Before my arrival, my knowledge of Colombia didn’t really extend much further beyond Narcos and Rene Higuita. I quickly picked things up however, and realised the place is nowehere near as dangerous as Narcos shows, and the people aren’t all barking mad like Higuita, thankfully. My time in the eighth and final country I’m venturing through on this trip was also different to the other seven, as I travelled around with a familiar face.
Emma, I know from school, and had spent six months living in Vietnam before going loco and returning home (I’ll spare that story here, I’ve heard it enough). She decided to take a three-week excursion before returning to the real world, and picked Colombia ahead of my arrival there. Weird. Weird she actually wasn’t joking when she said she’d fly to meet me on the other side of the world, weird I now had someone I know with me having gone four months without. I couldn’t really complain. While I’ve enjoyed the independence of travelling alone, one thing lacking all that time was familiarity. And I couldn’t really lose. If Emma annoyed the hell out of me, I still had more of Brazil to explore on my own after she’d gone.
A little more on my new travelling companion. Small, blonde hair, will not shy away from eating a melted Kit-Kat on a busy bus, and an expert in Spanglish. I know a limited amount of Spanish myself, but that is at least one language at one time. ‘Can we get la cuenta please?’ Top Marks for mixing it up. Colombian place names were also an excellent source of comedy. Who knew places in Colombia could be so easily mispronounced as famous footballers? We took on quite a classic itinerary to see what we could of Colombia in a little over three weeks. My first place to explore no longer as a solo traveller was the relatively pronounceable capital, Bogota.
Bogota didn’t exactly blow me away. It’s one of the less attractive major cities I’ve seen in South America, and Emma was probably wondering what she’d got herself into as we wandered round the crumbling historical centre. We strangely encountered very few other foreigners during our time here. If I didn’t look gringo enough, walking alongside a fresh off the plane gringo in Emma certainly made us stick out. While I’ve generally had little trouble on my travels, that incident with the would-be robber in Peru aside, I felt as if Colombia would have posed a bit more in terms of danger. The fact there were thick metal bars on the outside of our hostel wasn’t exactly an encouraging sign, but Bogota and the rest of Colombia turned out to be just as safe as anywhere else I’ve been. I think it’s fair to say the country has improved its reputation in the last 20 years.
It was a swift one in Bogota. The pick of our excursions was climbing Cerro de Monserrate to get an incredible view of the city. The place is huge. It reminded me of climbing Cerro San Cristobal in Santiago, and much like with Chile’s capital, the view of the smog clouding the city made you realise the extent of pollution these giant South American metropolis’ are generating on a daily basis. Not that I’m Leonardo Di Caprio to do anything about it, we moved onto Medellin, or former Sheffield Wednesday striker Gary ‘Madine’ as Emma called it. The Spanish double L pronounced as a ‘y’, though here in Colombia as a ‘j’ causing absolute havoc with Emma’s speech, Medellin just lost its middle syllable. Interestingly we flew there.
Medellin was once the most dangerous city in the world at the height of the Medellin cartel led by Pablo Escobar, anyone who’s seen the excellent Narcos would be able to understand that. Thankfully it’s moved on, enabling the rest of the world to have the bottle to go there. No bottle is needed really. With its array of bars in the El Poblado area it has become a bit of a hotspot for travellers.
That classic itinerary we were on led us on a day trip to nearby Guatape. How it’s made its way into the classic Colombian gringo trail I don’t know, when we got there it was essentially a small town next to a gigantic rock, but everybody seems to go there. A sign at the foot of the rock claims the greatest view in the world is at the top. We climbed it, 659 steps to be precise, and it was truly an incredible view. Was it the greatest? I preferred my Moby rock in Bariloche. Of course the top of this rock would be the most obvious place to bump into someone who went to school down the road. Emma didn’t really bat an eyelid, but I couldn’t believe the coincidence.
After Medellin was where that itinerary, to put it bluntly, became a fuck up. On the advice of a friend of a friend of Emma’s, we made our way to Salento, a small town of around 7000 people in the coffee producing region of the country. The problem was it was a seven-hour journey from Medellin, and we’d intended to just pop over there for a couple of days before heading back to Medellin as we had a flight north to catch. So not only were we doing this journey annoyingly twice, when we got to Salento we were actually closer to Bogota, despite having flown past it into Medellin just a few days previously. I don’t think I’ve explained this too well, but I hope it’s certainly easy to understand this was one big fuck up, and probably wouldn’t have happened if I was still travelling on my own. I didn’t blame Emma though. Well only a bit.
Salento was an enjoyable little place at least. There’s not an awful lot to do there, a hike in the nearby Cocora Valley, and a tour of a local coffee farm, really. We hiked through Cocora, and were rewarded with another great view of its palm trees sparsely decorating the green valley. I’d argue this was also a better view than the previously claimed ‘greatest view in the world’. But enough about comparing views. This was my favourite day while travelling the centre of the country.
After Salento we had that long journey back to Medellin again because of the fuck up. The plan from here made sense again, we intended to fly north to travel along the Caribbean coast. Starting in Cartagena we would make our way to Santa Marta and beyond, all the way up to Punta Gallinas, the most northern point in South America. A slip of the tongue rather than bad Spanish meant Emma called this Punta ‘Gallas’. I allowed no let up, the former Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs man William Gallas would be joining the company of Gary Madine.
I began writing this post thinking I’d get through the whole of Colombia, but given I’ve already waffled a fair bit I’ll post about the exploration of the Caribbean Costa in the next few days. Sorry, I mistyped coast as Chelsea striker Diego Costa there, that should have been Caribbean Coast. Caribbean Coast to come.