Private Journeys

Off the beaten track Colombia: San Agustin and the Amazon

13 days from £3,130pp

Colombia / The Amazon

Itinerary

map marker Map

Day 1

Arrive in Bogotá and continue to Villa Vieja.

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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Day 2

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

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 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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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.

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Day 4

At leisure in San Agustín.

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.. Further to explore the archaeological zone,  we can arrange for you an optional a visit  to the more remote (around 30km from San Agustin) Alto de los Idolos, a group of statues - there are 23 of them, some as high as 5m tall -  with arguably the most dramatic and scenic location of the lot. Nearby is another interesting site,  Alto de las Piedras, which comprises a huddle of statues some of which still sport the colours they were originally painted in; and the 170m high waterfall Salto de Mortiños which tumbles with foamy fury into the Rio Magdalena.

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Day 5

By road to Tierradentro.

It's a five hour leisurely drive through more of southern Colombia's lightly-populated highland landscapes, the humpy mountains gradually progressing from dimpled shoulders into razor-sharp peaks and ridges, all cloaked in emerald green low bush and woodland. The few roads, mostly unpaved, follow the contours, clinging to the mountain-sides above rocky streams and more mature rivers carving their sinuous route towards the Magdalena. Your destination is Tierradentro, an extraordinary archaeological site dating back to the cultural dominance of the Nasa, or Paez, indigenous tribes who flourished from 200BC till the 17th century who, between 600-900AD, constructed  large and complex burial chambers decorated with ornate cave art which survives to this day.  

Your hotel, the Albergue El Refugio, is a pleasant motel-style property set in a lovely garden with carefully maintained lawns sheltering a large outdoor pool. The guest rooms in the hotel, managed by the Nasa indian community in whose territory Tierradentro is set,  are fairly basic, but the various animals which roam through the garden - cats, placid dogs, the odd pony or goat, liven the sleepy place up a bit. Settle in and then explore the little village Tierradentro, or walk up the gravel road for 20 minutes to San Andres Pisimbalá, where low adobe houses, tiled in colonial fashion and garlanded with flowering plants, fringe a couple of verdant plazas dotted with trees and football nets, and where the focal point is a thatched church. There are a couple of shops and a guest-house, La Portada, which serves decent food and where you can relax with a cold drink and watch the villagers stroll by on their way home from school or work. 

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Day 6

Guided tour of Tierradentro Archaeological Park; drive on to Popayán.

In the morning there is a guided tour of the UNESCO-listed archaeological park, which features a necklet of extraordinary burial chambers, constructed to resemble dwellings with cavernous rooms originally harbouring the bodies of important tribal figures and surrounded with artifacts such as jugs and bowls, some of which remain in situ to this day. What makes these chambers unique are the extraordinary wall paintings, red and black lines geometric designs and anthropomorphic figures, including ghoulish triangular heads, are still on display.  These chambers are scattered over the hillsides and to visit them all would require a hike of 14km. However there is a handful of sites within walking distance of the entrance and some of the most striking artwork is found at Alto de Segovia, a 20 minute uphill walk from the Visitor's Centre. All that is known about the mysterious Paeza tribes who built the tombs between 600-900AD  but who had become active as long ago as 200BC. The sites are reached by steep rural paths, you will be driven to the top and walk down total visit 4hrs).

In the afternoon, the glorious mountain scenery continues to unfold before your eyes as you are driven on to the city of Popayán, the cultural Mecca of the south.  

Popayán is a stately colonial city where the centre, restored following earthquakes, manifests a pleasing uniformity of whitewash and Spanish baroque style.  Grandiose two-storeyed, Andalusian-style edifices line the cobbled streets connecting attractive squares. Historic 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, art and music colleges) 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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Day 7

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 8

Fly to Bogotá.

Transfer to the airportand fly to Bogotá (90mins).  Founded in 1598, the effervescent capital 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 walking city tour of Bogotá and Gold Museum.

Your guided excursion begins in the vast Plaza de Bolivar (the city's main square), which features contemporary government buildings swarfed by the 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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Day 9

Fly to Leticia in the Amazon.

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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Day 10

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

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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Day 11

Day trip to 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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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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Inspired by this trip

Our exciting range of articles on Latin America explore everything from iconic destinations and lesser-known cultural gems to delicious traditional recipes. You’ll also find exclusive travel tips, first-hand client reviews and the chance to get your personal questions answered by our travel experts.

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