Colombia 🇨🇴: A packed family holiday in the land of contrasts & variety

Foreword

The idea of going to Colombia was born somewhere on our last ski holiday in Austria where Laura joined us for the first time. In all honesty, I never thought it would happen. After all, parents can be quick to say “yeah, good idea” only to fold later. Furthermore, in the view of my parents Colombia was a rather dangerous place (information sourced from narcotics documentaries and random news) and with a serious lack of development (my mum literally would’t take her new trainers on holiday expecting Africa like conditions!). To be fair to them, bad prejudice is widespread even though the country has come a long way since the times of Escobar and especially since the FARC agreements. For travellers of South America, including many younger ones, the journey usually starts in Peru or Ecuador and heads south from there. So plenty of views to correct on our journey ahead.

Gathering in Bogota

Already on the taxi journey from El Dorado airport in Bogota to our hotel, my mum was openly surprised how modern Bogota presented itself with its many offices of domestic and international companies. Also the hotel and the district of Candelaria (arguably one of the best areas of Bogota) went down well. Before hitting the bed after lengthy travelling, we took a stroll to find some food and ended up in a local supermarket canteen for lack of better options. Empanadas, salmon and a first taste of Colombian beer set us up for the night. Frances joined the team halfway through the night and come breakfast, the family was complete for now. Ready to explore Bogota.

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Rehn gang: First breakfast in Bogota

Monserrate, La Candelaria & Zona T

We visited Monserrate towering over the city and offering spectacular views in addition to providing a good feeling for Bogota’s huge dimensions. Next up was lunch where the Aijaco soup set a first culinary highlight before we explored the district of La Candelaria – the historic center of Bogota. We sampled Chicha (a fermented sweetcorn based drink with 1-2% alcohol) although it would remain a one off tasting, took endless pictures of the colourful houses and graffitis and recovered in a local cafe over a few cocktails.

Evenings in Bogota often lead to Zona T with lots of restaurants and bars. It was first of November and it seemed everyone was was still dressed for Halloween – what an effort people make here. memories of my first trip to Colombia in Oct 2017 when I celebrated Halloween with a bunch of locals in Cali (Cali es Cali!) A favourite of mine is the Bogota Beer Company with some tasty beers – a place I first visited with Laura and her sister Lorena (Santa Marta & Bogota: Family introduction 👧🏻 🇨🇴). The dinner at the Italian place was ok, but we didn’t make it a long night for we were all pretty tired.

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Very dog friendly homeless

Anyway, great first day. No kidnappings, no armed robberies, Bodo impressed with how well Uber works … my parents must be seriously surprised this is possible!

Zipaquira – Underground Salt Cathedral & Overground Colonial Beauty

Our second day took us outside Bogota, about an hour by Uber (yes, we were lazy). I have to note here that Uber is often the best option for a group of 4 people given low prices per person. We drove to the city of Zipaquira to visit the worlds largest underground Salt cathedral (two others you can find in Poland the guidebook told us). The current cathedral was completed not so long ago as it replaced an older version that was no longer save. To reach the cathedral, you follow a path the describes the 14 stations of the cross until you reach the highlight of the cathedral – a 10m cross.

We were all pretty hungry after the walk and hit the center of town. I have to say, just the colonial center of Zipaquira would have been worth the journey. Beautifully restored and pretty lively on this beautiful Sunday. We had lunch at the main square before wandering about town. Ahhh, before I forget … Zipaquira is the hometown of the first ever tour de France winner from Colombia – Egan Bernal, 2019.

Hello (again) Medellin

I had been to Medellin only recently with Laura, but also feel a bit like coming home everytime after the 3 weeks I spent here studying Spanish in 2017. Welcome back to myself then!

Pablo’s legacy

After checking into our new home (nice pick Frances!) for the coming threw days, we began exploring medellin in the footsteps of its most famous (be it very much disliked) son – Pablo Escobar. The government and people of medellin do their best to eradicate his legacy and speaking his name feels as prohibited as mentioning the villain Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter.

The house where he used to live no longer exists I am told (different to my visit two years ago), but you can still visit the location of his infamous prison. I say the location, for there is not much more to see. The museum has been closed following some inappropriate action of visitors. My last visit was more insightful.

From there we went on to visit the Escobar family grave in cementario jardins montesacro. That one is still there and accessible and also well cared for.

Comuna 13: Never fails to impress

We did literally the same walking tour I did two years back. With the same guide and  the same story (well, what should have changed – after all it is history). Still quite amazing. Meanwhile the tour guides house has been expanded with a roof terrace and bar for tourists. Progress (and more dinero as she no longer asks for tips at the end of the tour, but right in the middle of the comuna 13 maze – clever!).

While in the area we also headed up to La Aurora with the cable cars (departing in San Javier where tours of comuna 13 start & finish). Similar to the idea of the escalators, these metro cables link poorer neighbourhoods to the center and provide access to all kinds of services and work.

We even found time to visit plaza Bolivar with the famous statues of Colombia’s prime artist Fernando Botero. And then someone almost nicked my mobile … but I managed to fend him off. So we even got to see a little bit of street crime ;o)

Lake & house spotting in Guatape

My second visit this year after the July trip with Laura. It turned definitely into a highlight as both views from the rock and the pretty town with its colourful houses impressed. My sister was particularly taken by the colourful houses of Guatape, which ended up taking the largest share of the lovely photo-book of the holiday she put together. The men also enjoyed the place and also got to to enjoy some football while the girls went shopping.

A visit to Parque Arvi

Before the time in Medellin was finally up, we headed up the cable cars again and enjoyed a stroll in Parque Arvi. It seemed pretty large and next time I definitely would book a bike tour.

Santa Marta: Nightlife central!

We had a late flight into Santa Marta and arrived in darkness. Once we checked into the colonial house we would stay in for the coming three nights, I met up with Laura. We quickly decided to pick up the others as well for a late night drink. They immediately picked up the special vibe Santa Marta’s historic center has at night … and to my surprise we kicked off with shots! Mum included ;o) It should only be one night of many to come!

German coffee tour in Minca

After a brief visit to the city beach (must to the disliking of Laura & family … as it is not the best beach around), we headed to Minca to visit the Victoria coffee factory. The way there is rather adventurous on a road that is in a terrible shape (that might actually be too kind!). Once we arrived, however, things looked up. We bumped into the owner (well, the wife of the now deceased owner), a lovely lady from Germany who offered to do a tour in German. I was rather happy about this alas my sister … less translating to do!

Sweating in Tayrona

When in Santa Marta, visiting Tayrona park is a must. A friendly heads up – do book your tickets in advance as waiting in the queue can be rather lengthy given the shockingly slow speed of service. Once in, we hiked a few hours to Cabo San Juan. Beautiful, but given the high humidity a rather sweaty exercise. At the end, a refreshing swim and freshly fried fish waited for us. Tasty.

For the way home we booked a speedboat … wow! We get pretty wet and the aves were at times pretty intimidating I have to admit. But we made it in the end and got safely to Taganga.

Family dinner at Laura’s

Christmas came early it seemed as a nicely decorate x-mas tree greeted us at the dinner party in Laura’s house. Lot of nice food prepared and Lorena busy handing out cocktails. Main course were burritos. In between drinks and food, I was busy translating between the Deisy and my family. Great evening altogether. Muchas gracias!

Cartagena: The mystic disappearance Frances’ pendant?

The bus ride over to Cartagena was reasonably comfortable, but took ages due to several stops waiting for customers. Once in cartagena, we explored the magnificent old town finishing at cafe del mar. Great spot to enjoy sunset though it was rather wet that day. We just about managed to escape the hefty shower of a dark cloud. It poured down. Thank god we paid in time.

The second day we headed to the island of Tierra Bomba to enjoy the beach away from the hustle of the mainland. Well, we got hustled nonetheless! During a massage my sister had to take off her golden necklace … and somehow the pendant disappeared. Despite all 5 massage therapists and us looking for it, it was gone. Most likely in the pockets of the therapist herself (though a search neither yielded a result).

Back in Cartagena, we explored the beautifully restored colonial city. Amazing!

P.S. Frances got a new pendant from her best friend for x-mas … how thoughtful of her!

San Andres: Island life (again)

It is not that long ago that Laura and I spent almost two weeks on the Caribbean island of Aruba (Aruba 🇦🇼: Happy Island Life). Now we headed to the island of San Andres for the last five days of my parents in Colombia. The island is part of Colombia for historical reasons and actually located closer to Nicaragua.

I am not gonna reveal a big secret saying that we spent much time on the beach near our hotel, but there was lots more. Be it tuna fishing with local fishermen, touring the hot spots nearby like Johnny Cay by boat, cruising around the island in a golf car, diving or meeting the miss San Andres over a lovely dinner that left our chef Bodo well impressed (and all of us regret why we only came here for the last night!).

From here we headed to Bogota for a night and said goodbye to the parents. Their journey was over after 2,5 amazing weeks. They were impressed and took a very different view of Colombia home to Germany. Nice one!

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Our journey, however, was not yet finished! The jungle was calling …

Amazon: River boats, monkeys & dolphins

We used the night in Bogota to watch the new Joker movie. Scary stuff, but really well played by Joaquin Phoenix. Chapeau! I sincerely hope they do another movie and continue the story from the vantage point of the joker. Before watching, Frances sampled Canelazo and we visited the street market. Bogota already felt a little more different than a few weeks earlier. More real maybe. Next day we took off to Colombia’s southern border and the city of Leticia.

There is really not much to see in Leticia, but it is the hub and there is no avoiding it. Our task was to fix a tour. We ended up opting for a self-organised trip up the Amazon with the daily river boat service. First stop – monkey island!

Isla de los Micos

After a short night to catch one of the early boats out of Leticia harbour, we got on the river taxi. It was a grey and rainy day making the ride less pleasant. In order to keep the rain out, they covered the windows with some tarp like material meaning no view for us. Once on the island, the monkeys didn’t wait long to visit us … essentially all over us. Three, four or five monkeys at a time.  Different to the monkey I encountered in Asia, the micos are not aggressive. Just a little dirty and so the wet wipes came in handy!

Nature reserve: Jungle walk & Native village

After a few hours with the monkeys, we continued to the nature reserve. Accommodation proved difficult as the host claimed the place was fully booked though we only spotted a group of four over dinner. Well, we got a place to stay where usually the workers stayed (who were busy building a tree hut).

After lunch (where suddenly two tourist boats dumped a bunch of tourists to join the feast, we headed into the jungle to a nearby native ticuna village. awesome place. We shopped a few handmade bracelets (for COP2,000 or USD0.6) and joined a tour of the local heritage museum with one of the village leaders. Very interesting indeed! Later on, Frances and I did a jungle walk to see some of the massive trees around and listen to childhood stories of our guide.

At night the jungle really comes to life and near the pond in our resort sprung to life. We spotted frogs (in some poisonous looking colours), a small caiman, a snake and lots of other little creatures. Then it was time for bed to be up on time for our next tour.

Breakfast in the jungle

It was a 5am start though we ended up waiting a fair bit. Some idiot stole the engine of the hotels river boat overnight (something that happens frequently here apparently).

Once a replacement engine arrived, we went downriver into a side stream of the river for a bit of fishing. Frances and Laura both caught two, mainly piranhas which as I already knew from Suriname are super-tasty.  Our guide prepared a tasty breakfast with the fish, eggs, platano and hot chocolate …. jummy!

On the way back to nature reserve we also spotted some grey dolphins … well, not all of us so for them dolphin spotting had to wait.

Puerto Nariño: Simply paradise & Finally pink dolphins

Almost our last stop in the Amazon was tiny Puerto Narino. A quiet little town without motorised traffic (apart from the river taxis to Leticia or Peru and one vehicle) and with a very relaxed feeling. From here we took a great dolphin tour on Lake Tarapoto – this time seeing pink and grey dolphins, did more fishing (where I also managed to catch a few for a change) and a little swim in the lake (piranhas don’t attack unless there is an open wound somewhere). The sunsets and evenings generally are to die for. If you come here, budget a few days. It is really worth your while.

Brasil for a day: Chaotic Tabatinga!

Before heading home, we used Leticia’s position in a tri-border region to visit Brasil (no visa required here). It was rather chaotic (partly due to our own faults) and a real step down from Leticia (who would have thought!) with lots more people & poverty. While heavens were emptying themselves, we enjoyed a beer amongst locals and were unexpectedly happy once back across the border in Leticia.

Back to Bogota – hello riots, hasta luego Frances!

For Frances it was almost time to head back to Germany, but her flight didn’t depart until late at night. So we headed into Bogota (for the third time). First cause for excitement was a police stop. They had figured out that we were using an Uber against the rules. Despite our best efforts to deny it is an Uber, we had to get off. Yet we refused using a normal taxi out of principle and soon after boarded another Uber. I sincerely hope the driver won’t get into too much trouble. As an aside, by now Uber has ceased operations across Colombia.

Bogota, along with the rest of the country was now host to huge demonstrations. People were (and remain) unhappy with the president. The bus stop (transmilenio) opposite our hotel was completely smashed. Not a single pane of glass intact. As we would find out later, the same fate happened to most bus stops in the center. Later on, from the save seat of an Uber taxi, we saw demonstrations live.

Unimpressed by all this … we enjoyed sushi for dinner and found a really nice cocktail bar to finish off the trip. After three weeks we said goodbye and Frances disappeared into the night onboard an Uber taxi.

Hasta luego! Next time we meet on the ski slopes in Austria.

Colombia 🇨🇴: Dessert & kites in Cabo de la Vela (La Guajira)

La Guajira is a department of Colombia of which i have only seen a tiny bit when visiting the beaches of Palomino with its crazy waves. This time round we found the time to see the real La Guajira – a peninsula made up of mostly wastelands and desserts not far from the border to Venezuela and (by air) not far from Aruba (Aruba 🇦🇼: Happy Island Life).

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Northernmost tip of Colombia & South America

Long journey: If you ask me, the best way to travel the 300km to Cabo de la Vela is by motorbike (ideally an Enduro, but roadbike works fine too as long as its dry) and probably with a stop. We opted for public transport instead though it is cumbersome and takes 10 hours (!) spread over 4 vehicles (Santa Marta, Riohacha, Quattrovillas, Uribia, Cabo de la Vela). The most interesting part of the journey is the 4×4 from / to Uribia where you share precious little space with lots of people and tons of boxes with ice cubes!

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Hot & dry!

Tough life: Life in this part of Colombia is far from easy. Basic things like water, electricity and road infrastructure are missing or in poor condition. The proximity to Venezuela doesn’t help either other than with cheap petrol contraband that crosses the border in Coca Cola bottles (EUR0,35 / liter vs. EUR0,70 officially).

The people: In Guajira you will find the tribe of the Wayuu with markedly different looks – darker hair, dark skin. They also have their own language and not all speak Spanish including many young people.

Kite tourism: While the village of Cabo de la Vela was pretty empty when we visited (season is June & Nov-Jan when you will struggle to find accomodation), there were quite a few kite surfers around. And quite skillful ones at that. Impressive to say the least.

Overall a great time especially with our two travel companions (Xiomara & Astrid) from Bogota. Generally I am not a huge fan of very hot and dry places, but La Guajira is a place worth seeing. Next time we come for a little longer and get kitesurfing ourselves!

Colombia 🇨🇴: Making coffee from A to Z in Filandia

No, we haven´t suddenly hopped from Colombia to Scandinavia! Rather we took two busses from Salento to get us to another colonial beauty in the coffee zone that is maybe a little less well known to foreigners – the town of Filandia.

Some footage of our day out in Filandia

After a night out in town with some really good Colombian cuisine, we visited a local hostel that rents out bikes and also does tours. For the tour we were late (start like 7.30am to avoid the heat), but for COP40.000 per bike we were soon in the saddle to explore Filandia´s surroundings. First up was Filandia´s mirador – a roman times looking watchtower that offers splendid views of the surrounding hills. Must see!

From there we cycled about 15km to a coffee plantation called Finca El Carriel. We took the off-road path, which is fine given it is all downhill (quite literally). Admittedly, we stopped frequently to marvel at the stunning scenery. Just perfect!

Once at the plantation, two German travellers joined us and we all enjoyed a fantastic tour (COP35.000 each) that explained (and let us do ourselves) the process of coffee making from the seed all the way to freshly grounded coffee from the french press. Impressive (and tasty). Ahh … the fresh oranges were also super juicy.

Probably a little to too self confident we continued to the town of Quimbaya (more downhill) for some food and refreshments. On the way back we paid the price and now the way was ALWAYS uphill for 16km. The sun burning relentlessly. Quite gruesome 2.5h to get back to FIlandia and catch a bus to Perreira … but scenic nonetheless. I guess we both can do with a little more exercise on the legs ;o)

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Colombia 🇨🇴: Exploring Salento & Valle de Cocora

Its already been a few weeks over here in Colombia after I finished my paddle trip early to spend time with Laura instead. I do miss the outdoors at times (and the not so humid weather) and am happy when I receive the occasional update or photo from Harry who continues his tour in Canada. Harry is now is his last month before duty calls back home in Cologne. My rocket-canoe is still being shipped to London and now probably somewhere on the atlantic – maybe it crosses path with Greta Thunberg on her way to the climate conference in New York? Safe journey both!

 

However, its not that adventure has come to a complete standstill over here – quite to the contrary. And while i am hopelessly behind to write up all the things that have been happening in Santa Marta and around, at least I found time now to report on a fabulous trip to the region of coffee and the worlds´ tallest palm trees – first up was Salento.

Salento: Colonial beauty, my type of climate & amazing Valle de Cocora

We didn´t opt for the easy way to reach Salento, a flight to Pereira followed by a short bus ride, but took the first flight into Medellin and a 7h bus from there (not helped by roadworks). However, with comfi seats, good views throughout, on-board toilet and a 30min lunch stop (beans & chicharron for me, chicken soup for Laura) it was not unpleasant at all (and I had plenty of time to improve my quiz talent on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”). Not a cent richer we made it to Salento late afternoon and checked in to Vila Isabel – a great guesthouse with amazing views & lovely staff. Here some drone footage.

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The Salento viewpoint is nearby the hotel and, nestled into the hills close to Los Nevados National Park, it offers spectacular views which we enjoyed alongside an aguapanela (sugar cane drink). The atmosphere in town is a bit touristy, but it is organised, clean and there is a good vibe amidst amazing colonial and well preserved architecture. If you are into shopping, there are lots of shops with handmade stuff (as well as the usual rubbish). Just bring a jacket … temperatures drop below 20 degrees at night (which my little samaria struggled with). I, for my part, loved the moderate temperature and lack of humidity. What a good night sleep I had (well, both of us actually).

Valle de Cocora: Meet the tallest palm tree in the world

The trip already starts well when you book your “Willy” – a jeep that was formerly used to transport coffee around here (now you can take pictures with a few Willy´s dressed up … for a fee of course). They run from 6.30am and an early departure is advisable to avoid hiking in the heat. If you don´t get a seat inside, you stand outside for the 20mins journey to the valley. Hold on tight!

Once arrived you have several options. The most common route is a 4-6 hour round trip including a visit to a hut with mockingbirds. The routes cost COP3&4,000, seeing the mockingbirds another COP5,000. All worthwhile doing. Altitudes reach up to 3,000m – so take your time and drink plenty of water.

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The path is typically pretty and easy to walk. Animals like horses and cattle are commonplace and in the valle de cocora itself you can admire Colombia´s national tree – the wax palm. The trees grow 45m to sometimes 60m tall and were close to extinction (due to the overuse of the palm leaves for palm Sunday proceedings would you believe it) before this sanctuary was created. The scenery is outstanding.

Next stop … Filandia. Vamos!

Colombia 🇨🇴: Two weeks in Santa Marta

After Dec2017 and Oct/Nov, it was my third time back in Santa Marta. This time with less of a travel angle, but to spend time with Laura, her family and help out in certain areas. I also brought lots of German food along to impress with a bit of German cooking (and it went well, generally speaking). Santa Marta continues to fascinate me with its Caribbean feel and bustling nightlife yet also its easy access to the surrounding nature in national parks and the ocean. See you soon!

Hanging out in Santa Marta

Our apartment was pretty central and we used it as a base to explore the restaurants and bars of Santa Marta when we had time. Loved the breakfasts and dinners alike!

Work placement in boiling heat

There were a few items on the list to keep Laura and myself busy. Be it painting walls and doors, repairing chairs (that I broke … need to slim down) or building a terrace foundation. Laura’s skills and knowledge were admittedly quite impressive – respect! More to come in the future …

Drowning in Minca

Minca is a fisher village an hour from Santa Marta nestled into the Sierra Nevada. We visited the Pozo Azul for a rather cold swim in the river and wanted to also visit Casa Elemento, but a flood of rain left us stranded in a cafe – well, could have been worse.

Cheering for Union Magdalena

Unión Magdalena has only been promoted to Colombia’s top division recently and ever since I looked it up on google, the search engine has been feeding me their results on my mobile. This time it worked out to watch a game against America Cali although not of relevance anymore.

The stadium requires a taxi to reach (unless you want to jump a lorry like the local kids) was pretty empty. Ticket prices didn’t help I guess (30k COP or c9USD). The atmosphere right next to the fans in the south end of the stadium was still great (not to be mixed up with those in the north end who are considered enemies). The kept on singing despite Union losing 3:0 and being dominated by America.

Ahh, and we managed to meet Mallory, a school-time friend of Laura, for a nice evening together.

BBQ on fire

BBQ’s were high in demand – one which I prepared (German style) and a Colombian one prepared by Lorena, Laura’s sister. Delicious! We topped it up with a good night out in Santa Marta and a few dance lessons with Lorena though I fear my hips are not made for this. Better leave this to the professionals.