I recently had the opportunity to visit Colombia, traveling through Cartagena, Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park, Medellin and Bogota. At the end of my stay, I wasn’t ready to return home — the country had completely stolen my heart. Here’s why:
Salsa Dancing Everywhere
The one thing in the world that I love just as much as traveling is dancing. As the type of person who has trouble sitting still, I appreciate cultures that weave shaking their hips and twisting their feet into everything they do. Colombia is home to one of these cultures. While many places I stayed offers free salsa classes, going out to clubs allowed for easy opportunities to meet locals and have them help perfect your salsa. Even in sit-down restaurants I’d see people dancing salsa, and I loved working off my dinner by joining them.
PARAGLIDING OVER MEDELLIN. NICE VIEW, HUH?
2. Adventure Abounds
If you enjoy getting active, there are many opportunities around Colombia. While from Cartagena I took a weekend trip to hammock camp, jungle hike and snorkel in Tayrona National Park, Medellin allowed me to try paragliding for the first time. In Bogota, I took a street art-themed bike tour around the city and hiked three kilometers (1.8 miles) to the top of Monserrate. There’s no shortage of ways to explore the beautiful landscapes and cities that litter this country.
3. Futbol Fever
I always wished I could be one of those cool girls that loved to watch sports; however, while I play soccer, I was never able to understand the point of watching strangers tackle each other or kick balls around. Until I went to Medellin.
Watching a Medellin futbol (soccer) game is like being in a techno club with some very energetic, angry people who are out for blood. There is so much energy in the crowd — nobody sits aside for halftime — and everyone chants and fist pumps nonstop (even when players fall and injure themselves).
I was warned by a local to absolutely make sure to not accidentally wear the opposing team’s color to a game, and after going myself, I understand why. While rowdy, I loved the experience, and would absolutely buy season tickets if I lived in the city.
DAY TRIPS TO PLACES LIKE THE AMAZING EL PEÑÓN DE GUATAPÉ ARE EASILY ACCESSIBLE — EVEN BY 90-MINUTE TAXI!
4. Surprise After Surprise
Unfortunately, Colombia deals with a number of negative stereotypes, from being the capital of cocaine to having a large amount of violent crime. While I’m not saying drugs aren’t prevalent there (they are) and that you shouldn’t watch your back and what neighborhoods you’re in, I was surprised how safe I felt — even in Bogota, which is a dangerous city — and how friendly the people were. Despite a part of me expecting to feel too unsafe to meet locals or venture too far from my hostels, by the end of the trip I genuinely felt like Colombia was a place I could live one day.
EXPLORING STREET ART IN BOGOTA WITH BOGOTA BIKE TOURS
5. Fun Everywhere
There are some really great activities to enjoy in Colombia. For one, most of the major cities offer free walking and/or bike tours, such as Bogota Bike Tours in Bogota and Real City Tours. Moreover, in Medellin there are the Botanical Gardens, the Metro Cables (free to a certain point) for beautiful views and Plaza Botero, with its 23 disproportionate Fernando Botero statues.
In Cartagena, I recommend wandering the Old Town and admiring the colorful (mainly) Colonial-style architecture before crossing the wall and enjoying a beer on the beach. When in Bogota, stroll through Parque Simón Bolívar with its gardens, bike paths and library before heading to some of the free museums, like the Museo Botero or the National Museum.
AN AL FRESCO COMMON AREA AT EL VIAJERO IN CARTAGENA
6. Great Hotels
I’ve written about how amazing traveling South America is, with one reason being the continent has great hotels and amenities.
ON MANY TOURS, GUIDES AND GUESTS ON SPOKE SPANISH, GIVING ME AN OPPORTUNITY TO PRACTICE MY LANGUAGE SKILLS.
7. A Chance To Practice My Spanish
I’m not totally foreign to Spanish. Along with taking classes in high school and traveling through Latin America, I’ve also spent time practicing with Pimsleur Spanish Conversational Course | Level 1 Lessons 1-16 CD: Learn to Speak and Understand Latin American Spanish with Pimsleur Language Programs (English and Spanish Edition). That being said, there’s a difference between having a decent grasp of Spanish and being fluent. While I won’t lie and say that visiting Colombia made me fluent, I will say it helped me feel more confident in my abilities.
Many of the activities I did — from taking a cooking class in Bogota to canoeing through mangroves in Cartagena — were completely in Spanish. This forced me to pay attention, make note of words I wasn’t sure of for later research and engage in conversations with locals. There’s definitely truth to the idea that there’s no better way to learn a language than to be immersed in it.
SANCOCHO, A SPECIAL COLOMBIAN SOUP
8. The Food
Is there any better way to immerse yourself in local culture than the food? Colombia was heaven for me — especially as I also love to eat on a budget. For me, the highlights were the hearty soups and stews, such as Bogota’s famous Ajiaco, a soup featuring chicken, potatoes, corn, capers and sour cream and a special herb called guasca. I also took a cooking class through Bogota Bike Tours and made Sancocho, a delicious soup featuring chicken, corn, potatoes, beans, yucca and salt served with a side of avocado and typically only made on Sundays and holidays.
Colombia’s national dish, Bandeja Paisa, was also a favorite. While not a soup, this was possibly my favorite meal in Colombia, a hearty platter of eats like beans, rice, chorizo, avocado, arepa and pork crackling. Note: there are different versions of the dish all over the country, so the version you sample might be slightly different.
ADMIRING THE WORKS OF BOTERO AROUND MEDELLIN
9. The History & Culture
There is no shortage of history and culture to explore in Colombia, more evident in Cartagena and Bogota. Be sure to take in the museums, galleries and learn a bit about the culture and history in advance.
10. The Artwork
There are two main facets of arts culture that really drew me in in Colombia. One was seeing the works of Fernando Botero — born in Medellin — scattered around the country. In Medellin you can head to Botero Plaza while in Bogota there is the Museo Botero, where you can see the mid-proportioned sculptures the artist is so famous for.
I also fell in love with Bogota’s street art, which I explored through an excursion with Bogota Bike Tours (only 35,000 COP/about $17 for four hours). What’s impressive about Bogota’s graffiti isn’t just the sheer amount of colorful works, but also the ideas behind them. Something truly inspirational to me was how the city commissioned the works, many focusing on ideas like peace, healthy communities and paying homage to people who had lost their lives. For a truly immersive street art experience, bike or walk down Bogota’s Calle 26.