Stephanie Jack and her friends Bridget and Sharon recently travelled around Colombia. At the top of their to-see list were Bogota, the coffee belt, Cartagena and the Amazon.
Q: How did you travel around the country?
A: After some very useful advice from a Colombian colleague of mine, we decided to take a couple of flights within the country because of the distances involved. We travelled to more remote locations such as Salento and Santa Rosa by local bus, which was super cheap, clean and easy to use.
In Cartagena, we spent most of the week wandering around the city by foot.
We rented a car in Cartagena to travel to Tayrona National Park, based on the advice of a very helpful local waitress, who informed us how difficult it would be to get to the park on the bus.
Given that I could drive standard, I was the designated driver down the Caribbean coast.
Q: What was it like driving a car there?
A: The roads were well maintained and deserted between towns, but driving through the towns was quite the adventure, navigating between other cars that didn’t really obey any traffic laws (passing on blind corners), buses, donkey carts, and pedestrians crossing the road at any time. We only had one government checkpoint on the way, and they were very polite and waved us through.
Q: Where did you start?
A: We flew to Bogotá, the capital. A friend of one of the other people I was travelling with picked us up at the airport and showed us around for a couple of days. Although the city is almost on the equator, it was not warm because of its high elevation, 2600m above sea level.
Q: What did you do in Bogota?
A: We spent a day visiting the Gold Museum (5 floors of gold), the Botero Museum, the Iglesia Santo Domingo, walking around Bolivar Square in the old city, listening to street musicians, and taking the cable car up to the city’s highest point. There is lots of history in Bogota (although not a lot of English so we got to practice our Spanish).
There is this crazy restaurant called Andres that is so big that it’s easy to get lost in. There’s a saying that “if you haven’t been to Andres, you haven’t been in Bogota.”
We visited the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, which is an hour north of Bogota. For a few hundred years it was a salt mine and it was recently converted into a cathedral. It’s massive. They hold a mass there on special occasions. It’s very different, a huge attraction for tourists and Colombians, but its cold and not inviting.
Q: Did you feel safe in Bogota?
A: There is a lot of police presence. We felt comfortable and walked around at night in the upper side. No one bothered us and the people were super friendly and welcoming. Every Sunday they shut down the streets in the upper town for cycling and the activity brings everyone out on the streets.
Q: So was your next stop Salento?
A: Yes, because we wanted to visit the Valley of the Palms, with the tallest, skinniest palm trees in the world. Salento itself is very interesting, full of colours. We stayed at a hacienda run by American students who went to visit and stayed indefinitely.
We rented horses to visit a coffee plantation where they still pick coffee by hand.
The outfits these ranchers are wearing (above) are totally authentic. They are amazing. I think Salento is keeping the rubber boot industry in business. The area is isolated but very beautiful and relaxing.
Q: From there you travelled to Santa Rosa de Cabal?
A: Santa Rosa is a mountain town near the Cocora Valley on the western slope of the Central Andres. We stayed in a hostel there with the nicest people ever. They took us in their pickup truck to a thermal bath and had friends take us on a hike to waterfalls.
Q: So from there you went to Cartagena?
A: We flew to Cartagena on the Caribbean’s northern coast. It’s a walled colonial city 1,000 km north of Bogota. It was nice to walk along the wall of the old city that was built by the Spaniards in the 1600s.
This is Caribbean style in Cartagena. The woman says, “Take a picture of my outfit (fruit hat included). [Picture taken] “Now give me money.”
The colours of Cartagena are remarkable. There is a European feel, with cobblestone streets and huge cafes that cater to tourists with more money.
We took nighttime strolls and this was one of many ice cream nights.
On our last night there we decided we had to have a horse carriage ride, dinner in the old city, and drinks at Café del Mar on the wall. Then we added on the Havana salsa club and all of a sudden it was 3am.
We rented a car and went to surrounding areas including the Mud Volcano, which is a 40-minute drive from Cartagena. There’s Playa Blanca, which is very touristy. There’s lots of kite surfing along there but it’s a minimum of 8 hours of lessons before getting on a board. So we decided to get a beer and just watch the guys at sunset. They flew crazy high; it was amazing to watch.
Q: So was your last major stop Tayrona National Natural Park?
A: Yes, it’s on the Caribbean, 34 km from Santa Marta, and as I said we drove a car there. The drive was absolutely beautiful.
Park Tayrona is hard to get to because if you don’t have a car you need to take several buses. Then everyone has to hike in. We picked up an Aussie, which was good because we didn’t know where we were going. We parked the car just inside the main entrance.
The hike in takes about 1.5 hours. We lucked out when we picked up another tourist -–a British traveller—who had already been staying in the park for a few weeks. He guided us all the way to the most popular beach, otherwise we definitely would not have found it as it required hiking through the forest and along several other beaches, without any overtly obvious signs as to where to go. This beach attracted young people from all over the place.
There are haciendas where you can eat and drink. You can sleep in a tent or a hammock and there are a few huts. The huts and hammocks were sold out so we stayed in a tent.
A lot of Argentinians go there. There is beach after beach after beach; some deserted, some for families. The scenery is very beautiful. There is lots of wildlife (spiders, birds, lizards) and not too much to do but just tan and hang out. We spent 2 days there.
Q: What part of the trip did you like the best?
A: There was no favourite part. We all really liked the variety.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credits Stephanie Jack
© Riding the buses 2013