After spending eight days in the country, exploring the coastal touristic city of Cartagena, the small mountain town of Salento, and the big city of Medellin that is not as cold and miserable as Bogota, I have only good things to say about Colombia.
My journey started in Cartagena, a colonial city on the Caribbean coast where I met my friend, Nico. We stayed in a lovely little bed and breakfast facing a park in this colonial fortressed city that reminded me of a mix of Milan, Sevilla and San Juan.
We took an hour long boat ride to the Playa Blanca where we spent the entire day in the warm water, soaking up the sun. Vendors came by to ask us to look at their merchandise and served as a personal concierge until you would actually look at and buy their merchandise. If you had no intention of buying anything, they would leave you alone graciously.
We took an overnight bus to Medellin that took 12 hours through the mountains with multiple police checks and speed bumps. We made friends on the bus who assured us that we were safe. I definitely felt safe.
We spent a day in the beautiful city of Medellin that reminded me of the modern world. There was commerce, culture, and a friendly atmosphere. A trip up the east side of the valley, a visit to the Antioquian Museum filled with modern art and a large collection of works by Fernando Botero, and a quick snack at Dogger (Colombians love hot dogs) made for a picturesque day.
We took another overnight bus to the mountain town of Salento in the eje cafetero or coffee district. We arrived at 6:30 am, just in time to hop on a jeep to the Valle de Cocora where a five hour hike awaited us. We went from the valley floor to the top of a mountain, crossing a waterfall multiple times on logs and suspension bridges, and back down again through a strip of land that has the largest palm trees in the world.
We ate a lot of trucha or trout in this precious town with the friendliest people. We learned about how coffee is grown and processed from start to finish on little fincas or farms. At one point, we sat on a bench overlooking a steep hill when some kids came by and kicked a tire down the hill, tumbling down the road at the bottom for 100 yards, then over a small hill, across a basketball court and eventually ending up in a soccer goal underneath the basketball hoop. Nico and I sat there in awe as this amazing feat occurred. High fives all around from the gringos.
Did I mention how nice the people were?
We stopped to get ice cream at someone’s house on the way back to town and they had us sit and talk to them as we ate homemade mora ice cream from the woman’s blackberries and her neighbor’s cow’s milk.
Our daytime bus ride back to Medellin proved a beautiful site. Mountains in every direction as we followed the Cauca River. We crawled along the mountain ridges, passing oil tankers on blind turns, realizing a 7.5 hour trip for only 196 kilometers (121 miles).
Our return to Medellin proved once again to be filled with culture and friendliness. We scoped out the Museo de Arte Moderno Medellin (MAMM) and ate at a chic – non-colombian – restaurant and got to play the national sport of Colombia, Tejo. We walked up to the Tejo courts, everyone stopped and stared as the gringos came to try it out. We were a bit intimidated but 10 minutes later, everyone on the court became our best friends, instructing us and complimenting our skills. I was even made an honorary member of the red team.
Which brings me to this point put so eloquently by our new Tejo playing friend, Jaime. He asked what I had heard of Colombia before coming. I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer. So he jumped in and said, “Drugs?! Violence?! Have you seen anything of the sort?!”
To which I could only shake my head no.
And it is true.
Every Colombian we met was willing to help us in any way they could. They would offer suggestions, advice, reassure you that the bus wouldn’t leave without you, walk you 20 minutes to the Metro, exchange phone numbers so they could invite you to Tejo next week, and drive you all the way home even though you only had enough cash to get you 10 blocks away. The only way to describe Colombians is “muy amable.” From the coast to the mountains to the city, this was true.
All in all, the experience was amazing, learning about Colombian culture and opening my eyes to the beauty of the landscape and the people.
Afterword: That is not to say that danger does not exist in Colombia. There is still fighting going on by the guerillas and the paramilitary. It is important to be mindful wherever you go whether it’s down the block or across the world – and we definitely were.
Sidenote: The people in Colombia were extremely nice, but that is not to say that there was no machismo. I often felt like I couldn’t be the one to talk first, that Nico had to ask the questions and do the ordering. They would also often talk about me, right in front of me. And it was often a question they wanted to ask me but Nico had to reply on my behalf. Obviously, this was a bit annoying so I’m glad that I live in a city and a country where I can be independent.