What comes to mind when you think of Colombia? Just say it, I won’t be offended. I had the same thoughts before I saw it for myself. When I stepped off the plane in 2011, I planned to teach English in Colombia for one year. Seven years and three laps around the country later, I had explored this hidden gem from the Andean mountain range to the Caribbean Sea and still hadn’t seen everything I wanted. I know one thing. I fell in love with Colombia and its culture.
Here are some of my highlights while on my journey.
Medellin: The City of Eternal Spring. Medellin is known for its warm weather and even warmer people. It’s the city most famous for Colombia’s not so favorable reputation. But it’s also known as the city that beat out Tel Aviv and New York City in 2012 as ‘City of the Year.’ Medellin is the home of Fernando Botero, the most hilariously goofy artist of all time, and hosts parties that end at the crack of dawn. I always loved going to Medellin for the good shopping and the even better food. Bandeja Paisa all the way! This city is truly an example of Colombia’s most famous tagline: ‘The only risk of coming is wanting to stay.’
Cartagena: Easily the most romantic city on the planet. Cartagena is what happens when a beach paradise meets a historic walled city. Throw in some salsa dancing and buildings of all different colors covered in flowers, and you’ll understand only a drop of Cartagena’s charm. Founded in 1533, Cartagena’s old city brings tourists back to a time of pirates and colonialism. It’s not every day that you can have a cocktail next to a 500 year old cannon, under the shadow of massive high-rise apartments and hotels catering to tourists from across the world. Shameless plug: be sure to visit Gelateria Paradiso for the best gelato outside of Italy.
Bogotá: Bogotá, my dear home away from home! It really was a love-hate relationship at the beginning. But Bogotá is an easy place to fall in love with once you get over the fact it takes at least an hour to get anywhere in the city. It offers all of the comforts of home with the flavor of living abroad. If you want to spend a day in the colonial, cobblestone center, it’s easy! If you want a night out in a super cosmopolitan restaurant, it’s there too! The outrageous and never-ending traffic sometimes makes you forget why you like being there, but once you get to where you’re going, there is nothing better! The good news is, if you arrive late, all you have to say is “TRAFFIC!” and everyone gets it! Bogotá was perfect for me because it’s a solid 70 degrees all year round, rotating between sunny and rainy. Every Sunday, the city closes off the main roads and opens up them up to bikers, walkers, skaters, and dog walkers. Bogotá is a place for people who want to take advantage of their city.
Salento & the Valle de Cocora: Salento is a tiny town in the Coffee Axis, just between the cities of Pereira and Armenia. Famous for its tall wax palm trees, this is a great place to escape for a day or two to go hiking, horseback riding, or stay at an eco-friendly lodge. This is also the region for taking a tour of a coffee finca, a farm where you can learn how to make coffee all the way from picking the bean to drinking the final product. The tour definitely gives you perspective on how much work goes into making coffee! While you’re at the farm, be sure to pick up a bottle of coffee-wine. Yes, that’s a thing!
Cali: Cali is hot! And not just the weather. Cali is famous for its music and salsa dancing. You’ll see and hear it everywhere: in taxis, at the bars and restaurants, on the streets, in school. This is where Colombian salsa was born, and everyone knows how to dance it! The best place to go is Tin Tin Deo. One night a week, all of the professional salsa dancers come out and make us non-salsa-ers feel pretty bad about our two left feet. But, it is INCREDIBLE to watch!
And, that’s just the beginning. I still didn’t tell you about all my other favorite stops in Colombia, such as Manizales, Santa Marta, Barranquilla, and San Andres, never mind the places I never made it to. I still haven’t swam in the rainbow river Canos Cristales, trekked to the Lost City which could rival Machu Picchu, played with monkeys in the Amazon, saw the humpback whales in Nuqui, or slept under the stars in the Tatacoa Desert. After seven years, there is still so much for me to see and explore in this beautiful country.
Now let me ask again. What comes to mind when you think of Colombia?