Eat, Drink, Hike – Colombia

Startled from the pop of gun powder meeting metal, I reflexively let out a little yelp, accompanied by an equally little jump. There’s no real danger in a game of tejo, but every explosion is met with initial surprise and quickly followed with elated celebration among the players. Colombia’s national game is, frankly, the type of fun I can’t imagine being permitted in the US. Think of cornhole, but instead of bean bags, you have a metal puck, and instead of a hole, you have a metal ring lined with folded paper packets of gun powder. The objective, of course, is to strike the puck against the gun powder and the ring in just the right way to create a sparkling explosion.

Pair the game with a few rounds of Aguila beer and new friends, and you’ve got yourself a night you won’t forget (unless you drink too much). What else can I say, except: Welcome to Colombia!

Playing tejo at Amigos in Salento, Colombia
Playing tejo at Amigos in Salento, Colombia

Itinerary:

  • Days 1-4: Arrive in Colombia, explore Bogota
  • Days 5-8: Salento
  • Days 9-11: Medellin
  • Days 12-17: Cartagena
  • Day 18: Depart by boat for Panama

Dates: May 5-22, 2019

Our Odyssey:

Bogota

We arrived in Bogota, Colombia from Quito, Ecuador after a week of island hopping in the Galapagos. We had several nights planned for Bogota, partly to rest, and partly to be able to leisurely explore the city.

We used Marriott points to stay at the Sheraton Bogota, which we often do when we’re going to be spending a handful of nights somewhere. This time, though, the hotel staff went above and beyond to welcome us, with flowers, sweets, wine, and balloons in our room when we checked in! It was the most over-the-top welcome we’ve ever received!

Our welcome at the Sheraton in Bogota!
Our welcome at the Sheraton in Bogota!

We’d heard Colombians are friendly and warm people, and our experience was definitely consistent with that. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, violence was still common in the region and many people didn’t consider it safe to visit.

Colombia has had a COMPLICATED recent history, in large part due to the drug trade. It was heartbreaking to hear of some of the stories and traumas that these kind and welcoming people faced, but it’s inspiring how Colombia has risen from its stereotypes to become one of the hottest South American travel destinations.

To start our exploration of Bogota, we joined a free walking tour to get a feel for the city. We meandered through the downtown area, and even got to visit a free museum showcasing the work of Colombian artist Botero. His work is recognizable, even if you don’t know his name. All of his paintings and sculptures play with proportions, though some say all of the subjects of his works just look fat. Either way, Botero is an icon in Colombia.

The tour also allowed us the opportunity to sample one of the most delicious drinks I’ve ever had at a small cafe in La Candelaria neighborhood. It’s a grain-based creamy hot chocolate drink called chucula, and it’s made with beans, barley, peas, wheat, chickpeas, corn, lentils, raw brown sugar, chocolate, cinnamon, and cloves. You can buy a cup already parepared, or you can buy balls of the ingredients. Just add the ball to hot milk or water, stir until dissolved, and drink up. It’s lovely!

Enjoying chucula (and cheesecake) in La Candelaria

That night we took advantage of the flowers and alcohol the hotel had given us and decided to have a date night to nearby Bogota Beer Company followed by a feast of chicken wings and chili cheese dip at a Buffalo Wild Wings-type of restaurant. Colombian food is great, but sometimes you crave familiar tastes from home, and it was so great to satisfy the craving that night.

The next day, we hired a driver to take us to the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral, about 2 hours from Bogota.

The Salt Cathedral is one of those weird places in the world that kind of feels like it shouldn’t exist. It’s literally a church built into an old salt mine. Architecturally, there’s nothing else like it on earth, save for 2 salt churches in Poland. Geologically, it sits in one tiny piece of a large deposit of salt, some of which is still mined today.

Visitors can roam the dimly lit mine and its numerous chapels before arriving at the main sanctuary. The massive salt columns and salt chandelier were particularly striking, though the entire place feels a bit surreal.

We spent our last day in Bogota visiting the Gold Museum, which traces the country’s history in tandem with the history of gold in the region. Most of the exhibits were really well-done, and the audioguide helped us better learn the history.

Salento

The next morning, we hopped a short flight over to Pereira, one of two airports in Colombia’s coffee-growing region. The town we stayed in, Salento, quickly became one of our favorite places we’ve been.

Our Airbnb, located just off the main square of the town, was basic but had decor and charm that fit the personality of Salento perfectly. It featured the town’s signature two-toned colored paint on the doors and windows (in this case, in blue and yellow) and a quaint little balcony.

Salento is easily one of my favorite towns we’ve stayed in on our travels. It’s a sleepy backpacker favorite, with plenty of shops and restaurants around its central square. With a cool climate and scenic mountainside setting, it’s an easy place to stay and relax for several days.

The main things to do in Salento are pretty much universally: 1. Visit a coffee farm (finca), 2. Play Tejo, and 3. Hike the Cocora Valley. We made sure to do each of them (and one of them twice!) during our stay.

To visit any of the fincas around Salento, you have to ride a “willy” (yes, I know) from the main square in town. When you break down the process of riding a willy, it’s a pretty entertaining adventure in and of itself.

How to Ride a Willy to Ocaso Finca

  1. Talk to the person in the booth at the main square and say where you want to go. Ocaso Finca por favor! Pay 6000 pesos for your round trip ticket. You’ll pay for the coffee tour (15,000) when you arrive.
  2. Get in the back of the willy and wait for it to fill up. It’s only full once there’s no space inside and 3 people are standing on the bumper. The last one we took had 11 people inside, 3 dogs, and 3 people on the back. Don’t worry. This is normal.
  3. Ride that willy!
  4. Arrive at the Ocaso Finca, strap on a basket, and venture into the fields with Andres to pick some coffee beans!
  5. Learn all about Colombian coffee production while Andres makes you a cup. Drink up!
  6. Wait at the finca for your willy home. Do not go wandering around looking for the willy. If you do decide to walk around in search of your ride, like we did, at least try to spot some cool birds before you realize you might be lost.

Willies are the main form of transportation in and around Salento, and they are cheap, fun, and almost always crowded. We ended up taking them a few times, once to visit a coffee farm and another time to get to the trailhead for the Cocora Valley hike.

At max capacity, they can fit two passengers plus the driver up front, four people on each bench in the back, and another three to four standing on the bumper. That’s 15 people in what is basically a Jeep. Oh, and on our ride back from our hike in the Cocora Valley, we had all that plus 3 dogs.

Playing Tejo

During our coffee tour (and on the willy, actually), we met two fellow travelers and set up plans to meet at a local bar called Amigos that Tim and I had found the evening prior to play a game of tejo. Colombia’s national game involves throwing a metal disk onto a metal ring surrounded by dense clay and paper packets of gun powder. The goal, of course, is to set off the gun powder, creating a small smoky explosion. Don’t worry, it’s not dangerous (as long as you don’t get in the way of flying metal pucks).

We had a blast enjoying a few local beers and hanging out with our new friends. We all even managed to set off the gun powder a few times!

Cocora Valley Hike

The next morning, we took a willy, again, to the Cocora Valley, where we would hike among the world’s tallest palm trees.

Colombia’s iconic wax palm trees look like something from a Dr. Seuss book and can grow to up to 200 feet tall. The most typical hike takes most of the day with stops and takes you up the mountain through the palm trees. We passed by streams, crossed wooden bridges, and visited a hummingbird garden. We ate PB&J sandwiches from Brunch (our favorite restaurant in Salento, mostly because of the peanut butter cup brownie milkshake and amazingly kind staff) at the highest point of the hike, before starting the descent back down.

We absolutely loved this day – this hike had both the perfect weather and distance. It got our hearts pumping without being too challenging, and we were able to enjoy beautiful views every step of the way. One thing I would advise others, though, is to expect to have a few different fees associated with the hike since some of it crosses onto private property. You’ll spend about 8000 pesos round trip for the willy, 4000 for your entrance fee, and then an additional 3000 as an exit fee.

That night we again met up with some new friends we had hiked with for a game of tejo.

We spent our last day in Salento exploring the downtown area. We walked down the main street with shops and cafes towards a hill overlooking the town. We climbed the stairs up to the viewpoint shortly before sunset, stopping for a coffee at a quaint cafe along the way. It was a lovely way to end our time in this charming place, but we admittedly could have happily stayed longer – especially for more milkshakes at Brunch.

Medellin

From Salento, we flew to Medellin, one of Colombia’s most popular cities for tourists. It’s one of the safest cities in Latin America and has a thriving business and arts scene.

In the 1980s this couldn’t be further from the truth. Under the violent leadership of Pablo Escobar, Medellin was the capital of the world’s cocaine business, and the city’s homicide rate was among the highest in the world.

To put it in perspective, here’s some info from a recent Vanity Fair article: “Between 1983 and 1994, 46,612 people were murdered by Colombia’s drug violence. That’s higher than the number of U.S. troops killed in combat in Vietnam, where 40,934 American troops were killed in action between 1965 and 1975.”

And now Medellin is one of the SAFEST cities in Latin America. What an incredible transformation!

Once again, we redeemed points to stay at the Medellin Marriott, and once again, we were wowed by the hospitality. This time, we were upgraded to a room with private access to the rooftop pool – a beautiful spot to hang out for a bit and cool off after a day of exploring in the city.

The first thing we did in Medellin was to take a free walking tour. We saw Botero sculptures throughout the city, and a display of white pillars that light up at night, representing hope and transformation in Colombia. That afternoon we joined a second walking tour of the Comuna 13 neighborhood, which used to be the most dangerous part of the city but is now a peaceful and creative neighborhood with street performers, artistic murals, and strong tourism.

Guatape

The next day, we took a day trip to Guatape, where we climbed 740 steps up a large rock (Penon de Guatape) for an incredible view over the waterway surrounding the region. The waterway is actually rather controversial, as it was manmade to support hydroelectric power, and in order to flood the region, locals had to be moved.

Nearby, the colorful town feels like something out of a fairy tale, which whimsical paintings called zocolos on every building. These paintings indicate something about the family or business that resides within.

Cartagena

Our time in Medellin felt too short – we could have stayed longer and continued to have fun exploring this city. It reminded me of Melbourne or Chicago, with its “second city” vibe.

From Medellin we flew to Cartagena, our last stop in Colombia. We started our time in Cartagena in an Airbnb with a fantastic location in the heart of the colonial downtown area, but there was only weak air conditioning and the tiniest bathroom and shower I had ever seen. In a city as hot and muggy as Cartagena, this made us feel pretty physically uncomfortable for most of our stay.

I’m going to be very honest about what we thought of Cartagena. We didn’t dislike it, per se, but it was our least favorite part of Colombia that we visited.

After almost three weeks exploring other parts of the country, we LOVED Colombia. But Cartagena felt like a Caribbean cruise port crashed into a bachelor party gone wrong. Add the oppressive weather, and it was all just a bit MUCH for me.

It’s still most definitely worth visiting – the buildings are beautiful, there’s good food and drink, and it’s a great base if you want to explore some nearby islands.

It should be no surprise, then, that my favorite times in Cartagena were at night when the sun was down and the heat was less oppressive. At the advice of another traveling couple we had met in Salento and then ran into again at lunch one day in Cartagena, we visited a discount wine shop to pick up a bottle to enjoy over sunset one evening. We found a spot on the coastal fort walls and got pleasantly buzzed while people watching and video calling friends from home.

We found a few places to keep cool during the days – a charming bookstore and coffee shop, bars, and ultimately, I’m sort of embarrassed to admit, Hard Rock Cafe. We were craving American food and normal Ranch dressing and new a Hard Rock Cafe would satisfy exactly that desire. We ended up eating there twice in 3 days – one night we actually shut down the bar and ended up on stage with one of the waiters and a guitar.

Other than a walking tour and strolling around the city, the only other activity we did was visit Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Even with the heat and humidity, it was fun exploring its dark and spooky tunnels, scaring visitors with ghost noises, and posing with artillery from the 17th century.

For me and Tim, it was right up our alley. We love exploring old abandoned things. Castle ruins, fortresses, and ancient archeological sites are some of our favorite things to visit when traveling.

I highly recommend visiting this fortress if you go to Cartagena. Entrance is less than $8 USD, and you can spend as much time as you want exploring every nook and cranny. If you get hot (ok, this is Cartagena we’re talking about…) so WHEN you get hot, there’s a super cold theater where you can watch an awesome film about the castle’s history.

After a few nights in our Airbnb in the heart of the city, we moved to a Hilton resort in Bocagrande, a few miles away. We stayed here, relaxing by the pool and enjoying the air conditioning, for a few nights before setting sail on a catamaran for Panama – the last stop before returning home to the United States after 500 days on the road.

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