The Carribean Coast of Colombia

We had left our big backpacks which had accompanied us loyally during the last 5 months, in Bogota. Thus, we boarded our plane to Cartagena de Indias, the ‘white’ city all backpackers go into rhapsodies about, only with hand luggage. Right at the airport we reunited with some friends that we had first met in Montañita and went on to look for a hostel in Getsemani, the city area where most backpackers stay, together. For the next couple of days we then explored the beautiful colonial style old town of Cartagena, walked on the city walls of the 11km long fortress once built to defend the city back in the day, cooled off by catching the waves at Bocagrande, the city’s best beach close by and spent our evenings sipping beers at the square close to the famous clock tower gate or munched ice cream (which was necessary, obviously because it was very hot still at night) while enjoying the atmosphere at a square we found where everybody can present his talent, be it singing, dancing or some kind of acting, to an attentive audience of locals and travelers mingled together. We sadly forgot to remember the name of the place, but if you walk around Getsemani at night, you will surely run into it.
Our next stop then was Playa Blanca. Located just an hour’s drive outside the city (and accessible by boat, taxi or bus), this beach fulfills all criteria of a tropical paradise beach: white sand, turquoise water, palm trees, cocktails served in pineapples or coconuts and little huts to sleep in right on the beach. While there, we floundered about in the calm and bathtub warm water, went for strolls on the beach until we found our own little private strip where we watched the splendid sunset before walking back to eat some fresh Mojarra for dinner (this is a delicious local fish, however, you got to be sure to tell the server you want it grilled, otherwise they will just fry that fish to tastelessness). Many people just come here for a day trip, however, we wanted to spend the night, and thus, could choose between sleeping in hammocks or rooms, both of course so close to the sea that you could not only see but also hear it. As there are quite some mosquitoes around we opted for rooms, but as it stayed hot and humid during the night, we ended up taking a dip in the ocean in the middle of the night, trying to cool down. However, the water was not much cooler than the outside temperature and therefore, did not help all together that much to cool us off, but nevertheless, it still felt great. Before returning to Cartagena, we enjoyed another day at the beach, bringing our relaxation level up to at least 200%, possibly even higher.
From Cartagena we took a transfer bus to go to Santa Marta. Santa Marta itself is not a very exciting city: Apart from hanging out at the Parque de los Novios in the evenings, which however is really nice, there is not much the city itself has to offer. BUT, close by awaits National Park Tayrona, and that is a real highlight of the Colombian Coast. We hiked through tropical rainforest and along perfect beaches until we reached our campsite for the night. There we slept in hammocks and were quite surprised when we woke up with only a few mosquito bites – everyone we had talked to before going there had told us horror stories of how we would basically be eaten alive there by these little bastards. However, as we continued living with an only minor blood loss, and that quite happily, we had some breakfast at the jungle bakery. This place did not look like a bakery in the first place, and definitely not like a trustworthy one, however, it served amazing chocolate bread which was so good, that we could not even have dreamed of any better. So we were even happier after that and went on to enjoy a fun day at the beaches around the area, playing in the water, swimming and relaxing at the shore.
Back in Santa Marta we went on to do some more excursions the rest of the days at the coast. One day we went snorkeling at Playa Grande, a bay close to the small and quite charming fishing town of Taganga, just 15 bus minutes outside of Santa Marta. Lots of people get scuba certified here, not only because there is quite a lot to see but also because the diving schools here offer great deals. On our last day we went to check out the beach at Bahia Concha, which turned out to be nice but a bit boring after a while, so we went back to town where we found the probably best ceviche (remember, that is the raw fish dish we have told you about a few times already) place in town, munched lots and lots of ice cream and hung out one last time in the Parque de los Novios, drinking some wine. The next morning it was time to say goodbye to Colombia for Patrick and Nicky as they were headed towards the last big adventure of this South America trip: Venezuela. However, it was also time to say goodbye to each other, as Lisa was staying in Taganga for a few days longer to take the chance to get her diving certification before going home to Europe.

When at the Caribbean Coast of Colombia
What to do: Don’t stay in the cities! Make excursions to see the beaches outside of the cities like Playa Blanca or the ones in Parque National Tayrona – they are the ones everyone is talking about when marveling about the perfect Caribbean beaches in Columbia!
Where to sleep: Hostal Casa Candela y Chocolate in Santa Marta is a great choice. Clean and bedbugs free beds plus friendly staff, what else can you wish for?
What to eat & drink: Try the fresh Mojarra (with which you were probably still swimming with during the day) at one of the beach restaurants in Playa Blanca – sooooo good!!

Roaming the streets of Bogotá

We discovered Bogotá with a local, our friend Cristhian whom we had first met a seemingly long, long time ago in the North of Argentina. We had imagined Bogotá as a scary place where we would not be able to spent much time walking around outside. But far off we were! Thanks to Cristhian, we got to see the city’s nicest corners, were not in danger to get lost in the wrong places, and thus, had a few awesome and fun days in this metropolis.
So here is what we did in Bogotá: As we got there on a Sunday, we started the city exploration program with a hike up to Mount Monserrate. This hike is chosen by loads and loads of locals here as their Sunday morning activity. They hike up, take the cable car or furnicular to Monserrate church either to attend the service, just as a work out or maybe also in course of a romantic date. Either before or after this journey up and down, many of them traditionally eat a “Tamal”, a rice dish packed up in a banana leave. We figured, that’s their mountaineering dish like at home probably “Kaspressknoedel”, “Groestel” or “Kaiserschmarrn”. After having enjoyed the view over this mighty big city from up there, we went down again to discover it close up. We mainly concentrated on an area called La Candelaria, the old town area of Bogotá. In some of the small alley ways of this area, where most backpackers choose to stay, one could almost forget that Bogotá is not a small town but a city inhabiting millions of people. While there, we had coffee at the Plaza Del Chorro Del Quevedo, the birth place of Bogotá where at any hour of the day lots of people hang out to just have a good time together with the others that do the same. Later we went on to stroll around Plaza de Bolivar and admired the fat people, cats and fruits painted by Fernando Botero, one of Latin America’s most famous artists and exhibited in the Botero Museum. In the evening we went back to the the Plaza Del Chorro Del Quevedo where we mingled with the crowd of locals and tourists to sip some beers and “Aguardiente”, Colombia’a signature anis liquor.
The next day started with a little shopping trip. This might sound lame, but it is actually a very typical activity for the normal local who can choose among various malls in all forms and sizes. However, we did not go shopping entirely voluntarily. Despite that we had been running around in rather run down clothes over the past couple of months, we would have gone on doing that happily if the last laundry service shop that we had chosen would have given us back our clothes… It would be too long of a story to tell in this place, but anyways, we had to get some new emergency shirts and underwear in order to make it through the last couple of weeks in South America. That mission accomplished but still in shopping mood, we went to the Paloquemao market, Bogotá’s biggest market to buy fresh produce. There we bought every fruit that we had not tried till then and also some that we had already fallen in love with. In the end, we had three big bags of fruit. It took us the whole afternoon happily tasting our way through all of them.
Another great activity was riding our bikes through town, following the lead of an American guide who has been living in the city for more than 10 years. Thanks to him, we not only discovered some more sights but also quite some hidden corners that tourists normally would probably not find. One of these places for instance, was the Emeralds trading place. As Colombia is one of the biggest producers of this gemstone, that was quite interesting to see. Moreover, the tour supports street performers and artists and makes sure the tourists get to taste some local foods. However, only the brave ones took up the opportunity to try fried ants, one of the local delicacies.
While in Bogotá we also visited the Catedral de Sal in Zipaquirá, one and a half hours outside the city. This church was build in a unique setting: the tunnels of a former salt mine, located  200 meters underground. It is quite spooky to visit this place, but also mightily impressive.
After the big city life in Bogotá we were ready for some relaxing beach days. Luckily, our next stop was Colombia’s Caribbean Coast!

When in Bogotá
What to do: Go on a bike tour through the city. It gives you a quick but still quite detailed overlook of Bogotá.
Where to stay: We picked a hostel close to the airport as that was more convenient with our flights in and out of town. The one we picked, Hostel Modelia, is highly recommendable as the owners are very helpful and friendly, welcoming visitors almost like family. If you rather want to stay where the party is, in La Candelaria, try the hostel Masaya Bogotá, we only heard good things about the place.
What to eat & drink: Try your way through all the fresh produce at Mercado Paloquemao – it’s fun and there will be new experiences waiting for your taste buds.

Salento – the heart of Colombia’s coffee region

No other country is probably as famous for its coffee as Colombia. Thus, and because everyone that has been there told us how marvelously beautiful it is, we simply had to visit the “eje cafetera”, Colombia’s most important coffee region. An especially scenic place in the area is Salento. This small town is located in the midst of green hills where coffee is cultivated on farms that warmly welcome visitors to show them how coffee beans are grown and transformed into what we can eventually buy in the supermarket back home – notably, back home, as we learned that all the good stuff is exported, whereas only the low quality produce remains in Colombia. Due to that fact, most Colombians prefer hot chocolate for breakfast – no surprise for anyone who has tasted the gray water that is served in most places as coffee around here.
However, back to Salento. Already the town itself is totally worth a visit. We strolled around between the narrow but intensely colorful little streets and hiked up to various view points before enjoying a trout, the local specialty, for lunch. Later in the afternoon, we went to visit Don Eduardo’s coffee farm which is one of the smaller ones in the area but focused on organic production. We opted to go there on horseback, as it sounded like a more romantic way to explore our surroundings than a bike ride or a hike. When we got there, the owner, Don Eduardo, welcomed us warmly before our tour started. Afterwards, we could relax for a wile, sipping some freshly roasted and brewed, literally homemade coffee, before mounting our horses again in order to return to town.
Another one of Salento’s main attractions is the beautiful Valle de Cocora. Everyone visiting should take a day to go see the breath-taking wax palms that grow up to 60 meters into the sky. To get there, people typically take jeeps to the trailhead from where it takes about five hours to do the whole trail in a pace that allows to enjoy the wonderful scenery.
From the smooth and relaxed hills of Salento our journey then went on to the busy streets of Medellín.

When in Salento
What to do: Learn how to grow and make coffee at one of the farms around town. For example at the Finca Don Eduardo.
Where to stay: You find plenty of hostels in Salento. We stayed at La Casona Hostel Salento. It’s basic but clean. What else does a backpacker need?
What to eat & drink: Go to one of the many restaurants that offer trout. You can’t go wrong with that, they all know how to cook it to perfection!

Medellín – a city between past and future

Repeated recommendations of fellow backpackers had eventually convinced to add the extra loop on my itinerary to go visit Medellín, Columbia’s second biggest city. As Lisa and Nicky were already too eager to get to the coast, I was exploring the hometown of the probably most famous gangster of all times, Pablo Escobar, by myself.
Coming from Ecuador I eventually arrived in Medellín after spending two more or less sleepless nights on buses. The sleeplessness was not only caused by the immensely windy and bumpy roads but even more so by the driving style of the most likely suicidal, or at least insane drivers which caused me to instead of sleeping focus on holding on to my seat to not fall all over the bus (this kind of driving, however, later turned out to be the quite normal way to do it in Colombia… ). Furthermore, we luckily took regular breaks all through the night as the bus was continuously stopped by heavily armed policemen which were so kind to control my passport every time exactly in the moment when I found at least a little bit of sleep. And even after they had left again, the Kalashnikovs they had carried did not help for sweet dreams either…
By the time I eventually made it to my hostel, the initial motivation to explore the city was at the lowest level possible – I just wanted some rest! After a while though, curiosity conquered laziness and off I went to explore!
Medellín is located in the Aburrá valley, surrounded by mountains. Way more thrilling then the scenic location, however, is its thrilling history. Back in the day, it was considered as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, mainly due to the activities of Pablo Escobar, the most wanted drug lord of that time who controlled his cartel from Medellín but was feared everywhere. Since he was shot to death in 1993, Medellín, blossomed and is nowadays considered as a highly innovative city.
The immense size of Medellín is best visible when taking a cable car to get a bird’s eye perspective from the Santo Domingo barrio. However, to be honest, the view I got there was not altogether so charming and definitely not made me want to see too much of the city close up thereafter. Thus, my city tour was kept to a minimum.
Instead I took some time to relax until I went to discover the real beauty of the area which awaits visitors a two hour’s bus ride outside of Medellín, in Guatapé. Guatapé is a little colonial town, but the surrounding in which it is located is breathtaking. It is a huge lake scenery which seems just unreal. Taking away some of the romantic idyll is the fact that it was all artificially built, serving the purpose to feed a hydro-electric dam. Nevertheless, it is still absolutely beautiful! It requires some effort to get to the best viewpoint that is definitively from “La Piedra”, a monolith with a height of 200m. Everyone who climbs the 659 steps and reaches the top is rewarded with a stunning 360° view. While in Guatapé, it is also worthwhile to take a boat tour to enjoy the landscape from a different perspective.
Fortunately, my trip to Medellín was on a weekend because then the city offers some of the best parties in all of Colombia. This is at least what other backpackers were telling! And in order to check these rumors, a short visit to Parque Lleras which is supposed to be the city’s party hub was inevitably. Indeed, there are plenty of bars, restaurants, and clubs. But still tired from the hours in the bus, after a few shots of Aguardiente – a liquor that all Colombians seem to love – I desired nothing more than some sleep – in a bed for a change.
Since the time was limited and the “to-do-list” for Colombia still long, another bus drive was unavoidable. The next stop was already waiting…

When in Medellín
Where to sleep: La Presidenta is a budget accommodation with a friendly and helpful staff located in the heart of El Poblado, one of the city’s best neighborhoods. Also quite convenient: it is in walking distance to Parque Lleras.
Where to eat & drink: In El Poblado you find lots and lots of bars, restaurants and clubs.
What to do: Go to Guatapé! It’s only a day trip from Medellín and you surely won’t regret it. If you are in Medellìn for the weekend, visit Parque Lleras. This is Medellíns number one nightlife district and really does have something for everyone’s taste.