Pablo Escobar, the FARC, the Darien Gap, Ingrid Bettancourt… these are just a few things that first come to mind when you think of Colombia. Just like anywhere else in the world, there are dangerous places in Colombia and bad things can happen to good people there. Being an adventurous traveler and having the arrogance of youth on my side, one of the reasons I wanted to visit Colombia in particular is precisely because many people tend to avoid it. Colombia did not in any way let me down—the natural beauty and the friendliness of the people made it one of my favorite places I have been.
When I traveled to Colombia in January 2007, I went with one of my best girlfriends, and to help dispel any fears you may have about traveling as a woman in Colombia, we rarely felt unsafe. Obviously, as stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb tourists, we had to fend off hoards of vendors everywhere we went, but I would recommend Colombia to anyone with a basic knowledge of personal safety and a sense of adventure. We stuck to big cities and were careful about riding the bus, but Colombia is definitely a country for travelers, and many of its amazing qualities can only be experienced off the beaten path. There are certainly places you should avoid (for example, get rid of any notions you might have about traveling to or from Panama by land), and at least an elementary working knowledge of Spanish is almost a prerequisite. While you can absolutely relax at a resort here, I’d advise you to see as much of the country as you can. Since there is so much to do and see, try staying a few days in as many places as possible.
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If I could redo my trip to Colombia, I would definitely travel around the country more. Unfortunately, we were limited to only 2 weeks there, and we made the most of it. There was so much we wanted to do but couldn’t fit into just 2 weeks of travel. We focused on Bogota and Cartagena, staying in low budget hotels and hostels for the most part. On the road, we heard amazing stories from fellow travelers who took the bus from Bogota up through the coffee growing region of Medellin and Sorrento on the way to the coast; of incredible salsa dancing in Cali; of the exhilarating weeklong trek to the ancient archeological site, La Ciudad Perdida, in Sierra Nevada; of the most perfect, beautiful pristine beach near the sleepy fishing village of Taganga, about 4 hours outside of Santa Marta. All of the travelers we met in Colombia were as enamored as we were with the ecological diversity and untouched beauty of this multi-faceted country. I’m sure I will be back to Colombia at some point in my life—our short two weeks there were just long enough to make us realize how much more time we needed.
Bogota is an interesting city because apparently nobody lives there. We got there on a Saturday morning to find the city of 8 million people completely deserted. We pretty much had the place to ourselves to explore for the entire weekend. We later learned that many of the residents of Bogota leave the city on the weekends, and also that most of them don’t spend much time downtown unless it’s the workweek. There are a lot of amazing historical and cultural things to do and see in Bogota, but one of the things I liked most about the city was the graffiti—some was in English and some in Spanish, more social commentary than defacement of property. The fact that it was scrawled in tiny cobbled alleyways on the oldest buildings in the city made for an interesting juxtaposition of past and present.
In Bogota, we stayed in La Candelaria, which is a little enclave of tiny buildings and cobbled walkways strung with lights. It is the oldest part of Bogota, and like the downtown areas of many of the world’s big cities, it’s not the safest part of town. It IS right in the middle of most of the touristy areas of the city though, so we liked being in a central location. While in Bogota, we checked out the Museo de Oro, which houses an incredibly comprehensive collection of Columbian and pre-Columbian artifacts, and true to its name, an enormous quantity of gold. It’s currently closed for renovation (scheduled to open again in November 2008), but it’s a very well-presented, interesting museum. We went out dancing on a Saturday night in La Zona Rosa, which has a very different feel than La Candelaria (much more modern and upscale), and then hopped on a plane to Cartagena on Monday morning.
Cartagena is amazing. As soon as you step off the plane you are immediately uncomfortably hot, even in January. Driving up around the old part of the city is thrilling, and not just because there apparently are no traffic lanes in Colombia; all of the chivas (buses) congregate together outside the walled city, and there are hundreds of people bustling back and forth to go about their business. Getsamani is a part of the city outside the old walled city, and it’s cheaper and caters to the backpacker types, like us. Every single second is total craziness, with fruit vendors, taxis, and people all barreling down the tiny sidewalk and street outside our hotel. The walled Ciudad Vieja is very different in comparison. This is the original port town of Cartagena de Indias. There are winding, cobbled streets that curve into open plazas filled with palm trees and tropical plants where you can sit and watch the city happen around you. There are tons of tiny bars and restaurants, shops and alleyways that you stumble upon as you stroll through the streets. We spent several nights just relaxing and drinking aguardiente or coffee in the Plaza Santa Domingo, listening to strolling musicians give serenades and people watching.
After our time there, it was like being transported to another world to visit the newer sections of Cartagena: El Laguito and Bocagrande. There you’ll find modern high-rises, nightclubs, and shopping—the encroachment of the 21st century upon the shoreline. I loved bouncing back and forth between past and present here as well—dancing through the night at a beachside nightclub after a “Rumba Chiva” tour of the city, then waking up early to take a tour bus out to the middle of nowhere to suspend myself over 1 kilometer of mud in El Volcan del Totumo. By far the best part of our trip to Colombia however, was our time spent on Playa Blanca.
Playa Blanca is a gorgeous strip of white sand beach on the island of Baru, about a 30 minute boat ride out into the Caribbean off of Cartagena. To get to this tiny slice of paradise, we woke up early on the designated morning (boats don’t go to and from the island every day), and headed down to an open air fish market outside of the main city. We waded through palapas with piles of fish, vegetables, sneakers (you name it pretty much), and hopped on a tiny little speedboat laden down with supplies and filled mostly with locals who live on Baru. The tiny boat sped us out to Playa Blanca, dropping us off in the surf right off the beach. Playa Blanca is not a place to bring your valuables—all you really need is a bathing suit (and maybe a sleeping bag). We left our packs in a lockbox at the hostel, and just brought a small bag with a change of clothes out to the island. The time we spent there was so relaxing and pristine. It is what you imagine the Caribbean to be—beautiful turquoise water, sparkling beaches. We stayed at “Hugo’s Place”—basically a collection of tents right on the beach with a bit of shade from the sun. We ate fish that Hugo and his family caught and cooked for us, drank coconut milk right from the coconut, and explored the tiny peninsula of Playa Blanca. After a few days without running water, we were ready to head back to the mainland. Roughing it like that certainly isn’t for everyone, and you can see Playa Blanca if you book a tour to the Islas Rosarios—the boats stop at Playa Blanca on the way back to Cartagena.
All in all, I was delighted by my decision to spend my vacation in Colombia. If you’re thinking about including it in your around the world trip, I can’t recommend it highly enough. With President Uribe and the US working to crack down on the FARC, I think Colombia will continue to get safer and safer. I’d like to keep it my little secret, because there are so many untouched, beautiful and remote places there – but since I had such a GREAT experience visiting Colombia I feel obligated to share it with you.