Colors of Colombia

Blown Expectations

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.


Ciudades (Cities)

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Medellin- Colombia’s most popular tourist destination and rightfully so for many reasons. If you want it, Medellin’s got it.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

Travel vs Vacation

Travel and vacation are common terms of venture that seem rather similar. To others, especially those that consider themselves to be travelers, these two words bear significance beyond the literal concepts and hold radically different meanings. One concept is a more straightforward form of relaxation, while the other is more adventurous and spontaneous. Being the passionate traveler that I am, I frequently find myself locked into this dispute. I believe these words hold strong contrasting nuances and find it frustrating when someone claims to be a traveler and does not understand what being a traveler actually entails. I would like to share a personal story from my travels in pursuance to break down this topic.

In August of 2015 I purchased an over night train ticket from Krakow, Poland to Bratislava, Slovakia. The departure time was set for just after 11pm which provided me with more than enough time to prepare my day accordingly. On the morning of my last day in Poland I gathered my day pack necessities, stowed away the rest of my belongings in my backpacking bag and set out for the Jewish Quarter followed by the old town of Krakow. Collectively, it was a great day until the metro was delayed. I was too far from the hostel to make it back on foot so I waited patiently. Time was running out but the metro finally came; I ran up to the 3rd floor of the hostel, snatched my pack from the locker, returned my dorm key, acquired my deposit and sprinted for the train station. Later on I will discover that I left behind my camera tripod and North Face jacket in the chaotic rush to catch my train. This was a very minor addition to my list of setbacks. Booking that ticket was difficult enough and the odds of finding a replacement mode of transportation was not in my favor. As for the icing on the cake-all other hostels and hotels within my budget were completely filled which made missing this train even more detrimental. I seemed to be making just enough haste to get me there in time. The thought of running eight city blocks didn’t seem so daunting until I caught myself in a full sprint with a fully stuffed backpacking bag on my back, a 20 pound day pack in the front while in a 38-40 degree Celsius (100-105 degrees Fahrenheit) heat wave. To cut to the chase, I arrived at my platform, panting and covered in sweat only to witness my train chugging away towards Bratislava.

I immediately went to the ticket window to see what my options were but the woman operating the only open window was not having it. This was a typical nightmare for all travelers in the making: missing train arrangements with no prior back up plans, a ticket teller who either spoke no English or was not in the mood to put up with an American tourist, paying for a hostel with no applicable cancelation policy and stranded in a foreign train station in the middle of the night with not a soul that is willing to speak English nor help a complete stranger in distress.

As minutes began to feel like hours and all sense of hope was steadily slipping through my grip, a gentleman in a suit named Aleksander approached to to see if he could be of any assistance. I stood back patiently waiting as he shared a few verbal exchanges with the teller. He then turned to me and in a thick Polish accent said, ‘There is no train or bus until 9 am the next morning, sorry.” Not the worst case scenario but also not the best. It was relieving to meet someone at that hour who showed sympathy for my situation and who was willing to help me locate my bearings. We chatted briefly, searched for other ways to get me to Slovakia and I booked the next available train to Bratislava. We quickly became friends and decided to go for food and drinks. “My bus comes every hour and I start my project for work in a few days so I can always catch the next one,” he said. We made our way to a nearby bar in old town Krakow, made new friends, celebrated over drinks, ventured around the castle with our new friends, celebrated with more drinks and eventually found ourselves stumbling outside of the train station around 5am. Aleksander shook my shoulders until I forced my eyes open. I awoke early that morning, lying on a stone bench just outside of the entrance to the station with my baggage intertwined with my legs. Aleksander had left to catch his bus while I stayed put.

As I slowly came back to life, I threw back a few sips of water and tried to put the pieces together. I had a few hours until my train departed so I grabbed a quick breakfast and waited on the platform. Everything ran smoothly from there on out until one of the axles on the train malfunctioned somewhere in between Krakow and Bratislava and were left immobile. Three hours later the axle was repaired and we continued on our way.

For the sake of being transparent-my perspective on traveling does not imply you must be in constant discomfort, lost or in precarious situations to avoid the forbidden label of vacation. Vacations are generally relaxing, worry free and oftentimes short term. Staying in expensive resorts and extravagant Airbnb’s with the mission to soak up sun rays and lounge pool-side is a nice way to take a break from the work routine and is indeed just that: a break from the routine. Vacations may be a great way to inhale a breath of fresh air from the career grind but is not creditable for the term travel to those that live with traveler motives.

I deeply consider the mindset to be a prime element that sets the two definitions apart. Learning how to readjust and accept what is beyond your control constitutes traveling as an experience and not just a getaway. You truly start to think differently. Your priorities shift and you begin to take life day by day, one thing at a time. Traveling is all about seeking adventure amid gaining intellectual and social growth through other cultures, people and history. Navigating around an unfamiliar country, trying new foods, attempting to learn a new language and meeting foreign locals are a must for my definition of travel.Me inside Bulgarian UFO *Photo: Flashback to that one time I rented a car with a few Aussies to explore the abandoned Buzludzha Monument in the middle of nowhere, Bulgaria. I was absolutely thrilled but did not appear so thanks to having a cold in the 100 degree dry climate while having my first and only encounter with the atrocious bed bugs.* 

So why do we stress this so much? Why is it such a big deal to not mistake the phrase ‘I went traveling’ for ‘I went to Cancun’ or ‘I love to travel! Here are some of my favorite resorts…’? Does it really matter that much? Those that were privileged enough to have taken a leave of absence or quit their jobs in order to fulfill their adventurous needs have an understanding that although traveling is a lot of fun, it is also extremely challenging and stressful at times. Anyone who have spent months at at time exploring with friends, strangers or solo will tell you the thought of taking a vacation will become less and less appealing once you get a small taste of the travel life.

Travel Tips: The Basics

 

If you’re like me, you love to travel. Another thing we might have in common is the financial instability that makes us hesitant to pack our bags and go. There was a time when I thought I was never going to leave the states because of my financial status. I was under the impression that I was destined to take the typical path of getting a decent job with decent pay and moving up the ladder until I finally ‘made something of myself.’ But something in my head kept replaying the thought ‘there is more out there, you just have to go find it.’ So I did. I followed the typical travel bug infested mindset and worked strenuous hours to save every bit of change I had to buy my first ticket out of the country. This was one of, if not, the most rewarding decision I have ever made. But like anything we do in life, we always finish wishing we knew certain tips, tricks and tools of the trade before we set out on the journey. I would like to share some knowledge I have gained from my time traveling in hopes to encourage anyone and everyone to travel as far and as long as possible and to do so comfortably and confidently. Enjoy!

The Approach

The first step is planning. There are a few ways to prepare for your travels and the first approach is to have a well thought out agenda that covers your desired vacation needs. This style can be rather gratifying since you leave your home knowing exactly what you are going to see and when you will see it. If you book your travels through a tour or agency, they will likely have the transportation, accommodations, attractions and meals scheduled and arranged-which can be comforting, worry free and ideal for a relaxing vacation. This approach to planning is wonderful if you want to avoid making decisions what to do and where to go but generally these expeditions operate in large groups of tourists so you have to expect to observe rather than experience. Tours typically allow for a small breaks for exploration time but you still have to be prompt to get back on the bus to continue with the planned activities. There are many travel and tour companies that can provide a vast variety of options, just check in with a travel agent or online for pricing, duration and locations to find what fits best for you.

Time and money are typically the most troublesome obstacles to overcome for those that wish to go abroad. Booking tours may help you save money while simultaneously guaranteeing that you see what you came to see. Major tour companies book thousands of room and restaurant accommodations every year and in doing so, can offer prices that an individual tourist will lose out on. The tour approach is a very efficient and worry-free way of beginning your experiences as a traveler, however you should expect to experience the country through the eyes of the guides and not the locals. If you want to see certain monuments, locations or attractions with no room for change of plans, booking a tour may be the way to go. However, if you’re easygoing and can handle yourself under pressure you might get more out of a different approach.

A potentially more stressful style of travel can also be the most rewarding if you are willing to go with the flow. Following a less prepared outline of your trip might seem daunting to some but many solo, short and long-term travelers, including myself will not hesitate to stand by this method. Establish an open itinerary that allows for spontaneous change of plans. This permits opportunity for unique experiences and encounters. Costa Rica-Jeep-1-WATERMARK (1 of 1)I will always stress to do your best to become embedded in the culture and in order to do so time and freedom must be an option. I’m an advocate for taking the unbeaten path, not to say monuments and acclaimed cities are not worth the effort but most of my most memorable stories were developed in places where I often could not speak the language or did not have previous expectations. Not being restricted to a duration of time leads to spontaneous moments to go to places that are less known and that you may not have expected to be so influential. Hidden gems will always be my favorite part of traveling and I hope to inspire you through my photography to find new ones.

Get Going!

You have heard my thoughts on the basics of traveling, now it’s your turn!
Do you have any tips or tricks to share? What are your favorite destinations to travel to? Do you prefer the observe or experience method of traveling? Don’t be shy and reach out if there’s a specific topic you want to discuss. I would love to start a dialogue and share our leanings.
Don’t forget to take a look at my photos, contact me for prints, shoots and follow for future posts!

Cheers!

-Max