When I was on my way to Colombia this summer, a majority of the people I told where I was headed responded with, "Isn't that place dangerous?" Of course it's dangerous, but so is Southern California. You could get run over by one of the Governator's Hummers. The world, for that matter, is a dangerous place.
But there's a reason why the Colombia tourism ministry's tag line of late has been "Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay." True story. I went there, and was never mugged or kidnapped by a drug cartel or leftist jungle brigade. At the end of the trip, I did kind of feel like staying there. The people are friendly, the weather is nice, the landscapes there are stunning, and most stuff is cheaper than it is in the U.S.
(Full disclosure: My girlfriend's mother is a Paisa — she grew up in Medellín, Colombia. That was a prime motivator for me wanting to visit. It also meant that while I was in Medellín, surrounded by my girlfriend's six aunts, I ate enough food to feed a family of six for at least eight months. So if it sounds like I'm a bit biased, it's because her family went out of their way to make sure that I was.)
You won't see very many American tourists in Colombia. Maybe it's part of some guilt complex associated with the fact that Americans hoover up more coke than anyone else in the world, but people in the U.S. still don't think it's safe. Folks from the Commonwealth countries are wise to Colombia. There's no shortage of Brits and Aussies frequenting the country's many hostels, but not too many Americans.
Driving from one city to another — or even within a city — used to be a Colombian roulette game, today's Colombia is much more tranquil. Violence has dwindled to practically nothing, and the economy and car ownership have burgeoned. It's difficult to classify the spirit of an entire country, but after having traveled around most of it for more than a month (I know, not that long in the grand scheme of things), I'd say unlike in the U.S. and Europe, optimism is palpable there.
Colombia is a pretty big country — a little larger than California and Texas combined (what an unholy pair that would be) — so there are all kinds of different roads. Nearly half of the country's land area is roadless jungle crawling with militias and drug cartels, and the rest is mostly mountainous. It's population is clustered on the Caribbean coast, along three mountain valleys in the interior, and to a lesser extent on the Pacific coast.
You'll find flat, relatively straight coastal roads, a lot of curvy mountain roads, and if you go far enough away from the places where everyone lives, plenty of rutted jungle tracks. Colombia's highways are safe and well maintained, but they aren't really the high speed freeways we're used to in the states. Cars, trucks, and motorbikes move at a slower pace down there, because unlike the American interstate system, human life still touches the highways, much as it did here more than half a century ago.
You'll definitely see vendors in unexpected places (sometimes standing alone at a crossroad in the middle of nowhere, as if waiting for Robert Johnson to arrive), and speed varies with your proximity to the shoulder, regardless of the number of lanes. There will be a lot of small motorbikes cruising next to, or on, the shoulder.
In town, you never know what you're going to get. Medellín has nice roads, but rush hour traffic is a nightmare (particularly since Colombia's emissions laws are a bit dated, so a thick, sickly smog hugs the valley). Bogotá seems always to be choked with traffic, and is a massive, seemingly endless sprawl; like if L.A. were in New York and everyone spoke Spanish. Cartagena and Santa Marta, on the Caribbean Coast, are fine until it rains. Then the roads flood with really poopy-smeeling brown water and everyone (especially motorcyclists) drives very slow. Up in the mountains, the going is slow, and if you're in a cab, your driver might stop to pick up friends in really random places. For example, we were in a taxi on our way to Minca when our driver stopped to scoop up a sack of bananas and a grinning, white robed Indian sucking on a bowl of Coca.
The Pacific Coast and the Amazon are special cases, as there aren't any roads connecting them with the rest of the country. Roads in those regions are catch as catch can, so there aren't many cars to begin with. The ones there are have to negotiate terrible backcountry roads, gravel avenues, and, occasionally — where long gone drug money has left its mark — a stretch of paved road near the ruins of a drug baron's mansion.
Colombian drivers use their horns, and they use them a lot. Their honks aren't usually the drawn out impatient/desperate ones like you'll find in New York City; they're more along the lines of, "Hey! I'm here! How's it going?!" Many cab drivers have amazing muscle memory when it comes to horn honking, able to effect a light honk for easy maneuvers and a loud, but not-too-long blast in more serious situations.
I'm going to go out on a limb and generalize here, but Colombia's drivers tend to be more relaxed near the coasts and in less populated places (the Caribbean Coast is pretty busy), and crazier in big cities like Medellín and, especially, Bogotá. For example, in Medellín, the combination of smog, curvy roads, and bad driving left my skin with a green tinge and my mouth with that sickly-sweet I'm-about-to-vomit taste. In Bogotá, one of our cab drivers negotiated the city's horrible gridlock like the main character in Office Space at the beginning of the film.
Outside of the cities, there's no typical driver, really. Colombians don't tend to drive like assholes, but there's a certain lax attitude about traffic laws and road stripes. They seem to be viewed more as suggestions. That said, people are generally friendly, so you're unlikely to see road rage there.
I didn't see any luxury brands like BMW, Mercedes, or even Cadillac until I had traveled to Medellín, which is a huge city. Even there I didn't see the number you'd see in a big American or European city. Whatever you think is an awesome car in the States, dial it back several notches and you have Colombian standards of auto chic. A BMW 3-series is a big luxury car, and a new Hyundai is pretty nice, too. Most people drive tiny econoboxes and 100 cc motorbikes. I rode in a BMW in Bogotá, and its owner got pretty jumpy anytime a car followed him too closely. He was afraid of getting boxed in and carjacked. Seems like it would be easier to drive a Twingo.
The ultimate vehicle to have in Colombia is, hands down, a Toyota Land Cruiser. Old Land Rovers and Jeeps come in a close second (unless you're in Coffee Country, where Jeeps are king). You really don't need an SUV most of the time, but they're well suited to Colombia's rugged mountains. But to be honest, there were people driving old Renaults on rutted mountain roads, and they seemed to get along just fine. So you don't really need a huge SUV, but they're cocaine kingpin cool.
For the most part, Colombia's roads are a sea of small Renaults, Toyotas, Hyundais, and motorcycles smaller than 150 cc. And for good reason. Gasoline costs somewhere around $5 per gallon in most parts of the country (diesel is a little less), so small, fuel efficient cars are all the rage. Natural gas costs a lot less, so many Colombian car owners convert their cars to run on natural gas. These setups aren't usually custom engineered for any particular vehicle, so efficiency decreases noticeably.
Natural gas is so cheap there, it actually makes good economic sense to waste half of your Renault 9's small trunk with a yellow tank. If you really want to see the country without spending a ton of money on gas, you can pick up a brand new 125cc motorbike for less than $2,000. A lot of Colombians do because although things there are a lot better than they were 20 years ago, the average daily income there is still only $22 per day. Expensive, gas guzzling cars aren't reality. They don't understand our affinity for big trucks.
Believe it or not, there are a few classic car clubs in Colombia, and I actually went to a meeting of one in Medellín. Its members were like small mammals peering cautiously out of their hollows at dusk, on the lookout for potential attackers. Most of these aficionados are older, and have vivid memories of the days when it wasn't unheard of for someone to have a car stolen at gunpoint. They live by the mantra "Don't give them papaya." Nice cars being papaya that someone would like very much to eat, collectors tend to keep their papaya out of sight most of the time.
The best way to get around the country is in a car or on a motorcycle, but most people take cabs and buses. Rental cars are expensive. The cheap ones are $50 per day, and the bigger ones nearly $200 per day. For the cost of renting a car for a week, you could buy a small motorcycle and keep it as long as you wanted.
Colombia is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world, both in terms of plant and animal species and landscape. There are jungles, white sand beaches, black sand beaches, more jungles, beautiful green mountains, a desert, and even some snow capped peaks. As a result, there are more unique critters in Colombia's varied geography than any other place in the world. It doesn't hurt that it rains a lot there — annual rainfall varies from place to place, but the countrywide average is almost 100 inches per year. Like humans, plants and animals flock to wet places, so they like Colombia.
The country is culturally rich, too. Over the past 500 years or so, rich native traditions have melded with the ways and words of their Spanish conquerers, and all that has been added to by a constant influx of foreigners. The art, architecture, and music that has sprung out of that is worth checking out.
Here are the few of the places I can recommend visiting.
- Parque Tayrona: This seaside national park has some of the most perfect Caribbean beaches you'll ever see. There's some hiking involved (unless you want to be one of those idiotic-looking gringos who rents a human-guided mule for the ride in), but you should be able to reach the coast from the park's entrance in a couple of hours. If you keep going for a while, you'll be able to find deserted, paradisiacal beaches where you can spend your day running around in the sun as god (or whatever great spirit you believe in) intended — naked. The drawback is nighttime, when you'll pay more than you'd like for a moldy hammock/tent and crappy food eaten in the company of other gringo tourists. But you don't go to Tayrona for creature comforts. You go there because it's gorgeous.
- Minca: Up in the mountains a couple of hours from Tayrona is Minca, a mellow mountain hamlet with trails leading to some of the tallest mountains in Colombia. It's only half an hour by car from Santa Marta, but Minca's 2,100 feet above sea level, and doesn't have the Caribbean coast's oppressive daytime heat. It's also a launching point for several epic hikes, including La Ciudad Perdida, which is a six-day trek on foot. The stone terraced ruins were home to several thousand coca-chewing Indians a millennium ago — think Machu Picchu, but older. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range rises steeply around this ancient site, to an altitude of 18,000 feet.
- Cartagena: When you're in Cartagena's old city, you might feel like you've just stumbled upon the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. That's because Disney used the 450-year-old Spanish colonial fortress as a set when they were filming the exploits of Jack Sparrow and his jolly band of miscreants. You may also remember hearing about the U.S. Secret Service having too much unpaid-for fun in Cartagena last Spring. It's a charming, if somewhat expensive city with romantic colonial architecture and a vibe (and stifling heat) that will make you want to sit in the shade and drink fruity rum beverages most of the day/night.
- If you can, take a boat trip out to the Islas del Rosario. They're beautiful so long as you avoid Playa Blanca, a white-sand, turquoise-water third world version of the Jersey shore (it really is that shitty). Boat operators always seem eager to unload passengers there, undoubtedly because of family connections to vendors hawking their overpriced wares on the crowded sand.
- The Pacific Coast: There are no roads (on official maps, anyway) to Colombia's Pacific Coast from the rest of the country, so you won't be doing much driving out there. But it's worth a visit. The average local rainfall is about 52 feet (that's right, feet) per year there, so the jungles are really jungley. Some say there are still cocaine operations out there, but if you stick with a guide on your jungle treks, you should be ok. There haven't been any kidnappings out there in years, and the locals of the impoverished Choco department are stoked to get the tourism pesos. There are two ways to get to the coast — fly into one of the port towns on a tiny plane and take a mototaxi to the coast, or take an old boat in open ocean for 25 hours. Either way, you're bound to feel like you've just traveled through Sub-Saharan Africa (minus the warlords and kidnappers).
- Medellín: This was once the seat of Pablo Escobar's cocaine empire. Born and raised in the Antioqueño city, he also died in a hail of bullets on its rooftops while on the run from police and rival drug gangs. There's a lot to see in and around the city, and having a car handy makes it a lot easier to see the stuff on the outskirts. Within the city limits, check out the Metro and Metrocable — the spit-shined public transportation system that's the pride of the city. Also not to be missed is the Museo de Antioquia, which is packed to the gills with awesome fat people paintings and statues by Fernando Botero.
Three hours outside the city, you can visit Escobar's former mansion complex, Hacienda Nápoles. Along with the ruins of the former drug czar's house and the burned out hulks of his car collection, there are also a couple of hippos running around the property. If you have time, drive up to El Peñón de Guatapé, a massive meteorite sticking out of the middle of a reservoir lake. It has stairs you can climb to get to the top.
- Bogotá: Aside from having horrible traffic, Colombia's capital city is also cold most of the year (because it's 8,600 feet above sea level) and can be unfriendly. The main bus line, the TransMilenio, is often referred to as the Translleno because it's always jampacked with ornery commuters and is an utter failure at getting people to and from places smoothly and comfortably. But being a capital city, Bogotá has a lot to look at, including centuries-old buildings, museums, government palaces, theaters, and huge, ornate churches. The historic Candelaria is a great neighborhood to get food and hang out in. It has an almost Cartagena feel to it, although it's romantic qualities are something like Washington D.C.'s prim white beauty compared with New Orleans' colorful, sultry charm.
- The Salt Cathedral: There has been salt mining near present day Zipaquirá since the 5th century B.C. Today, machines do the work, and some enterprising (and evidently very devout) miners converted the mined out tunnels of the modern day salt mine into a giant subterranean cathedral. Decorated with creepy colored LED-lit carvings in huge underground tunnels, it is the most impressive industrial engineering-to-art conversion piece I've ever seen. It would also be a great place for a black Sabbath concert, so otherworldly is its vibe. Since it's only about an hour by bus from Bogotá, it's a must-see if you're in the area. The town of Zipaquirá is also beautiful, but in a completely different, Spanish colonial sort of way.
- Zona Cafetera: What is a visit to the producer of the world's tastiest coffee beans without stopping by the place where they grow and process the coffee? That region, a few hours from Medellín in the Cordillera mountains, is also stunning in its verdant beauty. You can take tours of coffee growing operations out there, and if you're lucky, someone will let you drive their beat up 4x4 in the mountains. Zona Cafetera also has the most awesome collection of Willys Jeeps I've ever laid eyes upon.
This might seem like a long list, but it only scratches the surface. There is so much to see and do in Colombia. The next time I go, I want to get my hands on a small motorcycle and drive all around the country. I've heard that's a great, inexpensive way to see everything.
Colombia isn't known for having South America's top shelf cuisine — Peru claims that distinction. But Colombians eat tasty comfort food, and you'll feel satisfied when you eat it, even if a lot of it isn't all that healthy. Breakfast typically includes eggs scrambled with onion and tomato, arepas (thick, tortilla-like things made from corn), coffee, and some kind of tropical fruit. Lunch, the main meal of the day, typically starts off with a soup, followed by a dry course with rice, meat, and a few shreds of something green that they call a salad. Tropical fruit juice is the drink of choice in most cases.
Each region has its own specialty dishes, although they're roughly similar in style. People on both coasts eat a lot of fish with their rice, and the interior populations eat more meat. Paisas eat a lot of beans, and everyone eats coconut (I even saw dogs and chickens eating coconut, because it grows everywhere). Colombian coffee is quite possibly the best in the world, but most of it is exported. Colombians tend to drink the dregs of their national product, which is most often served as instant coffee. It's not the best, but they drink a lot of it, and you probably will, too. Wine and olive oil, staples for a Mediterranean-derived chap like myself, are expensive in Colombia, because they really don't grow grapes or olives. This is unfortunate.
Here's some of the food and drink Colombians do well:
- Fruit: Apples, oranges, bananas, pineapples, and all of the other stuff we have in the U.S. are easy to get in Colombia, but they also have cheap and plentiful supplies of amazing tropical fruits like papaya, guava, mango, and passion fruit. Then there are also fruits you've probably never heard of that look like something out of a sci-fi movie from the 1950s. These include lulo, pitaya, tomate de arbol, uchuva, sapote, carambola, curuba, and noni. They're all delicious. Plus, the abundance of fruit means that you can drink a different kind of fruit juice at every meal for days on end.
- Sancocho: This is the basic soup that ties a lot of meals together. It's chicken broth-based, and usually has meat and corn floating around in it. There's another soup called ajiaco, typical to Bogotá, that's similar but has more potatoes in it. Colombian soups are warm and delicious and make you want to take a nap after you're done eating.
- Sopa de Mondongo: This soup has tripe and vegetables and a lot of cilantro in it. Not everyone likes it, but if you're into tripe, it's fantastic. Again, it makes you want to siesta after you've eaten it.
- Bandeja paisa: Created eons ago to satiate Antioquieño mountaineers before days-long hikes without food, this is one of the greatest culinary inventions to be conceived of anywhere. It's a winner with people who enjoy big, meaty portions of everything. Served on a platter (because a plate's to small for this man-sized individual feast), a typical bandeja paisa will include chorizo (sausage), chicharones (pork rinds), ground beef, beans (usually with some kind of meat in them), a poached egg, a piece of avocado, and an arepa. If you don't waddle away from the table feeling satisfied, then there's nothing short of Fuddruckers that can satisfy you. Bandeja paisa is a great meal to have the morning after drinking too much aguardiente, which we will discuss further down the page.
- Arroz con Coco: This is exactly what it sounds like it is: rice with coconut. A coastal specialty, it's delicious, and is usually served with fish, or if you're eating someplace fancy, shellfish. Coastal cuisine is usually pretty simple, but we ate at a place called Restaurante Candé in Cartagena that was eager to promote local cuisine. They had everything from arroz con coco to more complicated dishes made from local products. I'm not on their payroll or anything, but I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't tell you to go check it out if you're going to be in Cartagena.
- Aguardiente: If there's a Colombian drink, this is it. Made with anise, it tastes kind of like watered-down Sambucca. Whether or not you'll like it depends upon whether or not you like licorice-flavored things. But that's immaterial. If you're out dancing with a bunch of Colombians, there will probably be a bottle (or cardboard carton, which is good, too) of this stuff on the table. If you don't drink it, you'll just look like a spoilsport and everyone will think you're a pansy. Don't worry about drinking too much of it. If you're in a large group, you'll get chicken broth at the end of the night, which is believed to mitigate your impending hangover. If you really, really don't feel like drinking aguardiente, pilsners like Aguila and Poker are very drinkable in hot weather.
South Americans drive on the right. As long as you observe that, don't drive too far above the speed limit, and avoid hitting pedestrians, you're golden. Also, don't drive drunk. It's illegal and you will get in trouble.
Colombia's a big country, so it's tough to generalize its whole population, but there are a few consistencies I noticed amongst practically all its people. First, family is first. Second, the second meal of the day is the big one. Third, work is third (or fourth for some of the country's many devout Catholics) — families and meals (most likely with family) come first. While you're there, spend some time in their shoes, and see if you don't return home with some timeless wisdom about how to live life. In the U.S. of A., we have a tendency to put work ahead of all other things. No es bueno.
Go dancing! Salsa, merengue, cumbia, and every type of Latin music in between are the soundtrack to life in Colombia. You'll hear it on car radios, at shops, and probably at the dentist's office, too. Someone always has a CD player and a stack of CDs handy for an impromptu dance party, but there are plenty of opportunities to go dancing or see live music. No one will judge your dancing, they'll just look at you funny if you don't do it. Because let's be honest, when a brass section begins playing on top of a catchy afro cuban rhythm, why wouldn't you want to dance?
Go out of your way to be polite. If you speak Spanish, address people formally, even if it feels weird. Colombians are a genteel people, and calling someone sir or madame is commonplace, sometimes even amongst family members. It's also a good idea to keep your language free of vulgarity. With the frequency Americans drop f-bombs (we're plenty guilty of that here), it may seem cute to drop an occasional puta or pinche into a sentence for emphasis. Trust me when I say it's not. I tried to tell a bawdy story to a cab driver I was getting along with, and he clammed up. The look he gave me made me feel as if I'd just blurted out "Jesus fucking Christ!" in the middle of a prayer meeting.
Pablo Escobar's cocaine empire left an indelible mark upon Colombia's culture. The illegal drug trade is smaller and more low key these days, but it hasn't disappeared completely. America's appetite for the white powder keeps it going (Americans still consumes more cocaine than anyone else in the world), although Mexico now bears the brunt of the illicit industry's violence.
Many Colombians remember the days when motorcycle-riding assassins picked off thousands of people at the behest of one drug lord or another, so it's not a good idea to make light of Colombia's violent past. You probably won't get beat up over insensitive comments about cocaine consumption or drug cartel butchery, but people will think you're an asshole. Many families are still smarting over loved ones lost during that dark epoch in the country's history, so that offhand comment about all the blow you did in Vegas during your buddy's bachelor party will not be appreciated, even amongst the under 30 crowd.
As far as temperature goes, Colombia's weather is pretty consistent all year. There are, however, rainy seasons, and those depend upon where you're going. Generally, the dry seasons are between December and March, or during July and August. If you don't like getting rained on, that's a good time to go.
As in other culturally Catholic countries, religious festivals are also a good time to visit Colombia. For the locals, religious holidays mean big parties, and Colombians know how to throw down. Christmas and Easter are the biggest ones, and both holidays include an entire week of not working, stuffing your face with food, drinking aguardiente, and dancing until you can no longer stand. But there's always some saint who's having a fiesta, so chances are good that you'll catch one if you're there longer than a week or two.
But you really should stay longer than a week or two if you can. If you don't think your boss will let you, here's a way you can extend your vacation without catching heat from the man: Let on like you'll only be gone for a week, but when your boss and coworkers ask you the inevitable question about whether or not it's safe to travel in Colombia, keep your answers mysterious. Make them believe that there is some risk so that when you get there, you can disappear without saying anything to anyone. A month or two later, when you feel like resurfacing (or really need another paycheck), you can pop up and say you were kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas during a jungle trek.
It could work, but only if you resist the temptation of posting pictures of yourself on exotic beaches all over Facebook. Also, it'll only fly if your boss and coworkers have never been to Colombia before. If they have, they'll all know you're full of shit.
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston