Colombia, that country in South America that has all the cocaine and hot looking women?! You couldnt be further from the truth, however in reality Colombia has so much more to offer than this. Colombia has a vibrancy that I hadn't quite seen in Peru & Ecuador, it was the people that made it, the latin dancing was widespread, the drumbeats always heard, the clothing attire consisting of almost dated tacky neon revealing clothes which they wore with such confidence that it made us Europeans look like we have lived in turtle shells our whole lives. In a nutshell, Colombia bubbles with expression, colour and flair. All this is even before I get to what attractions this country has to offer, ranging from beautiful colonial spanish towns, dense emerald jungles, golden beaches and of course their fruit, chocolate and coffee exports. For some more detail and highlights of the trip, why sir, continue reading...
Border crossing from Ecuador to Colombia is actually pretty hassle free besides the shuttle ride away to the nearest towns. Not dangerous at all, although I was ataken back a little by the amount of times police came onboard to check for passports. Note2self - Irish passports are awesome! On a nightbus a police man comes on with a flashlight and sternly requests passenger passports from one end of the bus to the other. Comes to mine, flicks the pages "Your Irish"? "I am" I says, he closes it, chuckles to himself and returns with a smile. The guy beside me was English, tosses the passport back to him. If your travelling, an Irish passport is one of the best to have, fact, dont take for granted!
After the border it was straight to the Salsa capital of Cali. This place is big and has a really nice downtown area, I took up two Salsa lessons here, which went quite smooth actually (don't worry lads it will never replace my straight edged European fist pump!!) A highlight of this place was heading up to the statue Cristo Rey, which a group of us attempted on one of the biggest religious festivals of the month. Needless to say, when we got to the top it was closed, however our first taste of real Colombia was here. All the families walking to and from the statues, on the winding backroads, the local houses, the tacky revealing dress code, the large amounts of young, yet extremely friendly police force (who gives these chaps automatic rifles like?!). It was awesome and wasnt without its stares and giggles though as a group of gringos navigated around the hoards of locals. At the top we were told not to go any further by the locals, very dangerous. FYI!
Salento was the next region, renowned for its delicious coffee. I loved this place. Tucked neatly away in the countryside. I couldn't believe how country & western the centre or plaza of the town was, it looked like something out of a rodeo film! The scenery here is top dollar, particularly the Cocoa Valley trek tour. Do it! Pure quaint Colombia.
Medellin is one of the largest cities in Colombia, anyone you ask will sure mention this one. As large cities go it is pretty, nestled within a range of mountains and containing some beautiful areas, dainty and a little more European in my opinion particularly in the El Poblado region. This place is the place to go for a party, it doesnt stop. Do the cable car too, it will shows you a great view from the top, the poor parts of the neighbourhood and the overwhelming size of this city. Medellin is synonomous with Pablo Escobar, the "King of Cocaine", whom died in 1993. Although a fascinating story, it is a dark and violent part of Colombian history. More importantly a very recent part of Colombian history, to this day there can still be wads of cash and bags of cocaine found within the walls of buildings. Our tour guide cemented this negative atitude towards these events and although extrememly informative, did not gloat of speak highly of this man in any way.
A highlight of this town; no it wasn't the consistent hangover but the football match between the local Medellin and southern city, Cali. Although Cali were severely out supported, I haven't witnessed a sporting atmosphere like this in a long long time. Samba drums with many other musicians echoed the stadium for 90 minutes, there was a multitude of local chants that were sung from the bottom of every latin lung, it was truly electric and had the football match itself taking a second seat! I will say however, this atmosphere could lend itself to a riot pretty easily, I dont think it would take the Colombians too long to invade a soccer pitch in any highly charged scenario! (Watch the video below)
Heading North towards the old colonial coastal city of Santa Marta is the gateway to the popular Tayrona National Park. Some of the beaches surrounding this park are some of the best in Colombia not to mention the park itself, hosting some amazing jungle, indigenous tribes, coffee plantations and home to the popular "Lost City" tour trek. We headed to the beautiful Cocha region near Tayrona and slept in hammocks for the night, plenty of tourists in this part of town. Instead of heading back the same way for exit we cut through the middle of the national park. It really is beautiful with some ancient ruins and wildlife along the way if you keep your eyes open. A vivid memory of this track was crossing paths with a male adult of the local community, carrying a machete sword, both parties paused for a 5 second in a stand off and stare. As you can imagine for a fraction of a second we did shudder in fear, however it ended with a simple "Ola, Buenas tardes?!" and a conservative shuffle past (grand oul fella!). Plenty of sweat was excreted getting back to open road on the far side where we sat down at a local restaurant, pointed eagerly at aa plate of food to avoid speaking spanish. (Side note - Costeno beach is an awesome secluded surfing mini beach resort near Palomino on the eastern side of Tayrona)
The northern most point of Colombia, Punta Gallinas is a place off the beaten tourist track and one of the highlights of Colombia for me. From the nearest main town of Santa Marta, to get to Punta Gallinas involves a multitude of local buses, chiva jeeps, boats and make shift tourist trailers. Towns on the way include Riocacha and Uribia, we stayed a night in the closest town, Cabo de la Vela, a small town with one main dirt street. At this time of year there were basically no tourists present, very little activity and we had a stretch of beach basically to ourselves. The sea was super calm and you could easily walk about 200 m with water up to chest height! Beware the drive to the northost point involves a lot of uncomfortable terrain of gravel, bumps and desert but it is worth it. Complete vacancy, not a sinner up there. Do wear sunscreen, it is relentless for European skin! In fact the beach at the most northpoint was one of the best I've seen, if even unique, the large golden sand dunes dropped from a rolling height right down to the Carribean shoreline which had water at such a beautiful temperature that I almost swore I would never dip my toes in the Irish Sea again! Do this if you want something different than your typical tourist trail.
Cartagena is the Americanised port town of Colombia. It is also one of the nicest. By Americanised I dont mean corporate like McDonalds etc! I mean there is holiday money in this town, a lot of American presence, prices are inflated slightly and I've seen some of the most fanciest restaurants & hotels in this town in all of Colombia. I have also experienced probably the hottest temperatures in South America at that time of year also. Doing anything during the midday son, is just plain stupid, get a room with AC!
Rather than head straight back to Bogota to fly out, we decided a new town was a good idea to kill a day or two. Enter Pereira, a large town south west of Bogota. This place is like a poor mans Medellin, a little rough around the edges and Im not sure if we seen any tourists roaming around the spot but a small few at one of two hostels in the area. Reminder, Colombia is overall a religious country, Sunday (or Domingo) is a quite day. Don't get dolled up to go on the town on this day, go home and pray instead!
This leads us finally back to the capital of Bogota, a monster city. Again, like most, it contains an old part and a new part, the old part is definitely worth a visit here and the trip up the cable car to Mount Monserrate gives a cracking view of the concrete mess below as it spills over the surrounding hills. Unfortunetely my last few hours in Colombia were marred with the theft of my wallet from pocket. Embarrassingly falling victim to the distraction-based theft scams of the capital, which it is notorious for. Maybe I'll keep that for another blog post actually! Eitherway, it did not tar my opinion of this country in anyway.
I highly recommend taking a trip to Colombia, seriously. It has so much to offer compared to others in South America. It has its rough edges no doubt, but nothing compared to what foreigners will lead you to believe in the local pub. The price is right, the scenery is awesome and the people are superb. Learn some spanish, hide your jewels and be willing to dance latin. Get in their before it heads down the tourist road of Thailand!
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