Now you might be a tad taken aback by this blog title. But as the two biggest industries of Colombia, we were about to be given an introduction to the prosperous growth of one, and violent downfall of the other. Colombia is rapidly transforming its white powder past into a diverse and developed tourist destination, with insanely friendly people to help you at every street corner we were about to met on our adventure.
Hand on heart, I could also write an entire blog dedicated to the food of Colombia. With delicious local eats, awesome fusion restaurants and hipster cafes, choosing was definitely the hard part ! You should all realise by now how much I love good kai #foodislife
We crossed into Colombia via bus on the Ecuadorian border. This was a pretty low hassle affair, as we decided to head on the private Cruz del Sur bus rather than taking cheaper public buses and changing over at the border. This was based on our past experience with them and higher safety recommendation passing through active guerrilla territory en route to Cali.
Now to be honest, except for the top notch arepas Cali didn’t really wow us. Our hostel was a bit average and insanely español loud 24/7, to top it off with a bad taxi experience and little shut eye we were pretty chilled just enjoying some meanders around town and pool time. If visiting again, we would stay in the area of San Antonio, with its colourful colonial architecture, Insta worthy eateries and soak up the locals gathering in the parks at evening time to immerse yourself in the real Cali salsa culture.
Following our insanely mellow stay at the Cielo Verde Ecohotel at Lake Calima, we jumped on a plane bound for the big capital of Bogata to catch back up with our fellow Irish travellers. Domestic flights here are super cheap, paying $40-60 NZD booking the day prior to flying which avoids a painfully windy bus across the mountains.
Overall Bogata really surprised us, and felt like the city we would be most happy to live in from all of our South American adventure. Set in a mountain valley the city is really developed, with a funky vibe and heaps to do (and of course eat!). We stayed in the popular area of La Candelaria, surrounded by plenty of bars, funky eateries, museums and close to the main plaza with its controversial history. This is where government descended on the Palace of Justice with army tanks and machine guns following the hostage terror attack by Gurilla group M19 at Pablo Escobar’s request to destroy all physical evidence held against him, with many innocent people caught in the crossfire. The suburb of Bellavista/Chico looks straight out of San Fran, with high end fashion boutiques, dog friendly shopping malls and dam expenny sammys. There is a big push for cycling here too with cars sharing the road, lots of sports areas and green space to enjoy.
Spending the day with our Irish comrades, we joined in on a local Bike tour organised through our hostel the Cranky Croc. This was super fun and slightly perilous 5 hours, weaving through downtown traffic and the developing suburbs with stops at a local coffee roastery, the national park and many street art spots along the way. Since giving up normal coffee last year I was pretty damn excited to finally find some decaf on our trip which got a 5/5 from me! Our final pit stop next to the local produce market was a warehouse to play local game Tejo, where you throw rocks at sachets of gun powder on a wall of clay with the aim to explode them which is super loud, all the whilst consuming beersies. Obviously some drunk chaps invented this crazy game! We also headed up the teleferico (gondola) to the hill top church of Monserrat, admiring the rare sunset views Bogata had to offer. Worth a meander in town is the free Botero museum; home to the largest collection of Fernando Botero works, the most celebrated Colombian artist. He is famous for his interpretation of beauty with chubby characters, from horses to fruit to people everything was seemingly round with double chins and rolls.
Now not all of Bogata is peaceful bike rides and lively street side bars, with the obvious issues of big cities anywhere in South America tempting petty criminals. However with a bit of plain old common sense it wasn’t something we experienced, and you shouldn’t be put off venturing here anymore than London with its high petty crime rate. We were warned about the areas to avoid with particularly high drug trade and use, and after taking a shortcut on our biking tour through the redlight district with junkies lurking about I wasn’t keen to go back. Unfortunately we were misled by Apple maps attempting to find Phill a barber to tame that ever extending beard, ending up exactly where we shouldn’t have been and sticking out like two sore thumbs. But typical of the amazing people in Colombia, a lovely older lady came up to us exclaiming peligroso!! (danger), and escorted us back to the main road to safely jump in a taxi and eventually find our destination.
Recommended from our hostel amigo, SPQR became our go to for breakfast in La Candeleria. Owned by a top notch kiwi chap Ollie and named after the timeless eatery institution on Ponsonby Road in Auckland, SPQR did not let down its New Zealand counterpart in deliciousness . From actual mouth watering, crispy bacon (an extremely rare commodity here) to perfect French toast, topped off by a glorious gluten free chocolate cake and good yarns we would happily have made this our weekend regular back home. Not in the food category but an accolade worthy accompaniment, definitely worth a sip was the craft beer BBC (Bogata Brewing Company) with its headquarters conviently placed on the corner near our hostel. Although Phill unfortunately can’t sample the local breweries being a glutard, I can attest to its tasty flavours and thirst quenching form.
Nestled in a valley 8 hours and two buses from Bogata, Salento is infamous for its traditional coffee farms perched at the perfect bean growing altitude, and stunning lush surroundings. Farmers dressed in cowboy hats and ponchos frequent the street, with old converted army jeeps as local taxis to navigate the dirt roads while the ‘bus terminal’ is a vague, faded street sign outside a dairy. Definitely a good escape from the big city pace of life.
An absolute must do when visiting Colombia is a trip to a local coffee farm, to see where your daily grind comes from and learn the art of bean growing . We wandered down windy dirt roads being passed by locals on horse back to ‘Ruta de Cafe’, stopping in at Las Acacias. Here we learned about the coffee production process from germinating plants to drying beans. The roastery for this particular plantation is at a neighbouring amigos crib to save on capital investment, however they only sold their end product to tourists on the actual farm. This was my first caffeinated coffee in well over 8 months, while I felt like I was slightly having a heart attack I did manage to run back up part of the hill to burn off the excess energy.
A highlight of our time in Salento was the Cocora Valley hike, a one day loop through jungle covered mountains and cloud forest to the site of 60m high palm trees. Catching one of the jeeps from the main town plaza, the 30min drive to Cocora was just as picture worthy as the hike through lush farm land reminding us a bit of home. The walk meandered up through a super muddy farm path way into the forest, with a couple of river crossings, a meaty uphill requiring some chocolate motivation and a pit stop at the Acaime hummingbird sanctuary to wind back down a 4 wheel drive track to the huge palm trees. While it was pretty average weather on our adventure it made for some eery photos with the palms in this mist and put in perspective how minuscule we are.
Everyone knows brunch is the best meal of any day. So when we were informed that we “must” frequent the local establishment named after my favourite Sunday pass-time we knew we were in for a good time. Owned by an American export, everything from the burgers to the slow cooked ribs, mcmassive pancakes or Alaskan salmon fish and chips was absolutely outstanding… to the point we ate their three times. Hey you can’t fault a top notch burg! We were also really impressed with the food truck collective conveniently 3minutes walk from our hostel. Decked out with tree stump chairs and tables, open fire place and tasty truck offerings it wasn’t a super cheap eat but definitely worthwhile for the arepa sliders!
No one in South America is worried if you are late, and our bus to Medellin was testament to this ideal. Waiting at road works for an hour with stop/go men who couldn’t use any kind of logic to move traffic, and an unnecessary stop at a dodgy side of the highway eatery so our driver could get a snack despite our short journey connecting in Periera. Let’s just say efficiency is not a concept here, and you have to adjust to the lifestyle or face constant frustration. But after some hairy seat gripping passing by our van on the windy mountain highways, we eventually made it to the home haunt of notorious Escobar and more recently the most innovative city in the world.
Our hostel The Sugar Cane with its rooftop drinking spot was in an ideal neighbourhood of the upmarket Poblado, with fancy restaurants and ‘discos’. Being super close to the metro station here proved key, as the main way of getting around Medellin crammed in like sardines. We caught the train to the favela neighbourhood of Communa 13 in San Javier, for a graffiti tour with a difference to show case the transforming local suburb. This use to be the second most dangerous suburb in the world behind the Israel/Palestine border, with constant death lingering in the streets as cartel groups fought over the strategic territory. Intertwining the history through some amazing street art, our Latino skrillex lookalike guide talked about the cartel group shootout with the army when he was a boy, right on the streets with many innocent people caught in the conflict as casualties from the violent Government purge of the district. Nowadays you can see kids happily kicking round a football instead of walking past bodies on the way to school, and home to a large ethnically diverse community of party loving Salsa queens music blared through the streets making it lively place to visit.
Our other highlight in Medellin was the Pablo Escobar tour. While it’s a bit controversial to go on one of these with a lot of locals not even speaking his name (think Voldemort but real), I personally think his terror reign played a significant part in shaping recent Colombian history and probably pushing it towards the developed, friendly nation it is today as the people strive to change their country’s dangerous perception. We likened it to going to Germany and not acknowledging the heinous history under the Nazi regime, which is important to learn from to avoid repeating those mistakes again. Our tour guides were super informative on the entire history, from the beginning of cocaine trade, to the cartel rivalry, the 10,000 people killed under Pablo’s terror reign and eventual death in December 1993. Unfortunately nowadays some young people still see this as a quick profitable way to make moolah, continuing Colombia’s darker reputation. We were taken to three sites by one of Pablo’s old drivers, who escaped to Spain following his bosses demise and provided some crazy insights into his previous life. Still today, whilst acknowledging he did awful things at the cost of many people’s lives, much like the beneficiaries of the free homes in the Pablo neighbourhood he still loves the former drug lord. The driver didn’t actually kill anyone in case you’re wondering, we asked that. The best part of the tour for me was a visit to Pablo’s home built “prison” La Catedral, high above his childhood village of Envigado. The Netflix classic Narcos wasn’t really over glamourising the fact that it wasn’t really a prison and more of a 5 star retreat spot, complete with helicopter pad, jacuzzi, pristine gardens and football field.
Arriving late our first night, the reception chap recommended we grab a slightly pricier but tasty meal at the close by spot Olivia, an Italian restaurant 20m around the corner from our hostel. Man was I glad we were feeling lazy and couldn’t be bothered walking any further! We were treated to insanely authentic Italian pizza (even with a gluten free base option for Phill) and the most mouth watering, piping hot, chocolate lava cake desert. The pizzas were smothered with proper salami, pepperoni and prosciutto that’s making me drool just thinking about it. I could have eaten there every night if it weren’t for the price tag ! That said, it really was just the cost of a dinner and drinks at home at any half decent local haunt, so if we were employed I wouldn’t have even thought twice about eating that lava cake every night. However in order to keep Phill’s ice cream obsession at bay we also frequented the artisan helado shop just across the road as an alternative sweet treat the rest of our stay. After selecting the base flavour and two hard choc coatings, you can all the sprinkles and frills ones ice cream desires can dream of. I’m not quite sure how he’s going to cope with this cut down once we reach Canada, but then I will have to give up Milkyway chocolate bars too so we both might go through withdrawals together.
Next stop 🔜 Colombia’s Caribbean coast 🍉☀️🏝