Between chicken feet snacks and piranha filled rivers, Colombia is full of surprises. Kate Wickers surprises her teenage sons by braving them all.
Freddie, my 17 year old son, is floating on his back in the Amazon River in Colombia, just a few kilometres from the border of deepest, darkest Peru. “For goodness’ sake, Mum, just come in,” he shouts. We are at a “safe” swimming creek, which we’ve kayaked to with a guide.
I dip a toe in the milk-chocolate coloured water and swirl it around.
“I wouldn’t do that,” shouts Ben, aged twenty, who has swum out to join his brother. “The piranha might think it’s a juicy, fat worm.”
So, whose bright idea was all this? Well, actually, it was mine.
Colombia brings out the parental cool, if you let it
Although I’m often looking back with rosy-tinted nostalgia to family travels when my three sons were young (choosing to forget the endless rounds of applying sun lotion to wriggling bodies, their aversion to any foreign food, and the amount of kit I was required to lug around), I am secretly enjoying that, these days, I’m often the one who needs to be looked after by my strapping sons.
“Watch out for Mum, she’s going to hate this,” I hear them whisper, when suggesting any number of terrifying activities.
And, oh, how I love to prove them wrong.
Begin your Colombian adventure in the Andes hugged capital of Bogota
Razor-toothed fish aside, seven years into a peace agreement, the majority of Colombia is now considered a safe tourist destination. Although, like anywhere in South America, it’s wise to be vigilant, at no point on our travels did I ever feel unsafe.
We begin in the Andes hugged capital of Bogota, casting off jetlag while marvelling at the city’s street art in the Bohemian neighbourhood of Candelaria, and enjoying the fabulous food scene.
On a tour of Paloquemao produce market, we sample patacones (fried green plantain) and taste caruba, which looks like a banana but has orange flesh and a passion fruit flavour. But we decline the popular snack of chicken foot. “Oh, it’s offal,” I say to our guide, who misunderstands. Her reply of, “No, they’re really quite tasty!”, gives us all a good laugh.
Explore at least a few of Tayrona National Park’s 30 golden beaches
We move on to warmer climes, first flying north to Santa Marta, then by road a further 60 kilometres to Tayrona National Park: 30,000 acres fringed by thirty golden beaches.
“Are those caimans?” I ask the receptionist at Maloka Barlovento, a luxury eco-lodge with arguably the best location of the entire region: perched where the Rio Piedras flows into the sea.
“Oh, just a couple of youngsters,” she says. Said youngsters are at least three metres long and cut a menacing watery shadow; their bobbly snouts and toothy mouths emerging regularly to cause ripples. It suddenly strikes me that our adventure has now truly started.
Swim in the calm waters of Cabo San Juan del Guia
The main gateway to Tayrona National Park, lies just a couple of kilometres away and a guided 10-mile round hike takes in many of its highlights.
We spot anteater tiptoeing on high branches, and cotton-top tamarin peering through the leafy canopy. We buy coconut juice from white-robed, indigenous Kogi men, who open the nut with a pirate-like flourish of machete. And at Cabo San Juan del Guia, considered one of the country’s most scenic spots, we swim in calm water, stilled by a natural breakwater of granite boulders. Lunch is a picnic of grilled chicken and coconut rice from a beach barbecue shack, which we eat with the sand between our toes, under the shade of mango trees.
Hit the Rio Don Diego for wildlife and river tubing
The Rio Don Diego is our destination the following day to tube on large rubber rings with kingfishers for company, past more soaring mango trees, this time occupied by curious howler monkeys that deliver primaeval throaty bellows as the current carries us by.
The river is shallow, the flow sedate, and our sons up the ante by trying to tip their dad off his float.
We hop ashore at a beach, deserted apart from one ramshackle shop, where we buy watermelon popsicles and watch hopeful pelicans wade in the shallows next to fishermen hauling in a slippery, silvery catch in a tangle of turquoise net.
Take your time in Cartagena: the Caribbean jewel of Colombia
Possibly the best thing about travelling as a family as your children near adulthood is their ability to keep going well into the evening (and enjoy a mojito). Although UNESCO protected Cartagena, with its Pirates of the Caribbean vibe, will stoke the imagination of younger kids, it would be a shame to miss its vibrant night life.
The old walled town is Colombia’s Caribbean jewel, packed with pastel-hued colonial houses built in the 16th century off the spoils of conquistador’s gold trafficking from South America to Spain.
In Plaza de San Pedro Claver we settle down for tapas on the terrace of El Baron and watch street performers take to the ‘stage’ – immense stone steps of a former Jesuit monastery – a Michael Jackson impersonator easily stealing the show with his slick moonwalks over the ancient cobbles.
Explore underground at Castillo de San Felipe in Cartagena
We visit Castillo de San Felipe, the largest Spanish fort in South America, built in 1639, which has 890 metres of Colombia secret tunnels, and the grand 18th century Palacio de la Inquisicion from which colonial tyrants held the tribunals of indigenous people and enslaved Africans. Here, hundreds of so-called dissidents were condemned to death and the exhibition doesn’t skirt around the horrors of these courts. There are even replica gallows in the courtyard, so it’s not suitable for younger children.
Grizzly history lessons over, we head into the sunshine to the once downtrodden neighbourhood of Getsemani that lies just beyond las murallas, the city walls. Pulsing with salsa music day and night, awash with spectacular street art and cafes and bars, at Café Trinidad, we order frothy homemade coconut lemonade, and watch young rappers spitting bars to tourists for a few pesos.
I’m delighted when, “She’s got more sass than Cameron Diaz” is fired my way, while my sons roll collective eyes.
Do nothing for a day on the irresistible Islas de Rosario
On every trip there comes a day when the plea is made to do “nothing”. I satisfy this desire with an excursion to a beach club on the Islas de Rosario; named for their likeness to a string of rosary beads.
A package includes travel by shared speedboat, sunbed, free bar, plus lunch, and we laze on a powder soft beach, then float in crystalline waters among shoals of Yellow Tang and Unicorn fish on a snorkelling excursion led by a moonlighting fisherman.
Casually stroll over the border from Colombia to Brazil
The capital of the Amazonas province is Leticia, gateway for jungle excursions, with a pleasingly final frontier atmosphere. We’ve 24-hours to kill before we venture deeper into the jungle, so we stroll casually into Brazil – no border checks required – to the town of Tabatinga: all of us excitedly ticking off the country on our ‘Been’ app, which keeps a count of places we’ve travelled to.
Back in Leticia, there’s a spectacle not to be missed at dusk, when thousands of small parrots flock back to roost in Parque Santander, flying low and at full pelt through the streets, bringing traffic to a standstill. The sky above the park remains a dizzying whirling tornado of green, and the trills and whistles of the pericos are deafening until day departs.
Sail away and go truly off-grid on the Rio Amazon
For a truly immersive off-grid jungle adventure, you need to strike out further by boat. Sixty kilometres upriver sits Calanoa Amazonas, a private 50-hectare reserve that nestles in the Amacayacu National Park close to the border of Peru and has seven beautiful sustainable cabins.
Ours is a two-storey, palm roofed hut with mosquito-draped beds and a hammock-strung deck with Rio Amazon views. There’s no air conditioning, not even a ceiling fan, as electricity is rationed. But what it does have are the most beautiful surroundings. Think of this as glamping and expectations will be met.
Then all of a sudden, Colombia meets the Lord of Rings
“Have you watched Lord of the Rings?” Herman, our guide, asks Freddie and Ben as we’re exploring Mocagua Island.
To get here we’ve traversed an invisible watery border into Peru by motorised canoe, spotting the strawberry-hued noses of pink dolphin on route. In answer to Herman’s questions, both nod enthusiastically.
“Want to see where the film director, Peter Jackson, got the idea for Ents?” The boys inform me that Herman is referring to humanoid walking trees.
It may be our first full day in the jungle, but I’ve learned quickly to keep an open mind. Just minutes before, I’d spied an owl that wasn’t a bird at all but rather an Aotus or owl-faced monkey, the best disguised and shyest of the Amazon’s primates. You could have knocked me down with a feather, if there had been any that is.
We follow Herman along a winding path to a glade dominated by trees with leggy stilt-like roots: the Socratea Exorrhiza that can relocate to reach sunlight by ‘walking’ up to two or three centimetres a day. I get an uneasy feeling that if we look away one might creep up on us.
Worse still, there’s a murderer on the loose: a strangler fig that has smothered the life out of every other tree for 100 metres. While Ben and Freddie swing Tarzan-like on the fig’s strong vines above a swamp covered with Lotus Victoria Amazonica, I snap photos of these two-metre-wide waterlily pads alive with dancing sulphur-yellow butterflies.
Finally, to the land of night predators and piranha-infested rivers
Back at Calanoa, once night has fallen, we pull on rubber boots and head off for a walk with Jorge, an indigenous Tikuna guide.
This is the world of night predators, where phosphorescent mushrooms glow ghostly white and Brazilian white-knee tarantulas appear from burrows. We spy the half spotted, half striped bodies of ranitomeya amazonica poison dart frogs, and the silvery shadows of armadillo in the moonlight.
The soundtrack to this creepy excursion is the constant croak from a toad that the Tikuna call the ‘chicken frog’. When I enquire why it has been given this name, Jorge replies, with no hint of jest, that it’s the size of a chicken and tastes good. Our minds boggle.
Now back to that piranha-infested river, where Three great white egrets have lined up to watch me dither. With life vest on, I wade in, trying not to think about what may be lurking beneath.
‘Finally, she’s in!” shouts Freddie with a cheer.
Swimming with piranha in the Amazon with my family? Let’s be honest, I was never going to miss the chance to tell that story.
How to plan your holiday in Colombia
How to get there
Direct UK flights to Bogota take from 11 hours
Where to stay
In Bogota, Tayrona National Park and Cartagena, 10-night tours, including flights, from £3,788pp
Calanoa Amazonas, the Amazon, full-board, two activities per day, from £145pp per night
Good to know
Children under-12 receive 10% discount at Calanoa Amazonas. Transfer by boat is £245 per round trip for up to four. English speaking guides, £57 per day.