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Colombia: It Might Not Be What You’ve Heard

Some of you may know that I recently took a 10 day trip to Colombia, a country in Northern South America, which is bordered by Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru. It was a last minute decision, to be honest. After going back and forth about whether or not we’d even have enough vacation time to go to Thailand, we ultimately decided that we wanted to take a trip, but 10 days was simply not long enough to go to Asia.

We’re not all-inclusive types of travelers. Not that there’s anything wrong with this type of travel, but for us, travel is about discovering little hole in the walls, talking to people outside of our hotels, getting lost, losing track of time, and understanding culture beyond a resort. My thirst for travel is, frankly, insatiable. In fact, on the plane, coming home, I spent a significant amount of time staring at the map in Continental Airlines’ in-flight magazine, trying to figure out: “What’s next?”

Colombia. Where do I begin? We split our time between the grand capital city of Bogota: a mishmash of old and new. Its Old City to rival any other — filled with colorful buildings constructed by the Spaniards in the 1500s, a handful of delightful museums (we visited the Gold Museum and the Botero museum), awe-inspiring churches, fruit vendors, sweets shops, bars, and yes, machine gun-armed military personnel. Before we chose Colombia as our destination of choice, we struggled with what we perceived to be mixed recommendations: friends who had been there raved about its modern restaurants, friendly people, incredible history and natural beauty, while the U.S. Department of State warned of drug trafficking, kidnapping, and robberies. For us, it made sense to go. We’re both seasoned travelers and we prepared ourselves to fit in as best we could. When we arrived, we were taken by what we saw.

A city set high in the mountains, the air so crisp and fresh. Brick buildings, and European-feeling parks, restaurants with impeccable service, people so warm and inviting and yes, a city that understands its problems and works hard to ensure the safety of its inhabitants and visitors. We grabbed coffee at Juan Valdez, a Starbucks-like chain with cushy couches and laptop-wielding visitors. We ate tamales, arequipe (that’s dulce de leche in Colombia), guava and tamarind sweets. We drank hot chocolate wtih cheese (yes, floating cheese, inside your hot chocolate). Can’t say I was a fan of that one. The cheese fat seemed to puddle into the chocolate and the cheese hardly seemed to give into melting. We also drank aguardiente mixed into a hot and spicy warm brew. The anise-y liquor is definitely made for those who love the taste of black licorice. We overwhelmed all of our senses at Andres Carne de Res, where floors and floors of restaurant space turned into an all-out dance party, and it took a long time to decipher the 62-page menu of meats, sides, drinks, and desserts. Everything was a pun, everything was over the top, and the fact that the Colombian soccer team was playing France (and handed it to the French with a 4-1 victory) made it even more of an experience. The entire place erupted in cheers with each goal.

After wrapping ourselves in our jackets and carrying umbrellas in Bogota, we stepped off the plane in Cartagena, a Caribbean port city with an impressive history of its own, only to find our clothes sticking to our skin. Every day was hot. Every day, I wiped sweat from under my eyes. Every day, we took mini-breaks at the hotel, blasting the fan and the air conditioning in the hopes of finding brief reprieve from the heat. We spent one day taking a tour boat to a pristine white-sand beach called Playa Bianca, where I chatted with a jewelery vendor who spoke better English than everyone I had met up to that point. He told me he walks 2 1/2 hours every day from his village to the beach to sell his necklaces to try to show his kids the value of hard work. I read so much about tourists complaining about the vendors (‘hacking their wares,’ ‘acting like flies,’ ‘annoying everyone in sight.’) One conversation with this man made my blood boil. Made me furious at these tourists, complaining about the tour boats, and the ‘astronomically’ high prices, and the vendors on the beach. This is how the people here make their living. If you come here, you must respect this.

We wandered around the streets of Cartagena — a picturesque gem that no artist could have painted better — for hours and hours. Each building was unique and each was a different color: sandy pink, crisp white, turquoise blue. Many were adorned with knockers in the shapes of lizards and iguanas. We picked up freshly-sliced tropical fruits from the street vendors. We sampled things we’ve never heard of or tried — like the burnt sugar-like fruit called Nispero. We drank mojitos atop the city wall (the city of Cartagena, like my beloved Siena, is a walled city — a fortress built to withstand). We danced and drank more mojitos at Cafe Havana — a place unlike one I would imagine you’d find in Cuba. Colombia is a country that explodes with music from every seam. Even the young residents of Bogota and Cartagena know how to dance to Cumbia. Wherever we went, music was to be heard, and dancing was to be done.

We lingered and spent one afternoon sitting among the locals in the park, reading our books and just taking it all in. After cooling off a bit, we ducked into alleys, exploring. We saw beautiful paintings on the city’s walls, some depicting the rich history of the inhabitants, some just simply fun. When it came time to head back to Bogota for our very last day, we were sad, but ready to return to the big city. We spent our last day ducking away from the rain, getting splashed by the cars as they raced through the streets. When I think of Colombia now that I’m back home in San Francisco, I think of how vastly different the two places we visited were. I think about how lovely it is to not understand what people around you are saying sometimes, and challenge yourself by attempting to speak a language that you do not know. You have to put your whole body into it, gesture and draw shapes in the air. I think about how different my life is here in America. I am grateful for the little piece of time I spent in Colombia, far from my home. I will always look back on it fondly.

If you’re considering a trip to Colombia, I’ve compiled a short list of resources and suggestions that you might find helpful.

Places to eat, drink and take a break:

There is no shortage of restaurants in either Bogota or Cartagena. From street vendors to fancy restaurants, you’re likely to find what you’re looking for.

Bogota

A friend of a friend of a friend runs this website and it is an absolute MUST if you visit Bogota.

Abasto: a delicious restaurant in the Usaquen neighborhood (there are lots of great-looking restaurants here and a weekly flea market). Fantastic empanadas, desserts (including American-style crumbles), and tortilla soup. A great place to have a cup of coffee and a slice of cake, too. Wonderful environment.

Bagatelle: a fantastic little breakfast/brunch spot. Grab a chocolate croissant or a traditional-style Colombian breakfast here.

Club Colombia: you’ll see this restaurant’s namesake beer everywhere. This location is absolutely gorgeous and features a wood-fired oven. Get yourself a nice steak and South American corn on the cob.

La Puerta Falsa: a very old sweets shop that also serves amazing tamales and chocolate with cheese. One tamal is perfect for lunch.

Leo, Cocina y Cava: this was the fanciest place we ate at and the service was impeccable. The food was delicious, but not as memorable as we would have hoped. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a beautiful, upscale ‘date night’ type of destination, this is it. Wonderful cocktails are made by the bartender as well.

Andres Carne de Res: everyone will tell you to go here. It’s a circus, but very fun and the food is, surprisingly, very, very good. Go here for a late dinner and stay for the night. There are two locations (the original is in a town called Chia). We went to the one in Zona Rosa.

Venezuelan Arepas: around the corner from the Sofitel, this little place has a fantastic array of arepas.

Cartagena

8-18: the most refined meal that we had during our trip. Beautiful, modern decor. Unique and inspired dishes (try the octopus ceviche) and a great, central location.

La Vitrola: this is the godfather of restaurants in Cartagena. The food is nothing special, but the live band and old school vibe (black and white photos adorn virtually every corner) make this worth it. Make a reservation.

La Cevicheria: we heard that Anthony Bourdain came here, so we thought we’d give it a shot, too. Ceviches here are nothing like the Peruvian ceviches we’re used to: they’re creamy, milky, and heavy, but delicious nonetheless. Try the tropical fruit ones. Sit outside and drink a Michelada (beer + lime + black pepper + salt rim).

Café del Mar: this is a must, touristy as it may be. This cafe sits atop the city wall. You get great views of the old city and the ocean. Come here around sunset.

El Pulpito: a great little place that recently merged with the sandwich place next door. Lots of unique ceviches, sandwiches, salads, and mains. Good atmosphere.

Mila Vargas Bakery: a gorgeous, French-style bakery in the old city. The sweets are out of this world and presentation is amazing. Lunch is delicious, too. A slice of Paris in Colombia.

Cafe Havana: you must, must go here. The music starts around 10 or 11 pm and the dancing goes late. Even if you don’t know how to dance, you will get swept up.

This is, by no means, a complete list of places that we visited or enjoyed. These are simply the highlights to give you a taste of what left an impression on us. 

Posted by Kasey

KaseyProfileSunspot

Kasey is the food editor and co-founder of Turntable Kitchen. She loves dark chocolate, warm crusty bread, and traveling to new places. She speaks Russian, but does not like vodka.

  • Meister @ The Nervous Cook

    Colombia has been on my short list for so long; now I just know I gotta go. The way you capture the sights, food, people, and landscape makes it sound like a dream come true.

    …I guess I’m off to go browse Kayak.com and daydream a little…

  • http://www.dulanotes.com NicoleD

    Wowza! You captured Columbia in such a beautiful way! What a unique vacation. I completely agree that an all-inclusive vacation can keep you from truly getting to know the place you’re visiting. It reminds me of my favorite Onion article :) http://www.theonion.com/articles/woman-who-loves-brazil-has-only-seen-four-square-m,343/

  • Hannah Simon

    Lovely post. You are making me hungry for travel. Although I must agree, cheese + hot chocolate is not okay.

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Wow, what a compliment! I hope you have an amazing time if you decide to go!

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Thank you, lovely. That is hilarious!!

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Thanks, Hannah! I’m glad we’re on the same page on that one :)

  • http://blog.muffinegg.com Rachel

    Great post!I love hearing about other countries. It gives me all sorts of ideas about where I want to go on ym next vacation.
    I’m a sailor and have done some cruising in the Caribbean. Many sailors down there rave about Colombia. Apparantly Cartagena is a great harbor for cruisers. I hope to sail there some day!

  • http://www.saffronlane.com/blog Elizabeth @ Saffron Lane

    Wow! Looks like you had a fabulous trip getting lost and eating your way through a magical spot. I completely agree with your comment about respecting the locals, how they live and how they make a living. Why bother traveling if you’re not doing it to explore, be inspired and learn?

  • Kickpleat

    Years ago I worked at an esl school and a lot of our students were from Bogota & it always sounded so beautiful & so different from all the drug & danger talk I had heard about. Glad it lived up to expectations! Your photos are gorgeous and I’m itching for more travel.

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    I’m always itching for more travel. I was particularly excited to write about Colombia because I feel like so many people don’t see this side of it.

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Agree 100%. Magical is spot on!

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Wow, now that’s something Matt would enjoy. I can imagine it must be incredible to sail into Cartagena! Though, there are parts of the city you’d probably still want to avoid…

  • Mia

    Kasey, love the post. Great pictures as well !!!
    ..so did you get to eat some hormigas culonas?

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Thanks, Mia. LOL. I did not. I’m not opposed to it, but it just never came up!

  • http://www.thetestnest.com Leslie

    Kasey–I enjoyed your post. My husband is from Colombia and the first time I went I had a similar wonderful experience! The service is great, the landscape is beautiful and the food is delicious! I must say, though, cheese in my hot chocolate is MY FAVORITE. Even here in the states!

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Hey Leslie, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I can totally respect your love for the cheesy hot chocolate :) I’ve never actually seen it done in the States!

  • http://www.wheresoeverwego.com/ Leonora Stevens

    Mmmm can’t wait to go. Honeymoon perhaps!! xx

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Diana-Maria-Holguin/677400489 Diana Maria Holguin

    Great article! Beautiful pictures….I reposted it on my blog’s FB page, Bogotá Eats & Drinks. Thanks for spreading the good vibes about Colombia…http://bogotaeatsanddrinks.com/

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thank you for sharing it.

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Cool!

  • http://www.muyvisual.com Martha Hernández

    Great post. I love too my beautiful country (Mi Colombia). Always welcome.

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Thank you, Martha!

  • Leylagth

    I love what u wrote!!!! I’m from Colombia and I’m living in the States now, close to San Francisco actually…and yes, here things are different!

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I’m flattered.

  • Christina Olson

    Awesome post & beautiful photos! I spent about 2 weeks in Colombia during my 5 month trip to South America and was blown away. It was not originally on my list but heard numerous travelers raving when I was working in Quito at the Secret Garden hostel. The same words came out of every passing travelers mouth ‘you CANNOT miss Colombia.’ Of course my father’s order was ‘Do NOT go to Colombia.’ But it was probably my favorite country I visited while in South America because it wasn’t as well traveled on the ‘Gringo Trail’. As a true traveler, it is a must see for its authenticity and truly genuine (and gorgeous) people. You’ll be hard pressed to find a postcard there and I loved that. San Gil, Barichara (said to be the most beautiful town in Colombia) Taganga and Parque Tayrona are also not to be missed.

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Thanks, Christina! I’ve heard this from a lot of people who spent months in South America. Unfortunately, I feel like all we ever hear about Colombia in America is that the only 2 places that are ‘relatively’ safe are Bogota and Cartagena so we missed out on some of the other amazing places we only heard about from travelers when we had already booked our itinerary. I have heard that Parque Tayrona is incredible. Did you go to the sand dune beaches? Alas, I am still so glad that we had the experience that we did. Maybe someday we’ll go back!

  • Christina

    Yes, either way it’s just great to experience the country whether a short or long trip! :) Parque Tayrona is definitely a place to stop on the next trip!

  • Pingback: Changing Perspectives on Colombia | From Bogota With Love

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=547091628 Samy Weiss

    well definitely u have to come back tayrona park is amazing and u dont will have those vendors behind u , i dont like Club Colombian restaurant because u really cant taste Colombian food is better local restaurants then u will know what really taste Colombian food . i hope u go back one day :)

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Thanks, Samy. Next time I’ll ask for more suggestions.

  • Mroth9

    Thanks for the recommendations. I just happened to stumble onto this website today and found this post. I’m leaving for Colombia on Wednesday to spend 10 days in Bogota and Cartagena! Can’t wait to eat delicious food and listen to beautiful music.

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Great to hear! Have an amazing time.

  • Yourbogota

    Really enjoyed reading your article.. Beautiful pictures and really well written. I’ve lived in Bogota for the past 6 years and it really is an incredible city..:)
    Thank you for the link… Pascale, from yourbogota..:)

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Thank you Pascale! Your site was invaluable during our trip! Hope all is well.

  • Andres

    Great article. For those who are planning to go in the future, and have more time, I also highly recommend going to the coffee regions of Colombia, and to Parque Tayrona in La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. And if you have even more time, I also recommend going to Los Llanos and the Amazon region. Colombia is full of diversity! Kasey, thank you for writing this nice article!

  • Andres

    Also forgot to say, La Guajira is also gorgeous in the north of Colombia

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Thank you, Andres! Great recommendations. Had we had more time, we would have loved to check out Parque Tayorona…and as coffee lovers, the coffee regions of Colombia I’m sure would have been fascinating!

  • yarska

    thanks for the article. it was a great read. i’m from colombia, and it’s so exciting to hear people say how much they love it. it’s not at all like mexico.

    as you’ve noticed the “interior” e.g. bogota is a lot different from the “costa”, e.g. cartagena. my family is from the costa, particularly cartagena and barranquilla.

    i also love how everywhere will break out in song and riotous dancing. colombians are dance-crazy!

  • http://twitter.com/Nataarci_02 Nataly Arciniegas

    Hello! Thank you for talking about my beautiful country!! I’m glad you enjoyed your stay and I loved your article. I have to say that Andres Carne de Res is one of the priciest restaurants I have heard. My family is middle-high class so when we go to a ‘fancy’ restaurant, we go to Crepes & Waffles (yum yum!!).

    I have to say that you must have put the wrong cheese on your cocoa! The big idea behind putting the cheese inside the chocolate is for it to melt!! My mom alway uses Double Cream cheese (queso doble crema).

    Anyways, thank you for your article and I hope you come back some day!!!

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    Hi Nataly,
    Thank you so much for your comment! It’s so fun to hear from natives…only wish I could have connected with so many lovely folks before my trip!! I agree that ACDR was really, really expensive. It was definitely a splurge for our last night. I didn’t get to Crepes & Waffles, but I saw a number of them throughout our travels and they all smelled delicious :) I don’t know if it was the cheese, or the temperature of the cocoa, but I agree! I bet your mom’s hot cocoa is better than any restaurant kind anyway. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and I hope I get to come back someday, too (armed with so many great recommendations of course!)

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Kasey

    You are right about that (Colombians being dance-crazy!). The energy totally takes over you. I think it’s definitely common for the coast and interior to be totally different places (I live on the coast in California, which is quite different from the Midwest!) but no matter where we went, the people was super warm and friendly. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and having been to Mexico on numerous occasions, I can definitely agree that it is nothing like Mexico!

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