Hola! To those of you that may find yourself reading this blog, Kara and I have just returned from a remarkable two weeks in Colombia. The country and its people are amazing and we truly enjoyed our experience. If you happen to find yourself there one day, and I hope you will, here is what we did and our take on the trip.
I guess it's important to preface our vacation by touching on the subject of Colombia's reputation. It has been demonized for years by its past, and though it was incredibly violent, that is a time far, far gone. Aside from the innocent stares and whistles, Kara and I never felt in real danger. It's important to be mildly vigilant in any city you visit. We kept our wits about us and made it home just fine. Though friends and family (and complete strangers alike) were very concerned for our safety, most worries were completely unwarranted.
It is also important to preface this by saying that you should probably know Spanish before you go. Kara and I had an elementary understanding of the language before we left, and although it did improve in a short time, we could have avoided a lot of embarrassing situations had we had a better grasp on Espanol. With that being said, most, if not all, people we came across were very patient and accommodating when speaking to us. They would slow down or use simple phrases if we asked them, participate in a mutual game of charades with us, or if we were lucky speak the little English they knew. I think it is true that Colombian people are aware of the country's reputation to outsiders, and because of this they do their best to welcome foreigners, whether they speak their language or not.
We started the trip by flying into Medellin from Chicago. We didn't quite know what to expect when we stepped off the plane, but I know that we were both pleasantly surprised. The city (and the entire country) is unbelievably beautiful. The weather was hot but nice. We stayed at the Tiger Paw Hostel (highly recommended) and met friends from around the world. We had spoken with some people that had traveled extensively throughout Colombia already and they told us Medellin would be our favorite. They were right. We don't really know what is was about the city, the people or the food or the nightlife, but we enjoyed it all. We were able to take a small day trip to Guatape (also highly recommended) a brightly colored town in which we were able to zipline over the gorgeous lake that sits in the middle of this little village. There is also a rock, el penol, which you can climb. We had planned on it, but the above mentioned language barrier prevented that. We were also able to take the cable cars in Medellin up to Parque Arvi where we rented bikes and rode up and down the rolling hills. It was hard work, but it was beautiful. We enjoyed Medellin at night as well, going to a few bars and night clubs and mingling with the locals.
From Medellin we took the 17 hour-ish bus north to Cartagena. Another beautiful city, there seemed to be a photo op around every corner. If you travel to Cartagena, I would recommend that you stay inside the walled city. We stayed at the El Viajero hostel and although it was loud at times, we enjoyed it. Cartagena was a different-paced city and we certainly appreciated that. We were able to take it easy, drink coffees, and sit outside cafes reading our books. The plazas around the city are a wonderful place to sit and people watch or perhaps do a little shopping at the vendors that set up. There are a lot of shops and good eats here, too. To get away for a short time, Kara and I took a day trip to Islas del Rosario. We had two options for this trip, to go to the aquarium or go snorkeling and both of them cost money. We discovered this a little too late and instead of going to a beach like we had hoped, we were simply forced to snorkel instead. The experience was nice, but we would have liked to save some money by sitting in the sand for two hours. We were able to go to Playa Blanca on the way back, which was nice, and the trip was pleasant, though I don't know if I would highly recommend this to others.
After Cartagena we took the short bus to Santa Marta. We didn't really know what to expect from each new location, and every city was drastically different than the next. Santa Marta was busy and hectic; it was probably our least favorite of the four destinations. We stayed at the La Brisa Loca hostel and spent many days eating the cheap food and watching movies or soccer. We found there wasn't a whole lot to do in this city, so we spent most of our time on excursions. We visited the exquisite Tayrona National Park. If you find yourself in the area, this is a must. We hiked a fairly easy trail and enjoyed a beach almost to ourselves. You have the option to spend the night here in a hammock or tent, which many travelers do. We also took the trip to Minca, which is probably less known than the surrounding Tayrona or Taganga, though I think this was our favorite excursion. Our tour guide, Joe, was simply wonderful. He invited us into the bamboo home he built on his pristine six acres of land. He cooked for us, he told us stories. His friend took us trekking to the "lost waterfall" and we tubed down a river. Joe took us birdwatching and taught us about the nearby coffee plantation. Kara and I couldn't stop talking about how much we enjoyed the experience, and although it was a bit pricey (around $50 for the day) we both agreed it was worth double.
Our last stop was in the nation's capital, Bogota. We didn't know what to expect, and I think we were both surprised to find just how chilly it was here (I don't even know how many miles above sea level the city sits). Although it is a hectic city, we were able to escape some of the chaos by staying at Alegeria's Hostel in the colonial district of Candelaria. We took it easy in Bogota, taking a small trip to the flea market in Usaquen that sets up every Sunday and up to Monserrate, a giant mountain in what seems the middle of the city, with a beautiful view overlooking it all. We ate well and found the everything was a little cheaper here. We made the reluctant trip to the airport and here we find ourselves back in Chicago.
Overall, the trip was incredible. We walked away with a new love for Colombian culture and people. After landing with fears that we would be abducted or forced to sell drugs, we laugh at the misconceptions now. Not only should travelers want to visit Colombia, they should feel safe doing it.
So, until the next adventure, I'm saying ciao once more.