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25 km outside San Gil
A beautiful tiny old colonial town up in the mountains. It is a short day trip from backpacker friendly San Gil, the white water rafting capital of Colombia. Ordinary people actually still inhabit Barichara, and though it has been restored, it is not tarted up. The colourful wooden doors, the whitewashed walls and the red tile roofs make it an easy target for snap happy visitors, but the risk of getting run over by local school kids rather than tourists is still higher. A couple of churches, a main square, and a maze of stone-paved streets are the top attractions... well, only attractions. The exact reason to come and spend a lazy day.
Capital of Colombia
A big ghastly mismatch. Yes, the first impression of Bogota will probably not be pretty, but it is a city that grows on you. The fairly high altitude at 2640 m makes the climate like eternal fall, chilled, and with warm rays of sun. The old quarter, La Candelaria, has heaps to keep you busy with during the day, while the surrounding hills will offer great views over the city at sunset, before you hit the bars. So while there are not many reasons to come to Bogota in the first place, there are lots of reasons to stay a little bit longer if you do.
Cartagena Old Town
The old walled town of Cartagena must qualify as one of the finest colonial towns in the world. Colourful mansions with giant wooden balconies, a plaza around every other corner, and a wide protective wall all the way around, from where you can overview the leafy courtyards and rooftops. But the centro's polished facades with all the tourist shops and a suffocating amount of street vendors will eventually push you into other neighbourhoods like San Diego and Getsemani. But only for the better, because here you get the real deal. Local homes, scrappy buildings, old people in rocking chairs and colourful characters in the streets (some dodgy, yeah even scary). In the evening, do as the locals, pick a plaza, buy a beer from the corner shop, and watch life go by.
On the San Gil – Bucaramanga road, route 45A
Colombia's Grand Canyon. A gorgeous canyon with a river cutting through at the bottom almost 2000 meters below. The slopes are steep and covered with wonderfully shaped cactuses. It is now possible to take in the beauty by classy cable car, else the winding road that traverses the canyon will give excellent views from both the summit and bottom. The serious hairpin turns seem never-ending and are either to-die-for for motorcyclists or sickening for those stuck in a bus. It is just one of those splendid routes that Colombia has so many of.
Any fashion store
The first time you'll see one of these mannequins in a fashion store, you will probably laugh. They are heavily disproportionate with huge tits and round, gravity defying, apple butts. The first thought is that they must have been made by a dirty-minded male sculptor, but then you realise that some Colombian women are created just like that. And then you stop looking at the mannequins.
Armero town... or what is left of it
On the evening of the 13th of November 1985, volcano Nevado del Ruiz erupted and sent an avalanche of ashes and mud towards the town of Armero, more than 45 km away. Within a short time, the town was buried in meters deep mud, which took the people by surprise since they had been reassured by authorities earlier the same day that there was nothing to worry about. 23 000 people were killed, more than two thirds of the town's population. Today, the road from Mariquita goes through the ghost town, where the surviving houses still stand half covered in dirt in the shade of big trees. There are tombstones everywhere and part of the town church is half preserved. Besides the handful of DVD vendors along the road (they sell a documentary about the catastrophe), the place is completely deserted and a grim memorial of a recent tragedy.
Silvia village outside Popayan
Every Tuesday, the small village of Silvia holds its weekly market. Buses loaded with Guambiano Indians and sacks of potatoes in every colour and shape arrive early to return equally loaded in the afternoon. The Indians are dressed in their finest, which just happens to be the same for all. Ankle boots, deep blue scarf, bowler hat and wraparound skirt, and that includes the men too. It is a great mix of trading and get together at the plaza for catching up on the latest gossip. It is just one of those lovely places that Colombia is so full of, but again not many visitors come here (luckily).
The Colombian altiplano
The largest lake in Colombia, located at the semi-high elevation of 3000 m. It is an enchanting place, where clouds come rolling in from the surrounding hills to lie low over the cold water. Any road to here is winding and takes you through tough farmland and rough villages (like Cuitiva, Iza and Tota). The local farmers all sport ponchos, wide brim hats and sunburned cheeks. There even is a "Playa Blanca" at the shore of the lake with sand and space for camping under the pine and eucalyptus trees.
Las Lajas Cathedral
Built on a bridge over a deep gorge with nearby waterfalls plunging into the river far below, this neo-Gothic church surely is an impressive sight from a distance. A closer look though reveals religious kitsch that pilgrim destinations sometimes suffer from, like souvenir stands, wood lookalike cement fence and odd picnic tables. The church itself, though, is beautiful and the alter inside is formed from the bare rock face, where the image of the Virgin Mary apparently has appeared. Despite the tourist junk (well, it is not that bad), it is definitely worth doing the short side trip from Ipiales.
The 15-meter high mud cone at El Totumo is not just a pile of mud, but a real volcano. Instead of spewing lava, it just bobbles mud up. You can climb to the top by wooden stairs and take a mud bath right in the crater. Well, that is the reason to come here in the first place. Besides the whole wellness feeling, it is also a very strange sensation to be descending into the bottomless pit full of mud (and just for the record, you do not sink).