10 Days in COLOMBIA: Travel Notes

IMG_2799When we started telling people we were going to Colombia on vacation, the first question was always the same. “Isn’t it dangerous?” “You know you can just buy drugs in London!” my godfather joked. The Netflix series Narcos had just aired, and Pablo Escobar and the drug wars were fresh in peoples minds again. Of course, much has changed since the early 2000s, and Colombia is now every tourists dream. Safe. Friendly. Affordable. Beautiful.

According to most websites, the best time to visit Colombia for sunny skies is from December to March. The worst time to visit, weather-wise, is October. We went in October. It’s the month with the highest humidity and the highest rainfall, but being brave rain-worn Londoners, we decided to cross our fingers and hope for the best. The day before I flew out, there were literally thunder bolts going through my weather app for Bogota. I packed another rain jacket.

Though despite all the crappy weather talk, let me just say, it did not rain one time during our entire trip. Yes, it was humid. But we welcomed the heat. It was tropical. We also welcomed all the great deals we got on hotels, being low season and all, as well as the lack of hordes of tourists at every turn. It sounds contradictory to most things you’ll read online, but if you can, plan your trip for October.

Below is our itinerary for the 10 incredible days we spent in Colombia. There are many other wonderful parts of the country, like Medellin for example, which we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit, but hopefully this give you a few ideas/tips if you’re planning on visiting.

DAY 1-2: BOGOTA (CITY)
MF and I planned to stay a day to explore the country’s capital. We were told a day is all you need. We were unlucky and arrived during local elections, so most museums and shops were closed (and no drinks served at dinner), giving off a bit of a ghost town vibe, which isn’t typical of course. But I would still say the “a day is all you need” rule stands.

The one highlight I would recommend to anyone going to Bogota is the hike up Monseratte. After walking up stairs carved into the mountain for about 2-3 hours, you’ll find yourself 10,341 feet above sea level, gasping at the views of the city. During the day, you’ll see many locals walking up with you to go to church at the top. We stopped complaining about our burning buns after passing more than a few mothers hiking up with their babies cradled in their arms. They must be going to heaven for that.

Day 3-7: CARTAGENA (BEACH)
Paradise! Cartagena is paradise! I could live here. Seriously. In Lonely Planet’s words, it is the “undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast, a fairy-tale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13km of centuries-old colonial stone walls.” I couldn’t agree more. This charming port city on the northern coast of Colombia is an absolute must see!

We stayed at the Bastion Luxury Hotel in the Old Town. A beautifully airy (and air-conditioned) boutique hotel, complete with spa, gym room, rooftop pool, and amazing breakfast buffet.  We arrived the day of MF’s birthday, and the hotel staff really went the extra-mile, upgrading us to a bigger suite and surprising us a few minutes later with a chocolate birthday cake! Step outside and follow the cobble stoned streets to find numerous high-end restaurants, as well as a variety of different cuisines, from fresh local fish spots to Argentinian steaks to Japanese sushi.

We later discovered the neighbourhood of Getsemani, just a few minutes walk away from the Old Town, which has emerged as the young, cool place to stay. You could say it’s the “Brixton” of Cartagena, a little rough around the edges, lots of colourful graffiti, and a quirky, warm vibe (or maybe that was the 90% humidity). If you need further proof, this up-and-coming neighbourhood has been written about in CN Traveler, Forbes, and the NYTimes.

There are a number of tiny islands off the coast of Cartagena that are easy to get to by local speedboat, leaving from the Muelle de la Bodeguita. Having limited time, we organised a day trip through our hotel to Islas del Rosario (an archipelago of 27 islands that are part of a national park), which included transport and lunch on a picturesque piece of beach. Snorkeling, kayaking and jet-skiis were all available, but we decided to be lazy and splash around with a pina colada instead. 😉 Extra perk: having booked through the Bastion, we were given priority lounge chairs (basically they were more comfortable, closer to the water, and we were served first for drinks and snacks). Thumbs up!

RECOMMENDATION: If you want to see the real side of Cartagena, get in touch with Alvaro Ramirez (contact him at ramu1946@hotmail.com), a charming local who knows just about everyone in town. He can take you on a tour of the local market, Mercado de Bazurto, a huge swerving maze of everything from fruit to shoes, and walk you through Cartagena like a real local.

Day 8-10: SALENTO (MOUNTAINS)

As frequent coffee drinkers, visiting one of Colombia’s coffee plantations was a must. Salento isn’t the most obvious tourist stop  (which was part of its appeal!) but is a great destination for nature lovers, hiking enthusiasts and anyone who wants to see the birth place of your morning Cup of Joe. We flew into Pereira and took a taxi from the airport to Salento, a drive that takes about 3 hours. Expect lots of winding roads on the way – but spectacular views!

I cant describe the town of Salento without using the word charming. Nestled within lush, green mountains, Salento is in it’s own world. The Calle Real (the main street) has a great atmosphere, full of cozy restaurants, chill bars, and artesanías (local craft stalls).  You could easily spend a few hours wandering in and out of all the shops. At the end of the street is a huge staircase that leads up to Alto de la Cruz, a hill topped with a cross – and to our pleasant surprise – a swing-set! From here you can see Valle de Cocora and the Andean Mountains that surround it…our next stop.

The Cocora Valley is home to Colombia’s national tree, the Quindío wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense), which can grow up to 70 metres in height (an impressive sight). For tourists who want to work up a sweat and “ooo” and “aahh” at their surroundings, I highly recommend embarking on this 4-5 hour hike (go for the full loop!). In Salento’s main square, you’ll find vintage 4×4 jeep taxis that will take you (and way more people than you think is possible) to the starting point. Get ready for wooden swing bridges, log crossings, hummingbird watching at Acaime, and the feeling that you might actually be in Jurassic Park. The dozens of slender palms poking through the clouds was truly a majestic sight. Tip: Go early and bring a rain jacket! There’s also the option of horseback riding around the trails. 

For us coffee drinkers, we then headed to the motherland, a coffee plantation!  After the Cocora Valley hike, the one hour walk to the Ocaso Coffee Plantation from Salento, will feel like a piece of cake. Here, we were provided a very hands-on explanation of the entire coffee making process, from picking the berries ourselves to enjoying several cups of coffee at the end. Fun Fact: We learned that the lighter the coffee bean, the better the quality and more complex the flavour, as darker beans have essentially had their original taste “roasted” away.


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