Mo Noubani of The Travel Box International set off for Colombia earlier this year and is back with this report.
The alarm went off for absolutely no reason; I could not sleep or escape from the excitement and anxiety of what was to come. I was on my way to a nearly month-long adventure to Colombia.
Initially I was scheduled to go to Bogota for a few days in order to complete set up of The Travel Box International’s new In-Destination specialist to Colombia; that later turned into a nearly month-long itinerary.
The first few days were rather traditional with business meetings here and there followed by me retiring to the hotel room prior to 8 p.m., the set time of curfew at the Zone of the city I was located in.
After the first few days of business meetings, I went off solo to start my personal familiarization trip in the country.
The colonial roofs of La Candelaria, Bogota. The domes of the Church of San Ignacio and the Primada Cathedral as seen from the top floors of Hotel De La Opera, located in the center of the old district.
Brendan, The Travel Box International’s In-Destination specialist to Colombia, worked up the exciting itinerary, which flowed from one region to another with ease.
While in the capital, I made visits to the main sights, including Monserrate, which is 10,000 feet over the city. A 10-minute cable-car ride takes you up the mountain, where a church and some restaurants are also located. The air is crisp and fresh with incredible views of the city.
While in Bogota, I also spent time walking around Bolivar Square, in the heart of the historical area. It’s the main square of the city and has been the center of the county’s history for centuries. Security presence was evident in the area, which I found to be comforting.
A 10-minute walk from the square leads you to The Candelaria district, a colorful and eclectic neighborhood with narrow streets that intertwine the old with the new. It is a very charming area to stroll around and stop for lunch or dinner. I made a stop to try Ajiaco, a typical Colombian dish made with chicken and potato stew served with avocado, capers and sour cream. It was delicious!
Bolivar Square is the main square of the city in the heart of the historical area. It has been the center of the country’s history for centuries.
The Four Seasons Hotel Casa Medina has a luxury colonial feel with the finest touches of details. It’s very quaint with all the rooms and suites sprawled throughout the main four levels of the hotel.
The Four Seasons Hotel Bogota has a different feel, more a high-rise metropolitan vibe than the homey Medina.
The Four Seasons Casa Medina is located in Zona T, the city’s upscale zone for eateries and shopping, while the Four Seasons Bogota is located in Zona G, the gastronomic district; the hotels are a 10-minute drive from each other.
Other hotels in the city worth mentioning are the Sofitel Bogota Victoria Regia Hotel, the W Bogota and Hotel de la Opera, a boutique property located in the heart of the vibrant historic neighborhood of La Candelaria. Overall, while in the city, I witnessed safety protocols and health measures in all hotels, restaurants and venues I visited.
After a week in the city, I headed out on a two-hour domestic flight south to Leticia, the entry point to the Amazon region. Leticia can be accessed only by plane or boat, and is not accessible by car from other parts of the country. Upon arrival, I couldn’t help but feel the shift in vibe and mood from mountainous Bogota to the jungle feel of Leticia.
The main boat terminal in Leticia, Amazonas
Travel Box International’s In-destination specialist arranged for an English-speaking guide to accompany me while in the region. Rinaldo met me at the airport and we both headed to the main boat terminal, which is basically a few floating docks anchored together. There are many small motorized canoes that go up and down the river throughout the day. The area is referenced as the triple border, as there are no movement restrictions between the Brazilian, Colombian and Peruvian sides. There are no customs or security stops between the countries in this region, which makes it a very unique part of the world.
A two-hour boat ride upriver, I headed to Calanoa, which would be my home base. Along the way, we passed small villages with kids waving from the banks, small wooden canoes with locals paddling their way from one side of the river to another, monkeys on tree branches — basically nature and the essence of life on full display.
Slowly, I saw my cell signal fade to zero bars. This is when it started hitting me, “I am off the grid!” Arriving to the lodge, safety and health protocols were taken. Calanoa is an initiative project that aims to contribute to the conservation of biological and cultural diversity in the region. They employ locals from the neighboring villages, providing work and education. Such a great property, it’s a rare find, but it’s not for everyone.
Some of my favorite moments were waking up to the squirrel monkeys that visited my cabin daily. They would come and hang out for a good hour at a time. Some would even sleep and relax on the side of the cabin. I found myself at peace with the elements of mother nature around.
Exploring the flooded forests near Puerto Narino. The Amazon in Colombia is flooded for half the year depending on location.
I visited a few remote indigenous tribes to learn about their culture and customs. The majority of settlements in the region are Tikuna Indians, speaking their own language, Tikuna. Luckily I had a translator. In one instance I had to get pre-approval from the village elder, then when I arrived to the main hall they welcomed me with a ceremony and dance. As the translator told me, I was the only outsider they had in a long time due to COVID. Halfway through my stay, I took a day trip to Santa Rosa (Peru), a small settlement on the other side of the river. I had lunch and then walked around the few streets with wooden, colorful homes on tall stilts. They are placed on stilts due to the dramatic water rise in the rainy season.
While at Calanoa, I was advised to try a night hike, and so I did. It was pouring as I headed into the dark jungle looking for the deadliest creatures with the translator and a villager who knew the area well. Within minutes of our walk we passed four of the deadliest creatures on earth. The villager would flash his light on them as he noticed them. Both gentlemen had a good laugh when I yelled in a screeching manner as the Brazilian spider (one of the deadliest animals on Earth) was pointed out to me.
The cabin interior at Calanoa Jungle Lodge
It’s important to note the region is harsh — the climate, the power of the river, the insects, all of it — this is mother nature on full display. Traveling solo to this part of the world is both rewarding and testing.
After my time in the Amazon, I flew north to the Caribbean coast and spent time exploring Cartagena, Barranquilla and the Rosario Islands for the last week of my time in the country. In Cartagena, The Sofitel Legend is the go-to for a stay for those looking for a refined experience with a great location.
Another great option is Hotel Bantú, where I stayed while in Cartagena. A delightful boutique hotel located in the heart of the walled city with top-notch service, it is a good option for travelers seeking relaxed luxury vibe.
I concluded the trip in Baru, at Las Islas, an upscale island resort with chic bungalows with private pools overlooking the Caribbean. It’s important to note that weather changes drastically between the different regions of the country. Overall it was cooler in the Andes, breezy on the coasts and humid and sticky in the Amazon. Travelers visiting multiple regions are advised to pack accordingly. Overall, Colombia is all that and a bag of chips.
Hotel Bantú’s open-air lobby. This is a boutique property with a relaxed luxury vibe, in the heart of the walled city of Cartagena.
Access: Getting Around
For the domestic flights I booked all segments with LATAM; they service most of the main routes within the country. The airline was great, and even had an app that was very helpful to guide me with the necessary requirements and what to expect at the airport. The airline was following health protocols and masks were strictly enforced both in airport and on flights.
In Bogota’s airport, on my way to Leticia, I was able to check-in online through the airline app. Basically, I arrived at the counter, my documents were checked, then I was on my way to the gate. Security was a breeze at the domestic terminal. Overall, the facility was very well managed. Upon leaving the Amazon and heading to Cartagena, I had to head back and connect through Bogota, since there are no direct flights for that route. That said and even with the added stop, it was still an easy journey, and I felt very comfortable.
For the international flights, I flew with Copa Airlines. At the time, it was only them and Spirit that offered the route. Now, most major carriers have returned to servicing Colombian ports of entry, including American, Delta and United. The flight is a quick few hours from most southeast U.S. airports, making it an easy international destination to get to.
The lively and colorful streets of Cartagena at dusk.
Tips from Noubani
- There is so much to do and see in the country; there are the main sights and must do’s, but the reality is that for off-the-beaten-path experiences, the opportunities are endless. Whether the adventurous looking for an Amazonian experience or the foodie and history buff looking to explore the colorful streets of Cartagena, Colombia has something for everyone.
- Just a one-hour flight from Bogota, the eastern plains are considered one of the most important eco-systems in the world and are home to more than 100 species of mammals and over 700 species of birds.
Fun Fact: Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world.
Note: All my arrangements in the Amazon, transfers, village visits, translators, guides, etc., were arranged by The Travel Box International’s IN-Destination Specialist Brendan Hanrahan. Bringing me inside the destination while planning, he designed the itinerary based on my personality, likes and interests. At every stop he or a member of the team would check in and advise of the current status in the area I was in, including updates on lockdowns, etc. They kept me informed and were always available via an app, text, video or phone call.