Category Archives: Colombia

Colombia Myths and Truths

I thought I should put in an area for Colombia where I only talked about the myths and truths since one of the more frequent questions I get when telling people I’ve traveled there alone is “Isn’t it dangerous???”.

No, Colombia is just like every other country in the world I’ve been to so far as far as danger is concerned.  If you don’t go looking for danger, and you are at least semi-smart about your actions, there is no danger.  I know that in the past Colombia has had a pretty rough time with drug dealers and cartels, etc that made much of the country unsafe to travel through apparently, however that was quite a long time ago.  And as I’ve heard many others say, basically the drug dealers are now in the business of protecting tourists instead of making the country unsafe to travel through as they’ve apparently learned that tourists can be their clients too!  And it would certainly be bad business to scare them away!  Now, whether this is the actual case or not, who really knows.  I’m just sharing what I’ve heard others say as their opinion on why it’s now so safe to travel around Colombia.

Because of the rocky drug past Colombia has had, people I’ve talked to also seem to have a preconceived idea that everyone there too is somehow involved in drugs or are dealers or are dangerous.  This again is quite false.  Honestly I ran into more people on drugs throughout Costa Rica and Panama than I ever did in the more populated Colombia.  People there are quite nice, respectful and are just living normal life like others do.  I’m not saying no one there does drugs, just that it wasn’t in your face the way I too thought it would be before getting there and hearing the testimonies of others who had already been there.

What is becoming more popular in Colombia are the higher class scams.  All over the walls of each hostel I went to in Bogota at least, there were stories of scenarios to avoid.  What criminals were now into doing was watching for people in vulnerable positions and taking advantage.  It’s best I just describe a scenario:

Say you had to go into a bank for business.  When coming out of the bank, you could be approached by a professional looking person (dressed well, etc) claiming to work for the bank telling you that you forgot to fill out “X” form or sign “Y” form.  However, instead of taking you back into the bank (as it would make sense to do) they would say that it was only possible to finish the business at their other location… then they would basically take you around the corner, down an alley and rob you of all your possessions.  Why anyone would allow a “bank” employee to escort them anywhere other than back into the bank, I’m not sure…

Another scenario involved people claiming to be police officers.  They would be dressed in street clothes claiming to be undercover police and they would claim that you needed to come with them because you were found doing something wrong or there was a problem with “XYZ” somewhere.  Then they would walk you around the corner, down an alley and rob you.

Basically the best defense of any of these scenarios is #1 don’t follow strangers anywhere and #2 there were cops on the streets of Bogota literally everywhere.  They were always in pairs and in full police gear so if there was any doubt whatsoever in a conversation that a stranger had with you, simply walk toward the police to ask for whatever help and chances are if the person who approached you (false banker or false cop) isn’t legit, they would literally run away.

Enough said!

 

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Bogota

After yet another long and exhausting day on a bus (you’d think by now I would have just caved in and sought alternate transportation between cities!!  Then again I would have missed really seeing the countryside…) I arrived in Bogota.  If I thought Medellin was large, well it was quite small compared to Bogota!!  I had to take a 20 minute cab ride to an area of town that was somewhat central and more well known for having hostels in the area.

No, I once again didn’t book any hostel in advance, but rather was dropped off and walked around until I found something.  At least this time there was still light in the day left!  Anyway, I wandered up and down several streets in what was kinda the chic area of town it seemed, and settled on one hostel (Hostel Platypus if memory serves…) for the night.

“Funny” story here, my roommate for the night was an older woman, probably in her 40’s to 50’s who was from England, yet had apparently been living in Ecuador for the past 11 years… She was at the time just traveling around (I believe Venezuela was her next stop) but what I found particularly funny… Or rather quite disturbing really, is that she didn’t speak a lick of Spanish!!!  Not two words!!  AND she would even say “Hola” pronouncing the H!!!!!  She was also in a strange way oddly proud that she didn’t speak the language even though she lived in a Latin American Country!!!  I found this honestly quite disgusting, really.  In my opinion if you are going to live in another country that isn’t your original country, the least you can do is show some sort of respect to the new country by learning their language and something about their culture!  This applies to visitors too in my book, though I know it’s not so easy to try and pick up a language during a 2 week vacation…

Needless to say, knowing she was going to be staying in that same hostel for several nights, I checked out the next day and found somewhere new to sleep as I couldn’t tolerate such blatant ignorance and disrespect to another culture!!

I found a lovely hostel just a few blocks away called Hostal Casu.  Located above a restaurant on the corner of Carrera 3 and Calle 15A, Hostal Casu became my home for the next week.  I had a private room with a shared bathroom and negotiated a good price for each night since I was going to be staying for the week.  Again, the reason I had come to Bogota was to see my brother who happened to also be there around the same time.  Traveling down to see him however, with the changes in the weather and the bank account slowly draining, I made the decision to go back to the States so I could get a solid job, refill the coffers and head out again to travel.  So staying in Bogota a week really served 2 purposes.  First it gave me a week to see my brother and second I was flying out of Bogota back to Houston, and my flight was simply in a week.

The area of town that I was in I really liked.  It was nestled at the foothills of basically a national park, at the top of which was a lovely church.  The area had a young hip, artsy vibe to it that I really liked as well.  I felt safe there and have no complaints of the area… Except the weather!!  I know I keep saying this, and I know I’m a total wimp, but to me it was soooo cold day after day there!!!  Bogota is 8,660 feet(2,640 meters) above sea level so you would think I would have realized it would be cold, but again, since I rarely researched anything about where I was going and just preferred to figure things out once I got there, this aspect of Bogota was a shock to me.  And once again it was uninspiring!!  Though I did get out daily to walk for several hours to get in my exercise and to eat, that was about the extent of my drive to do anything!

Even going to see my brother turned out to be a total bust as he was apparently tied up with work things day after day of my being there, and we were only able to get together for an afternoon the night before he left the country himself.  We were to meet at the very opposite of Bogota from where I was, basically due North from where I was so as usual I opted to walk there, and after about 40 minutes and 70 or so blocks later with my little map in tow I found him at the eatery that we planned to meet at and we spent the evening wandering the area with one of his coworkers in tow.  We ate a lovely meal at one of the local restaurants and then parted ways.  I opted on the way back to take a cab as I was a wee bit too intoxicated by this point to try and walk my way back!  Plus, it was starting to get dark and it just wouldn’t have been a sound choice to try and walk back.

So all in all, my time in Bogota wasn’t terribly eventful, but it was quite relaxing and a nice place to try and transition going back to the States.  Before making the decision to go back to the States, I did wrestle with the idea of going back to the Caribbean coast of Columbia, like the Cartagena area, but the thought of traveling there by bus just jangled my bones in thinking of it!  And the flight would have been a bit out of my price range.  So I opted to stick with my plans of going back to the States.

Part of me is bummed that I didn’t go to Cartagena and even to Armenia since after all I was in the country already!  And honestly had I known that I would have only had an afternoon to get to see my brother, I would have gone to Cartagena first, then perhaps made my way to the Bogota area instead of rushing to Bogota to try and see him, but as they say everything happens for a reason and as it should.  And as I’ve already mentioned before, I plan on going back to Columbia to explore more of the country and less of the cities!  Though the actual physical riding in the bus from place to place was quite hard on the body (due to road conditions) the sights were unbeatable and absolutely beautiful!!  I loved the nature of the countryside’s and can’t wait to be able to see more!

 

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Manizales

Though not terribly far from Medellin, once again it took several hours winding in and out and up and down mountain range after mountain range to get to my next destination.  Manizales is itself situated on the top of a mountain and you either need a car, a cab or most popular, a tram to the town!  It was much smaller than Medellin but had a lot of character as well.  It was also quite a bit colder than Medellin…  I took the tram to the town and found a hostel again right on the main strip, though a little toward the end.  I was basically one of the only ones in the hostel leading me to think that that particular time of year was simply out of season.  The hostel was quite nice, so I couldn’t think of any other reason it would have been so slow.  Perhaps it was the cold that drove others away too;)

Two things I noticed specifically in Manizales: #1 the HUGE amount of candy, cake, bakery, sweet shops, and ice cream shops!!  Literally every other store had something to do with selling a sugar based treat to eat.  I’d never seen so many sweet shops in such a small amount of space.  And what stores, you may ask, were in between each of the sweet shops?  Well, that would be #2, the SHOE shops!!  Manizales would definitely be the dream place for any shoe enthusiast.  From boots to heels to stilettos, Manizales had every shoe possible and catered quite strongly to women.  The amazing thing to me was that the majority of women were wearing stiletto heels and walked the streets as if walking down the red carpet or a runway!!  I mean they worked it and made it look so natural and easy!  Now, I myself have been known to rock a heel shoe, but what made the Colombian women wearing stilettos so impressive is the quality of the roads!!  They were walking in stilettos as if the roads and sidewalks were perfectly paved without a hint of a defect anywhere.  The reality however was far from this as the roads and side walks left quite a lot to be desired!  And many of the little roads were made of brick, so the spaces in between each brick…. I’ve no idea how they didn’t break their ankles on a regular basis!

Anyway, I stayed in Manizales for only a couple of days.  And honestly, because of the weather mainly (I’m seriously a wimp in cold weather) I was just uninspired to do anything!  Not to say there wasn’t anything to do in Manizales, but the cold just made me want to curl up with a blanket and a little fire.  Plus, I was still trying to make sure that I got to Bogota in plenty of time to see my brother, so that too cut my time there to just a few days.

View from Hostel Rooftop_4

Had I had more time to explore that are however, I would have absolutely (and I do plan to still check this area out) gone to the coffee region of Colombia, one of the more famous spots: Armenia.  I’ve heard a lot about this area from fellow travelers and from some who are from the area and have heard of nothing but fabulous reviews.  Perhaps once I get there I will have found a spot in Colombia with awesome coffee and where they drink it not only at breakfast;)  Seriously, it was shocking to me how unimpressed I was by coffee in the areas I did travel of Colombia.  It was as if they saved the best coffee to be exported elsewhere or something, lol!!

 

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Medellin Activities & Pictures

Medellin is a proper, fairly large city situated in the valley between two mountain ranges.  It is very picturesque despite the land being completely covered in homes and apartments.  It has a great energy to it, very young and vibrant and they have quite a few things to do there.  The temperature wasn’t quite what I had been used to… Now you have to bear in mind that until now I had been used to and living in tropical, Caribbean temperatures so anything less than 78 Fahrenheit (about 25.6 Celsius)  I considered COLD!!

I stayed in Medellin for several days simply walking the streets, taking the tram up to the top of one side of the valley and going to their various museums, which included a science and natural history museum.  It was a big city like many others, which really doesn’t appeal to me in any huge way other than it being nice to have the conveniences of a big city.  But definitely worth a visit just to see the way the city is structured!

I have to admit really that after the craziness of actually getting there and getting settled there, every other day spent there was quite dull in comparison!  Sorry, no crazy stories of actually staying in Medellin!!  So to keep this post somewhat interesting, below at least are some pictures!  Several from the bus ride over, and several more of Medellin itself.  Some of the pictures taken from the tram seem foggy.  That’s due to the glass of the tram, not from any pollution from the city:)

 

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Medellin: The Arrival

I arrived after a day of traveling non-stop to the main bus terminal of Medellin (pronounced Med-eh-jean with a slight softness to the J) exhausted and ready for sleep.  Due to the poor road conditions, try as I may, there was just no way to get any sleep on that bus.  When we arrived it was already quite dark.  First thing to do… Find a hostel for the night!!!

I know, I know… one of my odd quirks about traveling is that I’m quite the procrastinator when it comes to actually booking anything ahead of time, including places to sleep!  While for the most part, it’s never actually a problem, on this particular night I was really kicking myself that I didn’t have a place already picked out!  But to give myself a teeny bit of credit, I really wasn’t expecting or planning for the trip there to be quite as long as it was to begin with.

In any event, luckily there was still an information booth open at the bus terminal, which by the way was quite large and modern.  It took up several stories in fact, and after stopping to get some cash at the ATM (since I’d spent more than I planned to on the way down, paying twice for a bus ticket and all) I went to the info center and looked through their book for hostels nearby.  I quickly found a couple and since the person at the info station said they weren’t far, I opted to walk…

It’s really quite a good thing that the reputation of Colombia isn’t at all what the reality is, since in my pursuit to find the hostels I was literally wandering around random neighborhoods in the dark by myself with very few others around except random people passing by and a few drunks…  Basically what I came to find out after wandering around was that the first hostel that I was trying to find was actually no longer where it was advertised to be.  Imagine that…. And funny quick story, at one point because I was so tired of walking in circles, trying to find the hostel that no longer existed, I went to a street that was pretty busy, hailed a cab, and when I showed him the address he said “no, no that’s just down the street, you can walk!” and refused to take me as a passenger!!  This was of course before I realized that the address was incorrect to begin with…

So there I was, randomly wandering the streets in some random area of Medellin, when I finally came across a guy that was dressed in some sort of security outfit.  He looked as if he was just getting off work so I flagged him down and asked if he knew of any hostels in the area.  Thank goodness he did!!!  And he was so happy to inform me that it was in walking distance… YAY… MORE walking!!!  I was overjoyed!  😉  But Thank Goodness he at least knew which direction to point me in.  Angels come in so many different forms:)  With his guidance I was able to finally find a hostel.  However… my night apparently wasn’t over yet as the hostel did not have ANY availability for the night!!  YAY!!!  (hopefully the sarcasm is coming through as I was SERIOUSLY done with this night!!!)

Thankfully again however, the hostel reception guy was able to contact a sister facility and they did have space available.  The only clincher was that once again, I had to walk there… At least during the time that he was calling the other hostel I was able to take off my pack for a few seconds and just chill.  Several minutes later though I was back “on the road” and walked about 20 minutes to the other hostel, which was conveniently located just a couple blocks back from the main street of Medellin!

After settling in the hostel, I joined the street for some food then passed out for some much needed rest!

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Travel from Capurgana to Medellin

Ugh!!!  This was probably the most irritating portion of my trip overall.  Hence why I’m even mentioning it… So others can avoid what I had to endure!!

So I chose the boat way out of Capurgana mainly because… well, I will admit it, I’m cheap!  When it comes to traveling, every “dollar” counts so between spending about $180 for a plane to Medellin or around maybe $50 for the boat and bus to Medellin, well, the boat and bus won out.  However, looking back perhaps I should have simply taken the dang plane!!

So it all began in the morning.  My bag was packed and I had to purchase a ticket for the boat out.  I opted for the first boat out so I could have the day traveling (thank goodness I chose this!!!) Tickets could not be purchased much in advance, so I recall just being able to do so the morning of.  I got on the boat (after having my bag weighed in case it was too heavy to ride, or an extra charge would be added) with dozens of other people.  I was in the very front of the motor boat and had to endure several splashes of water hitting my face for the hour it took to get to Turbo.

Honestly the ride wasn’t THAT bad… just interesting… We arrived in Turbo, and let me tell you it’s absolutely NOT the kind of place that anyone would want to spend any sort of real time… It literally is just a pass on through town; a place where people are shipped in and out of… that’s it!  The water was dirty and oil slicked, the town was dumpy and very busy.  Just not at all like the lovely village I had just come from.

Anyway, I hoped off the motor boat and had to catch a bus to Medellin.  However, no buses actually came into the dock area of Turbo.  So I then had to hop on the back of a dirt bike/motorcycle (with my 72 liter backpack and all), hold on for dear life and get zoomed in and out of various streets until we were literally heading out of town and then dropped off on the side of the road to an unmarked area where the bus would eventually show… I would seriously have been panicking a bit more than I was  (at least in my head… I was trying to stay cool on the exterior) had it not been for a couple of other random people also standing on the side of the road waiting for the bus.

Now, perhaps it’s a good time to mention that from the start of arriving in Turbo I had what I guess you could call a travel coordinator.  This was a guy who simply asked people who arrived on the boat where they wanted to go and arranged for them to be taken there in a very loose way.  This is how I knew to get on the motorcycle and be transferred to the bus… Now when the bus actually arrived (YAY, I wasn’t being mis-lead!!) the “travel coordinator” also showed up.  I got on the bus and he followed me on saying that I needed to pay for the bus ticket… or so I thought… I understood that what I was paying was for the bus ticket, however it wasn’t.  It was apparently for his “services” in organizing everything.  So I paid him thinking it was the bus ticket, and to boot paid him too much because my brain was frazzled from the activity and couldn’t do math correctly at the time, and thought that was the end of it.  He of course got off the bus before we parted…

So then there I was on the bus to Medellin, when about a half hour later we pulled into a bus terminal… The bus driver at this point announced that those who were just joining the bus had to buy their tickets now.

Hold on a sec… buy my tickets NOW????  I’ve been on the bus for half an hour… and I’ve already paid that other guy (though stupidly I didn’t think that it was odd at the time that I wasn’t given a bus ticket in return for the money since I thought that guy worked for the bus company… stupid!!).  So…. Yea, I tried to explain to the driver that I had already bought a ticket, but with no proof I was sorta SOL… So I sucked it up and just bought another, or rather an ACTUAL bus ticket from inside the terminal for Medellin.

So, for those going to Columbia: if you get on a bus from a bus stop and NOT from the terminal, either make sure you already have your proper ticket, or be prepared to buy your ticket once at the terminal, and NOT from random people!

Aside from this annoying hiccup, the trip to Medellin was, again I’m not going to lie, very LONG and EXHAUSTING!!!  It was at least another 10 hours of driving to Medellin (after the boat and motorcycle, etc) and though Columbia has very lovely country sides, their roads are absolutely exhausting!!!  They aren’t very well kept so the driver kept speeding when the roads were good, then slamming on the brakes to go over the pot-hole infested areas, then revving the engine again to speed.  The constant stop and go motion really wore on my body!

We finally arrived in Medellin around 9 or 10 at night and the sketchy adventures continued from there…

Oh, one little thing I forgot to mention… On the oh-so-fun road trip to Medellin, one thing I did find quite “interesting” was that every now and again on the top of a random hill that sloped from the road you would see stationed there a member of the Columbian military laying flat on the ground watching the road through a scope attached to whatever kind of gun that is that has scopes and can fire from long distances… Interesting and a teeny bit unsettling indeed… But it was only on this stretch of the travels that I noticed them.  Perhaps because that area was well known for people trying to smuggle themselves or items through the jungle of Columbia into Panama (remember there are no roads connecting the countries so it literally would be just through pure jungle).  But honestly I don’t know for sure, but rather can only speculate…

 

On to Medellin

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Capurgana, Colombia

So we made it!  “Smuggled” into Columbia through the San Blas Islands on a sailboat captained and crewed by what Nicki (my German companion on the sailboat) so eloquently named “modern day pirates”.  That they were indeed, modern day pirates!!  We actually arrived and docked in the water on the Panama side in a little inlet that had the teeniest towns nearby.  From there a local took all of our things and put them in a little motor boat, squished us all in (we finally got to get our shoes back, mind you!) and motored us around the inlet bend and into the Colombian side of land and dropped us off at the dock of Capurgana, Colombia.

The first thing I remember thinking about this place was how colorful it was!  It was so Caribbean and the vibrant colors of each building just added to that cool Caribbean vibe of “come as you are and chill, man”!!  Just adorable and quaint and just the place that was needed to go and relax after the onboard adventures of the previous week on the sailboat.

We all disembarked from the little motor boat on the dock and went our random ways to find hostels/hotels for the night.  I chose a place not too far from the dock and stayed the first night in a room fit for several people (though I was the only one) then moved to a smaller, better suited room on the second floor for the next week.  Now, one must remember that after being on the sailboat for 6 days certain things hold true… First and most important, I had to get my land legs back!  Even though we had been on land for little bouts throughout the week on the sailboat, my sea legs were still well intact.  Hence why I chose to stay for several days in Capurgana… Not only because it was so vibrant yet chill, but also so I could fully recover from the crazy sailboat tour we had just come from.

After getting settled in the first afternoon of our arrival (oh and of course getting our entrance stamp from immigration, which was closed for the first several hours we were on land so had to wait a while to actually be legal in the country) Nicki and I headed around town to find a cup of coffee.  Now, honestly I’ve never really been a big coffee drinker in the States.  Maybe because all the famous blends and roasts come from places like Costa Rica and Colombia.  Or rather especially Colombia… So we thought it would be quite easy to find a place that sold coffee since we were afterall in one of the countries that was best known for their production of coffee… No.  Not at all. It literally took us the better part of an hour, plus going into dozens of stores before we actually found a place that begrudgingly made us a cup of coffee!!  And to boot, it wasn’t even anything that special.  Apparently, as we came to learn quickly, coffee in Colombia is served only at breakfast and is really not available at any other time!  Ok, now perhaps I really shouldn’t generalize for ALL of Colombia, so I will just say for sure in Capurgana:)

Anyway, all in all the time spent in Capurgana was quite nice.  One day was full of hiking through the surrounding jungle, others just wandering the small town watching and experiencing life.  The evenings were spent passing time with card games with friends from the sailboat.  Oh and one afternoon was spent watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in England (just to give a time stamp of when I was there:)).

To be honest, though I knew I had to move on, I really wasn’t looking forward to it.  The only way out of the town was either on a teeny tiny plane literally fit for two people and luggage (that could not weigh more than a certain amount) or to take a motor boat from Capurgana, across the bay to Turbo, then catch a bus to the next destination.  After having spent so much time in the simplicity of life, between Puerto Viejo, the San Blas Islands and now the tiny town of Capurgana I wasn’t looking forward to getting back into the “hustle” of the faster life.  Honestly, I don’t even recall vehicles in town, only horse drawn carts.  That’s how isolated and simple Capurgana was.  No roads actually lead into it, only a small airstrip and dock for boats connected this small Caribbean town to the rest of the world.

Alas, I did have to get back on the road again however and booked my trip out of Capurgana via the boat.  Nicki, the Aussies and the British fellow had already or were soon also getting on with their travels too.  We each went separate ways.  Though I had wanted to go to Cartagena, Colombia, oddly enough I had gotten an email from my brother saying he was in Bogota for work.  So I altered my plans to try and catch some time with him in Bogota and opted to head first to Medellin.

 

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