Colombia; cities, coffee and the Caribbean

After nearly eight months of traveling in South America, I arrived at my final destination of the continent: Colombia. I was about to visit a country that is known to the outside world for Pablo Escobar, cocaine, the FARC and kidnappings. However, according to many travellers the country has changed enormously over the last decade and safety has improved. Did I survive the dangers of Colombia?

Initially my plan was to travel overland from Quito to Bogotá. Since the Southern part of Colombia is considered to be less safe, traveling by night is not recommended. Therefore the trip would cost me around three days, one way. I figured a flight was a better option leaving me more time to explore the country. The main objective in Colombia was the trekking circuit in Sierra Nevado del Cocuy. Unfortunately a lack of resources had led to a closure of the park. According to many this park is the hidden gem of the country, due to the closure however, it will remain hidden to me. Plans had to be changed and I decided to go North first, after a couple of days exploring in the capital. Through the adventure town of San Gil I would continue North and check out Tayrona National Park and Cartagena before making my way back South. There, the coffee plantations of Salento, its surrounding mountains and the city of Medellin would be the main points of interest for me. In between all these stops I had to make sure to arrange my visa for Iran, a rather complicated affair.

On new year’s day I arrived in Colombia’s capital where a taxi brought me to a hostel in the Candelaria neighbourhood. Unfortunately I didn’t arrive alone in Colombia, a virus I had met in the Ecuadorian jungle had joined me for a day or five. I guess her name was Dengue… The first thing I noticed about the Candelaria area is the fact it’s very modern compared to other South American countries. Beautiful colourful colonial buildings seperated by cobblestone streets that go up and down. It reminded me a bit of Cuzco in Peru but without the tourists and its negative consequences. Probably because it’s a bit more modern, accommodation tends to be a bit more pricey. The Colombian Dream Hostel, however, did not deliver more quality for the supplement in price. Walls were thin as paper, breakfast was a nightmare and service was something understood only by half of the staff. Perhaps they can change the name of the hostel…

Since the start of the new year I felt a bit so-so, thanks to my travel companion, and therefore I took it easy the first couple of days. After strolling around in Candelaria for a bit, I decided to try a local delicacy for lunch. Ajiaco is a popular soup typically made with chicken, potatoes, corn, and some herbs commonly referred to in Colombia as guascas. It was a great welcome to the local cuisine!

enjoying an "Ajiaco", a traditional Colombian soup

enjoying an “Ajiaco”, a traditional Colombian soup

The following day I collected all my strength (remember, Ms. Dengue likes to reduce the number of red blood cells!) and paid Museo d’Oro (the Gold Museum) a visit before going up Cerro Monserrat for a nice view of the city. The museum is truly impressive but overwhelming in terms of information. The exhibition starts with a thorough explanation of all the different methods being used back in the days, for example panning in alluvial deposits, sintering and the lost wax method. Next they showed how one can know which methods and materials have been used. This study is known as metallurgy. Despite the fact I was almost done already and not really capable to process any more information, the real exhibition still had to start! The complete history from the last 4000 years was about to be discussed with all items worn by different tribes in different points of time with explanations too. And I can tell you, there were slightly more than two tribes… To fully appreciate this museum you have to visit it for at least a couple of days and you’ll need to be in excellent shape!

Candelaria is a nice area, the other areas of Bogotá however, are either too dangerous or almost inaccessible. I’m pretty sure the person who was in charge of designing the infrastructure of the city didn’t have any relevant degree since it’s a true disaster. Besides the terrible locations of the bus terminals, a metro would have been a great addition to transport the more than seven million people who live in the city. The country, and the capital in specific, is developing very fast so who knows what kind of bullet train the city will have in a few years…

Since Ms. Dengue was about to leave, time had come to look for some adventure. In Colombia there is one place which adrenaline junkies call home; San Gil. I took a taxi to the Northern terminal in Bogotá but was dropped off on the side of the highway. Strangely enough there was a bus heading to San Gil so all went well in the end. Seven hours later I arrived in the little town full of activities.

There was one activity in particular I wanted to do, so-called “torrentismo” or rappelling in a waterfall. I was quite hesitant since I suffer from a fear of heights. I can hear you thinking “What, this guy is skiing and suffers from fear of heights, don’t make me laugh!”. Well, there is a difference for me between going down on a 50 degree slope on my beloved skis or going down on a rope on a near vertical wall. In this case I had to conquer a 75 meter vertical wall underneath the Juan Curi waterfall. A spectacular setting if you’d ask me, but still, my legs were shaking. Since the local holidays were in full force, many Colombian families were ready for some torrentismo too. Some of the men pretended to be more than happy to rappel whereas some of the kids and mums seemed to be quite nervous, just like me. I decided not to take a look over the edge but just to focus on the technique. How do I hold the rope? Am I in the correct position? And, where do I put my feet? This way I was hoping to prevent myself from freaking out…

rappelling the Juan Curi waterfall near San Gil

rappelling the Juan Curi waterfall near San Gil

This approach worked really well and before I knew I was hanging on the wall and actually enjoying the sports instead of being scared. There were five people rappelling at the same time. I was on the second rope from the left (or fourth from the left when looking down as in the picture) meaning I was in the waterfall for most of the rappel (I soon arrived under the big waterfall behind me in the photo!) which added some extra spice to the adventure. After around five minutes I was down and completed quite an adventure. I’ll probably be nervous again the next time I have to rappel a vertical wall but at least I know I can do it. Who knows, this might be handy in the future…

The next day I enjoyed a breakfast at the local market where they served some delicious fruit and its associated drinks. After a nice stroll in the colonial town of Barichara, I took a nightbus to the North of the country. The driver had no clue about the meaning of the word responsibility and drove like an absolute lunatic. At one point he was even racing in the middle of the mountains with another bus driver. The next morning a miracle had happened and I arrived in Santa Marta alive. The town of Santa Marta is located at the Caribbean coast and serves as an excellent base to explore Tayrona National Park which is known to be the premier destination of Colombia.

The first two weeks of January appeared to be high season in Colombia with all Colombians traveling to the Caribbean coast. Tayrona is known to be a quiet getaway, but, not this time of year unfortunately. Most entrances had reached their maximum number of visitors when I arrived at the park leaving me no choice but to go for the least popular option; walking for more than three hours towards an overcrowded Cabo San Juan campsite. Hundreds of tents were set up and all the hammocks were booked. Both lunch and dinner took one hour to order and another hour to finally get your meal. The beach was full of hippies or even worse, wannabe hippies. Swimming was too dangerous because of the current and of course, it was humid and hot and there were many, many mosquitos. Well done, Paul!

a rare uncrowded beach in Tayrona National Park

a rare uncrowded beach in Tayrona National Park

One night was more than enough, so the next day I took a bus back to Santa Marta. Luckily I found a deserted beach in the morning to enjoy some time in the park before I left. After a night in the Dreamer Hostel, a good place but with too many typical backpackers, I continued my journey towards Cartagena…

Cartagena was possibly even more crowded (both in terms of people as well as mosquitos!) than Tayrona and therefore accommodation was hard to find. I ended up staying at the Chancletas hostel, one of the worst hostels I have ever stayed at. The old part of Cartagena (which city in South America doesn’t have an old historical center?!?!) has a lot of character. Colourful buildings where people live outside, set the scene. Restaurants are abundant and the first night I ended up having a bite at an Indonesian restaurant owned by a Dutchman, Gerard. He moved to Cartagena eight years ago to set up a school for traumatized children. We had a nice conversation and the meal, although pricey (he said 99% of the money would go to their foundation, he better be right!), was delicious and a nice change to the rather bad Colombian cuisine. The following days I explored the surroundings before heading towards Playa Blanca but not before I paid a visit to Cafe Havana. Saturday night Aymee Nuviola, Cuba’s most beautiful voice according to the flyer, was performing live around midnight. In front of an interesting crowd of tourists, gold diggers with their 50+ year old Western men, transsexuals, prostitutes and locals she took the stage and never gave it away!

Aymee Nuviola, "the best voice of Cuba", takes the stage in a packed Cafe Havana

Aymee Nuviola, “the best voice of Cuba”, takes the stage in a packed Cafe Havana

I concluded my stay in Cartagena with a two day visit to Playa Blanca, a remote and therefore uncrowded beach. I hopped on a local bus, ferry and finally a motorcycle to reach this beautiful spot. On arrival I kept on walking to the right together with Kristian, a Norwegian who took the same journey. The further we went, the more empty the beaches became. The water was delightful (I have never experienced such warm water) and after a nice burrito and a good conversation, we went to our cabaña, or small hut. After a terrible night of no sleep, I had to conclude another virus had struck me. In the morning I had no choice but to take the first boat back to Cartagena to visit a doctor. Second time Dengue can be life-threatening. Luckily it turned out to be a relatively innocent viral infection. However, it was enough to ruin my visit to this amazing beach…

On January 14 I flew back to the capital since I needed time to get my Iranian visa. I had been told it could take between 7 and 14 working days. Back in Bogotá, I had to take it easy in order to recover. Since transportation is even worse than in Quito, I stayed within walking distance of the area where the embassies are located. I didn’t want to depend on taxi drivers since they always ripped me off in this city. To optimize my chances of obtaining my Iranian visa, I needed a so-called sponsor to arrange an authorization code through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran. For only 44 euros Stan Tours, based out of Almaty in Kazakhstan, took care of this. With the code, a couple of photos and some money, I visited the Iranian Embassy in Bogotá. At first, entrance was rejected because I had to make an appointment by phone. That, of course, was not mentioned anywhere. Some perseverance from my side opened doors, literally. Once inside, I was told I needed 50 euros and two photos of 6 by 4 cm with a white background. Of course, I only had Colombian pesos and photos of 4 by 3 cm with a grey background. For some reason it seems like all these embassies have a meeting together every now and then about how to piss off tourists. These meetings seem to be quite successful, I have to say. A little extra perseverance from my side however, resulted in the possibility of paying with pesos and suddenly my photos met all the requirements too. Guess what, the next day I had my visa for Iran. The first 94 euros are already spent and I haven’t set foot in the country yet. However, I did get a couple of books and a cd to get in the mood…

After arranging my visa, I hopped on a bus to Salento. First I had to go to Armenia and from there a local bus would take me to Salento. The plan was to do this in one day but since the bus to Armenia was delayed, I had to stay overnight in a delightful sex hotel. Luckily my room had a tv so the ladies on the Australian Open provided all the sounds related to such a hotel. Imagine to stand out here, you don’t want that…

On arrival in Salento, a small town in the department of Quindío, I checked in at the Tralala hostel (yes, that is the real name!) and guess what, finally a very nice hostel. Salento is a popular destination in Colombia because it has retained its traditional colonial architecture, has a quiet and relaxed way of living and is located nearby several coffee plantations, Los Nevados National Park and the Cocora valley. In the center of town I found some nicely looking billiard tables and I fancied a little practice of three cushions. I didn’t play well which was, obviously, due to the terrible state of the table. However, I did make one sensational carom that would make even Dick Jaspers a proud countryman.

the Cocora valley with its wax palm trees, near Salento

the Cocora valley with its wax palm trees, near Salento

A popular excursion from Salento is made to one of the nearby coffee plantations. I opted for Don Elias, a small family-run plantation about an hour walk from town. Since Don is not the youngest anymore, the main tour is taken care of by his grandson, Carlos. He showed me around the plantation first before explaining the production process. At the end of the 30-minute tour around the house, I clearly had to try their product. Since I never drink coffee, I had no sensible judgement to make. If there is one thing I have learnt about South American people, it must be the fact their unbelievably proud (or nationalistic if you’d like), so I knew I could only be honest in case I liked it. Honest or not, I told señor Don Elias that I liked his coffee resulting in a smile on his face.

After I explored the Cocora valley, time had come to move on. A lot of tourists rave about Salento. “I planned to stay for three days but ended up staying two weeks”, that kind of stuff. Well, for me a couple of days were more than enough. It’s a nice place but nothing more than that. I hopped on a bus to Pereira in the early hours of the day and changed to another bus towards Medellin. The second largest city of the country is known for Pablo Escobar and cosmetic surgery. That does sound a bit weird in one sentence but it is simply true. Amongst drugdealers you’ll suddenly see Marijke Helwegen or one of her scary look-alikes. Watch out here!

One thing to do in Medellin that was recommended to me, was paragliding. It is very affordable and I’d have a beautiful view of the city. Since I had never done paragliding before, it seemed like a great adventure to me. In order to enjoy the view, the weather had to cooperate. The first couple of days during my stay, clouds were abundant with some rain from time to time. Obviously not the best conditions for flying. At Friday the 24th of January the sun was finally shining and I took a taxi to the take off point. After a one hour drive I arrived, together with two young British ladies, at a hill next to Medellin. Quite a few people were flying around since this was a rare sunny day. I tried not to think too much of what was ahead of me. Before I knew, Antonio my guide, had put me in a harness and we were running down the hill. Only a couple of seconds later we were high up in the sky flying above the big city of Medellin!

flying high above Medellin

flying high above Medellin

I signed up for a 20-minute flight and after making a decent amount of circles, Antonio asked me if I was up for some acrobatics. I didn’t really answer the question because I wasn’t too sure about it. On one hand I didn’t want to reject and experience the possible excitement but on the other hand I wasn’t 100% sure my stomach could handle it all. Well, Antonio interpreted it as a clear yes and some seconds later I was shouting in the air as we went from right to left and left to right, really all over the place. When Antonio, clearly excited by the acrobatics, asked me if I wanted to do some more I made sure to reply with a ‘no’ this time. A few minutes later we were back on the ground. It was a great and also new adventure. Traveling is all about widening your horizons!

The next day I met up with Angela and Juan Camilo, a couple I had met in Cappadocia (Turkey) last March (yes, the world is a small place nowadays). They were excited to be traveling around in Turkey and seemed to enjoy every moment of it. When we met they ensured me I had to contact them in case I would ever be in Medellin. I obviously did and we met on a nice Saturday afternoon. Since I was their guest this time, they showed me how a young family (they have a 20 month young daughter) spends its time in the weekend. We started at a tiny local juice bar where they offered tens of different fruit juices either mixed with water, milk, yogurt or icecream. A pineapple and coconut juice mixed with yogurt was delicious. Next, they took me to the largest shopping mall of Medellin. We walked around and Juan told me everything he knew about the city while Angela was busy chasing Martina, her little daughter. While walking around for an hour or so, we met several of their friends. They were all there with their little kids too. Apparently this is a good way to get their kids tired so they will sleep nicely. In the meantime the parents can catch up on their daily lives. A typical Saturday night dinner is one in the foodcourt of the mall. This may sound weird to most Europeans but, since I’m a big fan of food courts, I was more than happy with our choice of dinner. At Sarku Japan we enjoyed some nice food while all the kids were running around and screaming. What can I say, a typical evening spent in Medellin…

Before leaving this city I had to know more about its most famous citizen, Pablo Escobar. He was a notorious and wealthy Colombian drugdealer who initially wanted to steal from the rich to help the poor. Of course, he didn’t mind to fill his own pockets too. Reportedly responsible for nearly 80 percent of the world’s cocaine traffic during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, he was a kind of reckless Robin Hood to the people of Medellin building houses, hospitals and football fields in the slums with the millions he earned from trading cocaine. Meanwhile, anyone who upset him could expect a bullet. He invested his money in the main football team of Colombia, Atlético Nacional, too. In 1989 they even won the Copa Libertadores and football was literally referred to as “narcofutbol” at the time. Since there were (and still are) many more poor people than there were rich, Pablo was a very popular man regardless of the crimes he committed. Nowadays, you can go on a tour to see one of Pablo’s former offices, his grave and even meet his brother Roberto in a house that once served as Pablo’s hideout. Roberto, half-blind and half-deaf from a letter bomb, lived life in the fast lane alongside his sibling. He was the cartel’s main accountant and spent 10 years in prison for his drug-related crimes. Roberto says the money earned with the tour is being used to fund his AIDS charity… Trust me, I was really trying to believe him. This must have been the weirdest tour I have ever done! It might not have been truly responsible tourism too…

Medellin is the second city of Colombia and seems to be quite popular amongst backpackers and tourists alike. One guy in my hostel liked the city so much, he ended up staying here for more than six months and still counting. I honestly don’t understand why. The city lacks a decent amount of sights, the atmosphere is not very inviting, nice restaurants are scarce and, in case you care, it rains a lot too. But hey, this is of course only my humble opinion…

left: Pablo Escobar's grave, right: posing with my newest friend Roberto Escobar

left: Pablo Escobar’s grave, right: posing with my newest friend Roberto Escobar

Colombia is a relatively modern country in South America with a lot more influence from the United States than in more Southern countries. People look quite different compared to Ecuador which can be explained by the African influence, especially at the Caribbean coast. Poverty seems to be less of a problem but this might be the opposite in reality. As a tourist you don’t really see the poverty but the difference between high and low class in this country is supposedly very big. The areas you can visit as a tourist are clean and nice and filled with police. Sure, you can visit other areas but don’t be surprised to get a knife on your face with the polite question to hand over your belongings, and that’s only when you’re lucky…

It will be very interesting though to see where the country will be in a few years. Since safety is improving and tourism is taking a rapid growth, American investment companies see loads of possibilities. The Caribbean coast might lose its charm when mass tourism takes over. On the other hand, cities may become more dynamic with new concepts and ideas. Also, larger parts of the cities might become less dangerous as time progresses, making a visit much more interesting in my opinion.

At the moment though, I missed the unique selling point of Colombia. Most places are nice (I especially liked San Gil and Playa Blanca), but are easily rivaled in nearby countries. Of course the fact I had been sick twice for five days (so 10 days in total) didn’t help much either. Also, traveling first to the Northern coast was a poor decision from my side. It was extremely crowded because of the holiday season which I could have avoided by simply turning my trip around and start in the South of Colombia before making my way up. Most people are overwhelmed by the warmth of the local people. Well, I haven’t experienced anything like that. It is the first country where I have enountered racism for example, since they simply ignore white people in many shops. Also, Colombians are very rude when lining up to buy a product. They simply don’t line up. From all South American countries, they seem to be the most macho by a mile. Of course I met some nice locals but not enough to be overwhelmed in a positive way.

Another problem mainly caused by the holiday season, was finding decent accommodation. Most of the hostels were pretty bad and expensive. They always play loud music and don’t be surprised to find the owner of the hostel trying to sing along. Unfortunately, the odds of this person being a high potential candidate in the Voice of Colombia are very slim. Also, staying in dorms is not my favourite activity but simply a necessity considering the prices of the rooms in most cases. In case the hostels were good, there was a typical backpacking crowd. When googling around I found the following definition (there is a longer more detailed definition but that doesn’t fit this post…) of a backpacker by a renowned traveller named Paul Roggeveen:

“A backpacker is a young person who is mainly drinking, smoking and being lazy and following other like-minded people from hostel to hostel based on “off the beaten track”-travel advice in the Lonely Planet. This person is convinced to have seen the true country, in this case Colombia, but in fact has only partied with other travellers.”

Well, I don’t have to add here that these kind of people are not my favourite. Please people, I want to ask you to think. Normally you’d have brains, so please use them while traveling. Don’t live the life of others, live your own one! Additionally, look in the mirror from time to time and be honest about what you see. Please…

Following my own suggestions, I know I’m definitely not a beach person so hanging out on the Caribbean coast for a week might not have been the best plan. However, I wanted to see that part of Colombia too since it’s part of their culture. Well, I have seen it. Playa Blanca was truely spectacular, but an infection unfortunately messed things up. Also, I’m more of an outdoor guy than a lazy party animal. Since the trekking circuit in Sierra Nevado del Cocuy was closed, I felt a bit lost. I really need some outdoor highlights during my trips, otherwise all that remains is the regular tourist stuff. After a while that gets really boring. Finally, when many people tell me to do something because they believe it’s great, that certainly doesn’t mean I will like it. I’m not the average person, that won’t make the headlines in the newspaper…

All in all, Colombia is not really (or really not…) my favourite destination but at least I survived all the dangers there are according to the outside world. Since there are no highs without the lows, I look really forward to my next destination.

Next stop is Morocco where life in the dorms and amongst backpackers is passé. Private rooms are affordable in Marrakesh. I look forward to go back there and enjoy some nice brochettes and delicious icecreams. The objective is to ski some couloirs from the Tazaghart plateau. It must be the best skiing Morocco has to offer for me. Let’s see…

Unfortunately the hard disk of my laptop crashed and therefore I lost most of my pictures of Colombia, so no gallery this time…