largest funerary statue, at 7m tall is also to be found there. Continue traversing the beautiful Puracé National Natural Park, named after the active volcano in this stunning mountainous region. Experience the unforgettable landscape of the Andean cloud forest where the road winds and climbs through lush vegetation which tumbles thick and steaming down the hillsides. On its fringes, pass through the little-known landscape of the Paramo: residing between exposed mountain-sides and forest, this wetland offers incredible biodiversity from over 200 orchid species, rare trees such as the Colombian Pine, Andean Oak and Wax Palm, and animals worth keeping a beady eye out for – like spectacled bears, cougars, howler monkeys, mountain tapir and the world’s smallest deer, the pudu. The sharp eyed visitor may also spot circling Condor in the skies above. We expect to arrive in Popayan – known as The White City – around midday. This afternoon, take a walking tour to discover what the city has to offer. Overnight Hotel La Plazuela or similar (BL)

Day 10 – Popayan – Silvia – Buga - Armenia (Coffee Region) - (Overall approximate driving time today is 6 – 7 hours)

After breakfast, depart Popayan, continuing towards the Coffee Region, stopping en-route in Silvia, where on Tuesdays, the indigenous Guambiano people come together dressed in their royal blue and fuschia native costumes to offer and buy their products at the market and to converse with one another. This takes place at the famous market in Silvia, which creates a special opportunity to see and meet these ancestral groups that are so fiercely proud of their culture.  After the visit, continue towards the Coffee Region with another short stop in Buga, where the famous Basilica del Señor de los Milagros is located – founded to celebrate the miracle of the gift of a crucifix from the local river to a generous and pious old woman. Later this afternoon arrive in Armenia, located at the heart of the Coffee Region, our base for the next three nights. Overnight Hacienda Combia or similar (BL)

Day 11 – Coffee zone culture

Spend the morning learning about the fascinating life and culture of those who inhabit the coffee region. Visit the coffee farm and hacienda ‘Combia’, visit plantations and learn about the complex process that transforms the humble coffee bean into one of Colombia’s most renowned exports as well as enjoying tastings of the farm’s product. This afternoon will be at leisure for you to relax or explore further. Overnight Hacienda Combia or similar (BL)

Day 12 – Valle de Cocora – Salento – Filandia – Armenia (Overall approximate driving time 3 hours)

With breathtaking landscapes, the Cocora Valley is one of the most beautiful valleys in Colombia. Here, one can observe the impressive Palma de Cera – the ‘wax palm’, the official Colombian national tree and one of the tallest species of palm in the world. The valley is scattered liberally with these towering, skinny telegraph pole-like trunks, topped by small spherical explosions of palm leaves. We will take a leisurely 2 hour walk to immerse ourselves in the splendid scenery.  On the way back to Armenia, stop in Salento, a picturesque village in the coffee zone, which, owing to its relative isolation, retains much of its traditional buildings and charm: colourful streets and a fascinating Aldea de los Artisanos where village craftsmen astound with the skills of their trade. There may be time to wander up the coloured stairs to the mirador to enjoy a spectacular view or try out the explosive local game of Tejo. The final stop of the day before Armenia, will be the charming town of Filandia with its colourful examples of colonial architecture, atmospheric Bolivar square and numerous coffee shops. Overnight Hacienda Combia or similar (BL)

Day 13 – Armenia - Tamesis (Overall approximate driving time today - 5 hours)  

Journey this morning to Tamesis, a town in the southwestern region of Antioquia. The route follows well-cultivated rolling hills and offers constant photo opportunities. Pass through bustling towns like Pereira with the Rio Cauca a constant feature dominating the valley floor. Latterly, from La Pintada, the road climbs steadily and becomes more shaded by trees until you reach Tamesis at just over 1600m. On arrival, the rest of the day is at leisure to relax after the drive. Overnight Hospedaje Rural La Boira or similar (BL)

Day 14 - Tamesis – Jardin – Antioquia – Tamesis

Today it is possible to choose from two excellent excursions depending on your preferences. Please let us know your preference at the time of booking: 

Option 1: Full day tour – Gold and Archaeology

Travel through beautiful scenery down the valley of the Cauca River to the Puente Iglesias Bridge. On the banks of the Cauca River meet traditional gold washers and learn more about their daily work. Try to wash gold on your own and interact directly with the artisanal miners. This afternoon, enjoy spectacular views over the vastness of the Cauca River Valley and return to explore the idyllic mountain village of Tamesis, known as the Green Coffee Balcony, and renowned for its history, birdlife and waterfalls. Accompanied by a local guide, visit the archaeological sites. Támesis is celebrated as one of the places with the greatest density of indigenous pre-Hispanic petroglyphs (rock art) in Colombia. Your expert guide will help you to observe different types of petroglyphs and to learn some of their significances. As a location which sees few foreign tourists, the locals are particularly welcoming and helpful.

Option 2: Full day tour – Chocolate and Archaeology

This morning, visit an organic cacao plantation and learn more about the process of chocolate production, the harvesting and processing – from the tree to the cup. The family-run cacao farm produces organic chocolate and the owners passionately observe the traditional sustainable way of cacao farming. Take the opportunity to try your hand at making your own chocolate. This afternoon, enjoy spectacular views over the vastness of the Cauca River Valley and return to explore the idyllic mountain village of Tamesis, known as the Green Coffee Balcony, and renowned for its history, birdlife and waterfalls. Accompanied by a local guide, visit the archaeological sites. Támesis is celebrated as one of the places with the greatest density of indigenous pre-Hispanic petroglyphs (rock art) in Colombia. Your expert guide will help you to observe different types of petroglyphs and to learn some of their significances. As a location which sees few foreign tourists, the locals are particularly welcoming and helpful.

At the end of your tour, you return to Tamesis for the night. Overnight Hospedaje Rural La Boira, or similar (BL)

Day 15 – Tamesis - Jerico - Medellin (Overall approximate driving time today - 5 hours)

After breakfast, drive to Jerico and take a walk in the town centre. Explore the historic centre of Jerico with its traditional facades and visit the village museum, which explains the pre-Columbian culture through a comprehensive exhibition of archaeological findings in the region. Visit a workshop of carriel, the typical leather bags used by local people. Continue to the Botanical Gardens and the Cristo Rey monument, a 27m high statue of Christ, erected to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Colombian civil War of a Thousand Days. From this lofty perch, enjoy the amazing views of the town and the surrounding mountains, valleys and rivers. Continue to the vibrant city of Medellin, our base until the end of the tour. Overnight La Campana Boutique Hotel, or similar (BL)

Day 16 – Medellin sightseeing

After breakfast, take in the important sights of the “City of Eternal Spring” (the city tour is approximately 4 hours). Explore downtown Medellin and the historic centre and listen to local musicians and the traditional Guasca music while visiting the Parque Berrio. Continue through the hustle and bustle of downtown Medellin to the famous Botero Plaza with an exhibition by Botero, whose inimical sculptures have become a landmark of the city. We then take the Metro Cable up to Santo Domingo, which had once been a notorious area of gang violence in Medellin. The cable car was constructed to make the inner city more accessible to people from the outskirts, and allows visitors a glimpse into the lives of the marginalised population. While enjoying the spectacular views, learn more about the transformation of Medellin from one of the most dangerous cities in the world into a fascinating melting pot of cultures with possibly the friendliest and warmest people in the world. The rest of the day is at leisure. Overnight La Campana Boutique Hotel, or similar (BL)

Day 17 – Depart Medellin

Transfer to the airport for your onward journey. (B)

Optional post tour extension - Pacific Coast

Day 17 – Medellin – Nuqui

Take an internal flight from Medellin to Nuqui and on arrival transfer by way of a simple motor boat for around 45 minutes to your idyllic but rustic eco-hotel accommodation for the next 3 nights. Overnight Hotel La Kuka (BLD)

Note – This is very much a retreat to nature and you will have limited or no Wi-Fi at all and phone signal is patchy in this remote part of Colombia.  

Internal flights to the Pacific Coast

Please note that the luggage allowance for the internal flights is 10kg, plus hand luggage. You can arrange for luggage to be left at the hotel in Medellin.

Days 18 and 19 – Pacific Coast at leisure

Spend these days at leisure or take a relaxing walk to the Waterfall of Love or the local village (included with a bilingual guide). Alternatively there are a host of other excursions to suit all interests and energy levels, all bookable from the lodge at extra cost.  These include hiking in the rainforest, visiting the indigenous Chori tribe, canoeing the mangroves or Rio Terco, surfing, kayaking, paddle boarding or whale watching (seasonal: usually end of June – early November). Overnight Hotel La Kuka (BLD)

Day 20 – Nuqui – Medellin

Transfer back to Nuqui by boat; then take the internal flight back to Medellin before the connection to your onward flight. If you wish, you can add extra nights in Medellin on request.

Optional Post Tour Extension – Santa Marta/Cartagena and Tayrona National Park

Day 17 – Medellin – Santa Marta

Transfer to the airport for the internal flight to Santa Marta. On arrival transfer to the hotel and the rest of the day is at leisure. Overnight Casa Tayrona Los Naranjos or similar. No meals.

Day 18 – Full Day Excursion - Tayrona National Park

This morning depart Santa Marta for Tayrona National Park and take the interesting coastal road eastwards until we reach the eastern entrance of the Park after about a 1 hour drive. From the Cañaveral area where the entrance is located, we start a hike through the tropical forest past idyllic palm fringed beaches until we reach Arrecifes (1h. approx). Here we take a short break to enjoy a refreshing natural juice. We continue our hike for a further 1 more passing by beautiful beaches like Arenillas, La Piscina and Cabo San Juan Beach, where we have time for some swimming and just relaxing to enjoy this stunning place. Late this afternoon return to the hotel. Overnight Casa Tayrona Los Naranjos or similar (BL) 

Note – The walking is an easy grade with a height gain of around 150 metres in total but trails can be more challenging especially after rain so good footwear is recommended. Also please be aware that this section of coastline is subject to strong currents and tides. Therefore, swimming is limited to certain beaches and on occasions can close without warning if conditions dictate. Please note the park can be hot and humid and so we recommend that you take adequate water for the walk and also be well protected from the sun, ideally wearing a hat. It is also advisable to be wearing insect repellent for a visit to the park.

Day 19 – Santa Marta – Cartagena – (Overall approximate driving time is 4 – 5 hours)

After breakfast journey along the Caribbean coast to Cartagena where colonial chic meets Caribbean flair, old city walls and fortresses bear witness to gold treasures and pirates, and pebbled alleys, green plazas and colourfully painted facades carry us away and right into the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The perfectly restored historic town is a UNESCO world heritage site and is best explored slowly on foot, by horse carriage or by bicycle. On arrival the rest of the day is at leisure to start to enjoy the maze of cobbled streets. Later, perhaps enjoy a sundowner on the historic city walls and allow your gaze to wander over the terracotta roofs towards the shimmering expanse of the Caribbean Sea. Overnight Hotel 3 Banderas or similar (B)

Day 20 – Cartagena sightseeing

After breakfast, take a half-day guided tour to see the most important monuments in Cartagena. Start at the Convent of La Popa (the highest point of the city) and continue to the Castillo de San Felipe, an immense fort filled with history and mysteries hidden in its stonewalled tunnels. Leaving the castle, visit the monument of Zapatos Viejos, the “Old Shoes”. Certainly the most impressive monument is the gigantic defensive wall that surrounds the old city, and overlooks the sea and its well-preserved colonial architecture. During the rest of the visit you will see the city’s churches, museums, plazas, restaurants, shops and jewellery stores. This combination of treasures makes Cartagena deserving of the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site: You will never forget this wonderful destination. The afternoon is at leisure to enjoy the city further or relax at the hotel. Note: During this tour, the visit to La Popa can be replaced by the visit to San Pedro Claver Convent. Overnight Hotel 3 Banderas or similar (B)

Day 21 – Cartagena at leisure or optional activities

Your last full day in Colombia can either be spent at leisure or alternatively you may wish to take a further excursion (not included) perhaps to Isla San Pedro de Majagua for swimming and snorkelling and to enjoy the fine beaches or perhaps take a cooking class in Cartagena preceded by a visit to the local market. There is also the option to visit the small active Totumo Volcano and bathe in its therapeutic mud pools. Overnight Hotel 3 Banderas or similar (B)

Day 22 - Depart Cartagena

Transfer to the airport for your onward flight. (B)