When I decided to come back to America I knew I wanted to take the scenic route. Luckily, I had the opportunity to take this road traveling through Colombia with a 67 year old bad-ass. The finale in a series of adventures that have made up my journey over the last four years. The trip was bittersweet, knowing it was also the end of my time overseas for now. Aside from the companionship and laughs, traveling with Michelle also reminded me that no matter where I “live” my adventures are really just beginning, and that age or where I am living are not reasons to stop them from coming.
We started our trip crossing the border from Ecuador, where we walked across the bridge into Colombia. As with Ecuador and all other surrounding countries, Colombia is experiencing an influx of Venezuelans pouring into the country to escape the hardships faced at home. In the last half of 2017, Colombia reported over half a million Venezuelans entering the country. It’s hard to say how many actually stay in Colombia, however, as we witnessed busloads of Venezuelans attempting to cross from Colombia into Ecuador during our border crossing. As I thought about my return to America, and the opportunity my home country provides, I was reminded again of the privilege I am afforded in being American. With no effort of my own, by random chance – a birth lottery. Borders are a funny thing when you really think about them, and how they affect people through no fault of their own. But that’s another rambling for another day…
As bags and bags of Venezuelan passports were handed to the customs officers from bus drivers, we weren’t sure if we would ever get through. But hours later we eventually did make it and so begins our Colombian adventure.
We wanted to see as much of Colombia as possible, making a tentative plan going from south to north of places we wanted to stay. This map would change as we met people, getting new recommendations or input along the way. By the end we would spend time in ten cities, starting from Ipiales on the southern border and making it all the way up to Palomino near the northern Venezuelan border. Only able to spend a few days in each place, it’s hard to give a proper assessment of each, but I will do my best to share my main impressions.
This is the closest town to the southern border. During our crossing we met some travelers who were also going to Ipiales and we made plans to go to a church there. Having done a fair bit of traveling, and not being religious yet already visiting more churches than I can recall, churches aren’t usually first on my list – but this was not an ordinary church. The Las Lajas Sanctuary is a wonder of architecture, nestled in a valley over a river, the sight is surreal in person. Legend has it that a woman and her daughter were first caught in a storm at the location in the 1700s, where they saw the Virgin Mary who healed her daughter’s deafness. Later the girl died and the mother again returned to this spot to pray for her daughter’s soul, at which time the Virgin Mary revived the girl. As word of the miracle spread, the faithful began a pilgrimage to the sight, ultimately resulting in the church that stands there today.
Also known as the white city, Popayan is small town famous for its white buildings and colonial style architecture, which reminded me of Cuenca in Ecuador. Of course there is also many, many churches in Popayan. The Spanish descended on the indigenous people of the area in the 1500s, ultimately converting or killing the original inhabitants. There is a large hill that was once the indigenous peoples’ temple. In typical conqueror fashion the pyramid temple is now buried and covered by grass, and a statue of the Spanish conqueror sits atop, which has subsequently been covered by “America” graffiti. Social commentary at its finest.
Santiago de Cali is generally referred to as Cali and also known as the salsa capital of the world. After seeing the way Colombians can dance, I believe it very well could be! (Interestingly enough, a Colombian guide told us that although Cali is famous for salsa, the music and dance actually originated in New York and were later brought to Cali…who knew?) This is a massive city which we didn’t have enough time to fully experience, but the part we did we enjoyed. Cali has several areas or neighborhoods, and we stayed in one called San Antonio. This is a very walkable and busy area, with hostels, restaurants, and activities all around. We were able to spend some time here with new friends we originally met in Popayan, as well as take a fun day trip to San Cipriano for a tubing, hiking, motorbike-train and Michelle going to jail experience. Ok, well the last part only almost happened. Long story short, make sure you bring your passport with you when traveling on Colombian roads. I definitely recommend the San Cipriano trip if you make it to Cali!
We actually stayed just outside of Salento in a finca (farm) but made a day trip into Salento and the neighboring Cocora Valley national park. This area is part of Colombia’s coffee region, with rolling hills and coffee farms all around. Salento was a fun, colorful town, and Cocora Valley was stunning. We met a fun young couple at the farm we were staying who allowed us to join them on their trip to the Valley. The place is amazing, where palm trees punctuate the mountain sides and create a tropical Jurassic Park type landscape. One of my favorite places from the trip.
In Spanish, double ll’s usually make a “ye” type sound…but not in Medellin, where we quickly learned it is Mede”gee”n, not Mede”yee”n. After getting this, we were ready to hit the streets running…or biking. One of the first things I noticed was how active people in Medellin appeared to be. Lots of biking, running and dancing in the parks – it was great to see! This city is also huge, with a hill dividing the poor and rich areas that go up either side. The poor areas reminded me very much of the favelas I saw in Brazil. The city is of course famous for Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels, but we were told this is a problem of the past. A lot has been done to ensure the safety of Medellin and we were told the cartels rarely cause problems for anyone in the city these days. I never felt unsafe here and Medellin also offers excellent public transportation to safely move about the expansive city. After a bike tour and spending some time at the aquarium and botanical gardens, we made a day trip to Guatape (another must do when visiting Medellin).
This small town sits on a man-made reservoir for a hydro-electric dam, which created a large lake and many small “islands.” Bordering the lake is also La piedra del Peñol. This is a rock that is part of the Antioquia Rock Base, which scientists say formed 70 million years ago (sorry young earthers). Interestingly, they also have found that only 2/3 of the rock is sitting above ground! They have built stairs into the rock and you can summit it in only 650 steps. If my 67 year old, hip-surgery scheduled badass friend can do it, you have no excuse – get up there!
After Medellin we were excited to get to the coast. Up to this point the closest we got to the ocean was in San Cipriano, which was 30 minutes from the Pacific coast. The Pacific coast is not recommended for travelers in Colombia, apparently due to guerilla and cartel holdouts still in those areas. This is really too bad, as we’ve also been told the area is gorgeous. But alas, the Caribbean coast is OK for tourists and in Arbolotes we would finally be there. Cue the letdown music. Arboletes was not the beach paradise I had pictured. It reminded me a bit of Guyana, but without as good of food. (Side note: for me, most of the food in Colombia was not much to speak of; same with Ecuador. Guyana definitely takes the prize for South American local food deliciousness so far). The beach was rocky and water brown, but at least there was a volcano on the beach. I thought this would be cool and was excited to see it, until I got there and found out it was just a giant pit of mud. Appropriate I guess – Aroboletes was kind of the pits.
Making our way east along the coast, we found ourselves in Tolu. Another coastal town with a Guyana type vibe, but the beaches are getting sandier and the water clearer. Tolu was interesting because we had to take the bici-taxis to get into the town from the main road. We had a few good days here, sharing drinks with some locals and making more new friends. We went on a day trip to some islands where we finally found the picture perfect beaches we imagined. One of the islands, Santa Cruz del Islote, holds its claim to fame as being the most crowded island on earth. Home to approximately 1200 people, its tiny size makes it four times more densely populated than Manhattan. It was a trip to see. On top of the dense population, they also have groups of tours walking through the small island every day – an interesting life for sure!
This is where my brother catches up with us and Cartagena seemed like the right place to get the party started. The largest city along the Caribbean coast, there are really only two places you’d want to stay when visiting: old town, also called the “walled city”, or Getsemani. Getsemani is a bohemian type neighborhood with music and food vendors in the streets and plazas – cheap and lots of fun. One thing about Cartagena is it’s HOT during the day, so walking around the streets during the day is a bad idea. Unfortunately, there are also not good beaches in Cartagena, but there are beaches you can travel to nearby. This is the sad story with the Colombian beach towns we experienced. Unlike Ecuador, there does not seem to be good towns that also have good beaches. In Ecaudor there are cool towns with beautiful beaches: Olon, Ayampe, Montanita, Puerto Lopez and Mompiche to name a few. But the good Colombian beaches we’ve found were always outside of a fun town, or on an island you have to reach by boat. This is another reason we were curious about the Pacific coast here – it’s a shame it’s not being better utilized. All up I enjoyed Cartagena though, met some fun people and was able to have some good times with mi hermano.
Windy! Like, really really windy. Next up was Santa Marta, which we had all heard a lot about prior to coming to Colombia. My first impression getting off the bus was Palm Springs. The air and landscape is a lot drier here. It’s a port town, with large barges at port and in the bay. Again, no beaches in the town, but several nice ones nearby. The one we checked out was called Taganga, which seemed like a place where the desert meets the ocean. It was a completely different landscape from the trip so far, so was cool to see. We also checked out a town called Minca from here, which is a place in the mountains with a fun vibe – I’d like to spend more time there when I come back. Santa Marta also had a really fun nightlife and was a great place to meet locals and hangout.
The last new stop of our journey (we went back to Cartagena to fly out) and my last new city in South America for a while. We wanted to check this area out because it was said to have some good beaches for surfing. Unfortunately, this stop went downhill from the moment we got on the bus. I don’t want to go into the grueling details of it all, but just imagine that everything that could have gone wrong at this stop did indeed go wrong. It was a bummer, because the place was probably OK and could have been a lot better experience had it been different for us. Probably worth another try on my next time back. We also didn’t get to the surfing, due to warnings about the strong current drowning people. 😛
Despite any problems in Palomino, I still really enjoyed Colombia. In every place we went the people were warm and friendly and the landscapes diverse and beautiful. It was the perfect place to conclude my South American journey.
The three of us ended our trip on a picture perfect night with a dinner cruise in the Cartagena bay. As I reflected on it all, I was grateful for everything the last month, and really the last four years, had brought me. Time together with my family. Friends that have become like family. Experience living in multiple countries, learning new languages and understanding new cultures. Work that has excited, challenged and frustrated me, and that has inspired a vision of a life I aim to make. Unsure of when we’ll see each other again, this night was also a poignant goodbye to my long time travel buddy and partner in crime, Michelle, and also my brother. Leaving the next day in different directions, each of us heading to the next chapter in our lives. New hips for Michelle. New life in America for my brother. A big, curious, exciting, new and unknown future for me. The uncertainty ahead is scary at times, but it feels like I’m moving in the right direction – like I’m headed home, and it’s been one hell of a scenic road.