Click the dots on the map above to view pictures I have taken in these locations.
When I planned out my trip to South America, I had no intentions of going to Colombia. It’s dangerous, I thought, and I didn’t want to be kidnapped and held for ransom. I met many people in South America who had just come from Colombia. I was surprised to hear how people loved the country; “The people are extremely friendly”, they’d say. I decided to put it on the top of my list, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision. Colombia is full of beautiful scenery, energetic cities, and interesting sites.
When talking about Colombia, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let’s begin in Popayan, the first city I stayed after entering by bus from Ecuador. A small city known for its Semana Santa celebrations (the week leading up to Easter), Popayan’s downtown buildings are white-washed giving it the nickname “The White City”. I spent just two days here, but I had one experience showing the quality of the people in Colombia.
I walked into a small shop serving fresh empanadas in the city center. I ordered, sat down, and waited, but the worker was interested in learning about my story. Eventually, I said I was from Chicago. “Oh,” she said, ” my nephew lives in Chicago.” That sparked the conversation. A guy came into the restaurant, in his late 30s, and the woman behind the desk introduced me to him, one of her other nephews. He told me he’d show me around town. Being an adventurous person, of course I said yes. I found out that he manages several restaurants around town, so he we hopped around, tried different foods and had a few drinks. I tried to pay for the meals but he would absolutely not let me. He wanted to show me what Colombia was all about. That’s how a lot of Colombians are; they want foreigners to see what their country has to offer, not only what we see on the news.
Working up north, we find our way to Cali, the Colombia capital of salsa. Although the city itself honestly does not have a whole lot to offer the traveler, the people, culture, and dancing make it well worth the stop. I met so many great people in Cali, and I still keep in touch with many of them.. They’re the type of people that just make you feel welcome and never want to leave. The dancing is incredible; I had never been to a club with such a diverse group of dancers of different skillsets. There were beginners (me) and professionals, and everyone in between. Watching salsa at its best is extremely entertaining. The way they move so quickly, perfectly aligned with their partner. It seems as if they’re practiced the dance thousands of times together, although many times it’s just their first or second time as partners. It’s a powerful dance, making the trip to Cali a must to experience a true salsa club.
Medellin is probably best known for the activities of Pablo Escobar and his brutal drug cartel in the 1980s and early 1990s. This was a horrible time for Medellin, but fortunately, this has been cleaned up. A sad thing is that many tourists will go on a Pablo Escobar tour, seeing the house where Escobar was finally tracked down and killed. The tour also allows travelers to talk to Roberto Escobar, Pablo’s brother, who was the main accountant for the cartel. In my opinion, it’s immoral to give money directly to someone involved in a drug cartel responsible for killing thousands of people. Responsible tourism is important and this tour is very much against it.
Colombia is well-known for the quality of its coffee, so why not travel to see where it all takes place? For this, I made a stop in Salento in La Zona Cafeteria (Coffee Region). Renting a bicycle, as always, I rode about 5 miles (9 km) down a pot-hole infested road, passing several little coffee farms along the way. It’s very interesting to see where the coffee grows, the stages of the coffee beans as it matures, and the final processing of the beans. 90% of this particular company is exported. This explains why many cafes in South America serve instant coffee; they are able to make a higher profit by exporting. But you’ll still get a taste of the locally produced coffee at the end of the tour.
There is a certain vibe, an energy, that is present in most cities that I visited in South America. But no country has the same energy as Colombia. I stayed a night in a small town just outside of Armenia, and I was shocked to see the main plaza full at night of people just chatting, having an ice cream, etc. This is in a town of 2,000 people, a size similar to my hometown. The difference is that my hometown is essentially lifeless after 7pm on any given night, but there was still a buzz going on in this town Colombia. This ongoing energy is in every place I visited in Colombia.
Colombia also has a coast line on the Caribbean. Many of the cities give the sea a feel you wouldn’t expect (dirty), but some places show the true beauty of the sea. Tayrona National Park is one of those. A stunning hike leads from the park entrance past several beaches with clear waters and no buildings in sight. The only affordable place to stay in the park is El Cabo, where you can rent a tent or a hammock for the night. I chose the cheaper option, the hammock, and paid $20 USD for one night. Steep price for the 100 mosquito bites I had in the morning! (tip: bring bug repellent!). But this is a small price to pay to stay so close to the typical Caribbean we all dream about.
A place that everyone visiting Colombia must visit is Cartagena, an old, walled city right along the Caribbean coast. Although the beaches along the shoreline aren’t clear like we’d hope, the city is lined with picturesque streets where you’ll find horse and buggies and balconies full of blooming flowers. On any given day in high season, the city is full of people admiring the architecture, hanging out in plazas, and eating arepas, corn dough cooked in a flat, circular shape and filled with eggs, cheese, or meat. Arepas, along with empanadas, are a staple in Colombia. I think it may even be considered one of the major food groups in the country. Make sure to try some freshly cooked arepas from a street vendor.
Cartagena is the most beautiful city in South America. The intricacies of each house, lining tiny streets which lead to plazas full of greenery. It’s the type of city where one can walk for hours at a time, just wandering, and never become bored. Getting lost is easy to do in the winding streets, but just stay in between the walls and you’ll eventually find your way!
As with other countries in South America, Colombia has fantastic fresh fruit juices for cheap. Inside or outside most markets, there will be vendors selling. One memorable example, I was waiting for a bus heading to Tayrona National Park, and I saw a woman selling fresh juices. I ordered mango, thinking it looked good. She ended up giving about a liter of fresh mango juice, which happened to be the freshest and most delicious I had ever tasted. It was so good that I still remember it over a year afterwards!
Finally, Bogota. I spent three rainy days in Bogota before flying back home to end my trip. I had a great experience with a Couchsurfer, as her and her family were very kind and genuine. She showed me around the city. Maybe it was the rain, but I didn’t find the city to special by any means. It’s a huge, sprawling city and pretty worn down in many parts. There were a few areas in the center which are nice to walk around, but I would expect more from a large city. Luckily I had a great experience Couchsurfing to have a memorable experience in Bogota.
One thing worth seeing just outside of Bogota, is the Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral) located in Zipaquirá. Located 30 miles (50 km) from Bogota, it takes about an hour on a local bus to get there. The Catedral de Sal is an enormous cathedral inside of a salt mine. What makes the experience fantastic is the lighting inside of the cathedral. Looking over the balcony from above, you’ll find a large cross illuminating from the blue lights that are shining on it. Soon, the lights turn to red. It’s dramatic, especially the atmosphere of being underground and surrounded by earth walls. It’s very well worth the day trip f
Colombia holds a special place with me. I met so many great people, both Colombians and foreigners. I love the powerful energy in every town and city, and I especially love the music and their love for dancing. The country provides interesting opportunities to learn about the coffee manufacturing process, experience a salsa club, hike along some of the most beautiful shoreline in the world, and even tour a cathedral built in a salt mine. Don’t let the media scare you away. It has more to offer than you could ever imagine.
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