A week ago, we wrapped up spending the last two months in Colombia with the familiar passport stamp slamming sound just outside of Ipiales. A short walk across the river later, we were greeted with a faded sign reading Bienvenidos a Ecuador.
As we sit here in Cuenca, with our Colombian experience still fresh in our heads, we thought we’d give our take on highlights, lowlights, recommendations, and some tips for your next big trip to Colombia.
Some of our favorite places
1. Villa de Lleva – Maybe it was the combination of a beautiful small colonial town, a great hostel, and a great group of people we met here. That or the coconut ice cream that Christopher devoured there everyday.
2. Parque Tayrona – It was quite a haul getting into the park, but once we got there we took a few days to layback, relax, and enjoy the beach. The torrential downpour the night we slept in the Mirador may have been a slight drawback - though fun nevertheless.
3. Popayán - It was quite a surprise how nice this town was – beautiful architecture, friendly people, great food… what more did we need? We ended up staying longer than we had planned.
Some of our favorite hostals
1. La Casa de Felipe, Taganga - Organised around a large courtyard, Casa Felipe feels more like a traveler’s resort than a hostal. The room we stayed in was beautiful, clean, and inexpensive (a combination usually not easy to come by). On the third level, a mirador dining area offers great views of the small town with hammocks strategically placed for afternoon naps. But one of the best features of this hostel was its restaurant. Fillet mignon… grilled chicken breast with bacon… grilled fish… a great selection of dishes, all prepared and presented on the level of a multi-star restaurant rather than a backpacker hostal. The prices were very reasonable, especially for the quality of the dishes. The breakfasts were equally amazing with fresh juice, eggs, toast, marmalade… and much more. The staff were friendly and helpful, even when the hostal was busy with travelers trying to sort our their expeditions to the Lost City. Overall, La Casa de Felipe was quiet an amazing hostal, which we enjoyed immensely and would recommend to anyone heading to Taganga.
2. Renacer Guesthouse, Villa de Leyva – It’s actually unusual to arrive at a “Lonely Planet” pick and not be disappointed. It’s really no fault of the guide necessarily, but in the years between editions things tend to change… places can become too popular for their own good or owners can become too lax with the new found business. Neither was the case when we stayed at the Renacer Guesthouse in Villa de Leyva. Nestled in the hills above the town, this hostal was more like a country lodge than the typical backpacker haunt. The rooms were clean and comfortable, and both ample outdoor and indoor common spaces were available to get to know other travelers. Shortly after arriving, Julian introduced us to the hostal and to the host of activities available around the town. He was welcoming, friendly, and a great source of knowledge for all things Villa de Leyva. Breakfasts served from the hostal’s kitchen were delicious and very economical. For its quality spaces and friendly staff, this hostal was one of our favorite.
3. Parklife Hostal, Popayan – We never intended to stay in Popayan very long. After leaving Salento, we decided not to stay in Cali but rather to get closer to the border. We were surprised how much we ended up liking Popayan and probably thanks to, in no small part, Borja and Luiza at Parklife Hostel. From the moment we arrived there, these two new hostel owners treated us like guests in their own home rather than the (slightly grungy) backpackers we were. The room we stayed in offered a wonderful view of the town’s main square with tons of natural light. The common spaces were inviting and were also blessed with natural light from a glazed roof above, giving them an indoor/outdoor feel. We did a few day trips from Popayan, with Borja and Luiza helping us sort out the logistics required as well as taking care of our stuff in our absence. Overall, the hostal was a wonderful place to enjoy our time in Popayan.
Some of our favorite activities
1. Playing Tejo, Villa de Leyva – What happens when a bunch of Gringos try to take on Colombia’s national sport? Lots, actually.
2. Horseback Riding, Villa de Leyva – It’s a little bit harder when your means of transportation has a mind of its own.
3. Hiking the Valle de Cocora, Salento – Sure it was rainy. Sure it was cold. But walking amongst the Dr. Seuss wax palm trees made for a great day in Colombia’s coffee region.
4. Mike’s Bike Tour, Bogota – What’s better than seeing a scary place in the dark? Seeing it in the light.
5. White Water Rafting, San Gil – Well, it’s hard to take a camera with you when you go white water rafting. Alas, no pictures exist… but we had an amazing afternoon floating down the river fonce, trying not to fall out of our raft.
6. Kayaking, Hiking, Boating and Mountain Biking, Guatape – We ended up spending two weeks in Guatape while volunteering at Lakeview Hostel. And in that time we managed to study Spanish, kayak on the lake, hike to nearby waterfalls, mountain bike to El Penol, take a boat trip to one of Pablo Escobar’s old fincas, visit a monastery, and make some new friends.
After having spent two months in Colombia, it was actually hard to think of specific “lowlights.” Sure, there were a few times where things got a little screwy, but by in large our visit to Colombia was a positive one. Here are a few of the doozies we could come up with.
1. The bus ride to and from Tierradentro – This 5 hour trip (each way) made for quite the “shaken not stirred” experience.
2. Cartagena – Okay, yes it’s a beautiful city. But travel outside of the old part and Cartagena can be a little confronting. Combine that with a seering heat, insistent vendors, and relatively high prices and the city ends up being less than you expected. Of course, this was the first place we visited in South America, so we weren’t quite adjusted. So maybe next time, Cartagena.
3. Bucaramanga – Maybe it was the long overnight bus ride or maybe it was the awkward tourist museum guides… who knows. Famous as Santander’s commercial centre, Bucaramanga didn’t have much to offer a few weary travelers.
Overall, our experience with Colombian culture was nothing short of amazing. “Tourism” in the country is a relatively new concept – not that it hadn’t existed before – but only in the last few years has Colombia started to become a popular destination again for visitors to South America. In many of the places we visited, perhaps with the Coast as an exception, the people weren’t completely use to having tourists. This meant fair prices, friendly faces, and relative safety (especially in the small towns). Many of the travelers we met along the way, who had spent the past few months coming from the bottom of South America to the top, listed Colombia as their favorite place.
Despite all of our amazing experiences, especially when meeting Colombians (and speaking our bad Spanish with them), there were a few instances of, shall we say, Culture Shock. Some of these were a bit distressing but most, in the end, were just funny.
Shock: Lines, Queues, and all that – If you ever try buying a bus ticket or a pack chips or do anything else that would otherwise standing in a line in Colombia, you’ll catch on quite quickly to the fact that Colombians don’t do lines. Nope… Nada. Sure, you may be standing right in front of the ticket window, but that doesn’t mean that you’re next. Sure enough, an elderly grandmother or a slightly angry looking middle aged man will try flank you, and wedge their way in to garner the attention of the vendor.
Solution: If you can’t beat ‘em, join them - By the end of our time in Colombia, we both became quite adept at using our elbows and our assertive attitude to push back would be flankers. And when a crowd was milling to board a crowded bus, we just joined right in with hips and elbows to garner our spot in the “queue.” When in Rome, I guess.
Shock: This land is our land, this land is your land – Colombia has some of the most stunning scenery in South America. Easy to say for someone who hasn’t seen a lot of the continent, but the point is that the it is indeed a beautiful country – from rising mountains to stretching beaches to verdant jungles. But spend any time on a Colombian bus and you’ll learn that the most accepted way to get rid of any type of trash, rubbish, or otherwise unwanted item is to simply chuck it out the window. That’s right, directly out the window. And we’re not just talking about rebellious youths… everyone from the old to the young enjoys the bottomless rubbish bin that is the bus window.
Solution: Carry a trashbag - You’re not going to convince 40 million Colombians to dispose of their waste in a more responsible way. The best you can do is practice what millions of dollars of television campaigns have convinced you to do… namely throw your trash in the bin.
Shock: A La Orden - Good customer service in Colombia generally means standing directly next to a potential customer and providing as much attention (whether wanted or not) to them. This style of assistance was available everywhere from markets to shoe stores to bakeries… sometimes making it hard to make a clear headed purchase without being frightened away by assertive salesmanship.
Solution: Grow a pair - I had my own market revelations while visiting Colombia. Sure, salespeople there are persistent, but for the most part they´re nice and just trying to make a living.
Some tips for your trip to Colombia
Flying to Colombia
We flew from the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) to the Rafael Núñez International Airport (CTG) with Spirit Airlines. This airline has some amazingly cheap flights from New York, Los Angeles, and the Miami area to the Caribbean and South America. Of course, as you would guess, it´s a pretty no-frills carrier that loves to charge little extra costs for just about anything. But, our flight to Cartagena was just fine and cost less than $160 each for a one way ticket.
The paradox of the one-way ticket
The situation usually goes something like this… you want to go to a country but don’t know when you actually want to leave or where you want to go to next. Sure, most countries have time limits on their tourists visas, which you intend to adhere to; but you’re just not ready to commit to purchasing a ticket out of the country. The tricky part is that when you fly into a lot of countries on a tourist visa, they’ll want to see that you indeed have an onward ticket (although for some countries, a major credit card is sufficient in place of an actual ticket).
This is the situation we found ourselves in when we were first planning to start our trip in Colombia, because we didn’t know how long we would be in the country and weren’t going back to the United States. After a few hours researching the issue in travel forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorntree and Bootsnall we learned a few things about this paradox, specifically for Colombia:
- The majority of immigration personnel will not ask for proof of an onward ticket. However, the majority of airlines will.
- The “proof” of an onward ticket can be just about anything. Some people have used itineraries for unpaid flights provided by travel agents. Some have even got creative and just pasted an old itinerary into a word processing program and simply changed a few key items.Still others have purchased refundable onward tickets and simply canceled them after arriving.
- Nothing could be worse than starting your trip by being denied boarding or having to purchase an onward ticket upon arriving to Colombia.
For us, we played it a bit safe and purchased a refundable ticket. Finding the right refundable ticket was a little bit tricky. Most airlines offer refundable tickets but actually charge you a fee when you cancel them. Of the airlines we looked at, only Continental offered an unrestricted ticket from Bogota to Miami that could be canceled without a fee. Confirming this fact required a call to the airline, as the fare rules can be a little confusing online.
Sure enough, Spirit Airlines asked for our proof of an onward ticket and even asked for a few additional details about the flight. I was glad then that we chose the more conservative route.
After arriving in Colombia, we submitted a refund request online. We received an email a few days later that required us to make a short call to confirm the cancellation with the airline and about a week after that we had our full refund.
Getting around the country
Sure, you could fly between major cities in Colombia. Domestic airline fares are actually quite affordable. But, why would you want to miss the fun of seeing the beauty of the country? For most of the major routes in Colombia, going by bus is safe, comfortable and actually enjoyable. This wasn’t just our experience, but the experience of numerous other travelers we met in Colombia. Where else can you lean back in a lazy-boy style seats (complete with adjustable leg supports), watch an action packed film dubbed in Spanish, and enjoy the aggressive driving skills of Colombian bus drivers?
Also, if your schedule is a little pressed for time, night buses are a great way to cover long distances and save some money on accommodation at the same time. We took around 4 .night buses, between 8 and 16 hours long each – and had nothing but positive experiences.
Our favourite bus companies for long distances were:
Other travelers we met also recommended Expreso Brasilia, even though we never got a chance to try the company ourselves.
Finding Places to Stay
If there’s one thing that hasn’t quite hit mainstream in Colombia, it’s reserving accommodation on-line. You can do it for some places through sites such as Hostelbookers or Hostelword but for the overwhelming majority it’s either better to call or email the hostel directly or utilise the Hostel Trail Network. For some hostels in this network, it’s possible to book your bed at the next hostel with the one that you’re at. More often than not, we found emailing the hostels directly the easiest method.
One other quirk with the Colombia hostel culture is that bookings are typically open ended. Most hostels won’t necessarily be able to handle reservations too far in advance because they don’t actually know which guests are leaving each day. For most hostels, once you’re in, you can stay as long as you like (and pay). This is great if you’re in… but a pain if you’re trying to get a bed. We ran into this problem a few times, especially in busy Cartagena.
Colombia was the first South American country that we visited on our trip and our experience there was amazing. From beautiful little towns to large cities, from rivers to jungles, from the coast to the mountains… Colombia has something to offer every traveler.
Go ahead and drop us a line if you have any questions planning your next trip to Colombia or care to share some insights of your own!