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Tips for travelling to Colombia

In late December and January I spent 3 weeks travelling across (parts of) Colombia by public transport. I covered 5 WHS, 5 TWHS and some places of interest in between. I found a country that often reminded me of what Cuba could have looked like without having taken the communist path. Find below my top tips for travelling to Colombia as a World Heritage Traveller.

My favourite WHS in Colombia: San Agustín

1. Only 5 out of the 9 WHS are fairly accessible

Colombia to date has gained 9 WHS, of which only 5 can be viewed as "accessible" (and even of those Mompox and Tierradentro require some off the beaten track travel). Qhapaq Nan as a serial transnational site may easily be picked up in another country, but the locations in Colombia are in a remote zone near the Ecuadorian border. Chiribiquete NP is closed to all visitors - I may have counted the fly-over tour if I had been lucky enough to secure a spot, but all spaces were filled when I inquired 3 months before. Malpelo seems to be only accessible by liveaboard dive trips and has so far only been visited by Don Parrish, a.k.a. the most travelled person on the planet. Los Katios finally is closed to general tourists as well, although one or two people have peeked (and sneaked?) in from the adjoining river.

2. Be prepared for logistical mishaps

Especially when travelling by public transport, add a spare day or two to your itinerary because logistics will not go 100% according to plan. On my first transfer within the country - a domestic flight from Bogota to Popayan - we ended up at Cali airport instead. Which meant finding your own transport for the final 3 hours late at night. My trials about reaching Tierradentro I have already described in that site's review. Transport is slow in general, on average only 30-40 km an hour is possible. On the plus side, there are many (mini)buses and shared taxi's available - much more than you would gather from web searches. People are also always willing to help out, so chances that you will be stranded anywhere are slim.

Road to Tierradentro, January 1 2020

3. Don't focus on the big cities

The big cities were probably what I liked least of Colombia. Beforehand you may try to shape your itinerary around Bogotá, Cali, Medellin and Cartagena. I somewhat enjoyed Bogotá, it undoubtedly has the best museums in the country including the unmissable Gold Museum. The historical center of this old city (founded in 1538) however has been fully demolished as a result of the various spells of Civil War. Cali I did not like so much, it probably suffers the most from homeless people and crime. Medellin I did not visit and Cartagena is a story in itself. The bigger cities in general are less safe and less well-preserved than other parts of the country.

4. You can do some old-fashioned, hardcore backpacking here

Like that feeling of taking public buses by standing by the roadside and raising your hand? Of being given the choice between a 3,000 or 5,000 peso (0.80 or 1.35 EUR) potato for your salchipapas? Or discovering an 8 EUR private room with own bathroom + perfectly fine wifi next to the ruins of Tierradentro? Especially the triangular area between Popayan, San Agustin and Tierradentro is well-suited for this travel style. You'll also meet few other foreign travellers in this region, so you can nurture that explorer feeling.

Tourist police in Cartagena

5. "Don't mention the war"

As a casual tourist, it is hard to make sense of the current security situation in Colombia. Locals tend not to talk openly about the past decades and there are no visible reminders. Its recent make-over from dangerous narcostate has at least turned out well superficially: the country feels totally safe and friendly (I found its people generally warm-hearted, polite and helpful - not only to tourists but also to each other). Under the radar though, a lot of things still are wrong (Bogotá's elite lives far away from the poor countryside which is lacking decent infrastructure) and the situation can take a turn for worse quickly. The cities have a huge police presence, I think there was some kind of security person on every street corner in Bogotá. Military police also have checkpoints at strategic roads around the country and I even met them fully armed on the way to the overly popular Valle de Cocora with its wax palm trees. 

Els - 16 February 2020

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WHS #731: Cartagena de Indias

A visit to Cartagena does leave you with mixed feelings. On the one hand it is Colombia’s most vibrant city which also has preserved its historical core. On the other hand it is so fully geared to tourism that sooner or later you will get fed up with it, trying to fend off the stream of sellers of water and hats and avoid the ubiquitous tour groups. I had about 2 full days there, which I found a good amount of time. When you walk away a bit from the clock tower area and the busiest parts of the historic center, it certainly gets enjoyable. The city also has an accessible and low-key airport with long haul connections, for example to Amsterdam, New York and Lima. 

Church of San Pedro Claver

The town’s OUV mostly is about its military fortresses and port. So on my first morning in the city I walked via the bridge from the center to the big fort on the other side of the bay. The Fort San Felipe de Barajas opens at 8 a.m. and I was one of the first visitors of the day, so it was very quiet. It is a fort built by the Spaniards in 1536, intended to expel the English from the Colombian coast.

Reportedly, it is the largest fort in South America. But only a small part dates from the 16th century, in the 17th and 18th centuries the structure was significantly enlarged to the large, bulky mass that it is now. There is a system of tunnels under the entire complex. In the former hospital you can watch a 20-minute video explaining in detail how the Spaniards defeated the English fleet. It's already worth going in there for the strong airconditioning.

From the highest point of the fort you have a good view of the city of Cartagena. What is striking is how many high-rise buildings there are - when I came flying in from Bogota it seemed as if we were landing in Dubai. The historic center within the city walls has also not escaped the more modern, higher buildings. They now often keep only the historic façades  and build entirely new hotels and shopping centers behind them.

Fort San Felipe de Barajas

One of the best things to do in Cartagena is walk the city walls. They still are about 70% intact and you can walk on it for most stretches. At sunset I walked the full loop, it is nice to see the city from different angles in this way. I for example discovered the former monastery La Merced and the theater next to it, two fine Italy-inspired buildings.

Another area worth exploring is Getsemani. This is the neighborhood, outside of the city walls but inside the WHS core zone, where the poor people of Cartagena used to live. Here also the uprising against the Spaniards and for independence began. For these people it has now become unaffordable - just about everything here has been converted into guest houses, restaurants, shops and cafés. It is a nice area to stroll through though. Bits of Coral Masonry can still be seen in the walls. I visited it on a walking tour with a small group, but you can easily do it on your own.

Church of the Third Order (1730) - Getsemani

There are a number of churches and museums as well in the historic center, but I found them overpriced. The entrance fees that you pay here in Cartagena are a lot higher than in the rest of the country. It generally costs 20,000 - 25,000 pesos per attraction (around 5-7 EUR). I entered 2 churches (the Cathedral and the Church of San Pedro Claver), but as in general in Colombia I found the interior of the churches to be not very rich. No comparison to Quito for example! I also visited 2 museums: the Inquisition building and the Maritime Museum. Both are located in beautiful historic buildings and for that you actually have to go inside. There aren’t many original items among the exhibits however, most of it consists of information panels.

Els - 9 February 2020

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WHS #730: Mompox

Mompox is a bit of logistical nightmare (not the only one in Colombia). I studied different routes beforehand, but in the end I couldn’t think of anything better than taking a bus there from Cartagena and take the same one back 2 days later. The Unitransco bus turned out to be the most luxury one of my Colombia trip – with comfy reclining seats, wifi, toilet and no stops other than in 2 or 3 towns to pick up/drop off passengers. The ride took about 6.5 hours. Google Maps and totally lost track of the route in the maze of swamps and (former) islands, spitting out various incorrect times of arrival. For the last 1.5 hours the bus takes a really minor road.

Colombia does not have many well-preserved Spanish-colonial remains. But Mompox surely is one of them. It was founded in 1537, less than 40 years after the first Europeans set foot on the South American mainland. Its historic center is beautifully restored and very cozy. It does attract its fair share of tourists, but it is geared more to the boutique style visitor than to backpackers or mass tourism.

When you say that the historic center of Mompox consists of only 3 streets, that seems like a very small area. But these streets are about 2km long and it took me 3 hours to cover it all (with some stops in between on a bench or on a terrace chair to recover from the heat). The part parallel to the Magdalena River is forbidden to cars, so you can walk nicely and quietly. There are various cafes and restaurants, and a huge number of benches to sit on the waterfront. If it gets warmer during the day you can also see large iguanas sunbathing here.

There are 3 squares on the river street, each with its own church. The large yellow Santa Barbara church, with its octagonal tower (see photo 1) is the icon of Mompox. In addition, there are the large La Concepción church and the red San Francisco church (photo 2). There are also several other churches in the streets further from the river: in the 17th century, Mompox had 10 churches, all built by different Spanish monastic orders.

All major churches have their origins in the early Spanish colonization period. What you see now dates from a later date, the first churches were made of wood and much simpler in design. The current churches are brick on the outside, but the interior is wooden in all cases. The carved wooden ceilings are executed in the Moorish style of the Spanish Andalusia. I did my round of Mompox on early Saturday morning. At that time all churches were open - women were busy dusting the banks or putting extra waxes on them, in preparation for Saturday evening mass.

One of the most appealing buildings in the city is the old market building. It has a long veranda at the back, which borders the river. At the front it lies on the main square with the largest church.

I found the hotel and food options especially good in Mompox. I stayed at the service-oriented Casa Amarilla (which goes one level beyond the general Colombian helpfulness). I had good fish meals at the Ambrosia and Comedor Costena. And for a coffee or a drink there are the atmospheric Cafe1700 and the tiny coffeeshop Sol de Agua.

As other reviewers have noticed as well, Mompox does have a more shady side – the modern town seems very poor and there were young children selling snacks when the buses arrived and left between 5 and 6 in the morning. It was even more visible at the village where we had a short stop during the 3 hour boat tour that is offered from Mompox center - a concrete tourist boulevard with viewpoint on the Cienaga de Pijiño has been built there, but the local people are still waiting for the promised paved road. A grim reminder that Colombia can feel very developed and economically prosperous, but many people are left behind.

Els - 2 February 2020

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WHS #729: Coffee Cultural Landscape

It is really telling that the 5 reviews of the Coffee Cultural Landscape so far focused fully or at least partly on the boundaries of this WHS. It reminded me of a WH travelers group T-shirt suggestion (made by Samuel) that promoted the slogan “Are we in the core zone yet?”. Well, I will focus on the coffee production instead as the ‘tick’ should consist of having seen/experienced the OUV in addition to setting foot in a certain area.

What makes Colombian coffee farming (especially in and around the selected areas) different from others? Most farms are small scale family operations using manual labour, shade grown coffee is the traditional system and there is a strong community focus on coffee production in all aspects of life. I decided to look for these characteristics south of Salento, in an area called Palestina. Here there are a number of coffee farms that open to visitors. The biggest (which even needs pre-booking) is El Ocaso, one of the most popular among English-speaking tourists is Don Elias, but I went for the more low-key El Recuerdo. I hiked there in just over an hour from Salento on a pleasant path, where the coffee plants that had been absent so far on my travels in this region became more and more prominent in the surrounding landscape.

El Recuerdo is a small, organic farm that applies polyculture. Besides coffee, they grow fruits and herbs for their own use. They adhere to the principles of the Rainforest Alliance for sustainable farming. I was assigned a young biologist as a guide and we could start the tour right away. They usually see only a handful of tourists a day.

The tour started with an explanation how coffee growing came to the region. This was relatively late into the whole expansion of coffee production around the world: Jesuits brought it with them from Venezuela in 1732. First to the region around Medellin and in the 19th century it spread further around Colombia due to internal migrations. We then moved on to have a look at the herbal garden – it even holds one original Colombian coca plant (“It’s not the plant’s fault what happened…”).

In contrast to many other farms in the region, this one still produces shade grown coffee. This essentially means that the coffee plants are planted within a thin forest of trees. The trees provide shade, but also fertilize the ground through their leaves and attract insects and birds. At other places the trees have all been cleared to increase productivity (more coffee plants per square meter), a practice that attracted a sour remark from IUCN (“They can’t be included, can they?”). Among the plants in the forest of El Recuerdo are various kinds of citrus fruits. And the guide showed me a beautifully woven hummingbird nest with 2 eggs.

In general in Colombia, the coffee farmers only produce dried coffee beans which are then sold to the cooperation which in its turn sells it often to roasters abroad. This farm cut out the middlemen, uses a private roaster near the town of Armenia and sells its coffee in its own shop at the farm and in shops in nearby towns.

I had been to a small coffee farm once before, that was near Matagalpa in Nicaragua. The process used there is exactly the same as far as I can see as a non-expert. The farm used polyculture as well. There I also enjoyed the bustle of a coffee market town, with sacks of coffee beans being transported in various manners. They do also have larger factories (processing plants) there. This transport & trade aspect I missed here in the Armenia/Salento region, but it must be said that I arrived outside of the coffee harvesting season which takes place yearly in May/June and October.

Els - 26 January 2020

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Solivagant 28 January 2020

Just to clarify that further investigation confirms that the Coffee Finca El Recuerdo visited by Els is outside both the core and buffer zones of the CCL (as are all others in the Salento area). This of course in no way detracts from the value of Els’s visit and her observations both for her personally and for the rest of us. In fact, in my mind, it re-emphasises the “weakness” of this entire WHS as inscribed. If there are examples which are just as good (or even better?) outside the inscribed site then what is the inscription achieving?
Some might say that the fincas inside the inscribed area are going to be subject to stricter control in the future and are therefore being “preserved” by inscription in a way which those beyond are not. I very much doubt this and would foresee an increase in inscribed areas being “technified” in coming years since such development has actually been cemented within the current OUV (Adaptation process…. which has continued to this day” – UNESCO) ! Indeed it could be that many of the best examples of small scale, family run, eco-friendly coffee production could finish up being the specialists operating outside the inscribed area!!
Another argument could be that the inscribed area is only supposed to be “Representative” and that non inscription doesn’t imply “non value”. (“An exceptional example of a sustainable and productive cultural landscape that is unique and representative of a tradition that is a strong symbol for coffee growing areas worldwide”- UNESCO) This might have more weight if the inscription had limited itself to the “best of the best” - but it clearly hasn’t. This is particularly true of the urban areas – “mainly situated on the relatively flat tops of hills above sloping coffee fields, are characterized by the architecture of the Antioquian colonization with Spanish influence” and containing “very few contemporary incongruous additions to its traditional architectural and landscape patterns, and no substantial modifications to the small towns located in the property as well as in the buffer zone” - (UNESCO). Not true – viz Chinchina and Neira have been included with no (Chinchina – all concrete buildings, fly-overs and factories!) or very little (Neira) “Traditional architecture”. Whilst Salento has been excluded! Whatever one might think of what that town has become in terms of being a tourist honey pot, it at least contains a significant number of such buildings.

Els Slots 27 January 2020

No, I did not ask about that and it did not come up during the 2 hour tour.

Purely speculating here, but what may have been a factor is the (non-)alignment of these Salento farms with the 'National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia'. That Federation is a big player in the marketing of Colombian coffee and also worked on the nomination file. The specific farm that I visited did not agree with many of the 'improvements' suggested by the federation.
Another possible factor may be that the Salento coffee farms are more 'show farms'. They do still produce coffee (most of them), but not for the generic Colombian export. To what extent that already was the case in 2010 when the nomination file was written I do not know, the fulfillment of the tourist potential of Salento is fairly recent.

Solivagant 27 January 2020

During your finca visit were you able to establish anything more about why the boundaries of the Nominated site were set as they were? It would seem from the infamous map, that El Recuerdo was inside the Buffer zone just to the east of the Rio Quindio (though it might have been inside the small portion of Salento Municipaility which is inside the core Zone) - correct? As you say – it would seem to possess exactly the same attributes which allowed other fincas to be included in the Core Zone (“ small scale family operations using manual labour, shade grown coffee … and … a strong community focus on coffee production in all aspects of life”). Indeed one would have thought that nearby Salento itself and the fincas in between would have been a “shoo in” for nomination. Did the Finca care? Was it politics? Did the area not want the potential restrictions of inclusion? Did they claim inclusion from simply being in the Buffer Zone?

Establishing the boundaries of this (or any other) WHS isn’t of course just a matter of getting a tick for entering them - it is part of understanding the site itself. You correctly highlight the attributes of small scale, shade grown etc – but, as per my previous review, quite large parts of the WHS do not demonstrate these attributes at all and the nomination makes a virtue of them not doing so (“Technification”)!!

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WHS #728: Tierradentro

It proved to be quite hard to reach Tierradentro by public transport. On my first approach I stranded at about km50 on the notorious road #26 between Popayan and Tierradentro: overnight a landslide had occurred and the road was fully blocked to any motorized transport. On foot it would have been possible, but the prospect of venturing on alone on the other side was not so tempting as the options that lay ahead seemed to be:

  • being kidnapped by some last remaining FARC guerillas (this road was the only place in Colombia where I saw pro-FARC graffiti),
  • being attacked by a spectacled bear (the road also sports yellow signs "be aware of bears" and "be aware of puma’s"), or,
  • being assaulted by drunk men (it was New Year’s Day and we had met them consistently unsteady on their feet on the streets in every town along the route).

I succeeded a few days later after having first visited San Agustín: I took a shared taxi from San Agustin to Pitalito, a minibus from Pitalito to Garzon, another minibus from Garzon to La Plata and hopped on the back of a mototaxi for the final gruelling 38km to Tierradentro. It took 6 hours in total, not too bad considering the logistics.

I stayed overnight in Tierradentro, a hamlet that has formed itself around the entrance of the Archaeological Park. The village of San Andres de Pisimbala lies 2.5 km away. Both have very little to get excited about: San Andres has a T-listed Catholic Temple (worth about 2 minutes of your time), while you have to be in Tierradentro anyway to start your visit by buying the ticket to the Park. You can walk or take a mototaxi between them. Food options are very poor in both towns – I found the often recommended La Portada restaurant in San Andres overrated and in Tierradentro I had to rely on Salchipapas.

Like many reviewers before me, I visited 4 out of the 5 locations. I started the walk at opening time, 8 am. I only met 3 young Colombian tourists who did the tombs at about the same pace as I did. Along the route I saw no other tourists, only some local farmers who have their fields in this area.

There’s a whole ritual involved in visiting the hypogea: “opener of tombs” must be a local job description, as the park employs a dozen men or so who act as guardians of a specific cluster of hypogea, check whether the tourist has a ticket and stamp it, and – most importantly – open the cover to the entrance of the underground tomb. I wonder if they rotate? It would be sad to be posted at a set of tombs that aren’t among the highlights so they get skipped by most of the visitors.

Climbing down the staircases into some of the tombs isn’t for those with a fear of heights, as there is no railing to hold on to. I also am a bit unsure going down staircases since I fell down from one headfirst about a year ago at work. But by taking it easy I got the hang of these. They even get a honorary mention as part of the site’s OUV: apparently they are the original ones (although I could swear that I saw some cement added here and there). They come in straight, zigzag, or spiral shapes. The huge spiral one indeed is memorable.

The best-kept tombs are found at location #1, Alto de Segovia. The fourth location (Alto de San Andres) isn’t that interesting decoration-wise (except for one), but here you can see the outline of the construction of an underground tomb. Its roof has collapsed during an earthquake in 1994. It’s a fine walk up there as well: you have to cross two bamboo bridges and the area presents good opportunities for birding.

Els - 19 January 2020

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Jay T 19 January 2020

Sounds like quite an adventure to get to Tierradentro — glad you were able to get there! The artwork in Alto de Segovia looks amazing.

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WHS #727: San Agustín

San Agustín isn’t as hard to reach as Tierradentro, but the 135km between Popayan and San Agustin still took the public bus that I was on 5 hours. About 3.5 of them were spent on an unpaved road right across Puracé National Park, which at least offered great views in return. The bus will drop you at the turn-off to San Agustín, from where it is 8km or so into town and another 3 to the Archaeological Park. This add-on was nicely taken care of by the bus company (Cootranshuila), as they paid for my ‘taxi’ into San Agustín (on the back of a motorbike).

Guarding the entrance to a tomb

As the site closes at 4 p.m. and it was already 1, I continued straight on to the park. At the ticket office they were kind enough to store my backpack behind the counter, so I did not have to haul it around the extensive grounds. A minor complaint though is that they have succumbed to the practice of ‘foreigner pricing’. I can understand it in certain circumstances, but there are a lot of middle class Colombians and the price difference between 35,000 what they have to pay and the 50,000 pesos for foreigners isn’t that much (charge all 40,000 and you will get the same revenue, as the domestic tourists by far outnumber those from abroad). But in the end I was happy to pay the equivalent of 12,50 EUR for a truly unique site on a global scale and two days’ worth of entrance which I found a bonus.

During that first afternoon in the park I did the loop along the 5 original excavations (Mesita A, B, C and the Fuente and Alto de Lavapatas). Due to the way it is set up, it looks a bit like an artificial sculpture garden - partly because each sculpture has been given a protective shelter against erosion. But all sculptures were really dug up on the spot. They seem to be many variations on a limited number of themes. I liked the trio’s the best – a fierce-looking deity, accompanied on either side by what appear to be two guardians. It reminded me of Korea’s Joseon tombs. The waterworks of the Fuente de Lavapatas are also special.

Fuente de Lavapatas

The next morning I took the first bus into the park again to check out the 2 remaining parts, the museum and the Forest of the Statues. The site opens at 8, however the museum was not open yet so I started with the forest. Here they exhibit statues that were found in other places in the region. It has a very different atmosphere than the open fields of the Mesitas: this is a dense rainforest. There weren’t other people around yet, so I enjoyed the natural surroundings as much as the sculptures. You hear a lot of birds, but they are skittish. I stood still for a long time under a few popular trees and managed to photograph four Latin American bird species. I also saw a beautiful large butterfly.

There a number of scattered locations around San Agustín which still have sculptures in situ. Technically they are not part of the WHS, but I was tempted to at least get to El Purutal – this has the only 2 statues that still have their original colouring. There is a signposted path to El Purutal from the road between the Archaeological Park and the town of San Agustín. According to it is only a 5 kilometer walk, but it would take you almost 2 hours. That must be a lot of climbing! I therefore choose to take a taxi. It had to make a detour all the way to the back of the hills, on a road that is almost impassable with a normal car. The site takes a 5,000 pesos entrance fee and there are even 2 eateries near the entrance, so they’ll see their fair share of visitors. The 2 sets of tombs + sculptures here are also in an open field, just like the Mesitas at the main park. The first set (known as La Pelota) is a fine set of three sculptures: a bird, a crocodile and a human-like being.

El Purutal

However, everyone comes here for the second group: it is a large tomb with two statues that have retained their original colors. It gives the sculptures an even more deterrent appearance than they do normally. This group is not only protected by a roof from sun and rain, it is also surrounded with barbed wire: a grim reminder that in 2011 the statues were painted over by vandals. Although it was done in the original colors, it did damage the porous volcanic rock.

Els - 12 January 2020

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Els Slots 12 January 2020

Yeah, for all I have tried to find a different location and/or a different angle (especially compared to Solivagant's reviews, as he visited only a few weeks before me). At least I will add info about getting to the sites by public transport.

Zoë Sheng 12 January 2020

And you were worried there's nothing more to write after all the other reviews lol

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Salt Town of Nemocón

In preparation of my Colombia trip I thought I had stumbled upon an interesting TWHS location to write about. Of the 3 Salt Towns that form a combined entry on the Tentative List, Zipaquirá is by far the most touristy one. Nemocón however is a bit more off-the-beaten track and has more authentic salt history on show. I knew from his itinerary that Solivagant aimed for Zipaquirá, so I thought I had found a different (and maybe better!) angle. Upon his return though we exchanged e-mails and it became clear that he had gone to Nemocón as well instead of Zipaquirá. To make things worse, he even wrote the kind of review which makes you wonder whether you’d want to go there at all.

The former Salt Museum in the town center

I contemplated for a moment to aim for Tausa, the third town that is part of this Cultural Landscape of Salt Towns TWHS. But that would require an even longer trip by public bus from Bogota. So on an early Sunday morning I was off to Nemocón as well. There are hourly buses by the Transalianza company that will take you there from Bogota’s main bus station (Terminal Salitre, Modulo Rojo). Door-to-door it took me 3 hours each way.

Nemocón turned out to be a cozy place, geared to tourism on a modest scale. You can also get there by tourist train from Bogotá. Salt was extracted in this region already before the arrival of the Spaniards. It was done by boiling brackish groundwater in large jars and then allowing it to dry, which leaves the salt. The Spanish colonizers had the local population produce salt for export on an industrial scale. In the 19th century, Alexander von Humboldt visited Nemocón. He taught the population to extract salt more efficiently by digging salt mines.

The local salt mine, which is no longer used, is now open to visitors. According to the Tentative Site description there must also be a salt museum, located in the oldest building in town. However, I found it firmly closed and sporting a sign "For rent".

Entrance to the mine

I therefore walked straight to the entrance of the salt mine complex. The entrance fee here is 29,000 pesos (7.85 EUR), a steep amount by Colombian standards. I arrived just in time to join a Spanish-speaking tour. The tour started with a visit to a small-scale exhibition (maybe the transferred objects from the closed museum in the town center?) - with fossils of fish and other animals found here, when (100 million years ago) there was a sea at this location. This also explains the presence of salt layers.

There were some 30-40 visitors on my tour, at first glance all Colombian day trippers. After donning the helmets and walking down a somewhat slippery staircase we arrived in the most beautiful part of the salt mine. The rough walls with salt fragments are reflected in water channels. When you look over the edge of a channel, it seems like you are looking into an enormous depth; but it is just the mirror image of the ceiling. A special photographer had come along to take souvenir photos of the visitors, to the great delight of the Colombians.

Cascade of salt

After this we got a tour along an almost endless row of "sights". Some are of a natural nature, such as a "waterfall" of salt. But much has also been added by humans. There is of course a chapel, a nativity scene made of salt crystals, a big heart made of salt and a number of exhibits about people who played an important role in the history of this salt mine.

The tour lasted 2 hours in total - very long. I didn't feel as bad about it as Solivagant (our group didn’t have to go through rounds of introductions and there were only limited question-answer plays). But at the end I was constantly checking the time to see if it would be over soon or whether we had to view even more strange things slightly associated with salt....

Els - 5 January 2020

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Virgilio Barco Library

As I knew I would wake up early because of the unavoidable jet lag, I had looked for something to do in Bogotá in the early morning of my first day here. I found it with the Virgilio Barco Library, one of two TWHS in Colombia’s capital dedicated to modern architecture. It opens most days at 8 a.m. as it is a fully functioning public library.  If the library were to become a WHS in the next few years, it would be the most recently built site on the List. It only opened in December 2001.

Bogotá is a sprawling city and although the library is located fairly central, I needed a 25 minute taxi ride from my hotel near the National Museum to get there. The EasyTaxi app did its work flawlessly – for less than 3 EUR I was transported from door to door by a yellow taxi. Despite the early hour, I found several people already walking the paths in the surrounding Virgilio Barco Park (which is also part of the TWHS). The area is also popular with bikers and you can rent bikes from street stalls.

The Virgilio Barco Library is the chosen site among the works of the Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona. Actually the whole country is dotted with important works of his design. He is known for his brick architecture and conscious use of water. At this site in Bogotá he succeeded very well in “incorporating it into the landscape”: the building lies on a raised area that previously was used to store waste.

I found it a pleasure to do a full loop on foot around the building, following the canals and the immaculately kept lawns. Salmona is said to have been inspired mostly by Granada’s Alhambra for this work and the similarities are easy to spot: the vistas incorporating flowing water and palm trees, the Moorish-inspired geometric motifs. Another influence is Le Corbusier, with whom Salomona worked together in his early years (including Chandigarh). Fortunately the white concrete horizontal layers are not that prominent here. Other great international architectural works may also have been taken as an example. When I posted a photo of one of the water works in our whatsapp group, the suggestion came back whether it was “a swimming pool made by Frank Lloyd Wright?”

The building’s interior feels a bit cold and barren, with half-open corridors and a lot of brick. The main reading room however has a lot of natural light and fine views of the surrounding park. The other rooms I did not find that interesting, but it is worth to go upstairs to The Terrace (the ubiquitous security guards will point you there).

To predict whether this will ever be included in the WH List, the question needs to be answered what the influence of Rogelio Salmona was outside of Colombia’s borders. Wiki learns us that he “promoted conferences on Latin American architecture”. But as far as my research reached he seems to have only worked in Colombia. He is known though as one of Latin America’s most outstanding architects – and if Oscar Niemeyer can get 2 WHS all by himself…. I give the Virgilio Barco Library a ‘thumbs up’ as I found it a fascinating building and enjoyed my visit. I think the place warrants an hour of anyone remotely interested in modern architecture.

Els - 29 December 2019

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Blog WHS website

2019 - A Year in Review(s)

2019 has been yet another excellent year for “reviews” of visits to WHS and TWHS. During some months the queue with new reviews was so long that it could take up to 3 weeks before yours was published. It has calmed down a bit lately, so keep them flowing in!

The Statistics

The main review statistics for 2019:

  • 891 new reviews have been added of both WHS and TWHS, that’s a 22% rise since 2018 and 61% compared to 2017
  • 91 different people contributed (see Top 10 below)
  • 14 WHS were reviewed for the first time (excluding the new, 2019, WHS of which all but 1 have also been already written about)

We do now have 7,753 reviews publicized and have covered 1094 of the 1121 WHS. These are the ones still unreviewed...

Among the 891 new reviews, 357 are of TWHS. There certainly is a shift visible towards reviewing TWHS instead of WHS that have been covered well enough already.

Memorable reviews

It was actually Jay T who, during the meet-up in Scotland this summer, recommended the travel website of Michael Ayers to me. Michael is a slow traveler because he does most of it on a bike. But whatever the state of the roads or the circumstances, he reaches those hard to visit WHS. To get to Surtsey, he found someone with a boat…

Squiffy has treated us to a number of well-written accounts this year. In his profile he states: “I discovered the World Heritage List back in 2004 and it formed a major focus of my free time for a good decade or so. I never knew that there was such an active community of fellow like-minded nerds out here.” Saltaire is a good read, but I’d nominate his review looking back to a visit to Palmyra in 2009.

The 2019 Tsunami award for struggling on to tick a WHS despite travel mishaps goes to Nan. He went hiking in Laponia – 11 hours and 35km in muddy conditions without proper hiking shoes. And there was no hot meal waiting for him at the finish, just the last (and only?) bus of the day.

And while 99% of the WH community is totally fed up with the number of vineyards on the List and the repeated visits to similar landscapes it requires, Clyde stayed for 4-5 days in the Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont. He visited all 6 locations and wrote a glowing review of this Italian vineyard WHS.

In the ‘natural disasters’ category, Joel Baldwin testified to a ‘pile of ash’ after the dec 2018 eruption of Anak Krakatau – just a few months after Clyde’s report before the event: Ujung Kulon National Park.

We’ve welcomed more and more reviewers based in China on this website as well. All Chinese WHS are covered in a certain depth and the new Migratory Bird entry was quickly picked up by both Zoe and Zos. Zehuan treated us to a Chinese insider’s view of Lushan National Park.

Are there any memorable reviews from 2019 that you’d like to put into the spotlight again?

Els - 22 December 2019

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Squiffy 29 December 2019

Many thanks for the mention. I do worry about how much value I can add through reviews now my travelling to new places has been curtailed by children so this really is appreciated.

The detail contained in the reviews on this site are fantastic for scoping out future travels though!

Chris W. 28 December 2019

Happy 2020 everyone!

I have no specific sights from 2019 allthough Baalbek was really impressive. Also went on my first safari ever in Pendjari park (will make a review later as it's really worth going).

Going to continue my way of travel in 2020. Don't care to much about numbers at the moment. Just visiting places I like most, and trying to get to more remote places rather as the obvious which are "easy ticks".

Jay T 22 December 2019

I love seeing all the reviews on this site, and I remember each of the ones Els mentioned above (what timing to get reviews before and after the Anak Krakatau eruption). There have been some great new reviewers this year, such as GabLabCebu, who has recently been writing about travels through Israel and Egypt. I particularly appreciated the detailed overview on the rice terraces in the Philippines, which I hope to visit some day.

The reviews are my favorite part of this site, so thanks to all the regular contributers throughout the past year -- you keep me wanting to plan new trips! Most importantly, thanks to Els -- I look forward to these blog posts and reviews each Sunday.

Meltwaterfalls 22 December 2019

Thanks for the round up, I’ve really enjoyed reading throughout the year, even if I haven’t contributed as much.

Also I’m glad you have picked out Jay T and Squiffy both of whom I have throughly enjoyed.

Nan 22 December 2019

was looking forward to the eoy review :)

happy holidays everyone!

Blog WHS website

A free course in World Heritage

I am a fan of the Open University concept, where you can study a random subject at a high level whenever and from where it suits you. I even finished a Bachelor’s degree in Art History a few years ago at the Dutch Open University. One of the subjects in that curriculum was a disappointing introduction to Heritage management (I wrote a post about it in 2015). Last week I noticed that the UK’s Open University has a free course on my favourite subject of all: World Heritage. The course material gives an overview of what UNESCO’s World Heritage is about. Also it provides 5 case studies on specific WHS: New Lanark, Bath, Edinburgh, Lake District and Tarragona.

The easy to use course homepage

The course is equivalent to 10 hours of study. I clicked through it in some 45 minutes – the introductions about World Heritage, UNESCO, its procedures etc. were of course already well-known by me. I was more interested in the case studies.

New Lanark is presented as “an enormous success and [it] has gained many plaudits and awards for the long-term commitment of its trust and management to restoration”. After the factory closed in 1968, restoration already started 5 years later with the establishment of the New Lanark Conservation Trust. It went on a long track to inscription: it was brought forward first in 1986 and got inscribed in 2001. Looking back, “Revitalisation has had a major impact on the local community and region”. Although by some a nomination of industrial heritage like this is seen as “a response to misplaced nostalgia for working-class life in communities undergoing rapid change ..”.

There’s an interesting 14 minute audio file included about the preparation of the Lake District bid. Although already well-known in the UK, global recognition was still wanted. It had twice failed in the late 1980s, but now they were trying again and knew they had to deliver a special story. It was ‘saved’ by the establishment of the cultural landscape category in 1992, where it fits in better. ICOMOS UK even claims that the Lake District failures were instrumental in recognizing cultural landscapes as a separate category. What the proposal team also learned is that beauty in itself isn’t enough, you have to point at something under threat: here they found it with the disappearing hill farms. Representatives in the travel business were skeptical of getting additional red tape to deal with after inscription, but also hoped that the tourists were to stay a few days longer and be more interested in the culture and environment.

The relocation of Abu Simbel, where the WH story began

The information delivered in the course is mostly based on facts (I found no errors, which are so common in discussions about World Heritage). Only some subjective interpretation shines through. I was perplexed for example over this conclusion: “World Heritage has its own vocabulary, using the discourse of international diplomacy. Much of its documentation, originating in French, takes on a mid-Atlantic flavour in English, something readily appreciated from the numerous websites dedicated to the subject.” The last sentence alone makes me wonder about 3 things:

  1. There’s a hint there that documentation in French is somehow ‘odd’. And I sense some bewilderment too, maybe because WH is a rare area where there’s no UK/US dominance?
  2. “takes on a mid-Atlantic flavour in English” – what does mid-Atlantic mean in this sentence, native English speakers can you help me out here? I guess it’s not about the Azores… Google directs me to the Mid-Atlantic states—Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware. Huh?
  3. And those “numerous websites” – do they include ours? I am surely aware that with the WH comes a whole vocabulary which we all use in our reviews and forum posts, I even added a glossary.

Edinburgh, one of the case studies

The course is at its most informative when the UK sites and policies are discussed. For example how the UK selection process works (mostly decentralized among its constituent countries England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). However “It is unclear how the list of sites in overseas territories was arrived at”.  Unfortunately the content of the course all stays quite superficial. But it still is worth an hour or so of your time as a WH aficionado.

Els - 8 December 2019

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Solivagant 8 December 2019

Am on road at the moment with small keyboard and big fingers so can't write much. But "Mid Atlantic as used in UK has absolutely nothing to do with Mid Atlantic states as in US. It refers to the use of an English language which adopts some "Americanisms" in words, style and, if spoken, in accent. Churchill said that umUS/UK were 2 countries divided by 1 language and a native English speaker us very aware of differences. "Managerial speak" will be one area and may be what the WHS article was referring to. Of course with contemporary media etc "English English" is less and less commonly adopted!

Els Slots 8 December 2019

Thanks Alexander and Jay. From across the ocean (UK-side) meltwaterfalls reports that it sounds like the accent used by Frasier in the eponymous comedy series.

Alexander Parsons 8 December 2019

'Mid-Atlantic' or 'transatlantic' is basically a pretentious way of speaking that was popular amongst the rich decades ago.

Jay T 8 December 2019

As a mid-Atlantic resident in the US, I doubt he’s referring directly to any of our states, but rather to the style of international English employed at the UN and in Washington.

I’m not sure it’s an exact parallel, but I’m reminded of how newscasters in the US train to speak in a midwestern accent, which is most commonly understood by Americans.

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