Colombia wasn’t just about endless deserts and in-the-middle-of-nowhere towns (see post below); it’s a country of contrast and on its other face shines a bunch of incredible cities with amazing nightlife, interesting culture and some of the warmest people I’ve ever met. Behind each lies a fascinating and tumultuous history, and learning about it was both eye-opening and moving.
I felt it most in Medellin, where I spent three days alternating between attempting to show off my limited salsa skills in the tourist-heavy (and rather upmarket) Poplado, and wandering through the rougher-round-the-edges areas like downtown. The former has an amazing atmosphere by night – especially around Parque Lleras, where Colombians and foreigners alike gather outside before hitting the open-air bars that line its busy streets – while downtown offers grittier, market-style streets and more traditional plazas. Downtown is also home to a number of parks dotted with interesting architecture – most notably Plaza Botero, where rows of artsy bronze statues created to help develop the city greet budding visitors.
It’s easy to see how much the city has changed since its notorious days under the violent control of infamous drugs lord Pablo Escobar in the 1980s and early ’90s. Once the most dangerous city in the world – in 1992 it witnessed more than 27,000 tragic deaths – it’s now a place of visible progress, a place where the city’s former crime hotspots have been reimagined into spaces for education, and where modern architectural design stands as a symbol for change. Everywhere around there is a sense of development and hope, and locals greet foreigners with open arms, grateful for a tourist industry which only really started taking off in 2002 following an end to the large-scale drug cartels and efforts to crack down on security. I learnt a whole lot about the city’s changing history through the free walking tour, which is incredibly insightful and well worth the early morning effort.
Among the newer developments is the cable car – which starts at Acevedo and offers pleasant views over the city before arriving at Parque Arvi, where a number of hiking trails await. The Universidad area – a cultural hub where artisanal market stalls make for a foodie heaven – should also be on the list for anyone visiting the city, and it’s all accessible through a modern, clean metro system that rivals some of the best I’ve seen in the world.
As all of that suggests, Medellin is a diverse, buzzing city and it’s little wonder it’s started to become so popular with backpackers and other tourists. But Colombia’s other cities shouldn’t be overlooked; in Cali, endless bars and clubs open their doors almost every night of the week to party-goers who dance salsa like it’s second nature – which I realise it is, when I speak to locals who tell me it’s just something almost every Caleño learns as a kid. The streets are vibrant and the people are passionate, and it’s easy to see why it’s the country’s salsa capital – and why some people end up never leaving (I met several who’d planned on coming for a few days and were still there years on).
In the day Cali sleeps, but there’s still some things to see; most notably the centro historico, where a quaint park and river run alongside some stunning architecture. There’s also the statue of Cristo Rey and the colonial-style Iglesia de San Antonio, both of which overlook downtown from the top of the city’s steep hills and are well worth the climb for the rewarding views.
Between Cali and Medellin I stayed in Buena Vista, a beautiful little village in the coffee region (near Armenia) firmly off of the beaten track, where locals greeted us with looks of confusion and welcome in equal measure. With just one (newly opened) hostel to its name, it’s a far quieter alternative to the busier town of Salento and the scenery is breathtaking. I took a tour out to some coffee farms in the region of Pijao with the Wake Cup project (one I’d recommend), and did some pretty tough mountain biking up some seriously steep hills – all worth it for the views.
After that I moved onto Santa Marta, located in the north of the country on the Caribbean coast. It’s a good base for exploring nearby Tayrona national park – which offers a beautiful coastal trek and campsites where backpackers slum it in hammocks – but as a city in itself it didn’t offer all that much. Taganga on the other hand – a smaller beach town a 30 minute bus ride away – is a paradise for diving enthusiasts; I dived there and found myself gliding alongside turtles, lobsters, angel fish, water snakes and a host of other colourful creatures.
After that I moved on to Cartagena – and it was incredible. By night the old town comes alive, with golden swathes illuminating the cobbled streets, colonial architecture and upmarket, alfresco eateries that line its historic plazas – all set among a wall built to protect the city from pirates in the sixteenth century. From Cartagena I took a trip out to El Totumo, a mud volcano offering visitors a pretty weird experience where you float around in slime and get involuntarily massaged by the men working there – worth it for the laughs if nothing else. I also checked out Playa Blanca, located about an hour away – the water was once again crystal clear but the beach was packed and I’d skip it if I were to go again.
Last on the list was Bogotá – I’d been told there wasn’t all that much there for tourists, but exploring the city on a bike tour was an insightful experience and a great way of getting to know the different neighbourhoods and seeing the masses of street art for which the city is getting itself a name. It stands as a testament to the sense of creativity and political interest that buzzes through the Bogotá air – things of little wonder given its violent past, when the plaza (now a calm square characterised by impressive buildings) was the seat of bloody protests and bombings, once again under the indirect control of Escobar in the 1980s. Like Medellin it’s undergone a transformation, and although La Candelaria area (the city’s main tourist hub) isn’t quite as developed as Medellin’s Poplado, it offers some quirky bars and restaurants and a cable car that ascends the green, lush hill of Mount Monserrate.
All in all Colombia has been one of the most diverse countries I’ve visited on my whole trip, and getting to know its people, history and stunning landscapes has been incredible. It’s had a tragic past and its reputation is still tainted, but that’s gradually being replaced by a growing tourism industry and a smile that spreads its way across every visitor’s face after just a few days spent there. Ignore the (misguided) warnings from back home and go; you won’t regret it.