Colombia is an extraordinary destination that deserves closer attention. From the moment you decide to go, you’ll get strange looks and questions. One of our friends said he would pray for us ! Remember that perception and reality are often quite a long way apart. Many destinations are out of favor for years, usually because of civil war or political instability, but times, and situations change. Guatemala, a popular tourist spot, was embroiled in a civil war for 26 years ! Vietnam and Cambodia, once unthinkable destinations, have become all the rage in recent years.
Colombia I feel, falls into a similar category. It has so much to offer, yet is not thought of in the same way as popular South American destinations like Peru, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Ecuador, because of a long lingering awful reputation. Yet 20 years ago Peru was also involved in a civil war but nobody gives that much thought today.
One’s first surprise is on arrival (well, mine was). We travelled to Guatemala the year before so maybe I was expecting something similar. By comparison, Colombia is a thriving country. A least in the cities we visited, people are fashionably dressed and there is an intense level of industry. Everyone seems engaged in some sort of commerce, from selling coffee in tiny cups, to pastries to little toys.
In the cities, everything looks modern and on the move. In Cartagena, by the sea, everywhere you look you’ll see new developments going up – huge high-rise apartment buildings. Clearly someone feels this is a country on the move.
The guidebooks – and there are very few of them showing how overlooked this country is – say the food will not be a highlight of one’s trip. Yet we loved it. The fruit and fruit juices in Cartagena are memorable and you will want to try new ones every day.
The people too are very friendly, even with little understanding of English (which in our case added to the exotic flavor of Colombia). They are helpful and we never felt we were being ripped off, whether in taxis or else where.
Of course the big question surrounding Colombia is security and i’ll try tackle that in a completely honest manner. Firstly, we never felt threatened or unsafe. We did keep our wallets hidden but we would do that in most European countries as well. Bogota and Cartagena buzz during daytime and you will feel totally secure. There is a huge presence of tourist police who will help you if you need them.It is true that the La Candelaria area of Bogota – where we stayed – goes virtually dead after about 8pm and I know a lot of people will not like that, but we still felt safe. The war has been pushed to the fringes of the country, to places virtually every tourist would not venture. We have been in many big cities in the world and we try use the same common sense approach that we would in many of them. Generally though, if we hadn’t known of Colombia’s reputation (impossible of course) , we would not have given the security question a second thought. I’m not going to say Colombia is ultra safe or there is no security question; it’s that we felt perfectly safe all the time and very at ease. Just use common sense.
I’m going to include my tips and observations for families as previously written.
I’m also going to add some observations and tips, especially relevant if you’re travelling with kids.
1. We felt totally safe all the time. The reality we saw and experienced was worlds away from all the terrible things you hear about Colombia. Just be sensible as you would in many other places.
2. Unless you’re in an expensive hotel, breakfast may well be insufficient so be ready to stock up. Our eleven year old mostly wouldn’t touch the breakfast (egg, piece of fruit, bread) – he likes a bit of excitement in his vacation breakfast, as he feels breakfast at home is so mundane. But be ready to add to your hotel breakfast – Kumis yogurt is a good bet, and there are excellent pastries as well.
3. The weather in Bogota is much the same all year-round. Mild to cool so pack accordingly. My son wore 2 of my light sweatshirts as well as his coat. In Cartagena, it’s always blazing hot, so be ready for two totally different climates. In Bogota, it was shoes, sweatshirts, jeans; in Cartagena, t-shirts, sandals and shorts.
4. The street food is excellent although there was a lot of things we did not try. On previous trips, we had guides in some locations (Beijing, certain places in Vietnam) and they’re terrific at helping you navigate street food. On our own we’re quite wimpy, as I don’t feel the risk is worth it. It may be worth getting a guide to do a walking tour of Cartagena so you can try some street food.
5. In Cartagena drink a lot of water all the time. I can’t stress this enough. It is outrageously hot and humid (it improves once the sun goes down) but you should not let this get in the way of your enjoyment of the place.
6. Don’t try mailing a letter in Colombia – they have an odd mail service, half privately run, so finding a post office is not worth the effort. We found this out the hard way.
7. For lunch, have the plato del dia. It’s an incredible deal including soup, main dish and drink for only about 3 dollars. In Cartagena, we went to GCB (Gethsemani Cafe Bar) 5 days in a row for lunch ! Also in Cartagena, try as many of the different fruit drinks as you can. It’s worth it. Our favorite was maracuya – passion fruit.
8. In Cartagena, DO NOT take the package tours out to the Rosario islands. (unless you like sitting in a crowded boat for hours looking at beautiful water instead of being in it) It’s a total rip off. Instead, get a boat out to Playa Blanca, making sure it goes there, stays for a few hours and then comes back. No other detours.. Otherwise, you’ll sit on a very crowded boat for hours (as we did) instead of the beach.
9. Taxis within Cartagena cost about $2.50 everywhere so don’t let yourself be ripped off into paying more. Be firm if you have to.
10. Make sure you give yourselves plenty time to stroll the streets of Cartagena and Bogota. You’ll take in the great Colombian atmosphere. It’s hard to get enough of this in Cartagena.
11. In Cartagena, the big Exito supermarket in El Centro is a good place to duck into to escape the heat. Because it’s so close to almost everything, it never feels out of the way. They have a cash machine, deli, international phone station and lots of cold drinks !
12. A good chain restaurant for families is Crepes and Waffles – big selection, not too expensive, and really good for kids.
13. Every internal flight we took was excellent and on time, including Avianca which I know has a mixed reputation.
14. In Cartagena, especially with kids, it’s worth staying in a hotel with a pool, even a small one. One can feel pretty desperate about the heat.
Overall, what we saw of Colombia we loved and I’d strongly recommend it. Let me know if you have any questions.