During my jam-packed week in Colombia, I was lucky enough to explore its mountains, valleys, and coasts. Bogotá was a blend of modern high-rises and a booming nightlife with slums stacked in the mountains surrounding it. Just outside the city, in the town of Zipaquirá, secrets were hidden underground in the mysterious Salt Cathedral. The second city I visited, Pereira, was a relaxing oasis of coffee landscapes, wax palms stretching into the cool fog that settled over a valley chock-full of wildlife. Cartagena was a city carved from colonial times, with history and culture dwelling in every corner.
Discovering the Islands of Cartagena
Just outside the romantic city of Cartagena, where we took horse-drawn carriages to dinner and walked walls riddled with cannons, we found islands scattered about that were a mix of natural and cultural beauty. Fishermen dived for crabs, trailing their boats behind them, and nature slowly reclaimed abandoned houses on protected islands. Salsa played on the shores and children rushed from school to the beach on Isla del Sol, Island of the Sun.
Bustling Bogotá on a Saturday Night
In Bogotá, we had a delicious dinner at André Carne de Res, a fast-paced four-story restaurant where we were greeted with a shower of pink and red hearts thrown by an enthusiastic waitress. On the streets outside, Bogotá residents piled into bars and lined up to dance in clubs in the popular Santa María district.
Exploring Simón Bolívar Plazas
Each city we visited in Colombia – Bogotá, Pereira, and Cartagena – paid tribute to Simón Bolívar by naming main squares, centered around statues of him and his famous white horse. Bolívar, who liberated much of Latin America from Spain’s control, is revered by many Colombians, and eventually died of tuberculosis – or, as our guide Freddy postulated: “It may have been syphilis – he was very popular with the ladies.”
In the Simón Bolívar Plazas, vendors sold salted corn, obleas, and children’s balloons. A particular highlight was watching a group of teenage boys breakdance in front of Simón Bolívar’s statue in Cartagena, drawing a small crowd of wanderers on a Sunday night, and seeing kids chase after pigeons with boundless energy.
Experiencing Cocora Valley from the Back of a Jeep
To get to the dips and slopes of the chilly Cocora Valley, we hopped into the back of Jeeps for a windy ride through the winding streets of mountains. We stopped for pictures and, once, for a herd of cows plodding across the dirt road. Once in the valley, we ate a typical lunch of patacones, rice, and soup, sipping on warm canelazo, before digging into the rich soil to plant at-risk wax palms.
From Bean to Packaging on a Coffee Farm
Colombian coffee farmers have had a rough year – or rather, several rough years – having been hit by inclement weather and battling off severe crop rot that chewed its way through the Colombian coffee business for over a decade. Four days ago, the Colombian government announced that it would increase subsidies to coffee farmers, although the situation remains rough. Touring the Hacienda Combia coffee farm was gorgeous, and sucking on the sweet juice of a coffee cherry was an unexpected twist to my usual way of ingesting coffee.
Even better than the tour, however, was being able to enjoy a cup of Café Inspiración with inspirational fourth-generation coffee growers, who – sipping on black coffee as we gazed over the fields of coffee and bamboo stretching out before us – said, “So we’ve had a few bad years – it doesn’t matter. Coffee’s in our blood. We would never give up on it.”
Meeting Colombia’s wildlife
At the foot of Mount Monserrate, where many Bogotá residents spend their Sunday making the pilgrimage to the top, I managed to pet a llama, who kindly took to my petting. In Pereira, we stopped the car to watch vultures swoop up and down above a patch of bamboo trees, and a stray dog made friends with us in the town of Salento. In Cartagena, a friendly iguana perched on the motor of our boat, refusing to move from his sunbathing perch until our boat’s driver prodded him off, happy to show us what good swimmers iguanas are.
Cartagena in a Horse-Drawn Carriage
Cartagena, surrounded by 11 kilometers of worn colonial walls, has one-way roads and street names that change by the block. Houses shift from yellow to blue to orange, and white balconies are overloaded with blossoms. The streets are a mish-mash of cars, horses, and food carts that offer up slices of fresh fruit and arepas loaded with butter.