In November of 2018 I flew into the heart of Colombia, Medellin. With an abstract itinerary that would lead me around the country for two to three weeks, five months later, I still hadn’t left. This country rocked what perception I had and kept me circulating through the cursive-like roads. I continued to warder in and out of the pueblos, national parks, deserts, rain forests, coastal regions and indulge in the diverse gastronomy of the country. Here are a few highlights.
Medellin- Colombia’s most popular tourist destination and rightfully so for many reasons. If you want it, Medellin’s got it.
Comuna Trece (Community 13) was Medellin’s most dangerous neighborhood in the world. Comuna 13 has reinvented itself to become a peaceful community, influenced by colorful, symbolic public art. These changes transformed Comuna 13 into a space that reunites neighbor with neighbor and welcomes locals and travelers alike. Comuna 13 currently offers free English and yoga classes, as well as women empowerment gatherings for the inhabitants as a means to keep the positive progress in motion. Donation based walking tours are available so be sure to learn more about this beautiful neighborhood while in Medellin.
Downtown Medellin is a great place to practice your Spanish skills and bargain with Paisas (Colombian slang for people of Medellin). Get up close with the sculptures of Fernando Botero, stroll through the lush Joaquín Antonio Botanical Gardens, and enjoy the bounty of ‘The City of Eternal Spring’. Colombia is home to over 130,000 different plant species, as well as the largest number of Orchids in the world, of which, only 1,542 can only be found in Colombia.
The Medellin Metro and Metrocable may not seem all that exciting but it has revolutionized how locals commute from boroughs into downtown. The trains appear cleaner than any subway I have seen and is much quieter than BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). The Metrocable is an urban gondola transportation system that takes you high above the districts of Medellin. You will find all demographics of Medellin utilizing their public transportation, which is great for people watching. If you transfer at the Acevedo station then again at Santo Domingo Metrocable in route to Paque Arvi, Medellin’s National Forest reserve, you can explore the rivers and forests of the surrounding mountain range. This is a beautiful way to escape the city and relax in one of the many natural environments of Colombia.
Bogota- The capital of Colombia, one of the highest cities in South America, is drenched in art and flooded with bars and clubs. It’s easy to get dizzy in the high altitude of Colombia’s largest city especially when the streets are pulsating with electricity and history, easily the most enjoyable aspect of the city for me.
La Candelaria’s vibrant foundation of cobblestone streets, handicraft venders, colonial architecture, museums and cafes will keep you busy from early in the morning until the late hours of the night. The university students and locals are out almost every evening so the nightlife is fueled by salsa, reggaeton and rock music. La Candelaria is as if Colombia, Berkeley and Height Ashbury became a single neighborhood of its own.
Cerro de Monserrate can be seen from almost anywhere in La Candelaria and the surrounding area including La Plaza de Bolivar, Bogota’s main square with the statue of Simon Bolivar and numerous government buildings. At its’ base, Bogota sits at 2600 meters in elevation, with an added 510 meters if you hike up to Cerro Monserrate, sitting at 3252 meters. There is the option of taking the tram up to the church if you are worried that the altitude will get to you. If you hike, leave early, and if possible catch the sunset. It’s well worth it!
Guatavita and La Catedral de Sal are two destinations just over an hour out of Bogota by car or bus and both are more than worth the expedition. Guatavita, a small peaceful pueblo consists of all white structures, which makes for a relaxing day trip. If you crave more excitement there is a tour and hike that climbs to the rim of the breathtaking natural spring, which is said to be the origins of El Dorado. It is believed this location is where the indigenous people would cast their offerings, most of which was gold, to the gods. Cathedral de Sal is just west of Guatavita, an experience 200 meters deep into the salt mines of Zipaquirá. Undergo the vast and overwhelming construction of these mines by walking through its cathedral plentiful hollows. Both trips are well worth experiencing!
Cartagena- Known for it’s vibrant colors, colonial style buildings, scorching beaches and Caribbean vibes. Cartagena may not be ideal if swarms of tourists are not your thing but is stunning and worth the visit.
Relaxing beachside always seems like a great idea but the nearest beaches to the city center are more busy than Grand Central Station. Vendors will constantly come up to sell fruit, massages and even shade every 1-5 minutes. It’s best to make your way south west along the coast for less busy beaches and a more peaceful place to soak up the sun.
Wandering inside the fortress walls and historic city center is a must. The colors alone are mesmerizing! Stop in the art shops, check out the street performers, refuel at a restaurant and freshen up at a fruit stand. The views from within the San Felipe Castle are more than picture perfect.
Cali- When you are told that Cali is the salsa capital of the world, that was no exaggeration. Although, salsa dancing may be the most enticing passion of this lively city, there is plenty more to see and do. This colonial founded city was made for exploring, lets dig in.
Salsa clubs are an absolute must when in Cali. Dance lessons are highly encouraged and taught from some of the best salsa dancers in the world. Practice your new (Cali) steps with the locals at any of the legendary salsa spots: La Topa, Tin Tin Deo, Espacio 10-60 and Malamaña. You can find professional dancers on the floor, any night of the week, no matter the venue.
La Galeria Alameda is a popular produce market in the heart of Cali and is packed with the life-changing native fruits and vegetables of Colombia-Lulu, maracuya, guanabana, granadilla, papaya, pitahaya, avacates, carambolo, cherimoya, guama, mangosteen, and tomate de arbol…just to name a few. This market is another great place to practice Spanish and bargaining skills with the Caleños, Colombian terminology for the people of Cali.
Rio Del Gato is a great location for a leisurely stroll with plenty of pitstops. The Cali cat statues are fun to scope out and attempt to interpret. Colombian artists have painted and decorated the statues to represent the different cultural backgrounds and personalities of the Caleños. The river flows next to bamboo foliages where you will find local photographers and models hard at work. Parque de Simón Bolívar is along the Cali river and across from the La Inglesia Ermita, the iconic blue church. This energetic neighborhood is lined with vendors, street artists and makes for a warm introduction into the city.
The San Antonio district emits a hipster vibe complete with street art and a number of artisan cafes. Another popular church in Cali is Lamo de Cruz which is located at the top of Colina de San Antonio, a lively public park. Meander up the hillside streets, stop inside the local art studios and rest at the top of the park for a view of the entire city and the surrounding countryside.
[Although Cali may be the favorite Colombian destination for those whom strive to keep off the beaten trail, do be careful getting to and from your venue or exploring the city late in the evening. The streets in the night can be a bit more grittier than the other Colombian cities.]
Pueblos y Naturales (Town and Nature)
Tayronna National Park is Colombia’s most distinguished national park with beautiful landscapes, wildlife and ocean views. Travelers enter by foot or horseback to one of many distinctive beaches to camp a short walk away from the crashing waves. Hike in, camp out, wake up and swim with schools of tropical fish as a daily itinerary! Do prepare for the heat, mosquitos and sand flies. You can physically be eaten alive whilst roasting alive!
Salento is just a small town with a lot to offer. You can downhill mountain bike on the rocky paths which trace the mountainsides, barhop and explore the vibrant street of Calle Real all the way up to Mirador Alto de La Cruz for view over the entire pueblo. You can also hop on the back of a Jeep en route to one of the many coffee farms. Learn all about the history of the Colombian coffee industry as well as the processes behind every cup of Colombian gold. If you go just 30 minutes outside of Salento you will find yourself in Filandia, equally beautiful as Salento but with a touch of authenticity and less touristic. There are not as many activities to do in Filandia as Salento but Filandia is still a hidden gem that is worth seeing.
Just east of the Salento is the esteemed Valle de Cocora, home to the world’s tallest palms that can reach 60 meters/200 feet high! Most visitors hike the shorter trails that loop around the lush covered valley but there are longer treks that require camping. You can spend days to weeks trekking through this overwhelmingly beautiful landscape. You will find almost as many local Colombian travelers here as you will adventurers from overseas so make sure to leave early, bring a camera, hiking boots and keep an eye out for the Condors soaring side by side the palms.
Desierto Tatacoa is a (hot)spot that will take you by surprise! Tatacoa is the 2nd largest barren zone in Colombia and is divided into two deserts: the red and grey. Although the color palette and terrain are far from similar, the two sites are a short ride away from each other. Make sure to bring a hat, water and sunscreen when hiking the serpent-like trails and reward yourself with a refreshment in the cool waters of the grey desert’s pool. Don’t forget the swim suits!
Guatapé is a beautifully decorative pueblo just two hours outside of Medellin located in the vast, man-made Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir. Taste some of Colombia’s best coffee while wandering the colorful painted cobblestone pueblo streets and climb the 740 stairs to the top of La Piedra Del Penol ‘The Guatape Rock’ for a one-of-a-kind view of the bubbling terrain that remains in the reservoir.
Cabo De La Vela and Punta Gallinas are some of the most vast and desolate ares of Colombia where the desert meets the Caribbean Sea. The Mars-like landscape and opportunity to mingle with the indigenous natives make this adventure well worth the trip. There may not be running water, non-generator produced electricity or ATM’s but tours make this excursion feasible. If you like to venture off the beaten path, Cabo De La Vela and Punta Gallinas will blow your expectations out of the desert and to the sea.
Leticia is the pivotal town that acts as a gateway into the Amazon region of Colombia. Leticia makes for an ideal place to prepare for venturing deep into the amazon rainforest that connects Colombia to Brazil and Peru. This land is also very unique due to the inhabitants. The indigenous community has preserves and continues to practice traditions, as well as communicating predominately through the local languages and dialects. The amazonian region will win your heart with spider, howler and woolly monkeys, pink river dolphins and the chilled out sloths. Your arm hair will stand straight up from the tarantulas, centipedes and piranhas. And you may be driven mad with itchy souvenirs thanks to the millions of mosquitoes. If adventure is in your blood, this lush and widely untamed environment that makes up of 35% of Colombia will have you coming back for more.
Colombia is incredibly rich with food, diverse environments, cultural and color. Although these may be just a few favorites from my experience, Colombia’s potential for adventures and exploration is endless. Colombia will invite you with open arms, send you back with a full belly and will leave the door open for when you return.