With our travel plans on hold for the time being, Race Across the World is undoubtedly providing us with some much-needed armchair escapism.
This week’s episode saw the competition rack up another notch as the four remaining couples planned their routes to Ecuador's capital, Quito. However, mid-way through their respective journeys, the contestants were alerted to a checkpoint change. Due to civil unrest and border closures in Ecuador, the Mars-like landscape of Colombia’s Tatacoa Desert was announced as their new goal. Each team’s panicked scramble to amend their route left first place open for the taking. Uncle and nephew duo, Emon and Jamiul, rose to the challenge, emerging victorious as the surprise leaders of this leg. Only time will tell whether they can maintain this precious lead.
In the meantime, to help sate your wanderlust, here are our pick of the highlights from Episode 3. We hope this – and our 50% discount off all our titles (use code DREAM50 at the checkout in our online shop) – inspires you to keep dreaming and keep reading about your bucket-list destinations.
San Blas archipelago – Playón Chico and Isla Ustupo
The San Blas islands, or Guna Yala, are home to the Guna, one of Latin America's strongest and most successful indigenous groups. Conforming to the easy rhythms of tide and harvest, daily life on these islands is refreshingly pure and simple: men cast their fishing lines from dugout canoes, children scale coconut trees, and women chatter outside cane-and-thatch houses whilst sewing brilliantly coloured molas.
Despite the recent intrusion of a modern cash economy, Guna society continues to be driven by the age-old values of family, community and ancestral tradition.
© Loriel, Shutterstock
Approximately 40 of these islands are permanently inhabited – Playón Chico and Isla Ustupo are among this number. The former lies around 40 km east of Corazón de Jesús (the archipelago’s main trading centre) and is the jumping-off point for more idyllic destinations. Isla Ustupo is the largest island in the archipelago with a population of 5,000, lots of social amenities and a grocery store.
This small coastal settlement of 2,800 inhabitants is carved out of the jungle on the northwestern Atlantic coast. Nudging the Darién Gap just a stone’s throw from the Panamanian frontier, Capurgana overlooks the Gulf of Urabá where the waters of the Río Atrato run into the ocean.
Two simple but gorgeous beaches attract a fledgling tourist crowd that more than doubles the local population in high season from December to January. Outside of high season, the sands are empty and utterly idyllic and are a great place to witness gorgeous sunrises as the sun slowly emerges from the ocean, flooding the water with an amber glow.
© oscar garces, Shutterstock
The northern beach is famed for its crystal-clear waters, so is a popular spot to watch the surf or snorkel in near-perfect visibility, especially during the rainy season when the water is calm. Although pebbly, the southern beach is an exciting place to spend time listening to the roar of the crashing waves against the shore.
Island hopping, diving and kayaking are the prime occupations. It’s also a great place to enjoy some superb seafood dishes at candlelit tables looking out across the ocean. Traffic-free and largely Afro-Colombian, Capurgana has a funky laid-back beach-town vibe.
The city of Medellín used to be synonymous with Colombia’s deadliest drug wars and was also a critical hub for guerrilla activity. However, the city’s security situation has been transformed since the early 21st century leaving the next major battle the reparation of its tarnished reputation.
Many of Colombia’s largest drug cartels – once a powerful fixture in Medellín – have long since dismantled, with the city’s left-wing warring factions significantly reduced in size and clout. Today, it is hard to believe that stylish, cosmopolitan Medellín was once under the violent control of drug lord Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s most deadly cocaine baron, who ruled his empire by savage means.
© oscar garces, Shutterstock
Medellín is now a city of considerable elegance with high-end restaurants, swanky bars, chi-chi boutiques, iconic street art and diverse festivals and shows. It’s also a burgeoning business destination in South America and the city’s 2.5 million inhabitants are fiercely proud of their innovative metropolis – and justifiably so. In 2013 it was named as the world’s ‘most innovative city’.
La Piedra del Peñol
Meaning literally ‘the stone’ and commonly referred to as ‘El Peñol’, this 200m blackened-with-moss monolith rises from the banks of the lake, soaring 740 steps from the Emblase de Peñol.
© Mark Pitt Images, Shutterstock
Those with plenty of stamina will find the climb rewards the effort with an astonishing and breathtakingly unusual view over the masses of islets, waterways and lakes of this manmade archipelago – a vast panoramic view stretching as far as the eye can see.
Whilst the main reason for visiting the Antioquia area is El Peñol, it would be a crime not to stop in Guatapé itself. Walking around the village at times feels as though you are in a living museum.
Brightly coloured, decorative houses with hanging baskets line the narrow streets and the beautiful zólcalos (the sculpted, painted designs of the lower parts of the walls) are in essence public works of art, with each house proudly displaying its own unique motif depicting the stories and culture of the region. Calle de los Recuerdos is the best street to see them.
© Gokhan Bozkaya, Shutterstock
Many of the houses were repainted as part of Colombia’s bicentennial celebrations in 2010, so are fresher than ever; you will stand in wonder at the charm of the detail. At weekends the Malecón (waterfront) comes alive, bustling with local vendors selling food, drink and Paisa arts and crafts, and music coming from various stalls and boats.
Once a byword for danger, the city of Bogotá has undergone a significant clean-up act in recent years, following a passionate campaign aimed at nurturing societal change. Today, Bogotá is a cosmopolitan city on the up, a metropolis that bears the signs of modern self-improvement.
Sleek skyscrapers and a futuristic transit system are symbols of an (almost) transformed city that boasts 4,594 public parks.Thousands of cyclists of all ages criss-cross Bogotá’s wide, green expanses on Latin America’s largest bike-path network. Designer stores, swanky cafés, lounge bars and fine restaurants are testament to Bogotá’s ambition to become one of the most desirable cities on the radar.
© Jess Kraft, Shutterstock
Sunday in the city is a family day when the streets take on a party atmosphere of clowns, music and picnics in the parks. Jugglers take centre stage on empty roundabouts while old women on flower stalls sit amongst a fragrant kaleidoscope of varicoloured blooms. Paths are freshly swept and roads free of rubbish in a place where choking smog once dominated the cityscape.
Today the people of Bogotá love and respect their city – it is now oh-so chévere (cool) to be Bogotano, a far cry from the sentiment of a decade ago when it was a place that was truly loathed.
Caleños consider their passion for music a source of great pride. Cali appears to be permeated by an irrepressible rhythmic pulse as Colombia’s undisputed ‘salsa city’. Every arterial road in this modern urban sprawl seems to throb with a percussive Latin beat as Cali’s party people come out to play.
Having imported salsa and other Latin American musical genres from Cuba and Puerto Rico, Caleños are rapturous about staccato merengue rhythms, samba and rumba classics and syncopated ta-tum-ta-tum bossa nova beats.
© Novide, Shutterstock
Even on a weekday, hip-swaying salseros can be found sashaying and snaking through downtown arepa stalls bound for downtown salsotecas (salsa bars). A row of neon-lit basement dancehalls emit a cocktail of pan-Latino melodies so sweet it can almost be imbibed.
More than 130 salsa orchestras, 5,000 salsa students, dozens of music stores and instrument makers, over a hundred salsotecas and numerous conga, bongo and maracas players give Cali its character – along with an energetic nightlife that requires plenty of stamina. Cali is also home to a week-long salsa festival – the largest on the planet – this kaleidoscope of music and dance is not for the faint-hearted.
Although its full name is Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción del Valle de Neiva, most people just call this hot, dusty town ‘Neiva’. As the capital of Huila with a population of almost 500,000, this modern regional hub sits amidst some of Colombia’s most folkloric heritage where old traditions are upheld with pride. Lying close to the Equator, this lowland terrain averages temperatures of 30°C year-round.
© jocalderon3, Shutterstock
Enriched by the fast-flowing butterscotch-coloured Río Magdalena, the region is an important source of rice, corn, beans, cotton, potatoes, sesame, tobacco and bananas surrounded by vast cattle plains and with the snow-capped peaks of the Nevado del Huila rising to the west.
Most tourist arrivals in Neiva don’t plan to stay, as they are hot-footing it to Popayán, San Agustín and Tierradentro or the cacti-scattered Tatacoa Desert. However, Neiva is an important town as a gateway to Bogotá (and the world beyond) for the region’s oil, coffee and vegetable farm community.
The charming village of Villavieja is the main access point for the Tatacoa Desert. Located about an hour from Neiva, Villavieja claims to be the centre of Colombian palaeontology and provides a natural gathering point for travellers with a penchant for fossils. Follow signs to a cactus forest called Bosque de Cardon (Cardon Woods) and the route to the desert is waymarked from there.
© SILSZZ, Shutterstock
Visitors to the Tatacoa Desert will find plenty of locals willing to act as guides. Make an early start before the heat of the day sets in, pack plenty of water and dress in light, cotton clothing. Apply lots of sunscreen – the conditions can be quite harsh on all the many trail options, from a 60-minute walk to a full-day hike.
Checkpoint 3 – Tatacoa Desert
The Desierto de la Tatacoa ranks as the second-largest dry area in Colombia after the La Guajira region on the country’s northern tip. Covering an area of 330km², Tatacoa is characterised by rust-coloured sand punctuated by bizarre wind-sculpted cacti and isolated trees almost charred by the heat of the sun. Sprouting plant species – hardy and brittle – poke through the sands like extra-terrestrial beings.
Temperatures soar in this desert to reach 50°C on the most exposed cliffs and gullies. Elsewhere you’ll find deep fissures that plunge to depths of 20m clad by thorny flora that are home to rattlesnakes, scorpions and eagles.
© Ste Lane, Shutterstock
This vast expanse of scrub, rock and sand is rich in fossils and is a base for several scientific teams from universities in America. In recent years some exciting discoveries have been made, including some well-preserved crocodile skulls, fossilised ground sloths and other endemic South American mammals.
In-depth studies have served to highlight the striking bio-geographic differences between the tertiary faunas of Colombia and the country’s near-neighbours. Today, fossils are still found daily of molluscs, turtles, mice and armadillos – sure evidence that this arid, inhospitable region was once a well-nourished lush area rich in trees and plants.