Colombia- South America’s Secret

I remember that my parents warned me about Colombia, they really didn’t want me going. And I can now understand why. I know I haven’t written in a while, and I thought my experience is Colombia is definitely one I would like to share. We learnt so much about their history and consequently the horribly reputation it held for decades. We had no expectations, and it blew our minds away! Medellin, the centre of the drug trade for a decade, is now rapidly paving way for a new Colombia. I was happy to have the opportunity to spend time there and experience the new Colombia. We had visited as the last country of our South American trip a few years ago. It was an amazing end to our time on the continent and we still stand by the fact that it was the biggest surprise of the trip, in terms of what we expected.

We crossed into Colombia through Leticia, a small town that borders Peru and Brazil. Leticia gave us a very casual welcome into Colombia- allowing us to wait over 24 hours before “stamping-in” to Colombia. After stamping out of Peru across the Amazon River in Santa Rosa, we crossed over to Leticia- docking without a border or customs in sight. It was a first for us, but we were assured that we could go to the airport the next morning (when we would fly to Bogota) and address any customs issues there. It was the first and possibly the only time that our little (boat) taxi man gave us our change in 3 currencies! Not having seen Colombia pesos yet, or any idea of the exchange rate– it made a nervous entry into a supposedly dangerous country, a bit sketchy.

Sure enough, at the small, two gate (air-conditioned!) airport was a room containing the uniformed man with the very important stamp. He asked when we arrived, and had seen by our already-booked flights home that we wouldn’t be staying longer then three weeks 🙂 It was a funny thing, getting on our flight to Bogota. We had noticed we were the only ones in shorts and sandals. Everyone else had a jacket and jeans on. Turns out the latitude difference accounts for a slight change in temperature! Bogota is not located in the Amazon 😀

From our arrival in Bogota, we headed straight to the tourist adventure town of San Gill (pronounced San Hill) and spent a few days doing outdoor activities. We got the chance to try caving, and also went hiking and kayaking. Although there wasn’t a lot of commercialised tourism, we were able to easily and affordable do everything we needed to do. It was certainly handy having a Colombian friend of ours there, as we definitely needed to use Spanish! We had timed our visit to San Gill coincidently at the same time as Las Ferias, a weekend-long party of sorts. I don’t think we would have ever thought of going had we not been able to go with a “local”. It was sort of like a country fair, so much food and lots of dancing! They even had animal judging, something I hadn’t seen since my small town in Canada 🙂 I once read that the more you travel, the more you start to see the similarities in things and not the differences. This was definitely one of those times!

Las Ferias BBQ

From San Gill, we took another over-night bus to Santa Marta (our pit stop to Tayrona National Park). For us backpackers, I will stand by the fact that Santa Marta holds nothing interesting for us. My fondest memory was the hostel’s hammocks, happy hour and pool! It was interesting to see however, that the population looked a lot more Caribbean then darker Amazonian population.

From Santa Marta, we were easily able to jump on a public bus out to the Park entrance. There was taxis and buses taking the tourists towards the beach; for us an easy 4km walk. We spent three days in the park relaxing on the south end of the Caribbean Sea and it is easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever been (and Thailand’s and Australia’s beaches hold a few brownie points!). Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to see the famed Taganga area, but we had heard it was bit too much party for us. We hadn’t seen any drugs yet in South America and we wanted to keep it that way!

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After getting my valuable beach days in Tayrona, we kept heading west towards Cartagena (pronounced Car-ta-hee-nya).

Originally a crucial port town for the Spanish during their South American reign, it has now developed a base for Caribbean cruise ships. It was the first time we saw a wealth of European brand stores- economically out of reach for the locals. We stayed in the walled old colonial town, a very beautiful piece of history. After taking a slew of building photos, we spent both our afternoons in the museums. It was kind of hard to spend a lot of time walking around an area designed for package tourists and cruise ships after spending so much time independently in South America. The Old Town in Cartagena is beautiful, but our taxi ride out to the bus-station was the raw Colombia that we hadn’t seen yet. Huge police presence and lots of small homes. No tourists in sight.

From Cartagena, we took a night bus to Medellin. Unfortunately we wouldn’t have time to see Bogota so we decided to take a few extras days with Medellin. We did a walking tour, Pablo Escobar tour and went to the park just outside of the city (and just a gondola ride away!). Medellin was the eye-opener for us. The city has turned itself around in the last decade and walking through the streets you could easily put yourself in the middle of any European hub, with trendy coffee shops and gorgeous shopping centres on every street. The city’s many plazas are superbly maintained, although at times sparse with people. One of the coolest things we did were the two tours- both which were guided by people our age. They had a lot of positive things to say about the shape the city is taking and were eager to show it off. I left Medellin feeling very privilege to of seen it.

“Quickly, Medellin became one of our favourite cities! Our generation definitely has a lot to say; emotionally + mentally drained childhoods has given them a very hard way of thinking. Just a decade ago, many of the plazas were too dangerous to stand in. … But along the lines of “there is more that meets the eye” – Medellin has so much to tell the world! We were told the Metro system has become a major symbol of change for the city- you can get almost anywhere for less than 1USD. This allows people living further away in the hills access to work in the city. The had installed 2 gondolas running through the ‘slums’! It means people could essentially bring money + innovation back (easily) into their ‘barrios’- There was even an escalator in one really steep area so people wouldn’t need to walk up millions of stairs! The city has also placed brand new libraries in many of the poorer areas to facilitate education. In regards to buildings, you can tell that they are literally trying to turn their image around. Many “headquarters” for the drug cartel are centers for drug-use rehab, educational offices, etc. ” – 18.11.2013

Outside of the Gringo Trail, unfortunately large sections of the Amazonian Colombia still remain out-of-bounds for travellers. Unable to completely eradicate the drug production (ironically due to the overseas demand), the production has now been pushed into the wild jungle. Surpriseingly, we felt the safest in Medellin out of the entirety of Colombia. I truly cannot imagine what they went through 20 years ago, but I am so happy to see Colombia taking a turn for the best.


On a side note: For those that aren’t up on Colombian history, Medellin was for decades the centre of the Cocaine trade for the global appetite for nose candy during the 80s and 90s. Once the most dangerous city in the world, it had suffered under Pablo Escobar as having the largest control on cocaine trade (Wikipedia citing it at 80%). Escobar turned Medellin into a scary and deadly place to live- plazas being bombed and people daily being arrested and shot. My generation grew up knowing nothing other than living day-to-day. Children didn’t play on the streets with the threat of stray bullets crossing their path. Escobar’s cartel stayed in power for over a decade, but without the emotional, mental and physical loss to a complete generation. He controlled the majority of Colombia as a result of cocaine production and many people never travelled around their own country, let alone ever leave. My parents were worried, with good reason, that travelling there could potentially be life-threatening. Colombia was the most beautiful country we visited, and their history is slowly being re-written. I would highly recommend reading “Killing Pablo- The Hunt for the Richest, Most Powerful Criminal in History” by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Books, 2001) for the American account of Pablo Escobar’s end, and it still took years for the government to gain control and put Colombia back on both feet.