Viva Colombia!

If one more person had said, "You're going to COLOMBIA? Why???" I would have gone crazy.  Now that I'm back, the real question is why haven't you gone yet? 

Colombia has long been on my list of places to visit, so recently when some college girlfriends were batting around getaway destinations, I threw my suggestion into the list.  I was beyond floored when they accepted, but I knew better than to question my luck.

The streets of Cartagena
Rarely in my life have I gone somewhere with such little frame of reference.  (Frame of reference: coffee, soccer, Shakira, coffee) On the upside, we were ready to completely discover, on the downside, we didn't have much of a clue what we were doing.  If you were prey to any of the lame stereotypes that exist for this country, you might be put off, or even worried.  Fortunately, we were too busy extracting ourselves from work and life to marinate in misconceptions.  We nailed the basics early on: our route and the places we'd stay.  We decided that we would skip the major cities (Bogota and Medellin) on this trip and land directly in Cartagena.  From there we would explore the city for a few days and then wander further north along the coast.  All systems go.

Now, you can admit it if you're not entirely sure where Colombia is on a map.  You should know before I go any further.  So here you go, don't worry, I won't tell. 

Colombia is the gateway for many of the continent's imports and exports (go ahead, make your coke jokes- I'll wait).  We began in Cartagena, a beautiful port town at the northwest.  Tourists tend to go directly into the old walled city, which is what we did for starters. It's beautiful, and it's safe, and Anthony Bourdain had been there.

Courtesy of the trusty internets, we connected with the incomparable local guide Marelvy Peña-Hall.  Marelvy is a local tour expert fluent in three languages and equally able to guide you through her nation's history in any one of them.  We went to La Popa for a beautiful sunset and a vantage point from which you could take in the magnitude of this port city.  From up high at La Popa (which used to be a convent- 99% of what we saw in Cartagena
my first cup
was!), you could still hear the music pulsing from the city down below.  Spectacular.  She took us for our first cup of Juan Valdez coffee, ambled with us through Portal de los Dulces (a street of homemade sweets vendors), and showed us a few more buildings that used to be convents...  We wandered the streets with Marelvy as she told us tales of Simon Bolivar, and pointed out landmarks in Gabriel Garcia Marquez tales.

Following that, we spent two more days in Cartagena "eating our way through Colombia", as I called it.  You're not doing the city justice unless you do.  (Details and recommendations follow)

From Cartagena we journeyed 4 hours north in a van.  Transport in Colombia is privatized, so you reserve a van and they pick you up.  Think of an airport shuttle, but, in this particular case, the "shuttle" was full of people who do not understand the concept of "light packing", "personal space", or "don't sing out loud in small spaces if you are not paid to do so".   And you're in the van with them for hours.  With no bathroom breaks.  It was like a travel reality show, where the award is finding out who is going to handle being incontinent in their old age better.

To answer the questions that are probably arising in your mind about safety, it was visible that Colombia is taking steps to make the country safer for tourists.  As you'd drive the country roads and highways there were soldiers/officers every so often, always with a rifle, but they looked so relaxed that there was no reason for alarm. It was a reassuring presence rather than anything else.  At no point were we warned against wandering - some said to watch our purses, but even at the national park we were told it was fine to go it alone (and we did).  Common sense seemed to be all you needed.

Casa de Isabella, Santa Marta
view from Eco Hostal Yuluka
We arrived in Santa Marta, the oldest city in South America.  The city was a small, intimate beach town, but housed an adorable boutique hotel called Casa de Isabella, whose breakfast is, alone, worth the visit there (read my review here).  Their staff redefined hospitable, as you can read in my Tripadvisor rave (always pay the recommendations forward!)  Santa Marta is good for eating (a theme throughout the region, we learned), and we walked by the beach and took in the views at the port.  It was a quieter town, but we enjoyed the history and the calm.  We could feel ourselves inching away from tourist havens and further into the arms of an authentic Colombia (not to be confused with inching into the arms of an authentic Colombian, which did not happen despite daydreams to the contrary).

Eco Hostal Yuluka
From Santa Marta we continued a half hour north to the outskirts of Parque Tayrona. For our visit to the Parque we stayed at the incredibly unique Eco Hostal Yuluka, a set of charming, deluxe cabins (think air conditioning and Direct TV) within gorgeous plants and moments away from the entrance.  It's Gilligan's Island meets a bed and breakfast.  The owners, Wilmar and Nelli, are a lovely young couple who double as fantastic tour guides; without them we would have missed one of my favorite parts of the trip.  There isn't a ton happening at the hotel; this is where you'll come to relax after your hike, sip some Colombian beers and play cards with your girlfriends like the cowboys you are.  Note: they don't have hot water.  Prepare to spongebathe!

Once our bags were dropped in our beautiful accommodations, we prepared to enter the famed national Parque Tayrona.  Picture the lush green of the lush Sierra Nevadas ending in a perfectly turquoise Caribbean Ocean. Take that, Hawaii!  Folks who only make it as far as Cartagena or one of the big cities, I hate to break it to you but you are missing out on a global treasure.  Photos do not do this place justice - it's heaven incarnate.  We hiked in through el bosque, the forest path, arriving at the first beach in about 45 minutes.  The first stop is a large campground with a couple of casual restaurants and hammocks tied up in every which direction; it is common for travelers rent a hammock and sleep on the beach.  (Travelers who do not like air conditioning and Direct TV, I guess.)

From there, you hike 15-30 minute intervals before arriving at another outlet to a beach.  These beach stops dot the coastline -- we hiked about 4 of the beaches before turning around.  Because we went at low season for tourists (November, the end of rainy season), we passed other travelers but didn't deal with the hordes we were told exist during high season.  It also meant we could wear bikinis with abandon, a nice perk.

After galavanting on the beach (said galavanting was punctuated by my screams of pain as I stepped on and into every rock available in that region of the Caribbean).  Once we were adequately sunburned and sea watered, we began the hike home.  Rather than return the way we came, we left through la playa, the beach path.  This path, contrary to name, isn't on the beach, but heads a different direction from the beach, and felt a bit more jungly than the forest, which was incredible given that it couldn't have been more than a half mile away.  Rather than just trees, we walked through webs of vines to find our way back to civilization.  More tips on that below.

Our second day in the Parque Tayrona region, we didn't actually go into the park.  Our host at the Eco Hostal Yuluka recommended that we visit La casada, the local waterfalls.  This required a walk along a river for about a half hour and some scrambling up rocks, but was worth it and was actually my favorite portion of the trip.  For the afternoon we were whisked away to a private beach that we had entirely to ourselves- hammocks were tied up for us.  I laid in mine reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rocking back and forth in the wind as another beautiful Colombian storm began to brew, and just taking it all in.
La cascada


* Learn some basic Spanish.  Time to dust off your high school Spanish, kids.  While some people are enthusiastic about practicing their English with you, in the outlying cities English is rare and sign language will only get you so far.

* Befriend a few trusted figures, for example the concierge at your hotel- get all the details you can.  The more specific you are able to be about what you want to do, the easier it will be for people to give you recommendations.  Colombians are extremely warm and helpful, but don't make them do all the work. 

*  Be prepared to eat lots of seafood.  The seafood and produce in Colombia are incredibly fresh, and chefs are eager to show it off in their cuisine. Whether it's a fancy restaurant or a casual hut in the jungle, chefs tend to be liberal with the meat portions.  This is your chance to try smoked stingray, and I'm warning you that it's unexpectedly delicious.  In short, if you are a vegetarian, you may want to preview your food choices or at least get comfortable asking for your food modifications in Spanish so there is no confusion.  

*Take an umbrella... but be prepared to leave it there.  For some reason unknown to me, I was allowed to take my umbrella IN to Colombia but it was forcibly removed upon my exit.  There may actually be an umbrella shortage there.  During rainy season, the storms are long and powerful.  Forget whatever you've experienced before- this is the stuff flash floods are made of.  For us, they tended to happen from about 5-8pm, when it was already dark.  We took shelter and enjoyed wine and cheese in our hotel to kill time before late dinner (Colombian style).  If you have curly hair, take a helmet or other hair-restraining device. This weather situation is serious, and your vanity should not take the potential for humidity lightly.
      • the walls around the old city, Cartagena


        * Take your time wandering the old walled city.  Know going into things that the city is difficult to navigate- street names change from block to block, so you'll be working with sight more than names.  Become comfortable getting lost and asking for directions. 

        *  Consider hiring a local tour guide to maximize your experience.  Actually, don't hire just any guide, book early with Marelvy Peña-Hall.  Her big smile and her customized tours are an essential part of a proper visit to Cartagena.  You can trust her to steer you away from the tourist traps, to help you navigate the streets of the town like a local, and to patiently answer even the most inane questions about her beautiful town and country.
          • Sunset at La Popa
          • Catch sunset at La Popa
            • Prepare to eat. When I came back, I joked that I had "eaten my way through Colombia"... except it wasn't really a joke.  We went armed with a list of restaurants, so I'll spare you and share the best of here. 
              • Do not miss La Vitrola- make a reservation because this old world candlelight restaurant is well worth an evening, and everyone seems to know it.  Book it first thing upon your arrival, perhaps as a last dinner.  The seafood casserole will change your life.   
              • *  Try at least one arepa, a cornmeal patty often stuffed with egg or similar, and chorizo -- yum!  Everywhere will have them. An arepa, a sausage, and a bold cup of coffee will remind you why you traveled so far and what we're missing out with when we have crappy diet yogurt for breakfast.  

            * The traditional drink is agua diente, which, like many knock-you-on-your-butt liquors, is licorice scented.  But tradition is tradition.

            * Stop by La Cevicheria for the best ceviche in town, a cuisine that highlights the freshness of the seafood available to you in Colombia.  If it was good enough for Anthony Bourdain -- and me -- it's good enough for you.

            * Enjoy a fun fusion dinner at San Pedro or Juan Del Mar; both restaurants have unusual dishes like curried shrimp, served in beautiful settings where you can relax and people watch to your heart's delight.

            * Lounge around at the Hotel Santa Clara, the Sofitel.  It's (act surprised) an old convent that has been restored into a gorgeous tropical hotel.  The weekend brunch is delicious and filling, and even taking in a coffee sitting in their courtyard is beautiful.  They have a bar that plays music on the weekends, but if you followed my advice you'll be too full to do anything except roll yourself back to your hotel.
              Parque Tayrona


              * Try to have someone drive you IN to the park; otherwise you're adding a few extra kilometers on to your hike by starting at the opening gate. Trust me on this one.

              * Take the forest path in and the beach path out- different paths offer you completely different environments.

              * Avoid walking at dark unless you want bats swooping down on your troop as you wander. Oh, and the park closes.

              * Guides are available (but not necessary) to take you into the park. It's an extremely well-marked park and gives you signs to indicate what % of the way to the beach you are.

              * Don't swim in the water unless it's an area they've indicated it's ok to do so. The undertow is brutal here and over 100 lives have been lost.  Signs are put up every so often to warn you of the same, but in case you're busy enjoying the views and not reading signs, DO NOT SWIM unless you're explicitly told it's ok to do so.

              * Use a pair of shoes you are willing to sacrifice.  Somewhere in a garbage can in the innards of Colombia is a well-worn pair of Asics.  The tropical rain turns the terrain here to thick mud, and you are going to come home absolutely covered in it.

              * Take bug spray.  Use it.  Prepare to be eaten anyhow, but realize it's a fraction of what it would have been.  

              *  Take water.  There are food stands every so often, but you don't want to totally depend on them. A small bottle of water and even a snack would be good, but if you can buy fresh squeezed juice on the beach, don't miss out.

              While you're in the area, don't miss La Cascada, the local waterfalls.  It's outside of the park but is well worth a few hours of your day to wander in along the beautiful river and to scramble up the rocks and take in the view.  Travel lightly for that portion, or you too may donate personal belongings to gods of the waterfall (RIP Tara's glasses, 2011)

                          me & my Bon Voyage Journal / Hotel Santa Clara, Cartagena


                          Zoe Ghahremani said...

                          Ahhhh! To be young and travel the world! I loved the blog and it made me feel as if I was there with you. As you see the rest of this big world _ and knowing you, I have no doubt you will – don't ever forget that you are my eyes and heart! I take just so much pleasure in hearing your detailed reports it's as if I wrote them myself. Thank you for sharing and I am grateful to those Colombian guys for not succeeding to keep you there!
                          P.S. We LOVE the coffee you brought back!

                          Rowdy said...

                          first, great post! i agree with all of it.

                          secondly, people said the same things when i went to vietnam, morocco, malaysia and such. everyone is such big pansies.

                          Bookgirl said...

                          @Zoe- Glad you liked it and thank you for sharing your love of exploration (near or far!) with me :)

                          @Rowdy Style - All of those places are on my list too! I'm selfishly glad I got to see Colombia before the inevitable tourist rush that will happen there, no doubt. But after a week I hadn't seen a shred of any of the stereotypes - it was laughable!

                          Michele Yepiz said...

                          You are your mother’s daughter shown in your adventuresome nature and writing. Thanks for sharing your holiday.
                          Michele Yepiz

                          Bookgirl said...

                          Thanks for the huge compliment Michele!