We started our travels through Colombia in Medellin, the country’s second largest city and what was 20 years ago one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Medellin was the capital of the global cocaine business and boasted one of the highest homicide rates on earth. In 1993, the city’s fortunes changed when the police (with assistance from the US) shot and killed Pablo Escobar, the notorious cartel boss that had accumulated an estimated net worth of 20 billion dollars. Today, Medellin is a safe, modern city with a population that is more than eager to welcome foreigners.
Although Medellin doesn’t have a long list of tourist attractions, it’s one of those places that feels really liveable. The streets are clean, the plazas are shady and the people are happy – it was simply a nice place to enjoy a good cup of coffee on a quiet patio. And at night, the city was alive with people socializing in plazas decked out with Christmas lights.
After a few nights in Medellin we embarked on our hellish journey to Aguacate (close to Capurgana) on the Caribbean Sea. We spent six nights over Christmas at the Bahia Lodge, a beautiful place with private cabanas, delicious meals and friendly staff. Although most of our afternoons were spent relaxing on the beach, on one of the days we walked two and a half hours through the jungle and crossed the border into Panama (where we found another beach). The scuba diving in Capurgana, as Patrick found out first hand, was also incredible – the water was so warm that a wetsuit was not required. The entire area was truly unique. With no road access, it has remained unscathed by mass tourism. This place epitomized the Caribbean – a laid back atmosphere combined with warm, turquoise waters.
After Aguacate, we headed east to Cartagena. Thankfully the speed boat ride out of Aguacate was much tamer than the ride in and the drive from Turbo to Cartagena was relatively comfortable. Cartagena, which is also located on the Caribbean, has a beautiful historic centre with exquisite colonial architecture. Adding to its charm, most of the centre was fortified by the Spanish hundreds of years ago following persistent attacks by pirates. While the beaches in Cartagena are nothing to write home about, the centre was truly magnificent – certainly one of the most picturesque cities we had visited thus far and well deserving of its UNESCO designation.
We spent six nights in Cartagena where we stayed in an apartment by the sea just east of the historic centre. It was nice having our own space to cook our own meals again, particularly since we found Cartagena to be relatively expensive (this seemed to be amplified by the fact that we were there over New Years – apparently Cartagena is the top spot in all of Colombia to spend New Years). We spent New Year’s Eve sitting on top of the city’s walls with a bottle of champagne watching the fireworks display over the city. Following the pyrotechnics, we enjoyed a few beers in one of the plazas that was full of people eating, drinking and dancing to the music of a live band.
From Cartagena we headed further east and pit-stopped in Santa Marta for a night before heading out on a five day / four night hike through the jungle to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City). The Lost City was a former indigenous settlement (the Tyrona) that was abandoned when the Spanish arrived. While the ruins themselves were not as nice as some of the other archeological sites we’ve seen, the setting was spectacular. The jungle scenery at the Lost City and along the trail itself was the true highlight of this trek. Although it was a fairly challenging hike with the heat and humidity, we had an opportunity to cool off in a natural swimming pool everyday. As this hike cannot be done unguided, we did it in a group of eleven along with our 66 year old guide. We had two cooks that prepared our meals along the way and each campsite was equipped with hammocks to sleep in.
After the jungle hike, we spent two nights in Santa Marta (another city on the Caribbean) just relaxing. Even though Santa Marta was not as pretty as Cartagena, we really enjoyed our brief stay – the weather was good (hot but not humid) and the city was actually quite quiet.
From Santa Marta, we took a one-hour local bus to Tyrona National Park. This beautiful but busy park boasts some of the nicest beaches on the coast. All of the beaches are accessed by a two-hour coastal walk and there were campsites at the majority of the beaches along the way. The park itself was also highly developed – there were a number of cabanas and restaurants sprinkled throughout. And since we didn’t have a tent, we were able to rent hammocks for the night.
After two nights in Tyrona Park, we headed to Taganga – a small fishing village on the coast between Santa Marta and the National Park. Taganga is an incredibly popular stop on the tourist trail but was nevertheless a pleasant spot. The scuba diving was terrific (and the cheapest thus far), the food was delicious (and cheap) and the mojitos were incredible (and – yes – cheap). No wonder this place is so popular with backpackers!
Following two relaxing nights in Taganga we made our way back to Cartagena for a couple more days. As our sailboat to Panama was leaving from Cartagena, we had to head back there a few days early to sort everything out with customs. This time around we stayed a bit closer to the historic centre, which ultimately gave us easier access to the city’s restaurants and nightlife.
All in all, we had a wonderful four weeks in Colombia – the people and the culture here were truly infectious. Perhaps if we could do it over again we would have tried to see some of the other regions in Colombia, but it’s hard to have any complaints after a month in the Caribbean!
What we ate: Lots of fish and prawns with rice – the staple of the area.
What we drank: Aguila (a national beer brand) and Mojitos. All the best Colombian coffee is exported.