Hello dear readers,
after this wonderful road trip down the US West coast, I am now starting to explore Latin America.
The first country I am visiting, Colombia, was actually not on my initial list. Indeed, the only things I was associating to it were:
1) the Medellin cartel and the drug problems leading to insecurity in the country (which is actually now in the past)
2) and something even more scary: the haircut of 2 former players of the national team in the 90s, Carlos Valderrama and Rene Higuita, the last one being also known for his very cool goalkeeper scorpion trick.
However, thanks to the lobbying of the italo/colombian group (Simon, Eliana and Ingrid) I met during my diving cruise in the Similan Islands in Thailand, I decided to give a chance to this country.
So, here is a short summary of my first days in Colombia. After a long flight from Los Angeles with a short stop in Atlanta, I land in the city of Cartagena in the North West of the country. The warmth is very heavy, it is less hot than in Las Vegas where I had 43-44° but it is here very humid. My first surprise comes from the queue at the immigration. I was expecting a bit of chaos like in Asia, but the immigration area is well organised and people are queuing calmly to get their stamps. The stamp I get in my passport is a bit strange. Everybody sees something different. I, of course, see a big T for “tourist” 😉
The second surprise comes from the taxi driver. I learned from my past experiences traveling that I should be careful about everything, especially taxi drivers and so I googled on different travel forum what the price from the airport to the city center should be. As I ask the driver what the price is gonna be, he tells me the amount expected, which makes me even more suspicious. What’s happening, a taxi driver not trying to rip me off? 🙂 However as I tell him the address of the hostel where I booked, he starts saying that I shouldn’t go there because it is a dangerous place, but he knows some better hotels. Mmmh I thought, here comes the usual part, no trick on the taxi fee but a nice commission on the hotel nights. I tell him that I dont want to change and he starts driving. As my Spanish is very basic, he stops on the way to find English speaking people to try to convince me that the district I am going to is a bit dangerous. Quite strange, maybe the taxi driver really had good intentions.
After a few minutes, we arrived at the hostel. It is located in a quite poor residential district, however the hostel itself is very nice and comfortable. The owner tells me that the district is ok during the day, but that I should be careful as a tourist during the night. He also reminds me about basic security recommendations like to avoid using your mobile in the streets, or try not to walk alone in empty streets. The only small problem I had during my stay was it was a bit far from the city center, however, keeping the usual travel security mindset, I never felt in danger or threatened.
The first afternoon in Cartagena is quite light as I need to recover from the flight. I just go out for a short diner in the old town and walk back home along the sea to watch the sunset.
On the next day, I start my visit of the city quite late at the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This castle, listed as a UNESCO world heritage site is located on a hill and offers a very nice view on the city and the sea. I stay there around 1 hour. I remember that I just landed in Latin America when I see the number of tourists taking selfies everywhere, and competing for the longest selfie stick 🙂
I have lunch in a part of the city called Getsemani. The main street there is full of small shops and bars&restaurant. I spend around 2 pleasant hours walking around before moving on to the Old town.
The Old town of Cartagena is also listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The district is beautiful and definitely offers a lot of postcard views. I spend the evening there to have diner and have a beer listening to local music in a park before heading home.
On the next day, the program is quite light. In the morning I do some paperwork and write some lines for my blog. In the afternoon, I go back to the Old town to enjoy the atmosphere one more time.
After a last night in Cartagena, I take a mini van further North on the coast to Santa Marta. The drive takes about 4 hours and I am positively surprised by the good state of the roads. I arrive in Santa Marta in the middle on the afternoon and after a quick check in at my hostel, I go for a walk along the beach to the Marina. Back at the hostel, I meet my neighbour in the dorm, a nice traveler from Brazil and we go for diner together.
On the next day, I wake up very early to go hiking in the Tayrona national park. This park is one of the highlights in Colombia and has some nice beaches.
I chose to hike the complete loop from the entrance to the Cabo de san Juan and back. The trail is quite flat and very easy. During the walk, I am lucky to see many animals like colorful birds, colorful lizards and some monkeys. The beaches are really nice but some are not open to swimming as the waves are very strong. On one beach, I am a bit surprised not to see anybody till I see a sign asking visitors to stay careful as this beach is the home of… caimans. Mmmh, maybe I should go back to the trail 😉 It takes me about 2 hours to reach the end of the trail. I planned to have lunch there, but as the few restaurants there are very full, I prefer to eat the 2 apples I brought with me and to walk back to the entrance.
Back in Santa Marta, I go again for diner with my new Brazilian friend and come back at the hostel to go to bed quite early. Indeed, on the next day, I am going back to Tayrona national park, but this time to go scuba diving from the fishermen village of Taganga.
The dive base is very good. I am diving with an instructor from Portugal and a buddy from Norway. The dive sites are ok, but not very spectacular after my dives in Indonesia. However the water is quite chilly and it’s nice to refresh and take a break from the hot heavy weather. After the 2 dives, I take a short walk to the Playa Blanca. It is supposed to be the best beach in Taganga. However it is very crowded and after half an hour I decide to take the bus back to Santa Marta.
After a last night in Santa Marta, I take the plane to Medellin. I wanted to go there by bus first, but the plane ticket was only a few thousands pesos more and it takes only 1 hour to fly there instead of the 16 hours the bus would have taken.
Arrived in Medellin, I book a Uber to my hostel, which is located in the El Poblado district. Uber is well developed in Medellin and from the airport it is a bit less expensive than with the taxi.
The airport is quite far from the city center, but the drive is quite pleasant. Medellin is located in the mountains and so the landscape around is quite nice. Some streets are very steep and it reminds me a bit of Lausanne. After having checked in at the hostel, I take so time to plan a bit my next days and I go out for diner around 08pm. The area of El Poblado is very lively. There are a lot of bars and restaurants. It is quite a contrast with the calm of Santa Marta but it is also good to see more “life”.
On the next day, my touristic plan is quite classical. I take the metro first to the centro historico. The district has quite a high density and the number of people around really makes me feel in a big city (actually Medellin only has around 2 million people). I spend some time on the Botero place. This place is surrounded by the museum of Antioquia and the Uribe Palace of culture. It is very famous for the big bronze sculptures of the Colombian artist Fernando Botero. After that I take a short walk to the Park Bolivar to see the big Cathedral Metropolitana, which is a famous brick edifice in Medellin.
The next stop is the botanic garden, that I reach by taking the metro again. The garden is quite nice. It is not really a botanical garden as I know it, which means organised like a museum, but more a big park where people come to meet friends and chill out. My favorite part in the park is the butterfly area, where I practice the Macro mode of my camera.
To finish this first day I take the Metrocable, which is a gondola lift system, to reach San Domingo to enjoy the sunset. The view on the way to the top is amazing but the way down after the sunset is even better, as the city is then illuminated.
Back at the hostel in Medellin, I meet a nice Colombian family from Bogota with whom I spend 1 hour discussing about my trip. Then a few hours later, when I am back from diner, I meet a nice group of korean friends living in Guatemala and having holidays in Colombia. They invite me at their table to drink some Aguadiente, the local Colombian alcohol, which has a taste similar to Pastis or Ouzo.
I spend the next day mostly in the bus 🙂 The plan is to go to Guatape, a few kilometers East from Medellin. This city has the particularity to be next to the El Penol lake, which is a beautiful lake with torn shores. The problem on that day, is that I forgot that it was a public holiday and so the area was completely crowded. It took me already 1 hour to buy a bus ticket and then the bus took 4 hours to go to the first stop the big rock called “La Piedra del Penol” instead of the usual 2.
La Piedra del Penol is very crowded but still, the view from the top is very beautiful. The rock is 330m high and offers a nice panorama on the El Penol Lake and the mountains around.
After having fought with the 1000 selfie sticks to take pictures, I decide to go down to take the bus back to Medellin. Indeed it is quite late in the afternoon and as the roads are full, I prefer to skip the city center of Guatape and secure a place in a bus. The experience showed that it was the right decision. When I start queuing, we are maybe 10 people waiting, but there’s only 1 guy managing the tickets selling and the buses. After 1 hour, we are still not moving and there are about 100 people behind me.People start to become angry and agressive. I really thought they would kill the man when it also started to rain 🙂 After almost 2 hours, I finally get a ticket and jump in a bus. It takes again 4 hours to get back to Medellin but I am sure at the time I arrived (10pm), some people were still queuing to get but tickets in Guatape.
After 2 full days in Medellin, it is time for me to move on. After a last breakfast at the hostel, I take a taxi to the bus station to catch a bus to Manizales.
I’ll tell you more about my adventures in the coffee region in my next post!