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Off the beaten track Colombia: San Agustin and the Amazon

Day 1

Arrive in Bogotá and continue to Villa Vieja.
Tatacoa Desert

The early morning flight to Neiva takes an hour. On arrival you’ll be met by our representative and driven to Villa Vieja (37km).  The tree-lined road runs alongside fields but the landscape becomes drier, with rolling hills dotted with cactuses as you approach the town.

This town epitomises Latin American Spanish colonial towns with a grid of quiet streets lined with one storey buildings and a large and leafy square. It prides itself on the remains of prehistoric creatures found in the vicinity and there is a small Paleontological Museum on the main square. The town, which sits on the banks of the Río Magdalena, is a pleasant place to wander around with flowers, mango trees, a pretty colonial church and chapel, a few shops and bars.

Your central hotel is a simple, contemporary and perhaps unintentionally minimalist hotel. Spotless with gleaming white décor air conditioning.  There’s a restaurant where a good choice of home-cooked food is served - breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It is a surprise to come across what appears to be a desert in the context of the Andean tropical rain and cloud forest. It's a scorchingly hot region, with towering red rocks spliced through by dry canyons, and sun-bleached lava flows, dotted with cacti.  This 'desert' is a result of particular meteorological conditions; the area is not huge but big enough for you to feel overwhelmed by the extremity of the place.

It’s a short drive from Villa Vieja to reach Tatacoa. You’ll have a gentle sunset stroll through an area of bright rust red rock (Laberintos de Cusco), undulating with canyon-like rucks over which short walking trails have been devised. You may also be attracted by an optional visit to the Astronomy Observatory 6km from Villa Vieja as star-gazing in the unpolluted skies can be rewarding on a clear night. (July-October best).

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Tatacoa Desert

Day 2

Boat trip on Rio Magdalena, continue by road to San Agustin.
Magdelena River excursion

Río Magdalena is one of Colombia's great waterways, and for centuries boating along it was the only means of transport between isolated communities. The river slices northwards through the Andes for over 1,500km to its outlet the Caribbean Sea. No surprise then that it is much loved, visited and respected by Colombians.

It is navigable by small craft here, and a motorised canoe ride from Villa Vieja is a pleasant way to familiarise yourself with the Magdalena as here the waters are tranquil and the young river is not too wide. Along the banks are fields of crops such as sugar cane and pasture fringed by tropical vegetation (spiked, sadly, with bits of plastic close to the town itself). It's a peaceful ride along one of the world's greatest rivers more than a wildlife spotting expedition but you may spot iguanas, birds such as fish eagles, cormorants, orioles, garzas, swallows, and fishermen.

Continue by road to San Agustin, driven past pasture and rice fields;  the verdant landscape becomes increasingly hilly and scenic. The journey takes about 5.5 hours. 

San Agustin is a typical Spanish colonial style town, centred on a small leafy main square with a brick church and a bustling market on Sunday and Monday. Architecture follows the usual attractive colonial pattern of whitewashed facades, tiled roofs and overhanging wooden balconies. 

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Magdelena River excursion

Day 3

Explore San Agustín archaeological site.

With your expert guide, you’ll visit the archaeological park of San Agustín, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic statues in South America. Gods and mythical animals, represented in styles from abstract to realist, were created by a mysterious Andean culture between the 1st and 8th centuries.

The site is spread out over a wide area of green, forested hillsides, with impressive views. The mountainous countryside contains impressive gorges and waterfalls. Your tour includes the excellent museum. Then visit the statues at El Tablón as you make your way by foot to La Chaquira, a towering rock face onto which deities have been deeply carved. The views from here stretch over the Magdalena river and are truly spectacular.

Day 4

At leisure in San Agustín.
San Agustin

On your free day, you may choose to relax in the gardens your accommodation or explore the town, but there are several optional activities you can go for such as a visit to the Magdalena Gorge or a coffee farm.  If you fancy something a bit more active, try river rafting on the Magdalena. 

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San Agustin

Day 5

By road to Popayán via Alto de los Idolos and Purace National Park
San Agustin to Popayan

En route from San Agustin to Popayán visit Alto de los Idolos (another group of statues) and the 170m high waterfall Salto de Mortiños.  It's a beautiful and varied ride through rugged hills which climbs to Purace National Park, which has as its focal point the domed volcano Purace. The stretch through the park is still unpaved but delightful  - you climb to high páramo over 3,000m where the vegetation is cloud forest and features cold-resistant plants including battalions of frailejones. The road descends to cattle pasture through rugged, crinkled bright green hills gashed with the valleys of pristine streams. The total journey time is about 7 hours.

Popayán is a stately colonial city and a very cultured place, with art and music institutions. The buildings reflect this: grandiose two-storeyed, Andalusian-style edifices line the cobbled streets connecting attractive squares. Old religious institutions add to the town's gravitas and the cathedral has been beautifully restored.

But it is not an overly serious town: the people are friendly and there is a love of song and dance. You'll see many students hanging around (there are several universities) which creates a youthful and vibrant feel. For many years during the troubles the city was off limits; now it is safe but still relatively undiscovered by tourists, a pleasant change from other very popular colonial cities in Latin America.

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San Agustin to Popayan

Day 6

Visit Guambiano communities; guided city tour of Popayán.

The 40,000 Guambiano Indians still wear their colourful costume, a traditional dark blue poncho and distinctive black hats. The Kaleidoscopic colours of the traditional Tuesday market at Silvia will dazzle you but you can  visit the area on other days to observe the Guambianos going about the business of their daily lives in gorgeous landscapes of bright green craggy hills, lakes and waterfalls. In Silvia, you can visit the artisan district, beyond you may stop at the lake at Penon and call in at other Guambiano villages.

You will take your guided city tour in the afternoon when the baroque churches are open to visitors. You will visit cloisters in former religious buildings now occupied by colleges, public offices and even prisons: you can't go in on your own to look, the guide gains you entry which is a good reason for taking an official tour rather than exploring independently. There is an option to climb Morro Tulcán, from which there is a view over the city. You can also visit a famous biscuit factory and say hello to its elderly lady owner, who is a local celebrity.

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Day 7

Fly to Bogotá

Transfer to the airport, approximately 10-15 minutes away, and fly to Bogotá (90mins).

Founded in 1598, the effervescent capital Bogotá sits on an upland Andean plateau. It's a city of striking contrasts; skyscrapers and colonial single-storey houses, fast highways and cobbled lanes with chaotic traffic and the occasional mule cart. There are humble homes clinging to the mountain-sides and affluent tree-lined residential boulevards; crowded alleys and green, wide and shady parks; a cultured middle class jostling with workers and their families from all over Colombia. The night scene is lively with music clubs, bars and cafés spilling out on to the pavements. 

There is a cable car and cog railway service to the peak of Monserrate which glowers over the city and from where there are panoramic views.

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Day 8

Guided city tour of Bogotá and Gold Museum.
Gold Museum, Bogotá

Your guided excursion begins in the vast Plaza de Bolivar (the city's main square), which features monumental government buildings and an imposing cathedral.  Lying off the square is a grid of streets constituting the Spanish colonial part of the city known as 'La Candelaria'. White and colour-washed buildings have tiled roofs and attractive overhanging balconies. Many now also host trendy coffee bars and restaurants, as well as a majority of the city’s museums.  

Your tour also takes you to the Museo del Oro (gold museum), recognised as being one of the best in Latin America and a must even for those who don’t usually love museums.  The collection is staggering in its opulence, there are more than 35,000 well displayed exhibits all fashioned with immense skill by pre-Columbian craftsmen. 

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Gold Museum, Bogotá

Day 9

Fly to Leticia in the Amazon.
Leticia, Colombia

Fly to Leticia in the Amazon (2hrs).  Ownership of this Amazonian town has shuttled between Peru and Colombia but now Leticia is a safe and peaceful river port on the border with Brazil and Peru, offering the opportunity to visit three countries in one day. You hardly notice the border with Brazil's Tabatinga: shops and bars and workshops suddenly have signs in Portuguese but that's about it. The closest Peruvian territory is Santa Rosa Island a short boat ride away.

Leticia is a pleasant town: the low rise buildings are plain but the streets are lined with fruit trees and palms. One of two main squares, Parque de Santander, is a green, leafy park where people congregate to observe hundreds of parrots who zone in at sunset. There's a good (free) ethnographic museum as well as art galleries, shops, bars and restaurants and a handful of hotels. The port area is very colourful, and next to it is a covered market bulging with fruits and fish. You’ll spend one night in the town. 

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Leticia, Colombia

Day 10

Along the Amazon to Calanoa Lodge; jungle hike and indian community visit.
Leticia, Colombia

The journey to your lodge by public motor launch takes around an hour, depending on how many stops it makes. The boat trip up to the lodge is pretty; the river is quite wide here but it hugs the right hand back, and stops at indigenous villages on request. There are 22 of these autonomous communities, many situated on the river banks, and the people manage their affairs according to long held traditions: for example, they do not believe in private property and land is held communally. The boats zip along so there isn't really an opportunity to spot wildlife, though you may spot birds such as parakeets and egrets and if you are lucky pink or grey dolphins.

Settle in to your cabin at the lodge and then have a short guided jungle walk through the surrounding rainforest. Afterwards, visit Mocagua, just 20 minutes’ walk away, and probably the most interesting community to visit.

You’ll see the homes of the indian inhabitants, the Baptist churches, the school and medical facilities, all modest one storey wooden buildings typical of the Amazon, connected by narrow paths – there are no motorised vehicles here. Fruit trees and blossoming plants enliven the tropical aspect.  Unique to Mocagua are the paintings of birds and animals on the houses.  Visit basket and ceramic making workshops; there is no pressure to buy, the welcome is genuine. Some enterprising Mocaguan residents have opened family restaurants in their homes, you will have a simple home-cooked lunch in one of them. Nearby is a monkey orphanage - visits can be arranged in advance (charged extra).

Return to the lodge for dinner after which there is a guided hike to discover the nocturnal activity in the forest. 

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Leticia, Colombia

Day 11

Day trip to Puerto Narino.
Man carrying boat in Puerto Narino

Today you have a full day guided visit to the indigenous village Puerto Nariño, a most attractive little port, founded in 1961 75km upstream from Leticia. It is very relaxing with no vehicular traffic just paths lined with flowering plants and thatched wooden houses, and is famed for its recycling and eco credentials. Pass through a 'meeting of the waters' where river water of a different colour from a tributary joins the Amazon. You may spot birds such as parakeets and egrets and if you are lucky pink or grey dolphins.

On arrival at the town, take a guided walk along the peaceful paths between the attractive houses with their flowery gardens. There's also a 12m high observation tower you can climb for a view over the village and surrounding jungle.  You have lunch in one of the al fresco restaurants. In the high water season you will take a short boat ride through the flooded forest to tranquil Lake Tarapoto and may spot a dolphin or two here too. There's also a 4km nature walk you might take. Return to Leticia in the afternoon.

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Man carrying boat in Puerto Narino

Day 12

Fly to Bogotá and connect with international flight.

Return to Leticia, discuss with your guide how best to spend any free time before travelling back to the airport for your flight to Bogotá, with connecting international flight. 


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Off the beaten track Colombia: San Agustin and the Amazon

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Off the beaten track Colombia: San Agustin and the Amazon

12 days from £2,517pp

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