The Truth About Colombia
Now I have to admit that my desire to backpack through Colombia was for a few different reasons:
- I felt like traveling somewhere considered “unsafe” (I had my reasons but you’re not allowed ask me why)
- I wanted to see what Colombia was all about ,and whether it deserved the bad wrap it usually gets in the media for drugs, crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping etc.
- I’d heard good things from other travelers
After spending a couple of weeks exploring parts of Colombia I can defintely speak for Andy and I and say that we LOVED it!! Admittedly it wasn’t always the safest place (but I’d consider Venezuela to have both more poverty and be more dangerous), but we had a fantastic time. There’s heaps to see and do, the local people are incredibly friendly and helpful, it’s cheap (cheaper than Venezuela), and there are no tourists to ruin the place.
Our arrival into Colombia was an adventure in itself and one of the passport stamps I’m most proud of. To get to the border we commandeered a taxi in Maracaibo that drove us there. We had to pass through 10 checkpoints (yes, we counted!) to even get to the border area. We had to bribe a few officials to expedite being stamped out of Venezuela (it was about a three hour wait), and we then walked through “no man’s land” to the Colombian border side. This area was like something out of “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” – guys walked around with pistols shoved in their belts, lots of shifty and shady characters, a few families scratching out a living by campfires etc. We had to wait a long time at the Colombian side as well, and had to resort to bribes to avoid the five hour plus wait to be stamped in to the country.
We hadn’t gone more than five metres into Colombia when we were offered cocaine, apparently a trap set by the local law enforcement officials. We got onto a bus and made our way to Santa Marta, our first destination. We initially wanted to visit the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in the nearby mountains, however we found that the govenment had sealed off that area of the national park since a group of backpackers had been kidnapped a few months beforehand. We tracked down a company that usually did helicopter trips up to the ruins, but they had stopped flights after concerns their helicopter might get shot down!
Next stop was Cartagena de Indias, which was a definite highlight of our entire trip! The old fortified town centre is one of the earliest Spanish settlements in the New World, and the architecture and setting of the town (it’s surrounded by walls, battlements and forts – the city has been sieged three times in its history, including an attack by the privateer Sir Francis Drake) are fantastic. We spent about a week in Cartagena and loved it. Our favourite haunt in the evenings was a bar called Cafe del Mar on the city walls facing the Caribbean – the cocktails and chill-out tunes were idyllic.
(L) And this was one of the classy hotels! We christened her Kathleen after Kathleen Turner in “Romance in the Stone” – a story about trying to get to Cartagena (R) Exploring the depths of one of the old Spanish forts.
After several days in the city we caught a speed boat out to an island chain off the coast. We’d arranged to stay on a dive school’s private island, and I even wangled a deal to get my open water certification in 2 days for $150 – a bargain! One of the coolest things we did was get the chance to snorkel with all sorts of sealife. A neighbouring island had an open water aquarium and through our dive school’s contacts we were allowed to snorkel in the enclosures after hours. It was great fun, and a little eerie, to be swimming in a cage with all sorts of fish (including some huge cod and wrasse), sea turtles, and even some decent sized sharks!
Back in Cartagena we took a day to go out to a local “mud volcano”. The fine mud in this “volcano” had the consistency of cream and was incredibly buoyant so that you’d float on its surface. We also took a boat ride through the nearby mangroves where we watched fishermen fish in the estuary.
We flew from Cartagena down to Bogota for several days, which was cold and wet after the sun along the Caribbean coast. We didn’t think much of Bogota, and it was definitely felt like an unsafe place for travelers to be at the time. We did what the tourists do – Gold Museum, cable car up to Monserrate, walked around the plazas etc. – but didn’t want to spend too much time there.
We did take a great day trip out to the small town of Zipaquira which was home to some old salt mines. We took a tour through one of the mines (randomly, we were the only non-Colombian tourists there and could only find a tour guide who spoke German) and saw the world’s largest underground catherdral cut out of the rock – amazing!