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Is it safe to travel in Colombia?

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Confession: I almost didn’t get on my plane to Colombia because in the days leading up to my departure, I got scared. I spent the last few hours before my flight departure in agony, going back and forth about canceling my flight. I had just read this article:

Solo Female Going to Colombia? Just Don’t.

I came across it the very day before my flight, and reading the headline alone made me wonder if I should read the article or not. It wasn’t just that article: a few days earlier during a travel meetup, a friend of mine offhandedly mentioned to me that her friend recently got back from Colombia where she and her friend had being robbed at gunpoint and lost everything.

I was scared, if not terrified.

dani ciudad perdidaWas I crazy for traveling to Colombia as a solo female traveler, just as many family members and friends suggested I was when I told them I had purchased a plane ticket to Cartagena? Even though the country has gotten considerably safer in recent years, there is still a government warning for travelers to Colombia in place, which reads:

Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellin, and Cali.

However, violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural and urban areas. Despite significant decreases in overall crime in Colombia, continued vigilance is warranted due to an increase in recent months of violent crime, including crime resulting in the deaths of American citizens.

And it continues:

… there were several homicides of U.S. citizens in connection with robberies, including armed robbery on streets and in taxi cabs, public transport, home invasions, and muggings…

(You can read the full travel warning issued by the U.S. Department Of State here:

Colombia Travel Warning)

The only reason why I did get on my flight the next morning was that friends who had been to Colombia calmed me down and encouraged me to go and not to cancel my trip. This reminded me why I had decided to go to Colombia in the first place: because everyone was raving about the country. Many of my friends who had traveled around South America declared it their favorite country on the continent, and everyone who had been to Colombia loved it. I hadn’t heard a single bad word from people I knew.

Before I get into details on how safe I felt in Colombia, I want to say this: Had I not boarded that plane, had I let those horrible experiences of other travelers discourage me from visiting Colombia, I would’ve missed what would become one of my favorite trips to date.cartagena dani

Everyone’s Travel Experience is Different

Travel experiences can vary drastically. The two female travelers whose experiences I had learned about just before I set off to explore Colombia, both had terrible, even traumatizing, experiences. And reading about those experiences  definitely made me more careful throughout my own trip.

I expected to get robbed and lose all of my stuff, so much so that I opted for the more expensive World Nomads travel insurance, the Total Explorer instead of the Standard Policy (because it covers more). After reading what was necessary for a claim, I even took pictures of the serial numbers of all of my electronics (camera, laptop, kindle, iPhone) and emailed them to myself. I made sure that I had a digital copy of my passport, and left an external hard drive with a backup of my laptop at my friend’s house. I was ready to hand it all over to some rebels who for sure would rob me on a bus ride through the mountains in which they were hiding out.

Spoiler alert: That never happened. I traveled through Colombia for ten weeks, visited big cities like Bogotá and Medellin, the sketchy border triangle of Peru, Colombia and Brazil in the Amazon, and the coffee region, where my friend’s friend had been robbed a few months before I got there.

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Ville de Leyva, hands down the place I felt the safest in all of Colombia.

Did I Feel Safe?

Yes. I was a nervous wreck at first, but I relaxed quickly. It definitely helped that I had a companion for the first two weeks, and that every solo female traveler that crossed my path who I bombarded with questions about incidents assured me that they felt completely safe. No incidents whatsoever.

That helped ease my mind before I continued my trip on my own. After a 14-day trip almost without any incidents (I explain the ‘almost’ later on) through Cartagena, Santa Marta, Minca and Palomino with my friend, I set off on a four day trek through the jungle, which has become so popular in recent years that not just one group of hikers heads out into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to discover the ‘Lost City’, but groups from four or five different trekking companies, accounting for 50 to 60 people on the trail every day! Sure, that’s still far from the numbers of the well-worn Inca Trail but the ever expanding campsites showed just how much tourism has grown in recent years.

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The things I was most scared of most in Colombia: Being attacked by one of these.

Kidnappings in Colombia?

To show you how much safer Colombia has become: on that very trek, eight hikers were kidnapped by ELN rebels (Ejército de Liberación Nacional), a left-wing guerilla group, in 2005. Our guide’s tales of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, another left-wing guerilla group) coming to his family’s property and claiming it, forcing them to support them or they’d be shot, seemed like they came from another century, but these tales represented  their harsh reality and had happened only a few years ago. And now I was walking through the jungle there, sometimes all by myself for long stretches, but I never feared some rebels would jump out of the bushes to kidnap me.dani ciudad perdida hikeAs far as kidnappings go, they don’t seem to occur in touristy areas, if at all, now that the FARC and the Colombian government came to a peace agreement. Kidnappings have decreased drastically over the course of fifteen years in Colombia: while in 2000, over 3,500 people were kidnapped, the number had dropped to 213 in 2015 and continues to decline. And let’s take a closer look at the recent kidnappings of foreigners that made international news: a Norwegian guy was kidnapped by guerillas in 2013 when he was crossing the Darian Gap on foot (which is insane!), and an American was kidnapped by the FARC in the same year while trekking in the rain forest near the Ecuadorian border – against the advice of Colombian police and others, so go figure. As long as you are staying on the tourist trail, you probably  won’t find yourself face-to-face with the few guerilla groups that are still operating.

Traveling on Public Buses

You may encounter guerilla groups while on a public bus, however, or at least armed robbers, like Anne and Jaimee who were just six days into their trip when their bus was hijacked by six gun-wielding passengers who took everything from them, consequently not only ruining their trip but also leaving them deeply traumatized. I had emailed Anne prior to my trip and took her advice to avoid public buses and take planes whenever possible instead (luckily domestic flights are very cheap!). Anne also sent me the link to her guesthouse in Salento which has some information on bus robberies in that area on their website, stating that ‘in the past couple of months the last bus from Armenia to Salento has been held up twice by armed robbers.’ Even though the information is older, it is obviously still relevant and worth a read for the safety precautions they mention.

I ended up taking the bus from Pereira, where I had flown into, to nearby Salento, one of Colombia’s most charming and most touristy little towns. I decided, however, to stay in Pereira for a night instead of taking the bus in the evening since my flight got in after dark. I am usually okay with long bus rides, but after hearing about Anne’s experience I flew from Santa Marta to Bogota instead of taking the bus, and the few buses I took were only during the day, and I wore a T-shirt with a secret pocket (see below in safety tips). I survived all bus rides I took just fine and was more scared to be killed by the crazy driving of the drivers (which seems to be a problem in all of South America) than by hijackers. But again – this is situational, and Anne and Jaimee who were in the same spot a few months earlier were not as lucky as I was.

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The Valle De Cocora near Salento – I am glad I went because it is so beautiful

I would recommend avoiding night buses and opt for flights whenever possible.

As for inner-city buses: I took them several times and I never encountered any issues, but I read that pickpocketing on buses in Bogota is not uncommon, so be vigilant if you take the bus and always keep your backpack with you, ideally on your lap, never in the overhead compartment or under the seat.

Is Bogota Safe?

Bogota was the city where I was the most worried about my safety because the city doesn’t have a great reputation. I really wanted to stay in La Candelaria, the historic center, but had heard that this was the most dangerous part of the city, with muggings and robberies even in broad  daylight. The Lonely Planet painted such a black picture of the city that I even contemplated skipping Bogota entirely. You can read their take on Dangers in Bogota here.

Eventually, I decided not to skip Bogota but to stay in the Chapinero neighborhood for the first couple of days, right in the heart of Bogota’s financial center, where you find more upscale hotels and where global corporations have their offices – in short: a safer area of town. To check out La Candelaria, I hopped in a cab (more on cabs in a minute) and went there during the day to see how safe I felt about it and if I wanted to move into a hostel over there.Bogota la candelaria streetWhen I arrived in La Candelaria, I was a bit nervous, and probably a bit paranoid, and the presence of heavily armed police officers throughout the neighborhood didn’t help in calming me down. However, I loved the neighborhood with its colorful street art and Spanish colonial houses and moved over there a few days later. I thought to myself that the police presence was probably a good thing to keep the bad guys out of sight (ironically, the police men all disappeared as soon as it got dark though).

While my paranoia/fear never completely  faded, I felt safe enough to carry my laptop with me during the day, my dSLR camera, and my phone. However, at no time did I flash any of these items, and when I took photos I made sure to put my camera or phone back in my bag immediately after I took the shot. I ended up staying much longer in Bogota than expected and was glad that I didn’t let the Lonely Planet or other travelers’ experience scare me off visiting Colombia’s capital.

Two of the articles that made me super cautious about La Candelaria was this one by Britany:

Robbed in Bogota, and this one: Getting Mugged At Knifepoint In Bogota.

In it, Megan writes:

One of the main problems with traveling in a place like Colombia is the mixed information that you’ll get. Some people say it’s perfectly safe and that they’ve never had any problems. Other people have endless horror stories. The thing they often have in common? They were doing the same things in the same places and conducting themselves in the same way.

And I couldn’t agree more with this – I had heard so many horror stories about Bogota and especially La Candelaria, and yet, I was completely fine. I was walking around the deserted streets of La Candelaria at 2am all by myself, and during the day, I walked with my laptop in my bag to work in coffee shops, and not just once, but almost every day (I spent well over a week in Bogota). I hiked in the Valle De Cocora without any incidents but other people were robbed on that very same hike. I felt extremely safe in Medellin, especially in the upscale Poblado neighborhood, but only a few months before I visited, an American tourist was killed there when he refused to give up his valuables in a robbery. Like I said, it is all situational. The main thing to know about Colombia is: there is a chance that something could happen to you. And that’s the difference to a country like Japan, for example, where safety isn’t something travelers have to be concerned about.bogota cathedral1

Being Drugged

Another reason why I was so afraid of spending time in Bogota was because somebody had told me about a drug named Scopolamine (also known as Devil’s Breath and Burundanga) which is a powder that is usually blown off a piece of paper into a victim’s face, with criminals would walk up to tourists with a map in their hand pretending to wanting to ask for help. But instead, they are drugging you.

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Always keep an eye on your drink!

Scopolamine makes victims completely lose control over their own thinking – they can be talked into walking to an ATM and withdraw money, or hand over their credit cards complete with PIN numbers, and so on. And the worst part: victims usually don’t even remember anything of what happened to them! Another way to get drugged with Scopolamine is by putting it in your drink, so not only was I on the lookout for people with a piece of paper in their hands, but I always made sure I didn’t leave my drink out of sight when I went out at night.

I wanted to mention this here because I had never even heard of this drug but reading up on it prior to my trip made me be more aware of my surroundings and apparently cases of Scopolamine druggings  went up by 133% in Medellin in 2015 – so this is definitely something to be aware of. Especially female travelers , because other than theft, rape is the most common thing the drug is used for.

WorldNomads has a good article on how to avoid getting drugged in Colombia: How to avoid getting drugged in Colombia – Stay safe!

Are Taxis Safe?

My very last stop in Colombia was Medellin, where I was staying with some friends. When they found out that I didn’t use UBER, but normal taxis, they freaked out. “This isn’t safe!!”, I was told, and then I was schooled on taxi kidnappings and robberies in which cab drivers bring you to a deserted area of town to rid you of all your belongings. Hearing that freaked me out, but then, looking back at ten weeks of me waving down cabs, I realized that not once did I feel unsafe in a taxi. I guess it helped that I speak Spanish and was always able to converse with the driver. In Bogota, when I took a cab from the airport to the hotel, the driver even ran after me to bring my iPhone to the reception, which had fallen out of my pocket in the cab.

Were There Sketchy Moments During my Time in Colombia?  

I’m not going to sugarcoat my experience in Colombia – while nothing bad happened to me and I felt safe there, even when I was by myself, there were three sketchy moments I should mention.

  1. Burglary in Palomino

For one, my beach bungalow in Palomino was burgled. I am still so grateful that I didn’t lose anything, because that happened only a few days into my trip and could have easily ended it right then and there.

It happened during the day, and the burglar(s) must have jumped on the chance of an unlocked window (even though my friend and I were sure that we had closed them), climbed in through the window and started to look through all of our belongings. When we returned from the beach later that day, we came back to find our room looking like something had exploded in there: all of our stuff was strewn across the floor.

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The break-in aftermath

Someone had emptied out little cosmetic bags and rummaged through all of our luggage. Everything except for the main compartment of my backpack, which I had locked up with a little padlock (mind you, the key for the lock was hidden in the room!). A real thief would’ve just sliced the bag open, or even taken it, which is why I think it was someone who simply saw an opportunity and got interrupted at some point, and so he/they left without our passports, cash, credit cards, laptops and other valuables. I know: I am incredibly lucky!

Even though that happened at the beginning of the trip, it didn’t change my mind about how safe I generally felt. Beach bungalow break-ins happen everywhere in the world, not only in Colombia. And we were assured that the sleepy beach village of Palomino was one of the safest places in the country, which I fully believed.

  1. Heeding a Warning in Medellin

The only time I felt a little tense about my surroundings was in Medellin. I had explored the city on my own and was ready to head back to my friends’ house. I typed the address into Google maps on my phone and followed the directions. Halfway, I was stopped by a guy on a pedestrian bridge who was walking in the direction I just came from. “What are you doing here?”, he asked me in Spanish. I replied that I was on my way home to where I was staying. “You really shouldn’t be here”, he said. “Why?”, I asked, since the area seemed perfectly fine to me. “It’s not safe”, he answered, and I immediately turned around with him, taking a longer way home. Even though that path seemed fine to me, I wasn’t going to risk it after being warned by a local.

medellin botero sculpture15
20 years ago, Medellin was everything but safe. 30 people were killed and more than 200 wounded when a bomb, placed in the base of this Botero sculpture, exploded. One of only many attacks during the time when Medellin was controlled by the Cali drug cartel.

And that’s my main advice: Listen to locals and follow your instinct. My instinct in that moment was to go back. In other towns I visited, like Pereira, a city I barely knew anything about, I asked the hostel staff if it was fine to walk around by myself at night, and whenever someone told me to take a cab, that’s what I did.

  1. Guerrillas in Leticia

Leticia is a small town in the Amazon, right on the border to Peru and Brazil. I wouldn’t have thought of it as unsafe, but then I happened to come across this short paragraph on safety in my Lonely Planet:

‘A longstanding military presence in the region tries to keep Leticia/Tabatinga and the surrounding region safe, but there are issues. Former narcotraffickers, guerrillas, paramilitaries and raspachines (coca-plant harvesters) who have been re-inserted into mainstream society and now live on the outskirts of Leticia and Puerto Nariño run poker houses, dubious bars and the like around the city. Don’t wander outside these urban areas on your own at night, especially on Leticia’s infamous ‘Los Kilometros’ road.’

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Quaint little Leticia

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a border town in a region known for its drug production and trafficking is sketchy, but I never felt unsafe walking around there – until one day when my travel companion and I were on our way back to the hostel from dinner.

A motorbike with two guys passed us, the one in the back carrying a large rifle or some kind of machine gun. They looked at us, then turned around and drove back towards us. My heart dropped. I felt how my friend also stiffened up and pulled me behind a little wall. I was so scared that I started shaking, and all I could hear was my heart beating in my chest. I was sure we were going to get shot. However, they did not come back for us. I am mentioning it because this was by far the scariest moment I had in all of my time in Colombia (and the only time that I saw someone I’d identify as a guerilla).

Conclusion

As you can see, even though nothing happened to me personally and I didn’t necessarily feel unsafe, I never felt as carefree in Colombia as I did in Chile for example, where I never worried about being robbed or drugged. But in Colombia, where I had heard just too many negative stories, I never let my guard down. It can get quite exhausting to always be ‘on alert’, but being with another person helped me a lot to relax, which is why I tried to travel with someone as often as possible.

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Other serious dangers in Colombia: Very poisonous snakes, who are carnivores.

I had such an amazing time in Colombia that I wouldn’t think twice about recommending it as a travel destination to other independent travelers, including female solo travelers (I know that others will disagree here). Just don’t be stupid. Take precautions and be aware of possible threats to your safety, and inform yourself before you visit Colombia, for example with this article and the following tips for staying safe in Colombia:

My Tips for Staying Safe in Colombia

Dar Papaya: Do (not) give papaya

This is a very common saying in Colombia, and while it sounds strange when you translate it literally: give papaya, it means making yourself an easy target, setting yourself up to have something taken from you. Basically: if you flash jewelry or a fancy phone, it is your own fault when somebody tries to take it from you. Don’t ever flash your money or valuables.

dani and sloth
This is exactly what you SHOULDN’T do: flash both your iPhone and your expensive camera. But hey.. THERE WAS A SLOTH!!

Don’t carry any valuables

On that note, try to have as few valuable items on you as possible. I would only ever take my credit card with me when I was planning on taking out cash, and I had only as much cash on me as I was planning to spend. I rarely had more than $20 on me – unless I was traveling to a new city and had everything I owned on me. For which:

Be pickpocket-proof

With that I don’t necessarily mean wearing pickpocket-proof underwear (even though I wore my Clever Travel Companion T-Shirt with an invisible, hidden pocket every time I was traveling from one city to another), but just keeping your wallet and phone in a safe place where it can’t be reached easily. If you keep it in the pocket of your jacket, make sure you zip it up, if you carry a wallet, make sure it can’t be taken out of your bag or pocket easily. I usually just carried a bit of cash in my jeans pocket which are almost impossible to get into, especially without me noticing.clever travel companion tshirtBe prepared for the worst case scenario

And should the worst case scenario happen to you, be prepared. Email yourself a digital copy of your passport before you leave on your trip, and most importantly: invest in travel insurance. I use World Nomads, and as I mentioned before, I took down all the serial numbers of my electronics to make sure I’d get reimbursed for them in the case of theft. Read the small print of the travel insurance you are buying to find out what you need to make a claim. And most importantly: Make sure the travel insurance of your choice covers Colombia! Some travel insurances don’t cover countries for which a government travel warning is issued. Also know the numbers to call in case you have to report a stolen credit card and write down your credit card information somewhere.

Use only safe ATMs

I only ever took out money at ATMs in proper banks, not at ATMs in the street. I tried to always have someone with me, and if I was by myself, I was monitoring my surroundings for sketchy people extra carefully.

Trust your instincts

If something feels off to you, get out of the situation. That goes for a dodgy taxi ride, questionable travel buddies, or anything else that sets the alarm bells off in your head.palomino beach daniUse UBER or another taxi app

If you’re feeling uneasy about taking regular taxis, download UBER (iOS/Android) or one of the other two popular taxi apps EasyTaxi and Tappsi (download for iOS/download for Android). EasyTaxi (download for iOS/download for Android) is more prevalent than UBER in Colombia, but Medellin and Bogota both have UBER. It is affordable and worth the few extra dollars to have peace of mind, knowing your driver is registered with the app, so they will be less inclined to bring you to the outskirts of town and leave you there, driving off with your belongings.

Team up with other travelers

Team up with other travelers whenever possible. It is always easier to keep an eye on your belongings when there are  two pairs of eyes instead of just one. It is also safer to go out at night in a group, making you a less easy target than if you were walking around all by yourself.bogota friends

Inform yourself

I made it a habit to always read the safety section in the Lonely Planet before I arrived at a new destination to inform myself of the safety concerns in that area,  and I always read the entire WikiTravel for a place I visit, not just because it has generally very useful and comprehensive information, but the ‘Stay Safe’ section is usually more up-to-date than the one in a travel guide. I also googled ‘robbed in Bogota’ or ‘robbed in Salento’ for example, before I got there, because I knew it’d bring up Tripadvisor forum discussions or blog posts for these keywords, giving me the chance to find out if there had been any incidents lately.

Further reading:

…and finally:

My 13 favorite travel moments from Colombia

…to remember why it is worth it to travel to Colombia!

Have you been to Colombia? Did you feel safe or did you have any unpleasant experiences? Share in the comments below….

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Caribbean Vibes and a Giant Scare in Palomino, Colombia

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I admit that until the very minute we hopped on the bus to Palomino, we weren’t sure if we had made the right decision to go there, and if we would actually enjoy the small beach town. We had read in travel guides and blogs that the current was too strong to allow for swimming in the ocean, and our hostel of choice, the Dreamer Hostel, was fully booked because we had waited too long to make a reservation.palomino pelicansHowever, when I saw photos of snow-capped mountains just behind a palm-fringed, white-sand beach, it looked too magical to skip.Colombia PalominoSo we ended up booking a bungalow right by the beach – pricey, compared to the Dreamer, but we came here for the beach after all, so we wanted to be as close to the beach as possible. And that was the only good thing about the place: that it was a beachfront property.palomino bungalows colombiaI eagerly tried to see the snow-capped peak I had seen in pictures as soon as we arrived, but I wasn’t lucky – the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s highest coastal mountain range, never showed.palomino palm treeThe true showstopper in Palomino isn’t the mountains anyway, but the tropical beach, which was postcard-perfect, begging to be put on the cover of a glossy travel magazine. And the best part? We felt as if we were the only people around – what a difference to Tayrona or Bahia Concha which both had been crowded.palomino palm treesWhen we went for a long stroll along the beach we passed a handful of restaurants, a volleyball net, and a few hotels – that’s all there was! And those hotels? They were hidden so well behind the palm trees that they were barely visible. Had there not been the occasional beach loungers, it would have felt as if there were no buildings at all, only the deserted white sand beach, which went on for as far as the eye could see.dani palomino beachIt was as if we had stumbled upon a secluded Caribbean paradise, and it reminded me of Little Corn Island in the sense that it was yet to be discovered, even though it had everything it takes to be a popular vacation spot (plus: with the current exchange rate between US Dollar and Colombian Pesos, it is super cheap!).dani palomino swingThe guidebooks hadn’t lied though: the water was rough, and the waves scarily high. Almost no one was in the water, and I only took a few dips in the ocean to cool off. Palomino might not be great for swimming, but it is a perfect place to get away from it all and to enjoy solitude and tranquility in a paradise-like setting.Dani caught by wavesAs we walked back towards the village, I was surprised to see several signs for yoga and even a vegetarian restaurant, La Sirena, where we had lunch later on. Even in this tiny beach town far off the tourist path you could pursue a holistic lifestyle. I guess that also means that the secret is out and Palomino is expecting to see an increase in tourists.
palomino colombiaA few years ago, I learned, there were only a couple of guesthouses and a few places where you could rent a hammock on the beach, now there were several eco-lodges and fancier hotels, but still only about two dozen, most of them further away from the core of the village.palomino dani wavesUpon returning to our cabaña, we had a surprise waiting for us: all of our belongings were strewn across the floor, everything had been pulled out of pockets, little bags, compartments of our backpacks and small daypacks. Somebody had broken into our bungalow. My heart dropped when I saw the mess: all of our valuables – credit cards, laptops, passports, camera gear and our Kindles – were in my backpack. I saw the contents of the bottom compartment of my backpack all over the tiled floor, but then I saw that the main compartment was still locked.

dani beach time palomino
I had no idea somebody was trying to steal all my stuff while I was blissfully reading on the beach

I couldn’t believe how lucky we were. Thank God I was carrying a small padlock with me to lock up my backpack – and that I had actually used it! Someone must have interrupted whoever had made their way into the bungalow, because it seemed like they’d left in a hurry. Our electronic chargers had been compiled on the bed but weren’t taken. All that was missing was an emergency $20 hidden in a small cosmetics bag. But another $80 in cash, also hidden in a small bag, wasn’t found, even though the thief had searched that bag.palomino strong wavesDespite the fact that our losses were minimal, I was shaken up. Just thinking about how differently this could’ve ended (and ended our trip!) made me feel sick to my stomach. I needed a drink.

Palomino JungleInstead of a drink, we opted for a late afternoon river tubing session. Because the current is so strong in Palomino, the popular alternative to swimming in the ocean is slowly floating down the river that eventually flows into the ocean.dani tubingArmed with two giant tires, we hopped on the back of two moto taxis (the only way to get around Palomino) and were dropped off at a dirt path in the forest shortly after. Little did we know that we had to climb a mountain first – it was a 25-minute walk to the river, up a steep and slippery dirt path, and then back down the hill on the other side. By the time we had made it to the river, we were covered in sweat and ready to get into the water.palomino tubingOnce we started floating, the stress from the bungalow break-in was quickly forgotten – the scenery was absolutely stunning! We couldn’t help but relax while we were slowly moving down the river, marveling at the jungle forests around us and listening to the sounds of the jungle.palomino river tubingUnfortunately we miscalculated how long it would take us to get down to the ocean, or even to the bridge we werepalomino tubing told to get off at should it get too dark. Suddenly, we were floating down the river in complete darkness, and the only light we had was the moon shining bright in the sky. A little hysteria panic ensued when we had to walk through the river in the pitch black darkness (river monsters are a real thing, no?) to find the path that would lead us back to the main road. The nerve-wrecking ending of our tubing adventure was something we could have done without on this already tumultuous day, but it didn’t take away from the amazing experience of our afternoon on the river.

I highly recommend tubing when you go to Palomino – that alone made the trip there worth it for us. A friend of mine who had been to Palomino a few months prior had told me she loved it so much that she ended up spending a whole week there, and while that would’ve probably been too long for me, I could see how she got sucked into the relaxed lifestyle of morning yoga, a reading session in a hammock, fresh fruit juices for lunch (they serve them in one liter buckets at the Dreamer Hostel!), and lazy afternoons by the pool before the obligatory sunset beers on the beach.palomino sunset

Practical Information

How to get to Palomino

Marsol offers a direct shuttle service from Cartagena (COP75,000 /US$26). If you don’t want to walk all the way to their office (quite far from the historic center), most hostels can book a ticket for you. If you take local buses you pay considerably less but you’ll have to change buses in Baranquilla and Santa Marta.

We took a local bus from Santa Marta which was COP10,000 (US$3.40) per person, and it took just under two hours to get there.

The buses let passengers out on the main road and from there it is either a twenty minute walk down to the beach or a five minute ride on a moto taxi (the fixed fee for that is COP3,000 /US$1).palomino beach oceanWhere to stay

The Dreamer Hostel – We spent the evening there even though we didn’t stay there, and it so made me wish we hadn’t waited that long to book our accommodation. It is right by the beach, has a great pool and good wifi.

The Tiki Hut Hostel was the other hostel in Palomino that came highly recommended to us.

If those two happen to be fully booked, like it was the case for me, check out a full listing of available hostels, hotels and guesthouses in Palomino on Booking.com

A brand new addition to Palomino’s hostels is the Italian-run Primaluna hostel which has a swimming pool, authentic Italian pizza and great reviews.palomino coconut

Cash only

There are no ATMs in the village, so bring enough cash.

River Tubing

palomino tubingRiver tubing is COP20,000 /US$6.80 per person (for as long as you like, so it makes the most sense to rent the tires in the morning). You might find cheaper tire rentals on the main road of Palomino, away from the beach. It takes about 1.5 hours from the starting point in the jungle down to the ocean.

Eating Out  

Most restaurants are located on the main road, and not on the beach, and I found every meal I had in one of the beach restaurants mediocre – except for my meal at the La Sirena vegetarian restaurant.

Safety

Despite having my bungalow broken into, I wouldn’t say Palomino is more unsafe than other places in Colombia. It seemed more like somebody had seized an opportunity, this wasn’t an organized crime or even an experienced thief.palomino beach colombia

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Chasing waterfalls in Minca, Colombia

minca-marinka-waterfalls-dani

Minca wasn’t in my original travel plans for Colombia, but as we were leaving Cartagena for Santa Marta, one of my Instagram followers remarked that I had to visit Minca. I had never even heard of Minca but a quick Google search revealed that it was a small mountain village close to Santa Marta. The pictures looked lovely, travelers were talking about waterfall hikes, good vegetarian food, local coffee farms, and a giant hammock with mountain views – that’s all we needed to hear to convince us to make the detour. Plus: Cooler temperatures would be welcome after Santa Marta, which seemed to be even hotter and more humid than Cartagena.Colombia MincaThe ride to Minca was quick – within an hour of driving up a winding mountain road we found ourselves in the village, and within another hour, we had explored it entirely – yes, that’s how small it is.

santa marta views from minca
Views of Santa Marta from Minca

The chillier weather that had been mentioned was an illusion: it was still 86℉! We did the only sensible thing: we grabbed our swimsuits and started the hike to the first of two waterfalls I wanted to visit, both of which were within walking distance of the village (but in different directions).minca waterfallThe first waterfall, Pozo Azul, is a two-tiered waterfall an hour uphill on the mountain road that would later bring us to Finca Victoria, the largest coffee plantation in the region.

I had read that you could jump from the upper waterfall into the pool below, and that’s what I wanted to do… but… I didn’t. Once we got there, it wasn’t all that hot anymore and the water was freezing. There was no way that I was going to jump in there! Instead, I watched everybody else who dared to jump having fun in the waterfalls while befriending the local stray dogs.Minca WaterfallsOn the way back, we stopped at a local waterhole where they were selling local brews from the nearby Sierra Nevada brewery – an excellent way to finish the hike and to enjoy the mountain views.Minca Craft BeersThe next day, we headed off on what was going to be our biggest hike – I wanted to hike all the way up the mountain top to Casa Elemento, a hostel that is famous for its giant hammock and splendid mountain vistas. On the way there we were going to stop at the Marinka waterfalls. After an hour-long, sweaty hike, we finally arrived at the waterfalls and cooled off. Like in Pozo Azul, there are two pools there, but much less people (and no place to jump).Minca colombia marinka waterfallsAfter the refreshing break we decided that instead of walking up, it might be a better idea to hop on a moto taxi – there are no real taxis here, only motorbikes – and walk back down into town instead of walking uphill.dani giant hammock mincaAnd after a 25-minute ride up the hill, I was glad that we made this decision – Casa Elemento was much further than I had thought! Another traveler later told me that he had walked up there with his backpack – and that it took him three hours. We paid COP10,000 (around US$3.40) for a day pass which included a free drink, endless swinging in the hammocks, use of the pool and entry to the attached ‘Jungle Town’, where the hostel offers tree-top tours.Casa Elemento Minca ColombiaCasa Elemento sure isn’t lying when they say they have amazing mountain views – I could’ve spent all day in the giant hammock, and it was actually a bummer that we missed the sunset from up there.minca giant hammockThe hostel seemed to be a fantastic place to get away from it all: no wifi, nothing nearby, just nature, hammocks, and socializing with other travelers.

It took us three hours to get back to Minca, but it was definitely worth it, and the lovely dinner at the Lazy Cat (you’ll find yourself eating there often if you visit Minca, trust me) was well deserved.Minca Colombia Sierra NevadaWe had one more day in Minca, and we had one thing left to do: a visit to the Victoria coffee plantation. Both of us are coffee lovers, so this was going to be a highlight of our trip to Minca, and even though I’d already been to a coffee plantation in Guatemala, I didn’t find the tour we took boring. The over one hundred year old machines that are still used there are impressive, and seeing what a coffee picker makes per kilo was astonishing:minca coffee

  • 14 Kg – 5,000 COP (around US$1.70)
  • 28 kg – 10,000 COP (around US$3.40)
  • 48 kg – 20,000 COP (around US$6.80)

We were shown the entire process from the harvest of the coffee beans to fermentation, drying and finally the packing of the beans into giant sacks. Those are exported, sold for COP3,000 a kilo, which is about US$1 – so cheap!Colombia Finca La Victoria MincaOur guide reaffirmed what I had already experienced in Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala: the good stuff goes overseas, and what’s left in the country leaves a lot to be desired. The only decent coffee I had found in Colombia so far was the one at the Juan Valdez stores, Colombia’s answer to Starbucks, and a little coffee shop in Cartagena, San Alberto.

finca victoria coffee plantation
All this land belongs to La Finca Victoria. It’s hard to see but most of it are coffee plants

Our backpacks heavy with coffee beans, we left Minca with big smiles on our faces to return to sea level: it was time for more beaches. This unplanned detour didn’t just turn out to be well worth it, it also became one of the highlights of my time in Colombia.minca colombia flower

Practical Information

Important:

In 2016 during my visit there was no ATM in Minca, so bring enough cash.

How to get there

Shared taxis leave from Santa Marta as soon as they are full and cost COP8,000 (US$2.70)Colombia Minca1

Where to stay

Our first choice for accommodation, Casa Loma, a treehouse-style hostel with several rooms, was sadly fully booked (the room we wanted, El Mirador, was booked for the next four weeks!), so make sure you book a hostel in advance, especially when you travel between December and February.

If Casa Loma is fully booked, or you don’t want to deal with the steep climb up to the hostel with your bags, check out these hostels / B&Bs / hotels (all with excellent ratings):

And then there’s of course Casa Elemento high up in the mountains above Minca (around 30 mins on a moto taxi).

hummingbird minca colombia
The hotel we ended up staying at, La Casona, wasn’t anything special, but their bird watching terrace is fabulous

What to do in Minca

Walk to Marinka waterfalls:

Turn right after the bridge, walk past the church and then follow the road until you see the sign for ‘Marinka Waterfalls’. It takes about an hour. The local family who lives there charges COP3,000 (around US$1) admission per person.

Walk to Pozo Azul:

Cross the bridge and head straight up the hill. You’ll get to the turn-off (on the left) to the waterfalls after about 45 mins. Free admission.

You can take moto taxis to both, but make sure to negotiate a price before you get on the bike.dani minca waterfall

Hike up to Casa Elemento:

Or take a moto taxi for around COP10,000 /US$3.40)

Other hikes

There are other hikes, to Los Pinos or Paso del Mango or Cerro Kennedy for example, also high up in the mountains, for splendid views over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Ask in the hostel you’re staying for detailed information on the hikes.

Finca La Victoria Coffee Farm:

Moto taxi to the coffee farm and back (driver will wait): COP16,000 /US$5.50

Tour of the coffee farm, including one cup of coffee: COP10,000 /US$3.40

finca victoria fresh coffee

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Tayrona, Colombia: Where the Jungle Meets the Beach

tayrona-national-park-beach

I loved Cartagena, but phew, that city was hot! To escape the heat, we decided to head further east along the coast. We had heard glorious tales about breathtaking Caribbean beaches – exactly what we needed to cool off.tayrona national park beach1One place that came up over and over again in travel guides and on blogs was Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most popular national parks. The park stretches along the Caribbean coast and into the foothills of the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, covering 12,000 hectares of land and 3,000 hectares of sea.tayrona national park colombia rocksTayrona has several beaches, but is also famous for its wildlife and jungle hikes, including a full-day hike to El Pueblito, the ruins of a small historic village similar to the nearby ‘Lost City’ (which is the five day trek through the jungle that I set off on a few days later).tayrona national park bird1We hemmed and hawed about spending the night in the park – we thought that paying the entrance fee of COP39,500 would be worth it only if we spent a couple of days there. If you plan to spend the night, you don’t even need to bring your own tent – there are several camp grounds in the park where tents are already set up, all you need to do is bring a sarong, sunscreen, a change of clothes and toiletries and you’re good to go. There are even hammocks that you can rent, set up in rows of tens next to each other under a giant mosquito net.tayrona national park palm treesWhile that sounded easy enough, the stories of roaches and bugs (including bed bugs!) in some of the hammocks and tents, combined with very basic washing facilities, sounded less appealing. In the end, we decided to visit the park just on a day trip and to return at night to the comforts of our private room and the inviting swimming pool at our hostel in Santa Marta.tayrona national park tree trunkAfter seeing the campgrounds, where the tents were basking in the sun in 90+℉ heat all day, I was happy with that decision, but I can’t deny that it would have been a pretty amazing experience to wake up to the sound of the jungle as the sun rises in the morning, then heading straight from my hammock to the beach for a morning swim.tayrona national park campingAlthough – that morning swim can’t be enjoyed everywhere – I was surprised to see that most of the long, wide sand beaches had red flags and insanely intense waves – the current is too strong to even allow for a dip in the ocean. There were a couple of smaller beaches that were in little bays, protecting them from the open water, but because of the lack of ‘swimming beaches’, these were pretty crowded.tayrona national park oceanBut to get to these beaches, you first have to go on a jungle hike. Just before leaving for the park I found out that it is a one to two hour hike from the park entrance to the beaches. And the hike is pretty intense. I consider myself a seasoned hiker but even I got tired from the ups and downs of the trail, steps, rocky parts and sandy paths that we followed towards the beaches.dani tayrona national parkI was hoping that I’d be rewarded with wildlife spottings but not a single monkey showed itself, no armadillo crossed the path in front of us, not even birds peeked out of the woods. There are 56 endangered species in the National Park, however, almost all of them hidden deep within the jungle.tayrona national park birdSince we didn’t see any wildlife, our expectations for the beaches grew and grew as we marched through the jungle setting, hearing the ocean roar in the distance. Seeing the giant waves and red flags when we finally got there after nearly three hours (we stopped to take photos along the way and for a fruit shake at one of the camp grounds) was somewhat disappointing, but nonetheless I enjoyed the hike through the lush, tropical greenery.tayrona hikeBut I am also spoiled, having seen so many stunning beaches around the world, so others might be more impressed than I was. I think if you’re coming down from Central America, you will have seen similar scenery and nicer beaches in Costa Rica, but if this is your first encounter with tropical jungles, you’ll appreciate Tayrona.tayrona national park beach colombiaAs far as beaches go, I personally preferred Bahia Concha (Shell Bay). This beach also belongs to Tayrona National Park, but is located on its far western side, reached through a different entrance. We took a shared taxi from Santa Marta there which is the only way to reach Bahia Concha as there are no public buses, and whereas Tayrona was overrun by foreigners, this was much more of a local beach – we were almost the only foreigners, the rest were Colombian beach goers.Colombia Bahia Concha

How to Visit Tayrona National Park

If you’re staying in Santa Marta, you can take a bus to Tayrona for COP7,000 (US$2.40), which takes about an hour. At the entrance to the park, there are small minivans that bring you to the trail heads (COP3,000/around US$1). I recommend taking them or you’ll add an extra five kilometers to your hike.

If you’re only visiting for the day, make sure to get there early to make it worthwhile. Calculate around five hours of hiking time.

tayrona national park post hike feet
Pro tip: Flip flops might not be the ideal shoewear for this hike.

Note that May, June and September to November are the wettest times – if you are visiting Colombia’s Caribbean coast during those periods, you’re likely to encounter lots of rain and muddy trails. December to February are high season months – during this time, you might have trouble finding a free tent/hammock, so arrive early if you’re planning to spend the night, or bring your own tent.

Most (if not all) hostels in Santa Marta offer luggage storage for several days, so you don’t need to bring all of your stuff with you if you are planning to spend a few days in Tayrona.Colombia Tayrona National Park

For more information on Tayrona National Park, check out these posts which helped me plan my own trip:

tayrona national park colombia ocean

How To Visit To Bahia Concha

Take a taxi from Santa Marta, which costs about COP40,000-50,000 /US$14-17 (best to negotiate a price before you get in). Admission to the beach is COP5,000 per person. There are several smaller restaurants near the parking lot, but the waiters also bring food to the far end of the beach. As for drinks and ice cream: there are a bunch of vendors walking around with coolers, all reasonably priced (a beer was COP5,000 /US$1,70)

Colombia Bahia Concha Tayrona
Bahia Concha – highly recommended!
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Cartagena – The Perfect Introduction To Colombia

cartagena-colorful-houses-colombia

There were only a few things I knew about Colombia before I decided to start my South America trip there this year: I knew about Colombian coffee, drug lord Pablo Escobar (I had just started watching Narcos before I hopped on a plane to Colombia), I had heard tales about some jungle trail to a ‘lost city’ (which I would later find myself on, sweating profoundly for four days straight), and I knew of Cartagena.colorful houses in cartagenaIn my head, Cartagena was a picture-perfect port town filled with Spanish Colonial architecture, where sailors would arrive from their journeys around the Caribbean and beyond. They were spending their nights dancing in salsa bars with long-haired Colombian beauties while sipping ice cold mojitos.cartagena colorful houseWhen I arrived in Cartagena, it turned out that my romantic notions of Cartagena weren’t even that far off from what the city is in 2016. At the old-fashioned Cafe Havana (not a café, but a salsa bar), tanned, muscular North Americans (obviously sailors) were rubbing shoulders with Colombians, Argentines and Chileans (I was surprised by how many visitors of those two nations I kept meeting throughout Colombia), and the Cuban live band was so electrifying that it was hard not to move your feet.cartagena street art ladyThat’s how I had always thought I’d arrive in Cartagena, on a catamaran from Panama, which is how  almost all Latin America backpackers get from Central America to South America due to the almost impossible to cross Darien Gap. However, life had other plans for me, and while I made it all the way from Mexico to Panama on my first Latin America backpacking trip, I found myself on a plane to Europe instead of a catamaran to Colombia back in 2011.cartagena castilloThen somehow, it ended up taking me five more years to finally touch down in Colombia. While I didn’t arrive by boat, Cartagena was still my very first stop in Colombia, and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to this fascinating country, where even after two months of traversing it from the Caribbean to the coffee region and all the way down to the Amazon, I still felt like I only scratched the surface.cartagena colorful housesHot and Sticky Cartagena

The first thing I noticed when I walked down the stairway, exiting the plane and setting foot on the hot tarmac: the stuffy, humid air. The relentless heat and the unique smell of the Caribbean reminded me of Central America.
Cartagena De IndiasWatching colorful little houses, one after another, glide by out my window as the taxi brought us to our guesthouse, I thought to myself: this could be Costa Rica. Or Nicaragua. Or Panama. The resemblance of Panama grew even stronger when we, after putting down our bags, made our way into town and finally walked through the majestic clock tower in the centuries-old stone walls that still surround Cartagena’s Old Town.CartagenaOnce inside the Old City, we started wandering aimlessly and got lost in the maze of colorful streets almost instantly. Initially, I felt very much reminded of Panama City’s old town, Casco Viejo, and overall, Cartagena and Panama City aren’t that different: both sit right on the ocean, have a well-preserved historic Spanish Colonial section , but also a modern core with shiny new glass towers, condo high rises, and malls.cartagena city wallsA Dreamy Spanish Colonial City

However, even though I found myself comparing Cartagena to Casco Viejo a lot in the beginning, I quickly realized that it had its own unique charisma. There are the fruit ladies in their brightly colored silk dresses for example, who come out every morning and set up their stalls in the Old City, charging you $3 instead of $1 for fresh fruit if you want to take their picture.
cartagena fruit ladiesThen there are the well-preserved wooden balconies that are overflowing with Bougainvillea and other exotic flowers. And the echoing of the hooves of the horses that draw carriages with selfie-stick toting tourists through the narrow streets.cartagena colonial streetCartagena itself doesn’t have many tourist landmarks to offer, but for me the city itself was the main attraction: I didn’t need museums or fancy sights. Every day I would meander through the streets, always finding new ones to explore with even prettier doors and balconies than the one before. I’d marvel at the intricate door handles – shaped like fish, lizards, dogs, hands, lions… (and photograph about fifty different ones!), count the shades of yellow I’d see on the houses, sit in the leafy plazas with an iced coffee in my hand, people watching and just taking in Colombian life.
Cartagena Door KnockersI’d walk by the fruit vendors trying to decide which fruit I’d go for that day: Watermelon? Pineapple? Papaya? Or a Colombian fruit I’ve never tried before?cartagena fruitI loved my first few days in Cartagena so much that I ended up returning and instead of spending only a couple of more days there, extending my stay several times. ‘Pues… Voy a quedarme otra noche’, I would tell the receptionist every morning when I came down for breakfast, debating which coffee shop I’d make my office for a few hours.cartagena balconiesNot having the pressure of  ticking off a number of sights made my time in Cartagena so relaxing that I even found myself developing daily rituals, like a stop at the Abaco bookstore with its tiny cafe where I’d do some writing, a stop at the unassuming little San Alberto coffee shop where I found the best coffee in all of Cartagena, a quick affogato stop at some point during the day at Juan Valdez, Colombia’s most popular coffee chain (aka their version of Starbucks), sampling some Colombian street food and of course the nightly sunset spectacle, usually enjoyed  from Cafe Del Mar, perfectly located right on top of the city walls.Cartagena de Indias ColombiaI’d wander different parts of the city walls, so thick that there’s room for a broad pathway that runs along the top, which are the best preserved city walls in all of the Americas. You can actually walk the entire length of the wall (4 kilometers/2.5 miles), which reaches an impressive height of 26 feet (8 meters) and still has several baluartes (ramparts) and cannons which were used by the Spaniards to defend the city from attack.cartagena sunset strollThe views from the walls are stunning, especially over the ocean, and make sure to watch the sunset from up here at least once. If you don’t want to pay for overpriced drinks at Café Del Mar, get a cold $1 beer from one of the vendors that bring coolers filled with soda and beer cans up here every day.dani in cartagena colombiaGetsemani – a Street Art Lover’s Dream

I usually extended my wanderings to Getsemani, the up-and-coming neighborhood just across from the Old Town and only separated by a small park (more on that in a minute). The architecture here is similar to the historic center, and yet it feels like a different place. Not every house is renovated yet, and on many the facades are crumbling. You can feel that this used to be a rougher part of town.cartagena getsemani streetThe main difference to the picture-perfect Old Town? There’s street art everywhere. Most doors and walls are covered in murals, paintings, and meaningful messages, so it  makes sense that this is the part of town where a free street art tour is offered.
cartagena street art wallThis street art lover happily traipsed around the neighborhood one sweltering hot morning, following the young French tour guide who showed us the best murals and graffiti works, while telling us about the message of some of the political pieces and giving us more information on the artists. If you are into street art, I highly recommend taking this tour.getsemani street artBut also for non-street art enthusiasts, Getsemani is well worth a visit with plenty of lovely cafes and some of the best-rated restaurants in Cartagena. It is poorer than Cartagena’s historic center, and you can feel that tourists only started coming here recently.Getsemani CartagenaMost restaurants are new, and there are a number of boutique hotels in the freshly renovated buildings that aren’t more than a couple of years old.cartagena getsemaniOne of my most memorable evenings in Cartagena was having drinks on a tiny balcony at Bar Solar – the balcony just big enough to fit two chairs and a tiny table – overlooking Plaza de la Trinidad, the main square of the neighborhood. This little square facing a Spanish-colonial church is usually filled with old men gossiping and little boys kicking a football.cartagena getsemani boysA Sloth in the City Center!

And the little park I mentioned before that separates the Old City from Getsemani – Parque del Centenario? If you are a wildlife lover, you can’t miss it. When we returned from Tayrona National Park where we barely saw any wildlife, we stumbled upon the friendliest sloth I’ve ever met, and then made the park an essential daily stop afterwards, hoping we’d see this little guy again.
Sloth CartagenaWe weren’t lucky enough to have another encounter with Mr Sloth, but on subsequent stops in the park we saw monkeys, red squirrels and giant iguanas.cartagena park

Bocagrande – High-rises and City Beaches

A couple of times, I ventured outside of Getsemani and the Old Town to Bocagrande, the modern part of town where you find most of the luxury high-rises, fancy hotels and most importantly: Cartagena’s city beaches. I have to admit that I didn’t think these beaches were all that great, especially after visiting the beautiful Playa Blanca – which translates to White Beach (and which is aptly named for what it is!), but I loved the sunsets there, when lots of kitesurfers are out in the water, entertaining the crowds on the beach.cartagena bocagrande beacIf you are going for the best sunset views I suggest you walk all the way to the end of the Bocagrande peninsula, near the Hilton Hotel. There are also a couple of little restaurants where you can enjoy some seafood and cold drinks (Bar La Sirena, Brisas del Caribe and El Muelle).cartagena bocagrande sunsetGetting Out of Town

If you have enough time, get out of town. Cartagena is hot and humid year round, and the days I escaped the oppressive heat were welcomed opportunities to not be soaked in sweat within an hour of walking around.cartagena getsemani streetThe trip to Playa Blanca I mentioned above, 45 minutes west of Cartagena, was our first attempt to get to a beach outside of Cartagena. I had seen photos of it, and the turquoise water and powdery white sand was all it took to make me book a trip to the beach – it looked so much more appealing than Cartagena’s city beaches.playa blancaSadly, we happened to pick a day that was particularly stormy – stormy enough to cause a boat to flip over in a wave as it approached the beach – and the water got up much higher on the sand than it usually does.fresh fruit playa blancaIt was still a nice day, but I was glad we had decided to go only for a day trip instead of an overnight trip, because the wooden ramshackle thatched roof huts on the beach didn’t look particularly inviting to stay in (a girl who had spent the night in one of them told me later that it was as hot as a sauna and that the mosquitoes were nearly unbearable).dani playa blancaThe other day trip from Cartagena I took was to take a bath in a mud volcano, which turned out to be a pretty.. um, interesting, trip. I detailed the experience this article: Six Things Nobody Tells You About Colombia’s Totumo Mud Volcano.

cartagena mud volcanoLooking back at my entire trip, I have to say that Cartagena was not only the perfect introduction to Colombia, but it also ended up being my favorite city  in the country.cartagena de indias

Practical Information

How to get there

By plane: There are direct flights from four US cities (NYC, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta), and daily flights (indirect) from all major US cities. If you’re arriving from within Colombia and speak some Spanish, check out TiquetesBaratos.com – it’s a Spanish website with the best deals on airfares – I used it for every flight I booked in Colombia. Alternatively, use GoogleFlights or check the flights directly on VivaColombia and Avianca.

By bus: I’ve found bus travel in Colombia to be safe and comfortable. RapidoOchoa goes all the way to Medellin (12 hours), but check airfares before booking a bus ticket – advance ticket offers make flying often cheaper than bus travel.cartagena houseBy boat: The catamarans and boats sailing between Panama and Colombia were completely unregulated for years. However, recently there has been an effort to make the crossing more regulated, and the boats listed on BlueSailing.net have to meet certain standards and safety regulations. The price for the five day trip is around US$550.

Where to stay

I’d recommend staying in Getsemani or in the Old Town. The first time I visited Cartagena we stayed outside of the Old Town and we always had to catch a cab to get in and out of town which was time consuming and, frankly, annoying.Cartagena CollageI checked out several of the popular hostels but didn’t love any (Mamallena, Media Luna – too loud, too cramped) but I liked Hostal 1811 right in between Getsemani and the Old City. I stayed at Centro Hotel in the Old City, which couldn’t have been located more perfectly! It is housed in a restored Spanish Colonial building and right in the middle of the action . I saw some great deals for less than $50 on Booking.com for hotels like the Ibis right by the ocean, but there’s barely anything in that part of town and it’s too far to walk into the Old City.

Don’t miss

The Cartagena Street Art Tour I took is a must for street art fans! It leaves daily at 10am at Plaza De Trinidad.cartagena melon vendorThe amazing popsicles and ice creams at La Paleteria (local 2, Calle 35 #03-86). Flavors include all sorts of exotic Colombian fruits, and if you want to be decadent, you can get it dunked in chocolate. Heavenly!

Coffee snobs will love San Alberto (

For breakfast: El Gato Negro (and Caffe Lunatico (

And no matter what place you’re in: make sure to order a coconut lemonade. You’ll thank me later.coconut lemonade cartagenaFor vegetarian food: Los Girasoles (at the corner of Carrera 9 and Calle 37) has a super cheap set lunch menu (COP8,000)

La Mulata (Calle 37 between Carrera 9 and 10) is the best restaurant to try local Colombian food with a Caribbean twist. Their set lunch menu changes daily and is inexpensive (including a vegetarian option).

Day trips

I booked both my day trips through the Mamallena Hostel. The Mud Volcano was COP45,000 (US$15), and the trip to Playa Blanca was COP50,000 (US$17). Note: You can get to Playa Blanca, which is located on Isla Baru, by shuttle bus or by boat. There are half day and full day tours. I opted for the more comfortable bus ride, which takes about 45 minutes. If you opt for a boat tour, they usually include various stops and snorkeling – you can book them right at the boat pier, Muelle Turistico de la Bodeguita, just outside of the Old City (near the Clock Tower).cartagena dani colombia

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Peru On A Plate: Win A 9-day Culinary Trip To Peru For Two

machu picchu llama

Peru has been on my mind lately – a friend of mine asked me to join her on a trip to Peru in September, and had I not already committed to another trip, I would’ve jumped at the chance of joining her. My last trip to Peru ended abruptly, and I have been itching to return ever since I left Cuzco two and a half years ago. After finishing the 5-day Salkantay trek through the Andes to get to Machu Picchu, I’ve been keen on doing some other multi-day treks in Peru: the Cordillera Blanca mountain range around Huarez in the north of the country is supposed to be stunning, and I have no doubt that I’ll love Colca Canyon near Arequipa in the south.machu picchu from wayna picchu peruAnd then there is the mystical oasis town of Huacachina in the midst of mighty sand dunes, the Islas Ballestas which are a wildlife lover’s dream, but I’d also love to return to Cuzco to see more of the Inca ruins around there (Machu Picchu is just one of many more) and to delve more in the city’s amazing food scene, and then there’s Lima, where people also rave about the fantastic restaurant scene and trendy neighborhoods like San Isidro, Barranco or Miraflores.dani in cuscoPeru’s breathtakingly beautiful and diverse landscapes have gotten a lot of praise from travel publications and travelers for a long time now, but it is Peruvian food whose popularity has increased notably over the past few years – which is why I am excited to share the giveaway below, for a culinary trip to Peru (click here to enter if you can’t wait).

It seems like every major city around the globe has at least one Peruvian restaurant these day, and Britain’s Guardian newspaper even ran an article a while back about how Peruvian food has captured food lovers’ hearts in England, quoting gourmet chef Alain Ducasse: ‘Peru will become one of the leading actors on the global culinary scene.’

And he was right: Peruvian food is being gobbled up all over the globe, but of course it never tastes as amazing as it tastes in the country itself, with locally sourced fresh ingredients. I’ve already touched on the fabulous food scene in Cuzco when I told you why Cuzco is worth a trip, and the restaurant scene in Lima is booming even more. New restaurants are opening constantly, and not justpisco sour your ordinary type of restaurants, but sophisticated eateries that pride themselves in serving avant-garde dishes that leave diners impressed and longing for more. Lima’s most popular restaurant, Central, is regularly voted in the World’s Top 50 restaurants and a must-visit for any foodie, Gaston Acurio’s Astrid y Gaston was recently voted the best restaurant in all of South America (!), dessert lovers will be blown away at Malabar while Maras inside Lima’s brand new Westin Hotel will satisfy fine dining aficionados.

La Rosa Nautica is a Lima institution for Pisco Sours right by the ocean, and speaking of Pisco Sours: make sure to have them daily while you’re in Peru! This typical Peruvian cocktail is made of Pisco, a type of Brandy and Peru’s national drink, and sugar, egg whites, key lime juice.

So what makes Peruvian food so special, you ask? Thanks to Peru’s multicultural heritage, it is the perfect example for fusion cuisine: it combines pre-Inca and Inca influences with the cuisine of European, Asian and West-African immigrants who all brought their local dishes to Peru where they tried to recreate them with the ingredients they found in Peru. The country itself has an incredibly diverse range of foods – ranging from seafood heavy dishes on the coast to fruit-loaded plates in the Amazon and the Andes with potatoes, quinoa, corn and other crops. The different cuisines started to melt into each other and enrich one another, creating a unique and unrivaled culinary experience.quinoa salad at quinoaOn a trip to Peru, you’ll discover that each region has its own regional dishes, only few dishes are typical for the entire country. Culinary treasures you shouldn’t miss are alpaca steak, anticuchos (beef heart kebabs), cuy (guinea pig), lomo saltado (beef tips that are stir fried with onion, tomatoes and spices), and aji de gallina (chicken in a yellow pepper sauce with hard-boiled eggs and olives). Vegetarians will love the tasty sauce of Papas a la huancaina (potatoes in a creamy cheese sauce, a dish I could have eaten happily every day while I was in Peru!) and papa rellena – stuffed potatoes with vegetables, hard-boiled egg, spices and olives (also available  with meat).

I don’t know about you, but my mouth is watering right now – can you see why I am contemplating a return trip to Peru? And because Peruvian cuisine is so popular right now, I am excited about this LATAM sweepstakes, which will bring two lucky people on a 9-day culinary-focused trip to Peru, allowing them to discover Peru’s foodie scene from Lima, the Culinary Capital of South America to the magical, spiritual town of Cusco.cuzco plaza de armas3

The prize

A 9-day culinary-focused trip to Peru for 2, including:

  • Round-trip economy class flights for 2 people from anywhere in the continental United States, via LATAM Airlines
  • A 9-day trip between Lima, Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu. The trip includes visiting historical places and discovering local cuisine
  • Outfits from Toad&Co
  • A specially selected travel gear package from AFAR
  • $500 worth of travel gear from Tour Radar
  • Two 38L capacity carry-ons from Away
  • An intimate cocktail class exploring the history of Pisco in the Museo del Pisco in Cuzco

Click here to enter

peru on a plate

This promotion is brought to you by Promperu in cooperation with LATAM Airlines, Intrepid Travel, Toad&Co, Campo de Encanto Pisco, AFAR, TourRadar and Away Travel. 

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Six things nobody tells you about Colombia’s Totumo Mud Volcano

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If you find yourself in Cartagena, chances are that you’ll come across posters advertising the Totumo Mud Volcano. It’s sort of a rite of passage in Cartagena – if you come here, you’ll visit the volcano. So obviously, I signed up for a tour, not sure if it would be fun to take a mud bath with a bunch of strangers or not.. But what could I do? The Cartagena rite of passage, you know?totumo mud volcano colombiaAnd so I found myself in a mini van with 16 strangers on a sunny Sunday afternoon, ready to join the thousands before me, getting a mud bath in a volcano. Once you get there though, you quickly realize that this isn’t really a volcano filled with mud, it’s more like an upside down cone filled with mud. There were other things that nobody told me before I headed to Totumo, things I would have been glad to know before I go, which is why I’m going to share six of them with you right here:totumo mud volcano advertisement

1. You’ll get up close and personal with strangers

The mud volcano is actually closer to a puddle of mud than anything else, but picture a really really deep one, maybe even bottomless. If you take a tour to Totumo, like most people do, because it’s the cheapest and easiest way from Cartagena, you and 16 fellow mud enthusiasts will change into their swimsuits and head up the ‘volcano’. One by one, you’ll descend into the mud, slowly going down a ladder from the top, because the mud is much lower than shown in the pretty advertising posters around town. The mud used to reach up to the top of the ‘volcano’, and I’m not sure where it all went but you have to descend a good 20-16 feet (6-8 meters) now to get into the creamy, smelly mud. Considering that there are several guys selling bottles of this good ol’ mud at the bottom of the volcano, they might have sold all the mud that used to fill up the volcano, but who knows. Anyway, once you’re in the mud, be prepared to be groped by some Colombian dudes who are spending all day waiting inside this mud hole, eager to massage white people for a small fee (COP4,000).

One by one, the rest of your group will join you, or maybe you are one of the lucky ones last in line, looking down sceptically on everyone floating in the mud, wondering if you really want to get in there. But as the mud hole fills up, you’ll quickly befriend everybody else because you all realize what a ridiculous situation you are in, and the fuller it gets, the closer you’ll get to everyone. I felt quite a few hairy legs, boobs, feet and other body parts while I was floating around, thinking to myself how weird it was that I wasn’t sinking.

Pro Tip: Don’t be one of the fools who dip their entire head into the mud – there’s nothing to clean the mud off your eyes, and your hands are muddy, too!dani mud volcano totumo

2. You might not make it out alivetotumo mud volcano ladder

Once you decide that you’ve had enough, you will try to make your way out of the mud, which now that the mud hole is quite deep means relying on a rickety old wooden ladder, which is extremely slippery, thanks to all the mud monsters who’ve made their way out of there before you. So hold onto the rails for your dear life – literally! The story of how you conquered a mud volcano is a good one, but you have to make it out alive to live to tell it.

3. Prepare to be studied and stared at

totumo volcano daniOne thing that was interesting was that during my visit, several tour buses pulled up. At first I thought: wow, it’ll take forever for them all to take a mud bath, because the hole doesn’t fit a 48 people bus load, and a minivan load of 17 already takes a while to get in. But then I realized that they don’t come to take a mud bath. Instead, the Latinos walk up to the rim, stare at the gringos (including you!), snap your picture, and then walk down again after pointing at you and chatting about you with their fellow observers. They’re probably thinking: Why the hell do these gringos pay so much money to get into this stinky puddle, ruin their swimsuits in mud and get their hair all muddy? It feels particularly humiliating when you’re the one who is in the process of emerging from the mud, looking like a mud monster, and have a guy grope you to get some of the mud off you with his hands before you make your way down to the cleaning area… Yes, cleaning area.

4. Lots of groping!

Even though there is a huge lake next to the ‘volcano’, you can’t just jump in and wash the mud off – it is too shallow, and so the business-savvy Colombians who live around here set up a few giant jars near the lake which some guys keep filling with bucket loads of green water that they get out of the lake.

When you arrive there, a lady will grab you and start washing the mud off you with the help of a little bowl, in which she puts the green lake water from the big jar. These ladies are also not afraid to touch your private parts, and I’m sure the lady who washed me enjoyed my boobs, that’s how intensely she was rubbing them. They’re also not afraid to just take your swimsuit off if they feel there’s a lot of mud in there – my friend found herself without her bikini top within a couple of minutes of getting to the cleaning area, while another lady tried to get into her pants pull down her pants. That’s the moment when you get really close with all of your new mud friends – you’ll see much more of them than you expected.totumo mud volcano cleaning area

5. You’ll hand out tips right and left

Once you’re released, you go back to your belongings which are stored in a little storage room while you frolic in the mud, and suddenly, everyone who has helped you with something, appears and wants to be tipped. The guy who held your camera? $1. The lady who washed you? $1. The kid who watched your shoes? $1. The guy who massaged you? $1 (amazingly cheap massage, btw!). It was incredible how everyone who did something for you finds you again afterwards and makes sure he or she gets paid. In all the tipping mania I even tipped a kid who didn’t do anything other than holding his hand open! ‘But he didn’t do anything for us‘, my friend pointed out. ‘Oh.. Well he just made 50 cents by simply holding his hand open.totumo volcano dani

6. Mmmmh that smell…

When you’re finally back in the van, you’ll be able to enjoy the sulfur smell for another hour (at least, depending on traffic in Cartagena) because you think they cleaned you, but as a matter of fact you’ll still find mud in the most random body parts for days (if you’re one of the lucky ones whose accommodation in Cartagena has hot water: this is when you’ll truly appreciate it!)

In total, you’ll spend more time in the van than in the mud, by the way. Our van showed up half an hour late and then picked up other mud-hungry tourists around town for another hour (!) before we were finally on the way. The ride takes about an hour once you leave the city and an hour back. You’ll spend about an hour at the volcano, including cleaning, changing and a quick beer to get rid of the taste of mud in your mouth. There are two tours to the volcano every day; one leaves in the morning, and one leaves in the afternoon.totumo mud volcano colombia

Cost:

  • Tour to the volcano: COP45,000 (US$13.82)
  • Tip for guy who takes your pictures: COP4,000 (US$1.28)
  • Tip for woman who washes you: COP4,000 (US$1.28)
  • Tip for the guy who massages you: COP4,000 (US$1.28)
  • Tip for the kid who cleans your shoes: COP1,000-2,000 (US$0.37-0.64)
  • Beer (optional): COP3,000 (US$0.92)
  • Uniqueness of the experience: priceless.

*Exchange rate 2016
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Other practical information

Is there another way to get to the volcano?

Yes, you can take a cab to the volcano if you don’t like crowds. If you time it right (early afternoon would be best, I think, before the arrival of the afternoon group), you’ll most likely have the volcano all to yourself. It’s worth it if you are a group of four people; expect to pay at least COP200,000 for the cab, including return to Cartagena and the driver waiting for you while you splash around in the mud.

Are there different tour companies offering this tour?

At the moment, there’s only one tour company who runs this tour: Ruta ecologica. You can book the trip from most hotels and hostels and your offices around town. Pickup is usually where you book it. The price (COP45,000/ around US$14) includes transportation and a snack of fresh watermelon after the mud bath. The company has a little area with changing rooms, toilets and showers (don’t expect more than a trickle) right next to the volcano, complete with lockers where you can lock up your valuables.

Can you trust a random guide with your camera / phone?

This was my biggest concern, but their system works. Our group’s camera guy had thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment around his neck and in his fanny pack – all our phones, goPros, dSLRs and regular cameras. He’s going to snap 10 – 15 pictures of you. I took a few extra ones on my camera before we left. You have no chance but handing over your camera, by the way, if you want to eternalize the picture of your mud-covered self.totumo mud volcano colombia

What to bring / what not to bring

totumo mud volcanoOld bikini
Bring an old bikini – unless you have the chance to wash it the same day. The mud turned out to be pretty persistent and I’m glad I wasn’t wearing my best swimsuit.

Water & Sunscreen
The volcano itself doesn’t offer any shade, so make sure you bring sunscreen and water to stay hydrated. There are some kiosks and small roadside restaurants around the volcano where you can buy snacks and soft drinks or beers after the experience.

Money
Bring enough cash (and small change) to cover all your tips, but I wouldn’t bring too much cash or any valuables that you don’t need (credit cards, jewelry, etc).

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Where to stay in Bogota: The Hilton

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Confession: There are times when I feel a little bit intimated when visiting a new place. It doesn’t happen often, mainly in massive cities I’ve never been to, like Hong Kong or Mexico City. And I’ve found the best way to make myself feel more at ease and comfortable in a case like this is by staying in a nice place.

Bogota was one such place. When I planned my trip to Bogotá and pulled up a map of the city, I felt intimidated immediately. 7 million people – Bogotá is gigantic! And it doesn’t have the best reputation.hilton bogota glass decorationsSo staying in a nicer neighborhood for the first few days was important for me, and I was told that the Chapinero area would be perfect for me. It’s one of Bogotá’s nicer neighborhoods, with a lot of big international companies having their offices here, and plenty of fancy coffee shops, restaurants and bars.

When I found out that the Hilton had a hotel in this neighborhood, my decision was made. I often prefer small independent boutique hotels, but sometimes I opt for the familiarity of a brand I know and appreciate, and in this case I wanted to go with a brand I knew, I trusted and I liked.Hilton Hotel BogotaI knew that I made the right decision as soon as my taxi pulled up at the hotel and the concierge got my luggage out of the car quicker than I could pay my driver. Throughout my entire stay, I was amazed by the level of outstanding customer service at the hotel. And even though I arrived before 2pm, I could check into my room without any problems and take a refreshing shower after my flight.

The spacious, glass-walled shower with a powerful rain showerhead might have been my favorite thing about my room, but then there were also the splendid views from the oversized windows that I couldn’t get enough of, and my uber-comfortable king size bed. It was hard not to feel at ease here!Hilton Hotel Bogota RoomSince I was a little hungry, I decided to go out and find something to eat and to check out the neighborhood at the same time. I could’ve just ordered something from the extensive in-room menu which I found very reasonably priced and which had several options for vegetarians, but I wanted to get a feel for the neighborhood before going out at night. To my delight, there were several restaurants, coffee shops and convenience stores within a couple of blocks of the hotel, and after picking up a salad at a health food store, I couldn’t help but popping into Devotion, the coffee shop on the ground floor of the Hilton. One of my favorite coffee shops in Brooklyn is named Devotion, and I was ecstatic when I found out that it was actually the New York branch of this very coffee shop! The coffee was amazing, but I didn’t have any doubt that it wouldn’t be anything less than terrific, and I loved the contemporary stylish design of the coffee shop so much that I ended up bringing my laptop here to do some work. For coffee lovers, Devotion is a must-visit – 17 different types of grains are offered here, and coffee aficionados can choose between pour overs, espresso drinks, sifón or French press coffee, and there is a Kyoto Cold Slow Dripper for tasty cold brews.Hilton hotel Bogota DevocionSpeaking of contemporary and stylish – that’s how I felt about the Hilton in general, I loved the modern look of the lobby and the artsy design features throughout the building. One evening when I left for a night out, there was even a red carpet event in the hotel’s Levels bar, which was still going strong when I returned – the Hilton Bogotá seemed to be a happening place at weekends, but of course you wouldn’t notice any of this in the quiet rooms above. Even though the hotel sits right on the busy Carrera 7, I never heard any street noise through the double glass windows – in fact I had some of the best nights’ sleep here that I had in all of Colombia!Hilton Hotel BogotaAfter checking out the amazing breakfast buffet the next morning, which was one of the best and varied breakfasts I’ve seen in all of Latin America (not exaggerating here!), I felt compelled to visit the gym, which turned out to be much bigger than expected. A pet peeve of mine is a hotel advertising a gym and then only offering a tiny room crammed with machines – but the Hilton knows how to do it right. A spacious, bright gym equipped with top-notch workout machines and equipment. Especially in a city like Bogotá that isn’t great for running because of congestion (and its altitude! Let’s not forget that Bogotá sits at an altitude of 8,612 feet.) I really appreciate a gym to work out in.hilton hotel Bogota breakfastThe gym opens up right to a large outdoor pool, by the way, and since Bogotá never gets cruelly hot, you’ll be delighted to hear that the water is heated. And during my stay it was actually hot enough to make me want to lounge by the pool for a couple of hours.Hilton Hotel Bogota Gym and poolThe highlight of my weekend at the Hilton was without a doubt the scrumptious Sunday brunch at La Ventana Restaurant. This is not your ordinary hotel brunch – instead, you have world class chefs (under Executive Chef Nicolas Piatti) cooking up delicious dishes that range from fresh fish to homemade pasta, prepared right in front of you by a chef who knows what it takes to make pasta that tastes as if it came straight out of an Italian mama’s kitchen.Bogota Hilton HotelThe generous brunch buffet, which follows the farm-to-table concept and focuses on using fresh local produce, was filled with more food than I could possibly try: exotic Colombian fruit, freshly baked bread, a cheese selection and salads, made-to-order egg dishes and waffles, to name just a few, and my favorite section: the desert buffet, which was out of this world! The dessert chef is one of the most acclaimed chefs in his field, so I made sure to leave room for a sweet treat to finish my meal and i am so glad I did. It was divine – but everything I had during brunch was worth every single calorie. An extra bonus during brunch? The coffee served comes straight from Devocion!hilton bogota brunchSince brunch isn’t only open for hotel guests, I recommend checking out the Sunday brunch at the Ventana Restaurant if you’re looking to treat yourself to a special meal in Bogotá (even if you’re not staying at the Hilton) – be it brunch or a fancy dinner.

As I mentioned before, the location in the Chapinero neighborhood is fantastic – there are a ton of excellent restaurants nearby or just a short can ride away in Zona G. The helpful and attentive concierge and reception staff can give you recommendations for pretty much anything, and arrange dinner reservations for you.Hilton hotel Bogota ColombiaTwo shopping malls, El Castillo and Avenida Chile Shopping Center, are both a short walk away, and if you want to visit Bogotá’s historic center, it doesn’t take longer than 20 minutes to get there by cab. Taxis are cheap and plentiful in Bogotá, so you’re not really far from anywhere, and my ride from the airport to the hotel only took about 25 minutes.

No matter if you find yourself in Bogotá for business (the Hilton sits right in the heart of the financial district) or for pleasure – the Hilton Bogotá is a solid choice for both. I couldn’t have asked for a better environment to start my time in Bogotá in – from my comfortable room to the food I’ve enjoyed to the coffee at Devotion and to the fabulous pool, plus the fabulous attentive staff – my time at the Hilton was perfect.Hilton Hotel Bogota Room

Details

  • Location: No. 72-41, Avenida Carrera 7, Bogotá
  • Price: King rooms start at $190, suites start at $300 (+ city tax)
  • LGBT Friendly: Yes
  • Digital Nomad Friendly: Yes
  • Amenities: Heated outdoor pool, gym, bar and restaurant, breakfast buffet, free wi-fi, parking, meeting facilities
  • Website: Hilton Bogota
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Colombia Highlights: My 13 favorite travel moments in Colombia

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I spent 9 weeks in Colombia, longer than I’ve spent anywhere else in the past couple of years (except for New York), and I would have even stayed longer, had Mexico not called my name. Looking back, I can’t believe I almost canceled my trip – I would have missed so many amazing experiences. In short, I loved my time in Colombia. It was one of the best trips I’ve taken, and while I was concerned about safety as a solo female traveler in Colombia prior to my trip, I never felt in danger. I found beautiful beaches, gorgeous Spanish-colonial towns, a vibrant nightlife in Bogota and Medellin, some of the best fruit I’ve ever eaten, a spiritual awakening in the Amazon, the ruins of an ancient city in the Sierra Nevada mountains, great new friends and memories that will stay with me forever.Colombia HighlightsI will tell you about most places I visited in more detail over the coming months, but I thought I’d start by sharing my favorite travel moments in Colombia with you:

1 Chilling in the giant hammock in Minca

I think reading about ‘the giant hammock’ was one of the things that convinced me to visit Minca, a small village in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern Colombia. A huge hammock with amazing mountain views? What’s not to love?! The hammock, which you find a steep 3-hour walk up the mountain from Minca, belongs to the Casa Elemento hostel and was well worth the long walk for a relaxing afternoon. But everything else I did in Minca was memorable, as well: we toured a coffee finca, visited and swam in the waterfalls around town and sampled local artisan beers.

Read more about my time in Minca here: Chasing waterfalls in Mincaminca giant hammock

2 Trekking to the Lost City

I had been fascinated by this trek to the ruins of a pre-Columbian ancient city high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains ever since I had first heard about it a few years ago, but I wasn’t sure if I was able to finish a 4-day trek through mountains and jungle in 90F heat. It turned out I was able to finish it, and the four days of trekking turned out to be some of my best days in Colombia. The walk through the beautiful mountain scenery, through the jungle, across rivers, passing indigenous villages, and finally climbing up 1,200 stairs, was worth every painful step, and the ruins of the Lost City itself were more remarkable than I thought they’d be. I was lucky enough to have a great group of fellow trekkers whose company made me get through the hard parts of the hike – lots of steep mountain trails, which nearly killed me.Colombia Lost City Trek

3 Tubing in Palomino

I went to Palomino for the beach, but ended up enjoying the river that runs from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which hug the coastline here, much more than the ocean! In Palomino, the waves are so high that it is nearly impossible to go for a swim, but luckily the little beach town has a river that is slowly flowing from the mountains into the ocean, and the conditions are perfect for river tubing. My friend and I went for a late afternoon tubing tour and I loved floating on the river, surrounded by lush green jungle, listening to the birds and watching the Golden Hour covering everything in a beautiful golden light.

Read more about my time in Palomino here: Caribbean vibes and a giant scare in Palominopalomino tubing

4 A street art tour in Bogota

I mentioned before that I was surprised by Bogota – in a good way! I expected to dislike the city, because many travelers rush through here, unimpressed by Colombia’s capital. I, however, ended up spending more time here than expected, and got to know the city better than most travelers who only spend a couple of nights here. My favorite thing about Bogota? The sprawling street art scene! No matter where in Bogota you are, there is street art everywhere. I spent most of my time in the historic La Candelaria neighborhood, which is probably the neighborhood with the most street art in the city. Obviously, I was in street art heaven and couldn’t put my camera down. But what was even better than just snapping away whenever I walked by an awesome graffiti was learning about Bogota’s graffiti and street art scene during a free street art walk through La Candelaria. If you love street art and find yourself in Bogota, I highly recommend taking this tour.Bogota Street Art

5 The sunsets in Cartagena

Cartagena definitely wins the prize for the best sunsets I saw in Colombia! No matter if from the thick stone walls that surround the Old City or from the sandy beaches of Bocagrande, the new part of town, every sunset was spectacular. But not only the sunsets were lovely – Cartagena itself was a picture-perfect town, easily the prettiest town I visited in Colombia, and I took nearly 1,000 photos of its brightly colored Spanish-colonial houses, flower-filled wooden balconies and eye-catching door knockers. I extended my stay in Cartagena twice because I couldn’t pull myself away from this gorgeous city!

Read more about my time in Cartagena: Cartagena – The perfect introduction to Colombiacartagena walls sunset

6 Kayaking in the Amazon

I spent eight days in the Amazon – a last-minute addition to my itinerary, and I am glad I spent the extra cash for the plane ticket into the Amazonas region (the only way to get there is to fly in). While I found the lack of wildlife encounters a bit disappointing, I found the Amazon River and life along the Amazon fascinating – and a kayaking trip that brought me up close with the giant trees of the Amazon was an experience I won’t forget anytime soon.Colombian Amazon Kayaking

7 Feasting on fresh fruit everywhere

Colombia’s wide range of exotic fruit is incredible – there are so many fruits in this country that I had never even heard of. My mission was to try them all! And I did a good job, with daily fruit salads from street vendors in Cartagena, or a thick slice of pineapple to start my day with in Santa Marta (for about $0.30!). In the Amazon, I got to taste local fruits like Cupuacu, anona, aguaje, granadilla, uvilla or tumbo – all fruits which can be found only there, and aren’t exported. But even fruit I already knew, like mango, zapote, pineapple, papaya, guava, or guyabana tasted juicier and sweeter than in other places. The fruits were one of my favorite things about Colombia.Colombian fruit

8 Hiking through the Valle de Cocora

The Valle de Cocora near Salento, right in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region, is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been to: green mountainsides filled with these tall, up to 60 meter high wax palm trees which tower high above cattle farms. The hike I did was beautiful, and being a 4-hour round trip, it was a good workout at the same time.valle de cocora

9 Visiting coffee plantations in Quindio and Magdalena

Coffee is probably my biggest vice, and so it was a given that I’d visit Colombia’s coffee region to see where some of the world’s best coffee is from. I had toured a coffee finca a few years ago in Guatemala, and even though I knew the process would be pretty much the same, I was happy to see again how the bean makes its way from the farm into my cup – even twice, because I ended up not only visiting a coffee plantation in the zona cafeteria, but also in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a lesser known and considerably smaller coffee producing region in Colombia. The old-fashioned family-run coffee plantation I visited there, Finca La Victoria, including a tasting of a freshly brewed cup, was a highlight of the trip for this coffee lover.Coffee in Colombia

10 Stepping back in time in Villa De Leyva

It took me only about one minute to fall in love with Villa De Leyva, which is often called the most beautiful colonial village in Colombia, and I am nodding my head in approval – I don’t think there’s a place prettier than Villa de Leyva with its whitewashed houses, cobble stone streets and its vast town square, flanked by bright white houses on all sides, and with a Spanish-colonial church that dates back to 1608. Wandering the streets of the village I couldn’t help but think: this place hasn’t changed at all since it was founded in 1572! Okay, there might be cars in Villa De Leyva these days, but other than that, I really don’t think it has changed much over the past 500 years.Villa De Leyva

11 Beach day in Playa Blanca

I love going to the beach, and I went to quite a few beaches in Colombia, all along the Caribbean Coast. My favorite beach day? Playa Blanca near Cartagena! Cartagena is hot and humid year round, but luckily there are a few places where you can take a break from the heat for a while. Playa Blanca on Baru Island is one such place, an easy 45-minute bus ride away. Playa Blanca means White Beach, and that’s exactly what it is: a white sand beach with clear turquoise waters which is so pretty that I ended up spending most of the day staring out at the ocean instead of reading my book.playa blanca

12 Seeing Botero’s art in Medellin and Bogota

Fernando Botero is one of Colombia’s most famous artists and I love his ‘fat people’ paintings and sculptures. I’ve seen his sculptures of voluminous women, men and animals in London, Jerusalem, Barcelona, Paris, New York, Mexico and Singapore, and now I was finally in his home country – excited to see more of his art here, and find out more about the artist. I can’t help but smile when I look at his ‘fat people’ sculptures and paintings – his signature style – and seeing more of his art around Colombia was wonderful. I loved the Botero Museum in Bogota, but Medellin’s Museum of Antioquia and the Parque de Las Esculturas, right outside the museum, were my absolute favorite places to learn more about Botero and more of his art.Botero Sculptures Colombia

13 Salsa nights in Bogota

I didn’t make it to Cali, where most female travelers seem to end up to learn how to salsa, but I would have loved to learn salsa steps. However, I ran out of time. What I did have time for though? To visit quite a few excellent salsa bars, in which I danced several nights away (without exactly knowing how to salsa, but I had fun nonetheless). I was surprised that it was in Bogota of all places that I found such great salsa bars, but I had a super guide who introduced me to Bogota’s nightlife and made the city much more fun for me than I thought it’d be, as I mentioned above. One salsa highlight was the salsa bar inside El Theatron, which the biggest gay & lesbian night club in all of South America.salsa dancing colombiaFor more Colombia photos, check out my Facebook photo album here.

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Life Lately & Upcoming Travels: March 2016 Edition

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In my monthly round-ups, I am looking back at my travels over the past four weeks, what went well and what didn’t, and what’s next for me. 

Where I’ve been

March was probably the most interesting month of 2016 so far – simply because on 1 March, when I was still in the Colombian Amazon, I had no idea where I’d be now, at the end of the month. So where I am? I am in Mexico City! Yes, this was a completely unexpected turn of events, or change of travel plans. But let’s start at the beginning… A short overview of the places I visited this month: From Leticia in the Amazon I flew to Pereira in the zona cafeteria. From there I moved on to Salento, the heart of the coffee region, hiked in the striking Valle de Cocora, and finally traveled further north to Medellin – which would be my last stop in Colombia… at least for now. I flew to Mexico City, from where I traveled to Poza Rica to visit the El Tajin ruins and from there to Cuetzalan, one of Mexico’s ‘magical villages’. Now I am back in Mexico City for a few days to catch up on work before I go on vacation (well, at least sort of) next week.March colombia mexico

What I’ve been up to

It seems like ages ago that I was leaving the hospital and finished up my time in Colombia’s Amazon region! The beginning of the month was quite tough, to be honest. I flew out of the Amazon into Colombia’s zona cafetera, which saw me travel alone again, quite a change after being surrounded by people for all of February and January. Being sick didn’t really help to get me back into a ‘solo travel mood’, and the cold and rainy days in the coffee region were a huge change from the hot and sticky days in the Amazon where I had to change my shirt twice a day because I was soaked in sweat.March Mexico ColombiaAnd so I found myself booking a flight to Mexico, where I would meet up with several friends. This is not the potential ‘change of plans’ that I briefly mentioned in my last round-up, by the way – that would have been a trip to the Canadian Rockies for a Winter Pride event, and I would’ve returned to New York from there. But I had to cancel the event due to my sickness and kept hearing stories about cold and rainy weather in NYC (even snow had been reported to me!) and I had no desire to return yet. So here I am, spending a month in Mexico.el tajin dancerI sacrificed some of my time in Medellin for this trip, which I had been looking forward to the entire time I was in Colombia, but I made the most of my few days there, and as soon as I took a bite out of my first flor de calabaza quesadilla in Mexico, I had no regrets about leaving Colombia a bit earlier than planned. To be honest, I was getting a bit tired of the food in Colombia and was ready for something new.

Now Mexico is not necessarily new considering that this is my fourth time here, but of course I’m not only revisiting old favorites but also new places. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Mexico City though – there’s just always something new to discover here, and with a city of the size of Mexico DF (22 million people!) you can never see it all. I’ve spent over a week here again, and found it fascinating to see how the city has changed since my last visit in 2012.Mexico CityMy plans to visit new plans didn’t go as smooth as I would’ve wished for – see below in What went wrong – but I guess it can’t always be just awesome, right? Read on to find out what went well and what went wrong this month, and where I am off to in April… I am stoked for the next month!

March Highlights

A kayak trip on my last day in the Amazon

I was still sick as a dog when I left the Amazon, but after staying in that horrible hospital I wanted to do something awesome before leaving. And so we went for a kayaking trip which was the perfect way to end my time in this incredible region of the world. The massive trees we saw while paddling through mangrove forests, a swim in a lake, monkey spottings and these beautiful surroundings – with nobody but us out on the water – was a memorable experience.kayak trip amazon

Returning to Mexico

I think I’ve already made it clear that I’ve been having a blast since I got back to Mexico! I love that I have the freedom to purchase a plane ticket on a whim, like I did, deciding to come here a mere week before my plane departed. While I spent most of my time in Mexico City, I also got to visit some new places – two UNESCO World Heritage sites, to be precise. In the quaint little town of Cuetzalan I went on an awesome caving tour and got to have a small ancient site with pyramids almost to myself, and in El Tajin I visited the famous Pyramid Of The Niches. Some people find Mexico City overwhelming, but I feel right at home here, and I love the street food, the people, the markets, the weather, and seeing the Jacaranda trees in bloom (the first time I get to see them in bloom here in Mexico!) – plus, I’ve been getting my culture fix this month… see below:
March 2016 Mexico
A month filled with culture

One reason why I’m drawn to big cities? Culture. Sure, I love the beach, and I love being outdoors, hiking in the mountains or through the jungle, but at heart I’m a city girl. Not only do I enjoy all the amenities of a big city (hundreds of food options, movie theaters, events, concerts…) but I need me some culture! Museums, art galleries, or simply urban art in the form of graffiti murals or sculptures – as a creative, I feed off the creativity of talented artists. And this is why March was awesome – I got so much culture in the past four weeks… In Medellin, I got my culture fix with all the Botero sculptures that can be found throughout the city and in the Museo Antioquia (along with his art and other art), visited a fabulous Modern Art Museum, and here in Mexico, it’s been culture non-stop: the amazing museums of Mexico City including yesterday’s Night of the Museums, and my visit to two pre-Columbian ruin sites, El Tajin and Yohualichan. And there’s more to come next month – see Upcoming Travels.Artsy March

What went wrong

Plane to Pereira had to turn around because of a storm

The worst thing that happened this month was my flight from Bogota to Pererira, the second leg of my flight that would bring me from the Amazon to the coffee region. My flight left Bogota at 5pm and was supposed to land in Pereira at 6pm, but while in the air, around 5.45pm, the pilot announced that we might have to return to Bogota due to a massive thunderstorm in Pereira. After circling above the storm for 30 minutes, we indeed turned around and went back to Bogota. While I was still wondering if the airline would put me up in a hotel in Bogota for the night, as soon as we reached the gate, the pilot announced he had been notified the storm had passed and we’d give it another try. So nobody was allowed to leave the plane, they counted all our luggage for security reasons, and about 7.30pm we were supposed to leave. Then there was another inexplicable delay, and in the end it took us until 9pm until we departed again. By then, I was ravenous – I had only had breakfast. The flight attendants only handed out nuts, and that was 4.5 hours after we’d boarded the plane. I finally got to Pereira at around 10pm, and by the time I got to my hostel, it was 10.45pm – no restaurants were open anymore, and I went to bed starving. Considering that I had only left the hospital two days prior to my flight, I wasn’t in the best condition to begin with and sure didn’t need this flight from hell.

colombia plane
Usually I love being on a plane! Window seat, always!

Being sick suuuuucks

When I woke up in Pereira, the first time in weeks that I was completely by myself, still feeling sick as hell, I had only one thought: being sick on the road sucks. Especially if you’re traveling alone and have nobody to go to the pharmacy for you, to get you water or food. Luckily I had someone to look after me in the Amazon.Leticia Hospital

Traveling during Semana Santa

Ah, Latin America’s holiest of all weeks, the week before Easter.. I should have thought about traveling during this time, which is prime travel time, but somehow I forgot about it (again!) and ended up wasting an entire day trying to plan a week of travel during that period. Buses and hostels were completely booked, and if I was lucky enough to find a ticket online, by the time I had gone through the booking process, somebody else had snatched it. It was frustrating, to say the least. Instead of going south, I ended up going to Veracruz for a festival of indigenous culture and dance music, held in an ancient ruin site. See below how that went down…

transport in cuetzalan
Public transportation in Mexico

Rained out festival
El Cumbre, the festival we went to, and paid a considerable amount of money to attend, was completely rained out the day we got there. We were bummed, decided to wait it out for a day and to attend the festival the next day. It still rained on and off, and it was terribly cold. I had stupidly not taken my rain jacket with me, because it had been sunny in Mexico City and I had only used it once on the entire trip. Lesson learned! We tried to make the best of it despite the crappy weather, but it still put a damper on our mood. A good reminder though how lucky I am to be traveling in great weather 95% of the time!

el cumbre 2016 el tajin
Braving rain and mud at El Cumbre

Losing (more) stuff

dani
Only my big $300 headphones left. They’re great for working & blocking out noise, but not for working out..

Somehow I keep losing stuff on this trip.. after my Kindle charger and Canon battery charger (including battery!), and a few other things, this month I lost my favorite (and only!) pajama shorts and top, which I had bought in Bangkok last year. I must have left it in a hotel room, and it really upsets me because they were fitting great and I need to wear something at night when I travel with someone, which I mostly do. And then I lost my beloved Sennheiser in-ear headphones. I’d finally invested in pricey headphones a few months ago, and it didn’t take long for me to lose them – that’s why I usually use cheapie headphones while I travel. Oh well. I replaced them with inexpensive headphones in Colombia which broke after only a couple of weeks, and then replaced those with headphones here in Mexico. And guess what? I’ve already lost them. What the hell is wrong with me?!

Other noteworthy happenings

My first Temazcal

As if one indigenous ceremony wasn’t enough (I’m referring to last month’s ..um… interesting… ayahuasca experience), I experienced my first Temazcal this month, which is an indigenous Mexican steam bath that has been part of the Mesoamerican culture for hundreds of years and involves religious, ritualistic and healing motives. A Temazcal, similar to a sauna done at a very high temperature and prepared with medicinal and aromatic herbs in a small round stone building  usually lasts for about 2 hours and is supposed to help you connect with yourself but also with the fundamental elements of nature. Usually you are guided through the ceremony with songs and prayers, allowing for the purification, inner renewal and healing of the body on an emotional and spiritual level, but my experience was a bit different from what I had read about Temazcales before trying it.

cuetzalan sunrise
The beautiful town of Cuetzalan, where I had my first Temazcal experience
dani temazcal
After the Temazcal

The lady who was guiding us through our Temazcal experience seemed to suffer from the extreme heat much more than we did and was on all four down on the floor for most of the time, and asked us to beat each other with branches of herbs, for an inner cleaning. Afterwards I read that this is called ‘leafing’ and is part of some temazcal experiences (the ceremonies vary), and supposedly means that ‘the bather is gently beaten with the herbal branches’, but trust me, this was no light beating, this felt more like a full-on whipping, and she kept yelling at us to hit each other harder. I had a hard time not laughing out loud during the experience, and I don’t think we were in there for more than thirty minutes (instead of 2 hours) before being massaged by her daughter, whose massage skills were questionable.

I think I might give the Temazcal another try because I usually do enjoy sauna experiences and would like to see how I feel after a properly executed temazcal.

What’s next for me

April is shaping up to be another awesome month – I will fly to Cancun this weekend to meet up with my favorite travel buddy for a road trip in the Yucatan peninsula, which is probably my favorite region in Mexico. We’ll be checking out Mayan ruins, cenotes (underwater sinkholes), Caribbean beaches, snorkel with turtles, visit one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever been to and finish our trip with a couple of beach days on a gorgeous Caribbean island (can’t tell you yet where because it’s a surprise for her and she might read it, which would spoil the surprise 😉 )MexicoAfter that, I will return to Southern Arizona for my ‘annual desert retreat’, which my trips to Tucson have evolved into, sort of. I am stoked to see my friends there and I will be housesitting there again – but this time, in a different house! But more on that in my next round-up, which will come to you from Arizona.

If you want to follow my travels in real time, add me on Snapchat: mariposa2711

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