All You Need to Know About Colombia!
Why I Fell in Love with Colombia, and Why You Will too.
I’m sure when you think of Colombia, like everyone, you automatically think of the infamous Pablo Escobar. You think of cocaine, drug cartels, gun violence, and kidnappings. You picture a poor country with only cocaine and shootings. You think of the show “Narcos”. I can’t eye roll enough. I get it, but you couldn’t be more mistaken about this beautiful lush country!
Let me just tell you, Colombians aren’t fans of the show “Narcos.” They were never fans of Pablo Escobar, or the drugs. Many families lost loved ones in that era to gun violence. Decades later, all they want to do, is forget their dark drug and violence history, as well as show people that there is truly so much more to Colombia, than Pablo Escobar and cocaine. Most of the Colombians I spoke with, don’t even like to say his name. No one in the country glamourizes or worships him. There are many tours to learn about him, but it doesn’t glamorize him or at least if by locals.
It’s such a shame that Escobar takes so much attention away from ALL the amazing things about the country, things I never knew and only learned once I arrived. Things I experienced first-hand. It was more than I could have ever imagined.
My boyfriend didn’t want me to go alone to Colombia, as someone who works in the media and has done extensive work on cartels and violence, he was terrified for me to go. But like all my trips, there was no one that was going to stop me and I was going to find out for myself, and not let things from the past haunt the beautiful country, or be sensationalized now to scare me from what became a very memorable trip.
My First day in Colombia, I arrived in Medellin, pronounced “Me-de-jean”. I took an Uber by myself from the airport. Ubers are safe here and recommended, but you just should sit in the front, because technically, it’s illegal. With that being said, from what locals and my hotels advised, it’s the way to go. If you do get a taxi from the airport, agree on a price before-hand and get it from the airport desk inside.
On my 45 minute ride to Medellin from the airport, I was in absolute awe of the country already. It was stunning! There was so much lush greenery! It was nothing like I had imagined, and so much better and more beautiful. The weather was amazing, perhaps why it’s nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring”. It was mountainous and held a valley below with the barrios and buildings. It was one of the coolest cities I’ve seen, and the views looking down into the valley and city are incredible.
My second day I was up at 6am to head to the Colombian town of Guatapè, an absolute must see if you visit Colombia. It is now in my top 5 most beautiful views of the world. The best view is climbing up “El penon de Gutape”, (The rock of Guatape) aka La piedra and El Penol. There are many steps up, but you can go slowly and get a work out in post lunch! The elevation is also higher so don’t be alarmed if you feel a little light headed or short of breath. This is normal, and you will be fine. You will be so excited once you see the views, words just can’t do it justice. After the rock, you will visit one of the most colorful cities in Colombia. Guatapé is full of brightly colored houses and buildings, and I totally recommend sitting in Plazoleta de Los Zocalos for a nice coffee and pastry. It is also a unique and colorful spot for photos!
You can book a day trip there with many tour companies. I opted for the Guatape trip mixed with the Paintball at Pablo Escobar’s old estate. I didn’t want to paintball, so it was cheaper, but I did still get to visit Pablo’s’ estate and have lunch. It was interesting to see the history of what happened there and to learn about him a little, but really, I learned what Colombians want to be proud of now, what they now live for, and how much they produce. I’m going to touch on that in a little bit.
My third day in Medellin, I walked around Botero Plaza, because for years, I’ve been absolutely obsessed with Fernando Botero. The most famous Colombian artist and sculptor in history. I’m sure all of you at some point have seen his work as he has it all over the world. I have seen it in many large cities such as Dubai, Paris, Yerevan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Monaco, He creates the very plump people, pets, and fruit mostly not calling them “fat” but rather calling it “Boteroism”. To me, he’s a creative genius that gave us a new flavor of unique artwork for people of all shapes and sizes to be proud of. The park is lovely and full of all his work! You will love it. It is also heavily patrolled by police. That was the one thing I really appreciated about Colombia. There is literally police officers on every street, many with dogs, who are there to keep you safe and the country’s reputation improving.
After my little “hang out” and stroll through the park, I took the metro to Communa 13. Yes, this once used to be a dangerous area of Medellin, but now it’s very interesting to see. They do free walking tours daily there, where you can learn so much history. It is still a more poverty stricken area, so be mindful. There is also a cable car from there you can take to get amazing views of the city. There is also a ton of street art here, that is by local artists, and is beautiful! Street art is all over Colombia and showcases so much culture, beauty, and talent. If you go to Communa 13, make sure you climb all the way to the top where the escalators are. Up there, there are amazing views of the city. The best. Just remember, respect the locals and do not walk or run on the escalators. This is a rule they have there, I wasn’t aware and was yelled at for walking down them.
I wanted to visit a few stunning churches but I ran out of time, sadly, and had to rush to take my flight to Bogota, but there are several that I highly recommend, especially Iglesia Jesus Nazareno, Iglesia Nuestra Senora del Rosario in Bello, Iglesia San Joaquin, and Iglesia el Cavario.
Other cool things to do in Medellin are visiting the zoo, if that’s your thing and you support them, as there are a lot of cool birds there and tropical animals. Plaza Cisneros is cool to walk around, it’s a square with a bunch of light poles, really cool for photos.
While you are in Botero Plaza, visit Museo de Antioquia, it’s cheap to enter and is full of cool pieces including Botero’s. Maybe I’m too much of a Botero “groupie” but I was obsessed with every piece by him and was in heaven being in his country with all his work around me. Visit some coffee shops as Colombia has notably the best coffee in the world. So, if you’re a coffee lover, load up, and bring some home with you!
Have some authentic food and go visit Mercado del Rio. It’s an old warehouse that’s been converted into a “food court” so to speak. There are all kinds of options there, it’s like the new market in Bogota that’s a must visit when there.
As I said before, you must ride on the metro cable for amazing views of all the city. Hop off at Santo Domingo and take in one of the best views of the city.
From the Santo Domingo station, you can board another metro car or “gondola” to Parquet Arvin, a large nature reserve that sits high above Medellin. It’s a nature lovers dream here as there are plenty of hiking trails and picnic areas to relax and take in nature while escaping from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Make sure you try Arepas, (thick corn tortillas), Bunelos (small fried balls of bread with cheese, make sure they are warm and fresh) and then of course try the fresh juices and smoothies that are also all over the town and super cheap.
If you’re into dancing then I would go to a salsa club. There are many in the city and I would ask your hotel for an authentic experience. There are also places here to take cheap lessons, if that’s really something you’re keen to do.
The people in Medellin were so wonderful. They were so hospitable and caring, and really wanted you to enjoy yourself, be safe, and show you that Colombia is more than drugs and Pablo Escobar. The food here is cheap and amazing, I loved the fruit and desserts here. The scenery is truly incredible as well, and like I said, Guatape is one of my favorite places in the world. The beauty is breathtaking. Now I’ll tell you some facts about Colombia so you can see there is more to Colombia than its dark past.
Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, next to Brazil. Colombia is the only country in South America that has coastlines in both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Colombia was found to be the “happiest” country in the world multiple years in a row since 2013. One third of Colombia is made up of rain forest. It has over 300 beaches that locals and tourists can take advantage of. Colombia is home to over 1,800 species of birds. Yes, they are big on their birds. It boasts over 300 different ecosystems. Bogota is 8,360 feet above sea level, making it one of the highest cities in the world and a cool city I might add. Colombia has 58 national parks making it a hiker and nature lovers paradise. Colombia is home to the most endemic species in the world, meaning only those certain species live there. One example is the Amazon dolphin which is pink! Over 4,000 orchids can be found in Colombia. I love flowers so it was heaven seeing all the flower markets. They even have a flower festival. Over 150 Colombian mines produce emeralds. The main thing that makes Colombia so beautiful is its biodiversity! It’s amazing to see and I can’t recommend enough to get out of the main cities for a while and get into nature. It will be so special!
Now to my wonderful time in Bogota! Another amazing Colombian city full of Botero, amazing food, and incredible people.
When I arrived to Bogota I got an Uber to my hotel “Four Seasons Casa Medina”. There are two Four Seasons so don’t confuse the two. This one is the more historic one with a unique and stunning property. It’s colonial style elegance surrounded by urban excitement. Upon arriving, I was in awe of the property and my huge room with beautiful hard carved wooden furnishings, high beamed ceilings, fireplaces, and unique artwork. I also learned that no two rooms are a like, which I found amazing. The hotel is decorated with art and artifacts from hundreds of years ago. The building itself is stunning, with a spa with the nicest ladies working in them, the restaurant with amazing décor and lighting, and a breakfast with so many amazing options! They even get extra points from me, for having Fruit Loops and not just your average plain cereal! The breakfast was one of my favorite aspects of my stay as the food here is amazing and so fresh. The attention to detail all around was great and again, the staff as always at Four Seasons, truly went above and beyond to make sure I had the best stay I could in Bogota. Thanks to everyone at The Four Seasons Casa Medina Bogota!
My first evening in Bogota I was exhausted and a bit jetlagged, so I just explored the hotel, and then went down and had a lovely dinner and cocktails alone in the restaurant.
If you’re a couple traveling, this hotel is super romantic and the restaurant gives off dreamy vibes. The food was incredible as well. I slept like a baby my first night. The bed was huge and seriously so cozy.
The next day in Bogota I headed to the Botero Museum straight away after my amazing and plentiful breakfast. As I mentioned before, I’m obsessed with Botero, and this museum, which I will add is free, had all eras of Botero's amazing work. It has works of various other international artists; however, my interest was seeing every Botero piece. I stayed here an hour, left for a bit, and came back. The guy working there just laughed at me. I think I took 100 photos alone just in that museum. I also bought every post card in the Botero gift shop, drink coasters also. Yes, as I said, I’m a real Botero nerd.
After the museum, I walked into the old town of Bogota, where I took a stroll down the Candelaria. It was neat to see and walk around. The houses were so colorful and there were big beautiful plazas and ornate churches. Bogota truly is a place history meets innovation and colonial meets cosmopolitan. Old town is the spot for the best history, sites, and food. Plaza de Bolivar is the giant plaza in the heart of the old town. It is full of pigeons, people selling trinkets and souvenirs. Here you will come across the Cathedral Primada, The city’s largest cathedral, the parliament of Colombia, The countries Supreme court, and the Mayor’s Office. Just two blocks away you will find the Casa de Nariño, where the president lives and works. If you visit WFS at 3:30 you will be able to see the changing of the guards which is an interesting and quick show. Another beauty to see is the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Carmen. The inside of the church is absolutely stunning. You can also find some pretty cool souvenirs in this area. I bought some “Big Ass Ants”! HAHAHA!
After the plaza, I walked to the Museo del Oro, (Gold Museum) It was super cheap to enter, I think 2USD and it contains more than 55,000 pieces of Gold. It is also the most famous museum in the city. You not only get to see this amazing gold collection, but you get to learn how it’s made and how it was used periodically throughout history. It was a fascinating experience and you only need about an hour for it. It’s totally worth the visit and was very enjoyable and interesting.
After the Gold Museum, I walked to the cable car to take the high ride up to Cerro Monserrate, or Monserrate Mountain. It overlooks the entire city and provides amazing views day or night, but I prefer day to really get a sense of just how big Bogota is and how far it expands in all directions. I was lucky to get a clear sunny day as well. Sunny or not, you must visit up here. There is also a cute café at the top with the most amazing carrot cakes and desserts, and incredibly fresh smoothies. You must go there. It offers great views from the lunch dining area as well. Up here, there is also a historic church and shrine. There are so many different areas on the mountain where you can get amazing views, some slightly different or better than others, so make sure you walk around the area and get different outlooks.
Colombia is full of graffiti, really complex and cool graffiti showcasing international and local artists alike. I enjoyed walking around and admiring it in both Medellin and in Bogota. There is even a walking tour offered in Bogota.
There are many amazing restaurants in Bogota, as in all of Colombia, but my favorite and an absolute must visit is “Andres Carne de Res”. Have a look for yourself on their website. It is one of the biggest and coolest restaurants I’ve ever been in. It’s four floors and each one has a different theme. It’s full of eccentric and bright décor, full of lights and neon signs and lamps, and they have a menu of food and drinks bigger than the Cheesecake Factory. The whole experience is an absolute must do for anyone visiting. After everyone eats, they make it to the dance floor for some dancing and drinks. The food is also amazing and the cocktails are fun and very Instagram worthy! Do not miss this hot spot.
I didn’t have time sadly, which is why I’ll be going back to Colombia and Bogota, but if you do, check out the amazing day trips from Bogota as well. You will see some pretty incredible things like Lake of Guatavita. There are tours here or it’s accessible by car. The lake is a site of the legend of El Dorado. Many of the pieces you will see at the Gold museum were discovered at the lake. It is such an integral part of Colombia’s history. It really is beautiful from what I’ve been told and I was so sad not to be able to visit, but you should time permitting. Another day trip that I had to miss out on due to time was The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira an hour outside of the city. This mine is the most important in Colombia and inside you will learn about the process of salt mining as well as see a cool light show, and see all kinds of cool architecture. It’s truly unique. The Roman Catholic Cathedral is 200 meters’ underground.
I truly loved my time in both Medellin and in Bogota. Both cities were very different but full of life and excitement. I learned a lot visiting Colombia and meeting the people, and again, they were all so sweet. It’s hard to come to a place like this now and imagine that it once was the murder capital of the world. You just can’t imagine that with the hope and hospitality you receive. I’m grateful for my experience and time here and will most certainly visit again. I also can say in my time in Colombia, I did not feel I was in danger at any time. Both cities have police everywhere at all times, and if you take normal precautions and don’t do anything silly then you will enjoy your time and leave without incident. Below I will put some tips when traveling to Colombia, including safety tips. Enjoy the country! You will want to stay longer and longer like I did! It’s truly such a special place that I will not forget!
Tips when visiting Colombia
1. Don’t wear expensive jewelry, handbags, etc. You are just asking to get mugged or pick pocketed. This is anywhere in the world with poverty. Be smart. I always think this is obvious, but many women still wear their LV bags and diamond rings. Don’t. Leave them at home. The main crime here now is pick pockets and mugging. Don’t “give away the papaya” as Colombians say. Don’t have your fancy cameras and Iphone out. You don’t want to make yourself an easy target and always keep an eye on your belongings and keep backpacks locked or in front of you like I always did. Yeah, it looked nerdy, but I never got a single thing taken off me, even as a solo blonde traveler. Use common sense, You’re still in a country with a lot of poverty.
2. I always say this, but learn some of the native language to any country you visit, but especially Latin America and Colombia as many people do not speak English. You will always feel safer and more confident, if you can communicate with people, even to ask for help. I needed directions in Medellin as I got lost and had I not been able to know basic directions and words in Spanish, it would have been very difficult to find my way home. Big thanks to that nice police officer who tried to help me the best he could with my broken Spanish! I found my way! haha!
3. I wouldn’t walk around Colombia at night time. It’s just not worth it. I’m not saying you will be robbed, but it just eliminates any chance. Call an Uber, as they are super cheap. I don’t advise as a woman to get a cab alone at night time off the street. Go into a restaurant, bar, or hotel and ask them to call you one, or better yet, download the cab apps local to the country, in this case Colombia. The popular ones in Colombia are Tappsi and Cabify.
4. If you decide to leave the main cities on your own, then double check the safety and security situations as some rural parts of Colombia can still be a bit dangerous.
5. This is an obvious one as a woman anywhere when you’re alone in my opinion, but keep an eye on your drink. Never leave it unattended and do not accept a drink from anyone other than the bar staff. Drinks can be drugged, and while this isn’t a huge issue in Colombia, it can happen. It happens in many places of the world so always be safe.
6. Don’t do drugs here. I know that the cocaine is easier to come by here and there will be people offering it to you on the street but don’t do it. For obvious reasons like drugs are bad! Duh! If you don’t accept that reason then how about this. It can be a set up if a random asks you on the street and you’ll end up in big trouble with the police or it may not be what you’re hoping and laced with all sorts of chemicals. Again, this can also happen anywhere, just stating the obvious, but just don’t do drugs here.
7. Use ATMS during the day if possible and in banks. The fees are generally high so I would have cash before but if you need to avoid using them in the dark on empty streets.
8. This is also a tip for many countries but don’t drink to excess and if you are robbed then do not resist. No material possession is worth your health or even your life.
9. Don’t carry your bag on the side of the street where motorists are driving as again, in many countries, they will snatch the bag and ride off. This isn’t a Colombian thing, this is an everywhere thing.
10.Don’t over worry yourself and be too paranoid with your safety as most Colombians are amazing people who want to help you, not hurt you. The people were so wonderful and kind to me and again, I had no issue at all.
11.Always pack a jacket, as the weather depends more on the altitude than the season, higher altitude means cooler weather. Also, don’t forget the sun cream. I was sun burned badly my first day without cream.
12.Be prepared for delays and slower pace. People in Colombia generally aren’t punctual from my experience and it’s totally acceptable. The city is also not as fast paced as a western city so just be patient and enjoy it. No need to rush!
13.Don’t make jokes about drugs or Pablo. The history of Colombia is dark and many people lost their loved ones due to the drugs and violence of the country. They do not find it funny nor do they really want to discuss it. It was a very hard time for the country and people are still healing from it years later. Leave the ignorant jokes at home.
14.Tipping in Colombia is different at different places. Some places do not expect it, while at some places it’s added in the bill, and then shared with everyone working. I personally made sure to leave even a little something, as it’s so cheap anyway, and the service is generally very good.
15.If you’re buying things from street vendors you can always bargain. They expect it. Negotiating down 30-50 percent is common. So, put on your negotiating hat and enjoy it.
Enjoy your time in Colombia, and don’t panic about what you have heard. Colombia is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, with some of the most kind and engaging people. You must visit this wonderful country!