Hola a todos! I just got back from a trip to Colombia- a country that far exceeded my expectations. 🇨🇴
I visited three very contrasting cities: Cartagena, Medellin, and Bogota. Each maintain a very distinctive climate, culture, and cuisine, but all share a similar vibrancy, character, and charm. 💖
I’ll start this post off by talking about the white stuff…and not the kind you’d imagine when speaking of Colombia. 😂Yes, less than 24 hours before my flight, I was notified that it would be cancelled due to a forecasted SNOW storm.❄️ Since my Jet Blue flight was booked through Expedia, I decided to call both the airline and the booking company to see about my alternative options. Expedia gave me the option of booking with an alternative airline for an additional 300 USD, but there was no guarantee that that flight wouldn’t be cancelled either. As such, I decided to rebook with Jet Blue on a flight a day later for no additional charge. Well, wouldn’t you know, that flight got delayed as well, and I ended up missing my connection in Florida. As such, I had to wait another day and fly out the next morning. It wasn’t so bad though, considering they put me up at a nice hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. They also gave me food vouchers and a 100 USD flight credit as an apology. With the 70-degree weather in Florida, along with a spacious double bed hotel room and a pool, I was already in flip flops and feeling on vacation. 😊
Anyway, this flight hiccup meant that I also only had 24 hours in Cartagena before my flight to Medellin. I tried to see as much as possible in the time, but it definitely made me realize that I’ll have to return to that region again someday. On a more positive note, as fate would have it, because of the delay, I ended up bumping into an old friend at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale. We met two years ago while traveling through Belize.
I was able to share a taxi with him from the airport to the city center and do a bit of exploring together that night as well.
Side note: It’s easy to exchange USD for Colombian Pesos at the airport. Do know that the money is a mix of old and new bills, so the same value of currency might be a multitude of colors. Just double check the amount you are giving before you pay for anything. The current exchange rate was around 1 USD for 3,100 Colombian Pesos.
What to do in Cartagena:
Cartagena is a coastal city that was colonized by the Spanish. Christopher Columbus didn’t physically set foot in this country, but he did name it after himself. Columbus=Colombia. Since the Spanish ruled Colombia for decades, you’ll notice the architecture here is heavily influenced by this European style. My first suggestion once you arrive is to wander the colorful Spanish colonial streets.In particular, it’s impressive to admire the elaborate door knockers. During Spanish colonial rule, the door knockers were a status symbol. Many of the knockers also reflected the tropical environment, with lots of lizards, starfish, and mermaids.During the Spanish rule, thousands of African slaves were also brought into this port city. Saint Peter Claver was a famous Jesuit Priest who listened to and advocated for these black slaves. He wore this cloak, which he would lend to anyone in need. There was a legend that anyone who wore the cloak would receive lifetime health. It seems that even after his death, Peter’s cloak is still protecting those in need. 🐶☀️
Because of the historic slave trade, Cartagena is an area with a high population of Afro-Colombians. Notable women in the region are Las Palenqueras, or fruit sellers that wear colorful dresses, gracefully balance their goods on their head, and sell their tropical bounty in the streets.
They also connect with their heritage through regular cultural performances.Because it was such an important trading port, Cartagena was also under attack quite often by pirates and the like. As such, the city has a large fortification wall around its center, and even the church had an opening for a cannon to shoot out EXPLOSIVES at intruders!Cartagena is not only focused on historic architecture though. It is also a place of creativity and innovation. Like the two other cities of Medellin and Bogota, Cartagena also has an area full of quirky street art. This vibrant bohemian neighborhood, where tourists and locals come together, is known as Getsemani.
In this area, I found cafes spilling out onto the sidewalks and musicians performing in the streets.My favorite part was the charming food vendors with their personalized food carts and charisma to boot.
I think these metal sculptures sum up the laid-back mentality in Cartagena very well. It is a place that values both relaxation and socialization.
One of the best spots to relax and socialize here is at Abaco Libros y Cafe. They have delicious coffee, an impressive literary collection, and frequent live musical performances. ☕ 🎵 📚
In terms of grub, I’d highly recommend stopping at Cebiches and Seviches. They serve fresh and affordable ceviche with fish, lime, onions, cilantro, avocado, and the interesting addition of corn nuts! A delightful and unexpected crunch! The ceviches cost a reasonable 5-6 USD each. 🦐 🐟After a long day of walking, I’d suggest admiring the sunset and the sea views with a pricey cocktail from the top of the trendy Cafe del Mar, then walking through the city streets or taking a horse-drawn carriage ride to admire the illuminations. 🍹
If you’d like to learn more about the history of Cartagena, including the period of Spanish colonial rule, I’d suggest taking a free walking tour. Even if you don’t like tours, the guide gives you Colombian treats along the way!
As well, if you have more time than I did, I’d recommend taking a day trip to the Rosario Islands to enjoy some water sports, or visiting Pablo Escobar’s abandoned mansion. Based on my experience, all tours can be booked one day in advance. (photos courtesy of my friend, Chris)
Accommodation in Cartagena: I stayed at Volunteer Hostel, which is a social enterprise offering volunteer projects with the local community. It didn’t have the most social atmosphere, but I did meet this cool guy named Dan, and the two of us met his friends at a different hostel I’d recommend to backpackers called Republica. Dan was a British musician that lost inspiration back home and decided to backpack around South America to find some internal motivation. After months on the road, he became inspired to buy a new guitar in Cartagena and start writing music again. 😊🎸
After only 24 hours in Cartagena, I took a one-hour flight to Medellin. The bus and plane were around the same price (about 40 USD), and the bus journey would be 12-15 hours, making the plane an easy decision. I found the flight using Skyscanner and compared it to the bus price using Rome2Rio.
What to do in Medellin:
Only twenty years ago, thanks to the Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar, Medellin was known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Now it is seen as an up-and-coming city of progress, innovation and change. To learn about Medellin’s complex history, I’d recommend taking a free walking tour.Our local guide, Juan, has really been through the ringer. He grew up during the 70s and 80s, when the demand for cocaine really took off. Because of simple economics, when the demand for the drug increased, Colombia realized it was able to provide the supply. One of the most notable men involved in the trafficking of cocaine to the United States and around the world was Pablo Escobar. He grew up near Medellin, and due to his stealthy tactics, was able to form the Medellin Cartel, a highly organized Colombian drug coalition, which at its peak, brought in an estimated 100 million USD per day! Known as the “King of Cocaine”, Escobar was able to pay off government officials and always seemed one step ahead of the law in regards to smuggling. His tactics included hiding the drug in airplane tires and flying planes below radar into the Bahamas. Now with such a risky and profitable operation, Escobar was unrelenting at stopping anyone in his path. He was responsible for the death of an estimated 4,000 people, including civilians, journalists, and police officers. On the contrary, Escobar also used his wealth to give back to the poor by improving the country’s infrastructure. After decades of violence, he was finally shot and killed in 1993, yet the locals are still passionately opinionated about the legacy of Escobar. As such, during our walking tour, as to avoid attracting local opinion, our guide chose to use code words for cocaine like, “the white stuff” or “SNOW.” He also referred to Escobar as, “he who must not be named”, a Harry Potter reference to Voldemort.
Anyway, Juan was personally very opposed to Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. During their reign, both he and his brother were shot as innocent bystanders. His two prosperous uncles were also kidnapped and held for ransom in jungle for a year before his family paid 400,000 USD to get them back. To escape, Juan and his brother went to the United States and applied for asylum. They overstayed their visa, and when their applications were denied, Juan was arrested and sent to jail for 6 months. After his release, he married his American girlfriend in order to gain citizenship, but that was also denied, and he was told to leave the country. His new American wife also told him she wouldn’t go with him to Colombia, so he returned back to his homeland alone feeling very depressed and hopeless. Now you may wonder, after such a tumultuous history, how the city of Medellin was able to pull itself together. Well, oddly enough, the answer is: the Medellin Metro.It was the first and still is the only public metro in Colombia. It is a series of above-ground trains and cable cars, and its construction was really seen as a sign of progress, and a beacon of hope in the lives of Colombians. 🙏Juan used this metaphor to describe the metro. Basically, as Colombians felt like they were drowning, with all the violence and inequality, the metro was seen as a tree branch for them to grab onto. It was something to help lift them out of the water and keep them from drowning or giving up hope. The metro represented progress and the possibility of change. Essentially, because the city was so spread out into the countryside, the metro made it possible for people to easily travel across town to find new jobs. This exponentially increased economic development for the city and also increased communication between the different neighborhoods. Everyone was more connected and social, which helped deter further violence.
Because the metro is so respected, you will not find trash or graffiti near it. It is seriously looked at as sacred ground. Personally, I liked how you only paid one small fee to ride the metro, and could take it from one side of the city to the other. I recommend stopping off at different points within the city center, to get a birds-eye-view of the different attractions. Thankfully Juan was also able to put his life back together as well. He became a tour guide and even got remarried. He says she is his one true love. 💓In addition to the metro, Medellin also helped improve the city center by filling up empty spaces that were once areas of violence and crime. For example, 300 massive illuminated concrete columns were installed in order to create a positive energy in the downtown. This area was once infiltrated with drug users and prostitutes, and is now home to a free community library, and is a popular gathering space for families, businessmen, and local food vendors.
Another positive space for Medellin locals to enjoy is Botero Park. Fernando Botero is a famous Colombian artist who has donated numerous metal sculptures to the city of Medellin. His curvaceous sculptures of both animals and humans represent a non-realistic reality with very disproportionate features, like large women with tiny hands and stocky horses with minute heads.
One of the most inspiring Botero statues is this bird. During a concert a few years back a bomb was placed in a backpack behind the bird turning the metal sculpture into shrapnel, which killed seven people, including a child and a pregnant woman. Instead of removing the statue and erasing this terrible scar, the city decided to keep the shattered sculpture and add a new bird next to it as a way to resist defeat. The two are now known as the birds of peace. ☮️
Now to gain the best perspective of Medellin’s drastic rebirth and reformation, I’d recommend taking a free graffiti walking tour of Comuna 13.Now, during a time of such violence and strife, Comuna 13 was the most dangerous neighborhood in the city. Being a sort of shantytown sprawling into the mountains, Comuna 13 represents a neighborhood of low socio-economic means with a sense of vulnerability.Since the neighborhood was located so far into the mountainside, it was a strategic area to transport drugs out of the city. As such, the cartel, guerillas, and paramilitary groups were constantly fighting over this area, recruiting local youth to join in on the fight. Bombs and killings were a daily occurrence. Our local tour guide saw many of her friends killed, and in 2012, a major siege of the area occurred, where the government came in with weapons and armed men in helicopters shooting up the entire neighborhood. Their aim was to put a stop to the drug lords, but this also meant the murder of innocent civilians, where 39 community members lost their lives. 😢
At that point, the community started to show resistance. They began to use art as a way to show their disapproval of the situation. Murals began to overtake the buildings in Comuna 13, many of them with a split face representing the dark times of the past and the hope for a prosperous future. Over time, the community has really made a name for itself. Our guide, who learned to speak English through local volunteers in the area, says she is now proud to say she is from Comuna 13. She no longer feels shameful to be from this place. It has become a place of artistic inspiration, with daily tours of the neighborhood, where people purchase local goods and support the local community. Kids can now be seen playing in the parks, street performers dancing to hip hop, and lots of inspirational artwork in progress.
If the idea of all this walking on the tour seems daunting, don’t be afraid! Comuna 13 has outdoor escalators to take you through the neighborhood without breaking a sweat! 👏To conclude the tour, our guide was so hospitable, and invited us up to her rooftop deck to view the city, where she served us homemade empanadas. Her whole family lives in her home, including all 13 of her brothers and sisters! Her father curiously watched as we entered the house, while enjoying a cup of coffee on the patio. 💜Rica comida y LAS VISTAS increíbles! (Nice food and incredible views) What more could you ask for? 😊
In terms of grub, after a long day of walking in Medellin, I’d highly recommend visiting Ajiacos and Mondongos. Ajiaco is a delicious stew made with chicken, potato and corn. For the more adventurous, mondongo is a tripe stew.
In terms of coffee, since Colombia is so well-known for growing such high quality beans, I’d recommend Juan Valdez, a popular coffee chain that can be found across the country. ☕
Accommodation in Medellin:
While in Medellin, I stayed at Black Sheep Hostel, which was very clean with a hospitable Kiwi owner. His wife made us homemade banana bread, and the hostel also organized social events for each day of the week. Even if you don’t stay at Black Sheep, I’d recommend that you stay in the Poblado neighborhood where there are many hostels. It has a funky, youthful atmosphere with lots more incredible street art. If you get the chance while you’re in Medellin, I’d highly recommend taking a day trip to Guatapé. Many people take a tour here, but it’s just as easy to take a local bus from Terminal Norte for around 10 USD round-trip. The journey takes about 2-3 hours, and the bus drops you off in front of either El Peñón de Guatapé or in the center of Guatapé. Medellin and Guatapé are located in the region of Antioquia. Unlike the tropical climate in Cartagena, this area is blessed with year-round spring-like temperatures and a wealth of natural resources. El Peñón de Guatapé is basically this gigantic monolith surrounded by rolling landscape of lush green hills and bright blue lakes. 😍
Nobody knows exactly how it got there, but its most likely the result of a volcanic eruption. Because of its immense size and mysterious origin, it has also become a major site for worshipers. To climb the monolith, you must ascend a series of over 700 stairs on one of the most bizarre staircases I’ve seen yet! 😮The entry fee is around 6 USD, which at least gives you peace of mind to know that the staircase receives regular maintenance. I climbed with this German girl I met at the bus station. The two of us felt quite out of shape, but we took it slow and steady, and stopped to enjoy the views at many points along the way. Finally, at the top, we were rewarded with unobstructed views of the surrounding region. Another absolutely spectacular VISTA! 😍They also had souvenir shops and a few restaurants at the top for you to enjoy before heading back down. We opted to head to the city of Guatapé, where we wandered around for a bit before taking lunch at a local hole in the wall. 😊Guatapé is a charming little resort town full of colorful buildings decorated with mosaics. I loved how each of the mosaics represented the kind of business in that building. For example, the bakery was decorated with a baker and bread loaves. 🍞I also loved the personal touches, like fixtures made from recycled bottle caps. Overall, this was an easy, relaxing, and affordable day trip from the city, as well as, a nice way to see how everyday life is for the residents of this region.Anyway, after my three days in Medellin were finished, I took an 8-hour overnight bus to Bogota. I bought the ticket using Rome2Rio for only 20 USD. I liked how the overnight bus meant that I didn’t lose out on any sightseeing time and it meant one less night of accommodation costs. That being said, I felt that my bus was super cold, and the bus was blasting both a terrible Keanu Reeves movie and music until the wee hours of the morning. 🎵 😭 Definitely not the best night’s sleep, even for a seasoned traveler such as myself who also had ear plugs, extra clothes, and a face mask.
As you can imagine then, I was in desperate need of some coffee the next morning to motivate myself! ☕
What to do in Bogota:
One of the first things that struck me about Bogota, was the city’s amazing street art. Oddly enough, despite the fact that street art is still illegal in many public spaces in the city, some of the best art could be found in plain sight along the busy street on the way to the bus station/airport.🧡One of the most famous street artists in Bogota is STINKFISH, but there are countless others with their own very inspirational message and unique design. To learn more about this incredible street art, I decided to go on the Bogota Graffiti Tour.
What was most inspirational to hear was about the incident that spurred the flurry of graffiti art across the city. Basically, back in 2011, a young artist who was illegally spray painting a cat on a public building was shot and killed by a police officer. They tried to cover up the incident, but the public outrage could not be controlled. As a way to appease the masses, the mayor subsequently announced that street art could be performed as a form of artistic and cultural expression. Despite that decree, street art was still limited to only a small number of public spaces, and many times, artists were still asked to cover up their masterpieces the very next day. Then, back in 2013, Justin Bieber got roped into this controversy. He had a concert in Bogota and afterwards he illegally painted on a public building. Because of his fame, the police officers did NOTHING to stop him!
This irritated all of the local artists and they began a 24-hour illegal street art session around the city in protest.Anyway, another interesting part of the tour was learning about how the artists incorporated the current political situation into their artwork. Drug trafficking is still a major part of the economy in Colombia. Even after the breakup of the major cartels back in the 90s, many guerillas and paramilitary groups remain, and control much of the country using violence to assert their dominance. I mean, just last week, a bomb went off in Bogota and ELN, a major Colombian rebel group, claimed responsibility. 💣😢
Anyway, political street art and the cartels are really just a small part of the culture here in Colombia. As such, to learn more about this complex country and this capital city of over 8 million people, I’d suggest taking a free walking tour. One of the first things we talked about on the tour was the architecture in the city. The streets here are a beautiful fusion of modern 1970s style art deco buildings and also more colonial 19th century landmarks.
To loosen everyone up on the tour, our guide took us to a local cafe to try CHICHA, a popular fermented corn drink.
The drink is communal, so everyone got these cup necklaces to wear and our guide came around to pour a small shot of chicha into our cup. I was NOT a big fan of chicha, but I liked how we each got the cup as a souvenir. 🙂Another thing we learned about on the tour was the legend of El Dorado. Essentially, indigenous Colombians didn’t really have a monetary value for gold. They used it a lot to adorn their bodies and in ritual ceremonies.
One of these ceremonies was held at a place called Lake Guatavita, where the ruler would dress in gold dust and everyone would throw gold into the lake as an offering to a God that lived under the water. Well, the Spanish found out about this gold-filled reservoir and promptly went out to find it and drain it for all of its wealth. To learn more about the gold in Colombia or the legend of El Dorado, I’d suggest visiting the Gold Museum in either Cartagena or Bogota. The one in Cartagena is free everyday and the other in Bogota is free on Sunday. Now, speaking of Colombia’s natural resources, the country is also well-known for its EMERALDS. In fact this country is the second largest exporter of this precious stone, and purchasing emeralds in-country means you’ll avoid import taxes, plus you have the possibility of bartering on the price. 💰The stones are priced based on weight and are produced in varying qualities, but expect to offer up to 60% off of the asking price. Also, make sure to stop at the DIAN office at the airport when you leave. As a foreigner, you will receive back any taxes that you paid on luxury items, like jewelry.
Anyway, aside from the walking tours, one of the best things to do in the city is to hike up to the peak of Monserrate. Another gorgeous VISTA! The hike will take about 1.5 hours each way, and includes a combination of flat pathways and steep stairs. Luckily, there are countless food and drink sellers on the way up, so I would say it is a more leisurely activity, encouraging snack breaks and relaxation.
Anyway, at the top of Monserrate, not only do you have a spectacular view of the city, but there is also a church and many restaurants.
I had decided to hike up with these French guys I met at my hostel that were actually adopted from Colombia when they were very young. Now that they’ve grown up, they returned to the country to connect with their roots and learn the language.
As well, this last Sunday of the month turned out to be the perfect day to explore the city, because after climbing the mountain, we could enjoy all of the museums for FREE. Highlights included the National Museum and the Botero Museum.
As well, many of the roads were car-free, so bikes, people, and furry friends could enjoy the streets without the fear of pollution. Museum hopping and indoor activities are also great for Bogota, because unlike Medellin and Cartagena, Bogota can be very cold and rainy. In fact, one of the most unique things to do indoors is play Tejo– the unoffical national sport of Colombia. 💜
Tejo reminds me of Corn Hole or Horseshoes, but with EXPLOSIVES. In the game of Tejo, you take large circular stones and launch them at a ring of gunpowder pouches. The goal is to hit one of the pouches, causing a small explosion. It sounds dangerous, but the atmosphere is actually quite relaxed and jovial. There was a group of elderly spectators there wearing nice suits and fedora hats drinking beer and eating chicken, while upbeat music played in the background. It’ll cost about 10 bucks to play, but it includes a few beers as well!🍺
Accommodation: While in Bogota I stayed at a hostel I would not recommend. The internet was slow and the staff was not very hospitable. That being said, I would highly recommend staying in the area of either Zona Rosa or La Candelaria. They are both very safe, charming, and tourist-friendly. 😊
This well-established joint serves up cheap and delicious tamales made with chicken, carrot, peas, and spices. Yum! 🤤
Anyway, after a delightful week of exploring Colombia, I boarded the local Transmilenio bus to the airport. You needed a bus card to ride, but this local was sweet enough to put my money on her card, so that I could enter. I definitely wouldn’t suggest riding during rush hour. Fitting everyone in was like a game of Tetris! 🤣
At the end of this trip through Colombia, and after so many informative tours about the brutality this country has suffered, I found this last picture I took to really sum up my experience well. This is a memorial in Bogota for those that lost their lives due to the violence. La Vida es Sagrada means “Life is Sacred.” To me, this memorial is a reminder to live each day to the fullest, be grateful for everyone in your life, and be thankful for each precious moment that you’ve been given! That’s the beauty of travel. You are able to see how other people live around the world and become more appreciative of the things you have. 🙏
Anyway, those are my Colombian memories. After learning about the “SNOW” in Colombia, I am back to the actual SNOW in Wisconsin. I was able to admire STINKFISH, among many other street artists. I bought EMERALDS and played around with EXPLOSIVES in the game of Tejo. I threw back my first and probably my last shot of CHICHA 😂 and took in countless incredible VISTAS or “views”. I hope you enjoyed hearing all about my memories. Anyway, I have a lot of exciting things planned for the coming months, so stay tuned! Until then, take care and safe travels everyone! 😊