I was standing on the back of a restored WWII jeep, also known as “Willys,” when I really felt alive. Holding on with clenched hands, I was whipped around dirt roads of the Cocora Valley and watched in awe as these 200ft wax palm trees seemingly continued to grow out of the vast greenness and depths of the Andean Mountains. I felt small, humbled and inspired – feelings that have come to define my time in Colombia.
I’m not going to lie, when I decided to see Colombia with G Adventures on their Express Colombia trip, I had thoughts of the cocaine trade, dangerous drug cartels, and kidnappings running through my head. I asked myself what there was to see and whether I would be safe as a young female. I am happy to say my preconceived notions were shattered. Statistically, Colombia is not nearly as dangerous as it once was. Kidnappings, homicide, and extreme poverty have all significantly decreased. That being said, you still need to use common sense and proceed with caution. Don’t travel alone, accept drinks from strangers, or flash your valuables/money and be sure stay in the parts of Colombia deemed “safe”. If you heed these suggestions, “The only risk,” says the ad campaign for Colombian tourism, “is wanting to stay”.
And boy did I want to stay. Whether you are a foodie, outdoor enthusiast, city slicker, historian, or beach lover, Colombia has something for you.
Colombia is a mouthwatering, sensational, food-lovers delight. Rest-assured, every fruit, vegetable, animal, bean, you name it, was freshly picked and prepared by hand for your eating pleasure. Explore the freshness first hand at the Paloquemao Market
in Bogotá. A playground for the senses, allow yourself to become enveloped in the scent of the flowers, the colors of the mysterious fruits, the feel of a medicinal herb, the taste of a cheese-filled arepa, and the sounds of friendly butchers as you wander through the maze of shops. Don’t forget that any fruit can be turned into a juice with water or with milk. Guanabana and lulo with milk wee my personal favorites.
Other foods not to miss: Ajiaco (a potato-based chowder with shredded chicken, corn on the cob, capers, cream, avocado and rice), empanadas (fried pastry filled with ground beef or chicken – get this on any street for a delicious snack or meal), Bandeja Paisa (if you feel like eating your body weight in meat, fried plantains, egg, beans, rice, avocado, and salad), and of course coffee.
The Cocora Valley in Salento is a hiker’s dream. Grab your hiking boots and prepare to see pastures of cows to your left and the sky high wax palm trees to your right before entering into the thick rainforest with rivers and rickety wooden bridges below you. Each stop to catch your breath offers an absolutely surreal view of a world so large and welcoming.
Keep the adventure going and visit a coffee farm in the Calarcá area. Coffee is one of Colombia’s biggest exports and a huge part of Colombian culture. Actually crawl into the coffee plants, pick the beans, and follow the long process that it takes for those beans to make their way to our cup of coffee. End the tour by donning some traditional garb, learning some dances, and tasting the coffee.
Bogota and Cartagena, although both well-known cities in Colombia, couldn’t be more different. As the capital of Colombia, Bogota boasts a metropolitan lifestyle with the growing concrete jungle largely contrasting the green landscape behind it. For museums, great food, nightlife and a graffiti tour you will never forget, Bogota is the city for you. Get the best view of the city from Mount Monserrate, an impressive 3,152 meters above sea level.
For more of the Caribbean coast vibe (and weather), set your sights on tourist friendly Cartagena. Full of plazas, cobbled alleys, and story book balconies, you will have plenty of opportunities for shopping, eating sea food, and navigating the many street vendors selling food, cheap sunglasses and other trinkets.
For more of a small town feel, bask in the relaxed feel of Villa de Leyva and the colorful doors and shopping of Salento.
It is no secret that Colombia has a scary history. That being said, it is how the country is overcoming that makes it impressive. Run for years by the Medellín Cartel, Medellín was once the most violent city in the world. Today, the Cartel has been eliminated and escalators, cable cars and the only metro in Colombia link the poorest and most violent neighborhoods to the city center substantially decreasing homicides and extreme poverty. It is an example of how innovative urban projects can transform communities.
I took two tours in Medellín – one on Pablo Escobar, former head of the Medellín Cartel, and one with a local graffiti artist of Comuna 13 who was ten when Pablo’s reign of terror ended. Both tours were incredibly humbling as the guides spoke of hope and the effort of the people and the government to take control back of their country. The details were sometimes difficult to swallow, but I stand with the notion that we can’t fully understand a country or consider ourselves immersed in a culture if we don’t take the time to understand all its parts.
Cartagena is the perfect place to hit the beach or take a day trip to one of the many local Caribbean Islands. White sands, blue swimmable waters and tropical trees offer a welcomed opportunity to relax in a cabana with a drink. If you’re feeling adventurous have yourself some of the local fish, coconut rice, and ceviche.
Laughing and drinking with the locals in Medellín while throwing rocks (tejos) at tiny explosives set in clay, I remembered that we cannot let our preconceived notions of a destination get in the way of experiencing it – the good and the bad. Despite their difficult history, Colombia is rising beautifully – not allowing themselves to be defined by their past, but not trying to forget it either. Colombia, with its varying regions, cultures, and history of overcome adversity is an inspirational country not be missed.
VIEW MORE PICTURES BELOW…