No Colombia is not all about cocaine, guerrillas, and Pablo Escobar!
It’s common misconceptions like these which often prevent, if not deter tourism to Colombia. While in the 80’s, yes Colombia was plagued with drug and guerrilla warfare. Conditions which made life dangerously impossible. With the rise of drug bosses like Pablo Escobar or Griselda Blanco, brutal killings were the norm, and citizens were often caught in the crossfire.
However, that is not the Colombia of today. The country has come a long way and taken efforts to promote peace within the nation. But it is Colombia’s culture that has been a ray of sunshine through the clouds, and it is that vibrant, happy culture which has made the difference today.
My first trip to Colombia I set off alone, however, I am lucky enough to have family and friends around Colombia (as well as my amazing boyfriend who also is Colombian – I can’t get away from them!). Even so, when I landed I was determined to go off and explore my own way, despite the protests of my boyfriend. You know, the usual “Don’t go out by yourself,” that we all know, I am tired of hearing!
Instead of the fear that everyone tried to instill in me about Colombia, I found the country to be quite open and receptive to tourism. In fact, despite my family’s protests, I decided to have an adventure through Bogota on my own. While yes, it helps that I speak Spanish, that doesn’t make up for not knowing where the hell I am going! Yet, everyone was helpful and friendly every step of the way. People even apologized to me for bumping into them!
The capital city is not one to miss, despite maybe not that much going on. There’s La Zona Rosa which is filled with cafes, bars, and stores to walk around in. It is also a much nicer area than the center, so tourists should have no problem here. La Candelaria is another famous neighborhood, filled with artwork and painted houses to spend a morning wandering around.
Some must-do sightseeing? Monserrate of course! A church which is situated on a (very) high hilltop. Options for getting up there include a very long and steep walk up, or a comparably steep but faster cable car. I did not realize my fear of heights could have been extended to cable cars until I realized that these go almost vertically up the mountain.
Maybe even take a day trip to Villa de Leyva in Boyacá. A 3 hour drive, this colonial city has been immensely preserved partly due to it’s out-of-the-way location. On the way, make a stop to see the field where the Battle of Boyacá was won. This battle which freed the South American people (then Nueva Granada) from Spanish imperialism.
I love Cali, more so in December when the entire city comes to life for their ferias. Las ferias de Cali are known worldwide and immortalized in quite a few songs. The ferias celebrate the week after Christmas, leading up to New Years. The city comes to life with music, shows, concerts, and los alumbrados de Cali – an entire boulevard lit to the tee with multi-colored lights to admire.
Cali has its own history with the drug war. The Cali cartel rising to power with Escobar’s fall, even years later it is not the safest city in Colombia. However, do not let this deter you from experiencing this wonderful city in el Valle del Cauca department.
Cali has a rich history and is developing into a booming city. The neighborhood surrounding San Antonio has an emerging art scene and is filled with cafes and stores to get lost in. There are museums and installations around the city worth checking out! Explore El Parque de los Gatos, to see the many cat sculptures which showcase various themes and symbols of Colombian culture, then explore the surrounding neighborhood for some great food!
While this is more of a general area, el Eje Cafetero is the area of Colombia known for coffee production and cultivation. If you go to Colombia and didn’t learn about the coffee, did you even go? The area is lush and filled with some of the best food and friendliest people.
Check out the feria in Salento in mid-January, a colorful colonial town. For the best chorizo – definitely check out Santa Rosa, which also is home to the famous hot springs where you can relax and unwind.
Then of course, there is my favorite place in the world…
San Andres, Providencia y Santa Catalina
Okay, so these are three islands in the Caribbean sea, actually closer to Nicaragua which has led to heated debates between the countries on whose territory it belongs to. Colombia wins, and takes steps to maintain and protect these archipelagos. It costs 50.000 pesos Colombianos (~ $18 USD) at the airport before you enter the island. These islands boast one of, if not the most beautiful ocean, known as el mar de siete colores (the sea of seven colors) due to the variations of blues and greens in the water.
San Andres, to me, can be done in a few days then get out! It reminded me too much of Miami, highly touristy and packed. But you can’t leave San Andres without checking out Johnny Cay and El Acuario, where you literally swim with the fishes!
Now a very scary, small, rickety 20 minute plane ride (or a 2 hour catamaran ride) away is the smaller islands of Providencia y Santa Catalina. Providencia is by far my favorite place in the world! Why? Well it is super off the grid, I’m talking no wifi, not even a credit card machine! The week I stayed gas was also in shortage, as supplies are brought in by a barge.
The island is protected not only by the residents, but by the Colombian government as well. Locals mentioned that outsiders can no longer build properties on the island anymore, and it is even hard for a mainland Colombian to do so, as they want to protect the flora and fauna of the area.
Did I mention it takes about 30 minutes to circle the island on scooter!? Despite the small size, there is plenty to do on the island. You can hike the Peak, which takes roughly 3-4 hours in total. Check out Cayo Cangrejo (Crab Cay) to witness the black crabs native to the island.
Or, if you’re really brave, check out Cabeza de Morgan, or Morgan’s Head. Legend is that Captain Morgan himself (no, not the rum the actual pirate!) hid his vast treasure within the island. While a treasure hunt may be futile, you can cross the bridge to Santa Catalina island and explore the formations on the island, or swim in the crystal clear waters. If you’re really really adventurous, see if you can figure out which house was supposedly owned by the notorious Pablo Escobar! Don’t stay too late, there are no lights on this island to guide you back!
While this doesn’t even begin to cover the magical beauty of Colombia, I hope this is a start for your next trip! Some great alternatives to these cities are:
- Cartagena – founded in 1533 and was a major port city during colonization
- Barranquilla – visit during their carnival in February!
- Santa Marta – check out Parque Tayrona, a protected area which still has indigenous pre-Columbian ruins
- Medellin – once the most dangerous city, now is booming, and has been named one of the most innovative cities in the world!
- Nariño – located in the southern part of the country, the Cathedral de Las Lajas is a highly visited, and stunning location
I mean really, the list can go on and on. What is important is to see how much Colombia has transformed from a civil war torn country, to an accessible and welcoming nation. Unfortunately, many people still have these stereotypes and misconceptions about Colombia and its people. Maybe you also are unsure, but I’m here to tell you to go to Colombia and go now! Fear will only hold you back, and I promise you, you will never want to leave.
If you’re still unsure, take me with you and we can explore together! ¡Colombia si es realismo magico!