Huila is a department of Colombia located south of Bogota and Medellin, and east of Pasto, Popayan, and Cali.  Known for its rugged and mountainous beauty, it boasts the second tallest mountain of Colombia, the Nevado del Huila. While its capital, Neiva, is located in the northern part of Huila, this article deals with the region in between Popayan and Neiva, on the western side of Huila, near the town of Belen.


Small towns in rural Colombia typically center around a church, a school, and a few small shops and restaurants. While urban Colombias are friendly as well, you will find rural Colombians surprisingly warm and welcoming, and typically delighted that foreign visitors have somehow stumbled upon their village.

In many parts of Colombia a horse is still more practical and affordable than a car. If you are interested in horseback riding, ask around town, and you may find families very happy to take you out for a ride at an affordable price.

Colombia is a mountainous country. Huila lies in a lush and fertile mountainous region, 1000m to 2000m above sea level. Despite the altitude, it still gets quite hot. If you are heading out on an expedition in this area, make sure to bring sunblock to protect your skin and plenty of water. While water in cities such as Bogota, Cali, and Medellin is potable, don't tempt fate, or dar papaya, as Colombians say, by trying it in the villages.

One of the most rewarding types of opportunities in Latin America is finding volunteer programs. On my visit to Huila, we headed to a farm called Atlantis, located in a very rural part of the departamento. Along the dirt road, we saw a landscape mostly dominated by rolling pastures. Most families in this area make a living by selling milk to larger agricultural intermediates. Along the 10km walk to Atlantis, we saw a campesino huilense, or peasant from Huila, using a horse to transport wood back to his farm.

South American governments are not modest when it comes to advertising their accomplishments, frequently using billboards to advertise the projects they are working. As we walked down the remote path, we came across children on their way home from school. They were very helpful in getting us to our destination.  Outside of villages, there are typically no street signs or addresses, so the ability to navigate by geographical landmarks and cardinal directions is a must.


Families till the soil in the same manner that they have been doing for generations. On steep hillsides farmers grow frijoles, the typical Colombian red beans. Families often keep chickens in their courtyards or backyards, fattening them up until they are ready to eat.

Always take the time to stop and look at the plant and animal life around you.  Colombia has been reported by biologists to be the most biodiverse country in the world, and you will be amazed at the rich variety of insects, butterflies, birds, and plants you can find with a little luck and patience. Bananas form an important part of the diet in most of Latin America.  A hearty tree, it can grow tall and strong even at high altitudes in Huila.

Juan Manuel Santos, like his predecessor Uribe, has been waging a vicious war against guerrilla groups throughout the country. While Uribe and Santos remain quite popular, left-wing critics have suggested that the military and police have resorted to underhanded tactics, and targeted many innocent people in the process of seeking to eradicate the FARC and the ELN.  

The term "falsos positivos", false positives, is quite commonly used here. It describes documented cases where the army has killed innocent peasants and then dressed them up as guerrillas to make them look like legitimate casualties. As with all things, the civil war in Colombia is far more complicated than meets the eye.  

The village of Belen is hot and dusty. We found it amazing how cheap things were here in comparison to the big cities. This is the same thing that you'll find throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Chile. The division between urban and rural wealth is incredible.

Small towns in Colombia boast butcher shops that may not look too appetizing to many American and European readers, but it is here that most Colombians make their daily purhcases. What you see here are various cuts of beef. In particular, note the bull's feet, or "patas de novillo". This is a Colombian delicacy.

This village is right by the Cauca/Huila border.  It is a great place to take a quick break from the bumpy bus ride, and enjoy some rice, frijoles, potatoes, and chicken.  While food poisoning is a problem in Latin America, stick to the chicken and you will never have any problems.  The only problems that I've ever had were with beef.

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