Why Colombia is one of the happiest places on the planet

The latest guest post on 501 Places is written by Kathryn Bullock, a travel industry entrepreneur who recently returned from a trip to Colombia. Kathryn shares with us the highlights of her 5 week trip and reveals to us why Colombia deserves its growing reputation as a place that greets its visitors with the warmest of welcomes.

Rafael picking the coffee beansWhen you mention Colombia many people think of drug barons, crime and guerrilla activity. However I’d like to dispel some myths following a highly enjoyable five week Christmas jaunt around the Colombian mountains. I can understand why Lonely Planet features it as a great place to visit. I have never been so warmly greeted by the locals with a “welcome to my country.”

Colombia has an amazingly mountainous terrain and you start to appreciate this when you land in Bogota and find yourself at the giddy height of 2800 metres. At first it’s hard to believe you are so close to the equator as the chilly night air descends.

Views around San AgustinThe country is lined from north to south with two mountain ranges which means that one day you can be sweating it out on the plains of Los Llanos where the cowboys try their skill at catching the bull’s tail in their popular sport of Coleo. The next day you can be taking in the views from a mountain lake, tucked up behind the pretty town of Mongui at a breathtaking 4000 metres and catching your breath to get there. To get this into perspective the altitude of the Annapurna base camp in the Himalayas is not much higher.

We set off for Bogota between London’s snow storms on December 9th 2010 and only later appreciated our luck as we read about immobilised planes at Heathrow just before Christmas. Despite a two hour delay at Bogota airport we finally made it into the city after an exhausting journey via Miami. It was a miracle we made it at all as we didn’t have the necessary US visa for our 2 hour Miami transfer and it was a frantic filing of our US visas at Heathrow’s internet cafe that saved the day.

Monserrate path, BogotaWe had decided to stay in the charming old colonial area of Bogota called La Candelaria, which turned out to be a quiet area but a little too deserted after 9pm to be very safe.  It’s also close to the hill of Montserrate where you can get an amazing view of the city after climbing up in the funicular train. We whizzed across the city in a super fast taxi and arrived at our very quaint guest house complete with courtyard and huge fireplace. It was a shame the place did not have heating but this is the norm in this part of the world so lots of layers are a good policy when it comes to packing.

We had loosely planned a 5 week itinerary to take in the mountains, plains and the Caribbean coast.  However even the best laid plans can fall apart. We discovered a few days into the trip that the worst floods and landslides in 40 years had completely cut the country in two, killed 250 people and left 2 million homeless. The only way north was to fly although some roads have now reopened.

Coffee region viewsWe had hired a car but following a rather unfortunate collision with a motorcyclist in the mud we were forced to turn back, retrace our steps and completely change our trip. We opted instead to stay in the mountains and explore the “Coffee Triangle” which is where some of the world’s best coffee is grown. To say the place was scenic would be an understatement; we enjoyed miles of green hilly panoramic vistas and relaxed in the gardens of our friendly fincas (farms).

Tunja fiesta paradeNeedless to say we have been waxing lyrical ever since returning not only about the great coffee, but the friendliness of the people that we were lucky enough to meet. Now I can completely understand why Lonely Planet claims it has some of the happiest souls on the planet.

Here are the highlights and best memories:

Christmas is fiesta time and most towns have processions, live music, fiestas and the most imaginative display of Christmas lights I’ve ever seen.

Bogota – gold museum with the best interpretation and display, and Monserrate views

Zipaquira – underground cathedral made of salt. Don’t miss the tour of the mine and the mini dynamite explosion

Main plaza in Villa de LeyvaVilla de Leyva – boasting the largest plaza in Colombia to hang out and watch the locals

Barichara – a dreamy colonial town used in many film sets. A must see with the famous scenic El Camino Real walk to Guane which has been followed for centuries

El Cocuy – beautiful colonial town with great high altitude walking in the nearby national park

Mongui – the most scenic and friendly mountain town at 3,000m with nativity play and Christmas fiesta in the main plaza

Mongui fiesta timeManizales – the cheapest cable car ride ever with great city views

Staying on a coffee farm near Periera and watching coffee made at Villa Martha

Salento – lively town with a great spot for watching sunsets and wonderful walks

Cali – don’t miss the 1km of Christmas illuminations featuring every known creature in coloured lights, the December Carnival and the friendly Pension Stein

Popayan – lively colonial town with water and flour throwing fiesta – wear old clothes!

San Agustin – horseriding, hiking, scenic ruins, fresh sugar cane juice and empanadas and hanging out in a hammock

Tunja – a bustling town with a lively cafe culture, a great Christmas fiesta and lots of historic buildings dating back centuries

I’m happy to answer any questions on this trip and share top tips on places to stay for those interested. For more photos click here.

Kathryn Bullock image

Kathryn Bullock is a frequent traveller and an ecommerce expert and entrepreneur who has worked in the travel industry for the past 25 years. She is now working on a new business venture in social media for travel and is a regular blogger for business owners at:  www.enterprisebritain.com and her blogs can be found at http://anothereb.blogspot.com/

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

13 Responses to “Why Colombia is one of the happiest places on the planet”

  1. Its a shame you didn’t make it to the coast. The beaches of Tayrona National Park are incredible and the city of Cartagena is simply magical.

    I second your suggestion to see the Salt Cathedral though… a little touristy but still great. I was so scared when we did the “pretend to be a miner” tour and they make you walk through the tunnel without any lights.

    It’s true that Colombians are some of the happiest, most welcoming people in the world. I came for a month long trip like you but found I just couldn’t leave in the end… 5 months later and I still don’t want to leave.

    March 2, 2011 at 6:40 pm
  2. When we told friends that our first RTW stop is Colombia, we were met with concerns and disbelief. This post is yet another example of why picked Colombia to start off our journey. Great to hear all the awesome things Colombia has to offer.

    March 2, 2011 at 7:37 pm
  3. Luz Stella Molina #

    Nice article! But you has missed a lot of magical places: all the caribbean coast, and beaches are just amazing! What about Cartagena? Santa Marta? Barranquilla? Tayrona’s Park? San Andres Islands? If you take a look around, i think you’ll rest ! Cause the only risk is wanting to stay!

    March 2, 2011 at 10:56 pm
  4. California Dan #

    Yes, Colombia is an absolutely wonderful place that I have visited about 45 times. Too bad the author didn’t even learn how to spell Colombia when she was there!!

    March 3, 2011 at 3:52 pm
    • Thank you for pointing out the typo Dan. Appreciate it.

      March 3, 2011 at 4:00 pm
  5. ahhhh, love me some Colombia. Did about 2 months there late last year and is one of my favorite countries in the world.

    March 3, 2011 at 5:27 pm
  6. Excellent post! It makes me want me to keep on writing about Colombia so more people come and see the real face of Colombia… thank you very much!

    I just have to make two small corrections: Bogota is at 2600 m.a.s.l and Colombia has 3 mountain ranges, Eastern, Central and Western mountain ranges.

    About that, and just as some extra info about Colombia, the Eastern mountain range starts only 2k away on the Colombian Caribbean. Up there we have the Sierra Neveda de Santa Marta that is not only the world’s highest coastal mountain range (5,700 m.a.s.l) but is also home of the famous Tayrona Lost city… place only comparable to Machupiucchu!

    Abrazos and keep on writing about Colombia!

    Marcela – Colombia Travel Blog

    March 3, 2011 at 6:02 pm
  7. Salento might just be my favorite place in the world.

    Thank you for reminding me why Colombia occupies so much of my heart.

    March 3, 2011 at 8:42 pm
  8. Thanks for all the comments (both here and on Twitter). Reading Kathryn’s post and all the comments have made me very keen to visit Colombia.

    March 3, 2011 at 11:04 pm
  9. Cool post. I had an amazing time in Bogota — stayed in a hostel in Candelaria too! I can’t wait to go back and explore the places you and your commenters have listed!

    March 3, 2011 at 11:04 pm
  10. Thank you and muchas gracias for all your great comments and I agree with those of you that also mentioned some of the great spots on the coast. Unfortunately we could not get to those due to the landslides and flooding but I’ll have to go back and see them now that the roads are open again. Colombia definitely deserves more visitors.

    March 11, 2011 at 11:12 am
  11. I’ve just found out that there is now a website launched this month for anyone interested in visiting the Colombian coffee region so thought some readers might be interested in this. It can be found at http://www.triangulodelcafe.travel/en

    April 18, 2011 at 6:14 pm
  12. Great article about Colombia! There is so much to see here, it’s just about impossible to see all the highlights, even in 5 weeks!

    Did you make it to Medellín? I’ve been living here for 3 years – the Christmas lights here are the most famous in the country, although I’ve never left at that time of year to see them anywhere else.

    For anyone interested in travel planning services, I run a travel company selling authentic custom tours based on nature, culture, and adventure all over Colombia. It’s run by a mix of Colombians and expats like myself who prove that “the only risk is wanting to stay.”

    We’d be happy to help anyone who is thinking about coming… write to us at [email protected].



    April 19, 2011 at 2:26 am