AITO: The Association of Independent Tour Operators
The Secret Heart of Colombia

The Secret Heart of Colombia

The Secret Heart of Colombia Overview

Be one of the first to travel to the most exciting country in Latin America. We explore the stunning colourful colonial architecture of towns and villages such as Popayan and Villa de Leyva, marvel at the pristine scenery in the Cocora Valley, learn about coffee cultivation in Armenia antake in the archaeological wonders of San Agustin.


Day 1 – Bogota

Arrive in Bogota and transfer to the hotel, located in the historic heart of the city. The rest of the day is at leisure to either explore or relax. If you have arrived early you may wish to visit the interesting Gold Museum which is very close to the hotel, housing one of the most important collections of pre-Hispanic metallurgy in the world, offering an insight into this lucrative but controversial activity which has brought wealth, war and fortune-seekers to Colombia’s shores for many centuries. Overnight Hotel Casa Deco, or similar. No meals.

Day 2 – Bogota sightseeing

Spend the first full day on tour in Bogota exploring this vibrant city on foot and by vehicle. Firstly take a guided walk around La Candelaria – the historical centre of Bogota with colonial and baroque style buildings and cobblestone streets and plazas, and visit the Emerald Museum which catalogues the country’s rise to being the world’s largest emerald producer (make sure you bring ID) and then the San Francisco Church, a sixteenth century delight which still draws pilgrims as the oldest Christian site in the city. Continue to the Paloquemao for a visit to the bustling and colourful public market, essentially an authentic farmer’s market on an epic scale: a genuine cornucopia of foods and eating places, wander through the myriad of stalls and perhaps sample an arepa or pan de bono. Continue for spectacular views of Bogota City from one of its mountainous peaks at the Monserrate monastery, a seventeenth century shrine to ‘The Fallen Lord’. Overnight Hotel Casa Deco, or similar (BL)

Day 3 – Bogota - Zipaquirá – Raquira - Villa de Leyva (Overall approximate driving time today - 4 hours)

Drive to the famous Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, carved into the tunnels of a salt mine, and experience the surreal journey into the heart of the mountain’s holy site. From here, continue as far as the charming village of Raquira, famous for its handicrafts and pottery. After a short break to admire local craftsmen’s skills, continue to the beautifully preserved and traditional town of Villa De Leyva, characterised by its clusters of white-washed colonial-style buildings and sweepingly elegant central square. Overnight Hotel Hospederia La Roca, or similar. (BL)

Day 4 – Villa de Leyva sightseeing

Spend the morning exploring Villa de Leyva, visiting the central plaza with its churches, restaurants and handicraft shops. Take a guided walk through its atmospheric streets, many boasting huge cobblestone paving that boast colourful bougainvillea spilling from balconies, patios, courtyards and white-washed buildings with pan-tiled roofs. Continue to the “Santo Ecce Homo” Dominican convent, constructed in 1620 by the Spanish from local stone, studded with a profusion of fossils. The site offers a real window on the colonial era and religious missions from Europe. Having passed through the delightful gardens, within you will find a dozen beautiful galleries adorned with religious art and impressively informative guide materials. Later, continue to the extraordinary Museo el Fósil, which houses the 7 metre long remains of a crocodile-like ancestor, the Kronosaurus, dated between 100 and 150 million years old, and beached here when the whole area lay on the shores of a tropical sea. Finish the tour at the Casa de Terra Cotta, claimed by architect Octavio Mendoza to be the largest piece of pottery in the world. Explore the whimsical rooms inside, fashioned entirely from clay, baked hard by the sun. The afternoon is at your leisure to further discover this charming town. Overnight Hotel Hospederia La Roca, or similar (BL)

Day 5 – Villa de Leyva – Tunja – Bogota – Girardot (Overall approximate driving time today - 6 hours)

Leaving Villa de Leyva behind, drive back towards Bogota taking an alternative scenic back-road via Tunja, capital city of the department of Boyacá. Stop at the most important monument in Colombian history: the Boyacá Bridge, a tiny, white-washed stone crossing which belies its national significance. On that site Simón Bolívar won his most decisive battle against Spanish settlers which directly paved the way for independence from the Spanish Empire and the establishment of ‘Gran Colombia’. On arrival back in Bogotá, pay a visit to the foundation of Hogar de Paz and learn about their vital work to shelter and support adolescents with family difficulties by supporting them via community projects. Finally, continue south to Girardot. Overnight Hotel GHL Style Neiva, or similar. (BLD)

Day 6 - Girardot – Tatacoa Desert – San Agustin (Overall approximate driving time today – 6½ hours)

After breakfast start the journey to Neiva along the reliable tarmac of Route 45 which gradually gives way to narrower roads alongside which are villages with clusters of houses amidst scattered woodland approaching Villavieja and enter the unanticipated transformation of topography that is the Tatacoa Desert. A trip through the arid scrub will pass the labyrinthine profusion of eroded dry gullies in ochres and greys which make for some stunning photographic opportunities. Afterwards, drive through a vivid landscape, rising through dramatic mountain-scenery with the Rio Cabrera and then the Rio Ambica as constant companions. As the route winds around the edges of hills and wooded ridges, near the archaeologic hotspot of Colombia – San Agustin. Spend the next 3 nights imbibing the splendour of the area and its archaeological wonders. Overnight Akawanka Lodge, or similar. (BL)

Day 7 – San Agustin archaeology

Spend today exploring the village of San Agustin and its surrounds. Visits on offer will include the Archaeological Park, which comprises three main sites within San Agustin: Las Mesitas, the Fuente de Lavapatas, and the Bosque de Las Estatuas, all of which will astound and bemuse you in equal part. The day ends with a fascinating visit to the Archaeological Museum which will provide fascinating context to what was seen throughout the day. Overnight Akawanka Lodge (BL)

Day 8 – San Agustin - Rio Magdalena (Overall approximate driving time today is 1.5 hours)

After breakfast, depart to the famous Rio Magdalena Strait. Here, the longest river in Colombia narrows to a raging torrent just 2 metres wide which will have you reaching for your cameras. En route back to San Agustin, visit a "trapiche", a traditional factory which produces typical panela (unrefined sugar) from sugar cane where the cane juice is pressed by a simple old-school press. Once back at the hotel, the rest of the day will be at leisure to relax or familiarise yourself with the local area. Overnight Akawanka Lodge or similar (BL)

Day 9 – San Agustin - Popayan (Overall approximate driving time today - 4½ hours)

After breakfast, continue to Popayan stopping at Village Isnos where nearby we will observe some impressive tombs and statues at Alto de Los Idolos, dating from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD. In all, 16 tombs and 17 sculptures were built on an ambitious man-made platform between two hills. The region’s largest funerary statue, at 7m tall is also to be found there. Continue traversing the beautiful Puracé National Natural Park, named after the active volcano in this stunning mountainous region. Experience the unforgettable landscape of the Andean cloud forest where the road winds and climbs through lush vegetation which tumbles thick and steaming down the hillsides. On its fringes, pass through the little-known landscape of the Paramo: residing between exposed mountain-sides and forest, this wetland offers incredible biodiversity from over 200 orchid species, rare trees such as the Colombian Pine, Andean Oak and Wax Palm, and animals worth keeping a beady eye out for – like spectacled bears, cougars, howler monkeys, mountain tapir and the world’s smallest deer, the pudu. The sharp eyed visitor may also spot circling Condor in the skies above. We expect to arrive in Popayan – known as The White City – around midday. This afternoon, take a walking tour to discover what the city has to offer. Overnight Hotel La Plazuela or similar (BL)

Day 10 – Popayan – Silvia – Buga - Armenia (Coffee Region) (Overall approximate driving time today is 6 – 7 hours)

After breakfast, depart Popayan, continuing towards the Coffee Region, stopping en-route in Silvia, where on Tuesdays, the indigenous Guambiano people come together dressed in their royal blue and fuschia native costumes to offer and buy their products at the market and to converse with one another. This takes place at the famous market in Silvia, which creates a special opportunity to see and meet these ancestral groups that are so fiercely proud of their culture. After the visit, continue towards the Coffee Region with another short stop in Buga, where the famous Basilica del Señor de los Milagros is located – founded to celebrate the miracle of the gift of a crucifix from the local river to a generous and pious old woman. Later this afternoon arrive in Armenia, located at the heart of the Coffee Region, our base for the next three nights. Overnight Hacienda Combia or similar (BL)

Day 11 – Coffee zone culture

Spend the morning learning about the fascinating life and culture of those who inhabit the coffee region. Visit the coffee farm and hacienda ‘Combia’, visit plantations and learn about the complex process that transforms the humble coffee bean into one of Colombia’s most renowned exports as well as enjoying tastings of the farm’s product. This afternoon will be at leisure for you to relax or explore further. Overnight Hacienda Combia or similar (BL)

Day 12 – Valle de Cocora – Salento – Filandia – Armenia (Overall approximate driving time 3 hours)

With breathtaking landscapes, the Cocora Valley is one of the most beautiful valleys in Colombia. Here, one can observe the impressive Palma de Cera – the ‘wax palm’, the official Colombian national tree and one of the tallest species of palm in the world. The valley is scattered liberally with these towering, skinny telegraph pole-like trunks, topped by small spherical explosions of palm leaves. We will take a leisurely 2 hour walk to immerse ourselves in the splendid scenery. On the way back to Armenia, stop in Salento, a picturesque village in the coffee zone, which, owing to its relative isolation, retains much of its traditional buildings and charm: colourful streets and a fascinating Aldea de los Artisanos where village craftsmen astound with the skills of their trade. There may be time to wander up the coloured stairs to the mirador to enjoy a spectacular view or try out the explosive local game of Tejo. The final stop of the day before Armenia, will be the charming town of Filandia with its colourful examples of colonial architecture, atmospheric Bolivar square and numerous coffee shops. Overnight Hacienda Combia or similar (BL)

Day 13 – Armenia - Tamesis (Overall approximate driving time today - 5 hours)

Journey this morning to Tamesis, a town in the southwestern region of Antioquia. The route follows well-cultivated rolling hills and offers constant photo opportunities. Pass through bustling towns like Pereira with the Rio Cauca a constant feature dominating the valley floor. Latterly, from La Pintada, the road climbs steadily and becomes more shaded by trees until you reach Tamesis at just over 1600m. On arrival, the rest of the day is at leisure to relax after the drive. Overnight Hospedaje Rural La Boira or similar (BL)

Day 14 - Tamesis – Jardin – Antioquia – Tamesis

Today it is possible to choose from two excellent excursions depending on your preferences. Please let us know your preference at the time of booking:

Option 1: Full day tour – Gold and Archaeology

Travel through beautiful scenery down the valley of the Cauca River to the Puente Iglesias Bridge. On the banks of the Cauca River meet traditional gold washers and learn more about their daily work. Try to wash gold on your own and interact directly with the artisanal miners. This afternoon, enjoy spectacular views over the vastness of the Cauca River Valley and return to explore the idyllic mountain village of Tamesis, known as the Green Coffee Balcony, and renowned for its history, birdlife and waterfalls. Accompanied by a local guide, visit the archaeological sites. Támesis is celebrated as one of the places with the greatest density of indigenous pre-Hispanic petroglyphs (rock art) in Colombia. Your expert guide will help you to observe different types of petroglyphs and to learn some of their significances. As a location which sees few foreign tourists, the locals are particularly welcoming and helpful.

Option 2: Full day tour – Chocolate and Archaeology

This morning, visit an organic cacao plantation and learn more about the process of chocolate production, the harvesting and processing – from the tree to the cup. The family-run cacao farm produces organic chocolate and the owners passionately observe the traditional sustainable way of cacao farming. Take the opportunity to try your hand at making your own chocolate. This afternoon, enjoy spectacular views over the vastness of the Cauca River Valley and return to explore the idyllic mountain village of Tamesis, known as the Green Coffee Balcony, and renowned for its history, birdlife and waterfalls. Accompanied by a local guide, visit the archaeological sites. Támesis is celebrated as one of the places with the greatest density of indigenous pre-Hispanic petroglyphs (rock art) in Colombia. Your expert guide will help you to observe different types of petroglyphs and to learn some of their significances. As a location which sees few foreign tourists, the locals are particularly welcoming and helpful. At the end of your tour, you return to Tamesis for the night. Overnight Hospedaje Rural La Boira, or similar (BL)

Day 15 – Tamesis - Jerico - Medellin (Overall approximate driving time today - 5 hours)

After breakfast, drive to Jerico and take a walk in the town centre. Explore the historic centre of Jerico with its traditional facades and visit the village museum, which explains the pre-Columbian culture through a comprehensive exhibition of archaeological findings in the region. Visit a workshop of carriel, the typical leather bags used by local people. Continue to the Botanical Gardens and the Cristo Rey monument, a 27m high statue of Christ, erected to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Colombian civil War of a Thousand Days. From this lofty perch, enjoy the amazing views of the town and the surrounding mountains, valleys and rivers. Continue to the vibrant city of Medellin, our base until the end of the tour. Overnight La Campana Boutique Hotel, or similar (BL)

Day 16 – Medellin sightseeing

After breakfast, take in the important sights of the “City of Eternal Spring” (the city tour is approximately 4 hours). Explore downtown Medellin and the historic centre and listen to local musicians and the traditional Guasca music while visiting the Parque Berrio. Continue through the hustle and bustle of downtown Medellin to the famous Botero Plaza with an exhibition by Botero, whose inimical sculptures have become a landmark of the city. We then take the Metro Cable up to Santo Domingo, which had once been a notorious area of gang violence in Medellin. The cable car was constructed to make the inner city more accessible to people from the outskirts, and allows visitors a glimpse into the lives of the marginalised population. While enjoying the spectacular views, learn more about the transformation of Medellin from one of the most dangerous cities in the world into a fascinating melting pot of cultures with possibly the friendliest and warmest people in the world. The rest of the day is at leisure. Overnight La Campana Boutique Hotel, or similar (BL)

Day 17 – Depart Medellin

Transfer to the airport for your onward journey. (B)
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