Most of my friends thought I was crazy when I told them that I was going to Colombia, they thought I had a death wish. I was bored with the usual destinations. I wanted something that would get me excited.
I ended up loving Colombia so much on that first trip (in 2005) that I decided to go back a few years later with Lissette. The highlight for me, Cartagena, is still the most impressive colonial city that I’ve seen anywhere. The old walled quarter, surrounded by fortress walls, is full of churches, plazas, and wonderful courtyards hidden behind old, wooden doors. There is great architecture everywhere. Lots of nice little cafes, shaded parks with fountains to sit in, and great restaurants hidden in impressive colonial buildings. It is a very romantic city. Outside the walled city is the fort of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and the Santa Cruz monastery on La Popa hill (the highest point in the city). There is a spit of land called Bocagrande which is lined by beaches and modern high-rises. This is where most tourists stay (I recommend against this – pay a bit more and stay in the colonial city). Out in the harbor are 2 fortresses protecting the mouth of the harbor from attack. There’s lots to see.
One of the highlights, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas was built in 1536 and is known as the most formidable defensive complex of Spanish military architecture found anywhere. It has massive walls, turrets, cannons, and a network of tunnels connecting the different parts of the fortress. When I was here on my first trip two soldiers came up to me. They asked me where I came from and if it was my first time in Colombia. I thought they were going to shake me down for money. But they were very nice and before I knew it they offered me a tour of the tunnels. I said ok. You’ll see a photo of the two machine gun – toting soldiers that I took while in the tunnels. They were just friendly and bored. Their buddies showed up and I bought them all cokes. It was the first of many encounters I was to have with soldiers in Colombia.
But there’s more to Colombia than just Cartagena. The geographical diversity of the country is amazing. The multiple mountain ranges mean that climatic zones can change within a few kilometers. Example; Santa Marta and Taganga (a few hours away from Cartagena) are totally dry, desert climate. About 25 km away, Parque Tayrona is lush rainforest. Cartagena is hot, like a Caribbean island. Inland, Bogota is surprisingly cool, almost cold in the evenings. I’ve also been to Cali in the south (hot) and Manizales (cooler) in the lush and mountainous coffee-growing area. Geographically speaking, I found Colombia was like visiting several different countries in one. And not only was the geography varied, the scenery was also quite spectacular.
I was worried about security and how people would react to me. Firstly, there are many soldiers in Colombia, they seem to be everywhere. Information offices are also manned by soldiers/police officers, all of who were very friendly and helpful. In Rodadero (the beach resort close to Santa Marta), I stopped at the information office to ask the location of the bus station. I ended up getting escorted there by two soldiers. When Lissette and I were in Parque Tayrona, the resort where we stayed was taken over by the army one afternoon because the president was having lunch with some dignitaries. Army helicopters circled the resort. That night, after the president left, we were at the restaurant when some soldiers walked by. One of them politely asked, in English, “Sir, can I speak to you?”. Lissette and I spoke to him for about 5 minutes while about 20 soldiers stood around us, funny smiles on their faces. Turns out that the soldier had wanted to prove to his friends that he could speak English. Maybe my experience was unique, but I felt very safe in Colombia.
Colombians are really friendly, the women gorgeous. While I didn’t have any difficulties, Lissette (who’s Latina) felt that the Colombian women were aggressive and didn’t show enough consideration towards her. I think this applied in Cartagena, where women try to encourage tourists into their restaurants, often by trying to lead the man by the arm. I think this was maybe the only complaint we had.
Another thing I loved was the Spanish. Cartagena aside (where many spoke with that Caribbean slang), I found the Spanish in Colombia clear and concise. The perfect place for anyone who’s taken Spanish lessons and who wants to improve their Spanish.
I could go on and on about Colombia, it was one of those places that I really didn’t know anything about and where I was a bit nervous about going. It ended up being really special. I would not hesitate to go back to Colombia.