Much of Southern Colombia is characterized by the three mountain ranges that eventually join up to form the high Andes, South America’s spine. The people of this region have adapted to the physical obstacles these mountains present, while inaccessibility has kept at bay the cultural dilution that comes with modern advancements. The sensual city of Cali has branded itself as the capital of salsa music and sits in the tropical, sugar cane-rich plains of the Valle del Cauca.
To the west lies the port of Buenaventura, gateway to the Pacific coast and its many isolated beaches and islands, most notable of which is Isla Gorgona. The Pan-American Highway continues south to the city of Popayán, known for its dazzling-white colonial buildings and its solemn Easter processions, second in size only to Seville in Spain. Hidden in the mountains east of Popayán are the mysterious archaeological sites of Tierradentro and San Agustín, while next to the Magdalena river lies the geographical anomaly that is the Tatacoa Desert.
Heading north from Bogotá towards Venezuela or the Caribbean coast, the road takes you on a historical journey to the heart of Colombia, passing through picturesque valleys, canyons and spectacular high mountain passes. Set on a high plateau is Tunja, capital of the Department of Boyacá. This was the seat of power of the indigenous Muisca and nearby Laguna Guatavita, is believed by many to be the source of the myth of El Dorado. The area also played its part in the liberation of Colombia from the Spanish, particularly at Puente de Boyacá where Simón Bolívar and his troops fought a decisive battle to wrest control of the country from the conquistadors. Boyacá is dotted with dozens of untouched colonial towns and villages, notably Villa de Leiva and Monguí.
From the Andean foothills of Boyacá, the road swoops down to the turbulent Río Fonce and the start of the Department of Santander. Here too the Spanish colonial legacy is very much intact, particularly in its charming villages. In recent years the area’s natural resources, with countless tumbling rivers, caves and deep canyons, have made it the capital of Colombia’s burgeoning adventure sports scene. From the Department capital of Bucaramanga, a road climbs northeast over moorland for more lessons in independence history around Pamplona and Cúcuta in Norte de Santander. Another road heads north towards the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Caribbean coast.