Being from a small midwest city, when I told friends and family that I had plans to travel to Colombia, the news wasn’t exactly received with unbridled enthusiasm. Quite the contrary, in fact. Dropped-jaws, most notably. Generally, immediately followed by an apparently inevitable question: “Why?” And a caution: “Be careful!!” or even “Please don’t go.” Given the delight of the experience – nothing short of magical – I am compelled to tell the story and share some of the insights I gleaned from the experience.
Flying internationally is often fraught with challenges and while my trip had its share, they were, in all honesty, quite minimal. The most difficult portion of the travel itself was my interaction with the customs agent. Forgivably quite tired at nearly midnight, the woman had very little patience for a foreigner that spoke almost no Spanish and required an app to help translate. Once I was able to ascertain my friend’s address – required for the forms – I was off on my greatest adventure to date.
Which brings me to my first tip:
1)Fill out the customs form on the plane. I would have proceeded through customs much more quickly had I not had to contact my friend to learn her address.
2) Play Tejo. This is the national sport. Quirky, yes, but so much fun. It’s similar to corn hole in as much as you toss something – in this case, a rock – at a target – in this case, a box lined with a kind of clay and fitted with tiny explosives. I never quite got the scoring, but it was certainly a rush when someone’s rock made contact with one of the firecrackers, as was the intention, and created a small explosion and a big sound. So. Much. Fun.
3) Be brave. In hindsight, I was astounded by how much I would have missed had I embarked on this journey from a place of fear. Yes, Colombia is corrupt. Yes, there is crime, though it is largely confined to the cities. Perhaps something to be expected in a city of 10 million. I, however, was largely treated like a queen. In fact, I’d go so far as to say in certain situations I was overly protected: a tour guide that went out of their way to drive me TWO HOURS further than the intended destination (a service I paid for, of course), and then insisted on escorting me directly to the person with whom I had planned to rendezvous. Despite the fact I had already been in that particular city and knew my way around. In another instance, a fellow with whom I shared a short bus ride stood in a VERY long line with me to be sure I purchased the correct ticket, sat with me the entire four hour ride back to Bogota, waited with me until my taxi arrived at the Bogota station, and then spoke to the driver about the attention and care he expected the driver to pay, in order that I arrive safely at my destination. These are wonderful, welcoming, people. Had I heeded the cautions of my midwest friends and families – who meant well, of course! – I never would have met the poet with whom I shared hours-long conversations… I never would have mounted a moto (akin to a dirt bike) and ridden with a painter around the edges of the city to see the various murals for which he’d been commissioned… I never would have allowed the Amazonian adventure guide to befriend me and introduce me to the aforementioned fellows. Yes, there were moments I was nervous. But genuinely scared? Never.
4) Chat up the locals. In my research before the trip I was encouraged by another blogger – whose name escapes me now – to sit with the locals, often old men, outside the various businesses. This advice led me down some incredible paths of adventure, including the aforementioned discussion with a poet and moto-ride with a painter, made possible because they considered me an immediate friend.
5) Learn the language. I was especially fortunate because the friend I was visiting in Bogota knew Spanish well. But we didn’t spend the entire time together. When we were together, the whole thing went relatively smoothly. Had that not been the case, I would not have enjoyed many of the numerous, authentically-Colombian experiences I was afforded. Having said that, when I was alone I did get by reasonably well with my high school Spanish and the Google Translate app.
6) Carry cards or dice. I know, sounds weird. But hear me out. Colombians are big on family and gatherings in general. In fact, the country ranks number four in the number of national holidays. So, it may have been inevitable that there was a festival happening when my friend and I found ourselves traveling in Tolu, on the north-north-west coast of South America. In true Colombian fashion, we spent the cool evening outside our hostel playing cards. At first, alone. But over the course of the few hours we enjoyed there, several groups of people stopped to ask about our game. In some cases, they pulled up chairs or stood near us, chatting, learning the game, drinking, laughing, playing with us, and generally just gifting us with the decadence of JOY.
7) Bring a water filter. The water in Colombia is not well suited to drinking – even by many Colombians. I would have felt far less guilty about my plastic consumption had I thought to bring my backpacking water bag and filter.
8) Ante up for the nice hostel. Given the exchange rate, nothing is really very expensive when compared with US standards, however, it’s tempting to book the cheapest hostel. Don’t do it. I only stayed in three of them but was immensely grateful for the luxury of a shower, a clean bed, and the extra amenities provided by the most highly rated hostels. On that note, if you can swing it, a visit to Hostel Isla Mucura on the Mucura island of the San Bernardo chain of islands, is well worth the price and the travel time. Owned by an American who asserted his intention was to “create a summer camp experience for adults”, this place was arguably THE highlight of the trip. The boat from Tolu was not expensive, and stopped at a couple of other islands we toured before dropping us off at Mucura. The hostel sits on a large sect of land at one end of the island and felt more like an all inclusive resort than a hostel. White sand beaches were combed daily, staff were incredibly friendly and attentive, the restaurant served a delectable variety of well-prepared food, offered two full bars, and a wide variety of activities including – among others – kayak adventures, slacklining, snorkeling, and a swim in the bioluminescent bay. We paid $150 US for three days of accommodations, adventures, food, and drink.
*Postscript note: This property is listed as “no longer available” on hostelworld.com (which makes me incredibly sad, but definitely something to note.)
9) Make your hostel reservations over the phone. I successfully used the Hostelworld app, but in one case when we arrived at the hostel they had no record of our reservation. And, because there was a holiday (of course), we were forced to pay quite a bit more for another one.
10) Pack a sarong. A sarong is a great multi-purpose clothing item. Part towel, part swimsuit cover, part beach-sand-barrier… it can be tied up to use as a bag, or a head covering… its many uses are nearly innumerable.
11) Exchange your money in Bogota. And use cash as much as you can. The cities are equipped with the card-payment methods you’re probably used to, but the smaller towns are not. Neither do they likely have exchange facilities. It’s also a good idea to ask around about the exchange rate. In a single mall, we visited at least five currency exchange facilities and several of them had different rates.
12) Accept the reality of the place. My little hippie heart was broken by the amount of trash, and plastic, and feral, sick dogs… but this place is relatively newly-liberated, and their water isn’t safe, and it’s cheaper to buy things packaged for a single-use. In a poverty-stricken country, that’s often the only option available to residents. They can’t afford a whole package of tampons, so they purchase one, wrapped first by the manufacturer for sterility and again for sale as an individual item. You’ll enjoy the country so much more if you can just accept these realities and experience it for what it is.
13) Consider bringing earplugs. While the outlying areas are quiet, the cities are not necessarily. Without earplugs, you’ll likely be roused from sleep by the calling of street vendors selling breakfast food and Tinto on the sidewalk outside.
14) Buy the fish. These people want – and need – to make money on something other than drugs. So don’t ask for drugs. And support them in the ways they can and choose to make money: selling art, textiles, fish, and the like. Plus, the seafood in some places is INCREDIBLE.
15) Be ok with saying no. Given the rampant poverty, these people are masters in high-pressure sales. Even things as simple as string-and-bead bracelets – for them – may make the difference between eating that night or not. Buy what you want when you can, but understand that you will be incessantly “sold” on all kinds of things. In the cities, small towns, and beaches alike. Particularly, apparently, at the more touristy beaches like Cartagena, which I did not visit but heard a lot about.
16) Eat at Che. If you make it to Rincon Del Mar, hunt down the culinary wizardry that is Che. Many, many French have made their home in Colombia and this particular European chef has perfected his craft in his newly-chosen hometown of Rincon Del Mar. The fish is incredible. The service is stellar, the setting is idyllic: right on the beach and postcard-beautiful.
17) Stay in Hostels. Granted, I didn’t stay in any proper hotels, but why? Hostels gift you the chance to mingle with other travelers, swap stories and suggestions, and participate in hostel-arranged activities. All at a great price – often in the tens of US dollars.
18) Take the tours. My friend, being a “local” – albeit to Bogota – was hesitant to take up offers for tours and the like, but the horseback trek I naively agreed to the moment it was offered, was among our favorite experiences. A local guide educated us on the flora and fauna, the history, and gave us a unique way to experience the mountainous beauty of Villa De Leyva.
In a nutshell, I LOVED Colombia. Perhaps the best trip I have ever taken.