Colombia is a country with a brutal and bloody past. Exploitation of indigenous people, Cartagena as Spanish America’s biggest slave port, a civil war, and Pablo Escobar. One of the most powerful and brutal drug dealers in the world. In 1993 he was murdered. Unfortunately, the Farc keep the cocaine business alive. Recently, in June 2016, they signed a peace contract. I hope this will stop the war. Tourists are visiting Colombia since a few years. Many even stay there. Fall in love. I can definitely understand why. Colombians are very helpful, warmhearted, generous, and happy people. Proud to show off what was hidden for so long. During my 7 weeks in Colombia I had only one bad experience (more about it later). I was struggling for a while if I actually wanted to write about it since I do not want to scare people away from Colombia. It was simply bad luck and from a statistical point of view, very rare. This experience in turn made me realise how healing the nature and friends can be. The places I volunteered (guadua house construction) and visited have given me inspiration and courage that it is possible to live in harmony with nature. I also learnt that many Colombians reuse plastic to build houses. Better than to burn it. Best of course would be to not even buy plastic.
The capital has among other things many murals, a botanic garden, the famous museo de oro, and a free graffiti tour.
From Bogotá my boyfriend and I hitchhiked to Santa Marta (over 1’000 km). It took us two days. The gold museum in Santa Marta is free and I highly recommend. It is a very nice city to walk around. From Santa Marta we visited the Tayrona National Park. We could leave our backpacks at our Couchsurfing host’s place. It was very nice and appreciated.
Tayrona National Park
We took a bus from Santa Marta (bus stop “public market Santa Marta”) to Tayrona (7’000 pesos). Entry was 44’500 pesos. The nicest place to sleep is in Cabo San Juan del Guia. We shared a double tent (60’000 pesos) with a girl from Germany. Hammocks (10’000 pesos) are highly coveted and therefore all rented short after 11 am. It is also possible to sleep in your own tent. Tap water is not drinkable, and like food, quite expensive in the park. I recommend to bring some toilet paper too.
The next morning we hiked to Pueblito. A small peaceful indigenous village on the top of a mountain. The atmosphere was magic. At some points we climbed over boulders which made me face my fear but no harness was needed. The way down was a beautiful path and led us to one of the exits of the park.
Cartagena has an incredibly beautiful, old, and romantic architecture. Some houses are very colourful. Especially in the area where most hostels are. Our hostel: “FriendsToBe” was very clean, had a kitchen to use, and a small pool. The chocolate museum was very interesting and we tried many different chocolate products (e.g. tea, coffee, nuts, body oils). Not the chocolate condoms though.
Since we thought hitchhiking all the way from Cartagena to Medellín is a bit too long we stopped in Monteria for three nights. I was surprised about how modern the building were. I felt like I was in Europe. Our host told us the city has a lot of money because of cattle breeding.
Medellín is called the “City of Eternal Spring” and considered as one of the most innovative cities in the world. The botanic garden is free, beautiful, and great for a picnic. There is a free walking tour by a company named Real City Tour. The tour is 3.5 – 4 hours and booking is required before meeting for the tour. Booking opens 1.5 days in advance of each tour. Number one on TripAdvisor is the Metrocable. It starts at the Acevedo station. We hopped in one of the cable-car gondolas heading up the mountain (no extra charge if you haven’t left the system yet). It took us over some of the poorest and previously most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellin. There are three stops. At the last stop, Santo Domingo, we had to change to another gondola for 4.600 COP that took us over the forest to Park Arvi. Beautiful for hiking and escaping the city life.
I loved our time in Medellín especially thanks to our Couchsurfing host, John. He made us feel very welcomed and at home with his contagious smile and warm heart. We spent time together playing games, watching documentaries, sharing meals, sharing culture, and an English/Spanish language exchange.
We volunteered here for one week doing guadua construction. On our day off, we kayaked to a small island near our project. It was sunny during the day but gets cold at night. More about our volunteer experiences in a future blog entry.
Our host Federico picked us from the bus terminal and took us to his finca hotel. A beautiful and relaxing place where we hiked and learnt about coffee that characterise the area of Pereira. His father, a former university teacher, went out of his way to make us feel at home and treated us as if we were family.
His dad was also very interested in our plant-based diet and wanted to know as many recipes as possible. He highly appreciated the recipes. He later wrote me that he realised the benefits of a plant-based diet and will incorporate the recipes into his diet.
A little town surrounded by a beautiful green countryside. We went on a weekend so it was full of visitors. But I still very much enjoyed Salento. I highly recommend to visit the Kasaguadua Natural Reserve or even stay there for a few nights (30 mins walking outside of Salento, 25’000 pesos per night). Carlos und Nicolas are a great example of how it is possible to live and coexist with the nature. The guests are only allowed to use a specific home-made soap. Shampoo would destroy the bacteria in the water which they are using to produce the cooking gas. The houses are made out of guadua (indigenous kind of bamboo) and recycled materials. Both are extremly knowledgeble and enthusiastic. I learnt a lot about the ecosystem. For example, that Colombia has compared to Europe still a seed bank that is controlled by a fungus network. Some seeds are saved in the ground for years and pop out when needed. The grass that is all over Colombia actually came from Europe with the immigration of cows. Under the grass is no seed bank anymore. Since Colombia is at the equator there are no seasons and consequently the leaves don’t fall each year. If they fall it is because they are old (15-50 years). The tour starts at 9am, reservation is required, payment is by donation, and it takes 3h.
In Salento are many vegan restaurants and several coffee farms in the surrounding area to see the process from field to cup. Most tourists go for a hike amongst the giant wax palm trees of Valle de Cocora (5h). It is recommended to go in the morning since it is often cloudy in the afternoon.
Due to hitchhiking we stopped in other cities for a few days.
- Ibagué: The city has a small but very nice Museo Arte (3’500 pesos).
- Cali: The mother of Salsa.
- Popayan: The white colonial town.
Colombians love to bargain. It is possible to get a meal in a local restaurant for around 6’000 pesos. On Tripadvisor I found a delicious vegetarian and vegan restaurant called Govinda. Located in most bigger cities. The food is very healhy, homemade and has an Indian touch. The portions are big (soup, juice, main dish and desert) and the staff is very nice (9’000 pesos).
Colombian street food is a mix of fried food, creamy drinks, and all types of corn manifestations: Arepas (corn flat bread; e.g. arepas de chocolo are made with sweet corn), Almojabanas (a soft cheese bread), Avena (an oatmeal-based drink), Buñuelos (cheese balls), Churros, Corn on the cob, Empanadas (fried or baked, stuffed pastries with meat or vegetables; popular all around Latin America).
Colombia has an amazing variety of fruits. Some are found only in particular regions of the country. For the first time I tried: Guanábana, Guaba, Lulo, Mangostino, Guayaba, Zapote, Tomate de árbol, and Mamey.
There are many different grocery stores in Colombia: E.g. D1 (cheap chain. No fresh food), Ara, Exito, Olimpica. Some examples to have an idea: lentils 855g (2’400 pesos), chickpeas (5’220 per kg), quinoa 400g (7’400 pesos), curry powder (1’700 pesos), coconut cream (4’950 pesos), corn flour (1’850 pesos), cinnamon (900 pesos), oats 250g (940 pesos), tofu (6’620 pesos).
Vegetables, fruits, and peanuts we tried to buy in little stores. 1 banana (200 pesos), 1 avocado hass (700 pesos), 1 big avocado (2’300 pesos), peanuts 500g (6’000 pesos).
The tap water at most places is safe to drink. It is best to ask somebody or just to cook it.
Coffee is the number one drink. Tinto (a small cup of black coffee, 300 pesos) is available on pretty much every street corner (just look for the people with thermos bottles). A common theme amongst coffee producing regions in Latin America is that the good stuff is for export. So, Colombians are more likely to serve you instant coffee.
- Couchsurfing is very popular in Colombia.
- hostels are available for 15’000 pesos per night in a dorm. In Cartagena (more touristic) we paid 30’000 pesos.
- hotels along the interstate highway are worth to consider if hitchhiking. We paid 40’000 pesos for a double bed.
Long-distance bus travel is not that cheap in Colombia. I think because there are many tolls. The quality of the bus is generally quite good for Latin America. Some of the prices are negotiable (particularly long-distance and when leaving in the next hour). In most bus stations there are many different bus companies with different prices. Here is a list of some buses we took to have a rough idea:
- bus from Bogota to Medellin: 55’000 pesos.
- bus from Honda to Ibagué: 17’000 pesos
- bus from Ibagué to Girardot: 7’000 pesos
- bus from Girardot to Anapoima: 6’000 pesos
- bus from Anapoima to Ibagué: 15’000 pesos
- bus from Ibagué to Pereira: 22’000 pesos (5h)
- bus from Pereira to Salento: 7’000 pesos
Buses inside a city are cheap (1’700-3’000 pesos for 30 mins). Bogota has a bus system called TransMilenio. For 2’000 pesos you can change buses as much as you want. But as soon as you leave the system you need to pay again to reenter. With one card (3’000 pesos) you can pay for several people. Medellin is the only city in Colombia that has a metro system. One way is 2’100 pesos (card: 400 pesos).
We hitchhiked often. Most of it in trucks made for two people since there is a lack of cars driving long distances. We met the kindest and most generous people while hitchhiking. Once while waiting a guy crossed the street and gave us two fresh, cold coconuts. Another time a woman invited us to her home where we tried some fruits and homemade wine. The list goes on. Most of them speak only Spanish. So a great possibility for us to improve our Spanish. Many asked if our parents are not worried and when we talked to them the last time. Telling us that they call their parents everyday. Now I will explain our one bad experience in Colombia. Please do not make the same mistake like us and hitchike on an open truck where three young guys are already sitting. We were attacked/threatened with two machetes and a knife. They wanted our backpacks. First I thought they would cut off my boyfriend’s arm. It was so surreal. The driver could not see us and the only car behind us did not recognize the situation. I screamed and tried to persuade the guys. They luckily hurt us only superficially but the situation became more and more dangerous. Fortunately, the truck slowed down in the next town. We jumped down from the tractor trailer with our backpacks. The people there recognized the situation immediately and alarmed the police. We were taken to the hospital and then to the police station. I hurt myself badly when I jumped off of the truck. I could hardly walk for around a week. First I wanted to go back home. But then I thought it would be wrong to be deterred by three guys. If I would have gone home I might have been scared for the rest of my life and never came back to South America. I am still a bit scared. Especially when I see a young guy walking around with a knife. But I am recovering.
I don’t want to promote airplanes since they are bad for the environment but I also don’t want to hide this information from you. A ticket can be as cheap as 20 USD. So many people go by airplane. Which as a consequence makes it harder to hitchhike since there are less cars on the road.
Like anywhere else it is important to be careful and use plain common sense. Ask which are the neighbourhoods you should avoid. Petty theft is very common. E.g. Don’t leave your backpack in the rack above your head (always keep it on your person) when travelling in a bus.
Unfortunately, violent crimes are still happening and definitely do not happen only to tourists. But you need to be very unlucky. Colombians are so amazing that it would be a pity not to go there for that reason.
There are stories of people flagging a taxi on the street only to be driven around to various ATMs, and being made to withdraw large sums of money. To avoid this get somebody you trust to call a taxi for you if you really need one.
Malaria is present in all areas except Medellin and Cartagena. The Yellow fever vaccination is recommended but no required.
Since Colombia is close to the equator there are no seasons like in Europe. The temperature varies only a few degrees at each place over the year. But Colombia has a very diverse range of climates. There is a distinction between a wet (summer: June to August and December to February) and a dry (winter: March to May and September to October) season. These tropical rains are not permanent.
- 12-17 degrees: Bogotá (be prepared for rain anytime)
- 17-24 degrees: Medellín, Salento, Guatapé
- >24 degrees: Cali, Cartagena, Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park
Best time to visit: All-year round destination offering something for everyone.
Official currency: Colombian Peso (COP).
No entrance or exit fees. The Visa is for 90 days (free).