Colombia has been on my list for a while – I planned with Ross in ’15 for MDW, but we dropped the ball; I wanted to go for my bachelorette in ’16, but then Zika; and then the countless plans with our best friends from Colombia. Though a trip to Colombia was a long time coming, I did not expect to go last week, let alone with my sister and my parents, and for only 6 days.
It was a classic family moment. My sister booked solo travels to Colombia back in January. My mom worried, so she booked the week prior to my sister’s trip. Then I worried about my mom traveling back alone, so I booked 3 days before the trip, despite my worries about Zika. And then my dad said, “I want to go.” And so, it became a family trip (without Steven, sorry bro).
Let me start by saying, your impression of Colombia will vary depending on what you’re expecting. Colombia has been an increasingly popular destination, particularly Cartagena. Affordability and the beach make it a great bachelor(ette) getaway. The dollar can take you far, depending – you can have a meal for $3pp, but you can also have a meal for $60pp. You can get an Airbnb or hostel for probably $25pp or $50pn. You can also get a hotel for $200+ night. Every city seems to have its night life, some more catered to gringos than others.
I wouldn’t say Colombia is the best country to visit for “unique South American culture.” As I sat to plan our 6 days in Colombia, I realized there isn’t that much to do in the main cities- there isn’t a huge draw of, you have to do this. Are some of you feeling this way, as you plan your trip to Colombia? For example, in 6 days, it would have made sense to just do 2 cities, but no matter how I split it, the overall trip felt a little dull, and 3 days in 2 cities seemed too long; so we squeezed in 3.
Given our time limitations, I went with no expectations, and truthfully, left each city feeling pretty lackluster. There just wasn’t anything that was like, wow that was awesome, you have to check this out. That said, my experiences with the people were nothing but positive and warm, and I developed such an appreciation for Colombia’s history, and the undercurrent of socioeconomic and political change. It’ll definitely be interesting to revisit in 5-10 years, I’m positive much will change. On top of the aforementioned undercurrents, it’s one of those countries where tourism is still developing, looking for its steady foothold (if you ask me). The more recent influx of tourists in Colombia will continue to develop a robust tourism market, on one hand helping Colombia’s economy, and on the other creating cultural shifts from the current pockets of authenticity in places like Medellin.
That said, if I had more time, I would have gone deeper into the country to experience more of its natural beauty – the national parks, the rainforest, Caño Cristales, and diving off the coasts. There’s also the coffee region and nightlife, which I can’t speak to this time around.
Travel Logistics: We did a very high level 6 days. I think 8-10 days would be perfect. When we planned for a week back in 2015, I had 3 days in San Andres, 2 days in Medellin, 1 day in Cartagena, and 2 days in Tayrona. Bogota wasn’t high on our list.
On this trip, I skipped Tayrona area because of Zika*, and instead we did 2 days in Cartagena, 3 days in Medellin, 1 day in Bogota. My sister stayed an extra week to do Santa Marta, Tayrona, back to Cartagena. If you have extra days, I would add on a day or two for Bogota, or perhaps a day or two for Tayrona. In my case, I’d definitely do San Andres to go diving. *Zika was the biggest concern for me on this trip – though there has been less buzz, I didn’t want to take on too big a risk by being in highly buggy areas, so we planned accordingly. I asked locals about Zika, and they said it hasn’t been a concern for them at all. Happy to say I didn’t get one mosquito bite on my trip.
What to Pack: The temperatures vary greatly between Cartagena, Medellin, and Bogota. Cartagena is a beach town, Medellin is known for its “eternal spring” ie perfect weather, and Bogota sits high in altitude, and can be pretty chilly. After many warnings about safety and what not to do/wear (read more about safety, below), I packed no jewelry, no watch, no flashy clothes, no designer nothing- only muted, “I’d be fine without this” pieces. One pair of flip flops, one pair of walking sneakers, a rain jacket for the forecasted rain and colder weather in Bogota. Threw in a summer dress last minute. Everything fit in one duffel. It was forecasted to rain every day, but it ended up being perfectly fine. If rain came, it didn’t stay long.
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Hyatt Regency, a newly built and modern hotel in the Bocagrande district of Cartagena. The hotel is amazing, and the pools are awesome. There’s an adults only pool, a family pool, and a larger general pool. The hotel is located right outside the old city (very close, only a $2 taxi ride to any part of the old city), and has amazing ocean and bay views. There was another hotel in the old city that looked amazing, but it was fully booked, and more expensive. The beaches in Cartagena are not nice so our pools were a godsend.
We found amazing AirBnBs in Medellin, but ended up booking a “5 Star Hotel,” the Dann Carlton in El Poblado. Definitely stay in El Poblado, the nicest neighborhood in Medellin. Definitely don’t stay at the Dann Carlton, totally not a 5 star hotel. First, it’s a bit dated. Second… here’s a story: My sister and I were coming in from a walk, and my sister stopped at the ATM on the main level and pulled out a bunch of cash. We went up to our room to quickly get ready before heading out to meet Ross’ friend for drinks. On our way out, my sister noticed one of the guys working the front looking at her. Is my outfit weird? she thought – this was about 8:30pm. It turns out, about 20 minutes after we left, around 9PM, a cleaning lady let herself into our room (without knocking), totally not expecting my mom to be there. What are you doing here?! my mom freaked out – the cleaning lady was flustered and said she was checking to see “if we needed towels.” Right… without knocking… at 9PM… conveniently shortly after my sister and I left. Sketchy as F***. We told the front desk when we checked out the next morning – totally unapologetic (literally, no apologies). So messed up. Coincidentally, while this was going on, Ross’ friend was telling us a story about how he stayed at the hotel once, and had a sketchy experience involving a cleaning lady and some prostitutes. SO WEIRD/F***ed.
We stayed in an AirBnB in Bogota, in the Chapinero neighborhood. Beautiful, luxurious, chic, safe, and super affordable.
How to Get Around: Taxis and Ubers. Taxis are readily available, and metered (cash only). Ubers can take some time to arrive; the further out you go (say to Comuna 13 in Medellin), the harder it is to find a returning Uber, so in such cases, just take a taxi. In Cartagena we took taxis. In Medellin we had a great driver (happy to share his info, DM me), and for quicker jaunts we took a mix of taxis and Ubers, but mostly taxis. Bogota we took Ubers. I’ve heard a few stories about dishonest taxi drivers, (muggings + kidnappings) in Bogota so… I would Uber in Bogota.
Local Tips: Drink bottled water. 10% tip is usually already included in your bill.
Travel Tips There is a new lounge in BOG airport, the El Dorado lounge, and it’s amazing. Gate 47. They have a swanky cocktail bar, a batting cage, a “jungle” for kids, a barbershop, and tons of space.
City Tours I don’t know how, after all the traveling I’ve done, I never knew about free city tours until this trip. My sister suggested these tours as a good option for my parents. We went in Cartagena (honestly it was so freakin’ hot I couldn’t bear); we went in Medellin, SO GOOD – I cannot recommend it enough. I can’t wait to go back with Ross and even our Colombian friend, and do the tour with them. Our guide was incredible, and it was truly so fascinating to learn about Colombia’s history, the city today, and hear perspective from someone who grew up in Medellin through the 80’s. It was also the perfect activity during our one day in Bogota, a great way to get a lay of the land, and achieve so much in a short time.
What to Eat Okay, so the food of a country is a gateway into its history and culture, and if you understand Colombian history, you’ll come to understand the food. There are many cultural influences, yet it’s pretty basic and humble in nature. Take the national dish, bandeja paisa, for example. It was originally a peasant dish, meant to fill you up for a day working in the fields. Colombian food is…. fried. Everything is fried. It’s meat heavy, fried heavy, cheese in bread heavy, and overall pretty bland or salty. They also don’t like spicy. To each his own. Personally, I don’t like fried, meat heavy, salty, or bland foods (my skin flares up like crazy) so this wasn’t the best food trip for me, which usually makes up a significant part of my experience.
I did love buñuelos, delicious little fried dough balls, arroz con coco, amazing fish in Guatapé, and all the delicious, fresh fruits! I loved going to the grocery store and buying one of everything. The avocados are out of this world. Of course, maracuyas and grenadillas are still my favorite. I had a pretty good empanada in Medellin. And a palate cleansing vegan meal in Bogota. Make sure you drink all the fresh juice you can!
La Cevichería in Cartagena was meh, pretty salty IMO. Mondongo was our first real authentic Colombian meal, in Medellin. Carmen was a great modern dining experience, in Medellin. Tierra Antioqueña in Gutapé was delicious. Everyone recommends Andres Carne des Res in Bogota. Some eye-catching chains I didn’t try out: Crepes y Waffles, Bogota Beer Company, El Rancherito.
Shopping Coffee, Textiles, Emeralds, Coca Tea, Aguardiente, Hand Craft Goods
Cartagena: 2-3 days, depending on what you want to achieve. Cartagena is pretty touristy, and the historic district was restored with tourists in mind; it reminded me a lot of San Juan. We didn’t spend much time down there, and the food was overall salty, overpriced, and catered to gringos. We were in Cartagena for 2 days, and it was more than enough, considering we didn’t have time for some of the day trips, and instead chose to hang out at our hotel. Not usually our style, but it turns out the beaches in Cartagena are not nice, and it was pretty overcast during our stay. For better beaches, drive an hour to Playa Blanca, or organize a day trip/hire a boat to take you island hopping in Islas del Rosario. Personally, with older parents and only 2 overcast days, it wasn’t worth the effort to travel far for beaches that were probably nice, but nothing crazy. Considering you had to organize a tour or hire someone to get to these better beaches, I also deduced it was probably very touristy. That said, if I were to go back, I’d consider going to Islas del Rosario and staying overnight, but honestly I think I would prefer to go to San Andres instead.
If you have more time, take a 4-5 hour bus to Santa Marta. The beaches are supposed to be better, but again for those who have been to better beaches, I’ve heard there are better. Does that make sense? It really depends on who you are, where your bar is set, and what you’re going for. Santa Marta is the gateway into Tayrona National Park. You can hike through the park and to its beach in a day, but you can also stay overnight. I’ve also heard amazing things about the Lost City Trek, and plan to do that myself, one day, maybe.
Medellin: 2-3 days. We stayed 3 days, and it was perfect, if not more than enough. The flight over Medellin was so beautiful – the landscape reminded me of Cezanne-like brushstrokes. Medellin is a sprawling city in the valley, with a beautiful drive from the airport. The first day, we checked into our hotels and (finally) had an authentic Colombian meal. We took a taxi to some sites… such as Pueblito Paisa which was… nothing really. Hey, at least they had some city views, but honestly it should fall very low on your list. Botero is from Medellin, and donated 23 beautiful sculptures to the city, displayed in Botero Plaza. Definitely make your way there and appreciate the volume. Next, we took a taxi to Comuna 13, the graffiti neighborhood. Uh, little did we know how dangerous it used to be, and still is, but honestly sometimes ignorance is bliss because it didn’t feel dangerous when we were there. Definitely read on the history of Comuna 13, and it’s efforts to undergo change – it’s really interesting. If I had more time, I think I would have done a Graffiti tour to learn more about the history behind the neighborhood, or taken more time to wander a little more. We took a taxi back to our hotel (killer traffic), and went to Carmen, one of the best restaurants in Medellin, for dinner. We started our second day with a 4 hour City Tour – I cannot recommend this enough. I learned so much. Following, our driver picked us up to go paragliding – a big wishlist item for my sister while in Medellin. We drove out the city, up the mountains to San Felix. And then it started raining. Womp. No paragliding for us, but, at least we got to enjoy some spectacular views. Cesar, our driver and now friend, drove us around to other parts outside of Medellin, stopped for snacks, stopped for views, and eventually drove back home to freshen up before heading out to meet a friend’s brother who lives in Medellin.
Our third day started bright and early – a day trip to Guatapé. You can take public transportation, but we hired our driver for the day. We started with El Peñon de Guatapé, or El Peñol. This massive rock was by far the most impressive thing we saw, and something we highly recommend. The once worshipped landmark has 650 steps leading to the top – where you are met with breathtaking views of surrounding lakes and islands. Great way to get your steps in for the day!
After, we walked around the colorful town of Guatapé, dipping in and out of shops. Not too much going on here. Guatapé is a resort area, and you’ll see a bunch of homes and water sports from the rock-top views. You can rent a boat, or do some weird activities like paintball at Pablo Escobar’s mansion… but if you’re not about that, it actually ends up being a pretty short day trip.
Bogota: We had 2 nights, 1 full day in Bogota. I’d maybe do 2 days, but hard to tell since I didn’t spend enough time. It’s interesting, Bogota did not come recommended except by one friend, and most people told us to skip it or don’t stay long for varying reasons of it doesn’t offer much, it’s dangerous, it’s hectic etc. I realized it’s probably because Bogota is more of a liveable city, and not so much a destination city– kind of like Rio. As a New Yorker, I actually love cities like Bogota because it almost feels like a resting place, a city with familiar hustle and bustle. That said, I highly recommend Museo del Oro and Museo Botero, and walking around La Candelaria. Really cool graffiti. Next time, I’ll check out Plaza de Mercado de Paloquemao and Mercado de las Pulgas de Usaquén (Sundays). I heard the Salt Cathedral is cool, but I’d probably skip it unless I had tons of time – it’s a hour outside the city, and sounds a tad touristy, but also unique.
Cultural Exchange The popular saying, “No dar papaya.” It’s literal translation, “Don’t give papaya.” The idiom’s meaning: “don’t put yourself in a position where people can easily take advantage of you.”
SAFTEY. Some of you may think safety is subjective. For me, there are 3 general buckets of safety – on one end, there is your common petty theft and pick pockets, cities where you turn on your common sense and city wits. On the other end, there is more extreme danger, places with risks of terrorism, kidnappings, even homicide. Then there is this weird middle ground, closer to the first, but more dangerous where muggings involve guns, and kidnappings are not out of the question.
I hate to say this, as there was infinitely more goodness on the trip, but I have to stress safety, just in case. I can’t count the number of people who warned us about safety in Colombia, both before we left, and during our trip. Beyond stories of pick-pockets, friends from Colombia shared stories of muggings on the streets, in broad day light. Don’t be flashy, don’t have your phone out, don’t wear designer clothes, don’t wear Nike (they’ll take the sneakers right off your feet), don’t wear jewelry, don’t… don’t… don’t… they said. Now… for people who know me, I’m pretty fearless, and I pride myself on my city smarts. I can’t count the number of dodgy places Ross and I have traveled to, or the number of times we chose to wander through the “more local” roads, sketchy neighborhoods, and dark alleys in search of something more authentic. And I’ve always done this in comfort, never thinking twice about potential danger. Just be smart, ya know?
But still, hearing Colombians tell me specific examples of muggings, I decided to err on the side of caution. I packed accordingly (see above). I was vigilant. And after a few days, I started to relax a little. I mean, Cartagena was safe. Medellin seemed fine so far, sure a little grittier than other cities but everyone was friendly – our tour guide emphasized the goodness in everyone, including the poor, the drunk, and the drugged. I’m also a total believer in the goodness of people, a benefit of the doubt kind of person.
Then I got drinks with Ross’ friend’s brother who lives in Medellin, his local girlfriend, and his local coworkers. Going around the table, they all shared their stories of being mugged, multiple times, at gun point, with the overarching message: don’t be overconfident, it seriously happens. They even showed me footage from their business where their barista was mugged gunpoint, and another where a lady having coffee on sidewalk seating was mugged gunpoint. It doesn’t matter if you’re a local, tourist, expat, young, old, downtown, or in the wealthiest neighborhood, don’t be stupid, don’t be overconfident, don’t be flashy, no dar papaya.
People have warned me about “danger” in other countries, and perhaps overconfidence can lead to ignorant bliss. But for some reason, the warnings struck a chord with me this time. It doesn’t happen to everyone, and while it is more common that you’d think, it’s not happening every moment; that said, it could happen to you. So take from this what you will. Remember, Colombia is a poor country, and though most people mean well, desperation can make you do dangerous things.
General safety aside, assuming you have your wits about you, Colombia is full of wonderful people, with an interesting history. I really recommend taking the time to talk to locals, say hello, share a smile. Learn about the region of Antioquia and what a Paisa is; ask about the significance of graffiti, the metro, and new architecture; ask someone what it means to be Colombian (and which country is the best in cycling in the world). Views on politics and Pablo Escobar can be incredibly interesting as well. Colombians are warm, happy, super prideful, and incredibly kind. Especially in Medellin – wow, talk about nice people. Even folks from Cartagena and Bogota speak of Medellin in high regards. Interesting fact, they don’t teach history in Colombia. Ask why.
Many interesting cultural exchanges … like the lady selling fresh OJ next to the empanada stand who had a great sense of humor; the park filled with drunks, drug users, and prostitutes, juxtaposed with police tents, and how the drunk are so poor they buy rubbing alcohol and add powdered flavoring (but are very happy and friendly); talking to people like Cesar and Julio who lived in the US for a short time but loved Medellin more; there are no Asians in Colombia, not even Chinese (!), let alone Asian families traveling together; one local girl asked us if we were Korean and went on to gush about some Korean pop-group BTS, and how she was traveling to Korea in the fall; and on the other side, we stopped by a small town and little girls came up to us and stared because they never saw an Asian before, and never heard of Korea. It was truly these little moments that made my trip to Colombia so memorable.
For more photos, check out my instagram: SuhweetCaro