This is a very simple question: My favourite one is the hidden jewel with the wax palm forest in La Carbonera! It might be possible that you have not even heard about this undiscovered treasure as everyone just talks about the famous Valle del Cocora – but I can tell you that these two places can not even be compared! Both places can easily be reached from the colonial town Salento.
The famous wax palm is the national tree of Colombia and actually there is a huge danger of extinction! These wax palm trees can reach up to 70 meters but they grow very slowly with about 3cm per year! The wax palm forest of Valle del Cocora has become very famous during the last years and in every travel guide book you will find the recommendation to go there! It is also the gate to the Nevados National Park which means that you can do a small hike for a couple of hours or also for a couple of days sleeping in different farm houses! It is about 20 minutes drive in a typical Jeep Willys from the colonial town Salento! But I have already told you about this great place in a previous blog!
Now I need to tell you about a truly hidden jewel which I must admit is much more impressing and overwhelming with thousands of wax palms and actually woods of wax palm trees: La Carbonera! With a 2-hour drive by Jeep Willys from Salento, it takes much longer to get here but it is definitely worth it! You will cross different beautiful landscapes starting at 2.000m of altitude and getting to 3.000m once you arrive at La Carbonera – many photo stops along the way are a must! You can observe manyflora and fauna with many different bird species! Don‘t miss to do this visit with the fantastic guide Nestor (unfortunately he only speaks Spanish – but you can always take a translator) – he grew up in this area and will tell you many great stories about his life there! In the past the mountains of La Carbonera were also home to the FARC guerillas, so he tells you also anecdotes about this history! Nestor is a great caracter and will make this trip even more special for you with his interesting stories and special laugh!
Once you get to La Carbonera, you will hike through the amazing landscapes of the huge wax palms and you will probably not stop making pictures of the beautiful surroundings! I must admit it has become one of my most favourite places and is one of the most impressing and wonderful places I have seen in my life!
At the end of the hike you will enjoy a typical hot sugarcane tea or hot chocolate with cheese at a local farmers house! Here you can also observe many hummingbirds and will probably be surprised about the variety of different species! This is a great place to get a great picture of the hummingbirds! If you want more adventure, you can also take a mountain bike tour to or from La Carbonera and there are also different possibilities of hikes going back to Salento town!
Afterwards you will enjoy a delicious picnic surrounded by the beautiful landscapes of the wax palms before heading back to the town of Salento! Of course, you shouldn‘t miss to visit this cute colonial town with its colorful houses and maybe have a delicious cup of coffee in Café Jesus Martin or play the typical Colombian game Tejo!
I can highly recommend to stay at the hotel Gran Azulwhich is just 10 minutes walking distance from town! It has beautiful big rooms with an amazing view and the spanish owners are very friendly! Here you can also practise some yoga, if you like!
So my recommendation is definitely to take the longer ride to the hidden jewel La Carbonera instead of the famous Valle del Cocora! I must admit when I got there the first time I was actually in shock and was wondering why do they promote Valle del Cocora so much if there is another place so much more beautiful closeby?! Come and visit these beautiful places and let me know what you think :)!
…this is a good question but after visiting the less known salt mine in Nemocon, I am totally convinced that it is more beautiful than the famous salt cathedral in Zipaquira! Both sights are about 1,5 hours drive from Bogota – so the driving time really does not make a difference.
Most probably the reason why you want to visit the salt cathedral in Zipaquira is because it can be found in every single travel guide where it is promoted as a must-see destination in Colombia – but unfortunately nobody talks about the salt mine Nemocon. Of course the salt cathedral in Zipaquira is an amazing sight and you will be impressed by walking through the different paths passing by many crosses – all lit in different colors!
But I must say the salt mine in Nemocon totally surprised me and for me, it is even more beautiful as it has much more to offer – as it is not “just” a cathedral! The salt mine is still active and has 3 levels. You walk along different tunnels 80 meters underground and can see a great variety of different sights with various salt lakes, wishing ponds and salt formations. The most stunning visual effects are produced by many brine mirrors dissolving in the salt rocks. Furthermore you can find a small cathedral inside the mine and you can see the sceneries of the movie “La 33” which was filmed here in 2013. “La 33” is the movie about the accident of the mine workers in Chile many years ago and the main parts of the movie inside the mine where filmed in the salt mine Nemocon – so Antonio Banderas who had a leading role spent quite some time in this salt mine. On the 1,5 hour tour our guide told us many interesting facts about the five-century-old mine.
The salt cathedral in Zipaquira might be the right place for religious tourists with its 14 stations of crosses which show the way of Jesus history for about 380m while being 180m below the ground. But unfortunately it has turned into a shopping centre with many many different souvenir shops (like hundreds!!!) at the end of the tour which I found quite sad but I guess these are the “bad consequences” of growing tourism.
Last but not least a fact that might help you to make a decision – the entrance fee is half the price in Nemocon than in Zipaquira (local English speaking guides are available in both places – but in Zipaquira you pay additionally for that or just use the audioguide)!
So if you are thinking about visiting one of these impressing sights, bear in mind if you just want to check out all the famous places of your guide book or if you want to discover the unexplored jewels of this beautiful country! My recommendation definitely is to the visit the hidden treasure which is the salt mine Nemocon in Colombia!
It was time to discover another hidden destination in Colombia: Guadalupe and Las Gachas in the department of Santander! We decided to took a night bus from Bogotá – there is actually just two daily busses that go directly to Guadalupe with the bus company Omega! We took the one that left at 22:30 and it took us 7 hours to get there! Luckily Claudia the owner of the hotel Bonanza awaited us and we were able to get a couple of hours more sleep to be ready to explore this beautiful place!
Guadalupe is a beautiful little town – just as in all Colombian villages, it has a nice church in the middle of the village surrounded by a small park and it is a very relaxed quite atmosphere! We had lunch at the restaurant Bonanza which belongs to the hotel – and it was very delicious and also very cheap!
Then we started our small hike to the famous Quebrada Las Gachas! Well, to be honest they are not that famous but have been getting some attention as they appear to be similar to the actual famous colorful river Cano Cristales in La Macarena department of Colombia. The difference is that the Quebrada Las Gachas can be visited all year round as the river gets its red color from the stones that it is overflowding. In Cano Cristales you depend on the rainy season from June to November to see this fascinating wonder of nature. Even though it is also better to visit Las Gachas during rainy season and avoid travelling in March/April as it is very dry and due to that the place is not as colorful.
Actually it is very hot in this region and it was good to rest a bit in the morning and enjoy a delicious lunch before we started walking! It was a nice hike through beautiful countryside and it took us about one hour to get from the little town Guadalupe to Las Gachas! But the burning sun makes the hike a bit more difficult and you should not forget to bring enough water for the walk! Once we got to Las Gachas there were actually just two policemen taking care of the beautiful place and another couple exploring Las Gachas! Of course, after sweating a bit on this 4 kilometer hike, we also got into the little pools! Here it is very important that you bring socks to walk on this slippery ground! It was a bit strange getting into the ‘jacuzzis’ as we didn‘t really know how deep they were but at the end it was funny to take a bath in the little pools and just enjoy the beautiful landscapes. In some of the ‘green jacuzzis’ of the red river (the pools are actually green and the river red when it rains a lot), you can sit and others are much deeper until 3 meters! After this great experience discovering the Santanderian version of Cano Cristales, we walked back to Guadalupe and took a walk around the nice colonial village!
The next day we went for another great hike to explore more of the beautiful nature in the surroundings! And we were very impressed with all of this diverse nature that our guide Jose showed us! He was an excellent guide and very passionate about his hometown and showing us all the beautiful surroundings this destination has to offer! We were hiking through very green landscapes with mountains and all different kind of plants and trees. Another part was going through the jungle passing by beautiful waterfalls and mysterious caves – las cuevas Perico & Indio! Of course, it is must to take a refreshing bath in the different waterfalls! At the end of the hike we were passing different stone formations and forests of different trees!! It was a beautiful hike and it is recommendable to start early in the morning because it is very hot and actually after 5 hours we were happy to be back in town and enjoy a delicious typical lunch!
Then it was time to say goodbye to this beautiful peaceful place – we took a small bus to Oiba which takes about 1 hour offroad! In Oiba we caught the bus back to Bogotá as all busses that operate between Bogotá and Bucaramanga pass by there! From here it took another 6 hours to get back to the capital city! If you plan a longer trip through Colombia, you can easily combine this destination going from Bogotá to San Gil or Barichara or if you want you can head first to Villa de Leyva and then continue your trip going to the department of Santander with its beautiful places like Guadalupe & Las Gachas, the adventurous paradise San Gil and most beautiful colonial town Barichara and then continue visiting the famous Chicamocha Canyon on the way to Bucaramanga!
So for the ones that are on a budget trip or look for a more off the beaten track destination, it is definitely a great (and cheap) option to visit the red river of Las Gachas and easier to combine with other destinations in Colombia than flying to the colorful river Cano Cristales. And the surroundings offer many attractions for nature lovers – besides great hikes, there are also good routes for biking – as always my conclusion after this trip is: Colombia just has it all!!!
San Jose del Guaviare (Day 3) – The next morning we woke up pretty early to enjoy the highlight of our trip: the overflight of the Chiribiquete National Park. Once I woke up the first thing I did was opening the curtains to check the weather and we could not have been luckier: a clear blue sky without any clouds! This was definitely the best gift ever (and yes the next day was my birthday ;)!) to enjoy one of the most amazing experiences of my life!
It took us about one hour to get to the national park and the more we flew a more dense jungle awaited us with every mile – it just looked like broccoli (and it is actually called like that)! I must say that even these jungle landscapes were already very impressing. On the way my boss (our pilote) told us that there are still three communities living in the Chiribiquete National Park that have not been contacted yet – and they also do not want any contact to the “outside world”. Thinking of the wall paintings that we had just discovered the day before in Nuevo Tolima, I guess these indigenous tribes still use this form of communication. This is pretty hard to imagine in times of smartphones and everything in our digital world, right?! But I am pretty convinced that this is the way they live and I wonder how an escape to this beautiful place could look like?! It must be pretty impressing to get disconnected from the world being in this amazing place – but unfortunately the national park is closed to the public – only overflights are allowed – after receiving the permissions!
With a surface of 12.800 square kilometers, the Chiribiquete National Park is about half the size of the country of Belgium and I dare to think about how much natural beauty can be found in this corner of the world. The overflight was just amazing – we were passing different formations of table top mountains – the so-called “tepuys” as well as the dense jungle, impressing waterfalls and colorful rivers. Some of the formations have been given names as they just look like it, for example the hand “La mano”, the castle “el castillo” or the stadium “el estadio”. Furthermore we discovered numerous colorful rivers which seem to be like “Caño Cristales” as well as many waterfalls – huge waterfalls in the middle of the dense jungle or white sandy beaches along black and colorful rivers in the middle of the mystic jungle.
After overflying just a part of this huge beautiful Chiribiquete National Park we returned to San Jose de Guaviare to put fuel into our small aircraft before returning to Bogotá! Of course, it is always possible to do the overflight just as a daytrip from Bogotá taking a small aircraft from the capital city and getting back the same day! And if you take the flight between July and November, we can also include the overflight of Caño Cristales.
I must say that the overflight of Chiribiquete National Park has been an experience of a lifetime and it definitely is another hidden jewel in Colombia! It might be a little expensive to get there but I highly recommend to discover this natural treasure of Colombia – it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life!!!
We started the second day in San Jose del Guaviare with a jeep ride for about an hour off-road! On the way we made a stop at a nice view point to observe the beautiful surroundings! Then we continued to Nuevo Tolima where we started our small hike (less than an hour) to discover the amazing rock paintings along the table top mountains. These kind of tepuys (as they are also called) can also be found in the Chiribiquete National Park.
In 1991 they found these paintings and only until 2002 investigations started. Only about 3 years ago they started taking tourists here. In the region are other places where these impressing paintings can be found, for example in the region of Cerro Azul, los Raudales “Nuevo Tolima”. Our tourist guide told us that only a couple of hundred people have come here in 2016 and we can feel very privileged to be in this place where also the movie of “Colombia Magia Salvaje” was filmed. At the moment they are in the process of protecting this amazing discovery as a UNESCO world heritage site!
I found it very impressing that the paintings are still so well maintained. You can recognize all the different figures and it actually seems that they have just painted these walls yesterday! This definitely is an amazing place to visit far away from any beaten tourist track – and you will not only be amazed by the paintings but also the stunning landscapes!
Then we had lunch in a typical restaurant on the way before we continued to the valley of formations “Valle de formaciones”. This was a place full of huge stone formations where you are free to just use your imagination! Furthermore we found the typical flower “la flor de Guaviare” here.
Our next stop was a labyrinth of tunnels which was pretty impressing walking through huge rock walls and caves. Afterwards we walked to a beautiful natural pool where we enjoyed a refreshing bath and observed one of the beautiful red “llanera” sunsets of this region.
After this great day with so many new impressions of the beautiful places that we have seen with the rock paintings, different rock formations and tunnels as well as the great hike in the National Park La Lindosa with the “Puerta del Orion” and the colorful river, we went to bed with a very exciting feeling as the highlight of the trip with the overflight of the Chiribiquete National Parkawaited us!