(Updated January 2020) Colombia, still suffering from the stigma of being a dangerous place torn between drug barons and guerillas, is actually a beautiful and interesting place – with wonderful, honest people. On just one visit, it became one of my favorite countries on earth.
I travelled with my adult daughter to a dozen places – mostly by bus, sometimes we flew – and felt perfectly safe.
Salento, nestled in the coffee mountains of Quindío, is the epitome of Colombian life: A small town with little houses painted in all the colors the hardware store had available.
The lucky people of Salento are spending their life right in a picture postcard.
Surrounded by rolling hills and rough mountains, lush greeneries watered by creeks and waterfalls – and coffee, lots and lots of coffee.
There’s a bus going every hour from Cali to Armenia and from there you take a minibus to Salento in the Quindío, Colombia’s smallest departamento and main coffee region.
If you’re coming from Medellín, there might be a direct shuttle to Salento – since we were able to do it the other way around.
Salento is a very charming small town and especially the main square and Carrera 6 are extremely well maintained.
The houses are nicely painted everywhere in Salento – hence on Carrera 6, they are even a bit more colorful.
Doors and windows in bold colors.
As things go, pretty attracts tourists, consequently, there are packs of backpackers occupying the small place, and many shops and restaurants jumped on this global fusion-vegan-yoga-bandwagon. On the upside, there is an excellent infrastructure, many small shops, a small supermarket, banks, and ATMs.
If you don’t want to walk, there is always horseback riding.
Anyway, for obvious reason, the main activities are taking place outside of Salento and are all about nature: hiking, horseback riding, more hiking, swimming at a waterfall, hiking uphill, hiking downhill, and when you’re tired, there’s still hitchhiking.
On the serpentines around Salento Willy-Jeeps are the most common, comfortable and fun way to get around – and to school.
A hike to the coffee fincas can be taken guided or individually. I honestly don’t see a reason what you need a guide for since you can’t get lost – it’s one road: Leave town to the southwest on Carrera #5 and keep walking.
Sumptuous bushes and trees as far as the eye can see.
At the fincas, you get a guided tour and can buy coffee. We stopped after about one hour at the first one called Las Acacias which proved to be the smallest and best one. The others we checked had bigger groups and the coffee there was more expensive.
The most unique and superb part is the Valle de Cocora located about 7.5 miles from Salento. There are jeeps leaving from the main square taking you to the parking lot of the Valle.
Plaza de Bolívar with the church Nuestra Señora del Carmen.
From here, you can either just see the majestic fields of wax palms and do a short stroll.
Or you hike the whole tour that takes about five hours. If you’re not a big sports(wo)man, it might be a bit hard, but it’s absolutely doable and totally worth it.
Green, green grass of….Salento.
There are several trails through the jungle that are not designed for couch potatoes – since they are not designed at all. You have to climb over rocks and roots, wade through mud and horse dropping, cross improvised bridges, and climb pretty steep parts.
It’s definitely not a manicured English garden you’re walking.
Almost halfway up, you can take a break at an enchanting hummingbird reserve containing different species of hummingbirds as well as other birds and wildlife.
Resting with the Humming Birds.
That sounds cozy but the detour up to the reserve was for me the hardest part. Finally reaching there, I was soaked in sweat and freezing in my sopping wet shirt once I cooled down a bit.
Nevertheless, the short break is refreshing before the last bit of mountaineering.
There they are: Wax palms.
As you reach the Finca La Montaña, you get another overwhelming view – and it’s said to be the halfway point. I don’t know if it’s because from here, we were walking downhill, but to me, the first part felt far longer.
Ms Green on the Green.
Going downhill, we were finally rewarded for all the hardship by fantastic views of the Valley: On a bright green velvet grass carpet are hundreds of wax palms that grow to a height of 150 to 200 ft. And since they grow only in the Andes of Colombia – and a small part of Peru – they are named after the region Quindío “Ceroxylon Quindiuense”.
A majestic name for a majestic tree.
More amazing views: It’s worth it to get up a bit earlier and climb the stairs to the Mirador de Salento, the viewing platform, at the eastern end of Carrera #4.
From the Mirador at the end of Carrera 4 you have a grand view….
Watching the sun rise and the world waking up over the mountains and hills….there is not a more majestic way of welcoming the new day!
….of the sunrise….
….and Salento town.
Best place to sleep:
Accommodations in Salento are mostly hostels, but there are also few hotels as well as fincas in secluded places in the coffee mountains. Since we were there for only two days and used public transportation, we preferred to stay close to the center.
Our boutique style hotel Salento Real Eja Cafetero was close to the main street yet in a quiet neighborhood.
Cozy, rustic rooms arranged around a patio – with a good breakfast included.
Every restaurant offers trout – at the same price and the menus printed on identical paper were only the restaurant’s name differs.
However, I’d like to recommend to restaurants: The first one is El Tejadito De Salento, located on Carrera 6 #32. The portions are generous, the staff is friendly’n’fun, and the views just amazing.
In Salento, food is synonymous to trout. At every restaurant you can order about five types of preparation; there are even trout burgers.
This one here is “trucha dorada” with “patacon gigante”, a giant chip made of green plantain.
The other one is El Rincón de Lucy, also located on Carrera 6, #32 at the corner with Calle 5. They have a rather limited menu – about two main courses per day, but these are truly a bargain since you get a starter and even a house drink with it.
And if you’re not very hungry, just grab one of the Arepas the lady is preparing freshly right on the street.
They are small tortillas with some fixings like e.g. aromatic cheese.
Do you want to read about all the other beautiful places I’ve visited in Colombia?
The Parque Tayrona – what can I say: Enchanted trails in a lush jungle. Exotic birds, bizarre critters, huge butterflies in bright colors, and curious monkeys. Halfmoon bays with turquoise waters.
Sneak peek from the jungle trail at the ocean.
To get a foretaste of paradise, just take the local bus to El Zaino, the main entrance to this protected garden Eden on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.
The park is a protected area on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. There are various ways of visiting – and visiting you should definitely do.
Taganga, a dull. suburb-ish town about 10 minutes from Santa Marta, is actually already the Parque’s southernmost point. This gives you an idea how close you already are once you reach lovely Santa Marta.
Taganga – basically a dumpster, but a good stop for reaching Parque Tayrona by boat.
There is a public bus leaving the stop next to the Central Market on Calle 10 with Carrera 9 where any cab takes you for as little as US$1,50. From here, there goes a local public bus towards La Guajira. You can just tell the driver where you want to get off – we went to the main entrance El Zaino in Cañaveral, but if you are more adventurous, it’s also possible to enter the park at Calabazo.
As we planned on going further east to Palomino the following day, we booked a hotel next to the main entrance to spend the night. It also came in handy since we where able to leave everything we didn’t need for the visit to our room; later, you’ll understand why this is a big advantage.
There are also accommodations at the park, but they are either quite rustic – like hammocks, tents, beds without real walls – or pretty expensive; whereby the open air beds are quite costly, too. On the other hand, if you spend the night at the park, you have to pay the entrance fee of about 15 $ only once; so you need to do the math yourself according to your interest.
It’s important that you have your documents with you, i. e. an ID or, even better, your passport. Yellow fever vaccine is not indispensable but recommended.
Like an enchanted forest: Not every creature makes itself visible. We also heard something gallop in the underwood – no clue what it was.
Don’t forget to use sun protection and take more with you. Repellent is optional – probably recommended if you spend the night.
Good sneakers or preferably hiking shoes are crucial – this is a national park, a jungle, not an English garden.
Clothing should be sensible and hardwearing and fast-drying.
At least for the first two hours, you should have enough drinking water with you. Again, although this is not an expedition, the climate makes a visit really demanding.
We visited the park only for one day, but to make the most of your visit, I would recommend at least two or three.
It’s starting harmless on a straight trail of wooden planks. What’s the big deal?! But soon, you’ll start to climb up and down quite steep stairs and dirt trails.
This is how they suck you in: The first part is an even wooden walkway.
You are hiking through a really impressive jungle with some rough and mountainous parts to secluded, unspoiled beaches which is very nice, but in the heat and humidity exhausting. The variety of the flora and fauna is amazing – some of this biodiversity is even endemic to this region.
Hiking from bay to bay.
Coming from El Zaino, the first beach, Playa Cañaveral, looks very inviting – especially after the exhausting hike, but do yourself a favor and take the warning serious: The waves and the undercurrent here are really dangerous. Just clench your teeth and postpone your dip till you reach the following bays – you’ll enjoy it so much!
I can see ¡the beach!
As always, the way back seemed much easier – also because it was later in the day hence cooler.
One might think that at night you’d have the chance to get a better look at the wildlife; thus while we hiked back, loud Salsa and Reggaeton was blaring from the campground, so I’m not sure in how far that actually attracts wildlife.
Like I said, you can also enter the park at Calabazo. Then, you’ll have to walk much longer to reach the beaches, but you hike the hills covered by a lush rainforest. It’s nice, but really hard – with a capital H.
The easiest way, however, is to come by boat from Taganga: You hop on a boat and after about 40 minutes, they drop you off on one of the beaches. However, you still have to buy an entrance ticket.
Behind all the green is some amazing blue.
Best place to sleep:
The Recuerdos del Tayrona guest house is about three minutes walk from the El Zaino entrance. The rooms are rather simple and rustic, but clean and the owners are super-friendly and welcoming. It’s a great place to leave everything you do not urgently need for your visit to the Parque.
Santa Marta is a spectacularly unspectacular place, perfect to those who don’t suffer from FOMO but are very well able to observe and enjoy the small things of truly Colombian life.
Good morning, Santa Marta! The coffee lady is pushing her cart on Calle 19; who needs Starbucks, anyways?!
In Colombia, people were incredibly nice everywhere. But in a small town like Santa Marta, you can take a closer look – and as you take this close look, you spot all these invisible threads that are connecting these people and hold them together – and that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Getting from Cartagena to Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Parque Tayrona by the marsol bus company is a very good option because it’s a convenient door to door service.
As I already stated in the Cartagena-chapter, it is not worth it to walk all the way to the marsol station to save one or two bucks. Just get them downtown at one of the travel agents.
Leaving Santa Marta
We came to Santa Marta for various reasons. First of all, I wanted to spend more time in a beach destination. Well, Santa Marta has a city beach, but it’s really not great – and located irritatingly close to the harbor.
But Santa Marta is a gateway to the beach in Rodadero and that’s pretty nice.
You can get there in 20 minutes by cab or bus and have a truly pleasant vacation-experience.
The beach of Rodadero….
….where the hawkers make sure that you look good in a Bikini.
Then, hiking tours to the mystic Ciudad Perdida hidden somewhere deep in the Sierra Nevada start at Santa Marta. And the city is also a hub to other fantastic places along the Caribbean coast – just 45 minutes from Minca, an hour from Parque Tayrona, and two hours from Palomino – all reachable by local buses.
You get to Taganga in about ten minutes. From there, you can access the Parque Tayrona in about 40 minutes by boat. Don’t even bother to take the boat from Taganga to the next bay, the Playa Grande: That is literally the worst beach I had to suffer on.
That was the other reason why we picked Santa Marta as our alternative Caribbean destination after Cartagena.
Staying at Santa Marta
The other day at a party, I overheard a girl saying: “You know, when travelling, I also enjoy just being at a place”.
I’ve found that quite eye-opening: Just being. No racing through cute alleys full of historic buildings, no waiting in line at museums, no pushing on boats and squeezing in vans – just being at a place.
And being is what you can do all day long in places like Santa Marta; in places with a good locals-traveller-ratio: Some foreigners so that people don’t stare at you with their mouth open as if the circus got into town. But few enough so that life goes on undisturbed by their presence.
Two locals vs. one traveller – desirable ratio.
That gives you the chance to blend in as an alien. And when you’re respectful and well-behaved, you might even befriend people, and that’s very enriching. I travel to meet, greet and learn.
Yes, if you insist, you can visit some landmarks such as the Tairona Gold Museum. Or La Quinta de Bolívar, the house where the Venezuela-born freedom fighter used to live, located just a stone throw away from the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the place where this South American hero died at only 47 from tuberculosis. Finally, there is also the Museo Bolivariano de Arte Contemporáneo, the Museum of Contemporary Art in the vicinity. These places are about five miles from the center, in Santa Marta’s eastern outskirts, close to the Universidad del Magdalena.
Look: Real Colombians running errands.
But actually, this is not what Santa Marta is all about. It’s about the unspectacular yet pretty side streets. It’s about the lovely squares where you won’t awe at impressive statues, but observe how Colombians pursue their daily tasks or meet up after the day’s work is done. It’s about strolling along the promenade or checking out the big shopping streets. ¡Es la vida!
Carrera 3 by day…
…and by night.
Nonetheless, there is a small neighborhood that could be called hip and trendy: It’s the Carrera 3. Here, you’ll find stylish restaurants and bars designed mainly for visitors and young local crowds from the University nearby. Also, some of Santa Marta’s coolest street art can be admired in this area.
Making advertisements for the local bars and restaurants into street art….
…and transforming the next corner into an open-air gallery.
Actually, it’s a good place in particular if you are longing for some fresh, healthy – and meat-free – food: All the restaurants have at least a couple of valid vegetarian or even vegan choices and prepare wonderful juices, shakes, and smoothies from fresh fruits.
At night, this street is a bit more animated than the bars around the Parque de los Novios.
The restaurant and bar scene around the Parque de los Novios is less trendy than those along Carrera 3 – however, very pleasant.
Best place to sleep:
Staying somewhere around the Parque de los Novios is your best option – you reach every point of interest within minutes. And even if not, there are cabs waiting in front of the big supermarket ‘Éxito’ on Carrera 5 that bring you where you wanna go for a couple of pesos.
We stayed at the rather quirky Hotel del Parque which is rather a guest house. The owner was shockingly unprofessional but very kind. However, they don’t offer it on hotel sites anymore – and I do understand why.
Best place to eat:
First the healthy part…
….followed by the yummy part of breakfast served at Lulo.
Like I mentioned above, many of the restaurants on Carrera 3 are catering to the health-conscious crowd by serving light, fresh snacks. The café and bar Lulo is the personable one – due to the service and since it’s not pretentious at all. They have a variety of fantastic breakfast options with lots of vegetarian alternatives. Refreshing natural fruit juices and smoothies full of vitamins and excellent coffee. In comparison to traditional Colombian restaurants, they are not exactly cheap, but you actually get what you pay for: Good food.
Another day, the same bus – we were going from the El Zaino entrance of the Parque Tayrona to Palomino.
Take me to the river.
The former fishermen’s village Palomino is located about 50 km further east so that the bus takes you there in about an hour. The is sort of booming; because it has one of Colombia’s nicest beaches and a river with a major fun factor.
Palomino is a slightly shabby village between a road and a nice stretch of beach, home to about 4,000 people and frequented mainly by the hippie-ish backpacker crowd. Thus there are many, many hostels – and if this is still too bourgeois for you, you can rent only a hammock for a handful of dollars.
Colombian “Natty Dreadlocks” selling jewelry on the beach.
You can hear the late Bob Marley at every corner. Rasta culture rules. It’s amazing how the relatively small island of Jamaica enriched hippiebackpackertourism all over the world.
So anyway, we didn’t come here to listen to the Rivers of Babylon, we came here to float down river Palomino. Although the village is mainly a beach location, it is at the same time on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Colombia, world’s highest coastal peak. Therefore, there is not only the ocean, there is also a river.
The good people of Palomino found a way to turn this river into a stream of gold: They offer floating down in lorry tires – great fun for young and old.
Everybody seems to be in the tubing business, there is a pile of lorry inner tubes in front of basically every house.
For a couple of pesos the owner hands you a tube and hires a young man on a motorbike for you and off you go.
It’s not very handy to carry a huge tube while riding a bike. Therefore they invented the technique of sliding the tube over both riders.
Safety first: What an airbag!
You get into the river somewhere in the jungle, the bike gets you there approximately halfway, then you have to walk for about half an hour on a very narrow and very steep mud trail.
Carrying the tire through the rainforest.
Once you get to the river shore, you make yourself comfortable in the tube, you wiggle and giggle and shriek – that’s not the official part of the program, but everybody does – and off you float.
Hang in there! Floating down rio Palomino
It’s great fun, but don’t think that you can just hang in there and let the mighty river do all the work! If you do that, you end up against rocks and in the bushes. There were co-tubers floating from bush to bush, but that’s only fun for others, and while the water has a suspicious appearance, at the shores it’s plain disgusting. I know that because I got there twice.
So what you have to do is to observe the course of the river and the rapids and navigate with your arms as quick and frantic as you can.
But there are also long smooth parts where you can relax and appreciate the mighty jungle with its numberless species of majestic trees. You can watch colorful birds sitting on branches above your head, from time to time diving to get something out of the water; which means there is something in the water, that’s attractive to birds. My butt is hanging in this water…
Anyway, it’s so beautiful and relaxing.
If you worry about safety: The danger, that you capsize because your bottom touches ground is in many parts bigger than drowning.
After approximately two hours – depending on your navigation skills – the fun is over and you reach the beach, i. e. a sandbank separating the river from the ocean.
The tubing was wet, the ocean is wild.
There you can just leave the tire and jump into the crashing waves that are rather for surfers than for swimmers.
However, the beach of Palomino was my favorite in Colombia so spending at least two days here is absolutely worth it.
Places to sleep and places to eat:
Along the main dust street stretching about one mile from the principal road Troncal del Caribe to the beach are many guesthouses, cabanas, hostels, and nicer hotels to choose from.
Many of them have an adjacent restaurant and since it’s a bit hippie-ish, it’s easy to get vegetarian or even vegan food here.
Important to know:
There is no bank or ATM in Palomino. Best you bring enough pesos for your stay. You can also change US Dollars at some of the guest houses and restaurants, but you’ll probably get a worse exchange rate; which shouldn’t be that dramatic since you probably won’t need to change large amounts.
Do you want to read about all the other beautiful places I’ve visited in Colombia?
Then go to the main post and take your pick! If you choose to pin this post, please use these pictures:
Colombia’s capital is the most energetic, artistic, and trendy Latin American city I’ve ever visited.
All the ingenious and powerful murales, colorful graffitis, are one of Bogotá’s strongest suit.
It was the more alternative neighborhood around the historic Candelaria district with many small specialty shops, cafés, restaurants, and bars serving a wide variety of organic food and drinks that took me by a storm. All these places are decorated with such an impressive creativity – which seems to be Bogotá’s strongest suit, anyway.
Yes, Bogotá, being home to about 8 million people, is a big, intimidating metropolis. But since there are only certain districts really interesting for the common visitor – sorry, I know you are very special and I am, too, but if we’re not looking for a job and to settle down, we are common visitors and might want to stay only in certain areas; to make things easy, I’ve listed them below.
The TransMilenio – almost as fast as comfortable as a subway.
To get around, the TransMilenio, Bogotá’s rapid bus system, is a great option. For about 70 cents it takes you to almost every point of interest. Here is a system map, that, quite honestly, is rather designed to confuse than to inform, i. e. you just have to stick to the stops you’re looking for, don’t pay attention to the direction on the map – it’s not correct: When you are travelling on route A or B, you’re actually not going west as the map indicates, you are going north.
If you’re not sure, just ask local people, they are very friendly and helpful.
Callejon del Embudo – La Candelaria’s must-see street with nothing but art: On the walls, at the shops, on the sidewalks.
La Candelaria is Bogotá’s historic part of the city’s downtown area. It’s worth visiting for the colonial architecture of the old houses and churches, but mainly for the cool, vibrant, artistic atmosphere.
Although very artistic, these are not all art galleries.
The most impressive murals by the best artists can be found here – on buildings that are housing shops selling original, fun handicraft and bars serving organic food and juices from fresh fruits.
Rustic, natural, conscious – these are the keywords when it comes to interior design at the Candelaria district.
A short break at “Nativo Arte Natural” sampling their organic juices.
There are many hostels and boutique style hotels on the partly pretty steep alleys. Although everything looks very cozy’n’cute, they say that at night, you shouldn’t venture around by yourself. If you have to go out after dark, you should take a cab and ask the driver to wait till your host lets you in.
However, during the daytime, it’s certainly one of the best neighborhoods to explore.
Technically, the part west of Carrera 2 is still the Candelaria, but from here it gets less vibrant and trendy. However, we are approaching important, more classic-touristy landmarks.
Museum-goers are risking to lose complete track of time on Calle 10 and Calle 11: Here, practically every building is a museum such as the Natural Science Museum De La Salle, the city museum Museo de Bogotá, the Museo Literario – Archivo Histórico del Instituto Caro y Cuervo, and many more.
I mean, look at the sky over the Iglesia de la Candelaria, a Catholic church, built in 1686. So what better way to spend the day than at a fantastic museum?!
My absolute favorite one is the complex at Carrera 4 with Calle 11, the Museo del Banco de la Republica, actually housing various venues.
The old part of the museum complex – with the Sanctuary of Monserrate in the backdrop.
The most charming one, of course, is the Museo Botero showing many of his masterpieces, paintings as well as sculptures.
Whether sculptures or paintings, whether people or things – everything is unproportional when created by Fernando Botero.
Another part houses the Miguel Urrutia Art Museum MAMU where colonial art, as well as modern and contemporary Colombian and international art, can be admired.
Salvador Dalí Bust of a Woman
Beatrice Gonzales Decoración de Interiores. Gonzales is definitely one of Colombia’s most famous and internationally recognized female artists.
Print with a whimsy double meaning: Todo esta muy caro – everything is very expensive –
which is an appropriate hint at a bank building.
But since Caro is also the artist’s last name, it could also be read everything is very Caro.
The third part pays tribute to the investors, the Banco de la Republica, hence it’s called Museo Casa de Moneda and deals with means of payments such as coins etc.
Although you’ll probably spend a couple of hours at this venue, I cannot recommend it enough to those who enjoy grand art.
The museum is open from Wednesday to Monday from 9 a. m. to 7 p. m. (Sundays 10 a. m. to 5 p. m.) and entrance is free.
After visiting the museum, you can walk down Calle 11 to Bogotá’s main square which, of course, is named after Simon Bolíver like basically every main square in Latin America.
Here are all the major buildings such as the National Capitol, the Town Hall, and the Cathedral.
The Cathedral of Colombia, finished in 1823, and a bunch of school kids.
Walking one block South on Carrera 8, you’ll get to the Museo Santa Clara.
Santa Clara, built between 1629 and 1674, was Bogotá’s oldest church. Today, the richly decorated, entirely covered by paintings and sculptures building is a museum.
Walking further towards Calle 7, you can visit more old colonial sites such as the San Agustín Cloister. Next to it is the Casa de Nariño complex, the Colombian president’s official home, and principal workplace.
Taking care of the president: Two guardian angels disguised as Prussians with kaiser helmets.
Next to it is the Archaeological Museum Arqueológico Casa del Marqués de San Jorge and the Santuario Nuestra Señora del Carmen, a funnily striped church from 1938.
However, if you walk back to the Plaza de Bolívar and keep on walking, you’ll get to another old, baroque house of worship, the Iglesia de San Francisco, located across from Bogotá’s – and maybe even the country’s – most famous museum, the gold museum Museo del Oro.
In an austere building, probably the world’s best collection of pre-Columbian gold, ceramics, and stones can be admired.
Incredibly elaborated jewelry – just look at these earpieces – ouch!
I love this little comic book king.
Besides their permanent collection, they also present temporary exhibitions of Latin American traditional art.
Not as precious as gold, but almost as beautiful: Traditional Mola embroideries from Panamá.
Of course, you can buy some replicas of the jewelry collection at the gift store along with some other high-class Colombian handicraft. However, you’ll get very good quality at far better prices at the covered market across from the museum on Calle 16.
Museo del Oro
Carrera 6 #15-88
Phone: + 57 – 1 – 343 22 22
The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 9 a. m. to 6 p. m. and Sundays 10 a. m. to 4 p. m.
The market is open every day from 9 a. m. to 7 p. m.
If you can’t get enough of bling-bling: Next to the market is the Emerald Museum.
The Carrera 7, called La Septima, is Bogotá’s main shopping street – here you find all sort of stores and stands and stalls where you can buy literally everything. Small, unpretentious restaurants and cafés are serving good local food.
At the end of La Septima, right in front of the Parque de la Independencia, you can turn right into Calle 24 and pay a venue introducing contemporary art a visit: The Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá MAMBO.
Already at the entrance, the visitor is greeted by art: Installation by Medellín-born artist Ricardo Cárdenas.
However, I recommend that you check what’s on before you go since they don’t have a permanent collection on display.
The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a. m. to 6 p. m. and Sundays noon to 5 p. m.
Entrance to the Callejon del Embudo = Entrance to an artistic El Dorado.
One of the best things we did in Bogotá was the Graffiti Walking Tour, a free guided walk, based on tips.
Amazing art in vibrant colors on house walls…..
Bogotá has a very active street art scene of many tremendously talented artists. To get a good insight into the history, development, philosophy, and political background, the free graffiti tour is highly recommendable.
….fences – like here by one of my favorite artists Juegasiempre; by the way an art teacher ‘in real life’.
The Wayuu Indio women ab Carlos Trilleros – probably Bogotá’s most famous mural.
“J”, born in Colombia, raised in New York City and Miami, now back to his roots, guides tourist groups through the “barrio” and points out every detail in a very knowledgeable and passionate way.
Carlos Trilleras at his stand at the Mercado de Pulgas. Can there be a more original and individual souvenir?!
Don’t want to leave without your own piece of art? Great souvenirs from Bogotá are T-Shirts designed by local artists such as Carlos Trilleras that are sold for instance at the shop decorated by his Wayuu Indio in the callejón del Embudo or on Sundays at his stand #302 at Mercado de Pulgas San Alejos next to Torre Colpatria at the end of La Septima around the corner from the MAMBO.
The Zona Rosa and all the other northern neighborhood stretching all the way up to Parque 93 are a good place if you are longing for the more global feel. If you want the standard store chains and restaurants you know from home – here they are in abundance. I don’t say that it’s a bad thing, it only doesn’t make sense to me to fly for about 12 hours to buy a T-shirt at Mango and have coffee at Starbucks; nota bene in Colombia. Anyway, there is a vivid, modern, up-scale scene around here.
Even further north – a bit more towards the east – is Usaquén, a municipality that became a suburb of Bogotá in 1954.
Today it is an upper-middle-class neighborhood. However, the main square, Parque de Usaquén, and the adjacent streets and alleys are a popular neighborhood for trendy pub crawls.
The weekly Mercado de Las Pulgas, the flea market, is popular with locals and visitors alike.
Best place to sleep:
If you stay at the Candelaria, you are close to all the places of interest. The hotels and hostels here are smaller, very familial and cozy.
The purple house is Hotel Casa Guadalupe – in the very heart of the Candelaria neighborhood. I felt very safe there – the only thing I was afraid of was to break my neck on the steep cobblestone street.
The people at Hotel Casa Guadalupe are very friendly and get out of their way to make you feel comfortable. They also arrange an airport shuttle for you at a great price.
Cartagena is Colombia’s most touristy destination. No wonder, they have a Caribbean beach and a walled old town that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The bell tower – la puerta del reloj – which is probably the most popular gate to the historic old town.
But to me, this blessing is rather a curse: It’s the most touristy place I’ve visited in Colombia and it has nothing really unique.
You might know by now that I’m rather into hidden jewels, raw diamonds that do not hypnotize but impress in a calm, self-confident way.
Well, Cartagena’s walled Old Town, founded in the 16th century, is certainly very cute and deems Colombian….if you’ve seen only this city and its beaches. In this case, you will adore the lovely squares, cobblestone streets, and colorful colonial buildings at Colombia’s fifth-largest city.
Plaza de los Estudiantes in front of the elegant restaurant Alma.
And indeed, they are well-maintained – just like any other World Heritage Site is since otherwise, they would lose this status and all the privileges coming with it. Since maintanance of the old buildings must be quite costly, the shops and restaurants they are housing are stocked to the wealthy tourists’ taste and ridiculously expensive.
The main square, Plaza de los Coches. This is where in the Colonial days they parked their carriages.
Every shop is cute – but also quite overpriced within the walled old city of Cartagena.
The city beach on Cartegena’s beach-peninsula Bocagrande is ok. A little like many beaches in the US, i. e. in front of sky-high hotel- and condo-buildings.
Rooms are overpriced: you get half of the other places’ standard, but you easily pay double or even triple. Trips to Isla del Rosario, Isla Barú etc. are sold at every corner and are often a rip-off, i. e. they promise you the world, show you intriguing pictures of deserted beaches – I don’t know where and when they took them; certainly not on the beaches we’ve seen.
Playa Blanca / Isla Barú
After being a bit disappointed with Cartagena’s city beaches, I thought a trip to the celebrated Playa Blanca on the Isla de Barú would appease me.
Well, if you’re looking for a secluded beach, Playa Blanca is not what you are looking for.
We arrived at Playa Blanca via our shuttle bus about an hour before the first speedboats of tourists did. Crossing from the parking lot to the beach was a shock: Puddles of reddish-brown liquids flanked the path, covered with styrofoam containers and plastic bags.
However, once we reached the beach, we were offered beach chairs at each and every restaurant. Already at this early hour, the beach is far from being empty: It’s packed with all sort of businesses like bars, shops, and jet ski rentals. Latter must be a gold mine since the entire time that we spent on this stretch of sand – in front of the wooden Police Station since that was the only spot where we didn’t have to rent a beach chair – we were inhaling the fumes from the ocean. Come to think of it, I believe it would have been healthier stretching out next to a freeway.
From our spot in front of the Police Station, I can only recommend you watch your stuff on the beach – albeit the biggest issues Playa Blanca’s sub-department of the Policia Metropolitana had to solve were fights between the local hawkers.
Where is Martin Parr when you need him?
So anyways, if you are into very, very crowded beaches, pushy beach sellers, oceans covered with clouds of gasoline from all sorts of boat motors, if you don’t mind getting your head shaved off by jet skis while trying to swim in large crowds, then this is the perfect place for you.
After Cartagena, I needed someplace more real, much more Colombian. We decided on Santa Marta, located likewise on the Caribbean coast – about four hours further east.
To buy a ticket from Cartagena to Santa Marta we walked in the heat and heavily whirled up sand to the marsol station to buy the tickets at about 16 $, and downtown we could have bought them from a travel agent for like 17,50 $ – so don’t bother to walk against the sandstorm, get them in town.
Best place to sleep:
Actually, I cannot really recommend you an accommodation – mainly since I don’t know what’s your focus when visiting Cartagena: Do you want to hang out on the beach? Do you want to explore the Islas del Rosário? Are you mainly interested in the famous old town?Whatever you choose, you can still do everything since there are local buses and relatively cheap cabs bring you to all places of interest. You just have to pick what you’d like to have in your vecinity.
I’m afraid I didn’t make Cartagena sound like the greatest place ever; well, to me, it wasn’t. Very pleasant, though, were our daily dinners at San Valentin, serving a lighter version of Colombian cuisine, lots of good seafood – as well as excellent cocktails at happy hour – from 7 p. m. to 10 p. m. two for one. However, it wouldn’t hurt to turn the aircon down a bit – or you pack a warm jacket for the evening.
During the difficult years end of last century, Medellín was Colombia’s most infamous city – inseparably tied to the name Pablo Escobar and his drug cartel.
The unshapely people and things created by Colombian superstar Fernando Botero make parts of Medellín an outdoor museum.
Escobar was shot and killed by the Colombian National Police already in 1993, but like all the rest of this beautiful country, since then, Colombia progressed a lot; sadly, without the world taking notice.
I wish my post will change that at least a bit.
Medellín, being Colombia’s second largest city, obviously has an international airport.
However, we took a direct bus from Salento to Medellín which cost a bit more than the local buses, but is much faster and especially with the luggage more comfortable than venturing via Armenia or Pereira.
City Tour of Medellín
There are two main highlights in Medellín not to be missed: For one, the Museo de Antioquia – housing i. a. a vast collection of Fernando Botero’s paintings and sculptures – as well as the adjacent Parque Botero with many of his voluptuous statues.
Fernando Botero La Muerte de Pablo Escobar. As a matter of fact, to many Colombians, Escobar was some sort of Robin Hood since he actually took care of things in regions that let him rule.
While a visit to the square is, obviously, free of charge, to visit the Museum, you need to buy a ticket, but it’s worth every peso.
Everything gets out of shape in Botero’s hands.
You not only get to see their permanent collection that includes many huge, fantastic Boteros as well as paintings and sculptures he donated from his private collection including works by Wilfredo Lam, Frank Stella, Alex Katz, and many more.
Paintbrushes -that’s what it takes.
Fernando Botero donated Armand Fernández’ Expansión Sinfónica – Concert Expansion.
There are also multiple temporary exhibitions – each and every one just sublime.
The one that impressed me most is by Colombian photographer Erika Diettes: As a reference to the suffering of her people, she created at the Museo de Antioquia her Relicarios.
Erika Diettes “Relicarios”
From 2011 to 2015, the artist visited families all over Colombia who are mourning their disappeared loved ones, listened to their stories and got a ‘relict’ that once belonged to the victims. Some relatives even travelled from secluded places just to hand Diettes the treasured objects. Sealing these ‘tokens’ individually in cubes of rubber terpolymer, Erika Diettes arranged these ‘gravestones’ into a graveyard of remembrance.
Walking through this cemetery, you are looking at random pieces – and they are telling you a story; a very sad one.
Thank you, Fernando, for giving me the honor to be “Pedrito” for a couple of minutes.
However, this exhibition was temporary – check their very informative website to see what’s one right now and plan your visit accordingly.
Part of the permanent collection is also a room for the children and the childish: You can put on a uniform and incarnate Botero’s painting Pedrito that shows the artist’s son who tragically passed away at the age of four;
why does everything have to have a depressing twist to it in this city?!
The other must-do activity should a guided tour by Real City Tours where local guides tell you a lot about what’s going on behind closed doors.
Sometimes even individualists might cherish the warmth of belonging to the herd.
Also, Medellín is developing and even was awarded for its progress, the vibe in the city center is not as relaxed as in Bogotá.
Medellín’s center is dirtier, poorer, more aggressive, a bit lost. Many homeless people and small groups of pathetic prostitutes lingering around churches. Godforsaken places – called Parques, definitely not being parks.
Enjoying a well-deserved ice cream while serving and protecting at the Plazuela Nutibara.
Everybody knows Medellín’s rough, violent past. Many of these lost souls had to flee from their little piece of land on the countryside, threaten, scared or chased away by one of the fighting forces, either the paramilitary right, the left wing guerilla or a drug cartel.
Eventually, they got stranded in the city.
Life is what happens in Medellín between Iglesia de la Veracruz, fruit carts, and office buildings.
This I’ve learned from Juan, our guide at Real Walking Tour Medellín who guides groups through downtown, pointing out special places and narrating the country’s, the city’s, and the people’s history and stories; and it’s only thanks to his energetic and entertaining attitude that after following him and his anecdotes for almost four hours, you’re not too depressed. Because when you get to the root of it, all of them are more or less atrocious and depressing. Like the one of the two Botero-birds on Plaza San Antonio, one of Medellín’s most dismal places:
During a rock concert in 1995, someone placed a backpack with a bomb in Botero’s bird statue, and it killed 25 people including a pregnant woman and a 7 years old girl. Until this day nobody knows officially which group is responsible for this barbaric act. It was the very Fernando Botero who forbid the mayor of Medellin to clean the ruins of his work. Now there is a plaque with the victims’ names, and Botero donated a second bird that symbolizes peace and hope for the new Medellín.
Fernando Botero “El Pajaro” and “El Pajaro de la Paz”
So I honestly recommend this tour, you’ll get a whole different and much more complete perspective on Medellín than walking around by yourself.
Day trip to Guatapé
Besides exploring a bit of the city, it’s also worth it to see the famous Guatapé, known for breathtaking views from the 200-meter high rock, that you have to climb over a couple of stairs, and of course the colorfully elaborated facades of the houses at the town of Guatapé.
Interestingly, on arrival in Medellín, we were greeted by a thunderstorm, so we stuck to the planned tour to Guatapé, but instead, of doing it individually by public bus, we joined an organized day trip. For US$ 28 per person including refreshments it was worth every cent, especially since we got to see far more places than we had seen going by ourselves.
Therefore I’d recommend it even if the weather is better.
The whole trip is nice and interesting, but also a bit bizarre since you are visiting places that technically do not exist anymore and were – at least partly – reconstructed…I don’t know, it is a bit Disney World-ish, but anyway, here are the places we go to see:
El Nuevo Peñol and El Templo Roca
Accomplishing the very ambitious project of filling up the reservoir of Guatapé transforming it into a large catchment lake, the old town of El Peñol was completely flooded; and reconstructed 1.5 miles west. Only that architecturally and sociologically, it has very little to do with its predecessor.
The most prominent landmark here is the church El Templo Roca, a house of worship hewn in stone.
Palm Sunday at El Nuevo Peñol.
Parque Temático Viejo Peñol
Parque Temático – like I said: a little bit of Disney World.
Founded in 1714, this municipality used to live from agriculture, but slowly changed to tourism and river fishing. Until in the late 1970s, it was simply washed away.
The replica of the Peñol’s church – practically the counterpart to Cinderella’s castle at Disney.
What you see today, is a small replica of the vanished town – since the Nuevo Peñol looks nothing like this and lost all the colonial charm.
Lago de Guatapé
So the whole tour includes also a boat ride on the Lago Guatapé. Today, wealthy Colombians have some amazing holiday homes around the lake – and so did Mr. Pablo Escobar.
Pablo Escobar’s former residence – pretty run down.
You can spot the remains of his former mansion from the cruise.
El Peñón de Guatapé aka Stone of El Peñol
The main reason for doing this tour was the view from La Piedra, the Rock. Some call it El Peñón de Guatapé – that would be the people of Guatapé – other call it Stone of El Peñol; guess where those are from.
It might have been a bit less exhausting climbing the steps in liquid sunshine.
After climbing about 700 steps – the figures differ and I did not count while climbing – you have a great view of the picturesque composition of numberless islands.
Lunch with a view: Some refreshments before climbing the rock.
I’m sorry, guys, I took my pictures when there were dark grey clouds and shitty light so they look nothing like the ones I saw on the internet. Please be so kind as to google them from others if you want pretty; or look at mine if you go for a rather melancholic version.
On the one hand, the construction of the dam on Lago Guatapé, the region became one of the country’s most important electric production centers. At the same time, they nourish and cherish the colonial and artistic appearance of towns to make them attractive for tourists; which works pretty well.
Guatapé was founded in 1811 by Don Francisco Giraldo y Jimenez and declared a municipality in 1867.
Since the early twentieth century, the sockets, the zócalos, have been sculptured and show scenes related to the town’s history.
A Zócalo depicting its father Jose María Parra Jiménez who started this unique artistic tradition in 1919.
Some are just adorned with beautiful decors like flowers, market scenes or the typical chicken buses. But all these images have one thing in common: They are fantastically painted in bold colors.
The church Nuestra Señora Del Carmen….
…and both together on a Zócalo.
Best place to sleep:
We stayed in the upper middle-class neighborhood San Joaquin – not on purpose but because the hotel sounded great – and it was. However, the Hotel El Portón de San Joaquin is not located in the center but three subway stops further west. It’s only one block from the Carrera 70, a very lively street packed with stores, restaurants, and bars.
The hotel has nice, very modern rooms and a rooftop sauna which is a great treat after a long day exploring. Also, booking the tour to Guatapé with them was far cheaper than what you find on the internet.
An opulent breakfast served in a very pleasant setting is included.
We were so lucky that our hotel was only two blocks from the fantastic organic grocery store Salud Pan that every day also offers five great menu options including vegetarian food: soup, main course, dessert, and a drink at incredible 5 to 6 US$, depending on your choice of the main course.
Cali, probably the hottest Salsa hotspots outside of Cuba, has tourism-wise not much more to offer than its nightlife.
Hernando Tejada’s El Gato del Rio. The cat park is one of Cali’s must-see places.
But before you leave again, don’t miss out on a visit to the truly enchanting haciendas El Paraíso and Piedechinche. These two farms were transformed into beautiful museums showing how life used to be for the privileged Latin American land barons. Living la vida telenovela.
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