Street life on an overland adventure in Colombia

A journey along the road between Bogota and Medellin reveals facets of Colombia long hidden from tourists, says Nick Boulos

November 1985. The pilot gazed, baffled, out of the cockpit window. Fernando Rivera had flown the route countless times before, while crop-dusting the plains below. But something was wrong. The fields of rice and cotton were nowhere to be seen; so, too, the bank, theatre and avenues of houses that comprised the busy town. Armero had simply vanished overnight.

In the early hours of 13 November 1985, life in this quiet corner of central Colombia changed forever. As the nearby Nevado del Ruiz volcano rumbled for the first time in four centuries, a mudslide 15ft high thundered towards the sleeping town. It swamped the high street, swallowed the three-storey church and killed 23,000 people in their beds. Almost 30 years on, the scars remain. The bank may be long gone but its vault remains rooted to the ground while the repaved highway, now several feet higher, sits at eye-level with the roofs of the few buildings that survive.

Few ever reach this surreal yet forgotten spot. It sits on the road between Bogota, Colombia's capital, and Medellin, the country's second-largest city. These two places feature on most tourist itineraries, but are nearly always connected by a one-hour flight, not an overland journey.

From Thursday, Bogota becomes easier to reach from the UK, with new Avianca flights from Heathrow. Should you decide to come, I advise taking the slow road to Medellin, a trip that takes three days via raging rivers and sleepy colonial towns. "Everyone goes to the big cities, the coffee region, the coast and the Amazon, but central Colombia is the missing part of the jigsaw," said my guide Luis, as Bogota eased its grip on us.

Soon the long boulevards of buildings scrawled with thought-provoking street art were replaced with rural scenes of coffee plantations and shacks selling plump strawberries. Cows grazed on the other side of low stone walls; laundry hung from fences of barbed wire. Our first destination was the town of Honda, 82 miles to the north west.

"A century ago, people here would measure distances by cigars," said Luis. "It would take five cigars to reach Honda from Bogota."

The bridge over the Magdalena River The bridge over the Magdalena River (Alamy) The rugged Andes rose to the west as we dipped into a valley dominated by the mighty Magdalena River, the longest in Colombia and once the only route from Bogota to the Caribbean Sea. South America's early explorers used the waterway as the main point of entry to the continent's mysterious interior. The Spanish hoped the river would lead to gold and riches; German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt described it as "grandiose and majestic".

Set on the banks of the Magdalena, Honda was once as big and important as Cartagena is today. In the early 20th century, it was a holiday hotspot for Bogota's wealthy elite. The prosperity was not to last. As road networks improved and the river was abandoned, Honda fell into decline.

Today, it's a place that's bright with colonial charm. The streets, cobbled with stones from the river, are lined with boldly painted houses. Men in cowboy hats cycled past the historic central market, while inside, the air was smoky. Grazella manned her stall of medicinal plants just as she has done for 27 years. She showed me seeds that bring good luck and clumps of herbs guaranteed to attract women. "But you don't need it," she said, giving me a cheeky wink.

Excusing myself, I followed Luis to get a bird's-eye view of Honda from Cerro de la Cruz, which rises 480m over the town. The Magdalena snaked through the mountains – emerald peaks etched with ancient indigenous rock art – and vanished on its long 1,528km journey to the coast. It seemed entirely serene – but the area was once a no-go zone, considered one of the most dangerous in the world during the 1960s when Colombia's long civil war intensified. Blood continued to flow here in the 1980s as feuding drug cartels took on each other and the government.

A local woman selling fish A local woman selling fish (Alamy) We walked back to town amid hummingbirds and hibiscus flowers, crossing the yellow-painted iron Navarro Bridge. Downriver, on a deserted sandbank, a fisherman called Fernando was hard at work in the murky shallows, clutching a frayed net weighed down with stones. He swung around and launched it, sending it spinning through the air; it landed with the softest of splashes. "Would you like to try?" he asked.

How hard could it be? My first attempt was pitiful. Fernando stifled a giggle. There were no signs of improvement with my subsequent efforts, though Fernando remained optimistic. "You will make a good fisherman. The most important thing is to always be quiet and patient," he said.

After dinner and a kerbside beer outside the Club Colombia bar, I walked the quiet streets back to Casa Belle Epoque, a cosy 10-room hotel in a renovated house from the 1930s.

The next morning we drove north towards Medellin via the jungle hideaway of Río Claro, a remote nature reserve established in 1970 by husband-and-wife team Juan and Ximena Garcés. "I heard about this place as a boy," said Juan. "As soon as I was old enough, I rode here on horseback and fell in love instantly."

It was easy to see why. Slicing through the deep limestone canyon, the Río Claro (Clear River) flowed like silk towards the Magdalena, its soft marble bed visible through the crystal waters.

Juan and Ximena have constructed 50 rooms here as a base offering activities including white-water rafting, zip-lining and other adventures.Most impressive, though, was a local cave. Once I'd been issued with a hard hat, lifejacket and torches, guide Maurico and I set off. The cave revealed itself as a narrow crack in the tall cliffs and we made our way inside. All was silent.

Then, suddenly, an almighty noise rang out: a chorus of high-pitched squawks. Something swooped overhead. I shone my torch into the abyss above and saw thousands of tiny eyes and feathery silhouettes darting in all directions. The cave is a roost for guácharos, nocturnal birds that use bat-like sonar abilities to navigate their way through pitch-black habitat.

For a thrilling hour we scrambled and crawled through the darkness, the birds' squawks filling the gargantuan grottos. We waded through deep streams that gushed through the bowels of the underground cathedral as we explored the cave complex. Exhausted, I headed back to my open-sided room perched high above the river. The next day I would arrive in the pulsating city of Medellin, with its mountainous backdrop and grand public squares filled with Botero sculptures.

For now, though, it was enough to listen to the sound of distant thunder echoing through the valley as fireflies glittered in the night air like illuminated confetti.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Nick Boulos travelled with tailor-made specialist Chameleon Worldwide (01962 737647; chameleonworldwide.co.uk). Its 13-day trip including an overland journey from Bogota to Medellin costs from £2,890pp. The price includes international flights, accommodation and transfers.

Direct flights from Heathrow to Bogota with Avianca (0871 744 7472; avianca.co.uk) start in on 3 July. Return fares from £585.

Staying there

Hotel Casa Deco, Bogota (00 57 1 282 8640; hotelcasadeco.com). Doubles from COP201,000 (£60), including breakfast.

Hotel Casa Belle Epoque, Honda (00 57 8 251 1176; casabelleepoque.com). Doubles from COP100,000 (£29), including breakfast.

Río Claro El Refugio (00 57 4 268 8855; rioclaroelrefugio.com). Doubles from COP90,000 (£26), all inclusive.

Hotel Florencia Plaza, Medellin (00 57 4 266 2526; hotelflorenciaplaza.com). Doubles from COP100,000 (£29), including breakfast.

More information

colombia.travel

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Russell Brand discusses Trident and the NHS in an episode of the The Trews.
news
News
The cartoon depicts the UK (far left) walking around a Syrian child refugee
newsIn an exclusive artwork for The Independent, Ali Ferzat attacks Britain's lack of 'humanity'
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
film
Sport
footballManager attacks Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp after criticism of Diego Costa's apparent stamping
News
video
Life and Style
food + drink
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Day In a Page

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore