Touring Colombia; Service, Scenery, Escobar & the Beauty of Peace!

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

After several work and personal trips to Colombia, this was the first time I developed a tour to actually take a group myself- it turned out to be one of my best tours yet!

A monument to miners in Zipaquirá

I had been wanting to develop a trip and when several frequent travellers (and friends) asked about Colombia, it was the perfect timing. The biggest challenge in developing a trip to such a huge and diverse country is choosing what to leave out!

Colombia has a reputation. Decades of civil war, drug lords and general political instability meant this magnificent country was virtually out of bounds as recently as the early 2000’s. Peace has made all the difference!

Also, Colombia does not have that single, famous attraction such as Machu Picchu, Galapagos, or a famous canal. Yet everyday offers a real highlight.

Colombia is absolutely magnificent. Physically, this tropical country encompasses three mountain ranges, the Amazon basin and two oceans. It is lush, incredibly diverse and remarkably friendly.

“I really cannot say enough about the quality of service, kindness and friendliness of the Colombian people.”

This was a trip on three levels; high-altitude Bogota, perennial-springtime Antioquia (Medellin) and steamy hot, coastal Cartagena (plus we threw in three fun days in Panama to top off the adventure).

Colombia’s cities are generally very developed, but the inter-city road system is limited. Traffic is a problem, so the design of a trip matters. To that end, in each city we had a day of highlights and then a day trip out. For efficiency and timings I chose to fly between each destination.

Bogota

Colombia’s sprawling capital of 10 million is huge. It sits at 2600 meters (8500 feet) and is dominated by Monserrate – a towering green mountain with the obligatory church and statue of Christ.

Climbing Monserrate

This really does need to be the first stop and about half of my group actually walked up the 2600+ steps to over 10,000 feet. The top is also accessible by a steep funicular train. From atop, the magnitude of the city becomes clear.

If security is a concern, police are everywhere and – like everyone in Colombia – they are extremely polite. The Bogota accent is a pleasure to listen to and is often considered the best spoken Spanish in the world.

*Among the many things I love about Latin America, is that discussions about ‘the best’ Spanish are authentic, without the pejorative overtones that can accompany such conversations elsewhere in the world.

The historic centre of Candelaria district of ‘Old Bogota’ is easy to walk around and fun. Traffic is terrible.

The cultural highlight could be the Gold Museum – even the airport is called El Dorado.

We stayed in a very good, modern hotel in the north of the city and those who stayed awake were lucky enough to have a Friday night with music everywhere. Bogota may be a little too big and clogged to fall in love with, but it is very clean and really fun.

The Salt Cathedral

For our day trip we drove out to Zipaquira. I had been before and was so excited to take my group to these historic salt mines. The town is friendly, walkable and attractive. The mines are beyond belief. In this devout Catholic country, miners turned the entire underground structure into a salt cathedral.

I tend to hurry past the many Stations of the Cross, but the actual cathedral is breathtaking. Zipaquira is reason enough to make a trip to the Bogota region.

Oh – and all the included food was certainly too much, but fresh, healthy and really delicious. The pace of service is slow, but in a warm, friendly way. Meals should be enjoyed.

Medellin – Antioquia

The homeland of Pablo Escobar is intensely green, warm, beautiful and proud. I love visiting Medellin and the three days of touring were fascinating and helps to offer real hope in an unstable world.

$8 a day?

The flight from Bogota is less than an hour. I have done the journey by road – while beautiful, it really requires two days.

After settling into our formal hotel in the wealthy ‘Poblado’ district, we switched to a smaller bus to wind up into a high-altitude coffee growing region. The tour was excellent and the countryside delicious.

Women who spend 8+ hours picking beans can earn about $8.

At this point I would like to mention Medellin-based Colombia Travel Operator S.A.S – this is the behind the scenes aspect of travel, but I used their services throughout Colombia. They are excellent. While we never needed any of the extra help, their services included insurance, 24 hour contact and lovely staff.

Escobar

On our second day we launched into Colombia’s troubled past with an excellent local guide. Escobar’s effect is almost unbelievable. At one point he was the richest man in the world. His organization can be directly blamed for 15,000 deaths. The entire narco / marxist / paramilitary conflict is directly responsible for 45,000 deaths and millions of people displaced.

Colombia and Colombians have been particularly kind to the million+ Venezuelans who have escaped the collapse of their country. The welcome comes from three sources: 1) it is simply the correct thing to do, 2) Venezuelans and Colombians share so much in common and 3) Venezuela welcomed so many displaced Colombians – particularly those from Antioquia through the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Here is more about Venezuela.

Yet Escobar remains divisive. Many still love him (in that Robin Hood sort of way). December 2 will be the 25th anniversary of his death. At his grave we met his sister (!) and actually saw a guy praying! Sorry .. no photo. I’m sure there is a commandment in there.

Hope for the future

The reality of all this conflict in Medellin meant that the government could simply not ignore the poor, and this most innovative city in the world now boasts excellent infrastructure in some of the poorest areas.

Medellin was among the first cities in Latin America to develop an affordable cable-car into the poorest areas. This matters. People who would have to walk up steep hills, or be stuck in mountainous traffic can now be in the city centre in a tenth of the time. Moreover, with an aerial view, one gets a much broader view of their community.

Comuna 13

In 2002, this area of Medellin was considered the most dangerous place in the Americas. Narcos, communists, the military and paramilitaries (always my least favourite), made this marginal area a killing zone.

15 years on, it is a major tourist destination and an artistic centre. Our guide was a rapper and hip-hop artist. From the depths of violence, community leadership, art, peace and infrastructure spawned something beautiful and hopefully sustainable.

Tourists now learn about this recent violent history while riding outdoor escalators up the steep hills. This is worth a much deeper discussion unto itself. Peace is good – and so is purpose.

Medellin is also the birthplace of Fernando Botero – a brilliant sculptor who has gifted much of his art to the city. What a fabulous place.

Our rapping guide in Comuna 13 – a real poet!

El Peñol and Guatape

Stairs anyone?

The Day out from Medellin is into Antioquia’s lush countryside. El Peñol is a granite extrusion near a massive dammed lake. Even Escobar’s money remains present around here, but politics aside, it is so very beautiful.

The climb up the rock is 740 steps. Not too difficult and good fun. Plus on top one enjoys panoramic views and cold beer (or ice cream I suppose).

Just down the road is the artistic community of Guatapé. What seems a typical colonial town, is festooned with zocalos – square, artistic expressions throughout the colourful town. It claims to be the most colourful town on earth!

The entire region around Medellin is beautiful. The city receives fewer than a million tourists annually, but is so worth the effort. While I do not generally like voyeuristic tourism, it is important to embrace the history of Escobar. Shows such as Narcos keep this recent history alive and to watch the social transformation of the region is heartening.

Cartagena & the Coast

Another Caribbean Fortress

From the cordillera, we flew down to the one very touristed city in the country. Cartagena is a walled Caribbean city, once complicit in the slave trade. The old town reeks of colonial Spanish oppression. It is architecturally impressive, much the way of old Havana. I cannot imagine what life would have been like, wearing armour in that heat, while being bombarded by English pirates.

The entirely walled Old Town is indisputably much more fun today, with good restaurants, clubs and even an entirely random ‘Soviet-themed’ bar!

The majority of tourists arrive on cruise ships. Others stay throughout the new town in the many modern apartments. The vibe is distinctly tropical and the city is very attractive.

Style – but the young lady in front is selling herself

I must admit to struggling with the ubiquity of prostitution and the fairly aggressive sales of everything everywhere (similar to Acapulco). If you are interested in sex tourism, stay home. Nightclubs are full of fat old men with young women. Those men are pigs. Those women are trafficked. This makes me sick.

So all that aside, Cartagena has beaches, islands (we spent a day on one), and a vibrant, modern culture which mixes the Caribbean with South America. And the water is so warm, it is like walking into a bath!

Colombia

I have written about this fine country for several years. My first trip was to a conference in 2010 and since that time I have explored much of the country. I was asked at the end of the trip if it is my ‘favourite’ country in South America. I’d rather not choose, so I shall add it to the list of Andean countries I love.

Perhaps what Colombia is missing for me personally is the intense indigenous culture of Peru, Ecuador and, of course, Bolivia. Colombia is more mestizo – more ‘latino’. Its cities are more developed than elsewhere in the region and as noted above, it is remarkably friendly.

The entire country is intensely beautiful and affordable. It deserves to be a major tourist destination.

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