Prior to travelling to Colombia, I would by lying if I said I didn't feel nervous or a little apperhensive. This has possibly been the result of binge-watching Narcos and subconsciously listening to the older generation telling me 'Colombia is not safe!'. Yes, they're right - however only to an extent, because which country doesn't have its bad parts?! I can honestly say Colombia has been amazing! My sister and I travelled around Colombia visiting Bogotá, Cartagena, Medellín, Cali and Guatapé in June/July 2017.
FYI: A TEMPERATURE HEADS UP
We started our journey in the capital Bogotá, Colombia's largest city. I straight away noticed the weather, which fails to be mentioned in other travel posts. It was averaging a cool 12-15 degrees, which I wasn't really prepared for. I naively thought as Colombia is in South America, it's definitely going to be tropical and hot - how wrong was I?! It turns out Bogotá is the highest city in Colombia sitting at the top of the Andes mountains, hence the cool and unpredictable temperature. One minute it's slightly sunny, next it's raining, then it goes back to being Spring for a few hours. Anyway, enough about the weather, but I would advise to pack a jumper and pair of jeans (to say the least)!
WHICH AREA TO STAY?
As Bogotá is massive, there's lots to see and do across the different districts, including areas to stay. We stayed in the Chapinero area, which is a safe place for travellers and is also home to the LGBT population. Chapinero is a convenient 10 minute walk from Zona Rosa/Zona G, which is full of upscale restaurants, fancy designer shops and bars. For me, I felt Chapinero and Zona Rosa were good central areas to start off, allowing me to get my bearings. Again, me being a little naive, but I didn't expect there to be Tiffany & Co and Louis Vuitton shops (amongst many others) in Colombia - Bogotá is full of surprises and indeed very metropolitan!
Definitely one of the best tourist attractions of the city. You can either trek a pilgrimage climbing trail or take a quick cable car to the top of the mountain (no prizes for guessing which option we took...). At the top, there is a little church and the most amazing panoramic view of Bogotá. You get a real sense of just how big and populated the city is!
The area of La Candelaria is roughly a 35 minute drive via car from the Chapinero area. That's 35 minutes of actual driving around the mountain, not sitting in traffic, which shows how big Bogotá is. La Candelaria is the historical district of the city, with a mix of Spanish colonial type streets and architecture, contrasted with an eclectic mix of amazing graffiti in the newer parts of the district.
There are lots of museums in La Candelaria, including Museo del Oro, which translates to the museum of gold. It's pretty cool, housing thousands of stunning pieces of ancient gold. If you're in to gold (obviously), in particular jewellery, ornaments and the history, then it's definitely a place to visit whilst in La Candelaria.
We also took a four hour bicycle tour around Bogotá, which was good as we got to see parts of the city which wouldn't otherwise be as easily accessible by car, not to mention the traffic! Bogotá Bike Tours is based in La Candelaria, which offer different types of tours depending on what you want to see. On our tour, we visited a coffee factory, fruit markets, the Bogotá red light district, played Tejo (a traditional sport of Colombia), as well as saw the great graffiti around the city.
Just by walking around, you will come across the Plaza Bolívar, which is the main square of La Candelaria. Surrounding the square are important government buildings, which are all very pretty looking. There are many restaurants and salsa bars dotted around La Candelaria. We had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant called Nativo Arte y Comida Natural. In the Colombian culture, meat (carne) is a massive deal when it comes to the diet and cuisine. So being a vegetarian in Colombia is deemed a little odd, hence I was pretty happy to find a veggie restaurant with amazing food! On the topic of restaurants - it's worth mentioning that in most sit-down type restaurants, an optional 10% service charge is usually added. The waiter should ask if you wish to pay the additional charge, but sometimes they may choose not to, especially if they don't think you're Colombian!
After the cooler weather of Bogotá, we headed to the Colombian Caribbean coast for some much needed 32 degree sunshine and heat. We took a cheap flight, totalling around one hour - it still amazes me that travelling one hour north within the same country and the temperature can completely change for the better! Cartagena was everything I imagined it to be - hot weather, an old colonial town and a little more holiday-goer touristy than Bogotá.
WHICH AREA TO STAY?
Cartagena is divided into different parts, with modern Bocagrande being the popular peninsula with lots of fancy hotels and easy access to the public beach (often nicknamed Cartagena's Miami Beach), which is where we opted to stay. In contrast to this, Cartagena's Centro is surrounded by 13km of old stone walls. Inside, the old town streets and pretty buildings remind me of Trinidad in Cuba, with its bright colours and architecture. The neighbouring barrio of Getsimaní is a peaceful place to stay with quiet streets, bohemian type restaurants and quirky local shops and street art. There are many backpackers and hostels within this area.
The Cartagena nightlife is all about Salsa dancing. Donde Fidel, located within Centro, is the place to be where you can salsa with the locals to your heart's content! Other salsa bars include Cafe Havana in Getsemaní. Be aware though, as the bars don't really get busy until about 10pm onwards.
The beach in Bocagrande is public and is at its busiest on Sundays, with many Colombian families flocking to the beach. Just a note that there are many locals selling bits and bobs on the beach - from handmade jewellery to freshly sliced fruits. I would personally recommend a full body massage and exfoliation - it was so good I opted for it three days in a row! The local sellers are harmless, as there is police presence on the beach - they can just be a little annoying after a while as they don't give up! But hey, they're just trying to make a living! Give them a firm 'no' and they'll quickly move on to the next potential customer.
Whilst in Cartagena, we arranged to visit the Rosario Islands, which is around 60 miles from the mainland. There are many excursion companies (via hotels or independent companies) which you can use to book the trip. We used Yoni Tours, a lovely family run business, based in El Centro of Cartagena. Rosario Islands is made up of many islands, all of which look like paradise. It's a lovely day trip, consisting of literally being in heaven, sunbathing, swimming, snorkelling, massage and having a traditional Colombian lunch.
On another day whilst in Cartagena, we also visited the local island of Tierra Bomba, which is only 15 minutes to reach via boat. Although it is a nice alternative to mainland Cartagena, the beach is nothing majorly special (especially compared to the Rosario Islands). Nevertheless, it's nice to get away from the crowded Bocagrande beach and noisy traffic. Buy your boat ticket whilst at the port and not on the street and be prepared to barter!
TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK
Tayrona National Park is around a four hour drive from Cartagena. Unfortunately, we didn't visit it, which is something I massively regret in hindsight! This is because I was put off by what people were saying - mainly that on the trek to the beach through the forest, there's snakes, spiders and leeches everywhere. I'm not sure if they were trying to be completely honest so I was fully prepared/aware for what I'd see, but that sadly put me off. However, after speaking to some fellow travellers who had made the trip, they said the park is huge and a path is made out for people to walk and they didn't see much forest wildlife, except ants! So I am pretty gutted that I missed out on the chance of trekking through the tropical forest and potentially spending a night sleeping in a hammock on the beach - but this just gives me an excuse to go back to Colombia!
After spending almost one week in Cartagena, our next stop was Medellín - a wonderful city made famous by Pablo Esobar, amongst many other things. The weather was a lovely 30 degrees, which I was confused by as Medellín is also in the Andes mountains.
WHICH AREA TO STAY?
Again, there are many areas in Medellín - each offering different highlights. We stayed in the El Poblado area, which is a wealthy, safe neighbourhood popular with travellers. It is a very good location, which is close to other great neighbouring districts, including another Zona Rosa which is full of boutique shops, salsa clubs and restaurants. A personal favourite restaurant of mine in El Poblado was Mondongo's, which is everything Colombian cuisine! If you opt to stay in a high rise hotel, you will be guaranteed an amazing view of Medellín - both at day and night! A note just to be cautious when staying in El Poblado, as thieves know it's a popular area for tourists. However, it still feels safe nonetheless.
CITY BUS TOUR
As it's another huge Colombian city, I hopped on to a Medellín tour busy, which was a lengthy four hours, but it did take me all around the city - including Medellín palace (Rafael Uribe Uribe), downtown Medellín and and to a high point with amazing panoramic views of the city! I would say it's worth it, as you get to see the main attractions in one easy go! I also planned to visit Arví Park, as the views are meant to be amazing on the metro cable car - however it was unfortunately closed on a Monday (a public holiday) which was sadly my last full day in the city!
PABLO ESCOBAR TOUR
As mentioned above, I am a massive fan of Narcos and the Pablo Escobar tour was definitely on my to do list. We arranged this through our hotel - booking a private driver and arranging to visit Roberto Escobar at his home (Pablo's brother!) At the house, we were able to have 1:1 question time with Roberto, which was pretty cool and hear some of his stories. Although there are mixed responses to Pablo Escobar, I still feel he is still a big part of Medellín's history. The driver took us to some iconic spots of Medellín, including Pablo Escobar's grave.
GUATAPÉ & EL PEÑOL
Another good day trip is visiting the colourful town of Guatapé and climbing to the top of the rock, El Peñol, which is located just outside of Guatapé. There are a killer 740 steps to climb in the intense heat, but its well worth it for the amazing views at the top. Again, this was arranged via the hotel for a reasonable £15 for a whole day (8pm-7pm), including coach transport, a boat trip (including seeing one of the many Pablo Escobar houses) breakfast and lunch. Guatapé is a small farming town, which is full of tourists and backpackers passing through. It's known for it's pretty colourful streets and mural art, which makes it a very happy place to be. After climbing El Peñol, the least gruelling way to see the small town is via a tuk tuk. This way you can comfortably see the sites, get dropped off in the centre and wander the streets at your own pace.
Cali is Colombia's third largest city, known for its salsa, sugar cane fields and it's questionable neighbourhoods. Cali is the only city I was a little apprehensive about visiting - mainly because of its bad press I have read online. However, as I am massively into Salsa, it was definitely the place to visit, marketed as the Salsa capital of Colombia.
WHICH AREA TO STAY?
I had done some research prior to visiting Cali, in order to find the safest neighbourhood to stay, as Cali has been labelled one of the 'most dangerous cities in the world'. We opted for the El Peñon neighbourhood, which along with neighbouring historical districts, San Antonio and San Cayetano, are the main areas for travellers to stay with lots of hotels and hostels on offer. There are also lots of quirky restaurants, with beautiful interior design. Going back to what I said about the Colombian diet mainly featuring meat, I was very shocked to find yet another vegetarian restaurant, Vegetariano El Buen Alimento Alquimia Vegetariana, which had the most delicious food! It's worth noting that many of the restaurants and salsa studios have gated doors, which only open once you are buzzed in. This was a little concerning, as I thought we were in a good area! The reason being, there are lots of homeless beggars around at night, who may wander into the neighbourhood to bother and mug tourists for their valuables. So the gates are for security and to avoid any dealings with the homeless - unfortunately, most of which appear to be on drugs. Nevertheless, please don't let this put you off and think of it as an extra layer of security. I wouldn't recommend walking the streets of Cali alone at night - even in the El Peñon and San Antonio areas. The streets themselves become very quiet and eerie at night. I would definitely recommend taking a licensed taxi or Uber, even if it's just a 5-10 minute car ride. However, in the daytime, these areas have a very nice feel about them and appear somewhat safe.
Cristo Rey is a statue attraction and definitely one to see when in Cali. It's similar to Brasil's Christ the Redeemer, but on a smaller scale. Upon visiting Cristo Rey (which is a 15 minute drive up the mountain), you can see an amazing panoramic shot of Cali - which again is pretty cool. Cali itself is a flat city with many different neighbourhoods, contrasted by it's many bordering sugarcane fields, which you can see from the grounds of Cristo Rey.
As we were only in Cali for two days, we wanted to make the most of the Salsa. There are many Salsa classes and bars to visit whilst in Cali. A personal favourite being Salsa Pura where we took Cali Salsa and Bachata evening classes. The studio is lovely with very friendly teachers. In the evening, there are lots of Salsa bars to choose from. La Topa Tolondra is a popular salsa club, busy most evenings with lots of Latin flavour and amazing dancers. For many of the Colombians, they have grown up dancing Salsa, so it is in their blood and they are naturally very good at it!!! This can be very off putting for a beginner like me, however I found its best to just throw yourself in to it and the men tend to dance to your level, which is comforting. I also find that Colombians tend to be a lot less judging of others when dancing, which is something I feel is prominent when dancing in the UK - so even more reason to just let loose on the dance floor!
GRAFFITI street art
There is absolutely amazing street art graffiti scattered around the El Peñon/San Antonio neighbourhoods. So having a daytime walk about, snapping up the artwork is a good way to pass some time.
I thought it would be worth adding some information about money/currency, as I couldn't find many blogs on it before I went and it's useful to know. The currency used in Colombia is the Colombian Peso (COP) - (which is currently quite strong against the British pound - July 2017). Whilst in Colombia, it's best to withdraw money from an official ATM, using your debit card. This way you will get a better exchange for your money, however bear in mind some ATM machines do charge a small fee (roughly £1-£2 per withdrawal), so it's best to withdraw a large amount at a single time (most machines offer a maximum withdrawal of $300,000-$600,000 peso - £75-£150). Also, try use the ATM machines which are located within the bank itself, just to avoid any dodgy business so you're not an obvious target to thieves. It's worth exchanging a small amount of cash at the airport when you arrive in Colombia - for if you wish to take a taxi. However, you are likely to get less for your money, due to the exchange rate. Also, please be cautious of using street money exchange cambios, as they can sometimes give you fake Peso notes (a tip to see if money is fake is by rubbing it on white paper - if the ink from the note stains the paper, the money is real. If not, it's supposedly fake!). Finally, credit card and debit cards are widely accepted across Colombia and they are often more encouraged to be used - the governments attempt to control drug money laundering etc (but I won't get into that too much!). This article is very useful to read, which expands more on what I have written.
I know this is a very random thing to talk about on a travel post - but I felt I really needed to include it! The traffic across Colombia is crazy, with a high volume of cars, motorbikes and trucks on the roads! The roads themselves are modern and well made, however the amount of traffic means Colombia is incredibly noisy!!! The sound of old truck diesel engines, motor bikes and car horns gets to you after a few days! Just something to bear in mind whilst in Colombia.
SAFETY IN COLOMBIA
I also thought it was super important for me to give my opinion on Colombia and it's safety. I would say after spending three weeks there, please do not listen to the bad press that Colombia receives. I agree it may have been bad in the days of Pablo Escobar and the civil war etc, but Colombia has done so much to help develop its country and market it away from them eras. The Colombian people are very helpful and kind, much like the Cubans! Some Colombians appear upset that their country is badly tarnished and they are keen to tell you their positive experiences. I feel that just like every other country around the world, Colombia has its good and bad parts. It's up to you as a traveller to make responsible choices, in order to create good experiences and thoughts about the country. I can personally say I felt safe whilst in Colombia. There is a lot of police presence on the streets, controlling the crackdown on pickpockets, drugs and gangs. Please don't be put off visiting Colombia. Do your research, read blog posts (which I feel are the most realest accounts on travelling) keep your wits about you (like anywhere in the world) and you're sure to have a fantastic time!
All statements and recommendations are purely my own opinion. I have not been paid to feature or advertise any product, brand or service in this post.