I’m finishing up my first few months in South America with a week in Cartagena and a week in Medellin, both in Colombia. The flight up from Buenos Aires (EZE) to Cartagena (CTG) was about 9 hours with a change in Panama City, pretty painless on Copa Airlines, although the 5am take off was fun. I obviously didn’t sleep, just hit La Cabrera for my last epic steak dinner and stayed up. Security and customs in South America was a breeze as usual, nothing special necessary for U.S. citizens to get into Colombia. The flight was expensive at around $700, keeping with the theme of air travel within Latin America being surprisingly expensive, although I used Chase Sapphire points so no worries there.
Cartagena is on Colombia’s north coast on the Caribbean in the Bolivar department (that’s what they call states down there), and is the most tourist-visited city in the country. It was the first Spanish colony on the American continent, founded in 1533 and named after the city in Spain. While the city is quite large and has a population of around a million people, the two parts that tourists usually visit are the Walled Colonial City (ciudad amurallada), which I took to calling OldTown, and Bocagrande, which is a thin peninsula full of condo towers sticking out into the ocean. A short boatride away is Playa Blanca, the best beach around for sunbathing, swimming, and watersports. The Islas del Rosario are also nearby, a small chain of islands off the coast. Both are around a 45 minute boat ride away.
Day 1 – First sunset and amazing chicken (Sunday)
Arriving in Cartagena around 12:30pm, I breezed through customs and posted up in a coffee shop at the airport to wait for Kyle, a friend from Amherst, who is flying down from the States to travel with me for two weeks. Had my first Colombian espresso, which was great, as expected. Kyle arrived without any trouble about an hour later. We found a highly rated hostel in Bocagrande on hostelworld.com and booked our first night. In retrospect we should have done this earlier – rooms were disappearing on the app as we watched. Obviously between a lawyer and an investor there aren’t a lot of planning skills. At any rate, we grabbed a cab for the 20 minute ride, taking in the great views from the highway along the northern coast. It turns out that our destination, Jamrock Hostel, was about a 45-minute walk from OldTown, so I wouldn’t recommend it (also not the cleanest hostel I’ve ever stayed in). I would recommend just staying in OldTown, even if you have to pay up a bit. Bocagrande is beautiful and has a few nice restaurants, but you’ll be travelling into OldTown every day anyway. On the plus side, we stayed in a room with two San Franciscans, surprisingly the first two I’ve met on my trip. There were also the two obligatory Swiss backpackers, who seemed to not do much except watch movies in the backyard hammocks.
We wandered up the peninsula to check out the walled city, which is beautiful inside and out. The English routinely tried to invade the city back in the 16th-18th centuries, leading the Spanish to pour a ton of money into the construction of walls and forts, which after 208 years of effort led to the ~7 miles of wall you see today. Makes you appreciate the speed of modern construction. Nowadays there are a fair number of entrances and exits through the wall, which varies between 20 and 60 feet tall, and in some places used to be up to 60 feet thick. There are plenty of ramps around so you can get up top and walk around, which we did and quickly landed at a great (though expensive) bar called Cafe del Mar overlooking the water for sunset. A few piña coladas, mojitos, and zombies later and we were in pretty great shape, and ended up hanging out with a few Argentine’s at the bar, trading South America stories.
Wandering the streets in the evening, we came across a lot of great restaurants, but ended up at a fast food chicken joint called Kokoriko, which was delicious. $5 for a half a chicken, with a Jackie Chan flick on in the background, what more can you ask for? We later wandered outside OldTown around the bay and came across two retired pirate ships, one of which was behind a glass wall and apparently used as an event space. The other was completely unguarded so we of course boarded it immediately. I was pretty convinced I had found my true calling and was ready to commandeer said vessel until a homeless guy sleeping on the upper deck chased us off. Wandering back down Bocagrande to our hostel we stopped at a supermarket for yogurt, bananas, grapes, cheese, and of course boxed rum. Why do they not sell boxed liquor in the States? What a tragedy. Anyway, a bucket of grapes and a soccer game later and we called it a night.
Day 2 – Mud Volcano (Monday)
Monday we started out with the hike to OldTown again, and I headed to Éxito (which means ‘success’), a grocery store where I could buy a SIM card for my phone. US$7 per week for 600mb data and unlimited talk and text, not bad, and coverage turned out to be pretty great all over. We grabbed some areppas for breakfast, which are sort of like empanadas but a bit larger and made out of corn dough, usually with chicken inside, like pretty much everything here. There is also a great coffee house called Cafe del Reloj (Clock Cafe), which is near an old clock tower that marks one of the passageways through the wall. Great frappuccinos and a good looking wine menu, which were very refreshing given how hot and muggy it’s starting to get. Later we wandered north and came across Chill House, another hostel that we’re planning to move to tomorrow. A bit more wandering and we were hungry yet again, so tried out some areppas con queso (areppas with cheese), which turned out to be giant KFC-looking biscuits filled with cheese that they smother with butter before handing to you in an incredibly inadequate napkin-ette.
Around 2pm we decided to join a tour to a local mud volcano, which is 45 minutes outside of the city. We linked up with a group of students from Bogota, as well as a cool sailor on vacation from the Spanish navy. According to lore this 50-foot high dirt mound used to spew lava, but a nice local priest decided to turn it into a healing mud volcano that is supposedly 2,000 feet deep. Whatever the history, it’s great. After climbing up a rickety set of wooden stairs you’re treated to a great view of the surrounding lake, followed by a trip down a ladder into a pit of warm, thick brown mud. 10 or 15 people can fit in the mud vat at a time. It’s very buoyant and tough to move around in so there are a few guys who just hang out down there moving people around as they lie on their backs, giving massages here and there (the girls always seemed to get way longer massages than me). After about half an hour in the pit we climbed out and took a dip in the nearby lake to wash off, swam around for a bit and then grabbed a few beers back at the cabana. Standard beers here are Aguila and Club Colombia, which are not half bad and definitely better than Bud or Miller, although I still have a soft spot for Quilmes back in Argentina.
Back in town we wandered a bit, trying to find some affordable drinks, which is not the easiest thing to do in OldTown. We ended up grabbing some wallbeers (beers sold on top of the wall by cart vendors, in this case by a teenage kid for about US$2 a pop). We headed back to where we got our breakfast areppas to discover that there was an entirely new set of evening food carts. This cool old lady fried me up a pork chop on the spot, cut it up, and threw it in a paper bag with some fried plantains, all for US$3. A-mazing. I might be eating this every night. After the sunset we hiked back to Bocagrande and discovered an area of nice hotels and restaurants, where we grabbed some fruity drinks at a bar, hit the grocery store, and headed back to our hostel.
Day 3 – Playa Blanca (Tuesday)
Tuesday I decided to be super ambitious and get up at 5am for a sunrise run. Unfortunately that entailed rolling my left ankle about 10 minutes in as I fumbled through a still-dark construction site. Thankfully I was able to pilfer some Advil and a bag of frozen peas back at the hostel, so hopefully this won’t be interfering too much with the trip. We moved our stuff to Chill House this morning, and then caught an 8am boat to Playa Blanca.
Playa Blanca is a 45-minute boatride southwest of Cartagena. You can book organized tours and overnight trips, but these tend to be overly pricey. We got a roundtrip motorboat ride with a cabana and lunch for US$15 each, which I recommend. You can save US$2.50 by skipping lunch, but they fry you up some delicious local fish with coconut rice and plantains, so I’d say it’s worth it.
The beach is beautiful, much cleaner than those in Cartagena, although you have to get used to locals hawking you foot massages, fresh fruit and drinks, oysters, and bracelets. Thankfully we spent our last peso on the boatride, so they learned to avoid us after a while. The water is fantastically warm, and you can rent jet skis and go wakeboarding if you want. I ended up just relaxing and reading What I Think About When I Think About Running, a great short book by Haruki Murakami if you have a free afternoon. We wandered down the beach and met up with our Bogota friends from the mud volcano, who turned out to be largely from Australia.
Catching our return boat at 3pm, we wandered around OldTown a bit more before settling in for an evening of pork loins and wallbeers. It ended up drizzling a bit which did a great job of taking the heat out of the night. Finished up with a few drinks with our friends at a Cuban bar across from our Hostel.
Day 4 – Parque Tayrona (Wednesday)
We decided to head north on Wednesday to Tayrona Park to spend the night in some beach hammocks. To get there you take a cab to the Cartagena bus terminal, which is a 30-minute ride to the southeast of OldTown (US$10). We hopped on a bus for US$10 for the 4-hour trip to Santa Marta, a city near the northern coast of Colombia. Bought an awesome carne arrepa from a guy who boarded the bus about an hour in to peddle his wares. Otherwise living on Gatorade, Diet Coke, graham crackers, and oatmeal cookies for now. From Santa Marta we took a bus to the entrance of Parque Tayrona, about 45 minutes (US$5). Unfortunately we missed the entrance by about 5k (you have to repeatedly call out when you want the buses here to stop), but we caught a local “chicken” bus going in the other direction and has them drop us at the entrance for another US$1.50. From there the park entrance fee was US$17 and we then got a bus to take us to Cañaverales, one of the campsites, for another US$2. We hiked a quick loop in the jungle called Mirador, less than an hour, and I saw my first leaf cutter/fire ants! Also saw a cool red squirrel and what looked like a Patagonia Rabbit, and our first glimpse of the Caribbean! Then up the road to the stables, where we grabbed horses (US$8) for the 30 minute ride to Arrecifes, our final campsite. Grabbed hammocks for US$13 – nice bathrooms, and the hammocks were on a raised concrete platform under a roof with lockers and picnic tables. Also they have a great looking campground if you want to bring a tent, although not very well designed to handle big rain storms…
We headed over to the restaurant but it looked a bit fancy and unoccupied, so instead checked out the campground next door. There seem to be a few identical campgrounds down this beach, but this one was the most populated and had a bar with a ton of fresh fruit and blenders, so we sidled up and ordered a banana with milk and a passion fruit (maracuya) with milk, both delicious. Heading down to the beach, we caught the last bit of daylight in the storm clouds before starting to walk down the sand a bit towards the other campgrounds. It started to drizzle a bit but we thought it was just sea spray, so kept on. All of a sudden there were four little Colombian kids running in the other direction, and as it started raining harder we realized that they knew something we didn’t. Turning tail and jogging back, we made it to the juice bar just as the skies really opened up. Opting to stay at the juice bar rather than venture back to our hammocks in the monsoon, we found that they had quite a good dinner menu, so settled in for some fried fish (plato), fried plantains, chicken and rice, and a few Aguilas.
The rain finally slowed down, and we made our way back to our campground, through the paths that were now tiny streams, the sound of a large number of very happy frogs in the background. Posting up at the picnic tables to read for a bit, I crashed fairly early. Pretty good sleep in the hammocks overall, with a nice mix of rain, frog, and cricket sounds in the background. There were actually electrics lights in the campground, but they went out around 10pm and it was pitch black after that, great for sleeping but also disconcertingly dark, the storm clouds not allowing the light of even a single star through.
Day 5 – Parque Tayrona (Thursday)
Up early, we packed up quickly and headed to the restaurant at our campground for a healthy breakfast of coffee and eggs with ham. They had the full spread available – cereal, yogurt, fresh juices, toast, omelets, bacon, sausages, the whole shebang.
We wandered down to our campground beach and checked out some huge granite boulders piled up into a peninsula right off the sand, finding a few good photo spots and some good flat reading rocks. At one point an old Colombian guy with a big semi-toothed smile came wading through the lagoon made by our rocks (guess those ‘watch out for caiman’ signs don’t apply to locals) with two big beat-up Styrofoam coolers slung over his shoulders. We helped him navigate over the rocks and sent him on his way. Seemed like he must live down the beach and heads in to the campgrounds every day to peddle cold water and soda or whatever he’s got. What a life.
We walked a bit farther down the beach, trying to figure out where in the world these granite boulders would have come from so long ago, and eventually ended up back at the restaurant next door for some more banana with milk and mango with milk drinks. After that we hired two more horses for the ride back – I got a good feisty one this time who gave me a few good gallops through the muddy jungle on the way back. We caught the van back to the park entrance, then the bus to Santa Marta and finally the fantastically air-conditioned bus back to Cartagena, on which I started a new book called Brilliant Blunders. Finally a cab got us back to our hostel, where some nice cold showers were in order. We nabbed ourselves a few coconuts off the street and topped them off with the remainder of our boxed rum, sweet as always, and ventured out for some dinner. Thursday night was pretty hopping in OldTown, seems like folks like to get sussed up and start their weekends early here. We landed at a great restaurant called Peru Fusion, and I had my first sushi in about three months, which was a great call although their ceviche was fantastic as well.
A few coconuts worth of rum later we headed up to a plaza that was decked out with lighted stars and electric icicles for the Christmas season and chilled out for a bit, taking in all the horse-drawn carriages winding by, the happy dressed-up tourists out for a nice dinner in the square on a hot night in December, and the street vendors still set up despite the hour, ready to fulfill all your desires for cold beer, Cuban cigars, bead necklaces, and homemade leather sandals. Really not a bad place to spend a Thursday. Finally we ventured back to the hostel to pack up for our flight to Medellin tomorrow, as well as watch a few Tomorrowland and EDC videos, and of course the first episode of 12 Oz. Mouse, because why not? And man, it’s nice to be back sleeping in air conditioning again.
Day 6 – First day in Medellin (Friday)
Friday we grabbed an early morning taxi to the airport and hit the Star Alliance lounge for breakfast. Going to be a sad day in October 2014 when my United Platinum status finally runs out. In the meantime though we had a great morning of free areppas, juice and coffee. A quick flight later and we were off to find a shuttle to our hotel, which was pretty cheap at US$12 a pop. The Medellin airport is in a valley to the east of the city, so you get a nice 45-minute ride over the mountains to enjoy the view. We ended up staying at a hotel called Hotel Conquistador that we found on HostelWorld, which was cheap for a private room, although a ways away from Poblado, which is the chic neighborhood where we ended up spending most of our nights.
Downtown Medellin is pretty incredible. There are street vendors out all day every day selling everything under the sun, from food to clothing to trinkets to Christmas lights. Some streets are so packed that you’re moving at a snail’s pace the whole time. And if it rains nothing stops, everyone just pulls out some plastic sheeting, throws it over their stalls, and keeps right on trucking. The strange thing is that none of this is annoying. Unlike in OldTown in Cartagena where it’s obvious you’re a tourist, no one really hassles you to buy things here – there are so many people at all times that no one is really worried about the next sale, so everyone is super nice and accommodating given how incredibly crowded it is. Not sure if this is everyone’s experience, but I found it pretty incredible and immediately took a liking to the city.
We stopped at a lunch spot for bandeja paisas (paisa trays), which are delicious lunch plates sort of like what you might find at KFC. Standard fare is pork and beans, rice, ground beef, fried eggs, plantains, areppas, and chicken. After that we wandered west for a while and eventually crossed a bridge and started to head into a shanty town, when a nice guy in a suit waved us down and told us that we probably didn’t want to go that way. A little aside: people in the States tend to have a very overblown view of how dangerous the outside world is in my opinion, and this was just another example of how folks seem to look out for you when you are in fact in danger of getting yourself into a situation. In fact, the only time I’ve been legit concerned was on a night in Buenos Aires when I decided to take a shortcut home down a small alley (yes, dumb) and a few guys started walking towards me pretty briskly. I stopped and started to backtrack, but they just jogged up to me and told me that I shouldn’t go down that alley because it wasn’t that safe.
Anyway, we eventually found our way down to Parque Lleras, which is the central park in the Poblado neighborhood where all the cool kids hang out. It’s a small tiered park with beautiful greenery and lights, surrounded by a few blocks of great bars and clubs. We started out at Ay Carumba on a local’s suggestion and settled in for some 2×1 margaritas (pretty much every bar in Medellin seems to have 2×1 or 3×1 deals all day, which is great). We bounced around and eventually ended up at a great rooftop bar called Woka with a view of the city, not to mention and awesome Jurassic park-y theme, and great caipirinhas.
Day 7 – Parque Arvi (Saturday)
Saturday we decided to check out Medellin’s Metrocable system, on advice from our Bogota friends. The Metrocable is a gondola system that the government installed in 2004 that opened up access to some of the least developed barrios in the city. At US$2 per ride it’s been pretty successful and has encouraged cities such as Caracas and Rio de Janiero to open up their own systems.
Most importantly, in 2009 the L line opened up access to Parque Arvi, a nature preserve in the hills above Medellin. We hit a cafe for coffee and breakfast sandwiches and then took the Metro north to Acevido station, where you transfer to the K line of the Metrocable, take it up the hill to the last station at Santo Domingo, and then transfer to the L line, which takes you on a nice little jaunt above the forest to the entrance to the park.
Arvi is beautiful, and if I had to do it again I would definitely plan ahead and spend the night, camp and hire some horses to check out more of the park. We just hiked around for the afternoon and checked out a nice local crafts fair at the entrance while we waited out a short rainstorm. There are a lot of local guides milling around who are extremely helpful and eager to tell you all about the wildlife you might encounter (they even have armadillos!). Unfortunately there are certain treks that they’ll only let you do with a guide, which is a little ridiculous given that none of the hikes are very strenuous.
We headed back down the mountain to Parque Lleras again, ending up at a great cafe called Pergamino for a few hours of reading and relaxation. After that it was off to more 2×1 daiquiris, more coffee at Juan Valdez Cafe (also great), yet more 2×1 daquiris, then 2×1 mojitos, and then a jug of sangria (there’s a theme here…), which pretty much got us kicked out of the last bar. Oh sangria.
Day 8 – Botanical Garden and Explore Museum (Sunday)
Unfortunately we seem to have visited during a fairly rainy week in Medellin, so we’ve been forced to look for a few more indoor activities (that and we’re pretty hungover, so this morning was a bit slow). We headed up the Metro to the University stop, where there is a cool museum and a gorgeous botanical garden.
After another bandeja paisa for lunch we hit the museum first (US$10), as it was pouring by the time we got there. Called Parque Explora, this is an awesome mix of an aquarium, a planetarium, a 3D theater, robot dinosaurs, a rainforest habitat, and a few halls with rotating exhibits, which were focused on physics and neurology while we were there. Definitely worth a visit, despite the fact that some reviews I found online afterwards weren’t very favorable.
The botanical garden is also definitely worth a look (US$free). There’s a ton of variety, but the coolest part is the Orchidiarium, which is an awesome architectural space in its own right. Afterwards we headed back to Lleras yet again for another night of debauchery.
Day 9 – Coffee Plantation tour (Monday)
Monday we were up early at 8am for our pickup for a tour of a coffee plantation about three hours outside the city. During the ride we got a lot of perspective from our guide Andres on the negotiations that are currently going on between the government and the FARC drug cartel. Most of the locals seem to think that the current president is at best ineffective and at worst a crook and that FARC should be wiped out completely, and that they shouldn’t be negotiating, as the cartel routinely breaks the current ceasefire.
We had a great visit at the Don Modesto plantation in Concordia, including seeing the pickers in action since it’s the first week of the harvest here (perfect timing!). Talk about back-breaking work though – the vast majority of beans in Colombia are hand-picked, as the hills are too steep even for donkeys. We saw the entire process, from shelling and drying to roasting and vacuum-packing, and bought a few pounds of beans that had just been packed this morning. Learned a lot about coffee too – for example, Colombia grows Arabica beans almost exclusively vs. Robusta, which are more disease-resistant (in part due to their higher caffeine content) but generally considered inferior. It was also interesting to see that the majority of the highest quality coffee is exported, a sore spot with coffee enthusiasts in Colombia.
We headed back to the city for another piña colada tour and some street food, and then headed west to see Medellin’s famous river of lights, a giant Christmas light setup they put on every year. The entire river is strung across with giant light-up candles, and there are big wire scaffolds set up on both sides of the river that huge displays are set up on. Amazing!
Somehow we were still awake after all that, so decided to have some ribs delivered to our hotel (if it sounds sketchy, it was). After a two hour wait with no ribs we finally crashed, only to be woken up an hour later at 2am with a delivery guy banging on our door. So obviously we rallied, downed some beers and ribs, and then went back to sleep. Solid day.
Day 10 – La Piedra del Peñol (Tuesday)
Last full day in Colombia! We got up early and took the metro to Caribe, where we booked a couple of bus tickets to The Rock (La Piedra de Peñol), which was a two hour trip. Located near the town of Guatapé, the Rock is a granite dome sticking up out of a lake district that was created by a nearby hydroelectric dam. We were dropped off and immediately accosted by guys in small buggies and on horses wanted to give us rides, but we elected to walk up to the base (only about 10 minutes). We grabbed some liquadas (banana with milk juice blend) and enjoyed the view of the lake district below before approaching the rock staircase that would take us up a giant crack to the top, about 600 feet above the ground, or 740 steps.
The view from the top was incredible, probably the best I’ve seen in Colombia. The lake district goes on forever, and you get stuck just looking out at all the beautiful houses in the nooks and crannies of the lake, wishing the whole time that you had binoculars. We settled in for a bit with some micheladas (beer, lime juice and spices) and took a ton of pictures from the top.
Eventually we packed it in and grabbed a bus back to our hotel, and then down to Poblado for one last dinner. We wanted to try a restaurant called Verdeo but it was completely booked, so we ended up going on a bit of a Freedom Food binge with some Dominoes, which definitely hit the spot after a few months of South American-style pizza. Definitely want to try Verdeo at some point though, as we got a few recommendations for it (plus it’s across the street from a free outdoor gym!). We hit Ay Caramba one last time for more piña coladas, then Basilica for more piña coladas, and then finally back to our hotel for four hours of sleep.
Wednesday was a fun 5am wakeup, cabbed to the airport and enjoyed our last view of Medellin, then breezed through security and customs, decent breakfast at The Grocery in the airport, and had our last medialunas for a while.
Overall Colombia is an awesome place to visit, and there are a ton more places to see besides Cartagena and Medellin. Personally I don’t feel a need to go back to Cartagena. Overall it felt pretty touristy, and besides exploring the OldTown for a day and maybe spending at day at Playa Blanca there’s not a lot else you need to see, certainly not Bocagrande in my opinion.
Medellin is another story. Definitely my second-favorite South American city behind Buenos Aires. I felt like I could live there for a few months and be busy exploring new places every day, and the cost of living, while not akin to BA, is still great. Poblado is an awesome neighborhood to get acquainted with given the volume of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. When you’re bored you can take the Metro to some great places like the University, Parque Arvi, and I’m sure others that we weren’t able to hit in our five days there. Guatapé is also totally worth the trip, probably the most beautiful part of the country in my opinion. Bottom-line: If you’re anywhere near Colombia on your next South America trip, don’t miss Medellin!