The southwest of Colombia used to be bypassed by travelers because of security concerns, so it never got the attention of some other regions. Yet this part of Colombia is packed with major attractions. Of course there’s Cali, the region’s sprawling urban center, home to both grit and glamour that dances to an Afro-Colombian rhythm. There’s so much salsa going on that it’s considered the world capital. There are unusual landscapes too, like one of the country’s only deserts and the mountainous, cloud-covered páramo. History is much deeper here than many other places in the country, from an impressive collection of stone statues and burial chambers to beautifully preserved colonial cities. There are little-known indigenous groups, lakes for windsurfing, and horses outnumber cars in many places.
As long as 5,000 years ago, civilization spread in the Cauca and Magdalena river valleys. In Tierradentro, elaborate underground burial chambers were built in the hillsides (they can be seen on a 14km walking loop). At the headwaters of both waterways, in the lush green hills surrounding San Agustín, hundreds of stone statues can still be found, best seen on horseback rides that take in towering waterfalls and coffee plantations. Together they provide evidence of a sophisticated, evolving society with artifacts that are unlike anything else in the Americas.
With its 500-year-old Spanish colonial churches and neighborhoods full of whitewashed houses with terracotta tile roofs, Popayán is one of Colombia’s most intriguing urban settings, with elaborate Semana Santa celebrations that have been going on since the 16th century, attracting thousands for the nighttime processions. Salsa wasn’t born in Cali, yet it grew up there and is a part of the culture in a big way, from the salsa schools to the late night clubs, though there are also art galleries, fine museums, and marketplaces with a selection of exotic fruits so diverse you are unlikely to ever see something remotely comparable ever again. In Silvia, beginning at dawn, the indigenous Guambiano come to the main plaza dressed in their typical bowler hats and blue skirts to sell their goods for the weekly Tuesday market, one of Colombia’s most authentic cultural experiences.
Amid the eroded cliffs of the Tatacoa Desert, you can see the stars of both the northern and southern hemispheres. In the misty, rugged landscape of Puracé National Park, keep an eye out for Andean spectacled bears and tapirs.
On Lago Calima, the year-round winds have turned this artificial reservoir into one of the world’s great kite- and windsurfing destinations. At Parque Nacional Natural Farrallones, there’s a spectacular 5-day hike to Pico Loro.
The region’s food is some of Colombia’s finest. There are tiny fried empanadas de pipián, with their peanut-based sauce, and salpicón payanese, a refreshing combination of blackberry and ice. Cuy (guinea pig) is famous here in parts closer to Ecuador, where it can be fried or roasted.