Colombia has come a long way in the last 10 years. Once a place travellers were advised to avoid, it no longer suffers from the ill effects of powerful drug cartels at war with one another and the government. In fact, it is now a place attracting ever larger crowds, drawn in by its world-class natural and cultural attractions. As a very small sample, here are just two of them, as well as the kind of community-conscious tour operator that will help you make the most of your stay.
A Lost City Found
In 1972, a group of treasure hunters searching though the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, an isolated massif on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, stumbled across stone steps running up a mountainside. Some time later, gold figurines and ceramic urns were discovered, which led by 1976 to a proper archaeological excavation.
What it unearthed is Teyuna, the Ciudad Perdida – Lost City – of the Tairona culture. Believed to have been founded around 800AD, before the rise of the Vikings in Europe or Genghis Khan in Asia, and centuries before the construction of Machu Picchu in Peru, the Lost City is a network of terraces, roads, small circular plazas and no less than 1,200 stone steps leading to the entrance. Today, to reach the century-old steps, one must trek through jungle for three days, stopping at night in native cabins to string up hammocks and hang protective mosquito nets.
To organise the trek, I recommend local Colombian ecotourism experts Mambe Travel, which falls under the umbrella of Mambe.org, a non-profit association with neither religious nor political affiliations. The key aim of Mambe.org is to improve the quality of life and strengthen the cultural identity of Colombian families and social groups.
This was initially accomplished through a network of retail shops that marketed handicrafts and other products made by 25 local communities. Today, however, a strong ecotourism offering has been developed through Mambe Travel, which works with guides and managers to develop local ecotourism activities.
To its customers, Mambe Travel aims to offer a chance to “visit places, living and breathing experiences that you never thought you could have.” In fact, one of its slogans is “Design your own tour, live your own adventure” with a special emphasis on what what it describes as “an authentic encounter with local culture.” It is through such engagements – organizing and leading adventure tours – that the organisation works “directly with communities of small farmers and local operators, to monitor the development of handicraft and community-based tourism activities from sustainable raw materials, training their own people, providing continuous support in developing products and services, through to the reinvestment of profits.” In everything it does, Mambe Travel promotes social development and adheres to transparent business processes.
In an Amazon Zone
Mambe Travel also plunges deep into the Colombian Amazon. More than one-third of all known species in the world lives in the Amazon rainforest, but within Colombia’s sector there are amazing populations of alligators, freshwater dolphins and colourfully-feathered birds.
One point of access is Leticia, a remote city on the ‘triple frontier’ between Colombia, Peru and Brazil. According to a local legend, Leticia, founded in the 1860s, got its name from a Colombian soldier who fell in love with an Indian woman of the same name. An alternative version recounts that a Peruvian pioneer named it after a girlfriend he had left back in Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest.
At one time a centre for drug smuggling across the three borders, but Leticia now relies on tourism for its development hopes, with attractions such as its rivers, tropical rainforests and nature reserves. Jungle treks include meetings with indigenous communities and unforgettable hours spent watching the birds or marvelling at sunsets from a tree platform high in the rainforest canopy.