The major cities in Colombia are comparable to cosmopolitan cities in other developing countries, such as Jakarta, Indonesia and Sao Paolo, Brazil. In Bogota and Medellin, one can easily find globally imported stuffs, global cuisines, and upwardly mobile crowd hitting the towns, and we love the chillier climate. We cannot believe that people from the Coasts (Cartagena, Santa Marta) refers to Bogota as La Nevera (the fridge) for its weather. We think it was perfect!!!! Cali is not as big, but it is famous for its salsa scenes.
The centre of the cities tend to retain more colonial flavors and more unsavory reputations, but each of the cities has its higher end neighborhood geared as strata 5 and 6. The stratified approach is used to determine the taxes and utility rates people pay. According to a local friend, the system works as such: the people living in strata 5 and 6 (about 20% of total population) has to subsidize those in strata 1 and 2 (who pay below costs). Strata 3 and 4 pay about market rate/at cost. When I first heard about this strata system, I was shocked. My first thought was the caste system in India, where once you are in the lowest caste, you pretty much have zero opportunities to advance. Luckily this was not the case. I will discuss more about each major cities we visited below.
When I first told our friends and families, I was going to Colombia (even with a guy buddy), they were all concerned. After all these years, people in Asia who does not follow South America news closely, still strongly associate Colombia with drugs. To be honest, it never crossed my mind. I pay more attention to where the guerillas are still active (and if a land travel would be save) and worry more about being mugged in Bogota (by the way, the worry came only after so many warnings – one that involves of not bringing our iphone 6!).
Of course, this leads to a massive discussion to where one should stay in Bogota. In the North which is safer? Or in La Candelaria, which is the Centre (where our Colombian friends would cringe when they heard we contemplated staying here)? At the end, because we split our Bogota trip into two parts, we decided to be equal-opportunity travelers. We stay first in La Candelaria, and then on our second visit, we would stay somewhere in Zona G to get to know those neighborhoods also.
I am glad we decided to stay in the La Candelaria area despite the reactions and warnings of our friends and travel resources. We were lucky that the afternoon we arrived was a day before a public holiday in Bogota (to commemorate the last battle won by the Revolutionaries against the Spaniards, which led to Colombia Independence). La Candelaria was buzzing with young people, especially around the Plaza Chorro de Quevedo. We were cautious of pickpockets due the amount of crowds, but otherwise we felt very, very safe. Walking through the square to the little streets around it, we explore the hippie part of Bogota. There are many backpackers’ hostels, places to eat, places to have fun while drinking, and places to fix one’s dreadlocks. We had a fun time taking in the atmosphere. Of course, we still exercise common sense. We do not walk around after 10pm (as advised by our friends and our condo’s guard). We take taxis via Tappsi or Easy Taxi booking apps, or asked a local to help call for one. We leave our jewelries and nice goods in our home country. We leave our valuables in a safe place in the condo or in the hotel. On the second night, when it was quiet, I was a little bit uncomfortable and actually asked my buddy to leave the square (we went there for a concert, but the turnout was very low) and quickly grabbed our meal, and went back to the hotel. It was only about 9pm. I felt like we stuck out like sore thumbs. My buddy though was completely comfortable (he is also a fellow traveler like me and travels solo quite a bit as well). I was being paranoid. There were still guards on the street. The convenience shop was still open.
The people in Bogota are very friendly and helpful. If you ask them something, I notice that they would give even more information than required. All the taxi drivers have been friendly and polite, and honest. A street vendor directed us to our restaurant, when we got dropped off the highway by our taxi (the ramp was closed because of ciclovia), and the taxi driver gave us an option to go on another long route around, or got off and walk for five minutes. We chose the latter because running up a dark highway ramp is our idea of fun (Not!), and the streets are crowded. Families are out and about, walking and on their bikes. True enough, we got there in five minutes – safe, sound, drunk (after “trying” a bottle of chicha) and hungry.
Our day excursion to Plaza de Bolivar, Montserrate, Museum Botero, and BanRep’s Collection of Arts was smooth. Our walk in search of a currency exchange was successful, and there was no one loitering around watching us. (Note: currency exchange in La Candelaria is mostly located near the Transmilenio stop of Museo de Oro. We found three, but only one was open due to public holiday). We had better rates at a money changer in a mall in Usaquen.
Plaza de Bolivar
One cannot go to Bogot and not go to Plaza de Bolivar. All photos of Bogotas are of this famous square. This square has the most important buildings: Cathedral, the Judicial Buildings, and many more.
A trip of its own. The figure of the Christ is powerful. I could feel it even if I am not a Catholic. When we arrived there was a mass and there was a lot of emotion inside the Church. The number of people who attended the mass today and their intensity was a stark difference to the number of people attending Easter Mass in Zaragoza Cathedral (I went last year). Religions still have strong influences in this part of the World, and diminishing in Spain (most of my Spanish friends do not practice, some do not even believe). A total irony, considering the Spaniards went to Latin and South American and destroyed the amazing Mayan, Incan, Aztec, and other civilizations to impose their belief system. A topic for a different day, however!
I had a great time at Montserrate. The view of Bogota is amazing! Bogota, as a capital city, definitely has few skyscrapers, compared to other capital cities in the World. I believe that is part of Bogota’s charms. It was fun trying to identify the buildings you thought you recognize.
I am not a big fan the crazy Marketplace beyond the Church, but I suppose it is a necessity for the visitors, especially those who climbed up (we took the funicular). The climb involves 1,500 steps and would take 60-90 minutes. We walked down and it took us an hour at least. Not to be a hypocrite, I did learn about Colombian food just walking along the Marketplace, and I always enjoy learning more about food.
Museo Botero and BanRep’s Collections of Art (Manzana Cultural)
Looking at Botero’s paintings and sculptures are always so much fun. And as a non-skinny girl, I am happy of anyone championing curves. The visit was also free, given that it is a public holiday. So that never hurts! And yeah, just like in Paris, everyone was gathered in front of Monalisa.
We went to BanRep’s Collections of Art only to see the La Lechuga. This 17th century Jesuit artefact is a must-see, especially for those who can appreciate their blings. Photos are not allowed here. The buildings that house these galleries are beautiful and worthy of a visit of their own.
We ended up missing Museo de Oro, as I extended one day in Santa Marta to do the Ciudad Perdida trek.
On our second stay in Bogota, we decided to stay in Rosales/Chapinero (Zona G). This neighborhood is very upscale and full of expensive restaurants, such as Il Cielo, Harry Sasson, and Gaston y Astrid. We walked around at night and during the day and felt completely safe. I suppose when you have money, you can live well and comfortable anywhere. Being in Zona G definitely does not feel like one is being in Latin America. My buddy felt like being in the USA, I felt it was more like Europe. This neighborhood is equivalent to Jardin in Sao Paolo, and is much nicer than Medellin’s El Poblado. We were there on a Sunday and managed to watch the ciclovia (where roads are closed for runners and cyclists) and a concert for the Solidarity walk.
Medellin was nice when we arrived and driving from the airport to the city (through mountains) – for that half hour I really believed Medellin’s climate is eternally spring. How gullible I am! When we got to the city itself, it feels muggy and smoggy and hot! Again air-con places were rare to find. To make things worse, I have been bitten by mozzies since Popaya, Cali, and now Medellin!
Upon driving from the airport and driving down the mountain into Medellin, I was reminded of Hong Kong but without the sea and the smog. The city is known to be one of the safest in Colombia, but surprisingly I felt very unsafe in the centre of Medellin. I felt safer in the centre of Cali than Medellin (no Colombians we told could believe this, however!). We were downtown for about two hours and we headed back to El Poblado where our hotel is located. El Poblado reminded me of Jardin in Sao Paolo (but less upscale).
We went to great restaurants in Medellin (Il Cielo, Mondongo), but I honestly think Medellin is a bit boring. There is not much to do there that suits my interests. One of the best thing we did is taking the metro-cable (cable car that functions as a metro with stops) through the Santo Domingo and other less privileged comunas to Parque Arvi. It is quite interesting (and safe) to observe the Medellin’s poorer neighborhoods from the safety of your cable car. The cable cars are meant for those living in these comunas to have an easier and safe commute and improve their standard of living. We also did not allocate enough time in Parque Arvi to engage a guide and do a proper hike. Something that would be amazing since most of Parque Arvi is still virgin jungles (which one observes from the cable car for a few kilometres).
We did check out one of the crazy clubs in Medellin called Dulce Jesus Mio (thanks for a few local and visiting Colombian friends). You have to be there to appreciate it. The décor, staff, and acts are crazily entertaining. I had never seen anything like it. And oh, apparently they do new year countdown pretty much every night. Thus, have no fear, you can always restart your “no-drinking” resolution pretty much each night.
We actually spent 2 days out of 4 on excursions outside of Medellin. We went to El Penol de Guatape and paisa towns of Jardin and Jerico. To be honest, I do not really know how to differentiate a colonial town and a paisa town. The buildings and plazas and churches in Jardin can be in any colonial town, except the building colors are more colorful (especially the wooden paneling, balconies, and windows). Jardin is beautiful though! It was worth the long drive through mountainous landscape (also very beautiful!). Jerico is not as beautiful, but it is the hometown of the first Colombian saint. Madre Laura Montoya was born in Jerico and was canonized in 2013. The specialities of Jerico is the carriel leather bag, which is also worn by the Paisa cowboys. I decided to buy one, and received a comment from a Colombian in the airport on the way home. He was a bit confused seeing that bag worn by someone in the USA, so he had to ask if I was Colombian. The carriel is super awesome. It was quite heavy actually. It has about 15 or 17 compartments (I had to go back and recount!). it is something I would wear anytime and anywhere, unlike the Wayuu woven bag. The latter is nice to look at, but in the real world, it would be hard to wear it.
Santiago de Cali, Valle del Cauca
I decided to go to Cali to visit a friend and check out the amazing Salsa scene. I had a great time visiting a friend whom I had not seen for six years! Unfortunately, I was there in a Thursday and the salsa scene was almost non-existent (we were too early perhaps???). We went to Menga barrio after visiting two recommended places that were closed that night. The salsa music was great, but the crowd was not there and they really ripped you off on the drinks. It was an experience nonetheless.
What surprised me about Cali is the fact that the downtown felt pretty safe during the day. After seeing Cali voted as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, I was a little bit wary. However, walking around with a guy friend, snapping photos in the downtown in bright daylight, I did not feel out of place. I did not feel people watching and targeting us. Everyone was minding their own business or just tried to get our attention to give them business (like the shoe polishers). And there was no Tourist Police in sight, except in La Merced complex. Calenos are also great! We got a couple extra experiences by being able to speak Spanish and being the only tourists then and there. In the Museo de Arte Colonial in La Merced complex, we got invited to visit the Augustine convent in the back and visit their “hostia” factory (the bread for communion). What an interesting experience. At the Teatro Municipal, we saw that it looked closed, but we actually asked one of the staffs that walked past the door if we could see the theatre, and he showed us in – only for a quick peek and around the seats area of course.
Based on recommendation of my friend, we also went to Platillos Voladores restaurant. Chef Vicky is very friendly, humble, and approachable. Her food is even more amazing. Her ceviche is the best I have ever had, and I have had ceviche at La Mar Cebicheria by Gaston Acurio in San Francisco. I also decided to skip the platos Fuertes (main dishes) in lieu of three appetizers (there were two of us) and a dessert. We tried interesting drink called Lulada (which is a mix of Lulo and Kiwi fruits – very sour!) We had a great time there – ooh aahing over the flavors and the presentations! For more details, please check out the post on Colombian Food.
We also were there during the music festival to highlight the music of the Pacific Coast of Colombia. The festival is called Festival Musica del Pacifico Petronio Alvarez. We were there in the afternoon, so we just walked around, and I managed to shop a couple of ethnic jewelries there. Cheap and beautiful. Let’s see how long they last! Haha. The main concerts would have started only in the evenings. However, they had a special section called Quilombo, where they honored one of the influential figures in Pacific coast music. We managed to catch some of the dance and singing performance (see video below). The beat was amazing and powerful, and the costumes are so colorful. Love them! There was also a lot of food stalls selling food from the Pacific coasts, but unfortunately, we were too stuffed to eat anything.
In the evening, my friend took us to her place and introduce us to her family. And her mom has made us a typical Colombian dessert! Arroz con leche. She also bought us a platter of Caleno street snack (not arepas or empanadas for a change!). They were yummy! I was so touched. I cannot believe their hospitality. If there is one thing I will always remember about Colombia, is the kindness of the people. After that she took us to the barrio of San Antonio. It was an old barrio that is now filled with hostels, backpackers, and restaurants and bars. It is still quaint to walk around.
Looking back, what I would do differently is where we stay. We chose to stay in Ciudad Jardin (south of Cali). This is far for going out at night and sightseeing. Although the traffic is not bad and the travel time is bearable, we did spent way too much in taxis in our 2 days in Cali. And oh ya, stay over the weekend to actually get into the real Salsa scene, which we were told can run into 5-7am in the morning.