After hearing rave reviews from countless backpackers, I had high expectations of Colombia. After well over a month, I can say I haven’t been disappointed. The outgoing people, diverse landscapes, rich biodiversity, underrated history, amenable weather and great coffee just to get started – it has plenty to offer a wide range of travelers. Yes, Colombia is in a state of transition and you can feel it, many gorgeous places which were strictly off limits only a few years ago are now opening up – but you still need to keep your wits about you.
– Con mucho gusto – in Colombia, after receiving a thank you, the response isn’t the Australian ‘no worries’, or the North American ‘you are welcome’, or the standard South America ‘de nada (meaning it’s nothing) – instead it is ‘con mucho gusto’ which literally translates to ‘with much pleasure’. I think this is a perfect metaphor that encapsulates the standard demeanor of the Colombians…… However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Colombia did feel like a place that if you don’t stand up for your self you can get steam rolled, for example bargaining, or lining up for transport tickets, or protecting your personal space..
– Plasticity and lost identities – In all of the big cities I saw copious of people who had gone under the knife, often in ways there were not subtle in the least. I was initially shocked, but later more saddened to see so many ladies with ridiculous looking ‘saggy’ butts, and chopped off noses (rhinoplasty can be cheap and very crude here). These ladies were usually also sporting massive platform shoes, tight jeans and hair dyed blonde. It also came out in conversations with some locals how the general perceptions of cosmetic surgery here are differ to most cities I’ve been to in the west. For example, a girl in her mid 20s casually remarked a group of us how she needed to get lipo to get rid of a bit of belly fat she didn’t like , three things about this jumped out to me… firstly she was probably being a bit harsh on herself; secondly the idea of ‘working it off’ didn’t really come into the equation; and thirdly she just spoke about in such as casual way as though it was like buying another shirt.
– Becoming safer, but still a little way to go – I’m happy to say I didn’t experience a single time when I felt unsafe or exposed. However, it is clear that danger isn’t far away (or was around not long ago). Many of the Cities I went to had an abundance of police officers, the climb up the ‘tres cruces’ peak in Cali we passed no less than 30 police, stationed in pairs every few hundred meters apart. Almost every other backpacker I met in Colombia was only 1 degree away from some sort of violent crime, either having experienced it directly themselves, or knowing someone who had.. for example a tour guide getting stabbed for his phone in Cali in broad daylight, or an carjacking on the overnight bus between Popayan and San Augustin. Having said all of this, some of the most beautiful places I visited have only just opened up to tourists (for example Minca in the north, or San Augustin in the South), and if you keep your wits about you a follow some basic common sense practices chances are you will be aye-ok.
Highlights of trip
– Bogota and initial shell shock coming out of jungle – After spending a few minutes in Brazil (literally a few minutes – there is a tri-city area with semi open borders of Peru, Brazil and Colombia) I jumped on a plane into Bogota. I was in a state of shell shock after leaving the remote lush green clean aired jungle and landing in a sprawling metropolis of over 7million people which has a semi-permanent layer of thick smog. Bogota felt like it was on different planet to the jungle, the people were much more European in appearance, there was infrastructure (such as wifi! And regular hot showers). It was all a bit too much and I had to move to some more remote towns quickly.
– Salento and the coffee growing region – Salento is a gorgeous town in the middle of coffee growing region. It features somewhat puzzling 60 meter high palm trees across sprawling mountain ranges filled with coffee farms. It was easy to see why this area is a top site for Colombians to visit.
– Medellin, a good place to setup base and explore – Forget about the recent turbulent history associated with Pablo Escobar, this is a place where a lot of travelers had found themselves ‘voluntarily stuck’ for a few days (or even weeks). It is a good sized city wedged in a deep valley, undergoing rapid modernization, and has a range of activities in the City and within a short trip. I stayed in a district Poblano which felt like it was cut out of a hip North American City, loaded with cafes, nice restaurants and artisan shops. One of my favourite trips away from Medellin was to Guatepe, a climbing 650 steps up a massive egg shaped rock (La Piedra Del Penol) sitting in the middle of a large lake filled with islands – this site is justifiably a National Monument and seemed incredible in the literal sense of the word. A quick Google of the pics of this rock and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.
– The North Coast, Caribbean, and a different vibe – a mish-mash of different Cities and experiences: Santa Marta was an underrated, charming old City with vibrant restaurants and nightlight, beaches and history; Taganda, a grimy small town popular for scuba diving certifications and locals aggressively pushing illicit substances; Minca, a charming city in former guerrilla held territory in the low lying mountains overlooking the coast; and Cartagena – a Colombian icon, gorgeous old walled port city, overloaded with history and exquisite views, and nearby to some heavily touristed beaches and islands.
– Bucaramanga and San Gill, off and then back on the ‘gringo trail’ – Bucaramanga – a very non touristy but pleasant large, and mostly middle class town. It is great to get away from other tourists every now and then and really feel the distance of where you are. A short bus ride away is the self proclaimed adventure sports center of Colombia – San Gil. Where I tried my hand a paragliding (it was only 70,000 pesos or around $25USD!) and wished I had locked away a few more days to explore the area, I may need to return again one day!
– South and the edge of magnificent Andes, an area rapidly transforming – Cali, like Medellin was home to a large infamous cartel, and like Medellin is coming out of the shadows and rapidly modernizing and becoming much safer (but it has a way to go). It is known as the ‘salsa capital’ of the world, and a stroll downtown on a weeknight, I could see why – packed with discotheques! A highlight was a day trip to San Cipriano, where you can roll around on old train tracks where the locals have created ‘motor-carts’ using motorbikes and old carts, and you can go tubing down some pretty remote and pretty rivers. My bus ride to Popayan was delayed for a couple of hours by a massive street party of locals celebrating the recent win of the regional football team, I’ve never seen anything like it, effectively the City transport was shut down for around an hour. Popayan itself reminded me of Sucre (in Bolivia), very colonial looking grid based town with white washed buildings interspersed with massive churches and cathedrals. After a very bumpy and rough shuttle bus ride I came to San Augustin – the self proclaimed Archeological home of Colombia, which has UNESCO World Heritage listed sites filled with pre-hispanic old carved stones that mostly remain a mystery to archeologists. Estimates mostly have the stones at around 1500 to 2000 years old, but very little is known about who built them and why. Another good South American mystery!
Colombia has been great and I can definitely recommend it to anyone thinking of visiting. However for me it is time to keep moving and to further indulge into exploring the Andes further south… I suppose I can always return if I really want to.