TOP THINGS TO LOVE IN COLOMBIA – 2 TO 3 WEEKS

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If I say the word “Colombia” what comes to your mind? Honestly?
I bet “Escobar”, “FARCs” and “narcos” will be on your top of mind. Oh sorry, I have forgotten “coffee”, of course. After leaving Colombia, I have realized how these words have faded out (apart from “coffee” of course…) and how many more were added to my list. I have discovered a marvelous country and have felt quite safe in Colombia (apart from the city centers of bigger cities like Medellín and Bogotá). In a very selfish way I am quite happy that the word about the “New Colombia” hasn’t really spread out: it remains a destination quite free from tourists and tourist schemes. I also have to say that I was lucky to be introduced to Colombia by Colombian friends and by others who have elected Colombia as their home or their adoptive country. To all of you thank you for making this trip an unforgettable experience!
When I was writing this post I realized that Colombia was a bit like THAT guy or THAT girl that will make you instantly fall in love with. Yes, Colombia sets up a kind of grand seduction scheme to make you fall for it. And the smart part? Is that each city or region has a different approach to it so there’s no way you won’t fall for it…

1 – 3 DAYS IN CARTAGENA & ISLA BARU – THE “COLOMBIA ROMANTIC” SEDUCTION

Cartagena de Indias really is something. Being Brazilian I have seen my share of colonial cities but truth be told, Cartagena is worthy of its reputation.  This is how Cartagena will seduce you: with its full arsenal of romantic elements: 16th century colorful colonial buildings, romantic alleys, balconies filled with flowers, restored churches…
2 full days are a good start, but if you have more time add an additional one to simply chill out and enjoy the incredible food and views this city has to offer (and the pool if you choose your ho(s)tel wisely). There are 3 ways to discover Cartagena: by foot, horse-carriage or chivas. My advice? Why choosing? Do the 3 and you will see the city in every possible angle (the backpacker one, the romantic – a.k.a. lazy one, the drunk one).

Use day 1 to stroll around the inner walled town and discover the beautiful alleys, squares and balconies. We have started by Puerta del Reloj y Plaza de los Coches. A big, big square that will lead you to the inner town. Walk, walk, take picutres, take pictures. Don’t miss Plaza de Aduanas, the former governmental heart of the city. Have a break at Plaza Bolivar – a.k.a. Parque de Bolivar – and enjoy the shadows from the trees as it gets veryyyyyy hot in Cartagena and have an arepa for a “light” lunch (a corn – or wheat- type of flat bread filled with different ingredients, my favorite being the cheese one: the arepa de queso). In the afternoon visit Las Murallas, the thick walls constructed around the city by the Spaniards to protect the city. I particularly have enjoyed them at the end of the day as the light gets quite spectacular. This could be the perfect moment to do a romantic tour of the city in a beautiful carriage. Tired now? Good! Time for a drink! Head to Plaza San Diego and have a drink in the Bar El Coro in one of the most beautiful Sofitel (and hotels) I have ever seen: the Sofitel Santa Clara. Hungry? Awesome, just head to the right and sit outside of La Cevichería and try one of Colombian’s favorite dishes: the ceviche (a delicious treat made of fresh raw fish or shrimp “cooked” in lime juice with coriander, onions, spices).

In day 2, you can dedicate your morning to culture, and why not doing a kind of “Catholic-Spanish-Cartagena-tour”? Visit Palacio de la Inquisición to discover one of the “most famous” periods (sadly) of the Catholic Church and visit the Cathedral. For lunch you could try Quero Arepa. A hit if you have enjoyed the arepas. In the afternoon, head to Las Bovedas if you are looking to buy some souvenirs. If not, well go there anyway because it is really beautiful. They were vaults built within Las Murallas and have seen a new life when they were restored to become souvenir shops. If you are not planning to visit Bogotá, you can take some time to visit the Museo del Oro Zenú. At last finish your day by visiting the biggest fortress ever built in the Spanish Americas: Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Waouh now that was a day and I am sure you are starving. Latin Americans have a solution for that: Argentinian grill!  Patagonia Asados del Sur is a good option where you will find awesome provoletas (melted cheese with chimichuri), choripan and a huge delicious juicy fat-free steak called bife de chorizo.

For your day 3, time to enjoy some beach time! After all you are in the Caribbean and the black sand beaches of Cartagena might not be what you were expecting. Playa Blanca in Isla Barú is your place and the trip can be easily organized with your hotel. You pay for the boat and the right to enjoy the facilities of a hotel (restaurant, swimming pool, showers) for the day. However be aware that it might get a “little” touristy so it might be worth to pay more to stay at a better place. We have been in a private group organized by friends and went to a private island called Barú Island Resort. A little piece of heaven. It even had a private pool and the food was outstanding!!! Thanks Fer & Pato for this awesome day!

Colombia Cartagena Isla Barú

KEEP IN MIND
You should know that Cartagena is much more than the old city center. Beyond it (which I would not advise you to visit much) it can be dodgy. So when you are leaving the city center, make sure you go by a taxi called by your hotel or the restaurant/bar you are at. Otherwise you can contact Leo (+57 300 8493377), he has driven us around, is really nice and speaks some English. Another thing: prices have to be negotiated with the driver before starting.

HOTEL
We have stayed in 2 hotels:
First Vistamarina out of the city center right on the beach (even if we didn’t enjoyed the sea that much), it has a great pool, great breakfast, great Limonada Suiza (lime lemonade with sweet concentrated milk, yummy), and if you get the Suite Vista Marina you will find yourself in a HUGE room with a HUGE terrace where you can enjoy breakfast in your room.
Then in the city center in the beautiful Casa Córdoba Román, a historical building extremely well-situated in the city. There is a pool in the rooftop and the building is very nice. However make sure the aircon works!

2 – 3 DAYS IN SANTA MARTA, MINCA AND TAGANGA – THE « I’LL-GIVE-YOU-ALL-THAT-I-HAVE-TO-HAVE-YOU » SEDUCTION

If you feel relaxed after 3 days in Cartagena, the feeling won’t last long because now it is time to take the road. Be aware that in Colombia minibuses, buses, taxi drivers drive in a way that can make a Paris Dakar champion whiten with fear. You will leave Cartagena early in the morning in a minibus. It is more a van than a minibus, filled with passengers (to whom we became pretty much acquainted knowing how close we were). There were no places for luggages so they went dangerously up the roof (and of course there was a storm on the way, otherwise it wouldn’t be funny for our non-waterproof backpacks). We also had the pleasure to discover that they also function as door-to-door postmen. Every 15 minutes in the urban areas, the driver drops a letter or a package to someone. So if you stop in a very dodgy area and your driver gets out of the car, don’t be surprised: it is “normal”. After some COP poorer, 2 liters of rainwater heavier backpacks and clearly needing a drink, we have arrived in Santa Marta.

Santa Marta is a city that is rich in history: it is one of the oldest Spanish cities of the South American continent, it has been the deathbed of liberator Simón Bolivar and it is a seaside spot for Colombians looking for some easy-going days at the beach. That is how it will get to you: by making you discover all of its richness, diversity, history and surrounding beauty. Rule number 1, make sure you are staying in the city center. And by center I mean very very close to this square: Parque de los Novios. Colombians will tell you that Santa Marta’s center used to be pretty dangerous. But with the restoration of the downtown buildings, the appearance of new restaurants and boutique hotels, it is pretty safe to walk around the city center knowing that you always have to be aware of your surroundings, especially at night. We dedicated our afternoon to visiting Santa Marta, walking though its streets, its beach front and enjoying its food. If you are looking for a chill-out happy hour, we have enjoyed a 2×1 mojito at Marley Cafe Bar. If you want loud music, backpackers and aguardiente head to Cafe Bar Parque de los Novios  a few meters away on the corner. For dinner on the first night I would really recommend an affordable pita place: Carambolo. My favorite pita rellena? I have loved the choripita with chorizo and chimichuri and the babaganoush with hummus and eggplant. You can add 5000CPS and get a smoothie (that rocks!) with it.

 

Colombia Santa Marta

For your second day, I would suggest a day-trip to Minca. This is a one-day tour that we have also arranged directly with the hotel. So, why going to Minca? First of all because it will bring you to the green luxurious misty mountains of Colombia. You will start your day driving up to Hacienda Victoria, a coffee plantation where you will learn how coffee its made and an all-you-can-drink degustation. After you are highly caffeinated on the other side of the road you can pay a visit to the micro-brewery Nevada Cervecería and try their beers Happy Jaguar and Happy Tucan. After you are loaded with caffeine and alcohol you will walk your way through the Sendero Pozo Azul to bathe in a very very very cold waterfall, known as Pozo Azul (duhhh). It is crowded but the water is clean and very refreshing. It will also open your appetite for what will come next: lunch. We have been to the Asadero Camarita where we had pork (really good) and beef (less good) because they ran out of their specialty (that we were lucky enough to have tried earlier): the chorizo. A quite original place where you will befriended by a lot of hungry (and friendly) dogs. You can stop at the village of Minca where a few foreigners are enjoying the quietness and remoteness of the place. Ok, time to go back. For dinner, we definitely recommend going to Donde Chucho. THE place to eat Colombian food apparently in Santa Marta’s downtown with lobsters and sea food (non-fans of sea food fear not! The baby beef is awesome!).

Colombia Santa Marta Minca

On your third day discover the once-a-fishing-village-now-a-backpackers-destination-for-20y.o.-looking-for-party, a.k.a. Taganga. It is a short taxi ride from Santa Marta and a famous destination for cheap scuba diving. It is not the kind of place I have “over-enjoyed” as it is difficult to understand its true identity. If you can, take a boat and go to Playa Grande from Taganga, a better and cleaner option 🙂 .

Colombia Santa Marta Taganga

 

HOTEL
We have absolutely loved loved loved our hotel: La Casa Del Agua by Xarm Hotels. We had a great promotional price for one night and the hotel was kind enough to let us stay with that rate for the next 2 days we have stayed there. The room was tiny but cozy, the pool refreshing and the rooftop had a beautiful view of the city, the breakfast was delicious and we were just a street away from Parque de los Novios. Definitely recommended! If they are full you can try to stay in another of their hotel boutiques like La Casa Del Farol or La Casa del Árbol.

WHAT ABOUT THE TREK TO THE LOST CITY (LA CIUDAD PERDIDA)?
Unfortunately we did not have time to go there. You will need at least 4 days to add this one to your itinerary. We were disappointed not to be able to do it, but hey, that gives us an additional reason to come back! 🙂

3 – 1 DAY IN PARQUE NACIONAL NATURAL TAYRONA – THE “CARIBBEAN PARADISIACAL COLOMBIA” SEDUCTION

This is a magnificent Natural Park and you will fall for its crystal blue beaches, its jungle and huge boulders along the way. All of this in a weather very caliente. The only problem? Well… You can’t really go into the sea everywhere as there are very treacherous currents that have caused the drowning of hundreds of tourists. But don’t worry, after a marvelous hike you will get there! You will get to the park through El Zaíno (also easily reachable by taxi) where you will pay the entrance fee and then ask your taxi driver to wait for you and take you to Canaveral. It will take you around 40 to 50 minutes to hike from Canaveral to Arrecifes. Another hike of 20 minutes will lead you to La Aranilla and La Piscina where we have enjoyed a less dangerous sea (but I can tell you that the currents were pretty tough and I am not sure we could actually bathe in there). It is 20 minutes later that you will reach one of Colombia’s most beautiful postcards and the Lonely Planet’s cover: Cabo San Juan de la Guía. This is the beautiful place where you will be able to enjoy the Caribbean sea, have a snack and spend some hours before heading back to Santa Marta or deciding to camp there (but it is crowded and infrastructures are not the best).

Colombia Parque Nacional Tayrona

KEEP IN MIND
Be aware that bringing alcohol in the park is forbidden (even if you can buy some in the beach, and I haven’t figured out if that was legal or not) and that rangers will check your baggage and patrol the beaches without hesitating to kick you out if needed (and that is a good scenario).

4 – 2 DAYS IN MEDELLIN – THE “BAD BOY/GIRL-TURNED-GOOD-BOY/GIRL” SEDUCTION

When I told my parents I was heading to Medellín, I could hear a long moment of silence on the phone. And that was actually a GOOD reaction! “Are you talking about the city that was the most dangerous city in the WORLD and where Pablo Escobar ruled, and where the Cartel de Medellín made whatever they wanted to?” Yep… That’s the one!!!
Well, Medellín today is a changed city. This is what will make you fall in love with it. It is working its way to become an exemplary city, but it has a dark past that one cannot forget. Capital of the Antioquia department, it is the 2nd largest city of Colombia after Bogotá. Its inhabitants are proud of their city and mostly of their region (this might be why you can hear them describing themselves as Antioqueños, and not Medellínenses). They are proud of it for many reasons, but one of them might be because it is considered as the “Paisa Capital”. Paisa – from paisanos, countrymen – are a subgroup of Colombians that have their own accent, own culinary (you cannot miss the huge and delicious bandeja paisa with meat, rice, chorizo, refried beans, plátanos, fried egg, salad and avocado) and cultural identity. They are known for being hardworking and entrepreneurial people and extremely welcoming and nice, which I can most surely confirm! This might be the reason why I feel I haven’t stayed long enough in Medellín. If they are proud it might also be because the city has been elected by the Urban Land Institute as the most innovative city in the world regarding its work on politics, education and social initiatives. Or perhaps because it is extremely dynamic culturally with several top-notch museums. One must not miss the Plaza Botero, with beautiful statues of its most famous artist and the Museum of Antioquia (one of my favorite museums ever). Medellín is also the city of the Festival de la Flores (Flowers Festival) that is held between late July and early August. If you are going for your summer holidays try to be there for the festival. You won’t regret it. And then there are curious things in Medellín, like the Pueblo Paisa: a fake paisa village ideal for taking pictures of a cute Colombian village, eating obleas (two big wafers filled with dulce de leche) with a cup of fresh juice, enjoying the awesome views of the city under a HUGE Colombian flag.
By night it is time to head to El Poblado zone and more specifically to the Zona Rosa, the chic, the cosmopolitan, the beating-heart zone around Parque Lleras. For dinner, we haven’t hesitated: we went straight to Toscano. We had the meat pasta and the chicken pasta with bruschettas as appetizers and all was good, service was excellent and the location perfect.

Colombia Medellin

 

KEEP IN MIND
Medellín’s city center is dangerous, especially by night. I wouldn’t advise to stay there: we have decided to stay in El Poblado and take taxis which are not expensive. Safety first (see dad, I do listen… Sometimes :)).
I would also recommend a plane from Cartagena to Medellín. We flew with Avianca (very good company) for a very reasonable price. And do not worry you will have your share of public transportation during the rest of the trip.

HOTEL
We have found a promotion for the Hotel BH El Poblado. Greaaaaat views on the city, awesome breakfast, just in front of the mall Centro Commercial Santa Fé and a 5 minute ride to the Zona Rosa. Usually expensive but if there is a promotion happening you won’t regret it.

5 – 4 DAYS IN EJE CAFETERO & SALENTO – THE “RURAL-POETIC” SEDUCTION

Do you know the feeling of getting to a place and feeling instantly like you could stay there for much longer than expected.? Where you just want to stop for some months and write a book? Well that is the feeling I’ve had when I arrived to Hacienda Venecia. Surrounded by coffee plants and lush vegetation this place felt like heaven. We had booked only for one night but we wished we had stayed more. Up there you can hike, you can rest, enjoy the pool and of course: take the Coffee Tour (in English). This is not just another Coffee Tour. You really learn a lot about the types of coffee, the particular way of planting and roasting the coffee here and all the elements that make Colombia’s coffee, one of a kind (I even swam among the coffee beans). You will walk among the coffee plants, visit the fabric, all of that in the company of the sad-looking dog and the flying chicken, but that is another story…
After that it was time to head to the place we have loved the most in Colombia: Salento. Salento is a town of colorful windows, that has managed to become attractive to tourists while maintaining the rhythm of a real small town life. Apart from the town you go to Salento because there are awesome hikes/treks. If you are looking for a multi-day trek you should ask the agency Paramo Trek Salento. We were supposed to try our first multi-day trek with them. We booked a 3 day trek and unfortunately our guide broke his knee so we have been offered to join another group on the Paramillo del Quindio trek (3 days – 50km – 4750m). We were all set and ready to go very early the next day when at 9PM the agency shows up at the hotel to tell us that our guide had had a personal urgency and that we couldn’t go. We thought that if we tried a third time something might happen to us this time so we decided to stay in Salento and do multiple day hikes. What a great decision. the hikes were absolutely gorgeous!!!
Day 1: Hike the popular but must-go-to Valle del Cocora. If someone tells you that you have to climb a “Willie” to reach Cocora don’t be shocked. Willie is the jeep used as public transportation in the Eje Cafetero that leave early in the morning (ask your hotel for exact timing) from the main square and will bring you home safe. So jump in (without a coffee would be preferable, trust me…), squeeze in and get ready to see something pretty awesome. You will head to a very very very green valley. And if you are lucky there will be a dashing blue sky with enough clouds to add drama to it. And in front of you hundreds of wax palm tree reaching up to the sky at more than 60m of height. You will walk through mud, suspended bridges, rocks, water, horse shit, and you will love every minute of it. You might feel some effects of altitude so drink a lot of water and walk slowly, set a pace that allows you to keep walking longer instead of faster. After all it can get steep and you have 5h ahead of you if you want to go the long way.
Day 2: We decided to go for another day of hiking. This one is known as the hike to “La Cascada“. Do not expect very clear signs as there are not, but ask around. So if you reach a coffee finca and you find it weird to have to keep walking on a path on the right side it is normal. At one point you will see a property where it is written “Tunel / Cascada” and “Private Property”. You can go in, that is the way, you will only have to pay 3000 COP to the lady in there. Oh and vanquish your fear of cows if that is a problem for you, because there will be cows. If you cross a small cute dog that follows you along the way, say hello from us! Oh and a big thank you to the owner of the crepes restaurant Crepers Co (apparently very good but out of our budget 🙁 ) for taking us back home from the main road at la Boquia – the bus doesn’t come very often….).

Now to rest we would advise the following: dinner at our favorite place (which I can’t remember the name sorry) which is just in front of Casa Willys on Calle 5 with Carrera 7 and you can’t miss it. It is a huge barbecue set within a truck driver’s cabin. AWESOME. The meat is really good, served with salad, rice, arepas and the price is really reasonable. Another good call is the cheap El Rincón de Lucy with a very full plate for a little price: a heaven for backpackers. We have also tried the pizzas of Casa Willys. To end the day we went playing with a couple of friends the unmissable “tejo” (let’s say that it is noisier version of pétanque that you cannot miss: you throw a heavy metal ball on a wall with mud and firecrackers and the goal is to set them off) with a bottle of Poker beer! Cheers and KABOOM! How could I forget it. By now you must be wondering. I am in Colombia and I haven’t talked about coffee that much. For coffee head to Cafe Jesus Martin, because despite the fact that the Colombian coffee beans rock, the barista expertise is not fully there yet. But it is coming. And fast.

Colombia Eje Cafetero Salento

 

HOW TO GET / LEAVE THERE
From Medellín we took a van (Flota Ospina) from the Bus station to Pereira. And from Pereira we took a bus to Manizales (Espresso Palmira if I remember well). This is when it got tricky. Make sure you have a map with you if you go to Hacienda Venecia because it was a long taxi drive and the taxi guy stopped at least 10 times to ask his way). To go to Salento, the hacienda’s jeep took us to the main road and put us into a bus. Quite an interesting bus terminal with one lady regulating the traffic from a bus chair on the side of the road… But hey! it works! so why not 🙂

HOTEL
Manizales: Hacienda Venecia
Salento: Do not hesitate to go to the Casa Borbón. It is small, it is cute, it is clean and 2 rooms have an aweeeeesome view on the Colombian Andes. And it is cheap 🙂 And the owners are really friendly and helpful.

6 – 2 DAYS IN BOGOTÁ – THE “MONEY-POWER-COSMOPOLITAN” SEDUCTION

Bogotá is not a city that you forget very easily. It is the kind of city that impresses you. It is a mixture of all that Colombia has to offer. It is very much alive, and as many cosmopolitan cities it has many faces. Downtown: its beautiful heritage, its inhabitants abandoned by society and those who have decided to abandon it, its incredible museums (Museo del Oro, Museo de Bogotá are must-see). Cerro Montserrate and its amazing view on the city after a nice trip in cable car. Parque de la 93 neighborhood and its trendy restaurants, bars, shops, the face of the cosmopolitan city of Bogotá and how it is opening to the world. To go out, a Bogotá experience cannot be complete without going to the mythical Andres Carne de Res, in Chia. So yes, it is a bit far but you will not regret it! If you are not up to go that far or if the Chia one is closed, go to the Andres Carne de Res of Bogotá. We had the time of our lives! Crazy mojitos, indecent chicharonnes and delicious jucy meat. All of that with salsa, reggaetón and so much fun singing the big hit “El taxi” (now that is a long story too). What are you waiting for? GO GO GO!!!

HOTEL
We stayed in the best hotel of the city: at our friend’s Luis. Unfortunately I am not sure I can put his address here :))) Oh and he serves great gin Tonic! Thanks Lucho!!!!

COLOMBIA WE WILL BE BACK!
We are at the half of our South American adventure and have met a lot, and when I say a lot, I mean a looooot of people traveling for 6 months South America (don’t these people need to work? :P) and everyone seems to agree that Colombia has been a very special moment. So if you haven’t been there yet, well I kind of envy you because you will get that feeling of knowing you are starting something great. And if you have then you might be doing like me, preparing already what you will do next. In my case: Providencia, San Augustín, Parque Nacional de los Nevados, Letícia.

I also have to say that if I have fallen in love with Colombia it is also because of its people. Some of them were Colombians, other were Chileans, other were Bolivians. And they all made everything they could to make us live and love this amazing part of the planet Earth called… Yeah, I guess you got it by now: Colombia. So dear friends, thank you for making me go back to Paris in 2 months with a feeling of not having visited Colombia but having lived it. Sweet memories. Oh for those who still haven’t understood the lyrics of El Taxi, there you go!

 

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