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Colombia: Colonial Jewels & the Coffee Triangle
Go beyond the typical tourist route to explore Colombia. Less-familiar to many travelers than Argentina and Chile, Colombia has a rich history and sophisticated capital, Bogotá. Spanish explorers came looking for gold. Modern-day travelers will find a real cultural reawakening from the colonial architecture in Bogotá and Cartagena to 21st century Medellin and the agricultural coffee-growing region of Manizales, and Armenia.
DAY 1 Fly to Bogota.
When you arrive in the evening, an OAT representative will meet you at the airport and assist with the transfer to our hotel, where you’ll join travelers who took the pre-trip extension to Bolivia: La Paz & Lake Titicaca. Dinner is on your own
This morning after breakfast, we begin our discovery of Bogotá. Originally a settlement known as Bacatá by the indigenous people who inhabited this area on the high plains of the Andes, the site became a full-fledged Spanish colonial outpost by 1550. Bogotá remained under the control of the Viceroyalty of Peru until 1717, when it became the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, a vast stretch of land encompassing the modern countries of Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela. Since then, the city has served continuously as a political and social center; today this bustling capital city has a population of more than eight million people.
We set out this morning to explore Monserrate Hill, a 10,000-foot peak that offers a commanding view of the city of Bogotá below. The summit of the hill is home to a 17th-century Catholic church that is a popular site for pilgrims—many of whom ascend the winding path to the top of the hill on their knees—and other travelers, who have the option of riding a train to the top. Returning to the city below, we’ll take a walking tour in La Candelaria, the Old City of Bogotá. With its Baroque and Spanish Colonial architecture, La Candelaria exudes a timeless elegance, made contemporary by the presence of artists and university students (due to the large number of universities located there, Bogotá is sometimes called the “Athens of South America”). As we walk the hilly streets of La Candelaria, we’ll follow in the footsteps of the many revolutionaries who plotted the independence of Colombia, including Simón Bolívar, who lived here during his decade of service as the country’s first president. We’ll explore the square named in his honor, Plaza de Bolívar, which is lined with significant buildings, including the Palace of Justice, the National Capitol, and the ornate 18th-century cathedral that houses the Archbishop of Bogotá.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll head for Bogotá’s Gold Museum, which is home to the world’s biggest collection of pre-Hispanic gold artifacts. These pieces—more than 6,000 are on display out of the museum’s 55,000-piece collection—are not only beautiful in their own right, but also give us an introduction to the indigenous cultures of Colombia. This evening, enjoy an included Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant.
After breakfast today, you can join our optional tour to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá in the mountains north of Bogotá, a fascinating religious site. En route, we visit Paloquemao, Bogotá’s largest local market. Then we continue to the cathedral, which is built into the tunnels of a salt mine, stretching more than 600 feet underground, with statues and ornaments carved out of the mine’s rock walls. The complex features an entryway lined with 14 small chapels that depict the Stations of the Cross, and is considered a highlight of Colombian architecture. More than just a monument, this site is an active Roman Catholic church, drawing up to 3,000 visitors to its Sunday services. Following our tour of the cathedral, we’ll enjoy lunch at a local restaurant that features dishes cooked using salt from the Zipaquirá mine, as well as ajiaco, a traditional Colombian soup of chicken, potatoes, and corn. Afterwards, we return to our hotel.
Or remain in Bogotá to explore on your own, with lunch on your own. Later this afternoon, we’ll gain a richer understanding of Colombia’s recent history during a lively discussion with a local expert on some controversial topics. We’ll learn about the Colombian government’s lengthy conflict with guerrillas and the role that drug cartels played in the country in the late 20th century. Dinner is on your own this evening.
Our travel in Colombia continues with a flight from Bogotá to Medellin this morning. As we explore the city, we’ll see how it is undergoing an economic and cultural rebirth. When we arrive, we’ll ascend Nutibara Hill—one of the seven hills in the city—via the metrocable (an aerial tram) for panoramic views. Here, we’ll visit a comuna (a small traditional community) and have the opportunity to interact with its residents. After lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll explore the El Poblado district, the city’s wealthiest enclave, whose main street is nicknamed Milla de Oro—the Golden Mile. Our discoveries here will include retracing the life of Pablo Escobar, one of the most notorious drug lords of the 1980s. Afterwards, we check in to our hotel. Dinner is on your own this evening.
This morning, we head for Guatape, a colorful village in the countryside outside of Medellin known for its socalos, beautifully crafted tiles that decorate houses and the town’s church. We’ll ride through the village using local transportation, have lunch at a local restaurant, and walk into town with the chance to interact with local people. After some free time in Guatape, we’ll continue to El Peñón, a monolithic rock that rises more than 650 feet above its surroundings and overlooks a nearby dam. This area is peaceful now, but was the scene of conflict between government and paramilitary forces in the late 20th century—a history we’ll learn about as we explore the site. We then return to our hotel in Medellin; dinner is on your own this evening.
After breakfast, we visit the Antioquia Museum at the Plaza de Botero in Medellín. The plaza has an open-air collection of 23 sculptures by Medellín-born Fernando Botero, whose exaggerated figures have been shown in the world’s greatest museums and galleries. Part of the museum also displays Botero’s artworks. Then we transfer to the airport and fly to Pereira. Lunch is included today, either in Medellín or Pereira depending on the flight schedule.
Pereira is one of three towns that comprise Colombia’s “coffee triangle.” Along with Manizales and Armenia, Pereira is a key player in the Colombian coffee-making tradition that is known world-wide. The top-quality Arabica beans grown in this region are harvested, washed on local plantations, dried, and exported all over the world. After we arrive, we visit a ranch that raises Colombian creole horses, then check in to our lodgings in a historic hacienda, where we have dinner this evening. The Spanish term “hacienda” means the main house of a ranch or plantation, and we’ll see how Spanish Colonial features like a courtyard with a fountain have been retained at our accommodation, which was built in 1737.
The Coffee Triangle:
This morning, we’ll visit Santa Ana, a village in the town of Quimbaya in the countryside near Armenia, and experience A Day in the Life of this community in Colombia’s Coffee Triangle. We begin at the El Laurel School (when in session), which receives support from Grand Circle Foundation through theWorld Classroom program. The school’s principal will show us the facilities and answer questions about education in Colombia. We’ll also meet teachers and interact with students. From the school, we continue to Hacienda Santa Ana, a family-owned coffee plantation. Here we’ll get a hands-on introduction to coffee growing by planting, harvesting, drying, or sorting beans depending on the season. We’ll conclude our visit with a community lunch at the Main House of the plantation with its owners and farm workers.
After lunch, we return to our own hacienda and you have the afternoon at leisure. We’ll enjoy dinner at our hacienda this evening.
The final turn in our triangle is the region around Armenia, once a way station on the march of Simón Bolivar. We visit Salento, a 19th-century village perched on a plateau over the Quindío River. We’ll witness local baristas making “latte art,” decorative patterns in the foam on espresso drinks. Going beyond the common leaf or heart patterns frequently seen in U.S. cafés, the “latte artists” here often “draw” animals, astrological symbols, faces, and more with coffee and foam.
Then we discover that coffee is not on the only treasured resource here, as we visit the Cocora Valley. We’ll travel in yipaos, colorfully decorated Jeeps which are used in local parades and celebrations. After a guided hike near the cloud forest, we’ll have lunch in a local restaurant. Then we’ll learn about the wax palm, the national tree, which can grow to a staggering 250-foot height. The world’s highest altitude palm tree—and its tallest—is also one of its most slow-growing, so Colombia has made the wax palm a protected species. We’ll help to preserve this wonder when we participate in a wax-palm ritual, in which a new seedling is planted and blessed in the tradition of the local Quimbayas people.
We’ll return to Salento with free time to explore the town further. Walking the Calle Real, Salento’s main street, will give us a glimpse into times past, as many buildings still reflect the bahareque cane-and-mud construction style. While here, we have time to browse the local handcrafts shops. We return to our hacienda in time to relax a bit before gathering for dinner.
This morning, we’ll fly from Pereira via Bogotá to Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Officially known as Cartagena de Indias—so named because Spanish explorers believed the port would become part of a spice trade route to India—Cartegena is one of South America’s loveliest cities. Presiding over sandy beaches and azure ocean views, Cartagena still exudes both a colonial elegance and a tropical Caribbean flavor. From its inception, Cartagena’s riches made it a tempting target for pirates, as well as British and French forces, and Spain spent lavishly on its fortifications, a large portion of which have survived the centuries.
We’ll check in to our hotel when we arrive in the afternoon and you’ll have some time to settle in. Then we experience a local mode of transportation with a ride on a chiva, a vibrantly painted bus, while listening to a live musical performance. We’ll enjoy dinner at a local restaurant this evening.
We begin our day in Cartagena’s oldest section, the Ciudad Amarullada, or Walled City, which is encircled by twelve-foot stone walls and considered to be one of the best-preserved walled cities in the world. We continue to the hilltop La Popa Convent, which honors La Virgin de Candelaria, Cartagena’s patron saint, and offers sweeping vistas of the city.
Then we’ll head to one of Cartagena’s most conspicuous and commanding structures, the 17th-century San Felipe Castle. From its inception, Cartagena’s riches were desired by coastal pirates and defended by Spaniards, who eventually built the fortress to protect their prized city. Explore the labyrinthine tunnels that run underground, or enjoy panoramic views of the city from atop the castle walls. After lunch at a local restaurant, you’re at leisure until late afternoon, when we gather to catch the rhythm of local life during a cumbia dance lesson. Dinner is on your own.
This morning, we’ll take a walking tour of the Getsemani neighborhood, the oldest part of the city. Then we visit a jewelry-making school where we’ll see how local students learn their craft, and we have the chance to make a piece of our own to bring home. Colombia is famous for its emeralds, and we’ll learn more about this national treasure after we leave the school and visit the Emerald Museum at Joyeria Caribe. The collections here tell the story of emerald mining in Colombia, and include Petra, the largest intact emerald matrix ever extracted in the country.
Lunch is on your own, and your afternoon is free for making your own discoveries. Perhaps you’ll visit the massive cathedral on Plaza Bolívar, completed in 1602 after being partially destroyed in 1575 by Sir Francis Drake. Or examine the treasure trove of gold and ceramics found at the Museo de Oro y Arqueloguía. Tonight, a traditional carriage ride through the historic neighborhoods of Cartagena will bring us to a local restaurant where we enjoy a Farewell Dinner. There, we’ll dine on local specialties and toast the discoveries we’ve made in Colombia.
After breakfast, we transfer to the airport for our flight home. Or, begin your optional post-trip extension to Ecuador: The Andes & the Devil’s Nose Train.