Last updated on August 17th, 2023 at 10:35 am
My name is Frank and I run a travel agency in Bogota, Colombia. Have fun while reading!
What is off-road and 4×4 tourism and why should you do it in Colombia?
Colombia is not only the second most biodiverse country in the world, but in addition to the 3 chains of the Andes and other mountains, it also has deserts, the Amazon, two oceans, rivers, lakes, forests, swamps and everything imaginable and unexpected. Colombia is a huge playground for outdoor friends!
In Colombia, off-roading has always been done out of necessity. There are no seasons in the country, but there is a dry and a rainy season. Heavy rain and muddy roads are legendary in this country. Actual tourism for off-road enthusiasts is relatively new. Colombia was very dangerous until the early 2000s. Armed groups already existed outside of Bogota and anyone who wanted to get out of the city was in danger.
However, that has changed fundamentally. I have lived in Bogota since 2015 and since my arrival I have been traveling safely across Colombia, mostly with my Toyota Land Cruiser Prado 2011 4.0. There are only a few places that I have not yet visited.
There are now various 4×4 clubs and organized tours in Colombia. There are already videos on YouTube of tourists who crossed Colombia off the beaten track. The most prominent visit since then was probably the 3 guys from Top Gear, who drove their jokes with off-road vehicles in Colombia on the 2018 Grand Tour.
The benefits of exploring Colombia in a 4×4 vehicle
Colombia is a very young country in terms of tourism and international tourism only started to a relevant extent around 2010. Even Colombians only began to discover their country for themselves in the last few years.
Colombia not only has incredible landscapes and diverse areas and climates, but is also extremely culturally rich. There were indigenous cultures in the country long before the Spanish conquered the country after 1500. There are still countless indigenous tribes across Colombia and over 80 different languages are registered. We also find beautiful colonial cities all over the country. We have coasts in the Pacific and the Atlantic and mountains up to 5,700 meters above sea level.
As already stated, many areas were occupied by militant groups. These areas were located in a kind of time capsule, but are now safely accessible. For me, the best way to explore this incredible country was and is in a 4×4 vehicle. It gives you the opportunity and flexibility to visit various places and explore the true beauties and attractions of Colombia.
In addition, Colombians are extremely proud when foreigners visit the country. The hospitality and interaction with foreigners have become legendary. Hardly any other country in the world welcomes you so warmly.
So if you are looking for an adventure, far away from commercial offers and long convoys, if you want to feel like an explorer and are ready to get involved in many uncertainties, Colombia is just right for you.
State of the roads in Colombia
Colombia is a very diverse country and has tropical forests, mountains, lakes, snow peaks, sea, desert, almost all climates and topographies that one can imagine. The area is 1.143 million square kilometers, which corresponds to Germany and France or California and Texas combined.
The national road network covers 206,700 kilometers. However, it is unclear whether or not all roads are included. The proportion of paved roads is also not very clear and, in my opinion, deep. In Bogota, the capital, for example, you can still find enough unpaved roads and in catastrophic conditions.
However, there are also expressways in the country on which it is easy to travel. In my experience, however, the average speed in Colombia is around 40 kilometers per hour. Most of the time, the necessary infrastructure is missing, even on main traffic axes and over mountain ranges, and heavy traffic is a constant obstacle.
Depending on the topography and the season and the rain, landslides also occur regularly throughout the country. The resulting long traffic jams and diversions are nothing unusual in Colombia. You can be locked in a valley for a few days. I’ve already seen all of this myself.
In some destinations, it is known that it takes a few hours to get there in the dry season, whereas the journey in the rainy season extends over a few days.
The best destinations for off-road and 4×4 tourism in Colombia.
The following destinations are only a small selection of potential off-road destinations. The roads there are generally in poor condition and you need an all-terrain vehicle. However, it is definitely worth a visit.
The municipality and capital of the Vichada department lies on the Venezuelan border and is part of the eastern plains. The main economic activities are livestock, fishing, agriculture, and the mining of gold and silver. Some tourist activities are ecotourism, fishing, history tours of colonial cities, and observation of flora and fauna.
The city can be reached by air, land, or via the Meta and Orinoco rivers. During the dry season, it is safe to travel overland. During the rainy season, however, which is very pronounced in the entire Orinoquia region (or also called the Llanos), this becomes more difficult or even impossible. Crossing water with local ferries is the least of the difficulties.
La Macarena, Caño Cristales
This commune is located in the eastern plains of the Meta department. The destination is extremely biodiverse and is home to one of the largest natural national parks in Colombia, the Sierra de la Macarena.
The economic activities are largely limited to livestock, tourism, and agriculture. One of the most famous attractions is probably the most beautiful and colorful river in the world, which is located in the Caño Cristales. The river gets its seven colors from marine algae that pigment in contact with water and the sun.
La Macarena can be reached by air and land. The route is recommended in the seasons from June to December, when the National Park is open to visiting Caño Cristales.
The route from La Macarena to Caño Cristales is a little difficult because you have to take a boat on the slope of the Guayavero River to the village of Cachivera and then cover a route with an off-roader.
Recommendations for visiting Caño Cristales:
- Sunscreen and mosquito protection are prohibited in the park as they damage the algae ecosystem.
- Do not bring plastic, disposable tableware or other potential waste with you.
- You have to bring your own food.
- The Caño Cristales is closed at night.
- We recommend a stay of 2-3 days.
- We recommend a local guide.
Guainía is one of the 32 departments of Colombia. Its capital is Inírida and is located in the Amazon region. The main economic sources are fishing, livestock and palm production.
This department is home to important mineral resources such as coltan and nickel, the extraction of which is illegal and is only permitted by the indigenous guards of the region to use in their ancestral traditions.
The main attraction is the Mavecure hills. These are called Pajarito, Mono, and Mavicure. These reach a height of up to 250 meters. The hills can also be climbed. You can get to Guainía either by plane or by 4×4. However, you should avoid the rainy season. If you still travel during the rainy season, you have to take the ferry from San José del Guaviare. The trip then takes 8 days downstream.
If you travel during the dry season, you will cover the entire route in an off-road vehicle through the savannas of Vichada. This takes around 8 days. However, you also have to use the ferry in Santa Rita on this route. This takes you from the Orinoco River to the Guaviare River, which takes 2 days.
San José del Guaviare
San José del Guaviare borders the Amazon and the Orinoquia and has several water sources. These include the Guaviare, Inírida and Guayabero rivers. Most of the territory consists of tropical rainforests and natural savannas. The main economy is agriculture and fishing, and most of the inhabitants are indigenous.
The main attraction of this parish is the Chiribiquete mountain range. The entire national park may not be entered at the moment, but only flown over. It is a sacred area of the local indigenous people and has also been declared a World Heritage Site.
The second big attraction is the Serrania de la Lindosa and Cerro Azul, where you can find rock art from the Ice Age. There is also a rock formation 12,000 kilometers in length and water sources. You should always go with a local guide so as not to get lost in the jungle.
Traveling to San Jose del Guaviare during the dry season can take up to 20 hours from Bogota. However, during the rainy season you will have to deal with a lot of mud for 2 or 3 days.
- You should have enough gasoline with you.
- You should also take enough water and food with you.
The best 4×4 tour options in Colombia.
There are tour operators who offer tours with 4×4 vehicles. Most of these tours are not about a 4×4 experience, but about the need to get to your destination. There are also organized tours aimed at 4×4 owners. As far as I can tell, however, these groups are each very large and the convoys can contain up to several dozen vehicles. More on this later in the text.
So if you are interested in off-roading tours, then you should consider a few points.
- Some providers offer tours to distant destinations for which you need a 4×4. The vehicles and drivers are provided by the service provider.
- Other tour operators only organize the route, accommodation, and insurance. The participant is responsible for his own vehicle and equipment. It is imperative that you have a vehicle that is suitable for all terrains.
In the following, we will describe some off-road tours. In all of these tours you must have your own off-road vehicle.
This expedition is also known as WAYUU VIII and is one of the most recognized off-road tours in the country. Participation costs between COP $ 1,500,000 (approx. 423 USD) for adults and COP $ 500,000 (approx. 141 USD) for children.
The expedition is divided into 5 adventure days, which are distributed as follows:
- Day zero: the day before the start of the expedition. The meeting point is at the Hotel Waya in Riohacha, where you can meet the other participants. There is a technical briefing and route planning is discussed. Participants will also receive equipment and the itinerary.
- Day 1: Departure to Cabo de la Vela. A large part of the route leads along the beach and you visit Mayapo, El pájaro, Mushichi, and the beaches of Manaure, where you will also have lunch. The tour continues through the salt flats of Manaure, salt mountains, cactus forests, Carrizal desert, where you can watch herds of goats and sheep around the rancherias. After arriving in Cabo de la Vela, watch the sunset at the lighthouse.
- Day 2: Beach day and visit to Rainbow Beach, Rainbow Beach Dunes, Pilon de Azúcar Hill, Pilon de Azúcar Beach and Ojo de Agua Beach. The multitude of panoramic views of the area around the cape is overwhelming.
- Day 3: Departure to Punta Gallinas. On this day one visits the Jepirachi Wind Park, the viewpoint of the Bay of Portete, the desert of Warreo, the desert of Puerto Nuevo and Portete, the desert of Bahía Honda, Bahia Honda, and the gigantic dunes of Taroa. You may also see flamingos. Traditionally, you spend the night in a chinchorro (hammock).
- Day 4: Visit the dunes and beach of Taroa, visit the lighthouse of Punta Gallina (northernmost point of Colombia and South America).
- Day 5: Return to Cabo de la Vela. The way from Punta Gallinas back to Cabo de la Vela can take between 5 and 12 hours.
- Day 6: Return to Riohacha.
This expedition is one of the most popular and spectacular routes. It is a great adventure through the endless savannahs in which one seems to lose oneself on the horizon. You can see the fauna of the region in their natural habitat. Prices for this expedition range from $ 1,400,000 COP (approximately USD 423) for adults to $ 500,000 COP (approximately USD 141) for children.
The expedition is divided into three days:
- Day 1: The tour starts in Yopal, the capital of the Casanare department. The goal is the Hato de la Aurora.
- Day 2: In the Hato de la Aurora you can observe the fauna of the Llanos and experience a unique nature experience on a safari. The region is home to jaguars, ocelots, anteaters, white-tailed deer, a variety of monkeys, tapirs, chigüiros, wild boars, and a variety of birds.
- Day 3: Return to Yopal. The day starts early and after a wonderful breakfast it goes back to Yopal and the expedition ends.
This expedition includes beaches, cultural contrasts, and an unforgettable adventure. The route leads over the old connecting road from Cali to Buenaventura. To do this, you will stop for two days in the aquamarine reserve.
This expedition costs between $ 800,000 COP (approximately USD 225) for adults and $ 400,000 COP (approximately USD 112) for children and is divided into three days of adventure.
- Day 1: The tour starts in Cali. When you arrive in Buenaventura, you continue to the beaches of Juanchaco without vehicles and by ship. Then we continue to the beaches of Ladrilleros.
- Day 2: Whale Watching, every year humpback whales come from Antarctica to the warm shores of the Colombian Pacific for their courtship, mating and birth. On this expedition, you will be part of this natural spectacle.
- Day 3: Return to Cali. In the morning you can still enjoy the beach and after lunch, you return to Buenaventura and end the expedition.
An adventure full of fun, where you can live your passion with your 4 × 4 between mud, snow-capped volcanoes, glaciers, lakes, forests, hot springs and different thermal floors in two days. With a little luck, you can also see the snow-covered Nevado del Ruiz in the north.
This expedition costs $ 400,000 (approximately USD 112) COP per adult and $ 150,000 (approximately USD 42) per child.
- Day 1: The trip starts in Ibagué Tolima. You drive through Anzoátegui, Santa Isabel, Murillo and spend the night in Líbano.
- Day 2: Departure to Manizales. You drive along the edge of the snow-capped Ruiz mountain. On this day you will enjoy a really spectacular landscape. In the evening the adventure ends in Manizales.
Villa de Leyva expedition
This expedition goes back in time and uses roads that used to connect the region. Today you can only drive on this with 4×4 vehicles. The expedition costs $ 400,000 (approx. 112 USD) COP per adult, there are two days of adventure and here we tell you about it:
- Day 1: Departure from Bogota on old roads that have not been used for a long time and can only be used by 4 × 4 cars. In the afternoon you arrive at Villa de Leyva.
- Day 2: Pozos Azules and Ráquira. There is a tour of the colonial center of Villa de Leyva and then a short drive to one of the most famous tourist spots in the region “Los Pozos Azules”. The tour then continues to the witches’ lookout point. The tour ends later in Ráquira.
What you shouldn’t do on a 4×4 tour in Colombia
- Do not enter sacred areas with your vehicle. We always recommend hiring a local guide.
- Do not throw any type of waste on the streets.
- Do not buy exotic animals (birds, monkeys, etc.), say NO to the illegal trade in exotic animals.
Tips for driving your 4×4
- Do not go on this type of expedition alone.
- Always take a guide with you on established routes.
- Get travel insurance.
- Make sure that the vehicle is in perfect technical condition.
- Check your vehicle’s air filter, as you drive a lot through dusty terrain.
- Use suitable tires.
- Do not drive too fast.
- Wash your car after the expedition.
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