The bus careens right overtaking us on the outside lane, a cement truck looms ominously large in my rear-view mirror, seemingly hurtling towards the trunk, what’s that ahead, a family of four on a 125cc motorcycle bumping the front tire over the central reservation….not a lie nor an embellishment, that was a snapshot of the joys of driving in Colombia.
If you have taken the wheel in Athens, in Lima, Nairobi or New York, then you can drive in Colombia. Unfortunately the reality is that you need to be incredibly defensive in Colombia when driving and in order to stay alive you may need to start predicting the movements of all of the other motorists around you. A rule of thumb is to think of the most irrational and unreasonable maneuver and then apply it to wherever you are, as this is inevitably what will happen.
But all of this said there’s nothing like putting on your own tunes, traveling at your own speed and exploring, stopping from time to time to pick up some local bites along the way and heading out past the toll booths that mark the end of Bogota.
Here we detail a few destinations within easy reach of Bogota.
Villa de Leyva
Just 3.5 hours from downtown Bogota, Villa de Leyva is the destination de rigeur for wealthy Bogotanos who have bought up ornate colonial mansions here and designed them as second homes. Don’t let this put you off, there are plenty of options for accommodation and should you come midweek you’ll have the cobblestone streets, elegant restaurants and chic bars to yourself. And for those adventure lovers, hiking is possible in the Iguaque National Park just nearby.
Known for its hot springs, much of the same advice for Villa de Leyva applies to Paipa. Think not of coming on a long weekend or during high season as you’ll be sharing the hot springs with half of Bogota. But should you come in low season, discounts can be negotiated as you recuperate all aches and pains in the curative waters of the medicinal hot springs.
Girardot and Melgar
Heading south from Bogota on the exit taking you towards Neiva and beyond are the resort towns of Girardot and Melgar. In times past the train service to Bogota used to arrive here and then you needed to alight and head up the mountain range. Located by the famed Magdalena River there are plenty of activities and of a weekend the festivities are nigh on unstoppable.
The last really historic town – only 4 hours away over terrifying mountain roads with stunning views – when heading in from the Caribbean coast to Bogota as Honda is strategically located at the last navigable point of the Magdalena River. Here you can enjoy copious amounts of fish, a stroll through the colonial and republican era streets and warm up your core body heat as you are back in tierra calida!
Really a destination in its own right, Villavicencio is the capital of the department of Meta, located to the south of Bogota and the entrance into cowboy country. Attitudes, dress and music all alter dramatically and before you know it you’ll be roped into some Joropo dancing all the while gnawing on famed Carne Llanera.