So beautiful and vibrant is Colombia’s culture that it recently inspired a Disney film. Indeed, in Colombia, community is everything, and wherever you go, chances are you will be welcomed by a friendly smile. The best way to get under the skin of such a diverse cultural place is to go with the people who know it best. Here are just 6 ways to see Colombia through local eyes…
1. Join the Carnival of Barranquilla in the Greater Colombian Caribbean
There are no idle bystanders at Barranquilla’s annual carnival – even if you only planned to stand on the sidelines and watch events unfold you’ll quickly be drawn into this riot of colour, music and celebration. Dating back more than a century, this four-day fiesta starts shortly before Ash Wednesday and attracts in excess of 300,000 visitors. One of the biggest events of its kind in South America, it features a multitude of masked and costumed dancers and elaborately decorated technicolour floats parading down the streets while the joyous rhythms of cumbia music – which, like the carnival itself, blends African, Indigenous and European influences – fill the air.
There are also plenty of other fiestas, events and cultural experiences in the Caribbean region. Down the coast from Barranquilla, the beautiful city of Cartagena hosts the continent’s oldest film festival – FICCI – and the Hay Festival, which draws leading authors from across the globe and features talks, concerts, exhibitions and literary contests. Meanwhile, foodies keen to sample the zingy cuisine of the Colombian Caribbean should check out Sabor Barranquilla, which features workshops, demonstrations, talks and tastings.
2. Learn how coffee is made in the Western Colombian Andes
Colombia is one of the world’s biggest coffee producers and the heart of the industry is the Zona Cafetera, which consists of the departments of Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío in the Western Andes. The verdant, undulating hills and valleys of the region are carpeted with fincas (farms) and overlooked by lanky wax palms – some of which reach 60 metres or more in height – and towering mountain peaks dusted with snow. Coffee has been a way of life in this part of Colombia since the 19th century, when the crop began to boom, and has given rise to distinctive local culture and identity.
Many fincas welcome travellers to stay – often in atmospheric farmhouses with shady verandahs – and tour their plantations, learn about the cultivation process and – of course – taste some world-class coffee. If you’re lucky enough to come during the October-March period, you can even help out with the harvesting. In the process, you’ll learn just how much work and passion goes into producing beans for a perfect espresso, flat white or cappuccino.
3. Eat like a local in the Eastern Colombian Andes
There are few better ways to immerse yourself in the culture of Colombia’s Eastern Andean region than by sampling the regional cuisine – and one of the best ways to do this is by heading to a local market.
Springing up in the late 19th century around a huge brewery, Bogotá’s La Perseverancia neighbourhood has a bustling mercado that hums with activity. Its array of stalls are loaded with fresh produce from across this remarkably diverse country – fish and seafood from the Caribbean, beef and rice from the sprawling Llanos Orientales, tropical fruits from the fertile Valle del Cauca on the Pacific coast.
There are also scores of simple restaurants and cafes serving comida criolla (traditional Colombian cuisine) at wallet-friendly prices. Here you’ll find everything from arepas (corn patties commonly stuffed with cheese or meat) to ajiaco – Bogotá’s signature dish – a soothing chicken soup with several varieties of potatoes, corn, capers and cream. And if you develop a taste for the cuisine of the Eastern Andes and want to replicate some of the dishes when you return home, travel agencies in and around the capital offer cookery classes with local chefs, as well as food-themed tours.
4. Meet indigenous communities in the Greater Colombian Caribbean
Rising in northern Colombia, just inland from the Caribbean, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the highest coastal mountain ranges on Earth, a chain of snow-covered peaks that rises to 5,775 metres above sea level. Named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1979, this region has been home to Indigenous peoples for millennia.
Today, groups such as the Kogi trace their ancestry back to the ancient Tairona culture, which built a capital city, Teyuna, on the northern slopes of the densely forested Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta around 700 CE. Better known to outsiders at the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), this complex of terraces, plazas, canals and roads sits on a high plateau encircled by jungle and is one of the most important – and isolated – archaeological sites in Colombia.
While the challenging four- to six-day hike to Teyuna – which is only accessible on foot – is an exhilarating adventure, the chance to explore the region with an Indigenous guide and learn about the culture, beliefs and ways of life of the original inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is an even more rewarding experience.
5. Discover the Amazon way of life in the Colombian Amazon-Orinoco
If you really want to understand the Colombian Amazon, you have to see it through the eyes of the Indigenous peoples such as the Ticuna and Huitoto who live in the region. Many communities offer ecotourism activities, ranging from guided hikes through the rainforest to find plants used in traditional medicines to leisurely boat trips along meandering waterways in search of pink river dolphins, reclusive manatees and lurking caimans.
You can also stay at rustic lodges in the heart of the jungle, sample traditional dishes – many of which revolve around delicious freshwater fish – and visit villages such as Puerto Nariño, whose predominantly Indigenous residents have made great strides to ensure their community is sustainable and low-impact.
Another excellent way to learn more about the way of life in the Amazon is to attend a festival in the town of Leticia, the gateway to the region. It hosts the Amazon Fellowship Festival in July and the Pirarucú de Oro in late November, both of which showcase the region’s music, cuisine, folklore and diverse cultures.
6. Ride horses with the llaneros in the Colombian Amazon-Orinoco
The Llanos Orientales (Eastern Plains) are cowboy country. Spanning roughly a quarter of Colombia, east of the Andes and north of the Amazon, these tropical grasslands are home to innumerable cattle ranches called hatos, some of which provides farmhouse accommodation, wildlife safaris and some of the finest barbecued beef on the planet.
Above all, they allow you to go horseriding with the llaneros (cowboys) across the pancake-flat, seemingly limitless landscape, an experience that offers a sense of freedom and adventure, as well as a first-hand insight into the lives of these rugged frontiersmen. You can take part in cattle round-ups, learn about traditional skills such as lasso-making, and spot dozens of species of animals and birds – the biodiverse Llanos is home to creatures such as giant anteaters and pumas.
In the evening, after a hearty dinner, the llaneros will often bring out a four-stringed guitar known as a cuatro, a harp and maracas and play some joropo, the evocative folk music of the Eastern Plains.
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