In August, our family of 5 went to Colombia for two weeks. Our kids were 16, 14 and 12 years old at the time.
I won’t lie. Just before we left, I was nervous. I had researched extensively where we should go and stay, and was comfortable that Colombia was a safe place to visit. However, after everything was booked, it seemed like every news article I read warned of violence or safety issues. Canadian and American travel advisories provided a long list of “do not even think of going there”, and I thought to myself, “what in the world have I done”?
And yet, our trip was magnificent.
Colombia is a country of contrasts. First of all, it is a country of extreme beauty. It is surrounded by the blues of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, with beautiful beaches, marine life and jungle nearby. It is filled with lush green mountains barely inhabited by civilization. Contrary to reports of random violence, every person we met was friendly and proud of their country. In Medellin, strangers stopped us on the street and welcomed us to their city. We never felt in danger and walked happily and freely in the places we visited. The food went from dirt cheap and delicious street food to sophisticated international quality cuisine, sometimes at ridiculous low prices.
Most importantly, I felt that our experiences were truly authentic. Foreign tourism is just beginning to flourish in Colombia. In several places, we were one of only a handful of tourists. We stumbled upon amazing inexpensive accommodations hosted by fascinating locals, and untouched beaches and remote villages that were inaccessible except by boat.
In this blog, I will provide our 14 day Colombia itinerary. In another blog Colombia Holidays: 10 “Must Know” Travel Tips!, I highlight a number of important travel tips that I learnt while in Colombia that will help you fully enjoy your Colombia holidays. In the weeks to follow, I hope to write many more blogs about this wonderful country and our time spent there.
Day 1 of our Colombia Itinerary
We arrived in Cartagena in the afternoon. We were picked up and driven to our hotel, Allure Chocolate Hotel, just outside the Old City. All of our transfers across Colombia were organized by The Colombian Way and their services were excellent each time. The hotel was a modern boutique hotel with a small rooftop pool and bar a couple blocks from the beach. The rooms were large and well appointed. For dinner, we went to La Marea by Rausch, a 5 minute walk from our hotel. The restaurant was on the water, with a view of the walled city. The meal was extraordinary.
Day 2 of our Colombia Itinerary
We booked a 2 hour private bike tour of Cartagena with Hi Cartagena. The tour took us all over the old city, including on top of the walls that bordered it. We also biked around Getsemani, an edgy part of Cartagena just outside the old city. In this part of Cartagena, the streets are filled with astonishing graffiti art. The bikes were very basic in quality, but the tour was a great way to quickly get a feel for the main parts of Cartagena.
For lunch, we went to Espiritu Santo in the old city. This restaurant was recommended to us by a local and it was filled with Colombians. Enormous plates of traditional Caribbean food were served at very reasonable prices. I barely made a dent in my meal.
We had dinner at Cande Restaurant in the old city. This restaurant took traditional Caribbean dishes and added sophistication and flair to them. The food was absolutely delicious. As an added treat, dancers entertained us with traditional latin and indigenous dancing. It was an amazing night.
Day 3 of our Colombia Itinerary
Today, we spent most of the day in a local village called Boquilla where we spent the day learning how to fish, catch crabs and cook, all with the local fishermen and their families. We booked this tour through Ecotours Boquilla. It was a very interesting experience.
Boquilla is very poor. It was a startling contrast to the wealth of the old city and Getsemani in Cartagena, a mere 20 minute drive away. We spent most of the day amongst the mangroves, knee deep in muddy water learning how to throw nets to scoop up fish, set crab traps and collect the live crabs. After, we went back to one of their homes, and in a muddy backyard steps from the river, we watched them cook the fish and boil the crabs on a makeshift campfire. We ate lunch next to the fire on simple plastic tables and chairs. I ate some of the best fish that I have ever eaten.
Dinner was at 1621, a restaurant in at the Sofitel Hotel in the old city. The food was exquisite. We sat at a table in their inside courtyard surrounded by plants, trees and a fountain. The setting was beautiful and the service was excellent. The contrast between the simpleness of our lunch and the elegance of our dinner was remarkable.
Day 4 of our Colombia Itinerary
This morning, we flew to Medellin and stayed at NH Collection Medellin Royal Hotel. This is a nice hotel in the wealthy part of Medellin across from the Santa Fe Shopping Mall. In the afternoon, we had a private tour of La Communa 13 booked through Toucan Cafe and Tours.
A few years ago, Communa 13 was the most dangerous neighbourhood in one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Today, it has transformed into a dynamic community with a vibrant street art and hip hop culture. This was one of my favourite places in Colombia. Houses are built one on top of another up the mountain, a maze of concrete and wires. As you approach, it feels like you are about to enter a poor and dangerous slum. But that was far from the case. I saw spectacular graffiti art, seemingly on every wall and it was breathtaking. The streets were clean, brimming with adults going about their day and children playing. I watched street performers and tried delicious street food. It was a thriving happy neighbourhood.
Our guide lived in Communa 13. He was also a member of Casa Kolacho, a youth inspired art club. All money earned from the tour went to Casa Kolacho, which provides free dance, art and music classes to the community. As a tourist, I felt that I was not only witnessing a phenomenal transformation of a once troubled neighbourhood, but that our presence was helping them succeed. It was a memorable experience.
Days 5 – 8 of our Colombia Itinerary
We flew one hour by twin turbo prop plane from Medellin to Nuqui on the Pacific Ocean. Then, we boarded a 20 person speedboat and for one hour, we crossed the Pacific Ocean to our lodge. During that hour, we barely saw a house or a person on the shore. We were surrounded by jungle and ocean.
We stayed at El Cantil Ecolodge, a very small lodge on the shores of the Pacific, and shared one hut with two rooms. The accommodation was very basic – there wasn’t any electricity, hot water, windows, screens, or wifi. The food was simple but plentiful. Over our three days there, we spent hours on the ocean watching hump back whales. We hiked in the jungle and dove into hidden waterfalls. We swam in the ocean and chased thousands of crabs on shore.
A highlight of our stay was a 3 hour return walk along the beach to the tiny village of Thermales where we spent time in the natural thermal springs. On our walk, we were surrounded by pristine jungle and untouched beaches, which were virtually uninhabited. The village was made up of around twenty huts and maybe a population of 100 people.
Day 9 of our Colombia Itinerary
In the morning, we flew back to Medellin and NH Collection Medellin Royal. In the afternoon, we went on a private street food tour offered by Toucan Cafe and Tours.
This was a really cool tour. We explored the city and learnt about its history and the significance of important buildings and sculptures. I saw more incredible graffiti and street art. We rode trains (Transvia) and gondolas across town and ultimately to Communa 8, another neighbourhood transforming itself into a vibrant and safe community with innovative social programs and improved infrastructure. All the while, we nibbled on traditional street food that we stumbled upon along the way.
Day 10 of our Colombia Itinerary
We did a private day tour to Guatape offered through Tours Guatape. Guatape is a municipality and town around 2 hours from Medellin. The whole area is beautiful. We stopped at El Penol, a massive rock conspicuously jutting out of the landscape, and climbed the 784 steps to the top. The views were stunning. We continued onto the town of Guatape and toured its cobblestone streets. The houses and stores were all colourfully painted with carvings along their front walls. They either depicted the history of the building, or its current use or occupant.
This was my least favourite day of our whole trip. I liked the tour and I am glad that we saw El Penol and Guatape. However, for the first time, I felt that we were on a well worn tourist path.
Day 11 and 12 of our Colombia Itinerary
Villa De Leyva
This morning we flew from Medellin to Bogota. There, we were picked up and driven 3 1/2 hours to Villa De Leyva.
Villa De Leyva is a gorgeous little town nestled between mountains and surrounded by farm land. The buildings were white water washed and the streets were mostly cobblestoned. We stayed at Hotel Casa Terra, a small newly renovated multi-room house with a beautiful garden in the centre of town. This was my favourite hotel on our whole trip. The hotel was small, luxurious and welcoming.
We explored the village and had many memorable meals there. We drove ATVs in the countryside and mountains surrounding Villa De Leyva on a private tour. The views were incredible.
Day 13 of our Colombia Itinerary
We drove back to Bogota. Along the way, we stopped and explored the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira.
The Salt Cathedral is both bizarre and amazing. You descend one km below the surface of an active salt mine, stopping at the different Stations of the Cross where enormous crosses have been carved from salt. There, you are welcome to stop and pray. Ultimately, you reach a church far below the surface. You can watch a light show or a movie about the history of Colombia, shop, eat or go to a spa, never leaving the depths of the mine. The whole town is focused on supporting this tourist attraction.
In Bogota, we stayed at the Sofitel Bogota Victoria Regia Hotel, a beautiful hotel in the centre of amazing restaurants and shopping. We ate dinner at La Brasserie, a superb french restaurant steps away from our hotel.
Day 14 of our Colombia Itinerary
We spent the day on a private tour of the city offered by Hansa Tours.
I really liked Bogota. We went to the top of Montserrate, a mountain towering over Bogota, to see the views and visit the garden and the church. We spent a lot of time visiting La Candelaria area which has funky streets covered in cool graffiti, local artisans and their wares, and amazing museums. My favourites were the Botero Museum and the Museu Del Oro (the Gold Museum). Later we visited private art galleries looking at current Colombia artists.
I loved our trip to Colombia. Over two weeks, we saw many diverse regions of Colombia and experienced city and rural life. We visited remote and virtually untouched beaches, jungles and communities off the Pacific Ocean. I tried delicious food from all over the country, some of it traditional street food, while others at sophisticated and luxurious restaurants. We met incredibly friendly people from all sorts of backgrounds.
Finally, I feel that our Colombia itinerary allowed us to see the many contrasting sides of Colombia. One day, we saw pristine beaches and uninhabited areas of the Pacific, and the next day, we were exploring once dangerous neighbourhoods in Medellin. We explored many examples of amazing graffiti in Cartagena, Medellin and Bogota, and then, visited extraordinary works of art at the Botero Museum, the Gold Museum and private galleries. Some nights, we stayed at very simple hotels and others, we enjoyed luxurious accommodation. Our Colombia itinerary was filled with authentic experiences in a very exciting country that has yet to be discovered by the world.
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