What do you think when you think about Colombia? Drugs? Violence? FARC? Pablo Escobar? For many people, the historical difficulties prevent them from enjoying the wonderful present. We have really, really, really loved our time there. The bits we have visited have mostly been ultra lush and green. There are mountains and hills everywhere, which makes the scenery stunning. The colonial towns are relaxed, pretty, fun and interesting and there is a great variety of flora and fauna. It is reasonably easy to get around, though anything on the ground takes time.
The key ingredient to a good time though is the people you meet, and 99.9% Colombians we have met have been great. They are patient, interested, interesting and fun. They love music and a good party (waiters and waitresses can’t help doing mini dances if there is music playing and they have no one to serve, and shop assistance are the same). In most places, western tourists are still relatively small in number so it is easy to get to meet people and learn about the country. In the more touristy areas (Cartagena, Santa Marta, Minca), it is a bit different and whilst the majority of people are polite and patient, we were just more tourists. We liked these places least.
We would live in Colombia (but will wait until the current president shows his hand)
Some top tips:
1. GO TO COLOMBIA! I would also say, if you like a bit of adventure, go soon as two things may happen. Firstly, and hopefully more likely, word will continue to spread about what a great place Colombia is and in more and more places tourists will be just an income. What’s worse, it will soon be safe enough for Americans to come and then everyone else will have to live with the background noise of a loud American narrative of absolutely everything – ‘I had eggs for breakfast this morning’, ‘Hey, have you been to Cartagena? Cartagena is great. I’ve been to Cartagena’, ‘I’ve got new socks on’….. JUST. SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP!!!!!!!. The alternative scenario is that this new president of Colombia screws up the peace. Murders of opposition activists are increasing, the peace process is stalling and there was a very big bomb just before we left. I am sure that the people of Colombia will not let it return to its worst, but it was really, really, really bad and even going halfway back would kill the tourist industry.
2. Learn a bit of Spanish. Not many people speak English, and whilst you can survive, I think without the interaction with the locals the experience may be a little less fulfilling. There are no world class things to see; no Machu Picchu, no Everest, no Pyramids, just really nice people and really interesting stuff. Elefun in Medellin really is a good school.
3. Colombia is a big country. 3 months was not enough to do the whole country and we missed the Pacific Coast, south of Cali and the Amazon areas. If you are coming, focus on doing fewer bits well than doing lots badly. If you are here for beaches, focus on the north coast and the Islands of San Andres and Providencia. If you like mountains, Antioquia or Santander are great places. Antioquia has pretty much everything less beaches; a big and interesting city (Medellin) lots of interesting colonial towns, the coffee zone and some history.
4. I don’t think a two week break will do the place any justice. If you only have a couple of weeks, go somewhere a little easier. 3 weeks to a month is the minimum I would recommend.
5. Right now Colombia is safe in the areas tourists are likely to travel. We took local advice and took reasonable precautions; we didn’t wear jewellery, kept an eye on our stuff and I had a decoy wallet with a bit of ready cash, an old credit card and some I.D in my pocket, a little more cash and a couple of important cards were in a money belt. Whilst this may be sensible, I never felt at risk (except when lost in the mountains in an inadequate car) and didn’t witness any robbery’s or theft whilst there. Go off the beaten track, but don’t be a dick.
6. When travelling it can be hard to strike the balance between being open, naïve and vulnerable to ne’r-do-wells and being so guarded that you miss out on meeting interesting people. In Colombia, err towards the open. So many people have been so lovely and kind to us here and we are very glad we have met them.
7. If you are young, single and decide to go out and get drunk with strangers, or someone you’ve met on Tinder, the risk rises dramatically and you have a good chance of waking up in hospital with no money, phone etc. We met people who went out to ‘meet’ locals successfully but did so in pairs and remained sensible.
8. If you are a confident driver, give it a go. It gives you the ability to explore more and it not too expensive. We used two agencies in our time here – Budget and Lociliza – both were woeful. Be prepared to get the wrong car, or have extra charges thrown your way. Be patient and allow for plenty of time for pick up. In both cases we got reasonable outcomes, with Locailiza giving us an upgrade when they realised they had their charges wrong, and Budget refunding us two days rental for giving us the wrong car.
9. The vast majority of people are not trying to rip you off (outside Cartagena). The majority of tourists are local so prices are fair and reputations are important. We never felt like we have been ripped off. If you end up paying COP6000 for a beer in a bit of a posh place instead of COP3000 in the old mans bar, remember that it’s the difference between $1.50 and $3, so still v cheap.
10. If you want to book internal fights, clear down your cookies, log out of your travel apps and search as a Colombian. Prices seem cheaper. Also check out the prices for Business Class. They can be cheaper, the same, or just a little more expensive (and you get more bags, a drink, shorter queues etc)
11. If you are Australian and like coffee, prepare to be disappointed. It’s good but not great. If you are from the US or the UK, you will love the coffee. You will probably quite like the Tinto too (local v cheap coffee sold pretty much everywhere).
12. Do the ‘Free City Tours’ where they exist; they are a great way of getting to learn about the places. If you do do one, tip reasonably. The guides don’t get paid. If you can’t afford a reasonable tip, don’t do the tour. The guides need and deserve to have everybody contributing.
13. The beer is cheap, reasonable and absolutely everywhere. There are also some reasonable craft beers available (Bogotá Beer Company, Tres Cordelias) Colombian wine sucks but you can get wine from Argentina and Chile at a reasonable price.
14. We are not a fan of chain restaurants, but Crepes and Waffles is ace.
15. Out of the tourist areas, you can eat and drink well very cheaply. The lunchtime ‘Menu Del Dia’ offers (AU$4-8) will give you a great meal at a reasonable price and most restaurants reputations hang off the quantity of this.
16. There are a lot of very poor people in Colombia, many from Venezuela. Locals give what they can, when they can, so have a few small coins available. Even 200 COP, less than 10c is appreciated. We probably didn’t do this enough.
17. Once you have your phone sim, don’t recharge in the main Movistar or Claro shops, go to a recharging agent. They know what they are doing and it takes seconds. We spent hours in the main shops before we worked this out.
18. Do make sure you register your phone if you are staying for more 30 days. If you don’t, it gets blocked at the 30 day point (an anti Narco thing) and it is a difficult process to get it unblocked.
19. Pablo Escobar was a cunt and narcos are cunts. They are responsible for 1000s of deaths, missed opportunities and endless suffering. If you’ve been watching Narco’s on Netflix and have any romantic notions, do some more reading before you come. If you still think he was ok, you may well be a cunt.
20. Finally, GO TO COLOMBIA. You will not regret it.
Thank you to all the lovely people we met of our travels: we will miss Colombia.