March Reflections: Three Weeks in Colombia

We began March — the second month of our Round the World trip — in Boquete, Panama, a one-street town, with most of its tourism and recreational activities concentrated in the nearby mountains and rivers. Leveraging Modern Mix Travel to hook us up with experiences in exchange for blog posts and photography, we went on a very interesting coffee tour which approaches the coffee industry from a unique business, economics and ethics perspective. We also went white water rafting down the Chiquiri River.

Boquete, Panama
Boquete, Panama
Coffee Tour in Boquete, Panama
Coffee Tour in Boquete, Panama

The bulk of our March was spent in Colombia, a country which has long been on our travel wishlist.  Did you know that Canadian visitors are the only citizenship who have to pay a $90USD fee upon entering Colombia?!

Anyway, we started our travels in Colombia in sunny and colourful Cartegena, the Caribbean city where the rest of Colombia comes to play. The old city is the main attraction, where we wandered around and soaked in our first taste of Colombian culture. Cartegena was very safe and touristy, the old city with its cobblestone streets reminded us more of Europe than South America.

Colombian Flag in Cartegena, Colombia
Cartegena, Colombia
Cartegena, Colombia
Cartegena, Colombia

We spent a day at the beach — it was supposed to be a boat tour but the water conditions were too wavy so they bussed us there instead. Playa Blanca was beautiful but way too touristy. (“Terrible,” says Steve.) It was crowded, windy and wavy, there were jet skis driving way too close to swimmers, and you couldn’t have a moments peace without someone trying to sell you something. It was a really hectic beach experience and not in any way relaxing.

Playa Blanca, Cartagena, Colombia
Playa Blanca, Cartagena, Colombia

Our next Colombian destination was Medellin, which was, not too long ago, the most dangerous city in the world. There’s no denying that many North American millennial tourists to Colombia had their interest in this country piqued by the Netflix series NARCOS — I know ours was! But we found out very quickly that the majority of politically-charged locals hated Pablo Escobar and would rather not talk about him — perhaps forget about him all together — and instead focus on the beauty of their country.

Through a Pablo Escobar tour led by an ex-Cop, a Medellin city tour, a graffiti tour, and even an exotic fruit tour, we got ALL our Narcos questions answered. On one of our tours, he was referred to as Voldemort, as not to attract the attention of locals walking by and listening in to our tour. We learned more than we could ever imagine about recent Colombian history. Spending three weeks in Colombia, we couldn’t help but cheer on the country for its recovery.

Pablo Escobar Tour in Medellin, Colombia
Pablo Escobar Tour in Medellin, Colombia

Medellin has a growing digital nomad and expat community and we loved the modern Poblado neighbourhood. We were very happy wandering around on foot and trying out the trendy cafes, eateries and restaurants in town. We loved Medellin — the climate was perfect (like Vancouver on a summer day) and we booked into a comfortable shared apartment. After six weeks of travelling, it was nice to shop for groceries and cook our own food. We were only going to stay four nights but then we booked 6, then 8 — we stayed until our guesthouse didn’t have availability anymore.

When our Medellin guesthouse ran out of availability, we moved on to the charming little tourist town of Salento. Its main attraction is Cocora Valley and its beautiful wax palms, the national tree of Colombia. We did a 6-hour hike (passing through a hummingbird sanctuary) and I couldn’t believe I had never heard of this gorgeous park before. It was in Salento where I felt yet another wave of gratitude and happiness for our opportunity to travel.

Wax Palms in Cocora Valley
Wax Palms in Cocora Valley
Cocora Valley Wax Palms Salento Colombia
Wax Palms in Cocora Valley

In Salento, we played “Tejo” for the first time, a weird Colombian game where you throw stones at packets of gunpowder, with the aim of causing sparks, or, even better, an explosion. Playing was fine, but more entertaining was watching old Colombian men hurl their stones across the room with accurate aim and intense concentration.

After two comfortable weeks in Medellin and Salento, we spent a few days in cold and rainy Bogota, the capital city of Colombia. The free walking tour was a highlight but that was about it.  The graffiti-filled Candelaria neighbourhood in Bogota was a bit grungy, or artsy, depending on how you see it, and based on stories we had heard, we felt like we had to be on alert at all times. Bogota wasn’t a preferred city to spend our time in.

We also suspect a taxi driver stole our credit card information here — he insisted we use credit card, the transaction didn’t go through, but a week later we had $4,000 worth of cash advances on our credit card from Bogota!!  This incident inspired me to write the blog post: My #1 Tip for Not Getting Ripped off in Central and South America.

Graffiti in Bogota, Colombia
Graffiti in Bogota, Colombia

Eager for warm weather again, we bussed 7 hours south towards Neiva to visit Tatacoa Desert, the last destination on our Colombia trip. Accommodations in the desert were slim so we stayed in a nearby tiny town called Villavieja and slept in a TENT for two nights, getting bit by mosquitos and woken up by thunder and lightning.

The View from our Tent in Villavieja, Colombia

On our desert tour, which we somehow managed to book through our guesthouse using hand-gestures and bad Spanish, our motocarro driver didn’t speak English. On our “private” tour, we ended up being unofficially joined by a Colombian couple on vacation.

We didn’t speak the same language but after the tour the Colombian took us under their wing. We went for lunch together and were introduced to the local dish of goat, and also played a few rounds of Tejo together in the afternoon.

Tatacoa Desert in Colombia
Tatacoa Desert in Colombia

Tatacoa Desert is also known for its stargazing, so we visited the observatory which seemed like it was in someone’s backyard. Again, we went with the Colombian couple who gave us a ride there and back. The observatory would have been super interesting but because it was completely in Spanish we, unfortunately, didn’t get much from it.

With at least 50 new mosquito bites from Tatacoa, we were ready to move on from Colombia, to our next country of Peru!!

The end of March brought us to Cusco, where we spent a few days acclimatizing to the high elevation, in preparation for our Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu on April 1.

Thank you so much for keeping up with our travels reading our February reflections on Modern Mix Travel! Next destinations:  Peru, Toronto, and Portugal!

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