From Cartagena, Medellin was our next port of call in Colombia. As the crow flies, not a great distance at all but not too far north of Medellin we were already climbing hard and entering the northern edge of the Andes mountains.  Add to the mix a steady stream of heavy trucks, slow buses, a period of torrential rain and you can see why just 670kms on the map translates to 15 hours of driving !

Our route to Medellin
When it rains in Colombia, it rains hard – visibility near zero as we left Taraza en route to Medellin

In the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s the mere mention of the city of Medellin conjured images of drug and gang violence. It was at the time one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Definitely a ‘no go’ area. The death of Pablo Escobar in a shootout with police in 1993 was the beginning of a revival for Medellin. Indeed it is now held up as a model of how to combat gangs and drug violence. The problem, of course, has not completely disappeared but no longer do its citizens live in perpetual fear and it is considered one of the safest cities in Colombia these days. An impressive transformation we thought, and, a city now on every Colombian visitors list.

Once the rain stopped the scenery was wonderful

Our campground, El Bosque, was outside the city in the eastern highlands and one of the nicest places we have stayed on our trip so far. A beautiful setting, on the edge of a national park, with great amenities, nice and cool ( being a full kilometre higher than steamy Medellin ) and with super friendly staff. We were not alone, with a French couple and two Belgian couples also staying there – one of the Belgian couples had been on the road 12 years ! Definitely THE place to stay for Overlanders in Medellin but the drive to get there, through the heart of Medellin’s insane traffic during Friday rush hour was definitely stressful and not for the faint of heart.

Belgian, Canadian, Belgian and French Overlanders at El Bosque campground, outside Medellin

The shortest route to downtown Medellin from our place was by cable car – an excellent way to commute to the downtown since there was no way we were driving back there ! The views over the city were amazing as one drops a full kilometre to the downtown area passing over the very barrios that were once Escobar’s heartland.  Medellin offered up a beautiful day and we spent our time exploring the downtown sights and wrapped up our day with a walk through the Botanical Gardens – worth it for the flora and fauna alone but an added benefit was the escape it offered, in the middle of the city, from Medellin’s relentless noise – not a place to go if you crave peace and quiet!

View of Medellin from lower down on the “MetroCable” ( cable car )
View upwards over the barrios on the east side of Medellin
View of Medellin from near the top of the cable car
One of Medellin’s more eclectic buildings
“Adam and Eve” bronze sculptures by Medellin’s very own Botero, downtown Medellin
Pedestrian area, downtown Medellin
They make fine coffee ( unsurprisingly ) and an excellent hot chocolate !
Some flora…….
…and some fauna at Medellin’s Jardin Botanico

Just east of Medellin is a locally famous area of lakes and mountains centred on the town of Guatape. Heading east it seemed like a logical place to break our journey. While a little on the touristy side, the town and surroundings are indeed beautiful – not just famous for the lakes but the huge rock bluff ( El Penon ) that protrudes 656 feet straight up and is visible for miles as you approach the town. Colombia is justifiably famous for its colorful towns but Guatape is probably THE most famous of all Colombia’s town in terms of being “colorful”. Seems every house and business is trying to outdo the other and it does give an amazingly vibrant overall feel to the town as evidenced in the pictures below.

El Penon, Guatape
Colorful homes, Guatape
Fountain, Guatape
Cobblestone street, Guatape
View of lake, Guatape

Leaving Guatape we got yet another lesson in relying on Google Maps – as in you can’t always ! Our route, ostensibly the shortest and quickest ( the latter does not always follow the former in Colombia ), turned out to be anything but and included 3 hours of bone shaking surface – potholed, gravel strewn  mud covered and occasionally flooded at times barely wider than the donkey path it likely once was ( and we saw more of those than cars on it ). Given the remoteness and altitude ( at times over 9,000 feet ) we were concerned how we would ever get out if we had any vehicle problems- fortunately the truck handled it all with ease, even if it looked the worse for wear afterwards.

Google Maps indicated route 60 was a highway all the way – not so !
“Highway” 60, east of Highway 45
Same road, in a bit better condition
Some strange shaped peaks up at 9,000 feet
Our altitude app – useful in Colombia !
Truck was ready for a wash when we got to Villa de Leyva
Found a great “auto lavado” ( car wash ) run by two young refugees from Venezuela – you see many of them in Colombia. Did a great job cleaning it up.

Arriving in Villa de Leyva quite late as darkness fell ( something we never do as a rule ) it was no problem to find the Renacer campground and first impressions were definitely in line with the high expectations set based on others who referred us there. A classic Colombian villa set on the edge of a mountain with great views and a relaxed vibe- we quickly elevated it to the top of our best in Colombia, edging out El Bosque in Medellin. Villa de Leyva, considered Colombia’s most picturesque and original colonial town did not disappoint either. While it was sheer hell getting here ( at least via the route we took ) we’re glad we made the detour to do it. A great place to spend a few days unwinding after a rigorous journey to get there – our stay further enhanced by the opportunity we had to spend some quality time with Peter and Heike, a German couple who were doing the same Pan American route as us ( also in a truck camper ) but doing it south to north ( as many Europeans do ). They picked our brains on Central America and Mexico and we theirs on countries that lay ahead for us in South America.

Plaza Mayor, Villa de Leyva
Same plaza, looking the other way
And one more view
Parked in the main square, Villa de Leyva
Side street, Villa de Leyva
Columbian Highlands
Even new construction fits the “colonial” theme
Columbian Highlands
The flowers here were extremely colorful
Columbian Highlands
Lois at Renacer campground, Villa de Leyva

“Villa” is one of those places that’s tough to drag yourself away from but after 3 days there we left for Bogotá, excited to be heading home in just a few days. Bogota had seen a national strike the day before so all the traffic that was not on the road on Wednesday caused volumes to double on Thursday – getting into the city was brutal. With really only a full day at our disposal we limited our sightseeing to the world – renowned Gold Museum (one of the best museums we have ever been to and deserved of its exceptional reputation), some downtown wandering and an excursion on the city’s impressive funicular train up to nearby Monserrate ( treated ourself to a great lunch at the restaurant up top on our last day in Colombia and took in the spectacular views over Bogotá ). We would of course be returning to Bogotá in January – plenty of time for the other sights then.

Columbian Highlands
Heading in to Bogota’s downtown for some sightseeing
Columbian Highlands
Just one of the many ornamental gold articles in the Bogotá Gold Museum
Columbian Highlands
Another, a miniature raft, incredibly intricate
Columbian Highlands
More from the Gold Museum
Columbian Highlands
Panama was not the only city in Latin America with fancy high rise buildings !
Columbian Highlands
Funicular rail up to Monserrate
Columbian Highlands
View of Bogotá from the top
Columbian Highlands
Us…..enjoying a final Colombian morning ‘fix’ and beautiful sunshine in Bogotá before flying to the freezing north !

To all our faithful readers we sincerely hope you have been enjoying travelling along with us – we love hearing from you so keep the comments coming ( we always reply ! ). Enjoy the Christmas and New Year season with all your loved ones and we will be back at it in January ?. Feliz Navidad !!