From a riverside pontoon above sandy banks where blue crabs scurry, I watch local men casting nets by hand, waist deep in the water — within 50 metres of two caimans: their alligator eyes and snouts visible above the water, their four-metre-long bodies a menacing watery shadow.
It’s a riveting scene, just one of many found in and around Tayrona National Park in the very north of Colombia. I’m staying at Barlovento Maloka, which has arguably the best location in the region, perched where the Rio Piedras bursts into the Caribbean Sea.
With large rooms facing the river or gardens brimming with palms and strelitzia (bird of paradise plants), there’s a welcoming “hola!” from Roberto, the finca’s resident scarlet macaw, in pauses between cracking open nuts.
Overlooking the water, my suite opens out onto a deck and a pool shared with three other rooms. We swim in the morning as the yellow-headed caracara begin to chatter, and by dusk as green kingfishers skim by.
Maloka Barlovento (Photo: Kate Wickers)
The jetlag (Colombia is six hours behind GMT) was dealt with by first spending 48 hours in Bogota, which, seven years into Colombia’s peace agreement, has never felt safer. Here the Museo del Oro, one of South America’s greatest museums, gives a wonderful insight into this region’s pre-Hispanic cultures, with stories told through more than 55,000 gold artefacts.
The vibrant area of Candelaria is famous for its street art and bohemian atmosphere, and home to the Museo Botero, which showcases Colombian artist Botero’s distinctive chubby characters.
Don’t dismiss them as purely comical either, as Botero’s work comments on social and political issues, including how the world’s most powerful drug trafficker Pablo Escobar singlehandedly changed Colombia’s perception of beauty.
But in Tayrona, the national park is the biggest draw, and on a circular ten-mile hike we’re soon spotting anteaters tiptoeing on high branches, rainbow lizards scurrying over rocks, and cotton-top tamarins tree-hopping. Diva, our guide, has a wealth of knowledge and a good sense of humour.
“This is what we call the tourist tree,” she jokes, pointing to a towering tree with a red, peeling bark (in fact a bursera simaruba), which serves as a reminder to apply more SPF.
White-robed, indigenous Kogi men sell fresh coconut juice by the trailside, expertly opening the fruit with a machete, then fashioning a stopper for those who wish to carry the nut as a natural drinking bottle.
“The Kogi are the guardians of the park. When tourism here becomes too busy or disrespectful to the environment, they close it to give nature a rest,” Diva tells us before rushing off to tick off a tourist who is offering an ice cream to a capuchin monkey.
We marvel at so-called flamingo flowers (anthurium crassinervium), with their slender, soft pink flowers, and at the flash of colour from an electric blue Morpho butterfly as it flits between cashew tree and ancient moss-carpeted granite boulders, considered sacred by the Kogi.
The rollercoaster trail gives far-reaching views of picture-perfect beaches, all so tempting in the rising heat, but all off limits due to strong currents. Swimming must wait until we arrive at Cabo San Juan del Guia, a double horseshoe of soft sands, where we take a dip before eating arroz con veduras, a paella made with sweet juicy peppers, corn, and fried plantain at a beach-shack restaurant with the sand between our toes.
Three more idyllic days pass spent tubing on the caiman-free Rio Don Diego — there’s a tranquil pleasure to sitting in a giant rubber ring and letting the current carry you — and of partaking in the national pastime of swinging in a hammock. In between, there are beach strolls and bird spotting; snowy egrets and pelicans among them.
From here, it’s a five-hour drive to Cartagena, a journey we break at Barranquilla to lunch at atmospheric La Cueva. The favourite haunt (now restaurant/bar/museum) of Colombia’s most celebrated novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the writer came here to socialise and discuss politics with other like-minded creatives of the day.
Cartagena, founded in 1533, is Colombia’s Caribbean jewel. A cinematic old town of wooden-balconied Unesco-protected houses and cobbled streets upon which horse and carts ferry tourists around, all pausing at Plaza de Bolivar, the area’s most impressive square lined with perfectly preserved houses.
The boutique Ananda Hotel is housed in one such casa, with rooms off an attractive, palm-filled, central courtyard, a rooftop lounge, and small ground-floor swimming pool. At sunset we walk las murallas, the city walls, for views over the city and sea, before settling down at El Baron in Plaza de San Pedro Claver to enjoy the show.
There’s a steady stream of buskers, from rappers to musicians and dancers, showing us how champeta, a cross between salsa and twerking, is done.
The neighbourhood of the working masses, Getsemani is enjoying a moment in the sun.
With vibrant murals, streets strung with flags, kites, and colourful umbrellas (all casting the prettiest shadows), fabulous restaurants, it throbs with fun and salsa music day and night. Pull up a chair at one of the many street-side cafes, order a coconut lemonade, and watch the world go by.
After we visit Castillo de San Felipe — the largest fort the Spaniards built in the whole of the Americas — and snoop around the Palacio de la Inquisicion, one of Cartagena’s grandest examples of 18th-century architecture, we’re ready for a break from the heat of the city.
The Islas del Rosario lie 25 kilometres away in crystalline waters, so named as from the air, they are said to look like a string of rosary beads.
It’s a one-hour bumpy speedboat ride to an all-inclusive beach club on Isla Grande, although for snorkelling you must also pay an islander for an hour’s safari; worth every peso to float among the shoals of unicorn fish, clownfish and blue tang.
Two days later we’re back to pulling on fleeces in Villa de Leyva, after a flight back to Bogota and a four-hour drive from the capital. Located in Boyaca, an agricultural heartland in the East Andes, this is the country’s best-conserved countryside colonial town.
Our base for exploring is boutique, terracotta-roofed Casa Terre, set in beautiful courtyard gardens filled with cactus and olive trees in the historic quarter — the highlight is the al fresco breakfast of fresh ginger and orange juice, served with artisan breads.
Here, at 2,150 metres above sea level, the air thins, the locals wear ponchos, and the wind whips up enough to make it Colombia’s kite-flying capital. “Life here is gentle,” Camila, our guide, tells us. “This isn’t a place for ticking off major tourist sights, but for soaking up the atmosphere and searching for ammonites.”
The region is rich for fossil hunting, and in Plaza Major, one of the largest plazas in South America at 120m by 120m, we soon spot them etched into the giant cobblestones.
We wander through Villa de Leyva’s timeless streets, popping into shops that catch our eye: those that sell palm woven bracelets or vegan body products, and then sit on stone steps in front of the 17th-century Iglesia Parroquial to watch the kite-flyers in action, limbering up for the annual August kite festival.
To justify the purchase of pure Colombian chocolate from Bean to Bar organic chocolate shop, we take a steep hillside trail through thickets of fragrant pine.
It is worth the crunch of knee and shortness of breath for views back over the town and the surrounding valley; the kites are now just a speck of colour, and the kite-flyers appear in miniature.
How fitting, I think, to end our travels in Colombia on this wonderful high.
Jewish heritage in Colombia
Jewish heritage in Colombia dates back to the 16th century, when Jews from Jamaica and Curacao settled here, followed by others from Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey.
Most live in Bogota, which has a Jewish community that’s around 2,000 strong.
The capital is the best place to visit synagogues and cultural centres, with bespoke private tours arranged by Hayes & Jarvis using local guides.
An 11-day tour of Colombia from Hayes & Jarvis costs from £3,788 per person, including international and domestic flights, activities and transport in and around Tayrona National Park.
Double rooms at Maloka Barlovento cost from around £150 per night, including breakfast.