XXI: Colombia (not Columbia)

As I made my way through South America, the other backpackers I met continually told me that Colombia (that’s koal-ohm-bee-ah) was the best country I was going to see on my trip. Different people liked Colombia for different reasons. For some, it was the party capital, for others, the birthplace of adventure. Still others found the weather ideal, the people friendly, the prices affordable and the cities beautiful. Personally, I can’t say that Colombia was my ideal, but there is definitely something special about a country that was once one of the most dangerous places in the world and has transformed into one of South America’s most beloved tourist destinations.

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Me and a lit up gingerbread man in 2014

In all fairness, my Colombian experience actually began around Christmas 2014. I was dating an Australian at the time who had decided to move to Medellin for a few months to learn Spanish. I found a cheap flight and went out to visit him over the winter holidays. I have to say, if you ever have the opportunity to see Medellin during Christmas, do it. The city goes absolutely wild – we’re talking live music everywhere, unbelievably welcoming locals, markets, festivals and (my personal favourite) big coloured lights set up all along the river bank. It was on a free walking tour that I realized why the city goes bananas over the holidays. Here’s the way our 30-something guide explained it: when he was growing up, it was common to see a dead body in a playground on his walk to school. People would disappear, murder was common, you had to watch everything you said and did to ensure your name didn’t reach the wrong people with unsavoury consequences. For him, and other Colombians living through the reign of Pablo Escobar, daily life felt like a constant struggle to stay afloat when the tides of violence threatened to overwhelm you.

There are two possibilities when confronted with this kind of living situation. You can either become a turtle, stick your head in a shell, bury in the sand and hope that no one notices you. The alternative is to seize every day as though it’s your last, live life to the fullest and hope – without really thinking about it – that the next body in a playground isn’t your own. This is why the Colombians are probably some of the happiest people you will ever meet. Every reason to celebrate becomes a branch you can seize hold of to lift you from the murkiness of daily life. Each celebration is a party, each party is a holiday, each holiday is at least a week-long festival, and so forth, and so on.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to Colombia in time for the holidays on this trip. Instead, I arrived towards the end of April. I hit the coast up first – Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Tayrona Park, Palomino, Cartagena…all incredibly hot and humid this time of year. If you find yourself that near the equator in April, do yourself a favour and get a hostel with a pool. Also, cake on that sunscreen, even when it’s overcast. I met a few guys from the Northwest Territories (that’s the part of Canada even a Canadian thinks is only inhabited by polar bears and the Inuit) when I was in Santa Marta. They went out on a cloudy day  with unevenly applied (SPF 90) sunscreen and wound up with rows of bone white skin offset by streaks of lobster red. Highly entertaining for me, highly painful for them (that’s schadenfreude in a nutshell there, folks).

Anywho, my quick account: skip Barranquilla. Santa Marta is fairly central so hard to miss, but not an impressive city on its own. The Lost City Trek sounds amazing, but no matter if you do four, five or six days, it all costs the same and, unlike the Machu Picchu trails, the price is fixed by the government so it’s impossible to negotiate. I elected not to do the trek from Santa Marta partially for the cost but mostly because it was so hot that the thought of walking at a pace slightly faster than that of an overweight arthritic donkey was enough to exhaust me. Plus, I heard the mosquitos are brutal. That being said, apparently the path itself is pretty epic and the ruins at the end are even better than Machu Picchu (and far less crowded). And, let’s not kid ourselves, The Lost City Trek is basically the coolest name ever. How could you not want to explore a place like that?

Tayrona Park is overpriced for what it is unless you have a student card. The beaches are nice, the novelty of sleeping in a hammock is pretty cool, but you’re not going to see any amazing animals or particularly spectacular nature. Palomino is a good relaxation spot, featuring bird spotting, beach walks and a calm morning float in a tube down the river. Cartagena has that colonial beauty, rainbow-coloured buildings, an entertaining nightlife (the party bus is good fun) and people trying to sell you things on every corner. If you go with a group of friends, the mud pit is a highly amusing and bizarre way to spend an afternoon (imagine floating in a bottomless tub of viscous pudding). Just be careful to say “No, gracias” to the men in there who will try to feel you up “massage” you. I didn’t have time for Taganga myself, but it boasts more beaches, fantastic coffee, and a gigantic hammock.

When I finally escaped the coast, I went back to Medellin. Medellin is a peculiar city. If you know someone who lives there or if you’re there for a long time, you’ll probably have a blast. It’s the type of place people come to stay, more than a city people come to visit.

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Climbing the Big Rock in 2014

The climate is livable, the locals are lovely, the city is not particularly easy to navigate, but the nightlife is killer. Best thing I can recommend if you’re there for a short time is to get out to Guatapé. Climb the big rock (El Peñol), check out the colourful llama walls and, if you’re lucky, catch a concert in the central square. In Medellin itself, both the free walking tour and Pablo Escobar tour are quite interesting. You can also head out to Pablo Escobar’s lakeside retreat for a game of paintball. Botero plaza is good for a laugh, you’ll find the party scene in Parque Lleras and for some of the local cuisine, be sure to try bandeja paisa and michelada.

San Gil is the adrenaline capital of Colombia. This is the town where you’ll be able to go caving, white water rafting, paragliding, mountain biking, hiking, etc. etc. and so forth. If you have a decent amount of time, there are old indigenous trails you can hike that run between all the neighbouring villages. Because it’s Colombia, everything is reasonably priced, and the town is only a few hours drive from Bogotá.

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Paragliding in San Gil

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Sample Bogota street art

Most backpackers hate on Bogotá. Personally, I was only there for a day and wished I had more. I spent my time doing a graffiti tour of the city, which was amazing. I’ve also heard both the bike tour and the Botero museum are supposedly fantastic (I made the mistake of trying to go to the museum on a Tuesday, which is the one day it’s closed. Grumble grumble.)

Sadly, Bogotá was the last stop on my whirlwind South America tour. It is next to impossible to summarize the three months I spent backpacking with one witticism. What I can tell you is that South America is an incredible continent, one that has overcome so much adversity to become what it is today. Luckily, most of it is still not overrun by tourists or absurdly overpriced, so now is the time to go and visit. No matter what you’re looking for, you will find it there: large and small cities, exciting history, breathtaking nature, fascinating cultures, big thrills, uphills, Argentinian grills, beer spills, and of course Brazil (next time…)

And hey, if you ever want a suggestion, I’m always here to help ♥

On to the next adventure!

 

 

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