On the Way to Popayan

How to travel in a week when the whole country takes its leave and travels around – That’s Semana Santa in Colombia. Easter Holidays. We try to imagine places less visited. Out of Salento, to Filandia, to the Tatacoa Desert, and on to Tierradentro.

Salento 2 Tierradentro

Salento, 7th April

We’re in Salento. 1 of the most visited villages in Colombia. The 1 on the bucket list of every tourist, backpacky, traveler, or sneaker-around-the-world – whatever name they may give themselves, somewhen they all arrive in Salento to visit the nearby Cocora Valley. To see these wax palms everybody thinks she needs to see.

Of course, we’ve been pretty afraid that Salento would be just another slum-like settlement, optimized for backpacky’s needs. 

Arriving there, we’re positively surprised by the neat’n’colorful houses and lively atmosphere here. Probably there are just too many local visitors. And they wouldn’t allow the place to turn into something else. On the other hand, it looks like they contribute significantly to converting Salento into a kind of Chinese Disneyland. Whatever, we’re mainly here to visit La Carbonera.

Having said all that, Salento has a huge advantage compared to all its neighbors: they sell BBC craft beer by the jar.

Despite that, our main objective remains the visit to La Carbonera.

La Carbonera is probably the best place to admire these wax palms in Colombia. There are pretty large forests in this remote valley some 30km from Salento. The road is said to be perfectible. Thus, the visit to La Carbonera is considered a kind of inside tip, even if most visitors to Salento know about it. But next to nobody ever went there – a huge advantage compared to the famous Cocora Valley.

There are not too many possibilities to visit. Of course, you can walk – it takes ages. Then you can book a tour. Every travel agent in town offers it. Of course, for a fortune. They even offer you long hikes. Innocent as you are, you imagine sneaking thru these beautiful wax palm forests for hours. After an in-depth investigation with your travel agent, you’ll come to know that you’ll mostly walk in the rainforest only. Maybe not exactly your dream on a wax palm tour.

Finally, we ask Prado about driving there. Without a tour, without a guide, just with us. Of course, it’s pleased to agree. 

It’s definitely true, the road might be slightly better. Still, it’s all about fun, the view on the way, the visit to La Carbonera, and the proof that Prado with its 350K km  driven still climbs to over 3000m at the pass of La Linea on a muddy’n’potholed road.

After a little more than 2h, we reach Finca la Carbonera – the gateway to the forests. We pay 5000 COP each, and we’re free to sneak around wherever we like on their farm. By the way, we’re the only visitors apart from a few cyclists. We’ve just seen their support car, but not them.

A few hours later we’re on our way back to Salento. Another 2h to reach the village – by now in the clouds.

After beautiful La Carbonera, we still have to visit the other place near Salento to see more wax palms: Valle de Cocora. Somehow this place seems to be the reason for the whole tourism industry in Salento. It’s a kind of hotspot on the backpacky’s Gringo-Trail. But also. the ultimate place to visit for all others in the range of 2000km of Cocora. And there are reasons for this popularity: nowhere else can you take so nice selfies. Nowhere else in the world can you travel so adventurous to a place – in a real Willys Jeep on a perfect tar road. And nowhere else can you see so many other tourists with so few palm trees.  At many spots, you can even queue up to make your selfie with your preferred palm tree in the background. And not to forget, there’s a pretty developed offer for whatever poor visitors may need: horses, guides, eateries, watering holes, souvenirs, entrance fees, …

Arriving in Cocora, we 1st are allowed to pay to park Prado. Then a kind of gauntlet thru all the guys trying to get you on a horse, or whatever else. After that, you follow a road full of digestive remains of all these horses. Finally, you arrive at an entrance gate to the place where there are some palm trees. You pay a hefty fee to enter a kind of amusement/selfie park with the possibility to walk to the palm trees.

Many visitors just use the opportunity to take another selfie of their life. But,  should you wish, you may also have a look at these wax palms. If you’re lucky, you may even see some Condors.

We can imagine, many years ago Valle Cocora was probably a quite nice place. Nowadays, it’s rather a big deception. Overrun by visitors, the landscape starting to convert into a Disney Park, and the forests – well, there are not too many wax palms here. Much better are definitely La Carbonera or La Samara. Albeit, a bit more difficult to reach.

Filandia, 8th April

Definitely, we’ve seen enough of these wax palms, as well as of the tourism industry of Salento. We head on to nearby Filandia.

On the way a short visit to Armenia. A medium-size town largely damaged by an earthquake in 1999. 

Rebuilt a few years later. So, an opportunity to see some modern architecture in Colombia. Especially, as a number of renowned architects contributed to its reconstruction.

In some places, you can definitely see that they developed a vision for the use of a newly constructed town. While many side streets just reflect that the usual low-cost buildings were erected to get back to business as usual as quickly as possible.

Still, we think worth a short visit when passing by.

On to Filandia. Just a few km. A few years ago, the village declared itself the most beautiful in the district. Who knows if it’s true. But for sure it must be the most colorful 1.

Still, in addition to the advantage of much fewer tourists, there might be another convenience of being in Filandia: you always may feel well protected. Even if there are visibly no bad girls, narcos, or sicarios in town.

By tomorrow the famous Easter Holidays start – La Semana Santa. It’s the time when the whole country – as well as many others in the world – gets absolutely crazy about traveling around. Yeah, the time when each’n’every Colombian family has to go on leave, travel somewhere in the country, and convert every place into a kind of madhouse. No worries Colombies, Swizzies aren’t any better.

We decide to visit a few places less known, presumably less visited, or places where there’s a lot of space to avoid the hordes.

Maybe a little contradictory, once we discovered a  sleepery offering the very last tiny bedroom in the center of Popayan at three times the normal price, we couldn’t resist booking it. Just to see their famous Easter procession by the end of the week.

In the meantime, we plan to head towards Colombia’s desert: the Tatacoa.

Evenings in Filandia are definitely not too exciting. As the Colombies prefer lunch to dinner, most eateries close by 5 or 6 pm. At least a few watering holes remain open. And those visiting the village on a horse may get a beer or something more efficient instantly at any watering hole – provided they travel with their butler.

Desierto de Tatacoa, 11th April 

We’re on the way to the famous Desierto de Tatacoa. Despite its proximity to Bogota, it’s a pretty remote place. So, let’s hope out of the reach of the Semana Santa-hordes. Some 280km to drive, at least 8h. Finally, we split the journey. Today just about 2/3 of the way – to Giradot.

Again we have to cross the Cordillera Central. By now, mostly on a brand-new highway. At the top of the mountains, we cross thru Latin America’s longest tunnel.

Late afternoon we arrive in Giradot. A town not too famous for its outstanding beauty or its world-famous sights. Rather a convenient stop for the night.

Despite that a short sightseeing tour, to admire some murals, the decaying waterfront, and the former railway bridge.

Next morning, we drive on to the desert. Again mostly on pretty good roads. And we definitely recognize 1 advantage of Semana Santa: there are next to no trucks on the road. We see them all parked on the roadside.

We stay in a beautiful sleepery in the middle of nowhere. Despite the prevailing Semana Santa – craziness, we could book a bungalow just a few days ahead. Looks like many visitors prefer the nearby towns with all required facilities to simpler desert life. 

We’re ready to discover the desert –  even if it’s not really 1. Tatacoa is rather an arid zone with high temperatures. Every day around 40 degrees. But still, there’s everywhere vegetation – reminding us a little of Baja California.

And the places to visit? Classical badlands. Landscapes formed by erosion. Thus, time to explore Sendero Cusco. A series of hiking trails meandering thru red-colored badland. The most famous area of El Desierto de Tatacoa.

Of course, we also need to see the so-called grey desert – Los Hoyos. A badland mainly famous for a not that clean pool a clever businesswoman installed there. But there’s also a hiking trail allowing visitors to see another type of eroded landscape.

Should you think temperature in Tatacoa is too high for all these hikes – no problem, just sleep until late afternoon. There are plenty of incredible spots for a couple of sundowners.

Still, 2 days of El Desierto are enough. Tomorrow, we move on to cooler temperatures.

Tierradentro, 13th April

We’re on our way to Tierradentro. To visit the famous underground tombs.

To start with we take the ferry crossing Rio Magdalena. Pretty fast’n’easy.


Then we drive down to the nearby town of Neiva. At the entrance of town quite a traffic jam. Due to a construction site. No problem, after some time we’re thru it and have to cross the town.

Of course, we observe huge traffic jams in the opposite direction. Visible the whole town is about to get blocked. Happily, not in our direction.

Then we arrive on the other side – just to state that the road going further south is closed due to a collapsed bridge. Nevertheless, the guys are so friendly to give exact indications on how to bypass. Just a pity that the bypass is on the other side of the town. Exactly where we’re coming from. And between us and this bypass – there’s this huge traffic jam blocking the whole town. Nice guys, why the hell did you forget to inform everybody before crossing Neiva?

We turn around and wait patiently in the jam for our turn to advance a meter or 2. 2h later we’re exactly at the same point we’ve been some 2,5h earlier – and we’re finally ready to drive on.

The road southwards – pretty good. Unfortunately, the trucks are back on the road.

Sometime later a last glimpse of mighty Rio Magdalena. Then we cross it and the road winds up the mountains to finally reach the archeological site of Tierradentro.

Next morning we’re ready to experience El Parque Arqueológico Tierradentro. 25 years ago, declared a UNESCO World Heritage, it covers different sites around the tiny village of San Andrés. Each of them contains a number of underground tombs.

To start with, you pay your entrance fee. Should you be unlucky enough not to be a Colombian citizen, you’ll be charged 3 times the prize of nationals. Nevertheless, despite this discrimination after payment you’re allowed to see exactly the same stuff as the locals.

There’s a trail connecting all the sites.

Some 20′ to the 1st 1 with more than 30 tombs.

To access the tombs, you need to climb down for about 5m. Huge steps into the underground.

Once you’re down, time to admire the tombs. Some are just plain, others with extensive paintings on the walls.

And not to forget – some are nicely illuminated, while others can just be seen with a torch.

In some tombs, there are still burial pots to be seen. 

We sneak on. In the meantime, to the 3rd site.

There, no tombs but a collection of statues found on different sites. Probably a little similar to the 1s you can see in San Augustin on the Backpacky-Gringo-Trail.

Then we have to hike to the other side of the valley to the next site. Quite a muddy trail – inevitably rainy season is approaching. 

There, probably the most beautiful tomb of all. Should you just by chance pass your next weekend in Tierradentro – the site is called Alto de San Andrés.

After that, we decide that enough is enough. True there would be a last site to visit. On a mountain some 2h up. On an extremely muddy’n’slippery trail. Well, we leave it for you, esteemed reader. 

Finally, we visit the famous church in San Andrés. 1 of the few 1s in Colombia with a thatched roof. True, it burnt a few years ago and had to be carefully restored. But still worth a visit.

Enough activities for today. Tomorrow we’ll drive on to Popayan. To experience the most famous and most crowded Semana Santa in all of Latin America. But that’s another story. For another post. Soon. No worries; it’s promised.



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