Somewhere in Latin America – Impressions of Colombia

Manuela de Mendonça is a 23 year old geographer, traveller, writer and runner currently backpacking through Latin America.

She is documenting her adventures across the continent and sharing her experiences of food, history, culture and nature with us. Expect to read about ancient temples, local restaurants and the best places in the world to go walking.

 

10 December 2018 – Somewhere in Latin America: Impressions of Colombia

The image of Colombia in the public mind has changed dramatically in the UK over the past 5 years. A picture of staggering mountain ranges, lush beaches and a culture rich with compassion has emerged from a country previously known solely for its contribution to the narco trade. I met several people who’d just left as I made my way through Panama and their faces lit up when I told them my next destination. If I thought the people were lovely in Panama, Colombians were sweeter; if I’d thought Costa Rica was beautiful, Colombia would blow me away.

By the time I boarded the plane I was buzzing with anticipation. Ten minutes into my journey after arriving at  Cartagena the decision to go there was reinforced a hundred times over. Between landing and reaching my accommodation I had six friendly encounters with different people, including someone who rescued me from trying to pull open a door that most definitely pushed. My toddler-level Spanish was met with appreciation across the board, but I decided to sign onto a Spanish course in Medellin the following week.

Cartagena is a striking colonial city with thick stone walls and flower-draped doorways set against a bright blue sky. It’s narrow streets are the perfect location for intimate hotels and the old town is interspersed with clothing and swimwear boutiques, designed and made in Colombia. I’m on a tight schedule, which is a good thing as I could very easily settle there permanently.

                                                                      Cartagena

There’s an abundance of cafes and bars in Getsemaní, where I stayed, but before leaving I grabbed my breakfast from Stepping Stones Café. This is another social enterprise I tracked down which places an emphasis on workers rights. The hospitality everywhere I’ve visited so far has been of the highest standard, Colombians are notoriously welcoming and friendly, but sometimes this comes at a price. Colombia has opened its borders to over a million Venezuelans who are fleeing the economic crisis in their own country. This echoes the hospitality Venezuela showed several decades ago, when they welcomed in Colombians fleeing civil war. The impacts of this have deflected into the tourist trade where hostels and restaurants can now employ workers for a quarter of the wage they paid previously.

My next stop is Minca, a tiny gateway to the mountains above the port town of Santa Marta. Several degrees cooler than the coast, you can hike up into the Sierra Nevada mountains from here. It’s an idyllic town in an idyllic setting but it was a no go zone for tourists until 2012. The majority of the points you can hike to have some kind of significance either to the indigenous people who still occupy territory higher in the mountains, or to the conflict. This is not information that you can find on the Internet, nor will the people of Minca volunteer the information as a healthy tourist trade is their primary source of income, far exceeding coffee exports. But it adds another dimension to the places you can visit; it’s a reminder that this opportunity has not been available for long.

My third stop in a hectic week is Medellin. Previously Pablo Escobar’s backyard, this city is now a sprawling metropolis where many digital nomads find their home for months on end. After a thirty second walk through El Poblado it’s easy to see why. Like all cities, there are still areas that are less than safe but this district has flourished into a haven for healthy eating and clean living, rife with brunch spots. I’m staying for a week, possibly two while I attend Spanish School, and I’m making it my mission to explore outside the brunch bubble.

In many ways, this layout is typical of tourism in general in Colombia. There tends to be a district or street designed specifically to attract backpackers and holiday makers, where the majority of hotels and hostels are located, many of which have only sprung up in the last few years. For many Colombians tourism is something very different to their recent history, the past is still too raw. But for most visitors rather than glossy cafés, it’s the Colombians themselves which makes the trip such a privilege. Looking beneath the surface in Colombia is no hardship, though. My hostel owner invites me to lunch specifically to practice my Spanish with her and I’ve discovered that people are happy to chat over a cup of coffee if you ask. For the most part, your best passport for travel in this country is a big smile and an open mind.

 

Further Information:

For tailor-made itineraries, escorted small-group tours and cruises which include Colombia, please see our dedicated Colombia Revealed website.

Previous Blogs:

03 Dec 2018:  Somewhere in Latin America: Fonda La Sexta Café in Panama
26 Nov 2018:  Somewhere in Latin America: 365 Islands
19 Nov 2018:  Somewhere in Latin America: Costa Rica by Bus
12 Nov 2018:  Somewhere in Costa Rica: Wildlife Rescue

Manuela’s blog: https://run4thehills.com/