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How to Avoid "Tourist Traps" in Colombia 🇨🇴
Digging deeper into Colombia and it's beautiful countryside...
I have been living in this country for just under two decades now — on and off.
People who are close to me know I have a deep passion for Colombia, for its people, and for its many incredible places to visit.
Many people are surprised to find out that I actually don't like many of Colombia's most famous tourist places.
There is a very good reason for why I'm constantly speaking out against people going to these spots, however. It's because I have traveled extensively all over this incredible country and know of a lot of great alternatives.
I'm now going to mention four popular spots frequented by both Colombians and foreigners…
I'll talk briefly about exactly what I object to about them — and then I'll explain exactly why the alternative location is so much better.
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Don't Go to Villa de Leyva…Go to Paipa 🇨🇴
Villa de Leyva is about four hours away from the capital city of Bogotá. People like to go there for the small-town experience.
It's a colonial town which features cobblestone streets, and everything is still painted white, as it was in the days when the Spanish were still in charge.
This town is a very upscale place to stay. It's clean and safe, and the odds of you encountering a thief here are extremely low.
However, you are guaranteed to be fleeced by the incredibly high price of everything in this town.
This especially goes for the food options…
Villa De Leyva has a lot of mediocre restaurants with uninteresting options on the menu and sky-high prices. Hotel and AirBnB options are similarly limited and overpriced.
Honestly, there just isn't a lot to do in this place. And those cobblestones are a royal pain to walk on. They may be charming at first sight, but trying to get around on such an uneven surface quickly wears on you.
Paipa has several clear advantages over Villa de Leyva.
Although, to be honest, the first time I went to Paipa back in 2014, I was not impressed at all. But since then, it has had a couple of really good municipal governments since then and has had a major renaissance.
The town's main claim to fame is its hot springs, which has gotten a huge update, and now features three pools, two of which are semi-olympic (25 meters in length), all filled with the hot spring's mineral water.
Paipa also now has to its credit a burgeoning restaurant scene, where even the most discerning foodies will not be disappointed by its offerings anymore.
I especially recommend Rugantino, which can be found at Calle 25 #13 - 20. And, since rents are way below Villa De Leyva's levels, prices are also that much more reasonable.
Depending on the time of year, you can still even find decent hotel rooms for as low as 30,000 pesos a night!
Paipa is turning into a tourist's paradise, but it's still a very underrated destination. I recommend you go and check it out before prices catch up with the immense value this place offers.
Don't Go to Santa Rosa…Go to San Vicente 🇨🇴
On the topic of hot springs, many people love to visit the local hot springs — called the Balneario — in Santa Rosa de Cabal, which is a small town located about 20 minutes drive from the city of Pereira, in the “coffee zone” of Colombia.
These hot springs are actually great, but, if you are willing to go a bit off the beaten path, you can make it to the San Vicente hot springs, which most people say even beat the ones in Paipa.
It's worth noting that the Paipa hot springs are very built up, whereas the San Vicente hot springs are in an incredibly beautiful natural setting.
So it's a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Take a look at the photo below, which is easily worth the proverbial thousand words:
Once again, most hot springs in Colombia are definitely worth the price of admission, hands down — except for the ones in Tabio, don't go there!
But the ones at San Vicente are truly special in how pristine and secluded they are.
The one big downside to San Vicente is that getting there isn't super easy.
You have to take the road east from Santa Rosa de Cabal and keep going for what will probably be close to two hours due to the quality of the road. For those of you who don't want to have to make that trip twice in a day, there is a hotel and a good restaurant at San Vicente.
Don't Go to Barranquilla for Carnival…Go to Pasto 🇨🇴
Seasoned travelers in Colombia will note that it's often true that many of the best places to go to in Colombia aren't all that easy to reach.
This is, in many ways, also true of the city of Pasto.
Located about two hours drive away from Ipiales and the Ecuadoran border, Pasto is definitely a remote destination, even for people based out of other Colombian cities like Bogotá and Medellín.
You can get there by air, although, as of the time of this writing, round-trip tickets are never shy of a million pesos, and can be several times that to fly back and forth during carnival season.
The other option, of course, is to get there by land. Bus tickets are still around 300,000 pesos each way minimum. They also sell out way in advance for carnival.
Besides this, the average time from Bogotá or Medellín is around 24 hours each way 👎
You can also get there and back by private vehicle. Either way, the main problem with going by land is that you have to cross all of Cauca, where the roads aren't up to standard, and many parts aren't that safe!
Once you finally reach Pasto, however, it will all be worth it. The only advantage Barranquilla's carnival has over that of Pasto is that it's much easier to get to and from.
I'm proud to say I've been to carnivals all over the globe, and Pasto's carnival is, by at least an order of magnitude, the best carnival I've ever been to.
Once again, pictures tell the story far better than I ever could:
You may have noticed that many people in these pictures are absolutely covered in powder and in spray foam. That's a big part of what goes on, but it's far from the whole deal.
Pasto is an incredibly old-school city — in many ways it's like being in a time warp, and this is even more true when you go there for carnival.
The celebrations are steeped in traditions, and give a nod, and lots of respect, to the city's European, African, and indigenous influences. They have a day for a historically themed parade, another one for competing marching bands and groups of dancers in various configurations, another parade mainly for the floats (as pictured above) and so much more, along with constant concerts by some of the country's best musical groups in a huge variety of styles.
All carnivals have a certain element of danger to them, as thieves take advantage of the revelers.
Pasto's citizens, however, are incredibly civically-minded, and are constantly watching out for these street predators, and not afraid to put a stop to it. In fact, considering the incredible sense of community the Pasto natives have, I would not hesitate to experience this carnival even with a senior citizen or a small child in tow.
Carnival in Pasto is called the "Black and White" carnival, and is officially advertised as taking place from January 2 through the 7, but celebrations actually start on December 28 and go through until January 9 during most years.
Don't Go to San Gil or Barichara…Go to Curití 🇨🇴
San Gil is the go-to destination in Colombia for people who love what they call "extreme" sports. By this I mean things like paragliding, hang gliding, sky-diving, all kinds of downhilling, and even some extreme spelunking. Indeed, the area surrounding San Gil is spectacular, and offers a wide array of the exciting activities described above.
However, the town of San Gil itself is overcrowded, overpriced, and kind of a dump — even on a good day. It's also reportedly not nearly as safe as it used to be in prior days/years.
The above photo is of the main plaza of San Gil, which is among the few well-maintained blocks in the whole area.
Please don't be fooled by the photo!
Barichara, on the other hand, could best be described as a mecca for rich boring hippies.
It's another colonial town, with a similar claim to fame as that of Villa de Leyva, but it's supposed to be more of a get-away-from-it-all vibe, where the loudest sound you hear is the wind blowing (strongly) over the plateau.
Needless to say, Barichara is horribly overpriced, much more so than San Gil.
Also, even for those of you looking for that wind-only type of tranquility, unfortunately, it's rapidly disappearing as the town gets more and more crammed with tens of thousands of tourists looking for the exact same thing, all trying to get away from each other and winding up in Barichara!
There has even been mention of potential problems with the water system, which on some days barely keeps up with the town's effective population. The town clearly can't take on even one more hotel as it stands right now. Of course, there are plans in the works for more hotels at this time.
I would like to present to you the town of Curití as the antidote to both of these overrated and overrun tourist traps.
As you can clearly see below, the town's beauty rivals that of Barichara, and it does that at a fraction of the cost:
Curití is located less than fifteen minutes' drive from San Gil, and it's also right off of a main highway. To get to Barichara, you have to take a tertiary road for over half an hour.
While the town itself is tranquil, you have agencies in town which can take you on tours of the area, and you have access to all the same things San Gil offers. Honestly, the last time I was there, I almost felt guilty because of how low prices were on some of these tours!
Curití also boasts several "pozos azules" — swimming holes with clear blue water — on its outskirts, and these are definitely not to be missed!
Of course, the warm and friendly people and the food Santander is famous for are present in large quantities in Curití, in fact, much more so than in either San Gil or Barichara.
How to Avoid "Tourist Traps" in Colombia 🇨🇴
Colombia is home to many things. From friendly people to beautiful women..and so much more.
Including insane biodiversity and nature!
But the secret is starting to get out and certain spots are starting to become full-on tourist traps.
Luckily, to avoid these traps, just follow my advice above and get way off-the-beaten-path and into “real” Colombia 🇨🇴
And if you see a fellow foreign pasty face around, well, it might just be me ;)