Colombia: Tourism’s Comeback Kid in South America

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The program is for advanced divers only—a certified record, signed and stamped, of at least 20 logged dives will be required by the dive master. Clients are welcomed aboard the Doña Mariela, which accommodates 10 divers, three instructors and one physician. This program is priced at $1,699 pp and includes accommodations in air-conditioned cabins; three daily meals; four dives off Gorgona (three daytime, one nighttime) and four daily daytime dives in the waters around Mapelo; shore visits on the islands; use of tanks, air and weights; dive master services aboard the Zodiac boat; and bus transportation roundtrip between Cali and Buenaventura. Departures are scheduled monthly from Buenaventura.

Gina Nichol, president of Sunrise Birding, also participated in the expo, particularly the portion of the program that focused on birdwatching and developing the infrastructure to support birding tours. “I can say that the areas we visited were safe and Colombians are a friendly people, proud of their country and pleased to share it with visitors,” Nichol reports. “The birdwatching is unsurpassed—at least 1,870 species, which is more than any other country in the world. This is the third year that birding tours have visited Colombia, and the logistics are being improved with each itinerary. Sunrise Birding will certainly add this destination to its roster with at least a 2-week program in order to be able to cover sightings of Colombia’s many endemic species.”

The expo program also included a FAM to the ruins of San Agustin, nestled in what many might have thought of as “out-of-security-bounds” territory. However, tourism has more than doubled—city dwellers from Bogota and tour groups from Europe—since the safety situation has improved dramatically.

Following a short flight from Bogota to Neiva, travelers take a long, scenic drive overland through a countryside of rice paddies and fields of vegetables, then segueing into coffee plantations of the Rio Magdalena Valley. The vast San Agustin National Park—declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995—is shrouded in mystery, for little is known about its exact origins or the purpose of the San Agustin Ruins, an incredible array of carved monumental stones, megalithic tombs, small temples, sculptures and anthropomorphic figures thought to date from the second century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. A particularly interesting cluster of 34 stones is located by a riverbank, thought to be a foot-washing area, with carvings of a birthing chair, snakes, frogs, eagles devouring serpents, and women giving birth. A path winds up from here to the park’s oldest site, well worth the climb for its statue-guarded crypts and astonishing views. Outside the park, there are other ceremonial sites along the Rio Magdalena, some best accessed on horseback.

So far, only local Colombian tour operators offer this attraction; in the U.S. market, we found a singular offering from Yampu Latin America Tours, combining San Agustin and the Tatacoa Desert into a 4-day package, spending two nights at the Hacienda Anacaona outside San Agustin and one night in Neiva with a desert visit. Priced at $1,628 pp dbl, the cost includes all air and overland transportation, hotels, meals and escorted sightseeing.