Hola, de Sur America! Hemos estado aquí un mes y nos encanta!
We’re currently at Spanish school in Quito, Ecuador and we’re encouraged to speak Spanish All. The. Time. It’s very tiring but we love learning the language; it’s one of the reasons we wanted to travel to South America to begin with.
But fear not, our posts from now on will not be written in Spanish, we’re certainly not at that level yet and firstly, we have to update you on where we’ve been before arriving in Quito.
Colombia was the first stop on our South America tour. Known for its coffee, exotic fruits, love of football, Shakira’s hips, and let’s not forget cocaine; we had no idea what our impressions would be of this diverse country but after only a short time, we were completely captivated.
Cartagena & Santa Marta
We landed in Cartagena a day later than planned but we won’t bore you with that story. Just a word of warning: think twice before flying with Spirit Airlines, even if you’re a seasoned budget airline traveler and you think you’re prepared for all those hidden costs and ridiculous baggage rules, Spirit Airlines is next level s**t. Nevertheless, we got there in the end.
Cartagena is the capital of Bolivar, one of the six regions of Colombia. It’s a picturesque, colonial port city that just oozes old-school charm; it buzzes with music, markets, street vendors selling their goods along the cobbled streets and colourful characters perched in every doorway, many of whom inspired the writings of the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
In short, it’s instantly “Instagramable”.
Tourism is growing in Cartagena and it’s not hard to see why. It boasts excellent seafood (if you like ceviche, this city is for you), great nightlife, beautiful, quaint architecture and plenty of historical sites to visit but sadly, not so many picture postcard beaches. You can’t believe everything you read on Trip Advisor. We attempted to spend a day at the beach but lasted about half an hour. Trinket sellers, ladies balancing giant fruit baskets on their heads, and guys with boom boxes rapping in your face are at you every minute. It wasn’t the most relaxing experience. The sea is also weirdly warm and brings no relief from the intense humidity.
If you hop on a boat tour to one of the islands close to the city then you’re blessed with whiter sands and cleaner waters but we knew we had a week on the coast coming up so opted not to take that trip.
Instead, we stuck to wandering the old town. We took a walking tour (of course) absorbing hundreds of dates in the two hours, we joined in a dance class at our hostel, which was a lot of fun and I attended a yoga class. It was just across the street from our hostel so I thought I’d check it out. I expected there would be others there but it turned out I was the only student, so for the next 90 minutes, I had a private class!
We spent four days in Cartagena, which we think was plenty as by the end we were craving a cool ocean to swim in and a bit of greenery.
From Cartagena, we caught the bus east along the coast to Santa Marta, the oldest city in South America. It was still hot but a welcome sea breeze cut the humidity so walking around town was much more bearable. It’s not as aesthetically pleasing as Cartagena so it doesn’t see as much traveler traffic but there are just as many historic sites to visit and better beaches close by.
On one of the days, we took a day tour to Tayrona Park. Part rainforest, part beach, and part desert, this popular national park hugs the Caribbean coast at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. We booked onto a tour which we didn’t realise was all in Spanish so it was a day spent playing charades with the tour guide.
The big, golden beaches, set deep into the bays, backed by mangroves and thick forest is why most visitors come to the park. The upside of booking the Spanish speaking tour was that we went to a local beach. We saw only a few other “gringos” on the sand (the nickname for white people in South America). The downside was that as it was a Sunday so the beach was packed with every Colombian and his dog, all camped up under make-shift tents which you’re pestered by vendors to rent for the day. Again, it wasn’t quite the relaxing day at the beach we’d hoped for because of the number of people, despite the beautiful, natural surroundings.
We can’t fault this place (apart from the mosquitos, which are just part and parcel of staying by the beach in a hot country), so we’ve been recommending it to all travelers we meet who are heading to Colombia.
It’s a hostel run by a couple of Canadians, who’ve built an eco-style retreat right on the beach, snuggled into the palm trees of the jungle. It’s a super chill surfer spot where you can rent a board for the day, practice yoga on the terrace, take long walks along the beach, relax in one of the many hammocks or, if you want to have a day off from doing a whole lot of nothing, you can take a day trip into Tayrona Park.
We spent four nights there, sleeping in the hammocks which were surprisingly comfortable. Any more than four nights though and I think we would have booked a bed! We read a bit, relaxed a lot and best of all, met some great people.
Another plus about this place is the food: it’s awesome. There are no shops close by so you eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the hostel but once you’ve had one meal there, you wouldn’t go elsewhere anyway. It’s healthy, delicious and they change up the menu every day.
Reluctantly leaving the beach, we headed to the airport to catch a flight to our next destination in Colombia: Medellin.
The four days that we spent in “the city of eternal spring” weren’t enough, we could easily have stayed months. It’s massive so you really need a lot of time to get around it all. What we did see was amazing.
One thing all travelers you meet say you must do in Medellin is the walking tour with Real City Tours. They’re not wrong. It’s the best walking tour we’ve been on and as you can tell, we love a walking tour! For four hours we were guided around downtown Medellin while our guide, Pablo, shared some incredible stories with us about his very complex city. Like how the metro holds a deep, cultural meaning for the people of Medellin. Not only is it the only rail-based metro system in the country, it’s concrete evidence of the transformation the city has seen in recent years and proof that during extremely dangerous times some good still materialised: the metro was built during the late 80s and early 90s when Medellin was experiencing serious problems with urban violence, intensified by population growth. In its completion, the metro was able to connect disparate neighborhoods, bridging “poor” and “rich” quarters together, encouraging a sense of unity to a very divided city.
The Paisa people (the name for the people of Medellin) greatly respect their metro and that’s why you don’t see one spec of litter or graffiti on any part of the entire system.
We also learned that all over the city, old and once dangerous barrios are being transformed with innovative projects of urban renewal and colourful street art; breathing life back into streets that have witnessed so much death. We took a local bus to Comuna 13 where they have installed an escalator that climbs up the narrow streets, passing by huge graffiti murals and the brightly painted buildings of revived local businesses. At the top, you have a beautiful view of the city.
The Antioquia Museum was a highlight for us. Located in the centre of downtown, at Plaza Botero, it’s a grand building housing hundreds of works of art from local to famous international artists. Much of the museum is dedicated to displaying the instantly recognisable paintings and sculptures of Fernando Botero, which we loved.
Another museum we visited was the Museo Casa de la Memoria which was equally as impressive but a more emotional experience. Although most of the information was written in Spanish, we didn’t really need the words for the exhibition to convey its meaning. Through displays of technology, art, photography, and objects the museum is a memorial for the forgotten victims of the armed conflict the city has faced during the last 50 years. This quote on the wall as you enter sums it up:
Every form of expression, technique, and discipline has told the violence in its own terms. More than document, art reflects, takes a side, denounces, and demonstrates the complexities of pain and war. Art speaks when words are not enough. It moves into the space of emotions, challenges ideas and words, displaces logic and destroys archetypes.
Despite all the pain and suffering, the Colombian people are some of the happiest and most positive people we have met. They always have a smile on their face and they are so excited that you’re there to visit their country. So many times during the walking tour, a local would come and say Hola, bienvenidos a Colombia or gracias por su visita. It’s inspiring how, considering it’s dark past, when we both think of Colombia now, instead of danger and death springing to mind, we think the positivity, innovation, and creativity embedded in its people and culture.
We ended our time in Medellin with a day trip to Guatape. The tour was, once again, all in Spanish although we had been pre-warned this time; we wanted the Spanish practice. We met some great people on this tour, from Mexico and Ecuador. The South American people are so friendly, within five minutes we had new friends on Facebook and an invitation to meet up in Quito.
Guatapé is beautiful. It’s a very traditional Colombian town, a couple of hours drive from Medellin, that many locals escape to at the weekends. The main attraction is to climb 700 steps up a giant rock to get a spectacular view from the top.
We left Medellin feeling very lucky to have seen it as it is today. As we said, it’s a city that you could spend months in and still not see it all so, until next time.
We’d been recommended to stay at La Serrana Hostel in Salento, another brightly painted cowboy town set deep into La Zona Cafetera, the heart of Colombia’s coffee production. We’re so glad we booked to stay at this hostel, it’s the perfect relaxation spot, nestled high into the emerald green hills of the Los Nevados mountain range but only a 20-minute walk from town.
While in Salento, we spent a day hiking through the Valle de Cocora to see the tallest palm trees in the world. It was refreshing to be out exploring the lush countryside after those few days in the busy city.
From Salento, we headed to Cali where we had booked only the one night as we had to get to Quito to start our course the next week. So, unfortunately, we didn’t really get a chance to explore Cali – the salsa capital of Colombia – but we did meet a lovely couple at our hostel from nonother than, New Zealand. That was the highlight of Cali for us!
We feel like we grasped the essence of Colombia in the few weeks we had but for sure, it’s a country we have to return to.
Hasta la próxima vez!