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Category Archives: Colombia

Daniel, my host in Medellin, told me I had to make a day trip to Guatapé. Despite having limited time remaining before heading home, I adjusted my schedule accordingly and listened to Daniel’s advice. I’m glad I did because Guatapé ended up being my favorite place in Colombia.

Guatapé is less than 2 hours away by bus from Medellin’s north terminal. I was advised to get off of the bus 10 minutes before arriving in Guatapé to climb Piedra del Peñol, the iconic rock that dominates the landscape. The driver will know where to drop you off and you can either walk 15 minutes, take a taxi, or ride a mule to the rock. A small admission fee and 700 steps later, you reach the highest point for as far as the eye can see. The view overlooking a deep blue lake dotted with green islands is among the best I’ve seen anywhere.

From the rock, my traveling companion Majka and I took a ride to town in a funky little green convertible. After some negotiating and waiting, we went on a 90 minute boat tour of the lake with 8 others for $5 each. The lake attracts many weekend and holiday visitors from Medellin and the houses built on its islands show they are quite well-off. You even get to cruise by Pablo Escobar’s now-destroyed sprawling compound.

Guatapé lake is human-made and powers a hydroelectric plant that provides electricity to a third of Colombia. The town of Peñol once existed where the water now stands and its only remaining building has been turned into a museum. We stopped and docked the boat there, where we learned the history of the house that would become the museum as well as that of Peñol itself. It was informative and interesting.

Following the tour, we explored the town of Guatapé. A tremendous amount of consideration went into every aspect of this charming little town. Buildings are painted bright, bold colors and there are murals on the front of houses depicting village life. Streets in the center are made of small stones and even the streetlights have a historic, very aesthetically pleasing design.

It’s difficult to believe that Guatapé is not a top tourist attraction for Colombia. I have no doubt that it will eventually gain that recognition and can see UNESCO designating the place as a World Heritage Site; it’s that special. Guatapé earned my highest possible endorsement and I would love to go back and spend more time.

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Whenever possible, I try to squeeze in a destination birthday. This year I was lucky to be able to ring in a new year in Colombia. It just so happens that my birthday coincides with one of the biggest celebrations in the country: Medellin‘s Feria de las Flores, the flower festival.

Medellin is a flat city surrounded by mountains. In the past, the city’s elite would get up the hills surrounding Medellin on the backs of slaves. The cart-like devices used to transport the wealthy were called silletetos, and after the abolition of slavery, they were filled with flowers rather than rich people as a liberation celebration known as the Feria de las Flores.

The festival is held over the first 10 days of August. This year was special with the festival ending on a weekend. On the eve of the culminating day, which also happened to be my birthday, people gather in Santa Elena, a town on top of one of the mountains that surround Medellin where the silletetos are made, for eating, drinking, and revelry. People paint themselves black and wear large fake chains. There were also a number of men in (comically non-convincing) drag, although I never got an explanation of the historical context behind that tradition.

Sunday’s parade, which marks the end of the festival, drew the biggest crowd I have ever witnessed anywhere. Plazas are packed with people and vendors, and the streets are lined several rows deep with people for miles along the route. It was impossible to get a spot with a decent view and I relied on putting my camera above my head to get photos. The atmosphere was intoxicating, as was the cheap beer being consumed by virtually everyone.

If gigantic, unique cultural events are your thing, I highly recommend visiting Medellin in early August. The Feria de las Flores was like nothing I’d ever seen and is something I will never forget.

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Colombia has a bit of a reputation for its recent violent past, and that stigma hangs over Medellin more than any other place in the country. Just as things have calmed down nationally, Colombia’s second city is once again safe to visit. Medellin hasn’t just emerged from the stranglehold of narco-violence; it’s thriving. The Urban Land Institute, which is the preeminent authority on municipal governance, last year named Medellin the world’s most innovative city.

What sparked Medellin’s turnaround? The condensed, not too wonky version is that the city has had three outstanding mayors in a row and is home to Colombia’s only metro system. Smart growth centered around mass transit and expanding transportation equity has opened Medellin to its own people, and the world.

Rail is supported by MetroPlus (a dedicated bus lane), a conventional public bus system, the incredibly cool metro cable system that takes you up and down the mountains that surround the city, and the 385 meter escalator that provides urban access to the Comuna Trece, the most dangerous and infamous neighborhood in the city.

Even with all of the progress made, Medellin is not out of the woods yet. I looked forward to visiting the escalator to the slums only to find out that it is controlled by an organized crime syndicate that charges a fee and kills people, including children, indiscriminately. Downtown isn’t safe at night either, but you are free to take in its many cultural sites during the day.

Over the first 10 days of August each year, Medellin hosts the world-renowned Feria de las Flores, or “flower festival.” Fortunately, my trip overlapped with the festival and I was able to take in this unique cultural celebration.

The flower festival is peak tourism season for Medellin and this year’s festival ended on a Sunday, adding to the normally incredible demand. Every single hostel in the city was booked and had been charging far above the usual rate.

Arriving on short notice (I booked my accommodation and plane ticket the day before), I tried Airbnb and totally lucked out. I ended up getting a private room in a guesthouse in Los Alpes, a safe, quiet area on the MetroPlus line for less than what hostels with poor reviews were charging for dorms. My host Daniel and his mother are wonderful people and made me feel at home in their city.

Although I was limited on time, I made a day trip to Guatape on Daniel’s strong recommendation, and it turned out to be my favorite place in Colombia.

While Cartagena was extremely hot and humid and Bogota too chilly for my liking, the climate in Medellin was just right; so were the people. For a place with a bad reputation, the people of Medellin more than go out of their way to be kind, friendly, and welcoming. If I had to pick just one city to visit again in Colombia, it would be Medellin.

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Machu Picchu is the biggest tourist attraction in South America, which means a LOT of people go there. Being one of them, I can’t complain about the crowd and it’s number one for a reason: the place is truly wondrous. That being said, I longed to go on a trek to an abandoned jungle city, without throngs of fellow visitors. Enter Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City.

Located a short ride from Santa Marta in Colombia’s north, Ciudad Perdida is a remnant of a lost civilization that was founded more than half a millennium prior to Peru’s crown jewel. Rediscovered 40 years ago, the Lost City isn’t as breathtaking a sight, but offers, for now, something Machu Picchu can never again: authenticity.

From the gorgeous jungle trekking, to the indigenous guides, to the city itself, Ciudad Perdida is the adventure many travelers seek. There are hills, valleys, rivers, and waterfalls, and a wide variety of exotic birds and insects. Pumas, jaguars, and other big cats are in the area as well, but rarely seen near the trail. You really can’t ask for more in terms of a walk through the jungle.

The government regulates access to the area and has set a flat rate of 600,000 Colombian Pesos regardless of what tour company you use or if you do a 4 or 5 day trek. Due to these guidelines, the tour operators work in concert with one another and many visitors end up being pooled with customers from other companies. Wiwa is the lone exception to this rule, but their guides do not speak English.

I went with Turcol, a suggestion from Pau at La Guaca, the hostel I stayed at in Santa Marta, and we joined forces with a group from Expotur Eco. The guides were kind, polite, professional, and only spoke Spanish, but members of our group served as translators. All of the guides were from the area (one of our guide’s house was at the first campsite) and their connection to the land greatly enhanced our stay in this special place.

Our group of about 20 was a mix of 4 and 5 day tours and the only difference in itineraries was in the last day or two. Rather than use the additional day to move at a more leisurely pace for the entire trek, those who opted for the fifth day moved with the 4 dayers for the first 3 days and essentially chilled out for the last couple days not far from the end of the trail. Having just one month for this trip, I went for the expedited version and the pace was still rather light.

The food was fine, we slept in beds each night, and there was beer for sale at each campsite. Our group was a great mix of interesting people that undoubtedly added to the overwhelmingly positive experience. I absolutely loved the trekking and the chance to visit a place like Ciudad Perdida before it rises to prominence on the tourist radar was priceless.

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Coming from Hawaii, I usually avoid beaches while on vacation, but a number of people in Cartagena told me to visit Tayrona National Park. The park features several beaches, only a few of which are suitable for swimming due to riptides, hiking trails, and camping areas. If you arrive early enough, you can sleep in a hammock on a rocky outcrop that juts into the ocean!

About an hour bus ride from Santa Marta, Tayrona is in the heart of the Colombian Caribbean Coast. Entrance to the park is about $20. Upon arrival you can either walk for one to two hours or take a $1 shuttle to the start of the hiking trails; I highly recommend the latter. After being dropped off by the shuttle, you hike through forest and beach to arrive at your camping site.

Tayrona has two main campgrounds: Arrecifes and Cabo San Juan. Cabo is the preferred location since the beach there is safe for swimming and you can sleep in a hammock on the ocean. It takes roughly one hour to reach Arrecifes and another to arrive at Cabo. The walk is nice and you can see monkeys, a variety of birds, and brilliant blue lizards.

I am a huge hammock enthusiast and made sure to arrive in Cabo early enough to have my beach hammock experience. When registration began at 2 p.m., I was first in line and gladly forked over the $14 for a hammock on the Caribbean.

Food and beverages are expensive at the campsites and it’s a good idea to at least bring water in with you. The food at Cabo is pricy and looked like your typical backpacker garbage. I went to a nearby small outdoor restaurant and splurged on a delicious fried fish (my choice, straight from the sea) with coconut rice, plantains, and a beer for about $15.

Outside of frolicking in the ocean, lazing on the beach, and hiking through the forest, Tayrona doesn’t have much in terms of activities. Some people only stay for the day and others spend close to a week. Having a limited amount of time and a number of other things to do around Santa Marta, I kept my Tayrona trip to two days and one night. It was a perfect duration for me and I suggest spending at least one night, and sleeping in a hammock over the ocean.

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Following a hot, humid welcome to Colombia in Cartagena, I took a shuttle bus to Santa Marta. Located on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, Santa Marta is a hub for a number of activities in neighboring places, but the city itself has few attractions. Its biggest claim to fame is being the first Spanish settlement in Colombia when Rodrigo de Bastidas took the place back in 1525.

While lacking a major tourist draw, I found Santa Marta pleasant, comfortable, and a good place to relax and strategize what surrounding places to visit. You could easily spend a couple weeks taking advantage of the many opportunities Santa Marta’s geographic location provides. I managed to squeeze in an incredible trek, overnighter at a beautiful national park, and a relaxing stay in a sleepy beach town during my stay.

For accommodations, I went with the newly opened La Guaca Hostel. Located outside of the congested city center and operated by a friendly, welcoming, and hospitable family, La Guaca was just what I was looking for. Pau, the middle of the family’s three sons, speaks English very well and was incredibly helpful in planning my trips out of Santa Marta and making my time there as enjoyable as possible.

As for the city itself, visitors congregate along the waterfront where there are a number of shops and restaurants/mobile food operators that cater to their needs. It was there where I got to try the legendary ketchup and mayo ceviche, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds. There is a relatively small open air market near the bus terminal in the city center that doesn’t offer much in terms of things to see or eat.

Santa Marta is not a place you must see, but its proximity to a number of desirable destinations puts it on the map.

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Flying from Peru to anywhere in Colombia is not cheap, especially during high season. Having just one month for this trip, I decided to bite the bullet and hop on a plane rather than spend several days on a bus. I began the Colombia leg of my journey in Cartagena and would work my way south, eventually flying home from Bogota.

Like most visitors I stayed in the Old City. On the recommendation of my buddy Greg, who recently shot a travel show in Colombia called Backpacker Nation, I stayed at Hostel Mamaella. It was your typical hostel experience: the first night featured about 40 coked-up adolescents jawing away in the common area and the next night had a couple people quietly drafting cover letters and applying for jobs from their laptops in the same exact spot.

I decided to pass on visiting the beach, mud volcano, and taking the 5 day boat trip to Panama as many visitors to Cartagena do. Instead, days were spent walking around the gorgeous city marveling at the colorful Spanish colonial architecture and at night I would drink beer on the steps of a church in a plaza near Mamaella and watch children play soccer and street performers do their thing.

Colombian food isn’t very highly regarded and I found little to argue otherwise. Most everything is deep-fried, there is a severe lack of vegetables, and the food is bland. I tried another Bourdain recommended restaurant, La Cevicheria.

For the first time ever, Tony let me down. The staff wears turquoise pirate-esque bandanas and the interior looks like it could be in a Disney theme park. I ordered a mixed ceviche and the taste matched the ambiance. I met a few other people that tried the place and loved it, but an establishment can be judged on any dish on any day.

The highlight of my time in Cartagena was the Basurto Market. I always seek out open air markets as they tend to be the true heart of the city. Basurto was, by far, the most raw, gritty, and vibrant market I’ve come across. The place is huge, filled with a variety of sights, smells, and sounds, and I didn’t see another tourist there during both of my trips to Basurto.

I enjoyed my time in Cartagena, especially the market and wandering around the Old City. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re planning a Colombia trip.

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