Despite being the size of Montana and Texas combined, Colombia only receives about 2.5 million visitors a year (many of those Colombians living and their children living abroad). However, considering Colombia got just half a million visitors in 2000 and 1.5 in 2007, it could be said that tourism in Colombia is growing exponentially as the security situation continues to improve and international travelers recognize Colombia’s potential as an important eco-tourism destination. Colombia has 49 national parks or nationally-protected areas, although it’s best to stick to to those in well-traveled and well-secured areas.
I recently spoke to Caitlin Lupton, who studied community based eco-tourism in Colombian National Parks from 2009-2010 with the Fulbright Program. As Caitlin says, “Ecoturismo Comunitario is a collaborative effort with the national parks system and Indigenous, Campensinos and Afrocolombians to stimulate local development, economy and conservation. Caitlin traveled to 5 national parks while studying in Colombia on her Fulbright Grant, all of which were specifically known for their “ecoturismo” comunitario. Thus, many Colombian national parks provide an opportunity to engage in both eco and cultural tourism. Caitlin was kind enough to provide me with information about several Colombian national parks; for more information, check out the Colombian National Park web page at: www.parquesnacionales.gov.co. It’s always wise to call ahead to find out if a particular park requires a special visitor permit.
Caitlin highlighted some of Colombia’s most noteworthy parks below:
Amacayacu is in Amazonas and is directly on the Amazon river. Tourists arrive in the capital city of Leticia and take boat and hour and a half up the river. This park offers a tropical environment and climate and direct contact with indigenous Tikuna communities.
Tayrona is located in Magdalena about an hour outside of Santa Marta. Here, tourists enjoy hiking in the jungle and relaxing on the many beaches. Tayrona has many enterprises operated by the local population, which includes mostly Afrocolombians, campesinos, and Indiginous groups.
Iguaque is located in Boyacá a half an hour outside of Villa de Leyva, in a colder, more mountainous part of the country. Activities include bird watching and hiking to Laguna Iguaque, a sacred site for the ancient Muisca Indians. You can also spend the night in a spacious cabin that also functions as the visitors center. Iguaque is a specific site for ecoturismo comunitario. The hotel/vistitors center features a restaurant that run by the campesinos of the area. The campesino organization is named Naturar Iguaque. The dishes sold in the restaurant are organic and made from produce grown by the members of the organization.
Los Nevados is located in the three departamentos (the equivalent of states in Colombia): Caldas, Risaralda and Tolima. It is a cold and very high mountainous region. There are large peaks within the park that include the Nevados Santa Isabel, El Ruiz o Mesa de Herveo, and Nevado del Tolima. Visitors can camp and hike here. It is important for tourists to know that due to high altitude, a guide is required when hiking within park limits, which is an additional cost after the entrance fee. On the top of the Nevados there are glaciers. There is also a hotel in the middle of the park. The guides that work within the park are a cooperative organization of area campesinos.
Los Flamencos is located in la Guajira about 15 to 20 minutes outside the capital city of Riohacha. It is a secluded tropical park known for its bird watching opportunities. Flamingos often come by the thousands to rest and feed in the lake on one side of the park. The other side of the park is the ocean. Tourists are allowed to stay in cabañas within the park. The park is run by an organization of Afrocolombians, El Santuario, Grupo Asociativo, from the neighboring town of Camarones. The group offers cabaña service, local gastronomy, as well as birding and hiking tours. Tourists can also travel to the neighboring Wayuú indigenous community of Tokoromana where they can watch a cultural presentation, which features traditional lunch, crafts and a dance.