Travelling with purpose changes people, places and the planet for the better – as Rachelle Mackintosh discovers on a journey deep into Colombia’s wildest heart.
The setting sun highlights the capybaras huddled in the glittering shallows as a skimmer glides above the lazing caimans. Beneath Los Llanos’ booming birdsong there’s a distant mechanical hum: Laura Miranda, ecologist and director of the Cunaguaro Foundation, is up in the microlight tracking a giant anteater and is on the phone directing her land-based colleague, Cesar Rojano Bolano, to its location. Suddenly our naturalist Daniel Restrepo gets the call: We’re on! I pile into the 4WD with my six travel buddies and, as the full moon rises, we bump across the plains to meet Laura, Cesar and their team beside a rivulet, where they’ve anaesthetised the giant anteater. He’ll only be out cold for 15 minutes, so we need to be quick: working together, we remove a few ticks, measure his heart rate and weight, and collect blood and fur samples. This data is important to Cunaguaro’s advocacy work and research into the Orinoquía region’s giant anteaters, a vulnerable population affected by habitat loss, climate change and road fatalities.
Moments later, Cesar gives our sleeping beauty an injection to awaken him, and he toddles off into the darkness, nonchalant. But for me and my fellow travellers who’ve come to Colombia with Adventure World, helping the Cunaguaro team has been exhilarating.This trip already feels heart-expandingly rewarding – and that’s the point of this 13-day trip from Bogota to Cartagena. Adventure World works with the TreadRight Foundation and grassroots projects to create customisable holidays that uphold the United Nations’ Global Goals for sustainable development, promoting eco-friendly accommodation, transport and conservation to ensure we travel with purpose.
The benefits of travelling with purpose
An easy, one-hour flight from Bogota, Los Llanos is our first wilderness hotspot of the trip, and the riverfront Savanna Orinoquía Lodge proves to be the perfect base – not only does it boast plush freestanding bungalows with private pools, but it’s also a top spot to get a feel for the local llanero “cowboy” lifestyle and meet visiting conservation teams like Cunaguaro, the Palmarito Casanare Foundation and ProCAT Colombia. Over three action-packed days we all work together to release endangered river turtle hatchlings into the Orinoco River; check trail cameras for elusive ocelots and pumas; record the vital statistics of a lesser anteater and explore this gold-and-green landscape by microlight, horseback and canoe. At the end of our stay, TreadRight donates to Cunaguaro on our group’s behalf, so the team can buy more trail cameras to assist their research. It’s a gratifying way to farewell this special place – and support the locals protecting it while travelling with purpose.
Rewarding experiences and expeditions
Still buzzing, we fly onwards for two nights in Medellín – a spectacular mesh of highrises that clings to a wide valley and hugs the jagged Andes – and visit the 19th-century town of Guatape, where we cruise a lake lined with sparkling mansions, see Pablo Escobar’s dilapidated waterfront estate and visit the towering El Peñol monolith. But before too long, it’s time to explore the Colombian wilderness again, so we trade the colourful concrete jungle for the sapphire and emerald-toned Pacific Coast for three nights at the El Almejal eco-lodge in Bahía Solano. Here, we canoe and hike through Utria National Park and get hands-on with El Almejal’s important conservation work: owner Cesar Isaza Vásquez heads the Project Golfina team, which ensures olive Ridley sea turtles’ eggs hatch safely. Over the years they’ve released more than 135,000 baby turtles into the wild, including 27 that we guide to the water. Tours that allow people to travel with purpose facilitate experiences that would be otherwise inaccessible to the average traveller. Seeing these fragile beauties crawl into the big blue for the first time fills our hearts – a feeling that’s compounded when TreadRight donates on our behalf so Project Golfina can upgrade its equipment.
Deeper connections with nature, people and planet
For the final leg of our travel with purpose expedition, we fly north to the Caribbean Coast, basing ourselves at the Bantú Boutique Hotel in buzzing Cartagena and exploring the city’s picturesque World Heritage-listed Old Town. Here, local women called palenqueras spruik flavourful tropical fruit, their vibrant dresses filling the cobbled lanes with technicolour, and the 16th-century Fort of San Felipe de Barajas stands tall and proud. Further afield, we day-trip to the dry tropical forests of Los Límites and San Juan Nepomuceno, two sites where the TreadRight-supported Proyecto Titi is building wildlife corridors for the world’s 7,000 remaining “mono titis” – the “tiny monkeys” we call cotton-top tamarins – critically endangered due to poaching and habitat loss.
Led by the inspiring Rosamira Guillen, the project works with local communities to create wildlife corridors and since formally forming in 2004 it has established more than 6,142 hectares of protected wilderness for the tamarins across Colombia. And the little guys are clearly thriving in Los Límites – on a forest walk with the team we track the Asis family of tamarins; its dominant male, Emilio, is radio-tagged and marked with a purple dye so researchers can find him in the canopy more easily. Smitten by Emilio’s endearing combination of vulnerability and strength as he leaps through the forest, I’m grateful for Proyecto Titi’s efforts to protect him – and for the life-affirming adventure that’s brought me to this less explored pocket of Latin America. Knowing my visit to Colombia has made a difference is the ultimate feel-good souvenir – one I want to keep collecting wherever my travels take me.
Adventure World offers a range of Colombia and worldwide Travel-With-Purpose itineraries, with each including domestic transport, accommodation, activities, donations to grassroots projects, and most meals.