Did you miss out on our virtual Colombia reader event? Don’t worry! Here's what happened, the answers to all of your questions about travel in Colombia, plus a full recording of the evening...
Over 300 of you joined us on Zoom last night to hear award-winning travel writer and photographer Shafik Meghji tell his story about his recent trip to Colombia. His captivating presentation took us through the capital city of Bogotá and deep into the Llanos Orientales, to learn about the cowboy culture and incredible wildlife in the region.
From Llanos, Shafik transported us some 800km to Isla de Providencia, unveiling the rich history of the island and highlighting its pristine beaches, plus the incredible snorkelling and diving opportunities on offer. Naturally, by the end of Shafik’s presentation, the chat box was filled with inspired travellers dreaming of their future Colombia adventures.
Following Shafik's talk, Wanderlust's editor-in-chief Lyn handed over to Jose Puyana, the Executive Director of Colombia’s Tourist Board in the UK (ProColombia). From sharing the importance of music in Colombia, to giving his advice about the best time to visit, Jose answered as many of your burning questions as possible.
Unfortunately, we ran out of time to answer them all, but Shafik and Jose have shared all the answers you asked for right here. You can catch up on the full webinar here, too.
When is the best time to go to Colombia?
The short answer is any time! Colombia is a country with a very privileged geographical position that allows us to have all kinds of climates all year around. You could be in a desert area like La Guajira one day and in a snowy peak like Nevado del Ruiz the next. I would recommend visiting Colombia's official website for further information on where to go and when.
I'm travelling to Colombia for a month in May. What would you recommend for a first time traveller there?
I would suggest you try to go to many different regions. You could go to Cartagena or Santa Marta in the Caribbean; Bogotá or Medellín in the Andean region; Villavicencio or Yopal in the Llanos Orientales; or Cali and see the pacific rhythms. Please visit our website Colombia.travel for more information on the infinite possibilities. We hope you enjoy your visit!
How has Colombia been affected by COVID-19? Is it safe to travel there yet?
As with every other country, COVID-19 slowed down Colombia’s tourism industry. Although these are hard times, the country is hoping to be able to welcome tourists very soon. To ensure that we don’t put any of our visitors at risk, Colombia is the first country in the region that, with the support of World Tourism Organisation, has launched a Tourism Biosecurity Stamp. Tourism companies are encouraged to get accredited with this stamp by following biosecurity measures and ensuring safety for their customers. We are working very hard to make sure that everyone can have the pleasure of visiting our wonderful country soon without taking any risks.
How much of the country is set aside and protected ecologically?
We are fortunate to be one of the richest countries in terms of biodiversity and culture in the world. In fact, there are 59 natural areas which represent 14,682 sq km of the total country's surface area (12% of our territory). We pride ourselves on being able to provide a home to 20% of the entire world’s bird biodiversity including 80 endemic species. There are several opportunities to visit these protected areas and have a fabulous ecological experience when you visit Colombia.
Are the locals encouraged to manage ecosystems?
Colombia has a diverse number of ecosystems – 53% of our territory is covered by forests, which is why we are highly committed to protecting one of our most precious assets. There are several organisations which take care of such ecosystems and fauna, and the government's ambition to protect our environment has created a number of incentives to motivate people to protect their ecosystem. Additionally, 31.5% of the country’s total continental surface is indigenous territory which prohibits any sort of modern technology developments, protecting all ecosystems within.
How safe is Colombia to visit?
Colombia is an emerging country full of wonderful people and incredible destinations. The country has undergone a massive transformation with significant improvements in terms of security all around the country. This has been reflected in the UK Foreign Office's travel advice about visiting Colombia. We work very hard to help tourists enjoy as much of the country as possible, as safely as possible.
Is independent travel recommended?
Yes, I would certainly recommend it. This is how I usually travel and I enjoy it thoroughly. Although not everyone speaks English, most of the people involved in the industry do, so you will almost certainly find what you need. Part of what makes Colombia so special is our people, and you will see that during your trip. Even if you travel on your own, you will never feel lonely. Colombia will welcome you with open arms.
What is the scuba diving like in Colombia?
Colombia has two separate coasts, natural reserves and a series of wonderful islands where you can have a great scuba diving experience. Places like Providencia, Malpelo, Isla Gorgona and Capurganá are always good places to go to see the wonders of the oceans. More details can be found here.
What off-the-beaten-track experiences do you recommend for those who have been to Colombia before?
In the webinar, I recommended the Cabo de la Vela in Guajira, which is breathtaking. And of course, if you haven't already been, I recommended my hometown, Bucaramanga: It the most adventurous region of Colombia.
Where did you stay when you were in the Llanos?
I stayed at Hato Mata de Palma, a traditional llanero homestead in the Reserva Natural El Encanto de Guanapalo. Rates are US$200 per person, including accommodation in a comfortable en-suite room, full-board, guided safaris and other activities, plus transfers to and from Yopal.
Is it easy to find accommodation in the Llanos?
Tourism is still in its early stages in the Llanos but there are increasing accommodation options. In Reserva Natural El Encanto de Guanapalo, for example, there are three different places to stay: Hato Mata de Palma (where I stayed), Hato Altamira (which offers rooms in a traditional homestead) and Hato Montana (which has luxury tents). All of these can be booked directly via the reserve’s website, through a local tour company like Wild Llanos or via an international operator such as Journey Latin America, who organised my research trip.
How can you arrange accommodation on Providencia? Do they have homestay type of lodgings for example?
The vast majority of the accommodation is in simple, locally owned and run guesthouses and B&Bs, though there are also a couple of smarter hotels. Many have websites and can be booked directly; almost everyone on the island speaks English. Alternatively, most can also be found on sites such as Booking.com (though booking this way is slightly more expensive). I didn’t come across any homestays per se, but many of the guesthouses and B&Bs are family run and often part of (or adjacent to) family homes, so they do provide a taste of local life.
How do you get from the capital to the Llanos via public transport?
LATAM has daily flights between Bogotá and Yopal, the regional capital of Casanare department, the part of the Llanos covered in the talk; the journey lasts roughly 30 minutes. Alternatively, you can take a bus from Bogotá to Yopal, generally changing in the city of Duitama; the whole journey takes seven to nine hours. Reserva Natural El Encanto de Guanapalo is a 110km drive from Yopal and you need to travel in a private vehicle. Although the quality of roads in Casanare is generally good, accessing reserves such as Guanapalo is challenging and best left to local drivers. Wild Llanos provided my transfers.
What sort of horses are used by cowboys? Do they cater for experienced riders? And in terms of safety is it best to take my own hat?
The cowboys at Hato Mata de Palma rode Colombian criollo (creole) horses. They do cater for experienced riders: rides are tailored to individual travellers, and staff at the hatos (ranches) are happy to organise longer rides, rides across more challenging terrain, or activities such as cattle round-ups. I’m a novice rider and felt safe on all the rides I went on; having said that, some of the terrain is rough and I was only given a soft, wide-brimmed cowboy-style hat, which provides shade but little protection in the event of a fall. If you prefer to wear a helmet, I’d recommend bringing one with you.
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