Hiking and Trekking Colombia

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Hiking and Trekking in Colombia | A Quick Guide to Colombia

Colombia Trekking and Hiking

Hiking and trekking in Colombia can take you anywhere from the highest coastal mountain range on Earth (the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains), to three separate ranges of the Andes, a remarkable desert or the Amazon rainforest itself. It’s no wonder that the country is ranked as the second most biodiverse on the planet, behind only its neighbour Brazil.

Colombian culture is just as divergent and exciting; deriving from a mixture of Latin America, wider American continental and Spanish influences. The country is famous for literature and the magical surrealism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and there’s a world of energetic music past Shakira, wherever, whenever you look. The country has been called "the land of a thousand rhythms" for good reason; and you’ll hear cumbia or salsa music walking down the street.

The often infamous history of Colombia is some of the most fascinating the world over, and the drug operations have of course been well-documented by international media. Beyond that, there’s a whole host more history, relating to Colombia gaining its independence from Spain in 1810, and dating right back to the indigenous peoples of the mountains, many of whom are now using adventure travel and tourism to their regions to secure the future of their communities.

Though the major trekking routes are now safe for tourists, that wasn’t always the case. High-profile kidnappings in the early 00’s made many reluctant to travel to Colombia, but that has since changed, and taking the lost city trek in Colombia, also known as the Ciudad Perdida hike, and hiking in Medellín are now dreams that are ending up on the bucket lists of many. Still, Colombia is only entering the radar of a lot of travellers now, so the trekking routes remain significantly less travelled than other well-known trekking routes in surrounding countries.

Here, we’re going to give a basic introduction to Colombia, with some key facts about the country as a whole and some of the key regions for hiking and trekking.

Key Facts: Where is Colombia & What Language do They Speak There?

Colombia Trekking and Hiking

Colombia Location: South America

Colombian Capital: Bogotá

Colombian Currency: Colombian Peso

Language Spoken in Colombia: Spanish

Colombian Plug Type: A & B (same as North and Central America, China and Japan)

Colombia borders a whole lot of countries, including the Carribean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west. From that alone you begin to get a sense of the variety of scenery and environmental settings within the country. Colombia is also bordered by Panama to the northeast, Venezuela to the east, Brazil to the southeast, and Ecuador and Peru to the south.

At 440,831 square miles the country is both the fourth-largest country in South America, and the fourth-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Colombia also produces the third highest amount of coffee annually; with an average total of 11.5 million bags per year. So there’s an extra incentive to get you up in the morning for that 5am hiking start in the dark.

Biodiversity in Colombia

Colombia Trekking and Hiking

The importance of biodiversity to Colombia cannot be overstated.

There are 59 nationally protected areas of nature across the country. The country is one of the world's 17 “megadiverse countries” that contain the majority of Earth's species and as previously mentioned in our introduction, it’s the second most biodiverse place on the planet, behind only its South American neighbour Brazil. Colombia’s land encompasses the Amazon rainforest, highlands, grasslands, and even a desert (the Tatacoa Desert in central Colombia).

As of 2016, an enormous 56,343 species of animal are registered in Colombia, of which 9,153 are endemic. We’re not going to list them all, because 56,343 is an awful lot of species, but we’re talking about everything from condors and toucans to bears, armadillos, anteaters and a whole range of lovely, slithery snakes. Apologies to the 50,000 plus animals that didn’t make our abbreviated list there. We love you too. Please don’t bite, poison or eat us in the night.

Colombia actually has more orchids and birds than any other in the world, and is also near the top of the list for plants, amphibians, butterflies, fresh-water fish, palm trees, reptiles and for biodiversity of mammals. So don’t be surprised if you see the odd critter out while you’re hiking.

Best Time to Visit Colombia

Obviously the scenery in Colombia is beautiful 12 months and a year and the cities and the people have so much to offer every single day. In terms of hiking in Colombia though, there are wet and drier seasons. December-March tends to be the drier months of the year, and the air will also be cooler, while September, in contrast, is extremely rainy. The rainy season runs in September-October, and the Lost City trek is actually closed to tourists during September as a result. May-September will also typically be warmer than the rest of the year, though obviously in such a big country, this will vary dramatically depending on your location. The Amazon is wet and warm all year round.

Hiking and Trekking in Colombia

Colombia Trekking and Hiking

The bulk of the adventure tourism in Colombia revolves around hiking and trekking, but there are also plenty of other options; including white water rafting, mountain biking and, as you can imagine from the size and diversity of the country, a whole host of other sports. We’re not saying that coffee-drinking is a sport at this point, but we’re also not going to say that it shouldn’t be.

So, what are the key regions for getting your adventure fix? Where do you need to be to go on the best hikes in Colombia and best treks in Colombia? Here’s a (very) brief look at some of your options. This is just a snapshot of a few of the key hikes and areas for trekking in Colombia. One thing to note about many of the trails in Colombia, wherever you’re hiking, is that very few of them are marked, and they can be hard to navigate, so a guide is strongly recommended. As is mosquito spray of some kind. Trust us on that one.

Hiking to the Lost City / Ciudad Perdida Trek

Colombia Trekking and Hiking

‘Ciudad Perdida’ is the Spanish for ‘Lost City’, and the trek through the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, the highest coastal mountains in the world, to get to the Lost City is truly a remarkable one. There are a variation of treks through these mountains; so should you wish you can take a three-day hike or four-day hike or five-day hike or longer to get to the Lost City. The starting point for this trek in Santa Marta, a coastal town on the Carribean Sea, which in itself is beautiful. You can spend a couple of nights here exploring, swimming in the ocean and taking in the brilliant culture of the city itself. The main beach is a little touristic, but if you get into the town, you’ll see the culture of the region. If you get the chance, we’d recommend a trip to Crab’s Bar - a crab-themed rock and roll bar in the historical centre with an awesome open roof. We could try and explain why it’s a crab-themed rock bar, but a bit of mystery is always nice too.

Santa Marta is the gateway to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. It’s likely that you’ll actually first drive to the farmland around the rainforest before heading in. You’ll then hike up an open plain to enter the rainforest. It’s a truly remarkable hike; just make sure as with any trek you bring all the appropriate rain gear. The clue is in the word ‘rainforest’. All that rain means you’ll also see your fair share of waterfalls, wildlife and pass beautiful lagoons to swim in too.

The Lost City itself is an ancient site of indigenous people. When tourism first started in the 80s, after the site was re-discovered by grave diggers in 1972, it was run by the government and was exploitative of those peoples, but the indigenous people now run many of the tours themselves, using tourism to sustain their community, and the number of people allowed into the site is capped per day to prevent overcrowding and site damage. It dates back as far as 800 AD.

If you’re wondering what the site looks like, think Machu Picchu, but with significantly less tourists, and big-green mountain lushness on every side. You can feel the biodiversity of Colombia here. Head to our full article about hints and tips for hiking to the lost city / Ciudad Perdida. The Lost City was where a famous kidnapping of European tourists took place in the early 2003, but since then a mountain battalion has been in place. There have been no similar problems in the area since, but you may see some of these soldiers while you’re on your hike.

There are a lot of little markets in Santa Marta to explore in the days before you leave for the mountains, or after you return. Oh, and If you’re into your football, Santa Marta is always where fluffy-haired Carlos Valderrama made his name in Colombia as part of Unión Magdalena football team, and there’s a 22ft bronze statue to him outside their football stadium now. In Colombia, football is more than just a game. If you’re there at the weekend, you might even see a game. Check out our full guide to trekking to the Lost City in Colombia.

Hiking in Medellín

Colombia Trekking and Hiking

If you’ve ever even seen a picture of Medellín you’ll know that the city is a sight to behold. The city is set amongst the rolling mountains of Colombia; specifically, it’s in the Aburrá Valley, a central region of the Andes Mountains. The valley gives Medellín a very specific microclimate, and as such it has been known as "La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera" or "City of the Eternal Spring". Temperatures range from 15 to 30 degrees with an annual average of 22.

The area is, of course, very well known for being the home of Pablo Escobar, the founder and leader of the Medellín Cartel and has been captured in Netflix web series ‘Narcos’. In 1988 it was declared the most dangerous city in the world, but has seen a remarkable 80%+ decline in violent crime and is lauded as one of the biggest up-and-coming city destinations on the globe.

The hiking around the region is absolutely remarkable, as you could guess from the scenery. That said, hiking isn’t as common as you might expect, possibly because of the previous dangers of the surrounding areas, and so, the trails are not known to everyone or well marked.

The Samana Watershed is a tropical paradise that few travellers have seen. Push through the humid, jungle-covered mountains as you hike into the valley of the Rio Verde of Los Henados and you’ll spend the night in a remote ‘finca’, where you’ll enjoy a home cooked meal alongside a local family and hear fascinating stories about this hidden area of Colombia. This area was once a stronghold of FARC, but is now entirely safe, and there are stories abound.

Cerro de las Tres Cruces is also a short, steep hike which requires a fair bit of fitness, but will take you high into the hills with a great view back over Medellín - if you're lucky enough for the clouds to stay away. It’s only a few kilometres each way. Since the trails don’t tend to be marked though, and you’re unlikely to bump into many other people, we strongly recommend a guide when trekking in Medellín.

Hiking the Los Nevados National Park and Cocora Valley

Colombia Trekking and Hiking

A quick one on the Cocora Valley in Los Nevados National Park, which is an area that we also visit on our trek to the Lost City, before departing for Santa Marta on the coast. An area south of Medellín, in Central Cordillera of the Andean mountains, the Cocora Valley trail is beautiful; it takes in the famous Cloud Forest, which sounds like something from a sci-fi film and looks like something from a painting, as well as the jungle and farmland, and like almost all scenic hikes in Colombia, the biodiversity is beautiful and there's always chances to see wildlife. One of the main pulls here are the enormous wax palm trees which can reach up to 60 metres high. A great area for day hikes. The town of Salento is about 11km from the Cocora Valley.

Airports in Colombia

El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, is the biggest airport in Colombia and is likely to be the airport you fly into if you’re coming from abroad. However, the second-largest airport José María Córdova International Airport in Medellín is also an option. For getting to Santa Marta and reaching the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, there’s the option of taking an internal flight in Colombia to the Simón Bolívar International Airport.