A Watery Wonderland – Bonito, Brazil

Bonito would be just another sleepy town in the southern Pantanal region of Brazil if it weren’t surrounded by rivers of crystal clear spring-fed water which are home to so many docile (and delicious) fish that it seems you might be able to walk on water after all. Here’s our travel guide to the watery wonderland in Bonito, Brazil including floating, swimming, snorkeling, and diving (plus a few dry adventures too).

Municipal Swimming Area Bonito, Brazil

The Municipal Swimming Area is the closest and cheapest way to enjoy the crystal clear water that Bonito, Brazil is famous for.

Bonito started out as a rural collection of enormous farms (called fazendas in Portuguese). Slowly, landowners realized that the rivers and waterways on their land were not like other rivers. In Bonito, the water is supernaturally clear. So clear that it almost creates an optical illusion, as if you’re looking at a mirror or just thin air, not water.

When tourists started coming to see the natural beauty of the place some landowners stopped farming and created an infrastructure to make it easier for visitors to access rivers and waterfalls and Bonito’s tourism industry began.

Estancia Mimosa waterfall Bonito, Brazil

One of eight waterfalls on the hiking and swimming circuit at Estancia Mimosa.

Today, there are dozens of tour agencies selling dozens of tours and those in the business have even begun to self-regulate with visitor caps and other measures meant to limit the human impact on their amazing waterways.

Red & Green Macaw, Buraca das Araras - Bonito, Brazil

A red and green macaw hanging out in the enormous Buraco das Araras crater.

What to do in Bonito, Brazil

It’s (almost) all about getting wet in Bonito. Most sites are a 30-60 minute drive from town except for the Municipal Swimming area (Balenario Municipal) which is right on the outskirts of Bonito. That’s where we started (30 BRL entry, about US$9.50 per person, buy a voucher at any tour operator in town or at the entrance to the swimming area). This is the cheapest and easiest way to enjoy the amazing water in Bonito and no guide is required.

Balenario Municipal Bonito, Brazil

The Municipal Swimming Area in Bonito is very popular, especially on weekends.

Floating Rio Formosa Bonito, Brazil

Yes, the water really is that clear in the Formosa River around which Bonito’s Municipal Swimming Area is built.

The Municipal Swimming area accesses the spring-fed Formosa River which flows through a series of wide, deep swimming areas connected by sections of river which you can float down. The water was full of big fish too which were fun (and disconcerting) to swim with.

There are surprisingly good outdoor restaurants too. We got great chicken Milanese with potatoes, salad, and rice for 18 BRL (about US$5.75). Cold beer is available too for 5 BRL (about US$1.50). Other facilities include a large parking area, changing rooms, and bathrooms. It gets very busy with locals on weekends.

Rio da Prata is one of the most popular destinations in Bonito and for good reason: it’s the longest continuous snorkeling stretch in the region at more than a mile (2 km). The road from Bonito to Rio da Prata is mostly paved but allow about an hour to reach the main complex. From there you take a short drive in an open-air vehicle, then walk along a 1 mile (2 km) trail for about 30 minutes to reach the river which is full of fish including many golden dorado.

Rio da Prata snorkeling - Bonito, Brazil

A flashy golden dorado, and other species of fish, in the Rio da Prata.

As we floated downstream in the swift current we also saw monkeys in branches over the river as we passed under them which was a unique perspective. Facilities at the main complex, where you start and finish, include (weak) WiFi, shaded seating, bathrooms, showers, lockers, and an area full of hammocks.

Parrots and Macaws feeding Rio da Prata - Bonito, Brazil

Visitors who arrive to Rio da Prata in the morning have the best chance of seeing the most species of birds, like these wild parrots and macaws who come to the feeder.

Many macaws, parrots, ibis, jays, and other birds congregate at the feeders and in the trees around the complex (especially in the morning). Some staff members speak some English and neoprene booties, short wet suits, and masks and snorkels are provided. Horseback riding is also available. Lunch is a huge buffet of traditional favorites, including some vegetarian options, cooked over a wood fire and served in a rustic kitchen. To help control environmental impact, there’s a self-imposed limit of 150 people per day at Rio da Prata.

waterfall Estancia Mimosa - Bonito, Brazil

Waterfalls in the spring-fed Mimosa River are the main attraction at Estancia Mimosa.

waterfall swimming Estancia Mimosa - Bonito, Brazil

Eric swimming in a waterfall in the spring-fed river at Estancia Mimosa near Bonito.

Estancia Mimosa is about 30 minutes from  Bonito and the main attraction on this farm turned nature reserve is a section of river that is punctuated by a series of eight waterfalls. Opened to tourists in 1999, this place now has a trail (about 2 miles or 3.2 km) which connects eight waterfalls where wooden platforms and stairs make getting into the water easy. Or you can just jump.

One particularly deep natural pool has a platform 20 feet (6 meters) above it. Horseback riding and bird watching (claim 250 species have been seen on the property) are also offered. A life jacket and a guide are included along with a massive post adventure lunch buffet. Neoprene booties, which you can walk in and swim in, are available for rent. Or just wear a sturdy pair of flip-flops or Crocs. 

SCUBA Lagoa Misteriosa

Eric after his dive in the Lagoa Misteriosa flooded sink hole.

Lagoa Misteriosa offers something entirely different: SCUBA diving in a flooded sinkhole that is 246 feet (75 meters) deep. The water is clearest between April and October. During the rest of the year plankton makes the water murky. Our dive master, Joao, told us that the water was never murky until local farmers began using pesticides. We were there when the water was murky, which meant Eric and Joao had to dive deeper in search of clearer water (Karen didn’t dive because she was still healing from emergency surgery in Campo Grande to remove her appendix).

When conditions are murky divers must have advanced level certification or higher. In clear water conditions basic open water certification is enough. To help control environmental impact only 28 divers per day are allowed in clear conditions. In murky conditions, just four divers a day are allowed. Honestly, visibility was really poor in the murky conditions so it’s worth planning to be there between April and October for the spectacularly clear water. SCUBA gear is provided.

SCUBA Lagoa Misteriosa - Bonito, Brazil

Eric diving in the flooded sink hole at Lagoa Misteriosa – as you can see, it’s worth planning to be there in the months when the water is clear.

Let’s say you want to stay dry…

Not every adventure in Bonito takes place in the water. For example, you will stay perfectly dry during a visit to Buraco das Araras (65 BRL or about US$20 per person including a mandatory guide, 7 am to 5 pm) where a loop trail around a sinkhole provides ample vantage points for viewing the resident red and green and red and blue macaws.

Red & Green Macaw, Buraca das Araras - Bonito, Brazil

A pair of red and green macaws at Buraco das Araras near Bonito.

Allow about an hour to finish the guided walk and you must wear closed shoes (no flip flops or sandals). We saw lots of macaws and the birds come and go and make a racket all day long as they fly into and out of the sinkhole which 330 feet (100 meters) deep and about 1,650 feet (500 meters) around – large enough to have a small forest growing inside it.

Buraca das Araras - Bonito, Brazil

A viewing platform over the Buraco das Araras.

More hardcore adventure tourism is beginning to take off in Bontio as well. The rappel from a steel platform at Boca da Onca, for example, is said to be the highest in Brazil. There are zip lines on offer and cave adventures too.

Where to sleep in Bonito, Brazil

We stayed at Pousada Galeria Artes where owner Maria Pires has created a well-run oasis using her natural Brazilian hospitality and experiences gained when she lived in Europe (including great English skills). Located about 10 blocks from the center of Bonito, the hotel has a big and peaceful central garden that’s full of mango trees, a pool, a parking area, and a range of very comfortable rooms in two separate buildings. Breakfast is amazing as is Maria who (literally) saved Karen’s life when her appendix needed to be removed.

Maria’s new place, Hotel Fazenda Beija Flor, just opened and offers seven rooms, plenty of hammocks, and a country house feeling that invokes old Bonito. This is the place to go if you’re a bird watcher (more than 100 species have been spotted) or orchid lover. There’s also a small beekeeping and honey producing operation on the property which is just outside of town.

Pousada Muito Bonito

Pousada Muito Bonito in Bonito, Brazil.

We also spent a few nights at Pousada Muito Bonito which is centrally located. Opened in 1994, it was one of the first hotels in Bonito. It’s been renovated and upgraded through the years but it’s still owned by the same family. There’s a parking area, a small pool (added in 2016), and small but comfortable rooms. In addition to the area’s natural beauty, the owners also want to promote the area’s culture, including the indigenous groups that once thrived in the area. For example, check out the tiles around the pool, above, which pay homage to the iconography in the art of the Kadiweu people. 

No matter which accommodation you pick, be aware that Bonito gets very busy during holidays and weekends, so make reservations during those times.

Where to eat in Bonito, Brazil

Bonito Beer Cervejas Especiais opened in late 2016 in a small, stylish space about a half block off the main plaza. They’ve got dozens of craft beers, mostly from Brazil. Communal wooden tables encourage conversation and there are also tables on the sidewalk outside. Snacks, including a charcuterie plate, are also available.

For lunch, head to the simple but clean and welcoming Jacquie restaurant also near the main plaza. Lunch buffet is 25 BRL (about US$7.80) and includes a wide range of fresh food with plenty of vegetarian options and nice desserts.

Jacquie’s sister runs Juanita Restaurante which is known for heaping platters of grilled whole fish in various sizes cooked in capers. Meant for sharing, the platters also include rice, potatoes, and vegetables. The food is delicious and reasonably priced and the outdoor tables are a breezy place for a beer.

Animal phone booths - Bonito, MS, Brazil

Karen hates talking on the phone unless it’s an oversized version of a jungle animal.

The best way to imagine a Brazilian pastel is to picture a huge, rectangular fried wonton with a filling. At Pastel Bonito they whip up a wide-range of pastels (5 BRL to 15 BRL or about US$1.50 to US$4.75) including one filled with caiman.

One more travel tip…

To get the most out of Bonito you really need a vehicle. Public transportation doesn’t really service the sights you want to see and tour companies offer van transport as part of their group tours, but they can be pricey. You may have read that there is no way to rent a car in Bonito, but that’s not correct. You can rent a car in Bonito through Localiza and Unidas in Bonito.

Here’s more about travel in Brazil

 

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Where We’ve Been: October 2017 Road Trip Driving Route in Bolivia, Chile & Peru

In October 2017 we were ready to leave Bolivia and re-enter Peru. Then we checked our math and discovered a calculation error which meant we would need to briefly enter Chile before entering Peru. Whoops. This means that we visited three countries and crossed two borders in October. In total, we drove 1,462 miles (2,353 km) in Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, including a massive chunk in just seven long days. Here’s out October 2017 road trip driving route.

driving Isluga Volcano National Park

Where we’ve been: October 2017 road trip in Bolivia, Chile, and Peru

We began the month in La Paz, Bolivia where our allotted 90 days were coming to an end on October 7. We had planned to leave Bolivia and re-enter Peru near Lake Titicaca so that we could drive to Lima via the most direct route. However, just 48 hours before our scheduled departure from Bolivia, we realized we didn’t do our math properly and we would not be able to re-enter Peru for another week. So: we had to leave Bolivia but we weren’t yet allowed to enter Peru. What to do? Head to Chile, of course.

Polloquere Hotspings Vicunas National reserve, Chile

So we changed plans entirely and drove to the border at Pisiga, Bolivia to enter Colchane, Chile. This silver lining? This sudden detour allowed us to explore a remote corner of Chile that we missed when we were there at the beginning of the year. So, from Colchane we were off on an epic 2-day off-road drive through Isluga National Park (named for its active volcano), Las Vicuñas National Reserve (with its giant salt flat, elegant vicuñas, flamboyant flamingos, and natural hot springs), and Lauca National Park before reaching pavement again in Putre, Chile.

Las Vicunas National Reserve, Chile

From Putre we drove to the city of Arica on the coast, returning to sea level for the first time since June. After passing a bit more than a week in Arica we were able to re-enter Peru and resume our original plan, albeit with a much longer drive to Lima from the Chile border.

After two and a half long days of driving up the coast, we arrived in Lima where we settled in for two months to catch up on work. We won’t be moving again until the beginning of the year so there won’t be a November or December “Where We’ve Been” post… unless of course, our plans change again.

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, Chile, and Peru in October of 2017 in our drive-lapse video, below. It was, as always, shot by our Brinno camera which is attached to our dashboard.

 

Here’s more about travel in Bolivia

Here’s more about travel in Chile

Here’s more about travel in Peru

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Is This the Most Amazing Amazon? – Tambopata National Reserve, Peru

We’ve explored many parts of the Amazon including along the Napo River and Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, in Western Brazil near Manaus, in the Tena area of Ecuador, in northern Peru around Iquitos, and in the Cuyabeno area of Ecuador. However, the Amazon in the Tambopata National Reserve in southern Peru blew us away (it helped that we saw a young puma during a night walk in the jungle). So, is this the most amazing Amazon? 

Rainforest Expeditions - Tambopata, Peru

Karen exploring more of the Amazon in and around the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru.

Into the Amazon in the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru

The Tambopata National Reserve protects a wide range of habitats which are home to an enormous number of species including a thousand types of butterflies, 600 species of birds and mammals galore. And because the reserve, which covers more than 1,000 square miles (2,600 square km), is at the foot of the Andes range it has rich soil as well so plants and trees thrive.

Gold mining, Tambopata River, Peru

Just one of the illegal gold panning operations we saw.

Despite its status as a national reserve, there are environmental threats in the area. Chief among them are illegal small-scale gold extraction operations. We saw many of them on the rivers in the reserve where miners cut down trees and kill animals. They also contaminate the water with mercury from the panning process. The water already has such high levels of mercury that some people we met only eat fish from fish farms, never from the rivers.

Capybara - Tambopata reserve

A capybara and friend on the banks of the Tambopata River.

Exploring the Tambopata National Reserve with Rainforest Expeditions

There are more than 20 lodges in the Tambopata area. We spent our time at lodges operated by Rainforest Expeditions, in part because we’re into the company’s legacy of research and conservation. They operate three individual lodges, plus a private Amazon Villa luxury bungalow, in various areas in and around the reserve and they all do an artful job of combining a jungle experience with many more comforts than you’d expect.

Scarlet Macaw, Tambopata Macaw Project - Rainforest Expeditions

A scarlet macaw at the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) which was opened as the base for the Tambopata Macaw Project which continues its conservation efforts funded, in part, by tourism to the TRC lodge.

Tambopata Macaw Project - Tambopata Research Center

Macaw populations are slowly growing thanks to ongoing conservation efforts and we saw dozens of them while we were at the Tambopata Research Center lodge, operated by Rainforest Expeditions.

The original lodge is the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) which is the base for the Tambopata Macaw Project which was set up in 1989 to study and conserve macaw populations in association with Texas A&M University. Researchers estimate that there were only about 500 macaws in the area when their research, nest building, and conservation efforts started. Tourism was developed to fund the science and today, more than 20 years since conservation began, there are more than 5,000 macaws in the area along with about 2,000 travelers who visit the TRC lodge each year.

Traveling up Tambopata river - Tambopata research center

Traveling on the Tambopata River.

The TRC is the most remote facility operated by Rainforest Expeditions and requires a seven-hour boat ride (each way) on the Tambopata River from Puerto Maldonado, though most travelers break up that journey with overnight stays at closer lodges operated by Rainforest Expeditions along the way.

The payoff for the long journey is the fact that the TRC lodge is actually inside the reserve. This helps explain why 156 visitors saw a jaguar near TRC in 2016. The lodge is simple but comfortable with open-sided sitting areas and dining room and a range of rooms from with private bathrooms, hot water, electricity during certain hours of the day, and Wi-Fi. New Suites and Deluxe Suites are larger and have ceiling fans. The Deluxe Suites also have a furnished outdoor patio with an outdoor tub so you can soak in the jungle. It’s almost too much luxury. Almost.

Scarlet Macaw, Tambopata Macaw Project

A wild (but habituated) scarlet macaw helps itself to an unguarded breakfast at the TRC lodge.

And, of course, there are the macaws which seemed to be everywhere, including inside our room which, like most of the rooms at Rainforest Expeditions lodges, had only three walls. The idea is that people come to the Amazon to be in the jungle, not in their rooms so every effort is made to bring the outside in. But don’t worry. As we’ve seen before, in a balanced natural environment insects are usually not an overwhelming problem and good nets over the beds ensure peaceful sleep. FYI: peak season for the macaws is January and February when they’re nesting. 

Chuncho clay lick Tambopata Research Center

Rainy conditions caused a quiet day a the famous Chuncho clay lick, attracting just a few blue-headed parrots and even fewer chestnut-fronted macaws.

On the way out to the TRC lodge our boat stopped at the famous riverside Chuncho clay lick which routinely attracts hundreds of macaws, parrots, and parakeets. The birds (and some mammals too) come because their natural diet contains natural toxins which are neutralized by components in the clay found here.

Unfortunately, it started to rain as we arrived at the clay lick and though we were all willing to get drenched, the birds were not and the clay lick was nearly empty with just a handful of blue-headed parrots and five chestnut-fronted macaws. FYI: the driest season in the region is June to October, but we were there in September and it was far from dry.

Posada Amazonas Rainforest expeditions Tambopata reserve

A three-walled room at Posada Amazonas Lodge operated by Rainforest Expeditions.

With tourism demand increasing, Rainforest Expeditions began looking for closer (but still wild) areas in which to build new lodges and the company eventually worked with a local community to create Posada Amazonas, their second lodge. Finally, Refugio Amazonas was built.

Red howler monkey Tambopata

Red howler monkeys in the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru.

Black-faced spider monkey Tambopata

A black-faced spider monkey in the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru.

Saddleback Tamarin Tambopata

A saddleback tamarin outside our room at Posada Amazonas near the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru.

Located just 3.5 hours by boat (each way) from Puerto Maldonado, Posada Amazonas is much closer but still surrounded by nature on a 495 acre (200 hectare) private reserve adjacent to the Tambopata National Reserve.

This lodge is even more comfortable than the TRC lodge. Rooms, which are also missing one wall, per Rainforest Expeditions’ immersive Amazon approach, have private bathrooms with hot water and there’s electricity until 10 pm. There’s also a spa, Peruvian craft beer, citronella bug spray in the bathroom (never needed it), raised walkways, and plenty of rubber boots (pack knee socks to avoid chafing) and walking sticks.

Puma spotting Rainforest expeditions tambopata

That’s a young puma peering out at us during a night walk in the jungle around the Posada Amazonas lodge.

We spent a lot of time jungle with our guide Paul, who was born in a remote village called Manu where he literally had a jaguar as a pet. Paul took us to the nearby canopy tower for very fruitful early morning bird watching, we went paddling on oxbow lakes, and, of course, we did a lot of jungle walking. The highlight was a night walk during which Paul’s expert hunch (and trail observations) paid off with a sighting of a young puma, a first for us and rare enough for Paul to get excited too.

Spics Guan tambopata

We spent hours staring at a tree with a known harpy eagle nest in it but we never saw the harpy and had to settle for this common spics guan instead.

Despite our best efforts we never got a glimpse of the nesting harpy eagle near the lodge (other guests saw it), so we have to content ourselves with Rainforest Expeditions’ Harpy Cam, below.

Paradise tanager Tambopata

A paradise tanager spotted near Posada Amazonas.

Pavone quetzal tambopata

We’ve seen resplendent quetzals before but we saw our first pavone quetzal while hiking in the jungle near Posada Amazonas.

We’d already seen cocoi herons, king vultures, and dozens of capybara during our journeys up and down the river, but on our trip back to Puerto Maldonado we got a real treat: a pair of tapir on the banks of the river.

Tapir tambopata river

It’s unusual to see tapir out in the open as we did during a journey on the Tambopata River.

Also worth noting: while we were in the Tambopata Amazon a cold front blew in from Patagonia and temperatures plunged, so pack some layers just in case. For more surprises, check out our post about other Amazon Myths.

The Amazon gets cold

If anyone tells you it’s always hot in the Amazon, show them this picture of guides all bundled up during a very, very cold journey on the river.

Innovating in the Amazon

Another reason we like Rainforest Expeditions is that they continue to innovate. In 2017 that meant the addition of a number of Wired Amazon programs. One allows guests at Refugio Amazonas to help Discover a Species during nighttime bug collection efforts. The area may be home to thousands of uncatalogued species and this program aims to find them. Specimens are gathered and then sent to a leading entomologist in Lima where they’re examined. At least one new species of moth has been found with the help of guests.

Hummingbird Tambopata Peru

A hummingbird gets breakfast.

Other new programs include creating an enormous grid of wildlife camera traps called Amazoncam which can be watched around the world and an Aerobotany program that lets anyone with an internet connection help take a census of local trees.

Screaming Piha, Tambopata reserve

This is an aptly-named screaming piha caught in mid-scream.

Travel tips for Puerto Maldonado

You may need to spend a night in Puerto Maldonado before or after your Amazon adventure. Here are some travel tips.

Puerto Maldonado is an Amazon gateway town, a port town, and a border town (Brazil is right over there). That triple whammy would normally result in a dirty, dreary, downtrodden town. But Puerto Maldonado is practically pleasant. Traffic roundabouts are decorated with huge statues of harpy eagles and big cats. The people are reasonably friendly. And there’s no whiff of sketchiness or neglect.

We stayed at Anaconda Lodge which is right next door to the Rainforest Expeditions office. The place is run by an expat named Donald and his Thai wife Wadee (along with a menagerie of dogs, cats, and the occasional rescued monkey). A range of rooms are scattered around a jungly plot of land. There’s a very clean pool, Wi-Fi (which is weak or strong depending on which room you choose), and a menu of legit Thai dishes cooked by Wadee and her daughter.

Though there are only 15 rooms, one of them is called Room 69, aka the honeymoon suite, for reasons that will shortly become apparent. This racy room features a wooden bed with four enormous penises carved into the bed posts, bedside tables with boobs that serve as drawer handles, and a table supported by the bent over legs and backsides of two women instead of traditional legs. The furniture was carved by a local artist based on designs by Donald and Wadee, who swear the artist wasn’t too shocked.

Here’s more about travel in Peru

 

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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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