One of the first things I do after every trip is to look back through photos posted not only on Instagram, but those many iPhone pictures that I haven’t had time to post to Instagram quite yet. Downloading and editing photos from my Nikon takes a while, so this is a fun way I think to quickly get a sense of the travel experience. I traveled to Colombia with Monograms, a unique company that I will soon be critiquing. They specialize though in letting independent travelers be independent travelers and thanks to that almost more than anything else, the experiences as shown here I hope prove just how amazing a country Colombia truly is.
One of my first stops touring around Bogota was to the mountain Monserrate – popular for its amazing views of the city as well as for more religious reasons. In the church at the top of the mountain sits a statue that is famous for granting miracles. Millions visit to honor the site and to hope that their own prayers are answered.
I’m not normally an art museum kind of guy. History, culture – yes, definitely, but my patience for art is somewhat limited. Maybe that’s one reason why I was so excited when I VERY quickly fell head over heels in love with the amazing Botero Museum in Bogota. Even if you’re not familiar with the name, I guarantee you’ve seen some of the many famous works created by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. You know the ones, the plump, oversized people and animals that look like they’ve been inflated? Well, the Botero Museum is the beautiful home to many of his paintings and sculptures. In 2000, Botero donated the works, along with his own private art collection, creating the museum in the La Candelaria neighborhood in the process. Open to the public free of charge, Botero wanted to share his works in a way of his choosing. He still decides on the layout and even the wall colors in the museum, but as I quickly learned the building itself is just as amazing as the works of art it houses. Built in the 1720s, this was the colonial mansion of the Archbishop of Bogota, one of the most powerful men in the city. Beautifully restored, you can easily imagine the lavish lifestyle enjoyed here and for as much as I enjoyed the artwork, it was the building itself that truly won my heart. Bogota is a city of intensely creative people seen through the literature, art but even in graffiti and street buskers. It’s exciting and this is surely one of those “must-see” places in this enormous city.
In researching what to do in Bogota, one thing immediately rose to the top – a free walking tour all about Bogota’s famous graffiti and street art. Joining the tour was a fantastic decision not just for the artwork highlighted, but because I learned so much about Bogota in the process. Led by a local expert, the 2 1/2 hour tour took us through several neighborhoods where some of the city’s best street art can be found. Anywhere in the world, great street art is rooted in cultural and political messages, and that’s certainly the case in Colombia. The country’s complicated past and present are well represented, but in as beautiful a way as you can imagine. It’s also everywhere, tucked away in even the most unlikely of spots. I took hundreds of photos, but this piece was one of my favorites. Created by the famous street artist Rodez in collaboration with another artist, the piece features the surreal creations with multiple eyes for which he is so well known, his animales fantasticos. This is a great example of a local business encouraging the artwork – it’s a lot better than a boring blank wall. In this case the business is a hair salon which, oddly enough, offers free haircuts every Wednesday morning. The catch? You have no say in the hair style, it’s their chance to experiment with new ideas and methods. So if you’re daring, be sure to stop by for a salon experience you’ll never forget.
Believe it or not but it’s not everyday I’m completely surprised by a new place I visit, but that’s exactly what happened to me while exploring Colombia’s coffee growing region. Massive coffee plantations abound along with mountains and cloud forests that seem as if they were plucked from the pages of a fantasy novel. It’s a beautiful part of Colombia, but this national park is definitely in a class all of its own. The Cocora Valley comes from the indigenous word for “star of water” and it’s certainly a cloudy, wet part of the country. It’s also home to Colombia’s national tree, the gigantic wax palm. It was this tree more than anything that transformed a simple hike into something extraordinary. The last place I’d ever expect to see these massive palms is high up in the Colombian Andes, a world of impossibly diverse shades of green and clouds that envelop you as you walk along. It’s a surreal almost magical place, which in large part defines Colombia. Arguably Colombia’s greatest author, Gabriel García Márquez is famous for his use of magical realism, which is a realistic view of the world that adds in magical elements. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe my morning tramping through the grasses and damp fields of the valley. It was real, but there was something else there too, something I could almost grasp but it kept eluding me. No doubt there’s magic in these hills, a special kind of effect that surely makes this one of the most extraordinary spots on the planet.
Spanish architecture is everywhere in Cartagena, that’s one reason why this historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are so many that they run the risk of blurring into each other, but not this one. This is the former convent for the Clarisa nuns, opened back in 1621 the property has maintained the beautiful look and feel not just of another era, but another world. It was also my beautiful hotel while staying in Cartagena. When I saw that this truly remarkable hotel was one of the option with my Monograms trip around Colombia, I jumped at the opportunity knowing just how special it would be. Not all hotels are made the same and staying in this, the colonial side of the Sofitel Santa Clara helps drive home the Spanish colonial feel of the old city, making my entire travel experience so much more special than it would have been otherwise.
While I enjoyed my entire time in Colombia, Cartagena was by far the highlight of the trip. I sort of knew what to expect, but being there, standing in the middle of the colonial old town was an entirely different experience. The colors are nearly overwhelming, every building is splashed in a different hue, all vibrant and beautiful. I know it’s the super touristy part of town, but that’s ok – it deserves all of the attention it gets. Many of these old buildings were constructed by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries. Cartagena was a key port, the entranceway to South America and along with Havana and San Juan, were vital ports in the West Indies trade routes. Everything passed through here and it still does in large part. More than the nice buildings though, the city has a certain undefinable spirit that just appeals to me on a personal level. I can’t explain why, but I love this city and it instantly became one of my most favorite anywhere in the world.
I want to share another photo from the Cocora Valley in Colombia because it’s such a special and completely unique place. “Unique,” one of the most overused and misappropriated words in all of travel writing, but in this case it fits. Unique means that something is a one-off – literally, there is nothing else like it in the world. If you stop and think about it, very few things in life are actually unique, but I believe that the Cocora Valley more than qualifies. I never expected to find this either. My Monograms Local Host said we were going to take a 1-hour hike, I liked the idea of getting some exercise so I readily agreed. As soon as we drove up to the park though, my eyes and mouth were both wide open. The sensation of awe and wonder only intensified throughout the duration of the hike. It was one of those rare times when I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing; it was so ethereal, so otherworldly I thought I was dreaming. The fog trundling around the tops of the massive palms, it seemed more like Jurassic Park than real life. It was an unexpected highlight on a trip full of them and if you ever get the chance, I strongly recommend visiting Colombia’s coffee growing region for this reason, if no other.