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Rear View Mirror: Colombia Travel Tips After 17 Months Exploring the Country

There is one big reason that we spent 516 days (that’s 17 months) in Colombia, drove 9,923 miles (15,969 km) around the country, and published 150 posts about travel in Colombia: it’s the people. Despite decades of violence from political conflict, drug wars, and, until the peace treaty which was signed in 2017, a civil war with FARC guerrillas, Colombians are consistently ranked as the happiest people on the planet by orgs like Gallup and the Happy Planet Index. We’re here to tell you that Colombians aren’t just happy. They’re proud, smart, and generous and their love for their country is contagious. Here are our Colombia travel tips for this South American country.

Colombia flag Cartagena fort

The Colombian flag flying high above the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas fort in Cartagena, Colombia.

Colombia travel tips

A three-day holiday weekend is called a puente (bridge) and there are a lot of them in Colombia.

We were very surprised by how little English is spoken in Colombia. In many areas, even cities that attract tourists, hotel staff, waiters, etc. often speak only Spanish. That is, of course, their prerogative. Colombia is a Spanish-speaking country. However, if you don’t have at least a basic grasp on the language be warned that you could have some communication issues.

Escobar Hippos Colombia

One of the hippos left over from Pablo Escobar’s herd at Hacienda Napoles.

Colombia has the largest population of wild hippos outside of Africa. They escaped from a small herd brought to Colombia by Pablo Escobar. A few hippos remain in half-hearted captivity on Escobar’s hacienda which the Colombian government turned into a weird amusement park called Hacienda Napoles. It’s all part of controversial “Escobar Tourism” in Colombia, something we wrote about in our award-winning story for Roads and Kingdoms and more in our Hacienda Napoles travel blog post.

In Colombia, people can choose to pay off a credit card charge in multiple installments. This will not work with foreign credit cards, so be sure to say una cuota (one total) every time you use your credit card.

Yes, there are lots of soldiers and military checkpoints on the roads in Colombia. These days the soldiers are mainly there to maintain the order, security, and confidence which has slowly returned to the country in recent years. The many soldiers we encountered were always smiling and quick with a handshake and hopeful questions about how we liked their country.

2 million Colombian Pesos COP

Colombian cash.

Davivienda Bank ATMs was the only ATM that did not charge us a fee to use the ATM card issued by our US bank. Davivienda ATMS also had the highest withdrawal limit (720,000 COP) which you could withdraw twice back to back.

Check your mattress before you check in. They love rock hard mattresses in Colombia.

Viva Colombia airlines offers incredibly cheap internal flights. For example, it’s possible to fly from Medellin (our favorite unsung Colombian city) to Cartagena (our favorite famous-for-a-reason Colombian city) for less than US$50 round trip. Yes, service sucks and you pay a bit more for every little thing including checked bags and failure to print out your own boarding pass. However, flying is often a better choice than taking the bus because road infrastructure is not great in Colombia and road journeys take a very long time.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Bogota street art Toxicomano

Gabriel Garcia Marquez immortalized in street art by Toxicomano in Bogotá.

A whole host of internationally famous celebrities were born in Colombia including artist Fernando Botero, singers Juanes, Carlos Vives, and Shakira, actors John Leguzamo and Sofia Vergara, and Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marques who inspired our story about traveling in Colombia in the footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez for Bio.com. Find more about the town where Gabo was born in our travel blog post about Aracataca.

Colombia is also producing major sport stars like soccer star James Rodríguez, bike racer Nairo Quintana who won the Giro d’Italia in 2014 and placed second in the Tour de France in 2013 and 2015, and race car driver Juan Pablo Montoya who won the 2015 Indianapolis 500. Justin Bieber is also said to have purchased a “mansion” near Cartagena and rumor has it that Lady Gaga and George Clooney have houses in Colombia too.

Colombia for adventure travelers and nature lovers

Paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon Colombia

Paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia.

There are currently 59 National Parks in Colombia but only about half of them are open to visitors and more than 80% of travelers to Colombia flock to just two of the parks, including Tayrona National Park which, honestly, we were not blown away by. Branch out and try some of the country’s other parks while you’re there. Go to Los Nevados National for condors and volcanoes. Go paragliding over the enormous Chicamocha Canyon. Or check out the petite Tatacoa Desert which (spoiler alert) isn’t a true desert at all.

Wax Palms Salento La Carbonera, Colombia

A stunning (and semi-secret) stand of was palms, the tallest palm in the world and the national tree of Colombia.

The wax palm is the tallest palm in the world. It can grow up to 200 feet (60 meters) tall. It’s also the national tree of Colombia and most travelers head to Salento to see wax palms in the Cocora Valley. However, found an even better place to see Colombia’s national tree.

Colors of Cano Cristales Colombia

Yes, that color is real (and rare) in Colombia’s Caño Cristales.

Colombia is home to a natural phenomenon that happens nowhere else on earth. For part of the year, a short stretch of a remote river appears to run in a rainbow of colors thanks to a fragile bloom of an aquatic plant. The river is called Caño Cristales (or the Rainbow River, the River of Five Colors, the Liquid Rainbow, or the Most Beautiful River in the World) and it’s worth every bit of expense and effort to see this stunning natural wonder. You’ll find more temptation in our complete travel guide to Caño Cristales and our photo essay about the river for BBC Travel.

And where else can you travel on a road called The Trampoline of Death?

Colombia for culture lovers

Tombs San Agustin Archaeological Park Colombia

Tombs and stone statue sentinels at the San Agustin Archaeological Park in Colombia.

There are currently eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Colombia. We can vouch for the mysterious carved stone figures in the archaeological sites of San Agustín, the slow, easy, classically Colombian pace you get in the historic river town of Mompox, and the Colombian cowboy charm of the country’s coffee country with its deep traditions, quality caffeine, and range of terrific hotels.

Tejo Colombia

Karen playing tejo by tossing a metal ball toward explosives…

Colombia’s national pass time is a game is called tejo. It involves heavy metal balls and explosives. It’s fun

Street art Bogota

The street art in Bogotá is breathtaking (and legal).

Yes, street art is becoming a staple of many cities around the world, but the amount, diversity, and quality of the street art in Bogotá stands out.

Las Lajas Sanctuary Ipiales, Colombia

The Dinsey-esque Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia.

The Las Lajas Sanctuary, near the Ecuador border, looks like something straight out of Europe. Or Disneyland. The stone church, which is built across a deep ravine, is lavish and steeped in stories of miracles which attract thousands of pilgrims each year.

Salt Cathedral Colombia

Inside the Salt Cathedral.

A totally different kind of church is the Salt Cathedral not far from Bogotá where the stations of the cross and a church have been carved into the walls of a defunct salt mine up to 600 feet (180 meters) underground.

Medellin Flower Festival

Every August the city of Medellin hosts the vibrant Flower Festival.

Every August the city of Medellin hosts the Flower Festival, a week-long, no-holds-barred celebration of the history and culture of the Antioquia province of the country (which is basically the Texas of Colombia). We somehow managed to attend back-to-back Flower Festivals and here’s what it’s all about.

Barrichara Red Turistica de Pueblos Patrimonio de Colombia

If you ask us, this is the most beautiful town in Colombia.

The Colombian government has established  a network of Colonial towns called Red Turistica de Pueblos Patrimonio de Colombia. The list currently includes 17 towns and we visited 14 of them including Jardin, Aguadas, Cienega, Giron, Guaduas, Honda, La Playa de Belen, Lorico, Mompox, Mongui, Salamina, Santa Fe de Antioquia, Villa de Leyva, and what we consider to be the prettiest town in Colombia: Barichara.

Colombia for food lovers

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Bogotá is shaping up to be South America’s next food capital. Chefs in all price ranges and food styles are creating exciting, daring dining experienced. There are not two chefs with Michelin stars in town. Cocktail bars are killing it. Craft beer is thriving. Local ingredients are front and center. Food festivals like the Bogotá Wine & Food Festival are thriving. No wonder the awards ceremony for Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants will be held in Bogotá in 2017 and in 2018.

 bandeja paisa colombia

Bandeja paisa in all it’s glory.

The most emblematic dish in Antioquia province, and perhaps all of Colombia, is a gut-buster called bandeja paisa. Trust us. It’s big enough to share.

Craft beer Medellin micro breweries Apostle cerveceria

Craft beer in Colombia? You bet.

Colombia is having a craft beer boom. Here’s our guide to microbreweries and brewery tours in Medellin.

Crackeña Colombia

Really?

There’s a brand of crackers called Crackeña, which seems like a bad idea in a country that’s trying to shed it’s “cocaine capital” image.

Aguardiente Colombia

Aguardiente: pick your poison.

Here’s a short list of stuff to eat and drink in Colombia wherever and whenever you find them:

The national drink of Colombia is aguardiente which is made by fermenting and distilling sugar cane juice. It often has a slight licorice taste, but brands and styles vary from province to province. Read about our first sip of aguardiente in our story for TheLatinKitchen.com.

Corozo juice which is made from palm berries and it reminds us of jamaica which is increasingly hard/impossible to find south of Mexico.

Bunuelos Colombia

Buñuelos!

Pan de bono are little discs of chewy, cheesy bread and everyone’s mother makes the very best ones. Another beloved carb bomb is the buñuelo (pictured above) which are light, fluffy, fried orbs best eaten hot and fresh. Some sprinkle sugar on them, which is delightful.

Empanadas come in many forms – deep fried, griddle cooked, baked, etc. They’re so popular that McDonald’s in Colombia sell empanadas.

Technically speaking, sancocho is a soup. In reality, it’s Colombia in a bowl.

Driving in Colombia road trip tips

truck off the road Colombia

Oops.

Colombia is the size of Texas and California combined, but much of the country is road less.

In 2016 the World Bank ranked Colombia 96th out of 160 countries in terms of infrastructure–below Burkino Faso and Rwanda. That means you can expect some pretty bad roads and some pretty slow going.

Panamerican Highway sign Colombia

Driving the PanAm in Colombia.

Diesel is called ACPM at the pump.

Road tolls can add up in Colombia. Over the 9,923 miles (15,969 km) we drove around Colombia we spent more than 1,300,000 COP, which was more than US$600 at the exchange rate at the time. And that total represents just the hundreds of toll receipts we had on hand. Many were lost along the way.  For example, the tolls from Medellin to Cali, a route we have driven several times, cost us around US$40 for a mere 265 miles (425 km). One stretch of this route is called the Autopista del Cafe and is probably the most expensive highway in the country. In just 35 miles (56 km) on this Autopista we went through three toll booths where we handed over about US$16. At least the pricey Autopista del Cafe is a modern, multi-lane, divided highway. Often in Colombia drivers pay nearly as much in tolls for the pleasure of driving on narrow, unsafe, single-lane highways in mediocre to horrible condition.

Colombia toll receipts

Here are 125 Colombian road toll receipts adding up to nearly 1 million COP and representing about 70% of the road tolls we paid in Colombia.

Here’s a good resource that helps you anticipate and calculate Colombia’s tolls, which are called peajes.

If you get a two-part receipt from a toll booth, keep the longer half handy. You will be asked to show it at the following toll booth to be exempted from that toll.

waiting for Colombian road block

Eric reading a book on the side of the road during a particularly looooong road block protest in Colombia.

Expect to encounter random roadblocks. Putting tree trunks or burning tires across main roads is a common form of public protest in Colombia. We once spent six hours in stopped traffic on our way from Cartagena to Medellin (a route that came with US$30 in tolls).

Don’t believe us? Here’s what Jalopnik had to say about driving in Colombia.

Colombia Sunset Salento

A Colombian sunset on the road through the Cocora Valley near Salento.

More Colombia information resources

Read the book Unseen Colombia by Andres Hurtado Garcia, an intrepid hiker and photographer who documented most of the amazing natural areas in Colombia, including the most inaccessible areas down in the Amazon.

Longtime expat Richard McColl interviews interesting guests about all things Colombian (including yours truly) on his Colombia Calling radio podcast program.

The Colombia Facil website and micro guidebook is not comprehensive, but it does provide good info, options, and tips.

Colombia Reports is an English language news site that covers all things Colombian with smarts and wit from within Colombia.

And remember: It’s Colombia, not Columbia.

 

Here’s more about travel in Colombia

 

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Border Crossing 101: Pisiga, Bolivia to Colchane, Chile

Border crossings are a tricky but essential part of road trip travel. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you negotiate the border between Pisiga, Bolivia and Colchane, Chile smoothly with or without a vehicle.

Pisiga, Bolivia - Colchane, Chile border crossing

From: Pisiga, Bolivia

To: Colchane, Chile

Date: October 7, 2017

Lay of the land: This border crossing is at 12,120 feet (3,695 meters) near the Salar de Coipasa. That’s low compared to other Bolivia to Chile border crossings like the Hito Cajón crossing near San Pedro de Atacama which is at 14,698 feet (4,480 meters). Both countries do immigration and customs formalities in the same building at this crossing. 

Elapsed time: 2 hours (12:15 to 2:15). We arrived just after a bus full of student so we had to wait behind them in line for more than an hour to get our Bolivian entry and Temporary Importation Permit (TIP) canceled. Once we reached the window, that process was quick and free. After that it took just a few minutes to get our Chile entry stamp (also free). It took another 15 minutes to get our Chile TIP sorted out. Aduana (customs) agents had a golden retriever named Luke who sniffed our truck inside and out. Agents initially wanted us to remove everything from the truck and pass it through their x-ray machine, but they ultimately settled for x-raying a few bags and peaking inside some plastic bins.

Chile flag

Number of days given: 90 days for us and for the truck

Fees: none

Vehicle insurance needed: You need to buy SOAT insurance to drive in Chile, however, there is no place to buy SOAT at this border. Luckily no one asked us for proof of SOAT at the border because The closest place we found to get SOAT was in Arica.

Where to fill up: There are gas stations on the Bolivian side where, presumably foreign plated cars can only fill with fuel at the official foreigner price of nearly US$5 per gallon (US$1.30 per liter). There are no gas stations in Colchane. We believe fuel is unavailable on the Chile side until you reach the Pan-American Highway.

Need to know: Posted signs said this border’s hours of operation are 8am to 8pm. There were money changers on the Bolivian side but not in Colchane. In fact, there’s not much at all in Colchane — no restaurants or stores and we only saw two hotels. Hotel Isluga is clean and has matrimonial rooms with private bathrooms for 36,000 CLP (about US$56) or for 25,000 CLP (about US$39) with shared bathrooms. Breakfast, hot water, TV with cable, parking, and Wi-Fi (when the electricity is working) are included. Our dinner of chicken, rice, and French fries (4,500 CLP, about US$7) at the hotel was fresh and tasty. Inca Hostal in Colchane has rooms with private bathrooms for 30,000 CLP (about US$47). Be aware that the time changes between Bolivia and Chile from mid August to mid May (we lost an hour when we crossed into Chile) because Chile is one of the few South American countries which observes Daylight Savings Time, so factor that in. 

Duty free: nope

Overall border rating: Good. If we hadn’t gotten stuck behind the bus full of student we would have been in and our in around an hour with very little hassle regarding our truck.

Isluga church, Chile

The church in the town of Isluga which is not far off the main road and worth a quick stop as a side trip or as you’re driving across Isluga Volcano National Park toward Arica.

 

Here’s more about travel in Bolivia

Here’s more about travel in Chile

 

 

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Photo Essay: On the Che Guevara Trail 50 Years After his Death in Bolivia

On October 9, 1967 Ernesto Che Guevara, an Argentinean doctor and a driving force of the Cuban Revolution, along with Fidel Castro, was killed in a tiny town in Bolivia. Fifty years after his death, the Che Guevara legend remains vivid around the world. But there’s a lot about his death that we didn’t know (including a helicopter ride, amputated hands, and a secret burial site) until we traveled to Central Bolivia and took a guided tour of the town of Vallegrande where his body was brought after he was killed in nearby La Higuera.

50th anniversary Che's death banner La Paz Bolivia

This mural, on a college building in La Paz, Bolivia, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Che Guevara with a message that seems like a dig at Bolivian President Evo Morales, reflecting the still-political nature of Che’s legend in Latin America.

On the Che Guevara Trail in Bolivia

First of all, the so-called Che Trail isn’t a trail at all. It’s a grab bag of sites that mark the end of Che’s life and form part of his lasting legacy. In the town of La Higuera, where he was killed, you’ll find an imposing bust of the revolutionary. But the main sites, including the Señor de Malta hospital where his body was taken and the Ernesto Guevara Mausoleum which memorializes the spot where his body was unceremoniously buried, are in the town of Vallegrande. Here’s our photo tour.

Ernesto Che Guevara Mural Vallegrande Bolivia 50th anniversary Che's death

A Che mural in Vallegrande, Bolivia where his body was taken on October 9, 1967.

Che Morgue Hospital Senor de Malta-Vallegrande, Bolivia

The morgue where Che Guevara’s body was taken after he was killed in nearby La Higuera, Bolivia following his captured by local forces who were being aided by the CIA.

Laundry Hospital Senor de Malta Vallegrande, Bolivia

Che Guevara’s body was washed in this laundry room behind the Señor de Malta hospital in Vallegrande, Bolivia.

Vallegrade Hospital Laundry Che Guevara body displayed

The old hospital laundry room where Che Guevara’s body was washed has become a makeshift shrine.

Photo of Che Guevara body being displayed in Vallegrande Bolivia hospital laundry (credit - Freddy Albert)

Some people who saw Che Guevara’s body shortly after his death remarked on his lifelike and even Christ-like appearance. Some even said they felt his eyes following them. (credit: Freddy Albert)

Che Ernesto Guevara Mausoleo VillaGrande Bolivia

The Ernesto Guevara Mausoleum marks the spot where his remains, along with six other revolutionaries, were secretly buried in 1967. In 1997 the bones were found and Che’s body was sent to Cuba for burial.

Che Guevara Mausoleum Villagrande Bolivia

The Ernesto Guevara Mausoleum in Vallegrande, Bolivia.

Che Gvevara grave buried Vallegrande Bolivia

Stone plaques now mark the spot where the bones of Che Guevara and six comrades were found in Vallegrande, Bolivia. Che’s plaque reads “Argentino Cubano”.

Che Gvevara handwritten diaries - Che museum Vallegrande Bolivia

Some of Che’s diaries are on display in the recently-renovated Che museum next to the Ernesto Guevara Mausoleum in Vallegrande, Bolivia.

What you won’t see in Vallegrande is any sign of Che merchandise, like the t-shirts which have become as common around the world as Bob Marley t-shirts.

Get all the travel details you need to do the Che Trail in Bolivia and read even more about what we learned about the life and legend of Che Guevara during our tour (including that bit about the helicopter and the amputated hands) in our complete story about the Che tour for Bio.com (the website for the Biography TV channel).

Here’s more about travel in Bolivia

 

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Where We’ve Been: September 2017 Road Trip Driving Route in Bolivia

After weeks in the cold high-altitude Altiplano, often over 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), our Bolivian road trip focused on exploring central Bolivia in September of 2017, where we enjoyed a comparatively mild climate at moderate elevations between 5,000 and 9,000 feet (1,500  and 2,800 meters). In total, we drove 2,022 miles (3,254 km) in Bolivia in September of 2017. Along the way we traveled to a former Bolivian capital city (Sucre) and ended in the current capital city (La Paz) with time spent exploring Samipata, Amboro National Park, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Torotoro National Park and Sajama National Park plus the Tiwanaku archaeological site. You can see the same spectacular scenery that we saw through the windshield of our truck in the drive-lapse video at the end of this post.

Nevado Sajama Volcano Bolivia's highest point

Where we’ve been: September 2017 road trip in Bolivia

We began the month in the beautiful colonial city of Sucre which was Bolivia’s first capital and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From Sucre we explored the nearby Cordillera de Los Frailes with its pre-Columbian cave paintings and dinosaur footprints.

From Sucre we drove the old (read: unpaved) Cochabamba to Santa Cruz “highway” where road construction in preparation for paving is making the route even more of a mess. We finally arrived at the pleasant town of Samaipata where we hiked to the Nido del Condor (condor’s nest) to watch at least a dozen condors glide in the strong winds they love.

We also visited Vallegrande and explored the Che Trail where we learned a lot about  revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara who was killed by the Bolivian military (with CIA assistance) in the nearby town of La Higuera before his body was displayed and then secretly buried in Vallegrande.

night sky and milky way from Refugio los Volcanes Bolivia

Next up was Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia’s largest city, where we stayed at a hotel called Inboccalupo which is probably our most unexpected boutique hotel experience of the year. From Santa Cruz we visited the remote Refugio Los Volcanes (pictured above) on the edge of Amboro National Park.

Then it was a long drive to Cochabamba, which sits in a giant valley of the same name, before heading to the little-visited Incan ruins of Incallajta and the nearby colonial town of Totora. Then we visited the spectacular Torotoro National Park with its breathtaking yet easily accessible canyon, dinosaur footprints, rock walls covered in marine fossils, and beautiful rock formations.

The only problem is that the road between Cochabamba and the Torotoro National Park is mostly made of cobblestones. This meant driving about 60 miles (100 km) on cobblestones each way. This will soon be a thing of the past, however, since a new highway between Cochabamba and Sucre is being constructed and it will pass nearby the park, dramatically reducing the drive time on cobblestones.

Torotoro Canyon bolivia

After leaving Torotoro National Park (that’s us in the park, above), we passed through Cochabamba again on our way back up to the high-altitude Altiplano. Our first stop was Curahuara de Carangas with its richly painted Colonial church, generously known as the “Sistine Chapel of the Andes”. Our next stop was Sajama National Park, home to Nevado Sajama which is the highest peak in Bolivia at 21,463 feet (6,542 meters).

Sajama National Park also contains hot springs and geysers, lakes with flamingos, and more Colonial churches. Nearby, along the Rio Lauca, we visited some unique chullpas (pre-Columbian burial towers) on which you can still see some painting (and human bones inside).

The end of the month found us at the pre-Incan archaeological site of Tiwanaku, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, before returning to La Paz, Bolivia’s capital.

Our complete road trip driving route map for September 2017 is below:

And don’t miss the chance to see what we saw out there on the road in Bolivia in September of 2017 in our drive-lapse video, below. It was, as always, shot by our Brinno camera which is attached to our dashboard.

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The Most Interesting Border (So Far) – Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia and Topiary Cemetery in Ecuador

We’ve crossed nearly 60 borders in the Americas so far on our little road trip and they’re usually dead boring. But not this one. When you cross between Ipiales, Colombia and Tulcán, Ecuador you can visit two totally travel worthy sites, the Disney-esque Las Lajas Sanctuary on the Colombia side and a massive topiary filled cemetery on the Ecuador side, in a single day.

Las Lajas Sanctuary Ipiales, Colombia

Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia near the border with Ecuador.

Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia

Less than 10 miles (16 km) from the border with Ecuador you will find the most elaborate and unexpected church in Colombia. The Gothic revival style Las Lajas Sanctuary dominates a narrow gorge and was built between 1916 and 1949. The massive stone church rises 330 feet from the bottom of the canyon where the Guáitara River rages. The elaborate Roman Catholic church is accessed via a 160-foot-long stone foot bridge. 

The Las Lajas Sanctuary may look a bit Disney-esque, but it’s a serious pilgrimage site.

But the Las Lajas Sanctuary isn’t just famous for its location and architecture (which looks like something straight out of Europe, or Disneyland). In 1754, an indigenous woman named Maria Mueces and her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa, were walking through the gorge when Rosa wandered into a cave and suddenly spoke.

What the previously deaf and mute woman said was that she’d seen a woman carrying a baby. This was eventually interpreted as a sighting of the Virgin Mary and the deaf-mute woman’s sudden ability to speak was considered a miracle. Now thousands of pilgrims visit Las Lajas each year.

Tourist lama photo Las Lajas Sanctuary - Ipiales, Colombia

We’re not sure what photo opps with dressed up llamas have to do with purported miracles, but it’s a thing at Las Lajas Sanctuary.

When we were there a cable car was in the final stages of construction. If you visit now you can ride the teleferico instead of walking up and down to the sanctuary. You will also find the cheapest bed in Colombia at the sanctuary where you can sleep in a spartan nun’s room at a nearby cloister for less than US$10 for two people

Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

The topiary-filled Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán, Ecuador near the border with Colombia.

Municipal Cemetery in Ecuador

About five miles (8 km) from the border on the outskirts of the town of Tulcán you’ll find the Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán.

Topiary Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

Flora and fauna and Aztec and Egyptian imagery inspired the elaborate topiary in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

In the 1930s, local gardener Josè Maria Azael Franco began sculpting the cypress bushes that grow in the cemetery where he worked. Inspired by Ecuadorian flora, fauna and indigenous cultures, including animals from the Galapagos Islands plus themes from Roman, Incan, Aztec, and Egyptian culture, Mr. Franco shaped the plants, which can live for 500 years and grow more than 100 feet (33 meters) tall.

Gardening Topiary Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

A gardener keeps things tidy in the Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán.

Over the years every cypress was transformed until the cemetery was, in Mr. Franco’s own words, “so beautiful it invites one to die.” The Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán now has more than 100 enormous, intricate creations covering the three-acre site, which some of Mr. Franco’s sons now maintain following the creator’s death.

Topiary gardens Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

We loved the topiary crucifix in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

These cross-border sites were so interesting that we did a story about them for Atlas Obscura, where you’ll find even more details about what could be the most interesting border in the Americas.

Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

You can walk through this topiary tunnel in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

 

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Here’s more about travel in Ecuador

 

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Go Green – Laguna Verde & Volcán Azufral, Colombia

It is not easy to get to Laguna Verde, the very green lake inside the very active Azufral Volcano, but it’s worth the effort required on the road and on the trail to enjoy this place as a day trip from Pasto or Ipiales, Colombia.

Laguna Verde Colombia

Laguna Verde inside the active Azufral Volcano in Colombia.

Getting to Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral

From Pasto it took us about 1.5 hours to reach the square in the town of Túquerres where we asked for directions to the volcano and were told to continue on a paved road out of town. That turned into a dirt road for a few miles before we reached a small shop and living quarters for the caretakers of the Azufral Natural Reserve. There’s a large parking lot there along with clean bathrooms (500 COP or about US$0.15). When we were there we were not charged an entry fee, but some travelers are now reporting a 2,000 COP (about US$0.70) entry fee.

Click here to see a full size image of this panoramic shot of Laguna Verde.

If you don’t have your own vehicle, check out this Laguna Verde post from Emily and Andrew of Along Dusty Roads. It has detailed information about getting to Laguna Verde from Pasto using public transportation and taxis.

Hiking trail to Laguna Verde Colombia

Karen braving high winds on the hike to Laguna Verde.

The hike to Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral

From the parking lot it’s a 3 mile (5 km) hike (each way) along a narrow, disused dirt road to reach the rim of the volcano where you get views inside the crater–unless things are clouded in which happens a lot.

Laguna Verde, living up to its name.

Inside the crater you’ll actually see two lakes, a green one and a greener one. It’s intense color comes from high levels of sulphur emitted by the active volcano which has many vents and lets out many gasses.

Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral volcanic vents Colombia

Volcanic vents made white by gasses expelled by the very active Azufral Volcano.

Getting to Laguna Verde itself requires another half mile walk down from the rim along a steep trail that is a slippery, muddy nightmare when wet.

Be prepared for the cold, the wind. At times gusts were so strong we had to plant our feet, turn our backs to the wind, and brace for impact, which explains why this section of trail is called the Wind Trail. Overall weather conditions can change quickly so layer up. And be prepared for strong sun (wear your highest SPF even on cloudy days) and the altitude. The parking lot is at 11,950 feet (3,642 meters) and the volcano rim is up above 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). 

Here’s more about travel in Colombia

 

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