Talk about hidden gems! Located in Ipiales, next to the border with Ecuador, the Santuario de Las Lajas has got to be one of the most spectacular shrines not just in Colombia but the whole world. It truly is a sight to behold. Sadly (or maybe not) most tourists miss it because they choose to fly between the two countries. Is it more convenient? Sure, but they are missing out.
Founded in 1916 and built over the next few decades, part of what makes this shrine so special is its highly unusual and extremely dramatic location: on a bridge across a canyon. The altar actually stands in front of the blessed canyon wall, which makes it even more spectacular. Despite the convenience of flying, it’s worth travelling to Ecuador by land just to see this gorgeous church.
Arriving in Bogotá after four months in Santa Marta was a breath of fresh hair. Quite literally. Unlike the intense heat I’d experienced on the Caribbean coast, the temperatures in the capital were much cooler. Thankfully, I had brought warm clothes so that was not going to be much of an issue. And to be honest, I was excited about it. I also missed rain (for some reason) and was hoping Bogotá delivered on that front. Ironic, seeing how I’d ran away to the Caribe precisely to escape the cold and rain.
Before I went back to Bogotá there were two nearby places I did not want to leave without checking out: Taganga and Rodadero. What I find fascinating about them is how they sort of represent polar opposites; while Taganga is usually compared to a hippie haven, Rodadero is tailor made for the resort types. They’re both very popular and also part of the reason Santa Marta sees so many visitors, with a considerable amount choosing to stay there instead of the city proper.
When my short stay in Palomino came to an end it was time to return to Santa Marta. I’d been away for a couple of weeks and felt ready to get back to work. One thing I didn’t realise was that January is peak season in Colombia, proper peak season – like August in Southern Europe. To say I was surprised by how busy I found Santa Marta is an understatement. So much so I had to spend a week in a different hostel because República was full. Madness!
After my time in Riohacha came to an end, I had two options: go back to Santa Marta, or make a brief stop in Palomino – a sleepy coastal town with a tremendous reputation among backpackers, located somewhere between both cities. Since Palomino already featured on my list of places to visit before I left Colombia I figured it would make much more sense to visit it now rather than having to come back some other time.
One of the disadvantages of sleeping on the beach is that once the sun is up you can’t really sleep anymore. Which wasn’t all that bad because we had a long day ahead of us. After a tasty breakfast, we waited for the other groups to get ready (since we were all moving together in a sort of convoy) and headed towards the first stop of the day: the Parque Eólico de Jepirachi. A wind farm, basically. It was fun to get close to the towering wind turbines although they’re not much of an attraction per se.
While Riohacha may not have all that much going on, it still sees a lot of visitors. The reason for this is quite simple: the city is the gateway to Alta Guajira, the northern – and wildest – part of La Guajira department. When I say wildest what I really mean is that it’s mostly deserted, has no roads, and features some truly unique landscapes. It is also where you can visit the northernmost point in both Colombia and South America at Punta Gallinas, a big part of its appeal and – yes, you guessed it – the reason I could not miss this experience.
After a very productive month in Santa Marta I figured it was time to take a little break. Well, not quite a “break” but a temporary change of scenery. See, I’m not the biggest fan of NYE celebrations and whenever I get the chance to escape to some remote place, I do it. Pyongyang? Check. Somewhere in Cabo Verde? Check. Timisoara? Check. Vietnamese jungle? Yeah, check. The list goes on!
Here’s something you might find mildly interesting: I don’t think there is a single country I have visited where I haven’t heard a local mutter a variation of “…only in this country!” It happens all the time. Really. Truth is every country has its share of problems, some more than others, but the uniqueness of the complaints is often… well, not that unique!
As Jack Torrance once famously wrote: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” So when Birgit – a lovely Austrian girl I’d met in the hostel in Santa Marta – mentioned she was going to Cerro Kennedy and asked me if I’d like to tag along I found it very hard to resist the invitation. What can I say? I’m a sucker for mountains (that much you already knew, I’m sure) and Cerro Kennedy was very high on my list of things to do in Colombia before I left the country!