Colombia Trip Summary

When I was planning this trip I began to see similarities in some characteristics with cities in Mexico where I’ve lived or visited, especially in altitude and climate.

Bogotá and Mexico City, the capitals of each country, sit at about 8,500ft above sea level. The climate is the coldest of the cities I visited. Cold is relative; Bogotá may be colder that Medellín and Cartagena, but compared to Minnesota in the winter, it’s tropical. In Colombia, though, people from Bogotá are called “las neveras” or “the fridges.”

Medellín and Oaxaca, the city where I live in Mexico, are called “ciudades de la eterna primavera” or “cities of eternal spring and sit at ~5000ft. Beyond that they couldn’t be more dissimilar. Medellín has built itself into a totally modern city while Oaxaca has clung to its colonial roots. I like both but for different reasons; as I mentioned in a previous post, Medellín would be my home in Colombia.

Cartagena and Puerto Escondido, my first destination in Mexico, have hot and humid tropical climates.

So you can tell that Colombia, like Mexico, has a climate to suit any desire.

Things I Learned About Colombia

  • One of Colombia’s nicknames is “The Gateway to the Amazon.”
  • It’s also famous for its biodiversity. Colombia’s Amazon region makes up a vast percentage of the country. Almost a third of Colombia is made up of jungle regions, and the south of Colombia is crisscrossed by some of the most important rivers of Amazonia: the Putumayo, Caqueta, Orinoco, Apaporis, and, of course, the mighty Amazon itself. (from Wikipedia)
  • Colombians have an aggressive nature. It’s first evident in their driving. I’ll give an example. Walking in Bogotá’s center in the middle of of a block, I and the four or five people walking near me almost got hit by a car that abruptly turned in front of us. Like, a foot in front of us. How was this possible? He was turning into a parking garage and couldn’t wait until we passed the entrance. Scared the crap out of us.
  • A more humorous learning experience occurred the day I went to Usaquén. Two Colombian women in their 50’s or 60’s were sitting halfway across the patio at the bar where I was enjoying a craft beer. It seemed like they wanted to talk to me and after about 15 minutes, the first one walked over to me. After a couple of sentences in Spanish she began speaking English. Then her friend joined us. Here’s a capsule of our conversation, or their monologs to be more precise.
  • “Do you like Bogotá?” “Have you been to Monserrate?” “Why not?” “Where are you going in Colombia?” “You should go to ____.” “No? Why not? Finally, one of them said, “We’re Colombian, we attack.” We all laughed at that line. It also explained the barrage of questions. In the end, one of the women invited me to her coffee plantation outside of Medellín.
  • Most Americans probably believe a person would have to live in a remote place without electricity not to know about 9/11. Well…I asked a 25 year old in Cartagena if she had ever heard about it. Nope. And a 50-something woman said to me, “I heard something about it.”
  • Sometimes in my travels I find Coca-Cola made with real sugar. Colombia is one of those places. It’s truly the only time I drink it. Takes me back to my childhood.
  • In most of the countries I visit the bus and the train are my main means of intercity transportation. In Colombia I flew. I was advised to travel this way because the buses are uncomfortable, unreliable and the rides through the mountains take forever. For the most part flying intracountry is reasonably priced. My ticket from Bogotá to Medellín cost $22.

Venezuelan Refugees

Because of the turmoil in Venezuela many of its citizens have fled to other countries. It’s estimated that over 1 million Venezuelans are refugees in Colombia as a result. I wondered what impact this has had, so I asked our Bogotá walking tour guide. This is what he told me. I can’t verify the veracity of his claims.

He stated that there has been no discernable negative reaction to the Venezuelans as 75% of them are in Colombia legally. Most of them have been absorbed into the society (economy).

Personally, I’m not sure if that’s totally true because I’ve seen video of women who are prostitutes. And was told by a different tour guide that men work in the informal economy at the intersections, i.e., selling water and snacks or cleaning windshields. Maybe they are the other 25%?

Cost of the trip

I stayed in Colombia for 24 days. The total cost came to $2,225. That’s ~$93/day. That includes plane tickets to and from the country. My Airbnb stays, mostly in studio apartments, averaged $25/night including cleaning and Airbnb fees.

I could have saved money by taking the bus from BOG/MED and MED/CART, but no way was I going ride 12 hours in an uncomfortable bus.

I think Colombia is a good deal, especially if you are a budget traveler like me. As a comparison, my 14-day trip to San Juan in April cost ~$2,000.

Next Trip

Thanks for reading my blog. I don’t have a lot of readers, but they literally live in every corner of the world.

In April 2020 I’ll be traveling to Spain for a month. My route will be Andalucia and Costa del Sol.

Until then…

San Andrés Island

This may be the last island I visit for more than three days. Not because it’s a terrible place to stay (although it’s nothing special), but because of the climate. At one time I luxuriated in hot and humid tropical climates: Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Caribbean islands. Now, I barely tolerate them. Here’s a photo of my shirt after walking outside one morning for 20 minutes.

About the island

San Andrés belongs to Colombia, but lies much closer to Nicaragua. It’s a 1 1/2 hour flight from Cartagena, the closest mainland city. And, you have to pay a visitors’ tax of ~$40usd, which is $35 too much.

The main downtown has 90% of the action. If you stay on another part of the island, like I did, services, restaurants, etc. are scarce. You really need to rent a vehicle to get around (moto, jeep, golf cart) and they will cost you a bit of money. The jeep-like vehicle was quoted at $60/day! The golf cart was $40 but could be driven only until 6pm.

Food

I ate one of my four memorable meals here. Four memorable meals in 23 days. Enough said about that. But, a penne pasta with pears and blue cheese sat at the top of the list. It’s available at Aqua Beach Club.

There was a fast food stand near my Airbnb that opened at 6:30 each evening. The name was The Queen of the Fast Food. The owner, a young woman, sold only five items. I ordered the Chorry Perro (chorizo hotdog). Grilled, topped with bacon and onions, ooh, it was tasty.

I wanted to try a chuzo, but she was out of them. All she told me was that it’s made with chicken.

As an aside, I asked her what it was like living on San Andrés. Sometimes it felt like a prison, she said. She’s been to four cities on the mainland and hopes to travel more one day.

Things to do

Like most islands, snorkeling and diving constitute the main activities, along with hanging out at the beach. I’m sure boats can be rented or tours taken for some deep sea fishing. Beyond water-related activities, there’s not much to see or do. It’s a small island.

One day I decided to walk downtown. It took 75 minutes and I kept to the shade every chance I had. I passed by the oldest church on the island (Baptist, not Catholic as you might expect); built in 1844.

I was totally intrigued by a vacant house I encountered, including a car and a boat in the yard. Someone rich lived occupied it at one time. My Airbnb host told me it’s likely a narco trafficker resided there and had to make a hasty exit.

Summary

Anyone traveling to Colombia who wants to visit an island, I would suggest switching San Andrés for the Rosario Islands, just a short boat ride from Cartagena. Closer and much more beautiful.

If you still want to see San Andrés, bring money. Most everything is expensive. If you want to stay away from the downtown area, I’d recommend House of the Sun Hostal. It’s where I stayed and it made my time on the island tolerable.

One more post coming after this summarizing the entire trip.

Cartagena

Before I Arrived

I believe it has been scientifically proven that if you want to change your answer on a test, you shouldn’t. It’s correct more than 50% of the time. I suppose the same can be said about lodging reservations. Well, I decided percentages be damned and canceled my Airbnb two days before arriving in Cartagena, switching to a hotel. It cost 3X as much but since the Airbnb was only $10/night, the move didn’t bust my budget. I can’t say with certainty that the right choice was made, but I’m pretty sure it was.

I canceled because of two reviews posted after my reservation had been approved. It’s the rainy season in Colombia and a review mentioned rain leaking into his room. Another guest wrote about excessive noise keeping him awake due to paper-thin walls. When I contacted the host about the leakage she talked about a broken door instead. That was all I needed. I’m writing about this mainly because it’s not in my nature to cancel. I trust my judgment and it works 99%, as it did this time. Thankfully, I changed my answer.

Street art across the lane from the hotel.

Pleasantly Surprised

I discovered something at my hotel (Hotel de Leyendas del Mar) that were absent at the first two. A glass. Of course, my immediate thought was, ‘I can drink the water.’ But, I didn’t until Maite, a walking tour employee) told me Cartagena has the best drinking water in Colombia. It’s great! As good as NYC’s which has been ranked as tasting better than some famous bottled waters.

I had heard about the African and Caribbean presence in Cartagena, but didn’t realize how large it was. I passed by several Caribbean restaurants near my hotel and ate at one. Given where I’ve lived and my friendships and relationships over the decades, my comfort level skyrocketed during my stay in Cartagena.

Activities

Another city, another walking tour. Edgar, a 50 year old Cartagena native, led this one. Being interesting, funny and a little full of himself (not in an annoying way) made for a delightful 2 1/2 hour walk inside the city walls.

Cartagena, being a port city, had a wall built around it dating back to the 1600’s; it was ordered by the Spanish who controlled Colombia at the time. Since none of the residents wanted to do the work, Africans were brought over as slaves, hence the African population. Other blacks from the Caribbean islands also found their way to the city over the years.

I’ve included some photos of the city center.

With nothing to do on a Sunday I selected a tour at the Vivarium (a park or preserve for small animals). It was cheap and sounded sufficiently boring that it would draw a small group. It did. Me. For the 3rd time on my trip it was just me and the guide. I love when that happens.

Brian, a 22 year old studying tourism, and I discussed his studies, goals and the importance of knowing English as he wants to work with foreigners. His English is barely past beginner level. As usual, our discussion transformed itself into a language class of sorts. Even though I help these young people with English, I also learn as they talk to me about their lives and country. When the van dropped me off Brian shook my hand and thanked me for my advice and support. Such a good feeling.

I took a day trip to La Isla del Encanto which is part of Tayrona National Park (made up of several islands). I used the day to enjoy relaxing at the beach and working on a new play. The most exciting part of the day was riding in the speed boat for 45 minutes each way, wave hopping and getting doused with water occasionally.

Food

I ate some more delicious food in Cartagena, but it wasn’t Colombian. The first photo is sea bass, comparable in taste and quality (at a lower price) to the best I’ve eaten in other countries.

These photos are from a Caribbean restaurant. BBQ chicken and fish soup. I talked with the cook. She’s from Trinidad.

Summary

One thing would keep me from living in Cartagena: the weather. Hot and humid, just like Puerto Escondido which I could only tolerate for a year.

I met several fun, young people working in tourism here. Most spoke English very well. I’ve mentioned Maite and Brian; the photo below is Wendy, me and Carolina. The work scheduling tours for a hostel.

On to San Andrés for a week of writing and hopefully, I will finally learn to scuba dive.

Medellín

The City

No city in Colombia can compete with Medellín, in my opinion. It has overcome being the most dangerous city in the world back in the late 20th century to become a modern, active metropolis. It’s public transportation includes a metro system, separate dedicated bus lanes (the best I’ve ever seen) and ski lift-type cable cars that connect the sierra with the rest of the city.

Medellín’s climate is similar to Oaxaca, where I live; both are cities of eternal spring. I think the pleasant weather affects people in a positive way. The city is not perfect, no place is, but it’s where I would choose if I lived in Colombia.

The People

My Airbnb was situated in an upper-middle class neighborhood called Laureles. Many of the apartment buildings hired private security. One of those guards was a 20 year old graphic design student named Sebastián. We chatted about his work goals and whether he could achieve them in Medellín. He thought he would need to work as a freelancer with a presence online so he could find clients outside of the city. He didn’t want to move to Bogotá. He also stated that he needed to learn English to help him be more successful.

Cosechas is a health drink chain. One store was located around the corner from my apartment. I’d passed by it a few times before I stopped. Turns out the manager/franchise owner (?) spoke English. He learned it when he was a child but said he didn’t speak it very often. I ordered a drink and an energy bar. Remember, this is the first time we met. The guy gave me a sizable discount on the drink and the bar for free. Maybe he was happy to have a chance to speak English.

Uber and taxi drivers in Medellín spoke as little English as their comrades in Bogotá. However, I found a taxi driver who spoke a little and when he heard I was an English teacher, our 20-minute ride turned into a language lesson. He had so many words and phrases he wanted interpreted. We laughed, he learned (will he remember?) and at the end I realized I had just taken the most enjoyable cab ride of my life.

Activities

As has become my habit, I took the free city walking tour. The name of the tour misleads the uninitiated. It doesn’t cover the city; impossible to do in three hours.

In most cities we usually meet near a statue in a central plaza, the old town or historic district. In Medellín we met at a metro station. Medellín has no historic center. Because of that there were few photo opportunities of interesting buildings, statues, etc.

Our informative tour guide kept our attention with stories about the history of the city. Coffee, cocaine and Pablo Escobar were featured as were other characters and incidents. Quite an interesting tour, but not picturesque.

I took a tour called La Sierra Barrio tour. The tour guide and I needed to take a tram and a cable car to reach the barrio at the top of the mountain.

Strolling along the streets and listening to Milena talk about the struggles and solidarity of the people there, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the people I knew in Kyrgyzstan. Poverty brings communities together; wealth separates them (gated mansions).

Because I was the only person to sign up that day, we were able to discuss many off-tour topics, similar to my food tour in Bogotá. I can add two more enriching travel experiences to a growing list.

Food

One opinion I’ve formed is that people don’t travel to Colombia for the food. The only dish I’ll remember is the soup I ate on the food tour in Bogotá. I enjoyed a couple of other meals, one Italian, the other Chinese.

The best amatriciana I’ve eaten in almost seven years.

Some of the best tasting Chinese I’ve eaten since leaving there in 2015.

On to Cartagena.

ViaHero – trip planner

About a month before my trip I discovered a fairly new trip planning company called ViaHero. They operate in in only a few countries, but seem to be expanding into new ones at a steady pace. One of the countries they have a presence in is Colombia.

Their unique approach to trip planning is to assign a local resident to a traveler. Or the traveler can choose the resident. Although I’d never used such a service I decided to give it a try; more out of curiosity than anything. I chose Naomi based on the match of my interests and her areas of expertise, and let her plan my 4 days in Bogotá.

From what I saw you can’t get one planner for an entire country. I’m visiting 3 cities on the mainland. If I had wanted my 5 days in Medellín planned, I’d have had to find a local from there.

Anyway, to say Naomi surpassed my expectations would be an understatement. The details, the options and her knowledge of the city shone through on every page of the itinerary; thirty-nine pages for four days including what scams to watch for, whether certain areas were safe or not, etc.

I didn’t follow Naomi’s plan religiously. In fact, I used only 50% or so, but it was still worth $30/day. I probably won’t use ViaHero again because I love planning my trips and I have the time to do it. For travelers who are ultra-busy or like a professionally designed schedule to follow this is the trip planner for them. http://www.viahero.com

Bogotá – Day 1 & 2

The more I travel the more my trips focus on food and people. Museums, churches and ruins–well, I’ve seen enough of them to last me until my final breath. There will be exceptions, of course, as I found a museum here that intrigued me.

I’ve taken 5 Ubers so far and none of the drivers spoke English. I don’t expect that to change over the next 3 1/2 weeks. This means my Spanish improves with each ride; my confidence has surged and I have found that my knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is greater than I thought. We’ve had some wonderful conversations once I say, “Habla lentamente, por favor.” (Speak slowly, please.) 😁

Graffiti Tour

If you want to be educated about the social and political struggles and issues of the indigenous peoples of Colombia, take the Graffiti Tour. Led by actual graffiti artists, they explain the background of the artists whose work you’ll see, the messages behind the works as well as the history of graffiti and street art in Bogotá. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but are different. Graffiti is word-based; street art is image-based. We saw mostly street art on the tour.

We had the opportunity to watch artists working on a new project. They are funded by the organization that gives the free tour. A percentage of the tips they receive they give back to the community. Very cool!

The Botero Museum

Fernando Botero Angulo (born 19 April 1932) is a Colombian figurative artist and sculptor. Born in Medellín , his signature style, also known as “Boterismo”, depicts people and figures in large, exaggerated volume, which can represent political criticism or humor, depending on the piece.

The black and white piece is Adam and Eve.

Street Food

While I ate food from the street vendors when I lived in New York City, it wasn’t until I got to China that I became a street food fanatic.

We’ll start with photos of lechón, arepas and empeñadas.

Next is a dessert/snack made with shaved coconut, nuts and panela. Panela is raw, unrefined cane sugar from Colombia. With a lightly sweet molasses taste and warm, caramel undertones. It’s a unique ingredient that’s flavorful and aromatic. Panela has been traditionally handmade for centuries by dehydrating
raw sugarcane juice over low heat.

This is my new favorite street food sweet. 😋

That’s it for now. Next post will include some restaurant food, a description of where I’m staying in Bogotá and other stuff, I’m sure.

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A Night in Mexico City

I usually spend the night before my flight at an Airbnb near the airport. I go out for dinner and hit the sack early so I don’t oversleep and miss the plane. Last April before my Puerto Rico trip I found a restaurant called Kitchen 424, an oasis in an area with no decent places. Kitchen 424 is a mid-priced, high quality restaurant specializing in meat dishes, among other offerings.

Boarding my flight the next morning I encountered something I hadn’t experienced since right after 9/11. Every passenger’s carry-ons were thoroughly inspected. My agent opened every compartment of my backpack. After asking me how much money I was bringing with me, she proceeded to look in my wallet and document pouch. She also wanted to know how long I’d been in Mexico and why. Does this only happen on flights to Colombia?

Colombia

I can’t state exactly why I chose Colombia for my inaugural visit to South America. The best reason could be ignorance. Aside from FARC and Pablo Escobar, I know close to nothing about the country.

I’ll spend 24 days in three cities and an island: Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena and San Andrés (the island).

I arrive in Bogotá on the 24th and my first post will appear shortly thereafter.