When I began planning my trip, I knew I would start in Colombia – mainly because it was the cheapest flight from Toronto. I talked to a friend from Bogotá to get some ideas and supplement what I had read on blog and in guide books, and he told me about Caño Cristales. It is a surprisingly unknown tourist destination, possibly because of the effort and expense required to get there. It wasn’t even listed in Lonely Planet, nor is it in the first three pages of Trip Advisor results. I am glad my friend told me about it, as soon as I saw the photos I decided it was something I needed to see. So I added it to the top of my list:
I spent several days trying to figure out how to do it in a way that was affordable, but it could not be done. I decided to go with a tour company, www.cano-cristales.com. It was the least expensive, but it was a great experience and I recommend working with them. The website isn’t easy to understand in terms of pricing, but as soon as I emailed them I got a response in perfect English that broke down all of the prices and options for me. They were very responsive as I planned my trip, and had no problem with me making a few changes at the last minute.
I paid just under COP 1,000,000 (CAD $450; USD $340) for two days and one night, with travel to/from Villavicencio. Needless to say, this, like the caves, was way outside my budget but something I deemed necessary. This is becoming a theme, and will likely result in me cutting my trip short before November. I am okay with that.
In hindsight, I would have paid more money and gone straight there from Bogotá. I saved about $150 by going through Villavicencio but it was the third worst city I have been to (behind Cleveland, Ohio and Lille, France). I won’t go into detail, just take my word for it.
I went to the tiny airport in Villavicencio early in the morning to catch a charter flight to La Macarena. I was worried about whether they would let me take full size liquids in my carry on, until I saw my boarding pass.
We landed in La Macarena less than an hour later, at an even smaller airport with even more sophisticated technology.
La Macarena is now on my list of favourite cities – probably somewhere in the top 10 next to Oviedo, Spain.
There are only a few dirt roads in La Macarena but they are lined with shops and restaurants, two pool halls and several other businesses that appear to be doing well.
My tour guide, Pablo, picked me up at the airport and saw me to my hotel. I had a late breakfast and we set out for Cristalitos. Not before picking up this stylish hat, though. You can’t wear sunscreen in the river, hence my look.
We took a boat less than 10 minutes and arrived at the bottom of the trail to Cristalitos (another colourful river, but not the main one). There is a little shop next to a turtle sanctuary. They hatch them and let them grow big enough, then release them into the river. They also have a pet monkey. It shat on me.
We hiked up a short hill to Cristalitos. It was a bright and sunny day so the red algae was beautiful. We only saw two other tours (groups of only two) and could have easily waited a few minutes and had the whole area to ourselves
We had brought along a tasty lunch in environmentally friendly packaging.
I didn’t swim on the first day, I was too afraid of the sun and swimming isn’t really my thing anyway.
After lunch, we headed back to La Macarena. I hung out for an hour or so in the park in the middle of town. There is free Wifi, which draws everyone there as a gathering point.
I made a friend named Santiago who is learning English. We practiced speaking and I promised I would go to Alaska with him in two years.
Next, I met Pablo to walk to the traditional Colombian dinner and program. They had singing and dancing, the kids were adorable and incredibly talented.
It was all fun and games until the little one asked me to dance. My teacher was patient and forgiving of my two left feet and severe lack of rhythm.
The next day, we got up early for the main event: Caño Cristales. Another short boat ride, followed by a seemingly long ride in the back of a 4×4, and we were there. We arrived at about the same time as 20 other people, but didn’t see them again once we set out. There are several trails and since many in the other group were older and/or mobility impaired I think they took a different trail.
Caño Cristales is much bigger and more spectacular than it’s little brother Cristalitos, but since it was an overcast day the colours were not as bright.
I actually went swimming. That is twice in one week, a record for this aquaphobe.
In my third week in Colombia, I managed to:
Cross two things off of my must-do list (this and the caves)
Confront my fears of swimming (twice) and birds so that I could have some great experiences
Break in my hiking shoes
Completely destroy any hope of sticking to my budget
Speak only Spanish for several days (with the exception of my friend Santiago, with whom I practiced some English in exchange for his help with my Spanish
Do I recommend Caño Cristales? Well, once I decided I had to see it, I had to see it. It was expensive, and it took me more than a day of travel on each side, but I am glad I went.
I do not recommend it for solo travellers, as the tours are private. I had imagined being in a group, but I got my own guide. This would have been wonderful if I were with friends or a partner, but was a little bit awkward. I went for two days (the minimum) to try and keep the cost down. There are at least five more things in the area that I could have seen if I stayed longer, and I could have readjusted my visit to the river for a sunnier day. I would go again, if only to spend more time in La Macarena.
The most popular day trip from Medellín is to Guatape, but I skipped it in favour of Río Claro for reasons that will soon become obvious.
Río Claro is a nature reserve about three hours from Medellín. I struggled for hours on the internet trying to figure out which bus would take me there, what my options were for lodging, etc. In Colombia, things are best done in person. I walked into the office in Medellín and walked out 45 minutes later with everything set to leave the following day. Ximena treated me like family. She offered to have her husband pick up my bus ticket for me, she made sure my onward bus ticket was waiting for me at the registration desk, she arranged for the driver to pick me up in between stops in the middle of the night, and she called several times while I was there to make sure everything was going fine.
The trip was off to a great start, and only got better.
I took an early morning bus, arriving in Rio Claro at 11am. I checked into my room, which, at COP 90,000 was quite expensive for my budget. However, it was necessary for reasons that will soon become obvious. The price included meals, and I would be saving money by taking an overnight bus the following night, so I justified the expense. After two weeks in hostel dorms, even the bit of privacy was heavenly. One whole wall was open to the jungle, there were no bugs, and there was a thunderstorm at night.
Now, for the reason I came…the Caverna de los Guacharos (Cavern of the Oil Birds).
I started to develop an interest in caves a few years ago based on travel related instagram accounts I follow. This fascination grew into an obsession, apparently. I didn’t realize how much I talked about it until earlier this year in Barcelona. My friend Nathan introduced me by saying, “this is my friend, Lauren, she is really into caves.” Nathan, and several others, were thrilled to hear that I finally got to go into a cave (actually, I went into a cavern – caves have only one entrance, and caverns have two).
The excursion is described on the website (using Google Translate) as follows:
Go through the bowels of the earth to live a unique and unforgettable experience. This cave carved by the Bornego broken, which still runs on its soil, is 400 meters long, with monumental halls of high domes studded with hanging stalactites nesting unknown “guacharos” (Endemic Birds of Colombia and Venezuela in danger of extinction). From the entrance to the exit long continuous naturally sculpted marble galleries are crossed. Observe the different formations and textures of its rocky walls, shadows and reflections of light after speleothems and folds, is an amazing adventure that will leave its mark on your memory.
To reach it you have to take a hike by trail, smelling of forest, the forest of elves.
The website uses the following photos to set expectations:
I imagined we would go for a little walk, wade through some puddles, and check out some stalactites. I have never in my life had an experience so undersold! I have no pictures of my own because I didn’t bring my camera, but it did, as promised, leave its mark on my memory.
We started out with a safety briefing that I didn’t really understand, but I figured it couldn’t be too complicated to just walk and follow the guide. Our “hike by trail” was in fact the most intense hike I’ve ever done. We had to climb up a very steep hill and back down, balancing on jagged and slippery marble rocks. I suppose it was technically a trail, but that would be generous. It was more like a route through the jungle. We went through a primary rainforest (a virgin rainforest), stopping along the way to admire a highway of ants carrying leaves, tropical flowers found nowhere else, and a massive colony of termites. It wasn’t the same without David Attenborough narrating, but it was amazing nonetheless.
If the website had accurately described the hike, I probably would not have gone. I’m not in great shape and I would have worried about hurting my back. I was indeed in a lot of pain the next day but it was absolutely worth it. And I learned a good lesson about saying yes to challenges.
About an hour later, we arrived at the entrance for another safety briefing. This time, the concern was for the safety of the Guácharos (“oil birds”) that live inside the caverns. We had to be careful not to hurt them by shining our lights at them. Guacharos are considered the missing link between bats and birds; they are nocturnal, use sonar, and they are terrifying. Indigenous people thought they were witches, and when you hear their scratchy cawing it is difficult to disagree. Did I mention I fucking hate birds? I fucking hate birds.
The journey started out as advertised: walking through a stream that was up to our ankles, sometimes shins. Pretty soon, we were jumping into pools of water up to our waist and I was thinking this is the coolest thing I have ever done. Then the guide said “Guano. Keep mouth closed. Don’t touch walls.” We made it into the main room (pictured above) and turned off our lights for two minutes to let our eyes adjust to the dark. When we turned the lights back on, we could see more of the detail and appreciate how incredible nature is. We were half way through the cavern.
There were two guides, one behind and one ahead of the group of twelve. After our stop in the main room, the first guide jumped into a pool and went in over his head. The water levels change so much, he is jumping in blind each time, even though he does this at least once per day. He bobbed above the water and said “profundo” (deep) and motioned us to come along. The rest of the journey involved more deep pools, swimming between narrow passages, and rushing water all around. He told us to keep our eyes closed as well. Guano. I don’t know if I was more disgusted by the idea of shit in my eye, or the image of Jim Carrey that was now in my head.
The journey ended with a rope ladder descending out of the Mouth of the Marble Cavern, and a swim back across the river (assisted by a rope). This photo is taken from far away, it is at least a 15 feet drop to the river below.
Going into the experience, I was a bit nervous that I would be disappointed after years of dreaming about caves, but no way. I am just as obsessed as before and now I have a story to tell. I’m glad the website undersold it, and glad I did something I would have otherwise been afraid to do.
I hate birds, I hate swimming, and I hate having shit in my eyes. But I fucking love caves.
Medellín is bustling with energy that feels like it must have been manufactured by a travel agency. It is hot, but pleasant. There is music everywhere, the local people are warm and welcoming, the streets are clean, nightlife is buzzing, and there are endless options for food. I spent the second week of my trip in Colombia’s second city, and was not ready to say adiós when I finally did leave.
But Medellín is more than just sunshine and salsa, there is depth and there is history. It would be easy to assume that the city has always been a modern, tourist friendly destination, and wonder why you haven’t visited sooner. But from the 1980s to as recently as 2002, Medellín was the epicentre of the cocaine trade and held the title of Most Violent City in the World. Over the last 14 years, the city has become known instead for its major urban transformation and social development. It is now celebrated as one of the most innovative cities in the world.
This happened through investment in infrastructure, mainly methods to connect the city’s poorest neighbourhoods to the centre. Medellín has one of the nicest metro systems I have ever been on, its residents are extremely proud of it and you won’t find a bit of graffiti or litter in the stations. The Metro is connected to cable cars that help those who live in the hillside barrios save over two hours commuting into the downtown area. In Comuna 13, which was once the most dangerous area in Medellín, escalators have been installed on the steep hillside and are now protected by security guards, helping people access the Metrocable system. World class transportation infrastructure, investment in education and literacy, and the redevelopment of hubs for criminal activity into shared public spaces have inspired a tangible sense of optimism and hope throughout the city of Medellín.
The Real City Walking Tour was the highlight of my entire trip so far. Our guide, Juan, shared both the positive and negative aspects of Medellín’s history and his own experience growing up there. Juan and I are the same age, 32, and he grew up during the city’s most violent years. He was open and candid about his life, then and now, the way he is impacted by the stigma associated with being Colombian, and his hopes for the future of his city and his country.
Several times on the tour we were greeted by inquisitive locals. They wandered over to our group to see what was going on, and each of them would welcome us to their city. Out of respect, Juan didn’t mention Pablo Escobar or cocaine by name; he explained that without context, people might resent him for talking about it. Medellín is not proud of that aspect of its history and doesn’t appreciate when it is glorified (such as it is in the show Narcos, which is hated by many Colombians).
When I first arrived, I went to Comuna 13 to check out the escalators and some of the street art there. That night, I joined some people from my hostel for a night out in Poblado, an upscale and trendy neighbourhood full of bars and clubs. Most of the clubs were full of beautiful, well dressed people in their teens and twenties. The preferred dance style is what I would call “grinding”.
One sunny afternoon, I took the Metrocable to Parque Arví. The ride offers amazing aerial views of the city, the barrios, and the mountains and landscape surrounding Medellin. I found the park itself boring, but I did not make it to the adventure park which includes a rope course. I nearly took a horseback ride, but my Spanish wasn’t good enough to establish an understanding of where I would end up at the end of my one hour ride (I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a one way trip). We struggled for at least five minutes and I gave up. After about an hour in the park, I made my way back down to the city looking like I had been through a rose tinted Instagram filter. I had to get back for Spanish class.
My time in Medellín was not as eventful as Bogotá. I was trying to save money to make up for what I spent on Spanish Lessons from Toucan Spanish School. The class was way outside of my budget at COP 590,000 (CAD $267; USD $202). I initially signed up for a group class which was similar format to the courses I took in high school: conjugating verbs and learning grammar rules. After the first day I switched to a private lesson so I could focus on survival skills: ordering in restaurants, negotiating prices at markets, taking public transportation, etc. At the end of the week, I wished I could spend another three weeks learning; but in my travels since then I realize I learned quite a bit with that brief refresher.
If you want to learn Spanish, Colombia is a great place to do it. People speak slowly and clearly, are patient and willing to help you. If I were to do it again, for the type of learning I needed, I probably would have gone with one of the many private instructors offering lessons much cheaper than the school.
Going to class every day left me feeling exhausted. It was only two hours but it stretched my brain. I spent most evenings in my hostel, cooking dinner and then reading or writing on the rooftop patio.
I stayed at the Black Sheep Hostel, which is about 15 minutes from the Zona Rosa in Poblano, the main area for restaurants and bars. It is on a quiet street just down the hill, and is about 10 minutes walk to the Metro station and a very nice supermarket called Exito. It was nice, but I don’t think I would stay there again. The staff was wonderful and I loved the common areas. The rooftop patio has three hammocks where you can sit and watch lightning storms in the distance every night. There is a nice big kitchen and wifi is reliable. The reason I wouldn’t stay there again is that the bathrooms are never clean. I had one nice shower in the middle of the day, I camped out while the maid cleaned and went in as soon as she finished. Other than that, pretty gross.
There are many activities to do in and around Medellín, most people went to Guatape and came back raving. Some people did the Pablo Escobar tour and I didn’t hear good things from any of them. It was COP 60,000 which is quiet expensive for a tour and they said they spent most of their time in the car and, as one guy put it, “the tour guide was impossible to like”.
I recommend the blog, Medellin Living. I found most everything I needed to know between this and the staff at my hostel. When I go back to Medellín, I will spend more time in the downtown neighbourhoods and will do the day trip to Guatape. Until then, I will look back with fond memories at the world’s most innovative city.
If you are planning a trip to Colombia (or South America) and wondering where to start, start in Bogotá. Logistically, it might not make sense as it is in the middle of the country. But domestic flights are cheap and I think it was good to experience Bogotá before moving onto better weather, better infrastructure, and more welcoming people. It would have been hard to visit Bogotá after Medellin.
I chose Bogotá because it was the cheapest destination in South America to buy a one way ticket from Toronto. Note: if you do a similar search and discover that Panama City is slightly cheaper and not too far away, take the time to research how to get from there to Colombia – it is not as simple as the map would have you think.
Bogotá is colder than you think it will be. I was comfortable in long sleeves, long but light pants, a rain shell, socks and shoes.
The elevation is 8,675 feet (2,644m), and there is low humidity which makes for crisp air and chilly nights. Don’t underestimate the weather like I did: bring a sweater and a scarf. You’ll also need them for bus rides throughout the country, which are famously frigid. If you are used to a warm climate, add another layer.
I am carrying a 40L pack, which is quite small. In hindsight, I would have used my 70L pack and just not filled it, so I could carry a few bulky/warm items.
You will need Colombian Pesos as soon as you arrive. Do not use the money exchange desks in the airport, you will get a terrible rate and they charge a commission plus other fees. It is usually best to take money out of an ATM (“Cajero”); there are a few in the baggage claim area and more outside.
I use Revolut to save on fees and get a better exchange rate, I won’t go into details here but recommend you look it up – by the time I click “Publish” on this post there will be even more similar cards but I like Revolut and friends give good reviews as well. If you don’t use Revolut (or similar), take out as much as you are comfortable carrying around, as your bank will charge you a fee for each withdrawal (up to CAD $7 at some banks in the city).
I recommend a taxi to your hostel, don’t try to navigate the bus system to save a few pesos, right now it is COP 25,000 which is less than USD $9 or CAD $12. Some hostels have shuttle services, which might be a good option if you’re traveling in a group.
You will be swarmed by men offering you rides as soon as you walk through the doors – ignore them and go to the line for authorized taxis. A man with an official vest may approach you and say it is COP 68,000 to La Candelaria. Tell him you want a taxi and he will look disappointed but will point you to the right line. If my hostel hadn’t told me to pay 25,000, I would have thought CAD $30 seemed reasonable because I had not yet adjusted.
I had written down the address of my hostel and the amount I wanted to pay. Our conversation went like this:
Me (in overly exaggerated accent): ¿Como Estas? Driver: [I have no idea what he said] Me: *points to address* Por favor… Driver: [I still have no idea what he said, and he was not smiling] Me: *points to 25,000* ¿Bien? Driver: [Still no idea, still no smile] Me: Yo quiero… voy… Driver: [More things I don’t understand] Me: *points to 25,000* Por favor Driver: *rolls eyes, nods, starts driving*
When we arrived at the hostel he gave me 15,000 change from a 50,000 note. I said “no” and once again pointed at the number. He begrudgingly handed me another 10,000. I am terrible at mental math, so I always try to figure out how much change to expect before handing over any cash (“effectivo”).
Uber works in Bogotá, but the wifi in the airport is unreliable. Note that the app has an option to pay by cash and it might default there – I took one ride where at the end I needed to fork over money unexpectedly. I told my friend who lives in Bogotá that I used UberX, and he urged me to never do that again.
Your best bet is to have the hostel call a taxi for you – they usually arrive within ten minutes and are from reliable companies.
Stay a While
I recommend two or three days, five was too many for me. If you happen to be in town on a Friday night, visit Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo – it was my favourite part of my visit.
If you asked me to plan an itinerary for you, I would recommend:
Arrive in the afternoon if possible, or late enough that you have already eaten. On my first night, I had to venture out in search of food. It was dark, I was disoriented and tired. I went with some Russian Crepes which, but for the excessive use of dill, were actually pretty good; but I would rather have been able to shop around.
Use your first day to orient yourself and settle into your hostel. Find a meal nearby and get a good night’s rest. DRINK WATER and go easy on alcohol. Most people aren’t used to such a high elevation and altitude sickness will ruin your day.
Day 2 Start with the 10:30amGraffiti Tour. It gives you an excellent orientation to the neighbourhood and you start to learn about the impact of the political conflict and drug trade. You will never look at street art in any city the same way again. Or drugs, for that matter.
The guide will point out some nice places for lunch, and you will likely see some things you would like to go back to. The tour ends around Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo which has several affordable options. The Graffiiti Tour is a “free” tour which means he works for tips. Most people pay around COP 20,000 – 30,000. Check out my photos of the graffiti tour.
In the afternoon, visit the Botero Museum and Bolívar Square. I am not a “museum person” but I quite enjoyed the Botero museum (you will know him from his paintings and sculptures of voluptuous subjects including the Mona Lisa) – maybe because it was free and I was alone and I didn’t feel pressure to take my time appearing to interpret the art. In Medellin you will learn more about Botero and see his sculptures everywhere, you might as well start building your relationship now.
In Bolívar Square, I found a spot to sit and people watch during a labour related demonstration. I imagine that on most days it is quite peaceful, unless you hate pigeons. It looks like any square you would find in Europe, complete with vendors selling junk and people begging for money. On second thought, maybe just walk by Bolívar Square. It is close to the Botero Museum and you might as well.
Go up to Montserratte at sunset and watch the lights come on. Go with a group, pack an extra jacket and a scarf and maybe another extra jacket. It is over 10,000 feet and is bitterly cold. Try not to google “Montseratte at sunset” because you will find a lot of warnings about people being mugged in the area at night (mostly a few years old). While I was there two weeks ago, a girl at my hostel got mugged in broad daylight in the area. Go with a group if you can, I guess. The Graffiti Tour went right by the cable car entrance so I felt a little more oriented when I returned that night.
Word is, one can walk up to the top. The path was closed while I was there and that is the only reason I didn’t climb the 1800 feet to the peak </sarcasm>. We took the Funicular (train) up and the Teleférico (cable car) down for COP 18,000.
Museo del Oro is only COP 3,000 and is worth a visit. I had written it off, picturing something resembling a cross between a jewelry store and and an antiques market. The exhibits themselves are interesting, but the narrative found on the plaques is quite fascinating. I think they also offer tours in English.
The artifacts tell the story of a culture that celebrated women and respected harmony. I wonder how much of this is true, and I wonder what museums will say about our society in 3,000 years. The third floor (Cosmology and Symbolism) is the best, don’t wear yourself out before making it up there.
On the second floor, when you are invited into what looks like a theatre, go in. I almost skipped it because I thought it was a screening room, but it is actually an immersive shamanic experience. That makes it sound way more amazing than it is, but I can’t think of another way to describe it. Just take my word for it.
Have lunch (my favourite restaurant in Bogotá was Quinua y Amaranto, a hearty vegan fixed lunch for only 16,000) and take the Bogota Bike Tour. I didn’t do it because it was rainy the day I would have, but heard wonderful things about it. You go to some markets, taste exotic fruits, and again learn a lot about the city and the culture. If I had another day in Bogotá, this is how I would spend it based on a number of glowing reviews from others in my hostel.
¡Appender un poco de Español! (Learn some Spanish)
You will not enjoy your time in Colombia without at least a few key phrases. Very few people speak English, likely because there are very few tourists there. I think people are still afraid to visit, and La Candelaria is certainly not a good place to vacation as a family. That is part of the appeal, and part of the challenge.
Do not count on being able to use Google Translate on your phone. There are some (many) situations where the last thing you want to do is to pull out your smart phone. I do recommend you download the Spanish dictionary for offline use, it is free and has been a life saver during more difficult parts of my trip so far.
Learn some basics, carry a sheet of paper if you need to. Colombians are wonderfully patient and will gladly help you. They will appreciate you trying. In an Arabic restaurant one of my friends resorted to making animal noises to try asking about ingredients, and the waiter responded with charades. “Cordero” is lamb, by the way. An older couple nearby was laughing, I suspect they were bilingual but enjoying the scene too much to intervene.
I had originally planned to go from Bogotá to Caño Cristales, but diverted to Medellin for a week of Spanish classes because I realized I could not get by without. You can take Spanish in Bogotá, but I was ready to leave.
The cuisine in Colombia is a lot like the cuisine of a truck stop in the Midwestern United States. It is cheap, fried, and there are better places to eat. I recommend the following based on personal experience; I have also heard of good sushi to be had in other neighbourhoods but didn’t try it. The following are great tasting, healthy, hearty, affordable meals (under COP 20,000 / CAD $9 / USD $7):
Quinua y Amaranto – I wandered into this restaurant near the Museo Botero and was thrilled when the waitress started bringing me amazing vegan food before I could figure out how to ask for a menu. I had a three course (soup, tofu + salad + noodles + potatoes, apple sauce) mean with juice for only 16,000.
OPA! Gyros Restaurant – even the half portion gyro is filling. I ate here twice, ordered the vegetarian gyro once and lamb once, both were great. If you want a drink, buy it next door at the supermarket for half the price.
Sahara Pastelaria– another option if you are looking for something healthy. The plates are massive, I ordered an appetizer and could not finish it. The staff is also lovely, they worked hard to communicate with us through charades and farm animal noises to interpret the menu. It is kind of difficult to find. It sits across from a parking lot and between a lot of business that are closed at night, and the restaurant itself is not well lit.
If you are looking for a calm place to have a drink, you might be looking for a while. There are endless tiny bars playing dance music at migraine inducing volumes. But Céfiro Tejido offers refuge in the form of a cozy little room at the back of a clothing boutique. There are two levels: a nook with bean bag seats and a comfy couch, and a loft with more seating that is conducive to conversations or reading. There is a bar selling beer and coffee drinks for around 4,000.
I usually try to sample local cuisine in any new city. In Bogotá, I had empanadas (by the time I left Colombia I was happy to never see another empanada in my life) and tried the fried ants. Unfortunately I missed out on Chicha (a fermented maize drink) and Coca Tea because I was trying to drink as much water as possible. I had some coffee, which was terrible. Throughout Colombia, you find awful coffee as they export the good beans they are known for.
I chose La Candelaria (the Old City), and you should too. If you are backpacking, this is the place to stay. When I was researching neighbourhoods I narrowed it down to Chapinero and La Candelaria, and I am glad I chose the latter. Chapinero is posh and a nice place to go out, walk around, shop, and eat. Walking around in Chapinero, you wouldn’t necessarily know which city you are in. If I haven’t gotten my point across: there is a T.G.I. Friday’s there.
Browse the online forums and you will find arguments for and against every neighbourhood. People swear each one is more dangerous than the other – I felt safer in Chapinero. The streets are wide and well lit, people tend to walk with purpose rather than hang around in groups, residential neighbourhoods are quiet with houses set back from the street, and the shops and restaurants are just nicer (and more expensive). I went to a very nice dinner at Alimentación General with a friend who lives in Bogotá. It is way outside any backpacker’s budget but it was a nice occasion (and his treat). If you are looking for a nice dinner, that street is a good place to start. If I were coming back with a partner or for work, or with more money to spend, I would stay in Chapinero.
I am happy to recommend Hostal Sue Candelaria (I booked a 4 bed mixed dorm for 36,000 on hostelword.com. If you book in person, it is 32,000). The breakfast is great, the staff is lovely, and the atmosphere is friendly. The beds are too firm, but the showers are always hot. The wifi is unreliable, but the location is perfect and the common areas are nice. It is not a “party hostel” (most nights). On the night it did become a party hostel, I joined a group in the courtyard to bitch about the people inside partying. I got some terrible spider bites while I slept (they were not bed bugs, trust me) and so did other guests. I am not sure if this was related to the hostel or the city, but I decided not to move hostels on the chance that it was the latter. If you can, get a room in the courtyard as it is much quieter than those adjacent the ping pong table and bar.
There is a Party Bus that leaves from the hostel on weekends, it is 90,000 and takes you to a huge restaurant/bar complex an hour away. The hostel staff recommended Saturday over Friday, even though it goes both nights. I obviously didn’t go (because I hate crowded places and loud noises and long drives) but some cool people did. I heard good things, even from someone nearly as skeptical about it as me.
I arrived in Bogotá around dusk on a Monday. From the window of the plane, you can’t see where the city stops, and you can’t miss where the mountains begin. It is easy to see why they call it “La Atenas Suramericana” (the South American Athens). There are about eight million people in Bogotá, accounted for. A tour guide told me there are likely at least two million more who are homeless and not included in the population – literally and figuratively.
Bogotá is the capital and largest city in Colombia, for many travellers it will be the first stop as it has the largest international airport. If you are planning a trip to Colombia (or that includes Colombia) and wondering where to start, start in Bogotá. Logistically, it might not make sense at first, as it is in the middle of the country. But domestic flights are cheap and I think it was good to experience Bogotá before moving onto better weather, better infrastructure, and more welcoming people. It would have been hard to visit Bogotá after Medellin. I have outlined my recommendations for how to spend three days in Bogotá in another post.
Bogotá is cold and gloomy, which happens to be my favourite kind of weather but is not for most (I arrived on August 29 as the Southern hemisphere moves into Spring). It was a welcome respite from Toronto’s sweltering summer but I wasn’t prepared. I was comfortable in long sleeves, long but light pants, a rain shell, socks and shoes; but I bought a sweater because a girl in my hostel had one and she looked cozy. The elevation is 8,675 feet (2,644m) and there is little humidity which makes for crisp air and chilly nights. It also makes for being embarrassingly winded half way up a flight of stairs. Don’t underestimate the weather like I did: bring a sweater and a scarf. You’ll also need them for bus rides, which are famously frigid.
I spent most of my week in Bogotá in La Candelaria, the Old City. If you are backpacking, this is the place to stay. When I was researching neighbourhoods I narrowed it down to Chapinero and La Candelaria, and I am glad I chose the latter. Chapinero is posh and a nice place to go out, walk around, shop, and eat. Walking around in Chapinero, you wouldn’t necessarily know which city you are in. If I haven’t gotten my point across: there is a T.G.I. Friday’s there.
La Candelaria is what I pictured before coming to Bogotá, and I use the following descriptors with utmost affection: chaotic, loud, lacking infrastructure, poor, and slightly dangerous. After a week there, I validated those assumptions and narrowed my opinion to that small area of the city. There are gaping holes in the “sidewalks”, which is a generous term for the narrow paths on the edges of the narrow streets where motorcycles weave between vendors pushing carts full of fruit, shoe laces (yes, shoe laces), and other wares. Occasionally, a yellow taxi beeps his way through without regard for pedestrians. If it seems sensible to find a wider street, be prepared to inhale clouds of black smoke spewing from the Busetas barreling past.
In La Candelaria, you will be on edge. Period. Everyone there seems to be watching everyone else. They stand on guard, vigilant, aware of their surroundings; no one seems to be caught up in their own experience, and that kind of energy is contagious. They have a saying in Colombia, “No dar papaya”. It means, don’t make it easy for people to take advantage of you. Perhaps that is part of the collective unease – knowing that you are seen responsible when bad things happen. I can think of another context in which that way of thinking does immeasurable damage to victims and the societies they live in.
On Friday, a delegation from my hostel went out in search of live music near Carrera 2. No one called it that; we all seemed to understand when someone referred to “The Hippie Street”. It is the oldest street in Bogotá and lined with shops selling Chicha, Coca Tea, and marijuana related clothing and paraphernalia. At the top of the Hippie Street is Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo square.
On Friday evening, the Plaza was packed with young people both young and old. It was like a music festival, but instead of groups sprawled out, lounging in the grass, people sat shoulder to shoulder on the cobblestones. Almost everyone fit one of two profiles: gelled-hair/puffy-jackets/tight-jeans/at-least-one-Chanel-accessory, or dreadlocks/ponchos/stretched earlobes/body-odour. It was as if the cast of Jersey Shore visited Portland. The latter played drums and the former took selfies. Everyone passed bottles of miscellaneous liquor around their respective circles.
You can’t walk (or sit in a square) for five minutes without being offered cocaine. Sometimes subtly with a sniffing noise and a whisper, sometimes like a hot dog vendor at a baseball park. Although, it does not seem that many locals are using it. Learning more about the impact the drug trade has had on Colombians, I am not surprised.
One afternoon, I sat in El Parque de los Periodistas with some girls eating lunch and one of the ubiquitous security guards with dogs came and stood near us. When the guard broke his stern facade to oblige the dog when he put his paw up for a handshake, we giggled and cooed. We enjoyed our gyros (Colombian food is…well…we were eating Greek) and commented on how nice it was to have the guard close by. In less than an hour, we were offered drugs by three different men. We could not believe the dealers had the nerve to do it right in front of the officer. After the third time, the officer and his dog left us and we realized he wasn’t looking out for us, he was watching us. We were being set up, we later heard this is common. Long story short: don’t buy drugs, for many reasons.
If it sounds like I don’t like Bogotá, it is because there are a lot of things to dislike about it. But I had a good time there and it was a great place to kick off my trip. I made some friends whom I met up with in Medellin and our paths will probably cross again. I recommend you go and see it for yourself, I am glad I did.
Three days ago I wrote that I am cold, old, vulnerable, and unsure what to do. Only one of those things can not be easily changed, and I’m well on my way to addressing the others. Yesterday I bought a flight to Medellin and enrolled in a Spanish language school. I have heard that Medellin is a wonderful city, slightly warmer than Bogotá, safe and clean. Most people say I am at risk of getting stuck there, as it is hard to leave. I fly on Saturday afternoon and start school on Monday. I have enrolled for one week and will decide how long to stay. I will be less vulnerable, less cold, and I will know what I am doing with my time. I am still feeling old, but from what I can tell that won’t change.
Here is an update of my trip so far, in numbers:
1 – Number of entries in my journal
Normally, I spent a great deal of time reading and writing when I travel. This time, I have barely started my book and written only once in my journal (on the plane). Most of my trips are an opportunity to take a short break from “real life”, take in a new city (mostly by eating), and enjoy solitude. All but one of my trips last year was at the beginning or end of a long work week, so I needed the break from people.
This trip, however, is my real life. My real life is now being unemployed and my goal is to meet other people and figure out my identity outside my career.
4 – Days in Bogotá
I have been in Bogotá for four days now, and am starting to settle in – not to the city itself but to traveling. It always takes a few days, I think, to adjust to life without a schedule or obligations. I don’t need to set an alarm, I have no dog to walk, and no one expects anything from me.
The longest vacation I have ever taken was two weeks in India a few years ago. There, it took me a week to settle into vacation mode and a week to prepare to go back. I already knew I had meetings and deadlines the week I got back. When I had henna painted on my arm, I had to consider whether it would be gone by an upcoming conference.
I get up early most mornings, have breakfast and listen to others talk about their plans for the day. I’ve been spending a few hours on the computer researching my next destination, and then venturing out to wander around the city.
I have made friends with some people in my hostel. Last night we went to the top of Monserrate for sunset, and today we will go to a museum and then check out a new neighbourhood. Photos of Monserrate
5 – Disgusting spider bites I have gotten while I sleep
I won’t go into detail. I know the bug situation is only going to get worse from here and that soon I will yearn for this point where I only have 5 giant red bumps on inconvenient places. My knuckles, FFS!
8 – Billion dollars allocated as part of Plan Colombia
Yesterday I went on a graffiti tour which was absolutely fascinating. We learned about the way that the city of Bogotá has embraced street art and celebrates its status as one of the world’s best canvases.
Looking at the art, it is impossible to ignore the messages behind it – dark and powerful. I was completely ignorant of the political situation in Colombia, most people are as it is suppressed in media coverage. I’ve since been reading about the US Initiative, Plan Colombia. The most disturbing thing I have learned about so far (and I am sure it barely scratches the surface, is Falsos Positivos. I’ll let you read it on your own, but be warned it is quite upsetting.
I went out shopping with two girls from my hostel yesterday, someone had drawn us a map to a nice pedestrian area. We got caught up talking, however, and walked past a turn. A few blocks later (at Carrera 9), an older woman approached us with urgency and told us to stop. She insisted that we turn around now, that we were about to walk into a very dangerous area. We thanked her and walked briskly back to an area we were certain was safe, and shared a moment of gratitude.
I am still trying to find the right balance between being afraid and being alert. I feel like am leaning too far toward the former, but I often lose track of my surroundings and get wrapped up in the moment. I’ll find my stride, in time.
22 – Average age of the people at my hostel
I’m still feeling old. Every time a new person arrives we go through the standard introduction:
Where are you from?
Where have you just arrived from?
When are you leaving Bogotá?
Where are you going next?
How long is your trip overall?
Once we have formed a group of five or more, someone asks how old everyone is. The oldest girl I have met is 29. I have been spending most of my time with her and a few girls who are 22 and really enjoying it. I don’t usually have younger friends as there is no natural context in which to meet but it is nice to get to know them and hear their perspective. When I tell the group I am 32 and they are intrigued. They are surprised I am backpacking and want to know why, they don’t ask anyone else that question.
I have met a lot of Dutch people, a few from England, and several Kiwis and Aussies. I have made a few connections but making friends has never been easy for me. On this trip, I am trying harder than I usually do but I don’t have the energy to keep up. Every night at the hostel a group parties loudly, doing shots and singing and dancing. Tonight they are going on a party bus to a big club an hour away from the hostel. I feel internal pressure to go, to try to fit in and to make the most of my experience here. But I won’t – it is expensive and I hate crowds and loud music. I’m 32 years old, I know what I like and it isn’t that. I like writing and reading and enjoying my solitude.
Update on day one of this adventure: I arrived in Bogotá last night after about a seven hour journey which was one of my more challenging ones, but nothing unmanageable.
I had read about the requirement to show proof of onward travel plans, but in the midst of preparing for the trip I lost track. When I arrived to check in at Copa Airlines, I found out it was not a mere suggestion. They let me through security but would not let me board the plane unless I could show that I have plans to leave Colombia. A quick forum search from the boarding area yielded the perfect solution: I bought a ticket on aircanada.com from Bogotá to Toronto. Air Canada has a 24 hour cancellation policy whereby you get a full refund, you must book from their website. I took my open laptop to the desk and showed the agent my ticket confirmation and was cleared to go. As soon as I landed and connected to wifi, I simply cancelled the ticket. It turns out, waiting until the last minute was the best option because anything bought more than 24 hours ahead would have been difficult to cancel. Note: always read the fine print! I found a $350 refundable ticket on Expedia.ca, but they would have withheld a $200 administrative fee for cancelling it. This wasn’t obvious anywhere in the purchasing process, I had to read the T&C and even then it was confusing wording.
My flight from Toronto to Panama City was excruciating. I was seated next to a very large man who took up about 1/3 of my seat. I felt for him, and didn’t want to make him feel worse than he obviously did. I didn’t want to make a big deal about moving but wish I would have asked the flight attendant for a new seat at the beginning. Instead, I was squeezed against the window for five hours. But I started my book, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez and watched the movie Dear Eleanor which I would give a 7/10 (minus three for Jessica Alba’s terrible acting).
My bag was the very last one off the plane and I had doubts it would arrive, but I was surprisingly calm about this. I had all of my essentials with me and would make do until it arrived. I think I squealed when it came out. I found a cash machine and took out enough to cover the taxi and the hostel, figuring I would find a better rate away from the airport. The man in charge of the taxi line quoted me COP 58,000 to get to my destination. I said in very broken Spanish, “No, I will pay COP 25,000.” My hostel had emailed me when I booked the reservation and said not to pay more than 30,000. He sent me to a different line where I got a cab who said he would take me for COP 28,000. I said no again, and he settled for 25,000. The difference of 3,000 is only C $1.35 but that wasn’t the point. I felt extremely proud of myself, and ended up tipping him 5,000.
I dropped my things at the hostel and wandered out for dinner. I’m staying in a busy neighbourhood but was feeling disoriented, it was dark and I didn’t want to pull out my map and look confused. I have a horrible sense of direction so I just counted intersections and only turned right. I sat down at the first quiet place, Estrella Polar, a Russian restaurant. The restaurant was empty so I was skeptical of the food, but it was early and I was tired. It turned out great, I had a vegetable crepe and a couple of local beers and collected my thoughts. I made my way back to the hostel and posted a blog entry, then tried to sneak quietly into bed.
So far today, I have been reflecting and writing. Here is where things stand: I am cold, I am old, I am vulnerable, and I am not sure what to do with myself right now.
I am cold
Bogotá is 16*C and rainy today — my favourite weather! It feels a little colder than 16*C would feel in London or Toronto, the elevation is over 8600 feet which is the highest I’ve ever been. So far, no altitude sickness but I’m taking it easy on the beers and drinking extra water. I could have done a better job of preparing, I mostly packed for hot weather. I have 3 long sleeved shirts and a pair of pants though, plus a light rain jacket and a thin scarf. I did look this up, but I was researching from Toronto where it was over 30*C and felt disgusting. I was so excited to not be sweating that I didn’t think about the fact that I might be shivering. I’m going to venture out this afternoon and enjoy the crisp weather.
I am old
I’m not actually old. I’m only 32. But my body is much older than it was ten years ago when I backpacked in Europe. I am staying at Hostal Sue Candelaria which is about COP36,000 (C$16.20) per night, on the top bunk of a 4 bed dorm. I woke up this morning snap-crackle-popping and having to stifle a groan as I climbed down the ladder.
Over the last several years my travel standards have changed a lot – it has been years since I climbed into a hostel bed. I almost always stay at nice hotels or AirBnB. But that is not the experience I am looking for here, and I could not afford more than a month on that budget. I think I will adjust soon, I need to get stronger and walking and carrying my pack will help.
At breakfast, I listened to the other guests chattering and realized that most of them are in their early twenties, traveling on gap years. I said hello to the guy in my dorm, after a bit of small talk he confided he hasn’t travelled much and then spent about ten minutes asking me for advice on things like SIM cards and public transportation. It gave me quite a confidence boost, realizing I am actually an experienced traveler. I don’t know about SIM cards or public transportation here, by the way, but he was impressed anyway.
I am vulnerable
Many people ask me how I travel alone without getting scared, and I tell them it is easy: it is just like going about your day in another place, people are generally kind and willing to help, and the worst case scenario is rarely all that bad. Last night, I was uneasy, and I wished I was traveling with someone else.
I speak almost no Spanish, just basic words and sentences structure that I learned in high school. I have been practising with the Duolingo App and trying to listen to background conversations I would normally tune out (e.g. safety announcements, radio/tv, other people). I have Google Translate downloaded for offline use, and I have a pocket Spanish dictionary. I want to learn, and plan to find a lesson while I’m here.
In Bogotá (so far), many people speak a little bit of English, but many do not. So far I have gotten by with a lot of repeated words, hand gestures, and carrying a little notebook to write things down. The people are incredibly patient and even if they do speak English, they are happy to help me struggle through Spanish so I can learn. This is all well and good when dealing with hostel staff and restaurants, but it simply won’t do if I find myself in a difficult situation.
I have been getting my bearings and have not been very outgoing so far, but I am going to try to join a tour later so I can make some friends.
I am not sure what to do with myself right now
I woke up this morning around 8am, had a quick shower, and came out for some free breakfast in the common area. Others started to wake up around 9am and I listened to them make plans for the day. Two Kiwi girls decided to get their noses pierced, an English guy signed up for the graffiti tour, and an American hurried his friend to get dressed so they could get out and walk around.
I started to feel rushed, like I needed to get out and about to see the city. I am used to spending 2-3 days in a place, so I feel guilty for wasting a morning. This morning I realized I have no timetable! I can stay here in Bogotá for as long as I wish. I have three nights in this hostel but can easily extend it or move…I could stay here for three months if I want to! I will see the city in my own time and at my own pace, and when I get tired of it I will move on!
It is now after noon and I have not left the common area. But I am going to go out and walk around, I am hungry and eager to see the city in the daylight. Plus, I have to get away from the two American boys helping each other design their Tinder profiles. It has been amusing but I just can’t.
How about this selfie? Do you think my hair looks better than the other one? Dude, when we go out today I want to borrow your sunglasses and have you take it so I don’t just have selfies. You can tell I used a selfie stick in this one, I’m going to try to crop it. Dude, use a filter so you look more tan, you look pale. Should I use an elephant one? It’s a great photo but I think some girls might not like it. I can add the koala one too so it looks like I’m friends with animals, but I also don’t want to look like a douche.
I am cold, I am old, I am vulnerable, and I am not sure what to do with myself right now. I can’t think of anything better, and I wouldn’t change a thing about how I feel right now.