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.
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.
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.