COLOMBIA CHEAT SHEET
- Visa: No for US / Canadian / Australian Citizens for tourist stays less than 90 days + no necessary vaccinations, though Yellow Fever is recommended
- Best Time to Travel: Dry Season - December to March, April- May. Peak Season is June-August. Rainy Season - October to November
- Currency: 1 Peso = .33 cents USD / .46cents AUD / .43 cents CAD (rates as of 9/2015)
- Cost of Typical Meal - 15,000 Pesos+ or $3.60USD at a typical, no frills touristy restaurant
- CC friendly: No. Cash only. Rely on ATMS for exchanges, not "CAMBIO" exchange streets.
- Transportation: Cabs and Buses.
- Airports: Rafael Nunez International Airport (CTG) in Cartagena and El Dorado International Airport (BOG) in Bogota
- Language: Spanish mainly. Even in touristy pockets of Cartagena and Bogota, there were few Spanish speakers. Better dust off that old HS Spanish textbook.
Ongoing Rumor: Colombia is a dangerous country where you'll get kidnapped by drug dealers.
My Experience: I can guarantee there were no kidnappers trying to swipe me, nor did I see any noticeable NARCOS activity. Cartagena was extremely safe, even at night. Bogotá is a little shady at nighttime with panhandlers asking you for money, and even the shirt off your back. HS Students and Universities in Colombia get out of school pretty late, between 8pm-10pm so you will see a lot of students out and about at night.
A NITTY, GRITTY CITY WORTH IT'S TITTY
The capital of Colombia stands gray compared to it's sunnier and more effervescent cousin, Cartagena. In the Candelaria district, the streets came alive at nighttime with characters you would find in an anti drug video shown in the JHS school auditorium. During the day, the buildings are festooned with street art screaming with political dissent. The city is a concentration of a rebelling youth culture, and the die hard traditions of a prior generation's mysticism and drug laced past.
TAKE A GRAFFITI TOUR TO UNDERSTAND A CITY'S HISTORY
Graffiti is an age old practice that goes back more than 2,500 years to the ancient Greeks and luckily for us, street art in Bogotá is legal. The walls here are strife with the voices of hundreds of talented artists bounding with hidden messages to shed light on the going ons of this country. You can see more information about it here. The tour is free, though you do have to pay your guide a tip. The tour is run by two street artists who actually have some artwork on the walls.
ONE PIG. ONE MAN. ONE GLORIOUS DISH.
Lechona is what hangover dreams are made of; the perfect greasy, crispy, filling dish needed to warm your belly and erase bad decisions from memory. Now imagine a whole pig stuffed with rice, onions, peas and scintillating spices, then roasted in an oven for 12 hours. Once that mouthwatering, perfectly crisp pig is removed, the entire pig is then chopped up, mixed together and served with a thick tortilla called an arepa. What happens next might be the most glorious five minutes of your life. Make your way to Emanuel Lechona just a ten minute walk away from Plaza de Bolívar. Ask a local to point you in the right direction, you won't regret it.
PLAZA DE BOLÍVAR
WHY YES, THERE ARE PIGEONS HERE TOO
Take a walk to the Plaza Bolívar, named for the Venezuelan revolutionary, Símon Bolívar who liberated Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia from Spanish rule. Watch as tourists take photos with llamas and locals set up stands with specialties like a Salpicón de Frutas (Colombian Fruit Cocktail). Nearby, have some Aijaco, a typical Colombian chicken soup served with rice and avocado at La Puerta Falsa, or any of the other spots on this block. Another popular dish to try is hot chocolate and cheese. You can also take a visit to the Museum of Botero, which is a Colombian artist known for chubby, cherub like paintings and located within La Candeleria. Right next door is the Museum of Oro or gold, though I think it's safe to say that you can skip out on seeing jewelry that you can't own. It's like my ongoing nightmare of going to a restaurant just to stand at the open kitchen and watch the chefs cook and not be able to eat a single thing.
A HIKE WORTHY OF TWO TRIPS
Monserrate Mountain, standing at over 10,000 feet high is the highest point in all of Bogotá. A paved, stone staircase snakes around the mountain to an all encompassing view of the city. At the very top, stands a restaurant, shops and the main reason for many to hike - the Monserrate Church. It was built in 1640 and serves as place of pilgrimage. This was my first time walking in high altitude, and I didn't realize the effect of altitude on my Netflix trained body. I found myself needing to take a break every few steps and watched as old men sauntered by on their daily jogs. When I finally dragged my exhausted body to the top, I was told by locals that on Sundays, and during the week of Easter, locals make the pilgrimage to the top of the mountain ON. THEIR. KNEES. for repentance. (Mic Drop)
The view was worth it as we spotted an encroaching thunderstorm.
The next evening, we came back to take a look at Monserrate at night time. We hopped onto a cable car that shot straight up to the top of the mountain. The entrance to the cable car is located at the bottom of the mountain and only takes 5 minutes each way, costing about $11USD round trip. Nighttime, is best for the cable car, as the lines are less crowded and the view is breathtaking, not to mention- who really wants to hike at nighttime? The restaurant up here serves as a romantic spot for locals and tourists to catch the view.
EXPLORE THE WALLED CITY, DANCE WITH THE LOCALS & EAT INCREDIBLE STREET FOOD THAT WOULD BEAT OUT THE HALAL GUYS ANY DAY.
Colombia's bloody drug wars have left a bad taste in people's mouths, and sadly, left the country overlooked as a vacation spot. I've had more than a few friends and family members tell me not to go. Sometimes the more people tell you NO, the more you just have to say, "It's my life! It's now or never. I ain't gonna live forever. My heart is like an open highway. Like Frankie said.." Wait. I'm getting side tracked by Bon Jovi again.
Anyway, I digress. I'm going to be honest with you. You will get the occasional cigarette seller on the street corner whispering, "Cocaine, Cocaine" as you walk by, but they are harmless (and totally ready to party, I imagine). It's the equivalent of being in Chinatown's Canal Street and having little old ladies asking if you want to buy a fake bag. "Gucci, Gucci. Rolex." Other than that, you will find that Colombia is an incredibly cultural, colorful and fun place to visit. In Cartagena, it's just as touristy as it is local. You can find a tia (aunt) frying up some authentic Papas Rellenos in the street just steps away from a restaurant packed to the brim with tourists. And guess what? Both are delicious.
You can get a full meal for $1-3 or 10,000 pesos. Better yet, you'll find multitudes of "Jugos Naturales" or Natural Juice stands for a meager 1$-$3USD instead of the exorbitant $10USD+ for a juice in NYC. Be sure to try fun flavors such as Tomate de Arbol, Lulo, Maracuya + Granadilla!
For nightlife, bars and discotheques BLAST Reggaeton, Bachata, Cumbia and Top 40 hits with tourists and locals dancing alike. Friendly locals will offer shots of Aguardiente, the local alcohol made from Sugarcane. This literally translates as "Fire Water". For a really unique experience, make sure you hop onboard a Chiva Bus, a remodeled school bus painted and stocked with a live band and plenty of alcohol. The party starts as the bus drives through Cartagena with guests singing, dancing and taking shots of Aguardiente. Various stops allow for photo ops, street parties and entry into a club for 45,000 pesos or approx. $14USD.
I stayed at a hostel called Viajero that came out to roughly $12 a night for a 6 bedroom dorm, and it was a very social hostel where they even had salsa lessons! The other hostel that came highly recommended was Media Luna, which also happened to be a party hostel. But there are also plenty of beautiful hotels you could stay at as well. I also suggest checking out some AIRBNB's and trying to stay in one of the beautiful balcony buildings that Cartagena is known for.
A Beach so white, you'll be left wondering where IT'S fanny pack is.
Just a 45 minute boat ride from the dock of Cartagena is the pristine,white beach of Playa Blanca. This my friends, is paradise. With a group of 7, we were able to find a tour guide along the dock and barter for our own private speedboat roundtrip for $25,000COP/ $8USD each. You can also make your way through any local tour agency or your hotel/hostel's front desk. Be warned that due to the rough tides, boats usually leave Playa Blanca around 2-3pm, so most boats leave before 10AM, though if you are lucky you can find a guide willing to take you. There is also an option to sleep on the beach, there are hammocks and hostels for rent here. If you didn't book a return trip, don't worry - boats come around making trips to pick up as many people as they can for about $15,000COP. Our "private" boat became a "public" boat on the way back and we were joined by a few others.
On the famous white sandy beach you can ride a banana tube, go tubing and even get your hair braided. Restaurants along the beach sell freshly caught fish and bars along the water serve delicious Piña Coladas in pineapples. Ensalada de Frutas or Colombian fruit salad is a welcome reprieve from the heat in the form of fresh Maracuya, strawberries, mangos and a condensed milk/yogurt dressing. Vendors here are aggressive, read HERE about the awkward time I woke up to a stranger massaging my feet on the beach.
Word of warning - do not eat the raw oysters or ceviche from vendors, many people got sick.
We didn't take our driver seriously when he said the tide would get rough after 2pm.
We didn't take him seriously when after pestering him to stay till 2:30, he muttered under his breath and counted the life jackets.
We should have listened.
It was a scene out of THE PERFECT STORM, a complete 180 from the calm, reflective ride we took on the way here. The speedboat was a negligible factor in account of the massive, 9-10 feet waves pounding against us, splashing mounds of salt water into our faces, and forming a little foot bath on the bottom of the boat. We took turns taking shots of Aguardiente and prayed to the Gods that our rickety speed boat would survive, the only sounds accompanying the crashing waves were the shrieks of terror, excitement or a nervous mix of both from the guests.
It was the greatest boat ride I've ever been on.
A PLACE TO UNPLUG AND UNWIND
Parque Tayrona is in a beach, far, far away from society. It's a retreat well worth the journey - from a bus to a cab to a two hour hike, Parque Tayrona is a little piece of Heaven on Earth. Get there early enough with your passport (a color copy should do fine as well) and you'll be able to rent a hammock for $20,000COP / $6.50USD along the beach or a tent to camp on one of the most glorious beaches in Colombia. Upon arrival, you'll have to pay an entry fee of $39,000COP /$12.50USD and watch a presentation in Spanish on proper behavior in the national park. Guards will inspect your bags, and you are not allowed to bring alcohol, or plastic/paper. We wrapped a bottle of alcohol in a towel and made it through. After getting your ticket, wait for a small van ($3,000COP/ $1USD to take you about ten minutes to the first stop to start your hike.
The hike is long, though not overtly strenuous. You'll be walking through palm tree forests, and miles of flat beach. You'll have to carry your pack with you, so I recommend leaving your luggage in the hostel/hotel at Santa Marta, and carrying only a daypack. Hotels/hostels usually have a luggage room that guests can keep their luggage in for free. (You can come pick up your bags after you return even if you don't have a reservation for the following day at La Brisa Loca)
Without your phone, an outlet or even wifi, you'll be left to the devices of the beach and the light that they have. I think they're called stars. I could be wrong. There is one main restaurant with specific hours to serve everyone on the island, get to the desk at the front of the restaurant to place your order, because you WILL be hungry. If not, there's also a shop that sells anything you may have forgotten, like alcohol and snacks. This shop is pretty cheap too, so don't be too anal about packing a ton of food. There are also free lockers next to the shop, all you need to do is bring your own lock. To get a full idea of Parque Tayrona, make sure to read about it in my Adventures blog.
BRING: A flashlight or Headlamp. Extra sweaters and long pants or a blanket - it gets COLD at night on the beach, especially if you get a hammock on top of the hill. Hiking Shoes. Bathing suit. Cash. A camera.
TIPS: Wake up for the sunrise and take the hike to the 3 Pueblos, a three hour roundtrip hike. Bring plenty of water and sunblock. You'll need good hiking shoes since the hike involves a lot of scrambling over rocks. For about $12USD, you can take a horseback ride instead of hiking back to the entrance of the park.
party central, haven for sinners
Most people use Santa Marta as hub for getting to Parque Tayrona or staying for a night before returning to Cartagena. People don't realize is how much there is to do in Santa Marta. It's wildly different than Cartagena, and the GO GO GO lifestyle is world's away from the sleepy calm of Cartagena.
During the day, the town is worth exploring. Drinking in the streets is legal here so don't feel shy to have a Colombia's local beers, Club Colombia or Aguila along for the stroll. The street markets here are incredible and vast, shaded streets filled to the brim with stalls selling everything from freshly made Ajiaco soup to the latest bootleg DVD. If you haven't yet shown your stomach a good time - be sure to try salchipapas (Colombian style Poutine made with hot dogs and drizzled with spicy sauces, cheese and lettuce), empanadas (God's gift to Earth), pork and chicken skewers and try a Colombian Hamburguesa. I know, it's not very authentic, but I liked the spin they gave it in Santa Marta.
For Hostel goers- everyone will tell you to stay at La Brisa Loca. It's THE place to stay for socializing and partying. There is a "WHEEL OF FORTUNE" in the bar with all sorts of non kosher activities.
TIP-- stay next door at either Masaya Hostel or Emerald Hostel. You'll be able to go back to a clean and beautiful hostel and not have to sleep through the sounds of drunks trying to bone in the hallway.
WHERE I STAYED:
Masaya Hostel - Hands down, one of the coolest hostels I've ever stayed at. It was the perfect hostel for socializing as they have a bar, pool table and fireplace. Walls are decorated with street art from local artists and the hostel also doubles as a hotel with private rooms. Be warned that there are a few families that stay here, there were toddlers when I was staying, but they were awesome and everyone loved them. The people were great and definitely recommend coming here. It's located in the Candelaria district and a quick walk to Plaza de Bolivar.
Viajero Hostel: Basic rooms. Wooden lockers under the beds, with aggressive AC during the nighttimes. Bring a blanket or a sweater because it gets freezing in the nighttime. Aside from that, the hostel itself is really cool. Great for socializing and for solo or friends. Hammocks, outdoor patio to hang on with plenty of seats. They have salsa lessons, movie nights and various social activities, as well as spanish classes.
Loca Brisa: The ultimate party hostel in Santa Marta, this place is FAMOUS for it's wheel of debauchery, a wheel of fortune style wheel that has "take a shot" and various naughty activities. It gets LOUD at nighttime, since people will be drunk at the bar that is located on the same floor as the bedrooms. There is also a cat and dog that stay at this hostel, which is a really neat. A pool and great rooftop section with hammocks and seats are a nice touch. I'd suggest coming to party here, but not to sleep here. Instead, stay two doors down at Emerald Hostel. Bathrooms were fine but there would be a long line at times.
Emerald Hostel: A modern Miami esque hostel. It looks more like a hotel than a hostel. The bathrooms are very modern and impeccably clean, as are the bedrooms. Each bed comes with it's own curtain and plug for privacy. Party in La Loca Brisa, but come to stay here to get a good nights rest.
WANT SOME INSPIRATION?
Watch NARCOS on Netflix! Beware though, you may lose your social life because this show is addicting. It follows the story of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar from the eyes of a DEA agent from Miami.