Colombia...I’ve wanted to write this blog for a while but I’ve refrained just in case!
Colombia is an amazing country and the world’s opinion of it is generally completely wrong. Yes there is a massive drugs trade here, 80% of the world’s cocaine is made here and this has meant that there is a crime problem and also a few safety issues for tourists. Generally tourists are safer here than in most of South America but there is the risk of kidnappings and there are certain things that increase your chances of being kidnapped...the FCO suggest that you do no travel on buses to the borders, the south, north or east and some of the west and do not travel at night! We had less than two weeks to do Colombia and on our budget flying is out of the question so night buses were the only way! The main problem with getting night buses is they can break down and you are then pretty vulnerable. We got a really dodgy looking bus from the border to Cali, no problems at all. We then got a posh bus from Cali to Medellin and it broke down about 5 times in the middle of the night in the jungle! The other thing about bus journeys in Colombia is that they drive stupidly fast over here, they drive a 20 year old bus as fast as you would drive a sports car in England and you would see buses doing exactly the same coming the other way. They overtake, not when it’s clear, but whenever they want and bends are not seen as anything to slow down for. We’ve been on some crazy journeys while being away but Colombia definitely wins the ‘most mental driver award’. We honestly sat there thinking about what we’d hold on to if we had an accident! Venezuela does not sound a lot better because in a guide book it says ‘the quality of a bus is determined by its sound system’!
Anyway, Colombia, why is it so amazing? Firstly the people are incredible, we’ve met so many amazing people on our travels and we’re always amazed how friendly each country is but Colombia really tops it. Whether it’s a taxi driver, a hostel owner, a waiter or literally any Colombian they genuinely want to help you with anything they can, chat and make you feel incredibly welcome. We were looking for an internet cafe in the bus station in Medellin and a lady who was walking past stopped and asked us what we were looking for. She then went round the whole bus station with us on the hunt for an internet cafe and found us one! Hostels are another great example, everything is done on trust, you grab a beer from the fridge and write your name down and in the hostel in Bogota the owner kept popping round offering beers on the house! It’s very hard to believe how friendly they are here but just think, have you ever said ‘hello’ in a foreign language to a foreigner in the street in England? Us Brits most likely avoid confrontation and have a little selfish thought about the streets being too busy with tourists. That can be said for most of the developed world and it’s amazing to go to Asia and South America and experience such kindness and the feeling of safety. Colombia and Tunisia are the two extremes that I have been to yet they have many similarities; they are poorer than the UK and deeply rely on tourism. In Tunisia we actually did not want to leave the hotel sometimes because of the constant hassling from locals who actually EXPECT you to buy something that you clearly do not want or need. In Asia and South America they generally still try to sell their items but firstly they do not expect you to buy and secondly they have a little joke about it and say ‘maybe later’. Back to Colombia, the strangest thing is talking to the drug dealers. They stand on street corners in the middle of the day and to cut a long story short they subtly let you know they can sell you a stupid amount of drugs and then help you find what you are looking for! In Cartagena most of the restaurants we ate in were recommended to us by drug dealers just being helpful! I can imagine that from an English perspective that sounds quite naive and yes they may get a small handout from some restaurants but generally it was done to be friendly.
We spent two days in Cali, it’s nice enough but nothing special. We then moved on to Cartagena but with the bus breaking down we missed our connecting bus from Medellin so we had to get a later bus to a place called Monteria. Monteria is most definitely not on the tourist trail but it was really nice just to wander round and see how people live in a town that is not dominated by tourism especially before going to Cartagena. Cartagena is one of the nicest cities I have ever been to. It’s a colonial town on the Caribbean coast with horses and carts, amazing squares, tiny little cobbled streets and amazing views out to sea. From there we did a trip to Isla del Rosario and Playa Blanca on a little boat with two 150hp outboard motors (that’s a lot of horsepower on a tourist boat!). The Colombians are equally as crazy on water as on four wheels and when booking the trips they say the small boats are quicker but flip more! We saw sharks and dolphins at Isla del Rosario and at Playa Blanca we just relaxed with a beer on amazing white sand and swam in the Caribbean. From Cartagena we went to Santa Marta and got a taxi to a little fishing village called Taganga where we stayed. From there we headed to Tayrona National Park where we spent two days relaxing on the most incredible beach in the middle of the jungle, sleeping in hammocks and only had to share about 5km of coast with what seemed like 20 people! We were planning on doing the long walk and bus combo back but we asked a guy with a fishing boat how much to get back. It worked out the same price so we went with him. After about an hour he got some reels out and dropped them over the back while we went along. After about 5 minutes he pulled it in and there was a tuna about a metre long on the end! We then had to stop with some other fisherman to avoid the police because they had to pay to fish and transport tourists. After about 15 minutes they told us the plan...we had to duck down in the boat and we would go as fast as we could round the headland back to Taganga and hopefully not get caught! There were about 8 boats and a fantastic sunset, it felt like something out of Miami Vice!
From Taganga we headed down to Bogota and spent a couple of days there mainly arguing with HSBC and Abbey National about withdrawing money on our cards because we needed to take dollars to Venezuela. If you take dollars with you, you get about 5 Bolivars to a dollar, if you withdraw cash from the ATM’s in Venezuela you get 2.15 fixed by Chavez! We finally left Bogota and came to San Gill where I am now. San Gill (pronounced San Hill) is the action sports capital of Colombia. We went paragliding yesterday (£18) and river boarding this morning (£10) which basically involves going down raging rapids on a foam board! That alone costs about £50 in New Zealand! From here we leave for the border tonight and then try to get as close to Caracas as we can tomorrow but it’s over 20 hours away.
In case I haven’t made it clear Colombia is an incredible country, it’s amazingly diverse with Caribbean beaches, jungle, history, culture, adventure sports and amazing people. It’s a country I hope to come back to and somewhere that I would recommend to everyone especially if you are put off because of the safety element. The next blog will be from Venezuela before we head into the Amazon jungle! We are right in the north-west of South America now and need to be in the south-east in 6 weeks time so lots of bus journeys and amazing things still to see!
Make sure you have a look at the photos, they are much more interesting than this incessant rambling!