I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to finally visit Colombia – I was sure I’d love it well before my visit there a few months ago. Thankfully, my travel instincts were correct and my week exploring the country with the travel company Monograms was a fun and engaging experience. Visiting three different regions of the country, I saw and experienced a lot from the tropical weather of Cartagena to the mystical palms deep in the coffee growing region. Looking back at it though, I thought I’d share those experiences that rose to the top, ones I enjoyed just a little bit more than the others and hopefully in the process, I’ll inspire your own adventures in this remarkable South American country.
Bogota Food Tour
What I enjoyed most on my trip wasn’t a famous attraction, it was the food. I knew before even leaving home that the culinary side of the trip would be amazing, but even that is a gross understatement. Taking a Bogota food tour, I learned a lot about the culinary traditions of the city and country in general, from its many corn-based meals and snacks to desserts that may seem a little off, but which are all delicious. But it goes well beyond that into fresh and local eating, visiting the neighborhood or citywide markets and buying some of the freshest fruits and vegetables you’ll ever see. Due to the country’s unique sets of climates, they produce fruits so exotic you’d think you were in the middle of Thailand. I couldn’t even name half the fruits I tasted, but they were all delicious. Add in the medium-roasted and full-bodied coffee for which Colombia is so very famous, and the food scene in the country is worth a visit in its own right.
Although I was a little skeptical at first, it didn’t take long for me to fall 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.
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.
The colorful highlight for many visitors to the rural coffee growing region of Colombia is visiting the many small towns or pueblos scattered around the mountains and valleys. One of the most popular of these towns by far is Salento. A major road once went through the town in the 19th century, but when it was rerouted the town was left frozen in time, thankfully for us today. Walking around was mesmerizing, even if the rains had started for the day. Each building I passed was plunged in a different shockingly bright color, adding to the festive spirit of the town. It’s close to the Cocora Valley with its famous mist-shrouded palm trees, so it’s a popular spot to stop for a few hours. Luckily that rain kept most of the other tourists away and I very much had this gorgeous town all to myself. It’s not the only pueblo in the region though and an entire trip could be made visiting them and learning what makes each small town unique and different.
Hotel Sofitel Legend Santa Clara
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.
San Francisco Barrio
All year I’m working with the walking tour and experience company, Context Travels. To be honest, I’ve been patronizing their innovative walks around the world for years but in Cartagena I was in for something very different and very special. Their Deep Travel experience into one of the city’s poorest barrios isn’t your typical tourist experience, but that’s the point. Led by master tour guide Alex Rocha, I spent several hours with him exploring his neighborhood and even enjoying a delicious meal at his home in the barrio. Playing with local kids and learning all about Alex’s innovative youth center was exactly the balanced information I needed during my time in Cartagena. So often, it’s easy to stay in the touristy areas and enjoy the typical sights. But it’s only when you get out into the real city and see how locals live and spend their days that real education begins. For me, travel is about having fun but it’s also an education and if I can also give back to the local community in the process, then I can’t imagine a more perfect way to spend an afternoon.
Just being in Cartagena
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.