Colombia has a lot to offer. Its geographic diversity, rich history, vibrant culture, and welcoming people make it an ideal destination for travel. Cheap domestic flights make it easy to get around within the country, so you won’t be relegated to overnight bus trips (unless you’re crazy and prefer that sort of thing). My buddy Jordan and I just traveled in Colombia for ten days. Some would argue that ten days in Colombia is far too short of a trip (and they would be right). But we managed to pack quite a bit into our schedule. Our “Colombia Sampler” was a great introduction to the country. And, since ten days isn’t enough to see all of Colombia, I guess I’ll just have to visit again. Here are some of the highlights from our trip:
Medellin, a city ravaged by violence and crime from the infamous drug cartel not long ago, has completely transformed its identity. A few decades ago it had been one of the world’s most dangerous cities. In 2012, Medellin was named the most innovative city in the world: a true comeback story. Our tour guide at Real City Tours (a highly recommended free walking tour), Hernan, explained that Medellin had only 50,000 tourists per year in the early 2000s. Last year, nearly 5 million people visited the capital of Antioquia. Paisas are proud of their city, for good reason. They’ve shown resilience over the years and are starting to reap the fruits of their labor. Locals are thrilled to see international tourists walking their streets. The people of Medellin will greet you with a smile. Show them some love too.
Jordan and I happened to arrive the night of the Colombian soccer championship between Atletico Nacional (from Medellin) and Deportivo Cali. We jumped on the bandwagon without hesitation, buying Nacional jerseys for about $10 a piece from a street vendor in the Poblado neighborhood. Medellin’s squad defeated Cali and the city (we) celebrated accordingly. I wish I could claim that this was something other than serendipitous timing! Nonetheless, it was fun to be part of the festivities.
Consider taking a daytrip to Guatape, a quaint, colorful town that gives you a sense of the pace of life in the smaller pueblos of Antioquia. You should climb to the top of “La Piedra” for beautiful views of the expansive El Penol-Guatape reservoir. Drink una cerveza michelada while you’re up there.
The metro line in Medellin is clean, efficient, and easy to use. If you have time, check out the cable cars connecting the barrios (neighborhoods) lining the hills to the rest of the city. These cable cars have been part of a broader, intentional effort to unite the city by showing the poorer areas that they are not forgotten. Check out the many parks, museums, and city squares (especially Plaza Botero). Also, you should go paragliding over Medellin. It’s about $40 and well worth the views of city and surrounding Andes mountains. I will warn you, however, that both Jordan and I felt a little motion sick towards the end of the flight. We had to recover on solid ground for 15 minutes before taking a (winding) bus through the mountains back into the valley. Worth it though.
A trip to Colombia without visiting Eje Cafetero, the coffee region, would feel incomplete. Colombia ranks third in the world in coffee production, behind only Brazil and Vietnam. This region’s altitude, climate, and fertility provide conditions ripe for growing coffee. We took a coffee tour at Don Elias, a small, family-run organic coffee farm. Seeing the coffee process from start to finish definitely gives you a better appreciation for that sweet elixir that so many of us rely on in the morning.
This region’s draw extends beyond coffee. We visited the town of Salento, which serves as the launch point to the Cocora Valley. Getting there was probably the best part. Salento’s public transportation consists of “Willys”, or small Jeep taxis. You can climb in the back for a seat or (recommended) stand on the back bumper to enjoy the incredible views. Freedom at its finest. The Cocora Valley boasts the wax palm, the world’s tallest palm tree, which grow up to 200 feet tall! It’s an otherworldly sight to behold. Wax Palms are the national tree of Colombia for a reason. Treat yourself to a 4-hour saunter in the Cocora Valley. You won’t want to miss it. We were particularly lucky and had a stray dog guide us down the trail for over an hour. Even the dogs are hospitable in Colombia.
After you hike the Cocora Valley and visit a coffee plantation, spend the night playing Tejo – a traditional Colombian game. It’s sort of like cornhole, except with iron pucks, clay, and gunpowder. You’ll love it. Tejo!
Castles, pirates, booty, and the Caribbean. This might as well be a world away from Medellin and Antioquia. And you’ll know it as soon as you arrive and feel the intense heat and humidity. Cartagena, a famous Spanish port city in the 16th century, has done well to preserve its historic center – “Old Town.” The narrow, one-way streets, are scenic and pedestrian friendly. Colorful homes and shops line the streets as peddlers relentlessly badger you to buy hats, shades, and trinkets. It’s a tourist mega-hub. If you’re a hatless gringo without sunglasses, the peddlers won’t rest until you have sun protection. They’re just looking out for your health. The heat, combined with the persistent efforts of the street vendors, can tire you out pretty quickly. Fortunately, there are plenty of great popsicle shops and fruit shakes that will refresh your mind and body. Air conditioning is a godsend in Cartagena. At the very least, you’ll want to sleep with a fan at the foot of your bed.
Consider taking a day trip to Totumo for a volcanic mud bath. It’s a hilariously ridiculous experience. If you go, be prepared for mud massages from middle-aged men followed by ocean baths courtesy of local elderly women. You don’t need to know how to swim – the mud is plenty buoyant for even the densest sludge creature. Head back to Cartagena afterwards and reflect on your muddy memories at Totumo over drinks at Café del Mar or Alquimica. Café del Mar is your sunset spot. Alquimica has great cocktails.
Tayrona National Park
Stunning crescent beaches nestled below Andean mountains – welcome to Tayrona National Park. The national park is about an hour from Santa Marta (a big city about four hours from Cartagena). The views won’t come easy though. We enjoyed a two-hour hike through the national park before arriving at our camping spot: Cabo San Juan. This is the most popular campsite in the national park, so don’t expect to arrive and have the beach to yourself. If you’re camping, you can choose between a tent or a hammock. While neither is particularly glamorous, we voted for the hammocks because they air out better than the tents. There’s a decent restaurant on site, so don’t worry about packing in much food. Just enjoy the beaches, the ocean, and your fellow vacationers. We were glad to see that the vast majority of visitors to the park were Colombian. The gringo backpacking crowd can have ruinous effects. If you’re looking for a more secluded or comfortable camping area, there are other beaches in the national park that offer nicer accommodations.
You should hike to the Pueblito ruins. The hike is about two-hours roundtrip and mostly uphill, so make sure you take sunscreen and water. Bug spray is also a good idea. We were fortunate not to encounter many bugs on our visit to Tayrona. If you’re too tired to hike back out of Tayrona the way you came, you can book a boat that leaves each afternoon from the beach. The boarding process is pretty hectic and ridiculous (includes a step ladder in the crashing waves), but well worth the experience and beautiful views of the mountainous coastline. We thought we were heading back to Santa Marta, but the boat dropped us off in a small fishing town called Taganga. Fortunately, we were only a 15 minute bus ride from Santa Marta. Taganga turned out to be a nice pitstop. We ate at Tony’s Tacos, owned by an expat from north Georgia, and ate some of the best fish tacos you can imagine.