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 🇨🇴: 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.

A day out in Taganga

Laura’s dad had already popped by her mums house on a few occasions, but still we owed him a visit in Taganga – the former fishermen village 15mins drive from Santa Marta now turned Israeli party hotspot. From the main village you can hike over to Playa Grande and take in the nice views of the bay.

Playa Cristal 🏖 (well, almost)

Playa Cristal is about an hours ride from Santa Marta (if you don’t miss the left turn…) if you drive yourself. There are also plenty of tours and a boat service from Taganga.

Overall, a bit disappointing given high entrance fees (USD15 for a foreigner being part of Tayrona national park) not including vehicle, parking or the boat transfer you still require for the last bit to reach Playa Cristal. We skipped the boat ride and enjoyed the quiet beach can reach by moto. On the way we stopped to see ‘7 olas’ – the bay of 7 waves.

New tattoos 🐢 🌊

We finally made it to the tattoo studio to get our sea turtles inked on our bodies. We had picked the design already in Sri Lanka, but for reasons of time and drama didn’t manage to get them done. The design was very inspired by our sea turtle experience in Hikkaduwa – what a great day it was!

Our tattoo artist was Denis Bondarenko (here his insta) who has his studio in Rodadero (15min ride from Santa Marta). All super clean, relaxed and very professional. We spent the whole day there amidst lots of chatting about life, travels ans other things with Denis and his wife Estefania.

Santa Marta & Bogota: Family introduction 👧🏻 🇨🇴

Five days in Colombia flew past like a rocket. I met Laura’s family for the first time. Most of them live in and around Santa Marta, just the grandparents in Bogota. Thank you all for your great hospitality and the free spanish lessons 😉 I take away many memorable moments with me as well as my first tatoo 👧🏻 🇨🇴. Hasta la próxima!

Back in Santa Marta

Laura picked me up from the airport and we headed to the airbnb i booked. Presumably close to her house, but not really as it turned out. We spent the time organising a few last things such as doctor visits, injections etc, visited the Tayrona gold museum, Palomino beach, spent time with laura’s mum Deisy, sister Lorena and Mario – their quasi adopted son – and had also a little time for party in La Puerta for ourselves. Good to have Santa Marta nightlife back, be it just briefly. It is really good and authentic.

Tattoo time…

I had been thinking about getting a tattoo done for a while, but i guess never had someone holding my hand to see it through. When laura mentioned she will get a new tattoo done (a joint one with her sister), i figured it was the opportune moment. The studio is run by a venezuelan tattoo artist and was very clean. Tick. The design we did on the spot although i knew roughly beforehand what i wanted. The procedure lasted for about an hour and was a little painful, as the tatoo sits right on my ribs. One of those more sensitive spots. I like it a lot. Let’s see what mum thinks 🙄

Palomino beach

Palomino is one of the many possible destinations around Santa Marta. It’s a long stretch of sandy beaches and at times pretty aggressive waves. You can get there from Santa Marta by bus (1,5h) followed by a quick motorbike ride to the beach unless you feel like walking. Most of the beaches belong to hostels and make money of the associated bars / restaurants and accommodation. We spent half a day there playing with the waves.

One night in Bogotá

While Laura’s dad Mauricio usually lives in Taganga, a hippy beach spot near santa marta, we met him in bogota. He currently spends a lot of time there to take care of his dad and thus help out his mum – both 87. We opted to go by public transport, which means transmillenio bus in bogota. It’s a huge bus network with separate lanes and rather long buses. A bit crowded for my taste, but it works. Laura .

In the evening we relocated to an airbnb in chapinero – one of the best districts in bogota. Sushi dinner at Osaki’s and beers at Bogota Beer Company. Lore joined us and after a glass of wine quickly forgot her flu 😉. Great night… But then the Guiana’s were waiting 🛫

Back to Colombia – then the Guyana’s

Two days in London proved loaded with catch ups – cedric, hubert, yash, per, dan, bernd and a few locals. The rest of the time i spent sorting gear & clothing to get ready for the the next trip.

It was almost exactly one year ago that i visited Colombia for the first time. By now my Spanish is not bad and i have a colombian girlfriend. What difference a year can make! I am really looking forward to hang out a bit in Santa Marta and Bogota, hit the beach and meet new faces.

Off to North East South America: The Guyana’s

However, it is also time to explore some other parts of South America. I have picked a somewhat more unusual and not well travelled part – the North East of the continent. It is made up of the three countries and former colonies Guyana (english), Suriname (dutch) and French Guiana (french) followed by a stint on Aruba to learn kite surfing (fingers crossed). So i won’t get to practice Spanish in public too much.

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Why not so well travelled?

Well, there is the big issue of transport. The amazon jungle to the south, (no-go) Venezuela to the west and water on the other sides making plane travel into the region essential. There are, however, only few options such as usually one flight from the former colonial power (say Amsterdam – Paramaribo) & one from Aruba, but no direct flights from hubs like Bogota.

The other issue, partly going hand in hand, is price levels above your typical budget for backpackers. In fact, french guyana is reportedly the most expensive place in SA being effectively part of France / Europe (eg you pay with Euro’s). Many products have to be imported.

Why is it worth going?

Well, we will see but the cultural mix of locals, former runaway slaves, Caribbeans, colonialists, asians etc is truely unique in the world as is the countryside itself that is dominated by the Amazon covering some 4/5th of the surface and provides for a high degree of biodiversity. There is also the chance to spot satélite launches in French Guiana.

Exciting! Let’s see how it goes.

Taganga: Still a great spot to get away from Santa Marta’s hustle & bustle

I hadn’t actually picked up on Taganga until Uri, my Israeli fellow Spanish student, mentioned to me. Its 10mins by car from Santa Marta, an Israeli hotspot and offers a way better beach than in the centre of Santa Marta and some good value watersports such as diving, kite surfing etc. It also boasts good accomodation including hotels, hostels & airbnbs (many with great seaviews) as well as many restaurants.

The lonely planet verdict is quite a bit more negative on Taganga in that it deems the place, once a quiet fishing village, as overbuilt and overrun. I share some of the criticism in particular that there local economy hasn’t participated enough in the tourist influx, but also like its evening charm.

Everything is just so close and with a good vibe altogether. Significantly less hassle than on the beachfront in central Santa Marta, much fewer street prostitutes (against what I had been told) and with a fair bit of Hippy touch as every second a guy tries to sell you a tribal wristband (I have 4 by now myself despite not buy any there).

Good place to relax for a few days and use as a base for nearby spots Tayrona & even Minca though for that Santa Marta itself cuts out one (bus) stopover.