January 24, 2018
So, I think Colombia has just gotten a really bad rap. Yes, they’ve had problems with corruption, drug cartels, etc., but today’s Colombia is not what you see in the movies. It is a beautiful place to visit and they are very welcome to tourists. We spent a total of three weeks there and I really wish we’d had longer. If you are adventurous and looking to vacation somewhere relatively cheap and not far from the US, Colombia would be a great place.
I got a bit behind on the blog because we had less than a 24 hr turn around after finishing our Colombia adventures to repack our bags and head to the States (4 different states!) to visit with friends and family for a month over the holidays. But, we are back on the boat in Ecuador and I can finally catch you up. So, here is a summary of our wonderful time in Colombia…
After leaving Pasto, we took a quick flight to Cali. Flights within the country are relatively cheap ($40-$50). Rather than burn a day on an eight hour bus ride, which would probably have only cost us $5, we decided to fly. A friend back in the States connected us with her friend in Cali who had an AirBnB for rent, and it worked out beautifully. We were staying in the cute neighborhood of San Antonio. There is a beautiful park overlooking the city, and fun little cafes on every corner.
Cali is known as the salsa capital of Colombia, and we were definitely here for salsa! The great thing about the neighborhood was that there were multiple salsa dance studios and salsa clubs all within walking distance. On our first night in Cali we ventured out to a local salsa club and got to check out the scene. It was during the week and pretty casual. There were all levels of salsa going on. There were beginners just trying it out and professionals giving it their all in the middle of the club. There was even a contest at one point with two couples battling it out. They were fantastic.
Having not had any lessons yet, we mainly just watched the scene for a while. But, the salsa music is infectious and soon Mike and I were out on the dance floor. I’m sure we looked hilarious, but no one cared and we had a fabulous time. There is definitely an indescribable thing that pulls you in to salsa. Call it joy or maybe the Spanish equivalent of joie de vivre, but salsa is just pure fun.
After our first night on the town, we were eager to get some lessons. Over the next couple of days we took some group lessons and then decided to splurge and take a more private lesson (just 4 of us) to really learn some more moves. We were no experts by the end of the week, but we could certainly get on the dance floor and be part of the action.
Thanksgiving came around while we were in Cali. We didn’t have any turkey celebration, but it was also our anniversary. So, Mike and I went to one of the fancier restaurants in the neighborhood and had a fun night out to celebrate another year together and look forward to another year to come.
On our last night in Cali, one of the dance studios where we had taken lessons was having a party. They had great salsa music and performances by some of their students which were so much fun to watch. We were sad to leave Cali, but our next stop awaited us…
Next we took a bus to Salento in the Zona Cafetera (coffee region). If you’ve heard of Juan Valdez, you know that Colombia has great coffee. Salento is in the Cocora Valley, which is known for its huge Quindio wax palm trees, the largest palm tree in the world. There is an excellent hike you can take to see the palm trees and even some hummingbirds!
If you are into coffee, you have to take a tour of a coffee plantation. We decided to head to Ocaso where you can do a three hour tour where you learn everything about the coffee process, from the plants to picking, drying and roasting. And, then you learn about the different coffee flavors and coffee brewing methods. We really love good coffee and found the tour so interesting and fun. We liked their coffee so much that we bought a bunch to bring back to the boat with us. (By this point we had already had to buy another bag to carry all of the souvenirs and gifts we had purchased!)
We also took a trip into Filandia, another cute town nearby which also had some coffee plantations and lots of good cafes. To get around the area, all of the taxis are these really cool old jeeps. They are a bit bouncy but make it easily through the dirt roads leading to the coffee farms. We even found a kid size jeep in the square in Filandia, which makes Mike look like a giant.
From Salento we took a bus to Medellin. Medellin has probably undergone the biggest transformation of all the cities we went to since the time of Pablo Escobar and the control by the drug cartels. Our first day in Medellin, we took a free walking tour of the city and learned so much about the history and efforts the people have made to reinvent their city. There is still some poverty and crime, like any major city, but the major violence has dissipated. Old, abandoned buildings have been repurposed into attractive shopping centers or cafes. And, people on the street are eager to find out where you are from and introduce you to their city. As tall and blonde as Mike is, we got comments everywhere we went. Our tour guide explained that the women can even be a bit forward, which we discovered when one woman grabbed Mike’s butt on the street. So funny.
We liked our first tour so much, that we signed up for another one the next day. This tour was called the Exotic Fruits Tour. Mike was especially excited as you may know by now how much he loves fruit! We met at the produce market, which was a huge multistory warehouse type building. Each vendor had their own stand selling their produce. Our guide took us around the market explaining various items that were unlike anything we had ever seen. Who knew there were so many fruits that do not get imported to the States? We got an explanation and taste of all these wonderful fruits, which included curuba (banana passion fruit), maracuya (yellow passion fruit), guilupa (passion fruit), granadilla (sweet granadilla), pitahaya (dragon fruit), tomate de arbol (tree tomato), chontaduro (peach palm), borojo (borojo), algarroba (west indian locust), higo (prickly pear), uchuva (cape gooseberry), feijoa (guavasteen), mamoncillo (spanish lime), and guayaba (guava). If you see any of these fruits at a market, give them a try!
The people in Medellin are known for being a bit snobby. (They will tell you that themselves.) But, we found them to be anything but snobby. We made instant friends with people we met, including our tour guides who we ended up hanging out with long after the tours were over. Such a neat city and well worth the trip.
From Medellin we made our way to our last stop in Colombia on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena. One of the things that was fun about traveling in Colombia was how different each place was. Cartagena was a world away from Medellin. It has a true Caribbean influence as well as the old Spanish colonial ties.
We stayed in the Old Town section of Cartagena right across from the water. It was hot and humid and a true tourist mecca. The influx of tourists, especially from cruise ships which brings out the hordes of hawkers, was definitely the downside of Cartagena. But, it is worth it to overlook the annoyance of constantly being approached to buy something. The architecture in Old Town is fantastic. They have done a wonderful job of preserving the look of the old colonial town.
We checked out the old fort and learned the history of Cartagena as a Spanish port and all of the battles with the French, English and pirates! There are several informative museums around town also. One is the history of the Inquisition in Cartagena, which I really knew nothing about. I didn’t realize the Inquisition extended outside of Europe to the New World, but it most certainly did. It is an excruciating history, but I was impressed that a very Catholic country is open about their sordid past.
We couldn’t leave Cartagena without drinking some rum. If you go to a restaurant called El Arsenal: The Rum Box, the owner will schedule a private rum tasting for you. We tried all types of rums from sipping rums to rum cocktails. All were local Colombian rums that are difficult, if not impossible, to find outside of Colombia. We were introduced to so many great rums that we took the limit of bottles of liquor that you can bring into Ecuador duty free. Sorry Ecuador, but you are poorly lacking in available good rum!
That brought our Colombian adventure to a close as we headed back to Ecuador. I hope we will be able to return to Colombia someday.