Petra Shepherd explores Colombia’s varied biking and hiking routes from Bogota to Medellin.
Back in 2013, after 19 years crisscrossing the globe with the world’s leading travel broadcaster Travel Channel International, I took a career break and spent 5 months travelling through South America. I’d ask my fellow travellers where their favourite South American experience had been and nine times out of ten, the answer would be Colombia, sadly the one country I skipped. Determined to right this wrong, it was to the fifth largest country in South America that I headed to in February this year as my first big post-pandemic adventure.
On day one, I find myself on a cycle tour of the bike-friendly capital Bogota, getting to see more of the city’s parks, plazas and monuments in a few hours than most get to see in a few days, along with some entertaining commentary and some much-needed jet lag busting exercise. Love street art? whether it’s political or just great art, Bogota’s walls are a huge, ever-changing outdoor canvas with the tour including lots of stops at the city’s best and most famous art.
We cycle through the city, stopping at traffic lights as unicyclists juggling knives or entertainers dressed as robots emerge out of nowhere to entice a few pesos from the waiting motorists. We stop to admire a craft stall with origami owls and wallets, on closer inspection, the origami paper used is in fact now worthless Venezuelan banknotes, the wallets worth more than the money they are made from. We pedal through La Candelaria, Plaza de Toros and even through the red-light district on a mostly flat route stopping at a fruit market to sample dozens of exotic fruits. The fruits appear to be on steroids judging by their size, avocados the size of melons and dozens of fruits I’d never heard of or tasted before.
Who knew there were so many different kinds of passion fruit, even a banana passion fruit with yellow pulp and black seeds officially known as curuba. My favourite is lulo, a tangy, citrus-like fruit and one of Colombia’s favourite fruits for juices, as the saying goes “when life gives you lulos make lulada” a deliciously refreshing fruit juice.
The explosive sport of Tejo is a classic Colombia tradition in which you throw a metal puck or disc called a tejo to a one-metre by one-metre board covered with clay and set at a forty-five-degree angle. A small paper triangle packed with gunpowder sits in the centre of the clay-filled box and the simple aim is to try and strike the gunpowder. Our bike tour ends with a game which was enormous fun, Colombians are passionate about the game but it’s safe to say, they’re not going to get much competition from me, I am rubbish!
Villa de Leyva, 3 hours north of Bogota and one of the most beautiful towns in Colombia famed for its historic importance and magnificent square is another cycle-friendly destination. The Plaza Mayor is the largest in Colombia and one of the most impressive in South America, at over 150,000 square feet. As I cycle, somewhat gingerly over the cobbled streets, lined with whitewashed buildings, I am transported back in time. The attractive colonial town, retains the traditional Andean way of life, despite the recent influx of visitors.
Exploring Colombia’s picturesque coffee country where lush, green mountains envelope bountiful coffee bushes, banana plants and giant bamboo jungles is undoubtedly one of the country’s main highlights. The pretty little town of Salento is at the heart of the region, it’s very quaint, the houses a riot of colour, so much so that they were the model for Casa Madrigal, the Madrigal’s family home in the 2021 Disney animated movie Encanto.
The true inspiration for Encanto, though, is just outside of Salento, the Cocora Valley. The film’s directors have stated that the rolling green mountains and palm trees surrounding the Madrigal house were inspired by the beautiful landscape. Anyone with children under 10 will be very familiar with the film and the region is capitalizing on the film’s popularity. Hiking the spectacular Valle de cocora loop is an absolute must. The gorgeous trek lives up to all the hype, it’s possible to walk the 5-to-6-hour loop by yourself but I am guided by Sebastian, a charming guide from Paramo Trek. Sebastian is able to point out the enormous variety of flora and fauna and share his vast wax palm knowledge.
The wax palm, the largest palm in the world is Colombia’s national tree and grows up to 197 feet in height. The at-times sweaty trek, takes you through cloud forests and rivers, across 7 suspended bridges, there’s a must-do detour to a hummingbird reserve and all the way along you can’t help but marvel at the iconic, otherworldly views. Back in Salento, you’ll find the local dish, fresh trout served in dozens of different ways. My choice, fried with a mountain of plantain is deliciously filling and much appreciated after the day’s activity.
Pedalling Medellin, the city of eternal spring and Colombia’s second-largest city and the archetypal trek to the Ciudad Perdita, or Lost City have been evocatively described by fellow TripReporter Rupert Parker For some gentler walks, I end my trip to Colombia in Minca, no longer the new kid on the back-packer block but a well-established little mountain village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, half an hour from Santa Marta in the North of the country.
Supposedly with a cooler climate than the coast, I still find it sizzling but there are two natural waterfalls that can be easily walked to, the Marinka waterfall, a lovely, local swimming spot where for a small fee you can cool off at pozo azul which is free but does tend to get very crowded, go either first thing in the day or after 4 pm. It’s a long, tough walk, uphill from Minca to Los Pinos (literally the pine trees), much easier to do as I did, jump on the back of a motorbike to the top, admire the view stretching out towards the Caribbean and then gently hike back down.
The bike tours and short hikes are a wonderful introduction to Colombia and a way of discovering quite how extraordinary the country is. The scenery is as dramatic, the towns as atmospheric and the people as friendly as my fellow travellers had described.
All images (C) Petra Shepherd
Tell Me More About Colombia
100 Luxury Suites is a new contemporary, boutique hotel in Bogota
Bogota Bike Tours a fun way to see the city
Trekking in Salento offers treks from Salento
Colombia Travel has tourist information