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Why Colombia Should Be In Your Travel Plans

It ain’t no Narcos.

I was in Guatemala City Airport having just spent three weeks in Antigua, the region of Guatemala that has live volcanos, mountainous thin air and a lot of history to it.

Antigua was the former colonial headquarters of the Spanish Empire for some 200 years. It’s where all the important decisions were made over its Central American rule.

I only intended on staying three or four days but three weeks later I had to pry myself away and head to Colombia.

“We can’t let you on this flight”, the airline attendant at the check-in desk said to me.

“What? Why? What’s wrong with my ticket?” I asked.

“There’s nothing wrong with your ticket, sir. But you don’t have a departure flight from Colombia and before you enter you have to prove that you are leaving by another flight.”

I was well aware I didn’t have a departure flight from Colombia. My intention was to get into the country and then decide how long I was going to stay and which country I would go to next.

I don’t like to plan too much ahead when travelling and prefer to give serendipity as much chance as possible. Besides, what if I booked an outbound flight only to find that I wanted to stay longer.

“Sir, you have twenty minutes before we can’t let you on this flight. You have to book an outbound flight from Colombia or you can’t get on it.”

I had twenty minutes to decide how long I would stay in Colombia, where I would go to next and then find and book a suitable flight. All from the slow airport wifi that only allowed you 15 minutes of free browsing.

“What’s the next country down from Colombia?” I asked. “Sir, it’s either Ecuador, Peru or Brazil.”

I’d already been to Brazil, Peru I knew quite a bit about but Ecuador seemed more interesting and mysterious.

“Ecuador it is, then!”

Medellín

Outbound flight in hand, I flew from Guatemala City to Medellín via Panama City.

Anyone familiar with Pablo Escobar, Colombian drug cartels or indeed the Netflix crime drama, Narcos, will instantly recognise the name.

In the 1980s Medellín was known as the most dangerous city in the world largely thanks to gang warfare between Escobar’s drug cartel, competing cartels and paramilitary groups.

While today it’s a different city altogether with crime rate at an all-time low, Medellín still has a sharp edge to it, which is perhaps a reminder of its violent past.

In fact, Medellín is one the best cities I’ve ever been to. Not a top three city or even a top five but it’s definitely in the top ten.

Let’s start with the people. Medellín, and Colombia in general, has some of the happiest people in the world (whatever ‘happiest’ means) according to various indexes.

How factually correct these indexes are is another matter but the people of Medellín are indeed a friendly bunch. Along with Rome, Medellín is one of the friendliest cities I’ve been to which comes as a surprise given its size, history and that it’s becoming increasingly cosmopolitan.

Medellín citizens are mostly people of Paisa origin which is not as much of a race as it is a culture. You’ll find that Paisa people are proud of their history and achievements and don’t mind telling you so.

They’re of Spanish origin known for their hard work, inventiveness and hospitality. Indeed a Paisa told me that all the positive events of Colombian history can be attributed to Paisa people.

It’s one of those “I could live here for 12 months” type of cities. It has everything a Westerner like me needs in a city, it’s inexpensive compared to Western countries and the people are friendly.

If you don’t speak Spanish, the only issue is the language barrier. But even I, with my limited use of the Spanish language, got by fine. The people of Medellín are patient even with my broken basterdisation of Spanish and most are happy to speak English if they know it.

That said, learn Spanish if you can as you’re missing out on 85 percent of the conversation in Latin America.

pablo escobar la catedral
On the helipad of Pablo Escobar’s La Catedral overlooking Medellín

There are any amount of activities and things to see in Medellín. It’s a city with surrounding nature and wildlife and, of course, an interesting recent history.

Like many other travellers, I did the Pablo Escobar tour. Or, as it’s officially known, The He Who Cannot Be Named tour.

The reason being is that Escobar is still a very polarising figure in the city. Despite being dead for decades, he had an impact on many people’s lives both good and bad.

The city officials are trying to rid his name with being associated with Medellín so has made it against the law to use his name for any kind of tourism. But, of course, there are loopholes.

Despite this and largely thanks to TV shows like Narcos glamorising Escobar’s antics, Medellín is still very much associated with the drug lord.

The tour takes you around various places in the city associated with Escobar. From his bomb-proof house in the centre of the city to his La Catedral (The Cathedral), the so-called ‘prison’ complete with disco and helipad he built for himself when he made a deal with the government to go into confinement.

If you have a passing interest in Escobar it’s worth a visit. Let’s be honest, he’s an interesting character who accumulated absurd wealth but also did some very evil things too. I’ve never romanticised his lifestyle and exploits and Medellín (and Colombia) have so much more to offer.

comuna 13
In Comuna 13, in what used to be the most dangerous neighbourhood in the most dangerous city in the world

I also went on a walking tour of Comuna 13, the once-notorious and most dangerous neighbourhood in the world.

During the 1980s and 90s, hundreds of people were murdered in gang-related killings in Comuna 13 and for years it was the home to guerrillas, gangs and paramilitaries.

Not anymore, however, and today Comuna 13 is a thriving neighbourhood with street art, galleries and cafes serving great coffee.

It isn’t completely safe and Comuna 13 still has an edge to it and there is still remnants of its bloody history just a few short decades ago. Walk around there late at night is probably asking for trouble.

Nevertheless, Comuna 13 is now a place that stands for hope and transformation which our walking guide made sure we understood. Much like a lot of the friendly Colombians I met, they want you to know that country’s reputation is nothing like the reality. And it isn’t.

Guatapé

If you’re in Medellín, then I recommend paying a visit to Guatapé which is a couple of hours out of the city.

Take a tour bus for about $20 and you’ll get to see a couple of colonial towns on your way there.

Colonial towns are an interesting artifact from the Spanish empire’s colonial rule. They usually consist of a town square with a Catholic church at the centre of it from when the colonists brought the religion to Latin America.

Guatapé itself is a town made up of bright and beautifully coloured buildings. Some say it’s the most instagrammable town in the world and I don’t doubt that.

guatape
Guatape town, one of “the most instagrammable towns in the world”

The town is mainly full of cafes, ice cream parlours and tourist shops. There are also a lot of tourists wandering around while getting their shots in ‘for the gram.’

You probably only need a couple of hours here and then you’ll be ready for something different. That’s when you should make your way to El Peñón de Guatapé (The Rock of Guatapé) or often just called The Rock.

The Rock was an object of worship by the indigenous people for many years. In the 1950s two Colombians were the first to climb it and then access was made to the public.

There are 740 steps in total and you better make sure your cardio is good before you attempt it or you’ll be a sweaty mess once you reach the top.

The views from the top of The Rock are stunning. It overlooks Guatapé reservoir, a dam built in the late 1970s to stop the nearby town from flooding.

It looks remarkably natural rather than man-made but man-made it is.

The view from the top of El Peñón de Guatapé (The Rock of Guatapé)

You can tick Guatapé off your list within a day and there are any amount of tour companies that will take you there and back from Medellín, leaving in the morning and returning late afternoon. The prices vary but you won’t pay more than $25 and that’s with your food thrown in for good measure too.

The tour company we went with took us for the famous bandeja paisa, a traditional Colombian meal of pork, rice, ground meat, fried egg, plantain, chorizo, avocado and few other things I’m unsure of.

Bandeja paisa is from the paisa region but you can get it throughout Colombia including Cartagena which was the next place on my list.

Cartagena

Cartagena is Colombia’s most historical city. Its port was founded in the mid 1500s as a trading point for the Spanish and played a pivotal role in expanding the Spanish Empire’s reach across the region.

Tourism is the main industry of Cartagena so it is largely geared towards catering to the backpackers visiting from all around the world (though mainly Europeans and Americans).

When a city depends on tourism as its main source of income there’s generally a lot of activities and shops for visitors. It also means that you’re regularly hounded by the locals trying to sell you something and Cartagena is no different.

The Old Town and its brightly coloured colonial buildings is beautiful and on a typical sunny day you can appreciate its beauty. The problem is all the locals trying to sell you something.

I understand people have to make money and it’s their lifeblood, but walking through the Old Town at night for an hour I was stopped around thirty times. Too much.

“Sir, wanna buy a panama hat?”

“No, thanks.”

“How about some girls?”

“No, thanks.”

“Weed?”

“No, thanks.”

“Cocaine?”

It’s all a bit too much and an oversatcheration of the tourist experience.

Cartagena locals aren’t like the Medellín locals. Most of them just see you as money and there’s no warmth and very little hospitality.

cartagena
Cartagena graffiti. Image via illumelation.com

Would I go back to Cartagena again? Probably not unless I was passing through.

It’s too touristy and the locals aren’t particularly warm or hospitable. Which is fine obviously, it’s their city but just don’t expect me to spend my money there.

It was a stark contrast compared to warmth of Medellín and also Minca which was my next next Colombian destination.

Minca

Unlike Cartagena, Minca is a new destination for travellers so it doesn’t come with all the ‘baggage’ of a popular tourist spot.

It’s growing in popularity but it’s still an effort to get there so there aren’t as many backpackers and people in general.

Minca is not a city or even a town but a village up in the Colombian hills. There are very little facilities there and you definitely won’t find any restaurant or even supermarket chains.

Minca was unvisitable for a long time due to gangs and paramilitary forces in and around the area. That’s changed now, however, and increasingly more hostels and food places springing up in the area.

My advice would be to go now before it becomes commercialised. It still has that undiscovered feel to it but that likely won’t be for long.

I stayed at Mundo Nuevo an eco-lodge up in the mountains which requires a motorbike taxi to get up there.

It just so happened that it was pouring down with torrential rain as I, along with my motorbike taxi, were trying to make it up the mountain.

Needless to say, the motorbike couldn’t make it with me, a 190lb man and my rucksack in the pouring rain. Halfway up, I jumped off the bike, paid the taxi driver and made the rest of my way up on foot. And also piss-wet through.

Mundo Nuevo is a great place to chill for a few days. Only vegan meals are served and they have to be pre-ordered and you can’t buy snacks or food.

The place has some stunning views. Even sitting on the outdoor eco toilet you’re presented with an amazing view as you sit on the throne.

Most of all, it has the best sunset I’ve ever seen. I’ve written before about how much I like sunsets and this one was stunning.

The video below doesn’t do it justice but it gives you and idea of what it looks like among the clouds.


In Minca, you can visit independent organic coffee and chocolate plantations, hike the surrounding mountains and do various other activities like ziplining and bungee.

If you’re in that region of Colombia I definitely recommend visiting Minca and staying at Mundo Nuevo, especially if you’re into chilled out vibes and stunning views. Just remember to bring waterproofs.

Colombia has a lot to offer and you’ll need more time than you think to see it all

When I was under pressure in Guatemala City airport to book an outbound flight, I booked only three and a bit weeks for my entire stay in Colombia. In hindsight, I should have booked longer.

There were many parts of the country I didn’t get to see due to time constraints like the capital, Bogota, or Tayrona National Park by the coast.

Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. As it continues to open up to tourism more places by the coast and in the mountains will open up to the influx of tourists.

Along with Mexico, again another country I want to see more of, Colombia is my favourite country in Latin America so far. The people, the places and the food are what makes Colombia a great place to visit (and potentially live).

It’s a country that is trying to shed its (mainly Western image) of crime, drug cartels and cocaine. Visiting was a big eye opener for me and another reason not to believe what you read in the media.

That’s my first time in Colombia but it won’t be my last. I’ll return at some point in the future as there is much more to see and do from the cities to the countryside to the coast to the mountains.

And why Colombia should be in your travel plans, if it isn’t already.

Written by Ste Davies

Ste is a digital strategist. You can work with Ste or contact him here.