I can give you every excuse in the book for not writing for the past three months. Writer’s block, an overwhelming amount of inspiration, lack of wifi, never-ending technological glitches (including losing my phone), time consumed by travel fun and logistics, yada yada yada. It was challenging to learn a language and think creatively in my native tongue. I just returned to Bend and have no more excuses. Get ready for some stories.
Colombia doesn’t require a visa for foreign visitors, but limits travel to three month periods. I planned my trip for two months. The first month I was free to travel anywhere my heart (and budget) desired. The second month I taught yoga at a boutique resort on the Caribbean Sea. When I arrived in the capital– Bogota, I didn’t speak Spanish. I knew some words in Spanish. At times, it was overwhelming. I was constantly on hyper-alert since I couldn’t understand what was happening around me. As my language skills improved, and my understanding of the culture grew, my nerves calmed drastically. I travelled on the cheap, staying in hostel rooms with 4-6 beds for $10-$30 US dollars a night. The country is filled with hostels and backpackers from all over the world, so I constantly met like-minded people with great advice on places to visit. There were lots of Europeans and Canadians, but not a ton of US citizens. Like, barely any. Majority of my friends were Swiss, Brits and Germans.
There is so much natural diversity, so many beautiful places to visit, that one month was not nearly enough time to tour half of the country. There’s the Amazon in the south, the Pacific coast, the coffee plantations, the Andes, the Caribbean, La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (the world’s highest coastal mountain range), the desert peninsula up north. Basically, every ecosystem that exists in the entire world, exists in Colombia. Because the landscape is so varied, so are the people. There are at least a dozen different indigenous cultures which are very much alive with unique cultures based on their location. Modern Colombians are a blend of the Spanish settlers, their slaves, and the many native peoples. The country isn’t in poverty. Wikipedia lists them 31st GDP in the world. It has a very tumultuous history, which dates back before the development of the cartel. Hence why la policia are on every corner with automatic weapons and muzzled Rottweilers. But more about my cultural experience another time.
Where did I go? Here’s a brief overview.
1. Bogota (2 Days) I stayed in the historic district, called La Candelaria, directly adjacent to the mountains. With two towering peaks overlooking the city, one with a church called Monserrate and the other called Guadalupe Hill donned with a huge statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is recommended to take the cable car up to Monserrate (less than $10 US). At the foot of the mountain is El Jardin de Bolivar, a labyrinth of gardens which has been maintained for centuries, and well worth the change it cost for entry. I stayed at the IKU Backpacker Hostel, a chill spot, not too loud but definitely some partying, within walking distance to downtown and Plaza de Bolivar. The bike tour was a great deal, I got to see a little bit of everything, history, graffiti tour, tasting at a fruit stand, and a visit to a coffee roaster. The Gold Museum is a phenomenal look into the history of the people, and quite remarkable to see the centuries of craftsmanship.
2. Suesca (7 Days) A little pueblo about an hour and a half up the Andes from Bogota makes it an ideal location for weekend warriors. I volunteered at El Nomada (climber hostel/restaurant/gear shop/guiding company) located directly at the entrance to the rocks. With a kitchen for guest use, it was quite cozy. The staff took me under their wing with my poor Spanish. They are very dear friends and are forever in my heart. The climbing is great, with an extremely short approach. The sandstone cliffline runs parallel with the railroad tracks. It’s steep and hard, very bouldery, requires mixed gear. There’s a great little gear shop on the corner, and the pueblo is walking distance for food & supplies. There is really cheap camping across the tracks if El Nomada is full.
3. Mesa de los Santos, Santander (5 Days)- This is a really tiny pueblo further northeast up the Andes from Bogota. It’s an 8 hour bus ride from either Bogota or Medellin, and requires a bit of logistics in Piedecuesta, taking a taxi to another bus to the Refugio La Roca Hostel. Located on the edge of the cliff, high above the river valley, on the canyon’s edge. An absolutely gorgeous buildout, complete with a yoga studio, chill out room, kitchen for cooking (though they serve amazing food in the restaurant and bar), outdoor showers and very friendly staff. There is a bus stop directly in front of the hostel that goes 5 miles to Mesa del Los Santos for supplies, or back through Piedecuesta to Bucaramunga to catch a flight. Here is the same sandstone rock, but less steep, more exposure because you’re up so high and more bolts. I would say about 100 or so sport climbs from 5.8-5.13. It’s good climbing, super quiet in a breathtaking location.
4. Cartagena (2 Days) The magical walled city where one can’t help pretend to be a pirate. I stayed outside of the wall, in the old city district called Getsmani at the One Day Hostel, by recommendation of a climber I met in Suesca. Cartagena is the only city that hasn’t been touched by the cartel. It’s an old Caribbean port city, so it has creole flavor and people speak much faster. Of course the Spanish fortified it, built a huge wall and cathedrals. There are some beaches to swim in a different district where all the big touristy hotels are. The guy that rented wave runners called it the mini-Miami of Colombia. The streets are filled with gringos, a total switch from the remote climbing pueblos I had been traveling in thus far. Lots of shops and street vendors selling the iconic Panama hats and tons of jewelry, trinkets and crafts from local indigenous tribes. There are tons of great restaurants both in Getsmani and inside the walled city. Cartagena is full of color and beauty in the heat of the Caribe with lots and lots of great dancing.
5. Taganga, Magdalena (2 Days) This tiny fishing pueblo was not my favorite stop. It’s just east of Santa Marta, and I’m pretty sure the only reason any one visits is because the diving courses are so cheap. I stayed up the hill, a bit out of town at La Casa de Felipe. This place was huge, rooftop hammocks, kitchen to cook, restaurant, plenty of space to chill out and relax. It was a nice refuge after being in the hustling streets of Cartagena. I lost my phone on the late night taxi ride, bummer for me.
6. Riohacha, Guajira (5 Days) I liked Riohacha. It’s not overwhelmed by tourists, probably because it doesn’t have much to do for nightlife. It’s on the Guajira peninsula, which is all desert. Crazy, right? Desert by the sea. La Bona Vida Hostel is adorable, it’s brand new and the couple that own it are fantastic people. Since the peninsula is so remote and requires 4×4 vehicular travel, I booked a tour with Alta Guaijra Tours. Highly recommended if you like traveling to remote places. Be sure to hit the ATM before you leave town. I booked 5 days, 4 nights’ all-inclusive travel, lodging, guides and food. The first night I was alone, then the rest of the trip I traveled a group of 3, sleeping outside in hammocks.
7. El Santuario de Flora y Flauna de Los Flamencos, Guajira (1 night) This is protected land for the migratory birds, unfortunately I was not able to see the hundreds of flamingos that winter in the massive lagoon. I saw about 30 on my private tour with a bird specialist who took me out in a hand carved wooden canoe with a canvas sail that was made entirely with lodge poles (well, the Colombian equivalent). Here on the long flat sandy beaches was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen in my entire life. Double rainbow over the land as the sun set on the sea. The mosquitoes were terrible here, I was in my beach hut hammock under a net immediately after dinner.
8. Cabo de La Vela, Guajira (1 night) Two hours off the main road on bumpy desert roads. We stopped for gas, which was an experience being so close to Venezuela. The beaches are gorgeous, it’s perfect for kitesurfing with the constant wind and flat water. Very quiet and in the heart of the Wayuu indigenous culture. We stopped at a few different beaches, and visited the lighthouse for another gorgeous sunset.
9. Punta Gallinas, Guajira (2 nights) A short drive from Cabo de la Vela to an intense 2-hour speedboat ride to the northernmost point of South America. The trip was well worth it, though. It is an experience unlike any other. All the food and water brought in by boat. The volcanic rock beds lined the shores with only a few destinations safe for swimming. The wind on the second night was so strong that my hammock didn’t pendulum back for a solid 10 seconds. Not much to do but hike around, look at rocks, shells and cacti. A great place for solitude and relaxation.
10. Rodadero, Santa Marta (2 nights) This part of Santa Marta is separated from the main city by a mountain and is a destination for Colombians with timeshares and such. I stayed with my newfound Colombian family that I traveled with through La Guajira. They had a private apartment like 5 blocks from the beach. We shared a few meals, lots of laughs and a trip to the mall to buy me a new cell phone.
11. Minca, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (5 days) This is probably my favorite destination without climbing. It’s a cannabis friendly pueblo high above the sea in La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Hit the ATM before you leave the city. There’s a cheap collective 4×4 from Santa Marta to the pueblo and then either hike or take a moto up to hostels even higher up the mountain. There’s tons of hiking, swimming holes, and breathtaking waterfalls. You can go to a yoga retreat, coffee plantations, take wilderness survival classes, do some of the best birding in the world, and you may even see some howler monkeys. I stayed at Casa Elemento, the infamous hostel with the “world’s largest hammock” built out on the edge of the mountain. It’s a two-hour hike from the pueblo to Casa Elemento, and well worth it. Not far out of town is a little hostel with tents and cabins called DC Bushcraft and Survival, close to the waterfalls. You can take survival or climbing classes with Duncan, too. The waterfalls are a must, whether you stop on the way up the mountain or go for a day hike from the hostel. Be sure to bring 3,000 COP for entry. Bring your binoculars, the birding really is out of this world.
12. Gitana del Mar Boutique Beach Resort (30 Days) A gorgeous property directly on the beach between the entrance to Tayrona National Park and Palomino. It’s a great location for adventuring off the property and just perfect enough that you don’t want to leave. There are only 6 bungalows, so you’re never crowded. With plenty of hammocks on the beach, yoga and a spa, it’s hard not to relax. The gourmet kitchen produces some of the best food I ate in Colombia. I taught yoga in the beachfront shala twice a day and helped the owner begin her own private ceramic studio. I absolutely loved my experience and am grateful for yogatrade.com for connecting me with Nina and my entire Gitana familia.
I flew from Bogota back to the States. I had to layover in Santa Marta, but opted for the extra night in the city instead of the 4-hour bus ride back to Cartagena for a more expensive flight home. In the end, they are probably comparable and it’s up to you which route you want to travel. I wish I had more time there, and cannot wait to go back!