This is what Colombia's really like (safe)
Colombia is a country working hard to repair a reputation that lingers like a post thirty hangover fuelled by a Narcos inspired Netflix marathon.
After returning to Miami from Cuba, we ran straight for Whole Foods and spent a weeks worth of travel in half an hour. We left for the airport satiated from our Cuban adventure, giddy with excitement for Colombia. I can only presume that the lady checking us in found giddy excitement suspicious. That, or her hair was pulled back so tight it took delight as well as any human expression from her face. Stuck on that tiny thing called onward travel, we would of missed our flight had it not been for the manager, a loose man inconvenienced by two backpacking kiwis taking up time and room at his check in.
Thanks to him, we found ourselves in the romantic cobbled streets of old town Cartagena. (After we had dumped our packs in Getsemani, with all the other backpackers, walked across the square and under the arched stone wall, that is). Old town and Getsemani neatly halve Cartagena in two, to the point crossing underneath the dividing wall feels like taking a step back in time.
Old town is a world of upscale restaurants nestled in alleyways echoing the sound of the hooves and carriages that roll through the cobbled streets. (I know, this is the exact image I have in my mind when I picture Colombia too). Getsemani converges into one main square full of cheap beer, backpackers, street food vendors, musicians, the odd juggler and a lot of Argentinians pedalling their wares to a backdrop of overflowing street art.
We spent a lot of time in Cartagena eating our way from Getsemani to Old town and back again, meandering through markets and taking walking tours in searing heat only partially cooled by a sea view walk along the wall.
We frequented Cafe Bayu in Getsemani for smoothies, and ventured to old town for colourful sushi bowls followed by ice cream deemed the best in South America by a surprisingly pint sized ice cream connoisseur. (The title held right up until Brazils pure cacao ice cream bumped Cartagenas' creamy cones down the list).
We took a boat trip and spent the night on the small island of Isla Grande. Lazing around in hammocks until the night time came around. Boarding a canoe and paddling to the place where the bioluminescent plankton were creating their own starry nights under the waters surface.
Cartagena has a Caribbean vibe that snakes through North Colombia all the way to Parque Tayrona. It was there we were headed when we left Cartagena in a collectivo as full as we were, for a eight hour journey punctuated by neither break nor air con. By the time we arrived in Santa Marta, we flew out the van door in our customary sweaty mess to pay our way in pesos to pee.
We had booked to stay at El Rio, a hostel perched on the river front, where our hammocks awaited us and getaway feels filled each bump and dip of the long winding driveway.
Too bad the rain fell so hard at that time of year the driveway flooded and while our hammocks were rocking in the wind, our bags were collecting water from the gushing overflow of the river.
Seasonal wild weather aside, Parque Tayrona is an exotic merging of Caribbean beach surrounded by lush jungle made extra green from the generous rainfall. The unique co-existence of forest and beach shouldn’t be missed. While camping in Parque Tayrona is a popular option (hot tip - reserve hammocks at the entrance to avoid missing out), we decided to heed the weather and opted for a day trip.
We donned backpacks and bikinis and trekked through an open jungle that spilled out onto white sand beaches and into the sparkling blue of the Caribbean sea.
There are several beaches en route to Cabo San Juan, where tents and hammocks await. As does a scenic lagoon, where, the photographic proof of a fellow antipodean backpacker would reveal, a crocodile the size of Captain Hooks nemesis lay.
We set up well away from the lagoon, picnicking on the hot sand and cooling off after in the warm sea, looking up into a sky thick with blue.
The rain drops fell later in the afternoon. First in fat, small drops, that got quicker before raining down upon us with torrential force. Grey covered blue in an instant and we started to run, slipping and sliding in the muddy puddles that turned the forest floor to sludge, our bikinis covered only by our matching yellow Katmandu rain-jackets. Our feet turned a new shade of brown and we burst out the exit of Parque Tayrona only to be rejected by every single taxi driver unwilling to make the treacherous ascent up the driveway to El Rio.
Cue harrowing rides on seperate moto taxi's, with rain needling our bare skin and streaming into our eyes so the red lights from the crashes along the high way turned into blurry blobs of emergency colours I could only pray we wouldn't contribute too. The motos got stuck half way up the driveway to El Rio and we had to walk the rest of the way up water thigh deep, collapsing onto the communal dinner table to find all the vegetarian options depleted as inhabitants had swelled to a number too large to accomodate, due to the fact the driveway had trapped anyone bar us and our determined moto drivers from entering or exiting.
We left early the next day. (We had planned on trekking The Lost City, but with our first lesson proving us to be less than hard core backpackers, cancelled without regret).
Medellin couldn't of been more different. It always amazes me how when you travel, you can turn a corner and feel like your in an entirely new country, and traveling in between cities can feel like crossing other worlds.
Medellin is like another world rebuilding itself in defiance of its history, and succeeding with a welcoming charm. After wondering if we'd make it out of El Rio by Christmas, here we were sipping espresso, marvelling at the shoes found in every shop window and on the feet of every expat in El Poblado, wondering if we'd fit three pairs into our backpacks.
If you head to Medellin (and I highly recommend that you do) stay at The Blacksheep Hostel. You'll no doubt meet many a Kiwi and Aussie, with some Europeans thrown in the mix, making for undoubtedly good times.
We packed a lot in while in Medellin, starting with one of the best walking tours we went on in South America. This was due mostly to our guide. Growing up in nineties Colombia he'd lived through a drug related shooting that left five of his friends dead, and most of us on the walking tour taking a reality check. He'd moved to the states for over ten years afterwards, before returning with a purpose to re-educate tourists about Medellin today.
Although the reason reeducation is needed causes some travellers to leave Colombia off their South American list, we both felt safe there.
Even at a football match where the crowds level of dedication is akin to religion, and on a graffiti tour in the infamous neighbourhood of Comuna Trece, where colourful street art repaints the past towards a brighter future.
We felt at ease climbing to the fairy tale like Guadalupe and traipsing through the colourful cobbled streets of neighbouring town Montserrate .
There's only so much time, even on a nine month trip. When I revisit Medellin, perhaps I'll take a tour and see for myself Pablo Escobar's infamous (now country-owned) zoo, where the hippopotamus' he imported thrived to a such a generous number they escaped deportation and continue to survive quite happily as the only hippo's in all of South America.
With Galapagos on mind and horizon, our three weeks in Colombia kept us moving further South. We choose to skip the concrete jungle of Bogota in favour of Colombias salsa capital - tough, gritty, edgy Cali.
Salsa in Cali was a much different experience than Cuba. We had one of our best nights out there, at a club called Tin Tin Deo - well known for bringing locals and and gringos together through a love of (learning) salsa.
Sitting on the sideline is not an option for long. Your hand is continuously taken by a succession of dance partners with skills that lie somewhere between being happily flung around by a man akin to a Colombian Patrick Swayze, and an awkward one-two one-two you only said yes to because it was your mates brother.
Colombia is not immune to flash mobs either. There were times when the entire night club (seriously, everyone got involved) merged to follow one man (quite likely the Colombian Patrick Swayze) and dance in unison for over forty minutes.
Salsa in Cali, you have to do it. Then you can temper the hangover with the best street food tour in South America. Eat all that fruit you want to try but aren't sure if you should peel, cut or scoop, stuff your face with the best cheese jam-jelly snack ever invented, find out why ceviche and T sauce make great friends , and let it all settle with a cup of rich Colombian coffee that is surprisingly hard to come by (you gotta know where to go to find the good stuff that has managed to escape exportation).
Be different from those travellers who skip Colombia. Colombias history hasn't done them the favour of guaranteeing tourists for life. It makes the locals happy to have you there, and it makes me want to return in a salsa-induced heart beat.