I can remember the very first time I mentioned to my parents that Colombia was on my list of countries I would be visiting on my trip to South America.
“I’ve heard that place is dangerous. Isn’t there any other safer places you can go?”
They were understandably unimpressed. Colombia has never really been a place any parent would want their precious little snowflake catching a one-way flight to, however anyone who has ever visited this amazing country will tell you that as long as you use common sense and exercise a normal degree of caution the majority of the country is completely safe.
When thinking of Colombia most people who have never been there may mention words like violence, cartels, murders, kidnappings or drugs. This is thankfully a common out-dated misconception, in fact you’ve probably got more chance of being killed by a falling coconut than being caught in the crossfire of cartel bullets in the now very touristic city of Medellin.
So why is there a negative stigma attached to Colombia?
Drugs…well cocaine really and everything that is associated with the illegal trafficking and production of a controlled substance i.e. kidnappings, corruption and murders. In the early 90’s Medellin was witness to 6,349 murders (wtf) compared to 935 in 2014, not bad when you consider the murder rates in Mexico or even The United States.
Anyway, let’s move on to why I, and many other travelers, think Colombia is awesome.
In each place whether a city or small beach town I found the locals to be some of the most open minded, curious and friendly people that I have ever encountered. Tourism in Colombia is a relatively new thing so as soon as anyone would hear my terrible accent through my broken Spanish, I would immediately pique their interest and be asked where I was from and what I was doing in Colombia. On a few occasions I was even offered a place to stay in exchange for nothing more than friendly gringo company and interesting conversations.
Being a blonde man in Colombia certainly didn’t allow me to blend in at all. The dance-floor had me surrounded by an equal amount of Colombian men and women force feeding me shots of Aguardiente whilst including me in every single photo and even offering their sisters off for marriage. It was madness…a good kind of madness.
Bogotá: This was the very first city I visited in Colombia. I can remember observing very mild temperatures of around 17C which, due to lack of research, surprised me. I had always envisioned the entire country of Colombia to be hot and sweaty all year round, but not Bogotá. In this city you can expect a yearly average high of 19C with an average low of 9C a huge difference when compared to Medellin’s average high of around 28C.
This city is home to amazing restaurants, great nightlife and with a bed in a comfortable hostel’s dorm room averaging a very affordable $12USD per night, you should have plenty of your daily budget left over to spend on exploring Colombia’s cosmopolitan capital.
Medellin – Home to 2.44million people this is Colombia’s second largest city. Located in the Aburrá Valley the first thing you’ll notice, if coming from the airport, is that the taxi takes forever to get into the city, but I can assure you the ride is well worth it. Once the most dangerous city in the world, Medellin has done a complete 180 in terms of now being a destination on any South America travellers list.
With amazing parks and plazas, paragliding ($40USD for 20mins), quad bike riding, Pablo Escobar tours and enough partying opportunities to have you needing a liver transplant, Medellin is quickly becoming one of the ‘it’ cities of the world.
Cali – Famous as being the salsa capital of the world and hosting the world wrestling championships in 1992 (?) this was probably the most dangerous city I’ve encountered for a while. I was never robbed or beaten or anything like that, I just felt a little uneasy when the taxi drivers locked the doors and refused to stop at red lights because they were scared of being car-jacked. English is not spoken here at all so it’s an amazing city if you’re interested in improving your spanish and your salsa skills.
Cartagena – Hot, hot, hot! Probably the sweatiest place I’ve ever been. It’s a tough one, but Colombia’s Caribbean city is probably my favourite and with it’s tropical climate, cloudless skies, amazing beaches, unique hostels and generally pleasant atmosphere it’s pretty hard to beat.
Taganga – Around 4 hours north east of Cartagena lies this oldschool little fishing village. Nicknamed the ‘Backpacker Ghetto’ I personally spent around one month in this kinda dirty, yet character rich gem. The day time atmosphere lacks a little in comparison to Cartegena, however it easily makes it up at soon as the sun sets. The nightlife is a whole lot better than it’s neighbour, Santa Marta, with the discoteca Sensation bringing in a varied crowd of both foreigners and Colombians and, my personal favourite, Mirador (spanish for lookout) which sits at the at entrance to Taganga when coming from Santa Marta. This hotel/discoteca is a place for people who want to party until the wee hours of the morning pretty much any day of the week.
Anyone interested in doing a PADI diving course is in luck with prices ranging between $250-$300 for an open water certificate.
Taganga also makes for a great base for organising trips to Parque Tyrona which is also a popular destination for travelers. This 93 square mile national park offers something for the hiker, beach lover and/or nature enthusiast. One hour and half hike will get you there or if you simply can’t be bothered you can pay $20 for a 45 minute speed boat from Taganga.
Although my time spent in Colombia was quite short in comparison other South American countries I have visited, I will always remember it as the country that popped my South America cherry. It sure was an amazing way to start my South America adventure and who knows, the way I travel, I could be back there next week.