Hidden Colombia by Rail
Starting in Cali and ending in Santa Marta, this is a south to north tour of Colombia taking in Salento, Giradot, Bogota, Zipaquirá, Villa de Leyva, Barichara, and Cartagena. In Panama, we are based in Panama City and visit Gatun, Gamboa, and other places along the parallel Canal and Railway.
An exciting opportunity presents itself for you to join us on what we believe is the first dedicated railtour to Colombia in the 21st century. Once considered off-limits, five decades of conflict have now ended in what is Latin America’s oldest democracy. A three-foot gauge railway system once linked this mountainous country from Buenaventura on the southern Pacific coast to Santa Marta on the northern Atlantic coast before decay and virtual closure. Now, as part of a strategy to remove damaging heavy freight traffic from the roads, the government has awarded rehabilitation contracts for sections that have remained mothballed since the 1980s. During this moribund period, the sections at either end, together with that in the centre serving a steelworks, continued with freight traffic. Whilst within and to the north of Bogota, a university passenger service has proved extremely popular in an otherwise gridlocked city. Here too, weekend excursions have increased in popularity such that the four preserved steam locomotives struggle with overloaded ten or more coach trains. We visit most of the operational parts of the system riding the rails from south to north, where possible using all of the operating steam fleet over 3 days through dramatic scenery. The functioning railway workshops in Bogota are also a sight to behold. One highlight will be to ride the daily ‘mixed’ on the electrified coal and iron ore branch through a spectacular gorge from Belencito to Paz de Rio.
Our tour visits the exquisite heritage sites of Salento, Villa de Leyva, Barichara and Cartagena together with La Candelaria, the historic neighborhood in downtown Bogota. Several exceptional buildings associated with Simon Bolivar who was largely responsible for creating Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia as sovereign states, independent of Spanish rule are visited too. One of these is now an hotel with a hot springs pool and will be our base for one night.
The tour will appeal to both the dedicated and casual railway enthusiast together with those intrigued by the fascinating colonial towns we visit as we deliver a Colombia to you that most have never been aware of. On rail we travel with diesel, steam and electric traction, significantly with our own chartered trains, excepting one public ‘mixed’. Come with us on this adventure as we explore new parts of the world’s railway heritage.
We also include an option for a pre-tour in Panama riding the Panama Canal Railway and viewing the canal itself. Details for this pre-tour add-on are included after the Colombia text.
Your Tour Manager for this trip is Ray.
Friday 15 September (D) We arrive in Cali Colombia and transfer to our hotel for dinner (D subject to arrival time).
Saturday 16 September (B,L,D) We make a leisurely start on our first morning visiting a plinthed locomotive or two on the way to a transport museum. This welcoming museum contains both steam locomotives, airplanes and a giant model railway. We lunch here too. In the afternoon, we plan a visit to Yumbo, the Bogota rail base for the line towards Buenaventura and plan a short rail journey in one direction or the other, hopefully heading up the pass to La Cumbre, before we transfer back to our city hotel for dinner.
Sunday 17 September (B,L,D) We transfer to the Palmira railway workshops for a brief visit prior to joining our chartered train, using the President’s coach, and head east, then north, halting at the municipality of Buga. Here we break for lunch and join with pilgrims visiting the very significant Basilica del Señor de los Milagros, which houses an image of Christ called el Señor de los Milagros (the Lord of the Miracles). After lunch we continue by road for our overnight halt in delightful Salento, one of the major tourist attractions of Colombia. The restaurant where we take dinner also offers the traditional game of Tejo.
Monday 18 September (B,L,D) We start our day with some free time to wander the main square and streets of this captivating place where your time will not go unrewarded. After departure we make for one of the plantations in this traditional coffee region where you can observe the biodiversity of the crop in stunning surroundings before we enter the Parque del Café. This in fact is a theme park and our purpose in entering is more for the rail journey on offer. Regrettably their steam locomotive is ‘out of ticket’ as they say. By mid afternoon, we need to head further east towards our overnight at Ibague.
Tueday 19 September (B,L,D) It is but a short journey this morning to Girardot and across the river is Flandes. The latter was the location of the main workshops of the Colombian Railways, but now all that remains is the locomotive park and the magnificent 1930-built steel railway viaduct high above the Magdelena River. We plan to walk over it, ride over it on rails using a maintenance vehicle then and sail under it on a river boat ride. We also lunch in Girardot. Early afternoon, we will depart for our 2-night stay in the La Candelaria area of Bogota.
Wednesday 20 September (B) We commence our visit to Bogota with a ride to Monserrate on the funicular railway from where fine views of the orientation of the capital can be obtained. On descending, we walk over the road to the Quinta de Bolivar, which served as a residence to Simon Bolivar after the war of independence. It is now a museum dedicated to Bolivar’s life and times. We plan to use an imitation streetcar for our journey back to the central area for a free-time lunch. After lunch we visit the Museo de Oro, Bogotá’s most famous museum and one of the most fascinating in all of South America, containing 55,000 pieces of gold from all the major pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. Then there is free-time for another of Bogota’s many renowned museums such as perhaps the National or Botero Museums. The evening is free for a dinner of choice such as perhaps at the nearby premises of the notable Bogota Beer Company (BBC) where a selection of ales are offered, or perhaps back at Monserrate, accessed in the evening by cable car.
Thursday 21 September (B,L,D) Our morning comprises a leisurely guided tour of La Candelaria, the old quarter of Bogot. We then plan on taking a light lunch respite at the Ferro Club, which has preserved, Colombia’s oldest locomotive from 1878 when lines in the Bogota area were metre gauge. Then we relocate to the Sabana terminal railway station where we take afternoon tea in the small museum. No time should be lost by rail enthusiasts in examining the station and workshops where there are 5 operational locos, and of which we have asked for 2 to be in steam for photos. One would normally be under repair. The station also holds a 1905 British built steam crane. After we conclude, we plan to relocate to a new hotel adjacent to Usaquen station some 15km distant by steam-hauled train from Sabana Station. In the evening we visit one of the Andres Carne de Res restaurants in Zona Rosa, near our hotel.
Friday 22 September (B,L) We continue our journey northwards from the adjacent Usaquen Station with a steam-hauled train using one of the other locomotives. We will proceed to La Caro Junction, from where we take the line to Zipaquira, halting for photos en route. At Zipaquira, we walk the short distance to the attractive town square for a late lunch. After lunch it is but a short transfer to the unbelievable underground cathedral carved within what was formerly a working salt mine. We will have a guided tour of the complete complex before retiring to our hotel. The evening comprises free time to enjoy the many restaurants and bars in Zipaquira.
Saturday 23 September (B,L,D) We return to La Caro junction by bus where yet another steam locomotive awaits then we relax and watch the Colombian landscape pass whilst we enjoy lunch on the train as we make for Villapinzon. The scenery gets more interesting as we proceed past Suesca where we plan to make good use of the photo opportunities hereabouts. At Villapinzon, we will need to say goodbye to our steam locomotive and continue our journey by 1960s railcar towards Tunja for some scenic running and halts at a viaduct and tunnel. We plan to alight at a remote road crossing to transfer to Villa de Leyva, one of the colonial gems of the continent, with its enormous central square.
Sunday 24 September (B,L,D) Our day commences with a guided tour of the main sights of our base, followed by free time. After departure, we visit a site known as the Stonehenge of Colombia having many large rocks carved to resemble phallic symbols and also a museum hosting a significant dinosaur fossil. After lunch taken nearby, we make our way to Paipa for an early check-in to a natural springs hot-spa hotel once used by Simon Bolivar – take your bathing outfits to relax at in the spa waters! For railfans, per chance, there may be a freight working from Tunja to Paipa to ride. There is also the possibility of a visit to Belencito, where a small museum contains a preserved steam locomotive. Dinner is planned at our hotel.
Monday 25 September (B,L,D) A very early start is required this morning for those wishing to join us. We plan to ride in the passenger car of the c.7:30 mixed coal or ore empties from the Belencito steel complex as it makes its way through a spectacular gorge, reminiscent of Colorado, en route to Paz del Rio at the end of the line. We hope to have a photo stop or two on this workaday electrified railway. We have time at the terminus for photos of both the electric loco and the local diesel pilot before our bus returns us back to the hotel to wash the coal and ore dust away prior to a late morning check-out. We then commence a journey through the mountains to Barichara, another of the exquisitely preserved small colonial towns which will be our base for this evening. It is said to be the kind of town that Hollywood filmmakers dream about, a Spanish colonial town saturated with atmosphere.
Tuesday 26 September (B,L,D) The first part of the day gives us the opportunity to explore Barichara, initially with our guide, then using free-time. We have an evening flight to catch from Bucaramanga to Cartagena but, before this, we make for Parque National del Chicamocha where we take lunch on arrival. In the afternoon we take the aerial tramway over the spectacular canyon of the National Park to where our bus meets us on the other side. Our short evening flight should soon see us in Cartagena and to our central hotel for 2 nights.
Wednesday 27 September (B,D) The day is spent in Cartagena, a Unesco World Heritage site and a fairy-tale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty lying within impressive 13km of centuries-old colonial stone walls. In the morning we take a leisurely guided tour until lunchtime. The afternoon comprises free-time in this undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast.
Thursday 28 September (B,L,D) This morning we transfer to Santa Marta. Passing by Barranquilla, where once existed a 3’ 6’’ railway, we travel across a causeway to arrive at Cienaga. Railfans will alight here with a packed lunch, to visit the rail facilities on this busy coal-carrying northern section of the Colombian railway. We hope to continue our journey to Santa Marta in a Director’s Coach and visit rail facilities also at the Puerto end of the line. Those continuing by bus will take lunch in the old town, and after which, will enjoy a guided tour of the Cathedral, Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the resting place of Simon Bolivar and the Museo del Oro. The evening is completed by a farewell dinner in the Ouzo restaurant.
Friday 29 September (B) Our day of departure, when we take transfers to either Santa Marta or Barranquilla airports depending on which international flights are finally determined.
Our Panama ‘extension’ will comprise a pre-tour. Not only do flights work out better that way, but it places us in Panama during the week when the railway’s passenger service is operating. We plan:
Tuesday 12 September (D) Arrivals at Tocumen Airport Panama City and transfer to our hotel sited within the historic old quarter of the city for dinner. Dependant on final flight options and arrivals, we may offer a short programme.
Wednesday 13 September (B,L,D) We commence our Panama exploration by transfer across the Isthmus of Panama to the Caribbean province of Colon. In about 1 hour we will have crossed the continent, from ocean to ocean, after which, we drive over the massive Gatun locks to the Castle of San Lorenzo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built to fortify and protect the river entrance and Las Cruces Trail leading to Panama City. Lunch will be taken at Shelter Bay Marina before we visit Gatun Locks and the Observation centre. Our return to Panama City will be by the Panama Canal Railroad, following a similar route to the canal and taking some of the trans-ocean container traffic. The railway takes us along the magnificent waterway, flanked by the exuberant rainforests of Soberania National Park.
Thursday 14 September (B,L) Today we transfer to the town of Gamboa, where the Chagres River meets the Panama Canal to enjoy extraordinary views of the Canal and board an expedition boat for a voyage across Gatun Lake in the Canal passing by gigantic cargo ships. Our boat will pass close to rainforest covered islands (once hill tops) where we search for various items of wildlife including crocodile and white-faced monkeys. In the early afternoon we can return to our hotel or, remain in the Gamboa area to observe canal and rail traffic until the passenger train passes.
Friday 15 September (B) Our day starts with a visit to the Miraflores Locks visitor centre, where there is a preserved steam locomotive used at the time of the canal’s construction. Later, we have a guided tour of the UNESCO Heritage old quarter of the city before we break for lunch (own arrangements). Our Panama tour finishes with some free time and a late afternoon transfer to the airport before flights to Colombia for the main tour.