Why Travel to Colombia
Of course the classic philosophical reply should always be: “why not?” but in Colombia’s case there have been some fairly solid reasons not to visit.
Nearly fifty years of violent civil war and widespread kidnapping kept much of the mountainous country isolated.
From Pablo Escobar’s time as the head of the infamous Medellin cartel to the inexcusable violence perpetrated by Las FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) as well as other horrible campaigns by the smaller ELN and the oft-government sponsored right-wing paramilitary groups, Colombia has been dangerous.
Back in 2001 when I was pursuing graduate studies focused on Latin America, a guest lecturer (who’s name I have lost) with a specialty in international security argued Colombia was more of an archipelago of cities than a contiguous territory, as the countryside was so overrun with military groups that much of the area was simply inaccessible.
It would be easy and even interesting to go on about Colombia’s troubled history. Sadly, many of the themes are consistent throughout much of the region: Bolivar-lead revolutions of independence (1810-23), good constitution(s), yet an entrenched power elite, generally supported by the church and little real respect for indigenous identity or the rights of women.
I admire Simon Bolivar and his efforts to bring constitutional rights to the people of South America, however the view proved so narrow that power has just bounced – often violently – between small groups of the economic elite.
The American mosaic is so much more than this model.
Of course much of my real love of our western hemisphere is derived from topography, and Colombia is alive with physical diversity! As per earlier posts, I love mountains and mountainous environments.
Now safe, Colombia’s magnificent landscapes are now open to be explored.
Urban infrastructure is advanced and cities are cleaner than in other Latin American countries, but the interurban road system is terrible. This can be blamed on both 50 years of internal war and extreme physical diversity that makes the country so appealing.
The green of central Colombia can be almost overwhelming. From high mountain to deep jungle – everything grows and the biodiversity is simply incredible.
In contrast to its neighbours to the south, Colombia has a much more European feel – or perhaps ‘Latino’ in the dictionary sense. I missed seeing people dressed in non-colonial apparel and I did not once hear an indigenous language – though they do exist.
One element of life in Colombia that stands out is the formality of conversation. I had noted this previously, but Colombians are incredibly polite and helpful. Language is formal and kind and generally people are happy to help.
In massive Bogota I was continuously helped on the excellent public transport system and felt entirely comfortable asking anyone for directions or even ideas of things to see.
At the coast it was Easter week and Colombia was on holiday! They travel either as couples or in large family groups and everyone was so friendly. What perhaps surprised me the most was an odd relationship between drinking and good behaviour.
Many North Americans have been embarrassed by the behaviour of our fellow citizens when given access to unlimited alcohol at resorts in Mexico or the Caribbean. Binge consumption followed by obtuse behaviour is a correlation endemic to peoples with roots in Britain, Ireland and northern Europe.
On holiday and in 35 degrees heat, Colombians appear capable of drinking beer and aguardiente (Colombia’s aniseed-flavoured national drink), while maintaining a friendly demeanour. No fights, no yelling and certainly friendly. We can learn something.
Gender roles are clear. Colombian women are famous for being beautiful, but this was less of a distraction than I imagined. Indisputably plastic surgery is big business. Class divisions are highlighted in physical appearance.
Colombian food was a pleasure
From previous, shorter trips, I really thought I was in for too many beans and tough meat. Instead I ate volumes of delicious fish, fried bananas and generally interesting soups. I was also fed arepas – a corn-based Colombian tortilla at almost every meal. I never disliked these relatively bland corn pancakes, but neither did they provide the culinary crescendo I would have hoped. Everywhere I went people asked if I had tried arepas and then explained the specific arepa on my plate wasn’t as good as elsewhere!
I also rediscovered patacon – fried bananas used on their own or as a base for sauces. Absolutely delicious and certainly reminiscent of Central America’s endless fields of banana plantations.
There were a few fast food restaurants about, but in terms of the culinary environment, Colombia’s isolation is notable – and enjoyable. As an extremely regionalized country (due to history, war and topography), food did change as I moved around the country. Closer to water – fresh or saline – fish dominated, whereas at higher elevations I found a delicious variety of sausages (chorizo) and surprisingly good cuts of meat.
Cheese is white, fresh and fairly bland. White rice also came on most plates and fresh juice may in fact be the real highlight of dining in Colombia. Sushi is new, expensive and not good.
I was thrilled by the general cleanliness in eating establishments. I ate everywhere from good restaurants to street vendors and never once had the sort of aggressive stomach reaction that can occur when travelling.
Colombia is Big
I had to pick my route well. 17 days can seem long for a tour or single-stay holiday, but when travelling through a country of high mountains and jungle, a day is lost everytime one moves. On this trip I wanted to: Explore the Capital, travel above 4000 meters and of course experience the Darien Gap.
To me, Colombia is a country of three-steps: highlands (above 2000 meters) defined by a mild climate, mid-elevation / semi-tropical – ideal for coffee, fruit and coca production and extremely hot lowlands where the humid, tropical heat cannot be avoided. The tropical lands are found along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts as well as in any deep valleys (follow the Magdalena River) and in the expansive and somewhat inaccessible Amazon region.
I did not fall in love with Bogota, but as with other massive cities in the region, the capital does have a great deal to discover. I particularly like walking up Monserrate – the 3200 meter mountain that defines Bogota’s southern limits.
The city is home to numerous interesting museums, but I focused on the Gold Museum – this museum is excellent and maps gold mining throughout the Americas and across Colombia. Additionally it describes the regions of Colombia in some depth. Of course I have done a fair bit of research on mining communities from Yukon to Bolivia, so I simply could not miss a gold museum! If interested please visit my blogs on the highest city on Earth.
Additionally I fully enjoyed the colonial / salt-mining town of Zipaquira located one hour north of Bogota. This friendly community has excellent food, outstanding mine tours and is developing into a rock-climbing centre – this will be another trip for sure. I know Helena will come!
Note: On weekends there is a tourist steam train to Zipaquira from central Bogota – but the website was not clear that this was weekends only and on a Tuesday I went there expecting to take the train. The journey on public transport was easy, friendly and cost around $4.
From Bogota, I travelled down, down, down to Honda. I mentioned this in a previous blog, but found the area so interesting that I stayed an extra day. The crazy, windy roads can upset one’s stomach, but the views are spectacular.
The heat in this valley is oppressive, but the area is well worth a visit for the birdlife, architecture and honestly because as recently as 2010 the region was impassible due to militant activities. I stayed at the Hotel Sol Algeria. Normally this looks a little fancy but on booking.com it cost about $35! I loved the idea of the pool, but the fine print failed to mention the waterslides only opened on the weekend! Saturday morning before my departure I did run up to one of the slides, only to be told my swimsuit wasn’t permitted due to buttons. Grrrr.
However, Carlos, who worked the front desk, took me for a walking tour of his community and even refused a tip (propina). Thank you, Carlos – you have an extremely interesting and beautiful community.
From Honda I left for Manizales in the department of Caldas. Colombians love their famous city Medellin, but Manizales stole my heart. The 4-hour drive from Honda took us over 3600 meters with at least three people on the minibus vomiting – clearly a common occurrence on the windy roads, given the ready availability of plastic sick-bags on the bus.
Manizales is located at one end of the coffee region and its attractive buildings are perched on the mountain-tops over 2000 meters (7000 feet) above sea level. They have even installed an excellent cable-car system for getting around town!
My motivation for travelling to Manizales was specifically to visit Parque Nacional los Nevados with its high elevations and tropical glaciers. The trip departed at 6am and included a stop at natural hot springs towards the end of the day. Despite very poor weather I did enjoy the park, and would like to return in better weather. There is a hotel in the park, but I could not contact it and therefore did not stay (even though it is on Expedia). In the end I really enjoyed discovering Manizales. It is worth mentioning the park staff were excellent.
I stayed at the very comfortable and reasonable Hotel Varuna for about $50. Breakfast was excellent and the only challenge was changing money over a weekend – this demonstrates just how new simple leisure tourism is in Colombia.
From the heights of the active Nevado del Ruiz volcano I joined some other travellers for a visit to the much hotter – and lower – coffee regions. Beautiful country, but again poor road infrastructure. I wrote a short blog about all the elevation changes.
We explored the area of Rio Sucio – home to the biannual Devil Festival and then onto Medellin.
I already knew Medellin quite well so limited my stay to two days. I stayed at the 5 star Hotel Dann Carlton because the price was right (under $100) and the location safe and excellent.
People from Medellin and the region of Antioquia in general call themselves Paisas and are incredibly proud of their city and region. I absolutely acknowledge the friendliness and do find Medellin an attractive city with excellent, clean public transport and many cultural activities. For a first-time visitor I would recommend a four night stay in order to explore the city and its nightlife as well as at least one museum.
Medellin is famous for artist Fernando Botero and his globally-recognized voluptuous sculptures and paintings. Much of his work in housed in the excellent Antioquia Museum. A can’t-miss painting within the museum captures The Death of Pablo Escobar, another famous – on infamous native of Medellin. In talking to locals I would say this is more of an embarrassment, but a historic legacy that has put Medellin on the tourist map.
Outside of the big city of Medellin, many people enjoy a visit to Santa Fe de Antioquia to enjoy colonial architecture and excellent food. The community is only 80 kms (50 miles) north of Medellin, so expect 1.5-2 hours on the bus!
From Medellin I decided to fly to the coast. I chose this to avoid the 9-hour journey by bus (soon to be 6 hours I am told) and because there remains some military activity towards Panama.
I flew with Satena Airlines out of the very centrally located city airport (EOH NOT MED). Flights can be very affordable in Colombia and while I love the landscapes, flying is often the best option.
From there you can follow my adventures into Panama on the Darien Gap blog!
Currency / Value: The currency of Colombia is the Peso and the current exchange rate is about 2400 pesos to $1 USD. Calculating 2-1 is safe and generally Colombia is very affordable by ‘first-world’ standards.
Average to good 3 star hotels cost $30 – $80 night almost always with breakfast. Less expensive hostel options are available as are higher-end hotels.
Food can be extremely affordable – particularly in markets and almost everything is fresh. Restaurant service is also very good and staff are extremely polite.
Typical of countries north of Argentina and Brazil, there is no real set dining time – restaurants are happy to serve anytime and flavours reflect the local environment.
Colombia is not a wine culture. Beer is consumed everywhere and with the exception of some expensive micro-breweries local beer is very light. I probably prefer Pilsen from Medellin although in the heat of the coast Aguilla (Eagle) was clearly the locals’ choice!
Fruit is abundant everywhere and excellent.
Be prepared to negotiate price, but not always. Taxis will charge foreigners more, or at least ask for a tip (propina).
Plugs are the same as in Canada and the USA and Internet / WIFI is widely available.
There are major airports throughout the country, but Bogota seems the logical entry point. Customs was fast, friendly and organized. A taxi from the airport to the centre was around $12 and there is a public transport option.
I flew through Los Angeles and El Salvador to Bogota and used points for this trip. Generally from North America flights cost from $600 – $1000 return. Good value overall.
Cartagena – the resort coastal town in the north is also a popular entry point and due to the cruise industry it is often the only Colombian City many cruisers visit.
I wouldn’t recommend driving unless you have good Spanish and the nerve to pass on blind curves! Buses are notably more expensive and of a much lower quality than in Peru or Chile, but still fine and affordable by international standards.
I am an experienced traveller and do speak the language, but given Colombia’s history and reputation I really felt very safe. Specifically in comparison with Peru, I found officials to be approachable and honest and the general population concerned for the well-being of visitors.
Even on crowded public transport in Bogota, people were friendly and helpful. All the same, I guarded my belongings carefully.
Most cities have rough areas and in Bogota La Candalaria (the touristic centre) can have some rough areas. In a country famous for drug production, it is not surprising to encounter many people with substance abuse issues.
The sun can be dangerous due to both altitude and the tropics so a hat and sunscreen are a must. Plus long-sleeves when your skin has had enough.
Some regions are considered endemic for malaria and Yellow Fever. Of course I am inoculated against Yellow Fever. On this trip I did not take malaria medication, but probably would if I ventured further into the jungle or the Amazon region.
Climate and Packing
With massive climate changes over very short distances, Colombia requires the lightest possible tropical clothing and at the least a good enough jacket for single-digit (celcius) weather.
I recommend good walking shoes as well as flip-flops! In terms of nightlife Colombians really dress up – particularly in Medellin and Cali, so if clubbing is in your plans, dress accordingly!
Laundry was not readily available so, as a good backpacker, I washed everything by hand in the shower.
Note: most showers do not have hot water in the tropical areas, but excellent elsewhere.
Rain: Colombia does have a rainy season. 2014-15 was an El Niño year so weather was exaggerated, but all the mountain areas rained enthusiastically in the afternoons.
Learn Spanish. Accents change and people do study Spanish and even some French, but knowing Spanish makes all the difference. Locals want to talk and are very appreciative of language skills!