Most memorable hike
After four hours of hiking through rolling hillsides, we ducked through a cluster of trees. The dry grasslands transformed into a slick chute of mud that lunged at my boots in attempt to drag me down. Tree branches twisted their narrow yet resilient arms, beaconing to me like a buoy bobbing in a rain storm. I grasped one branch and then another to step deeper into the narrow ravine. My right hand instinctively shoved my sunglasses onto my forehead as they were useless here beneath the dappled shadows. Sunlight was barred entry by the miscellany of leaves, vines and the confined rock walls.
We had entered a sacred place, virtually invisible from the Páramo de Ocetá grasslands overhead that surrounded this snakelike slice of earth. After sliding between moss covered trunks and loose hanging vines for about twenty metres, a bare patch came into view. I looked up at an elevated cavern carved into the rock wall. Blackened lichen cloaked its rocky interior. Hundreds of years ago, the Muiscas had buried their dead in this and other similar cavities etched into the crevasse wall. They mummified the body, which was curled into a fetal position, before placing it inside the rock chamber. Rituals were performed, encouraging the spirit to return to the earth. Today, little remains beyond the vacant holes.
Where to base yourself: Monguí
Recommended hotel : Hotel Otti Colonial (the owner can arrange knowledgeable local guides to take you through the Páramo)
How to get there: Take a long-distance bus from Bogotá to Sogamoso (4 hours) and then switch onto a regional bus to Monguí (30 minutes).
Most mesmerizing town
Whitewashed walls doubled in brightness as thirty-seven degree Celsius sunbeams reflected the town's matte white buildings. Heavy wooden doors hid wide interior courtyards. Often lime trees and banana palms grew in such open-aired gardens, absorbing the heat and offering a peaceful tranquility unseen from the front entrances. Outside one such door, a lady reclined on a thatch chair. A neighbour sat beside her, talking occasionally but mostly just waiting for the next whiff of breeze to leap from the river below.
Birds squawked, from chartreuse-yellow singers to fluffy-feathered brown chirpers. A kingfisher was perched on the same dead tree stump every morning when we walked past. The bird's unwieldy beak held an unwavering aim at the brackish water below. The days rolled by far too easily in Mompox. It was a place to relax, away from any semblance of haste or schedule. Besides pretty buildings, we found our favourite fresh bakery and home-styled restaurant serving coffee so rich, it reminded me of melted chocolate.
Where: Mompox (sometimes called Mompos)
Recommended hotel: Portal de la Marquesa
How to get there: Air-conditioned bus ride from Cartagena to Mompox (6 hours)
Most vibrant city
Grit and realism collided in Colombia's northern city of Cartagena like a bursted urban kaleidoscope. Murals in purples and blues brought soul to crumbling walls and revived cement facades. Churches painted to match the sun dominated plazas that punctuated every other block. Embroidered purses and airy fashions danced across storefronts. Coffee shops tempted passers-by with flaky pastries while simpler carts rolled through the streets, balancing six or seven thermoses filled with tantalizing café tinto. These traditional vendors poured a cheaper alternative to caffeinate one's day - and by the continual flow of residents around their carts, proved to be the most popular.
This is a city with a story, you can step back in time on its protective stone walls that have survived wars bygone. Observe daily life continue to thrive around eclectic cafes and fashionista boutiques. Do not be surprised if you come across a few friends hunkered over a table along one of the narrow side streets. Board games took up the entire table-top and many afternoons.
Where: Cartagena de Indias
Recommended hotel: Posada La Fe
How to get there: Avianca operates affordable domestic flights from most cities in Colombia. Alternatively, buses cover overland routes to the coastal city of Cartagena.
Why I want to return
There are volcanic rock sculptures in Colombia's southern regions that remind me of Easter Island's mysterious heads. Some of Colombia's San Agustín carvings date back five thousand years and hint at ancient cultures that flourished across lush river valleys, leaving only a sparse trail for archeologists to decipher. As described by UNESCO, "the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America stands in a wild, spectacular landscape". It would be a shame not to return and dip into this remote, ancient wonder.
Questions about safety?
All the Rooms published a great article about Colombia's security situation and how far it has progressed in recent years at the link below:
More undiscovered destinations in the book Dust in My Pack, available at most online booksellers.
Explorer of all seven continents on a quest to find the essence of lesser-visited destinations.