This blog is a long time coming – seven and a half months actually. I know it’s cliché to say, but time flies! I’m thankful to have the opportunity now to reflect back on and digest our travels through Colombia. To be honest I think I appreciate the diversity of the country, geographically and culturally, more now than I did at the time.
When we told our loved ones we were in Colombia the most common response was “What are you doing there? Isn’t that the drug capital of the world?”
To be fair, what does the average person know about the country? For starters it’s the home of famed drug lord Pablo Escobar and hip-gyrating singer Shakira…it’s one of the leading producers of coffee and cocaine in the world… the women are beautiful… soccer is HUGE… it’s dangerous. Am I missing anything?
In my opinion Colombia’s reputation precedes and misrepresents itself – though that could be said of every country, especially the U.S. Lucky for us, Colombia provided a travel experience that was in some ways stereotypical and in many ways exceeded expectation.
We crossed over from Central America via the San Blas Adventures boat trip and weren’t surprised when we stopped 20 minutes before entering Colombian territory to have our backpacks turned inside out by Panamanian Border Patrol in search of drug contraband. What WAS surprising was when we stepped off the boat in Capurgana, Colombia and the immigration office was closed and incoming visitors were trusted to go back later to get stamped in to the country!
The vibe was exactly what one might expect a Caribbean coastal village to be like. Imagine brightly colored guesthouses, small shops lining the beach and lush jungle leading down to crystalline blue water. When we arrived small children were running barefoot through the dirt roads, teenagers were congregated in the soccer field listening to blasting Caribe tunes and slow moving adults were observing it all from the comfort of their deck chairs, drinks in hand.
We only had one day to explore the village and surrounding area, so we followed the coastal trail to the fresh and salt water pools before feasting on a seafood dinner and grabbing drinks for the last time with our San Blas guides Olivia and Marcela.
The following day our San Blas posse ventured on together and we were introduced to a new reality of travel in South America: the countries are giant and travel times much longer.
A two hour boat ride, 12+ hour van ride, $140 and several failed ATM withdrawals later Jordan and I found ourselves in the Cartagena bus terminal still another 40 minute bus ride from the city. We waited in the terminal for our friends, whom we owed money and planned to find a hostel with, but with no means of communication we finally decided to go it alone.
Street food vendors, crowds of excited locals and blaring music added chaos to the confusion of finding a local bus into the city that we could afford with the last of our borrowed pesos. We didn’t understand the queuing system, but a kid who seemed to understand our Spanish directed us to an empty bus that quickly filled to over capacity as we jerked up to the front of the line. Uncertain of exactly where we were headed or where we were getting off, we sat patiently while our fourteen year old driver snaked through side streets and neighborhoods, grinding gears and jolting along the entire time.
We eventually met up with our friends and set out to find an ATM and food. Three blocks later we found ourselves in the middle of a Battle of the Brass Bands street party complete with food and drink vendors, crowds of Salsa dancers and bug-eyed tourists, confetti and cops on the prowl.
By day we explored the city. Notably Old Town (shown above) inside the centuries old walls that were built to protect the Spanish settlement against enemies and pirates. Outside the walls we cruised the streets checking out the incredible graffiti art found everywhere from main streets to dodgy back alleys.
By night we entertained ourselves at salsa clubs and got frisked by police on the way back to the guesthouse. We weren’t even doing drugs but it was nerve wracking to see Jordan and the other guys pressed up against the wall being searched. We learned that the cops will use illegal tactics to get bribes from travelers such as looking inside your wallet for drugs. If you do have any drugs on you, prepare to be fleeced for all your cash.
*Tip for travelers in any country* You are a prime target for robbery, whether it be crooked cops or a knife wielding local, especially if you if are out getting loose. When going out for the night, take only as much cash as you think you’ll spend and leave the rest locked up safe with your ATM cards. This way, if you are robbed, you’re losses will be minimal and you can’t be taken to the ATM to drain your account. From Cartagena we traveled Northeast to check out more of the Caribbean coastline. At the recommendation of a friend, we decided to skip the backpacker hotspot Taganga and opted for the more tranquil Palomino. We planned to stay in hammocks on the beach then spend a few nights in Tayrona National Park, but we had intermittent downpours which brought out masses of mosquitoes making that plan a whole lot less desirable. In the end we stayed in Casa Mar Azul with a gracious host, Carlos.
On the day he planned to take us tubing down the river the water was murky and brown from the rain, so we went to the beach and scored free fish and prawns off some local fisherman and brought it back for a communal dinner at the guesthouse. Palomino wasn’t much of a town, but we did have the opportunity to meet some of the indigenous Arhuaco people and see the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains from the beach. Pretty epic!
We were hesitant to leave the coast because we knew it would be the last of our beach time for a while, but we had friends waiting in Medellin so we decided to make our way inland. We first stopped in Santa Marta which looks close on a map, but is actually around eight hours on a bus.
I haven’t mentioned this yet, but bus trips in Colombia are outrageously expensive – $40-50 USD for an eight hour ride and the buses are not nice! So rather than spend another 17 hours on buses, we spent an extra $20 and flew.
VivaColombia is a budget airline with lots of domestic flight options. A Colombian credit card is required to book online, so for foreigners it’s best to look up local travel agencies to book through. We booked through our hostel in Santa Marta and the booking fee was minimal – maybe $5. After 40 minutes of driving through darkness from the airport, we descended down a steep winding road and saw the city lights of Medellin sprawling endlessly before us. It was a beautiful introduction to a city that is and probably forever will be the city for party-goers in Colombia. I had a love hate with the city which I’ll try to explain like this…
Have you ever gained weight slowly and not really noticed until one day your pants refuse to button and you’re forced to acknowledge that you are now fat? Well I’ve come a long way in the past decade, but I didn’t really notice how much I have changed as a person until I got to Medellin and couldn’t button my pants, so to speak.
My 20 year old self may have had a field day getting into all the debauchery that is available in Medellin, but I found myself really put off by the whole scene. Fortunately, it’s all what you make it and Medellin has a lot to offer including a great public transportation system making it easy to explore, a gondola ride with breathtaking views, a futbol stadium where we saw Bogota v. Medellin, shopping and more.
My favorite day was spent traveling two hours outside the city to Guatape where we climbed La Piedra (The Stone). 740 steps up we were rewarded with fantastic views of the lake region. According to Wikitravel the lakes were created in part by the construction of a hydroelectric dam that provides 30% of Colombia’s electricity supply. The views during the bus journey and from the top of La Piedra were so picturesque it was definitely worth the effort.
Salento, a small town known for coffee production, was our next stop. We explored the artsy little town square and ventured out into the hills for some mild hiking with more amazing views. Mostly we enjoyed the peaceful guesthouse, Plantation House, and focused on getting some rest and relaxation after a week of hustle and bustle in the city.
Perhaps we were a bit too lazy though, the one thing we didn’t do in Colombia that I really wish we had was go out to see Cocora Valley home to thousands of 60 meter tall wax palms. Next time!
After Salento we made our way quickly down to the border of Ecuador making only a couple of stops in Cali and Ipiales to break up the travel time. In Cali we spent one entertaining day at the zoo. There’s nothing like seeing a bunch of silly animals to lighten the heart of any road weary traveler.
In the end, I think we rushed through Colombia a bit too quickly. Mostly because of our frustration with the cost and time for transportation. It was the most expensive country we traveled in for that reason. We also spent all but a few nights paying good money to sleep in dorm rooms with at least eight other people which gets old real quick. Especially in a country that is a destination for party travelers.
Of course there was also the reality that we had left ourselves only three months to get down to Santiago, so we needed to rush. Oops! Either way, we did have an incredible time and I’d like to go back to Colombia sometime with a slightly larger budget.