Holiday with the locals
Now that Christmas is over and Jose Feliciano’s timeless classic Feliz Navidad has been stowed away for another festive season, January is the time that Colombians take their beach vacation. Yet while the ritziest resorts along the Caribbean coast and the islands of the San Andrés Archipelago will be swarming with holidaymakers, the mood is much more mellow in the charming farm guesthouses in the rolling, leafy countryside around the coffee-producing towns of Armenia, Pereira and Montenegro and the scenic UNESCO archaeological sites close to the Andean settlements of Tierradentro and San Agustín.
Love is in the air
More than 50% of the Valentine’s Day flowers shared between lovers on February 14 each year – be they roses, lilies, carnations or more exotic species – are grown in Colombia, mainly in the rich, fertile soils of the gentle slopes in the area north of Bogotá. To drive through the undulating terrain of Boyacá is to explore a varicoloured tapestry of velvety blooms, sweet-scented plants and verdant foliage in a vivid rainbow of hues. Tabletop plant and flower stalls by the roadside offer a seductive range of horticultural delights from rows of cornflower-blue plastic buckets – to find them, just follow your nose.
Discover the ‘lungs of the earth’
March and April are among the best months to visit the Amazon rainforest, if you are willing to trade off daily rain showers for superior boat access that allows skiffs to navigate flooded tributaries and forests to otherwise unreachable jungle stretches. There is no better time to spot wildlife and birds that live in the flooded plains and debris-scattered wetlands. Additionally, slightly cooler temperatures make trekking less arduous on higher ground, although sticky humidity persists all year-round. Trails will be waterlogged and mud slicks make progress slow going, but you will see the real Amazon with endless jungles and countless species of wildlife, all interacting in one of the most remote and biodiverse unspoiled habitats on Earth.
Holy Week processions
In this predominantly Catholic country, Easter traditions run deep, with ancient religious customs unchanged for over 450 years. In the picturesque, white-washed old city of Popayán, a calendar of solemn but spectacular Holy Week processions attracts Easter pilgrims from all over Central and South America. White flowing costumes, flowers and enormous gilded icons that weigh as much as a small family car are carried through cobbled streets by the men of Popayán. It takes the local parishioners 12 months to restore and repair the icons and plan the numerous processions, and the results are truly stunning.
Welcome the whales
Though whale-watching in Colombia is a relatively new tourism phenomenon, the locals in the jungle-hemmed furthest reaches of the Chocó region have been following humpbacked whales through their waters with pride for centuries. Today, a small collection of rustic eco-lodges provide unrivalled viewpoints along the silver sands of the Pacific coast where whales leap out of the water as you scour the horizon for black shadows. The whale season in Nuquí starts in late May / early June and continues until October in one of Colombia’s least-discovered areas – a beautifully conserved, natural landscape in the fertile, warm, calm waters of the Gulf of Tribugá. It is a place free of strong currents and with little boat traffic, making it a safe haven for mothers and their newborn calves.
This month’s Bambuco National Folk Festival and Beauty Pageant provides visitors with an opportunity to witness the Colombian heartland honour its Andean roots in the regional capital, the riverside city of Neiva. Ever since colonial times, on 13–17 June the department of Huila has celebrated the feasts of Saints John and Peter with festivities that combine religious gravitas and frivolous pagan merriment, including music, dance and costumed street marches, in a proud commemoration of ancient heritage. There is no other event quite like it in the whole of the country. Men and women of all ages participate in the performances, showcasing local dress and their considerable musical talent.
Sashay, sizzle and sway
Salsa fans from all over the world descend on the city of Cali in July each year for one of South America’s most sensational salsa fests. Dubbed the ‘Capital de la Salsa’ of Colombia, Cali is one of the few cities where salsa is the main genre in parties, nightclubs, and festivals. The Colombian salsa style is peppered with distinctive traits that derive from homespun rhythms, particularly cumbia and boogaloo. Dancers do not shift their body weight greatly as seen in other styles, keeping their upper body still, poised and relaxed while the feet go to town. Salsa bars, salsa bands and salsa music can be found throughout the sassy neighbourhood of Juanchito, where dance floors vibrate, walls stream with sweat and Cali’s sultriest salsa kings and queens reign supreme amongst the smoke and sequins.
Take a (birding) hike
The driest months in Colombia tend to be July and August, so if you plan to go hiking in the rugged interior region, or horse-riding across the rolling grasslands of Colombia’s cowboy country, Los Llanos, this is a good time to visit. In 2013, the official numbers of bird species registered in Colombia exceeded 1,900, according to the scientific publication Conservación Colombiana. After 15 years of compilation, fieldwork and detailed revisions by the authors, these publications reveal that Colombia hosts almost one fifth (18%) of the 10,507 birds known on earth, in just 0.8% of its land surface. Colombia leads Peru – in second place with 1,838 species – and Brazil in third place with 1,798 species. Almost every birding tour group and travel company offers extended birding sightseeing in August – a great month in which to add some Colombian endemics to your tally. See October for bird migration.
All that jazz
September is ‘Love and Friendship Month’ (Mes del Amor y la Amistad), the Colombian version of Valentine’s Day, when people celebrate the love of family and friends. Jazz fans will revel in the Festival Jazz Al Parque in Bogotá, which runs from 9 to 11 September and attracts an international line-up of acts to the Parque de los Novios. Over 25,000 people pack a picnic and queue up for free tickets to this musical extravaganza, which has won great acclaim since its launch in 1996.
On a wing and a prayer
Migratory birds fill the skies during the month of October with species such as sparrow hawk and falcons soaring majestically overhead sure to provide an impressive sight. A Migratory Bird Festival is held every year, mid October, to welcome the 183 species of migratory birds that arrive in Colombia. Each year during winter, thousands of birds travel from North America and from South America towards Central and South America looking for a warm climate. It is time when the importance of migration and conservation of the ecosystems where migratory birds arrive is publicised throughout Colombia – especially to children, the conservationists of the future. Numerous volunteer roles exist within ProAves and conservation organisations countrywide, from monitoring and tagging to educational talks.
A grand place to party
Colombia’s beautiful colonial buildings painted in bold jewel tones are even more handsome in November, when the pretty cobblestone streets and the city’s glorious colours are scrubbed clean to perfection in preparedness for Cartagena Day. During daylight hours, the city celebrates its independence with gaily decorated carnival floats, boats and flower-strewn processions. By night, Cartagena city literally vibrates with the collective energy of a million people partying under strings of twinkling fairy lights and a magical star-filled sky. The lively five-day event culminates in the crowning of Miss Colombia – a big-buck televised event that draws crowds from far and wide. A zillion glamorous parties take over Cartagena’s hippest hangouts and most luxurious residences while the barrios fill with the sound of the ‘pico’ makeshift sound systems as people lay siege with flour, shaving cream, silly string and confetti.
Tourist season peaks
A great time of year to visit in most respects, December is full of local public holidays and is also when the coastal resorts start to get crowded. Room rates begin to soar at the start of the month and are sky-high by the New Year – although, strangely, Christmas week is often low occupancy in many hotels as most Colombians, together with their South American neighbours, prefer to spend the festive holiday at home.