From tropical beaches to colourful street art and coffee farms in the mountains, I absolutely fell in love with Colombia. We flew from Bangkok to Bogota and went to Medellin and Cartagena, the 10 days flew by so fast. There are so many things to see and do in Colombia, it was my first experience travelling to South America so everything felt novel to me. It was completely different from Africa, Asia or Europe. Every cultural experience was unique and I was so happy to visit the park dedicated to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Bogota. His work has inspired me to write and travel and his depiction of magical realism has always made me curious about Colombia. My Venezuelan friend told me,”You will love South America”, she was absolutely right, I fell in love with the colours of Colombia. I am not sharing a detailed 10 day itinerary in this article, I just want to focus more on my personal ideas and views on what I loved in Colombia.
Bogota: A city for street art lovers
The street art in Bogota was definitely one of the highlights on my trip. We went on a free walking tour to explore the streets which had some of the most amazing art work I had seen in my life. A few years ago, the graffiti on the streets of Bogota was thought of in the same vein as cocaine and police cracked down on graffiti artists hard. 2011 was a tough year for these artists, police chased down and killed a 16 year old artist when he was spray painting his signature Felix the Cat image. Our guide told us that the police tried to cover it up by tampering with the evidence but his parents and the street art community got him justice. This was a turning point and today, Bogota is one of the most street art friendly cities in the world.
La Candelaria, the most historical part of the city, showcases some of the best work from local and international artists like Ciclope (Argentina), Kiptoe (USA), Kike (Argentina), Amazon (Brazil), and Ericailcane (Italy). The art is spread throughout the area: on hostels, storefronts, parks, cultural institutes and even on the shipping containers that house the vendors of La Plaza de la Concordia, the oldest plaza in Bogotá.
Bogota is a mix of colonial architecture and rich history, the streets a mural on every corner. Bogotá’s downtown area, including Avenida Caracas and Carrera 10 are the best spots to see big format walls. In the last few years, the city has commissioned some of Bogotá’s tallest walls with many reaching eight floors and up. Above the busy downtown streets are now tower walls from international artists like Mantra (France), Anis (Chile), Mamani Mamani (Bolivia) and Boa Mistura (Spain), as well as collaborative murals from local artists, like the 115 foot high ‘El Beso de Los Invisibles’ on the side of a building at Calle 26 and Carrera 13a. Most are within walking distance from one another.
Pablo Escobar tour:
I watched Pablo Escobar Del Maa on Netflix a few months ago, it is a Colombian series on Escobar and the tag line of this series is,”Quien No Conoce Su Historia Esta Condenada A Repetirla”. It translates into,”Those who don’t understand their history are doomed to repeat it” Medellín was not on my list of places to go in Colombia when I first started planning a trip to this beautiful country. My husband insisted on going to Medellín and we added it to our list of places to go. I was honestly not interested in doing a full day tour visiting places which are prominent in Pablo Escobar’s life. There is so much media available on whether you should or should not do this tour, I am no authority on morality so I would rather just focus on what we did on the tour and let you decide.
If you feel that the tours in Medellín are making money from the crimes of Escobar, you are absolutely right but whether is it right or wrong to do this tour is debatable. If it’s legally allowed by their government and these tours take place openly, I personally don’t see taking this tour as being wrong. I must say that Pablo Escobar’s presence is omnipresent in Medellín because this part of Colombia’s history is very recent. I was in Medellín for four days and spoke to at least a dozen of people from Uber drivers to hotel staff to random strangers. The opinions about him are extremely divided from love to hatred to indifference. I just could not understand why tourists and locals bring flowers to his grave, it’s hard to understand how some Colombians love him despite of the attacks and killings on their fellow countrymen.
There is a souvenir shop dedicated to the life and times of Pablo Escobar in the neighbourhood he built. I jokingly asked my guide,”why would anybody buy these souvenirs” and he told me that there was a Russian tourist who spent a million pesos which is roughly 320USD. I wanted to convert it before you go check on Google, a million does sound like a crazy amount but it sounds better when you say 300USD. In any case, there are people spending on T-shirts and coffee cups with Escobar’s face on it and it’s common to see his face on various commodities tourist typically buy like keychains etc.
The tour takes you to the Monaco Building, La Cathedral, his gravesite, Pablo Escobar neighbourhood built by him, Communa 13 and the house where he was shot. You could do all this by yourself but we really enjoyed this guided tour, our guide was funny and he said he hated Escobar. I asked a girl who was selling souvenirs of Escobar and she said that she hated him too. I honestly don’t want to be judgmental on why they are making money from his crimes if they hate him. I have to admit that this was a question which kept running through my head but I ended up participating in this tour too although I know he is a criminal so I realised that for the tour operators and souvenir shop owners, it is a way of making money right now. Tourism is booming In Medellín now and the Pablo Escobar tour is very highly rated amongst all the tours In Medellín.
Medellin: Must visit city in Colombia
There is a lot more to Medellin than Pablo Escobar so I would strongly recommend adding this city to your itinerary if you want to visit Colombia. It is a little bit off the beaten track and I can say this because I did not see any Chinese or Indian tourists. I loved the charming colonial cobblestone streets and the rich Latin American culture. Medellin is a city waiting to be discovered, I met a few people in Cartagena who skipped this city but I personally loved this city the most. Almost everybody chooses Cartagena and Bogota over Medellin so if you want to avoid the crowds, you must go to Medellin. Having said that, tourism is picking up in Medellin now so I am not really sure how long it will remain the way it was when I visited. There are also many day tours you can do from Medellin so it is a perfect city to stay and explore the nearby areas.
Guatape and El Penon de Guatape :
One of the best parts about Medellin is the breathtaking countryside and beautiful houses which are 2 hours away by road. In Colombia, one of the most common cultural traditions for the affluent people is to own a second home in the countryside. You can do a day trip to Guatape and see these homes and the famous rock. Aside from how gorgeous this colourful town is , the climb up to the “Rock of Guatape” was one of the highlights really worth the day trip.There are 600 vertical steps and the rock weighs 10 million tons and overlooks the gorgeous lakes of Guatape. The attraction was created after a group of friends scaled the rock in the 1950s using nothing but a wooden plank and someone decided to build a staircase. The fresh mango micheladas at the top are highly recommended.
Coffee plantations: There are many coffee farms near Medellin. Some offer overnight stays too, if you are a coffee lover, you must visit these farms. We did half a day at a farm near Medellin, the coffee plucking was fun for the kids but my daughter had done it before in Chiang Mai which has similar coffee farms so it wasn’t exciting for us. Jardin: A little further away from Guatape lies an adorable pueblo in the Andes mountains called Jardin but I did not go there due to time constraints. I heard its beautiful and still undiscovered, you can find coffee farms and waterfalls but if you are pressed for time like me, you could do the farms closer to Medellin because this is almost 4 hours drive one way.
Cartagena calling: 5 things you must do in Cartagena
If you love colonial buildings painted in pastel shades of sky blue, lemon yellow, lime green, peachy pink etc, the Walled City and Getsemani you will have to say hello. It is definitely more laid back than Bogota and Medellin. If you want to plan a short beach vacation to Colombia, this is the city you must visit. We were there for 4 days over the Christmas holidays and this city literally makes the laziest person want to walk around aimlessly. There are so many different buildings and the architecture is timeless and stunning. I wandered the streets of Getsamani and Centro Historico for 3 full days and found something different everyday.
Here is my list of five activities i enjoyed in Cartagena.
1) Watch the sunset from any spot near Cafe Del Mar: My tip is to avoid this restaurant if you don’t want to pay thrice the usual amount. You could watch the sunset from near this restaurant and the views are equally beautiful.
2) Eat at La Cevicheria: This is Antony Bourdain’s favourite restaurant in Cartagena and mine too. The seafood is fresh and the place has a nice laid back vibe.
3) Explore the graffiti of Getsemani: This neighbourhood is outside the inner walled town but its still a part off the old town of Cartagena. It has a cool bohemian vibe and some really cool street art.
4) Watch the dancers at Plaza Bolivar: The local dancers sway to traditional Colombian music and it is a perfect place to spend a few hours.
5) Take the free walking tour: You can learn all about the city’s fascinating history and it is always a good idea if you are alone and like the idea of meeting new people.