Here are the highlights of our three weeks in Colombia. Despite the dark cloud that shadowed our visit and left us without several of our favourite photos, Colombia delivered some incredible experiences.
Colombia Travel Highlights
A beautiful sub-Caribbean city full of gorgeous views, colonial architecture, and amazing tropical fruits, Cartagena deserves it UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Home to Colombia’s largest port, Cartagena is a vibrant afro-colombian melting pot. You feel, see, and taste Caribbean influence everywhere.
We docked in Cartagena after a 4-day journey across the Caribbean with South America’s most wanted: Captain Sebastian. The brightly painted buildings, warm nights, and diverse population made us feel comfortably abroad. We spent most of our time resting, recuperating, and and kissing dry (Sebastian-free) land, and took our time wandering the old walled city by day and exploring the up-and-coming Getsemani barrio by night (we particularly enjoyed the rooftop terrace at bar/resto Malagana).
We ventured out of town for a little mud bath fun at the infamous Volcan de Lodo el Totum. Advertised for its mineral healing powers, the “volcano” is really a glorified mud pit. The otherworldly mud is nonetheless a surreal experience worth the hype. If you’ve never taken a dip in a 50-foot pool of bubbling mineral-rich volcanic mud, it’s a bit like this: you levitate in a spa pool aboard a Colombian space station. But instead of a crisp white space suit, you wear your swimmies. And instead of filtered oxygen, you practically breath mud. Check out our full review on Triptease.
Located below and between incredibly lush hills in a beautifully temperate valley, Medellin is known as the city of eternal spring. It’s also known as the only Latin American city other than Rio De Janeiro, Brazil where the poor live on the hills, and the rich live in the valley. The city is working to bridge the two worlds, and has a great lived-in vibe. There are more active young people skating, doing outdoor group exercise, swimming, and playing volleyball here than we’ve seen in any other city. The Wall Street Journal/Citi Bank just named Medellin the World’s Most Innovative City for 2013.
But for tourists, Medellin remains stuck in its Party! Party! Party!/Women! Women! Women! phase. Barrio El Poblado’s zona rosa district has a distinct Bourbon St. feel, just with better looking people. We enjoyed people watching, and jumping our faces off to American top-40 with our European friends, but had more fun the night we had our cab driver take us to his favourite club. We ended up (attempting) salsa dancing with a large group of cousins out to celebrate a graduation. If you find yourself in Medellin, we have two must-dos:
1. Medellin Metrocable
Take the Metrocable up to Parque Arvi for a view of what lies below. Built to reduce the commute time from the impoverished hillside barrios to the city center, the gondola ride offers a remarkable, relatively noninvasive form of poverty tourism. You literally ride a glass box 50ft above some of Medellin’s most shanty homes. It’s an eye opening trip in every sense of the phrase.
2. Museo de Antioquia
The Museo de Antioquia—which should kind of sort of be renamed Museo Botero—and its surrounding plaza are well worth a visit. One of the most iconic painters and sculptures of the 20th century, native son Fernando Botero gifted close to 100 of his famously voluminous works to the people of Medellin. If you’re anything like us, you’ll have an equally voluminous smile throughout your visit. After gawking at his sculptures in the plaza, quickly scan the first two floors of historic portraiture and then sink your teeth into Botero’s work and some of his personal collection on the upper floors.
Salento was our little slice of Colombian heaven. The small pueblo in Colombia’s Zona Cafeteria quite simply made our Colombia trip. In Salento, days easily slip by, and time spends itself visiting coffee fincas, horseback riding, plunging in frigid-but-so-worth-it cascadas, and recovering with a second (or third) cafe y kake at the venerable Cafe Jesus Martin.
Finca La Serrana Hostel
Hacienda La Serrana Hostel is the best hostel we’ve stayed in so far. Part eco farm, part hostel, La Serrana is gracefully located in the rolling hills outside of Salento’s town center. The main square is a 20-minute walk away. On top of its scenic setting, the hub of La Serrana’s communial space is an open kitchen/dining room charmingly decorated by hundreds of empty wine bottles. The included free breakfast of fresh fruit or eggs, and beyond-palatable coffee with farm fresh milk is a lovely start to the day. Group evening meals Monday-Friday are affordable and consistently tasty.
Valle del Coccora
Valle del Cocorra—valley of the Quindio wax palms—is nothing short of stunning. Hiking the valley was a serious Colombia highlight. Throughout the hills and pastures, monster palms spring from grass so lush that golf course managers probably keep pinups of it in their lockers. Farm animals abound. As you hike, palms reach up, fog presses down, cows plod on, and your jaw just drops. You can hear Natalie gush some more on her Triptease review, here.
Colombia Food Highlights
Fun fact: Colombia has more fruits than days in the year. That’s over 365 sweet, tangy, sour, sticky, juicy, rind-on, rind-off delights to tickle your taste buds season after season. Cartagena gets to sample the bulk of this bounty as it exits to the port. Streets are lined with fruit carts, trolleys, juice stands, and Cocacabana ladies. One of our favourites was the mini-mango (with a hint of plum) mulgobas.
Cliff drank freshly squeezed limeade at every chance—literally at every turn in Cartagena where juice stands are a glorious oasis in the sweltering heat. Merchants stand guard at their stands with a ladle and newspaper over an aquarium filled to the top with fresh squeezed lime, orange, lemon, pineapple, strawberry or watermelon juice. Some aquariums have a single 2ft x 2ft ice-cube that lasts the day, while others schedule ice deliveries to their stands throughout the day. The trick is keeping the melting ice to fresh squeezed juice (and sugar) ratio in check. The aquarium guardian tastes his juicy concoction often, adding more juice, sugar, or ice as needed. One gentlemen we talked to said he goes through two thousand limes every day.Holy.
Beans/ Bandeja Paisa
Colombia’s comida tipica—chicken/pork/beef with rice, plantains, chop “salad”, and maybe some beans—gets old in a hurry. The saving grace (as always, if you ask Natalie) are the beans. Red, black, pinto, small, medium, and large, Colombia delivers on frijoles. One of our favorite dishes was Bandeja Paisa. The heaping skillet of red beans, plantain, chicharron, chorizo, fried egg and rice, sausage (chorizo), mini arepa, fried egg, and avocado magically repurposes tipica ingredients to create something we happily made a habit of.
Aquardient—translation: burning water— is a surprisingly soothing though potent anise flavored liquor that’s ubiquitous with Colombia drink. You can buy it with or without sugar, but it’s always sweet (not always so the morning after). Locals drink it straight up, and each night we went out in Medellin, Colombianas (not Colombianos) bought Natalie a shot.
Our preferred way to drink aguardiente is a hot toddy style tea called Canelazo: a mug of hot water steeped with whole canella, star anise, and clove, served with shot of aguardiente on the side to pour in at your leasure. Just what the doctor ordered for a rainy day in the mountains.
They say that all the good stuff grown in Colombia gets exported, but from our Zona Cafeteria home in Salento, it appears that all good Colombian coffee is not lost. It might have been the setting, the weather, or a longing to enjoy coffee the way we do in the States (it’s been next to impossible to find real coffee shops in South America), but we like to think that the Colombia coffee scene is on the rise. Salento has a handful of good cafes and several fascinating and beautiful coffee finca tours. There’s just something about drinking coffee in coffee land…
And Least We Forget…
Last, but most defiantly not least is Colombia’s national drinking game, Tejo. This game would NEVER be legal stateside.
Imagine an abandoned lot covered by a corrugated steel roof. There are benches and seats fashioned from warped reclaimed wood. The smell of gunpowder, spilled beer, and danger permeates the air. You prepare yourself for combat, readying your palm-sized cannon ball (your tejo) for launch. You hurl it underhand with a perfect arch toward four paper football sized satchels of gun powder wedged into a 45 degree angled clay backboard 60ft in front of you. The gunpowder satchels sit directly over a metal ring, the bocin. You wind up, toss, it sails, and BOOM. The sound and smell of a gunshot rings through the air, people scream, birds take flight, and you gleefully accept victory. As you and wait for your defeated opponent to return from buying the next round, the tejo attendant reaches into bucket to pull out fresh gun power, with a lighted cigarette in hand.
We spent a lot of timing playing with (and buying cervecas for) Juan, the 60-year-old manager of Salento’s tejo hall.
The game is loads of fun and absurdly Colombian. Just be careful who you bet against.