Colombia: an unexpected tourist destination
Updated: Mar 23, 2020
When we told people that we were going to Colombia for Winter Break, most immediately thought of the dangerous drug cartels of the 70s-80s or of the Netflix documentary, Narcos, which depicts the many innocent people murdered by gangs. However, although some cartels still exist, Colombia has drastically changed for the better. You won't witness any drug activity and it honestly looks like any other naturally beautiful and well developed country. I would even say that it is safer than Paris because there is no fear of pickpockets or people who shove past you in a hurry. Since Colombia is not a popular tourist destination yet, it allows tourists that do visit to enjoy the local culture. During our time, we got to experience everything from hiking gorgeous trails to simply walking the lively streets.
As soon as we got to the bed and breakfast in Bogota, I noticed how passionate Colombians were about being eco-friendly and keeping their beautiful country as clean as possible. Our room had biodegradable tissues, was built to allow natural light to enter, and had no TV. As our trip continued, I saw more instances of this passion for helping the environment, such as billboards at hiking registration facilities and just the overall care that Colombians have.
Unlike many other Spanish speaking countries, like Mexico or Spain, you need to know some basic Spanish, even if it is a little broken like mine, in order to communicate. That is where I came in. My parents were beyond surprised when I was able to communicate with the hotel staff, the tour guides, and shop owners who knew minimal or no English. Not only were they surprised, I also surprised myself, thinking that I wouldn’t actually be able to understand much in a real world scenario. For the first time, I was excited to be able to use my Spanish skills for a purpose besides getting an A in a class. While we were on a hike in Bogota, a girl who knew minimal English began talking to our tour guide wondering if I knew any Spanish. He said that I knew some, possibly enough to communicate. We ended up talking the rest of the way up the mountain and learned about each other's lifestyles, including school, favorite activities, and more. It was really interesting to see the importance of being able to communicate in another language and how it can completely change your experience.
Later on, we also witnessed a carnival type atmosphere with traditional dancing and levitating characters. Everyone had so much energy and we got to see the unique ways Colombians celebrate the holidays. They reminded me of the cartoon characters in New York, but able to do cooler tricks.
As we were leaving the lively street, we saw a few vendors selling art on Venezuelan currency. It was funny to see how the currency was being used since it has little to no value now, but also sad because it showed just how poor the Venezuelan economy is now. Throughout our trip, we asked many of our tour guides what most Colombians thought of the influx of Venezuelan immigrants. To our surprise, they were so optimistic and glad to help out their neighbor. One guide explained that Venezuela helped Colombia out in the late 70s-80s when drug related activity grew rampant and that Colombia was now simply returning the favor. I thought the way that the 2 countries were so ready to help one another rather than turn each other away when help was needed most was definitely inspiring.
Since my mom and I are vegetarian, we were skeptical of the options available, especially in the smaller towns. Surprisingly, one of our favorite restaurants ended up being in one of those tiny towns (Guatape) and the food was not only delicious, but it was owned by the sweetest Venezuelan family. Like other Colombians we had met, the family was very welcoming and wanted to know more about where we were from and how we liked Columbia so far. They had a lot of pride in many aspects of their country while still wanting to hear tourists' feedback.
On our way to a hike, we did a fruit tasting at a local grocery store because Colombia is known for having a unique variety of fruit. We tried fruit like Guanabana, cherimoya, mangosteen, and more.
While in another small town named Jardin, we went on a top rated coffee tour led by a couple. Their farm was one of the most beautiful and serene places I have ever been. We learned that the coffee plant needs very specific weather conditions to grow and must grow next to plantains. Next, we got our own coffee picking baskets and were able to go through the entire process of making coffee, from picking the beans to roasting to grinding them. Despite the language barrier, we were both able to enjoy each other's company and learn about each other's lives. As we were waiting for the coffee to brew, we had the most delicious arepas (thick tortillas) with the best guacamole and salsa I have ever had and probably will ever have. Because I’m not a big coffee drinker, I couldn’t appreciate the coffee as much as I could appreciate the guac, one of my favorite foods. To this day, I wish I could've taken Colombian avocados back to The States with me. I will definitely remember The couple’s hospitality and delicious food forever.
In Medellin, we went horseback riding. Both of my parents hadn't gone horseback riding in a very long time and it was hilarious to see their reactions when the horses started galloping down the trail. Of course, my mom, who was the most scared out of all of us, got the most “adventurous” horse, who galloped the fastest and never let the other horses get in front of him. I, who had gone horseback riding many times, got the lazy one who wouldn’t gallop unless nudged and was too nice to push past the other, more aggressive horses. Regardless, it was a lot of fun, even if my butt was super sore from all the galloping over the next few days.
In Jardin, there was one morning where we had nothing planned and as I was looking through the activities manual, I saw that the city offered paragliding because of the mountains. Even though my parents and I had gone paragliding in Switzerland when I was 9, it was pretty cheap in Colombia and I thought it would be fun to go again. So, I set off with a group and we drove to the top of a mountain. From there, each of us got with our instructors, ran off the hill, and flew. I admired the beauty of the mountains, talked to my instructor, and viewed Jardin from an aerial viewpoint. Even though it was my second time paragliding, it felt just as magical.
Because of Colombia’s natural beauty, there are many hikes to go on. In one that we did in Jardin, we visited a glittery waterfall and then were able to swim in the reservoir. The hike was super long, but fun. We walked down hundreds of barely carved out mud stairs until we finally made it to the sparkly wishing waterfall. We all made a wish and then kept walking down to the second waterfall where we could swim. It ended up being like a private cave with freezing cold and very clean water. I was ready to jump in and then realized that I didn’t think I wanted to walk back up hundreds of more muddy stairs soaked and freezing. Instead, my dad and I dipped our feet in and took some photos before making the long trek back up.
The next day, we visited a unique parrot reserve called Gallito de Roca Preserve where we did some bird watching and went on an ecological walk. Even though we aren’t bird watchers, the birds were beautiful and the way that their habitat is preserved within a town is remarkable.
Most people don’t pay much attention to a city’s infrastructure, but Medellin definitely has one of the most unique and adaptive ones in the world. Due to the Andes mountains, which are in almost every major Colombian city, Colombia has developed unique solutions for reducing traffic as well as making transportation cheaper and faster. One of the most unique forms of transportation in Medellin is the cable car. Even though cable cars are used to transport tourists in many other cities, every day workers use them to travel to their jobs and friend’s houses, just like we use cars.Through cable cars, we saw a beautiful view of the city and were able to go from one place to the other quickly.
When we visited a previous gang stronghold (Communa 13), we were surprised to see escalators as transportation to connect homes. This is another unique project which helps poor Colombians travel back and forth between their jobs and their homes. The construction of the escalators has improved the economic condition of the community exponentially because residents are able to sell items such as t-shirts and popsicles to tourists without coming all the way down the mountain. Not only can young individuals support their families, but older family members who cannot climb so many stairs could now help out as well.
Colombia was one of the most beautiful places I have visited with the sweetest people. Whenever you plan your next vacation definitely consider Colombia. I want to go back one day!