How do you get to Colombia?
So, you don’t just go to Colombia. There’s a very difficult Visa you need to get in advance and have with you at all times, a host of vaccines and inoculations are required, you need to prebook all intercity transportation with reputable vendors, as well as get additional insurance for kidnapping amongst plenty of other “high risk” area insurances. There was even a special YouTube channel the Canadian government “recommends” all visitors to the area watch briefing videos for.
Just kidding of course. Going to Colombia is like going to any other friggin’ country in the world, except that it’s maybe more friendly to tourists than average. But you probably believed at least a few of those outlandish claims I made, why? I'm guessing it had something to do with Colombia's particularly rough and somewhat recent history, but if you like statistics then here's a chart for you.
There's no two ways about it, 15-30 years ago Colombia would not have been a great tourist destination, but then again, I wouldn't recommend traveling to any war zone.
Anyway, I'd love to start talking about how great a place this is.
YYZ -> BOG
#1, It's a DIRECT flight from Toronto, and it's the basically the same time zone. The airport you land in Bogotá is called El Dorado. Also cool.
Enter Stranger 2 - "Oh wow, I spent a full month in obscure country village, I think to get a true feel for Colombia you need a full year here, like what I'm doing. I'll be here for a year."
Because of this unique geography, we focused our tourism on two spots; San Gil and Medellín. Less days in transit generally correlates to more fun. But we did fly in to Bogotá.
And as much as I tried to rise above the prejudice for the country, and treat it unbiasedly, I caved and did something I wouldn’t normally do.
It wasn’t the flocks of unlicensed cab drivers that somewhat aggressively wanted your fare as you left the airport (just go to the registered taxi line up), or the colourful, diverse city we were driving through, or the half broken communication of our cab driver trying his best to to clarify our destination address (no problems there).
It’s about 8pm, we drop off our bags in our hostel room. We’re tired, but there’s enough time to walk around the neighbourhood. Then, for the first time ever… we ask the guy at the front desk...
“Is it safe to go for a walk?”
Besides the fact that we seemed to be in a nice part of town, the streets were well lit, people were coming and going, and I received in general absolutely no visual cues that this was a location where safety would be a concern....I still asked about safety, because it's Colombia.
"Yea it's fine, we've never had any trouble." was his response, of course.
That was almost the only time I let my observations and judgement be impacted from unsubstantiated fears.
Although I must say, we were instructed by Colombians, to not give papaya. Let me explain.
On our walk around Bogotá, while in line for a restaurant we overheard a woman in a bit of a panic who just had her camera swiped. Not pleasant, but this is just as likely to happen in Paris or Barcelona too. You can diminish your chances to be thieved by not giving papaya.
To not give papaya, or no dar papaya, is encouraging people to not have their valuables easily taken, so what does this mean? Well, don't do the following:
So Lindy and I did our best to not be handing out papayas.
Uber is currently illegal in Bogotá, but that doesn’t stop many enterprising Uberites from doing their best to operate the service, in spite of being harassed by the police.
We heard one German couple say that their driver told them his name, and in case of police trouble, just to pretend they were friends! How nice. Sure enough they did get questioned by the police, and although the Germans didn’t sell out their friend/driver, they did forget his name… Apparently it all ended up ok though.
It’s really too bad, because Uber is a lot more convenient and reliable than the taxis.
Taxis in Bogota were really the only thing that we felt were somewhat sketchy (drivers turning off the meter, etc..), which is why using Ubers without driver prosecution would have been so nice. We did get in one cab back to our hostel, and at the end of it, the otherwise nice driver insisted on me paying with credit card as opposed to cash. Why?
He said, "More secure"
To which I replied, "More secure than cash?"
He gave me a shoulder shrug and I gave him cash.
Remember in 2014, when one individual with one gun caused a national tragedy at Parliament in Ottawa? Can you imagine the reaction if instead of it was one person it was 35 people with 3 vehicles? It's definitely events like this that contribute to the poor image of Colombia held internationally, even though it was over 30 years ago.
With over 8 million people in Bogotá, it’s a big city. It’s actually the fifth largest city in all the America's, just a bit smaller than New York.
Though we enjoyed Bogotá, we really only had a tiny little taste of it. Though it did serve very well as a method to get acclimatized (both to the altitude and the culture)
A bit of that culture shock
I'm not talking about learning how to Salsa dance or eat tamales.
Normally, it’s pretty easy to figure out local transportation once you get to a place. Unless you’re in crazy peak season of a popular spot, I find doing things 1-3 days in advance is just fine.
Although I didn’t exactly know how we were going to get from Bogotá to San Gil, I knew I could just figure it out after we got to Colombia. Generally speaking, transportation has never been an issue for us, anywhere we've ever gone.
Well, he did call someone for us, but hung up the phone being like:
“I don’t know man, you might just have to wing it.”
I saw from my research online, no buses really left before 8:30AM. I also saw the names of a few bus companies that were more likely to go to San Gil than others.
So our strategy was wake up early, go to the bus station and try our luck. And as it alllllllwaaaaaayssss turns out (99% of the time anyway), it was much ado about nothing.
We had a very nice, helpful cab driver take us to the station. I went straight to one of the bus company windows, who’s logo I recognized. I said “San Gil?” and received some rapid-fire Spanish in response. But the operative words we were able to hear were:
“Si, quinza minuto sesante y ocho mille”
Then I gave that universal look that says, “I know I just opened the dialogue in Spanish to you, but I don’t actually understand Spanish that well so could you tell me in English please?”
This only prompted her to say the same words, but slower and louder. Basically, between her nodding, pointing to a bus, and asking for money, we figured we were probably in the right spot.
It didn't hurt our chances that after we paid and got to the bus queue, there were two Americans also looking mildly puzzled as well, also traveling to San Gil. So that sealed it, we were in the right spot! Probably.
No confirmation biases here!
After we got on the bus, the rest was uneventful. We had about a 6-7 hour bus ride to our destination. Traffic was fine, weather was good, country side was nice. One the movies on the bus was Fast and the Furious. It was amazing how much of it you could follow even though it was all in Spanish.
San Gil (pr: sawn-HEel)
San Gil was definitely a highlight. It was a perfect "little" town (population ~50,0000) that was just bustling. You could just walk around for hours, a people watchers dream (does anyone else think the term “people watching” is kind of creepy?)
Lindy: "Let’s do the more difficult of the two options for mountain biking."
Mike: "Yea that makes sense, we’re both in half-decent shape, and I’ve mountain biked one other time in my life, 7 years ago and you've never mountain biked."
Mountain biking is like, really challenging. Holy crow.
It’s a good thing that our guide from Colombian Bike Junkies was so great and patient, because Lindy and I were the stragglers. I probably fell off my bike 3-5 times. Also, I’m not sure if avid cyclists ever stop to think about it, but numerous times I thought, “Gee I sure hope I don’t just accidentally twist these handle bars and drive straight off this cliff.” I didn’t though.
And the cut I got on my achilles from that cattle grate never got infected, and we had burritos for lunch, AND we got to swim in a thermal pool after, AND the music in the very scenic drive back was great.
It was crippling and exhausting, but amazing.
We would have loved more time in San Gil (and the nearby Barichara), but alas, you can’t do it all.
We only saw Barichara for about 3 hours, but what a nice relaxing place. It was only about a 30 minute bus ride from San Gil.
Then all of a sudden, the bus quickly slows to a stop, the daylight is just starting to wane, and the driver yells out “Los Curos!” which was our transfer point.
Hmmm. Outside doesn’t look like a bus terminal...Oh boy here we go.
We get off the bus, the driver helps us get our bags, then he quickly climbs back on board and peels off.
We’re literally left standing in the dust thinking, where the hell are we and how do we continue? No recognizable road signs, bus stops, etc….
So we both look at each other and think “I guess we should just start asking people?”
After a few confused looks at our question/pronunciation, multiple people we ask start pointing in the same direction, off this fork in the road up hill. We head up that way.
So far so good, we’re now off the highway, and happily drawing some attention of people going about their day. This made it much easier to approach different folks and ask how to get where we were going.
Then we bused from there to Bucaramanga (great name eh?), got in a cab and got to the airport. This was the ONLY time in the trip I got a little sketched out.
Basically, the bus dropped us off in a weird spot, kind of the side of a highway except with about 30 people around waiting for cabs and buying stuff at the stand that was there. It was then where I noticed, a young transgendered individual and an elderly man with a limp. Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t have garnered my attention, but I couldn’t help but notice them staring us down very plainly.
And then slowly, nondescriptly, they making their way towards us.
In the meantime we get the attention of a driver, and he pops open the trunk to help us get our things inside the car.
All the while this odd couple is still approaching our vehicle. Finally the younger person addresses the cab driver, and speaks quietly to him in Spanish. The driver doesn’t really acknowledge the person, and then shakes his head and waves his hand away. He then politely motions for us to get in as he also enters the car, we drive away.
I don’t know if this duo was trying to get Lindy and I involved in a drug running scheme, or simply compliment the driver on how insanely beautiful his fare was. Absolutely no idea. But it felt weird.
One of the most frequent things people would talk to us about before or after arriving to Colombia, was “Have you seen Narcos?”
Without checking Wikipedia, I do know Narcos centres around Pablo Escobar’s rise and fall. An incredibly tantalizing subject, a story as terrible as it is fascinating. Although, I think the strange conditions that allowed for Escobar's meteoric rise to power 40 years ago and the miraculous rejuvenation of Medellin that has occurred since his demise, are more interesting stories.
Colombians love talking about proud moments (which is great, most countries do this, right?) Apparently the Colombians had a last minute goal to tie a World Cup game one time, the game finished as a tie. Our tour guide said this moment was one of those moments, where Colombians will talk about and recall like;
“Where were you when we tied that game?”
But also, they don’t acknowledge so well the recent violence in their history, like going as far as it not being mentioned by a teachers at any point during grade school. This is especially noticeable compared to how well we noticed Berlin acknowledges their rough recent history...
This same city tour guide I keep referring to, also wouldn’t even say the names of certain recent politicians out loud, because opinions are that polarizing and rousing.
Medellín was just a great city to visit, every way you look at it. It's affordable without being cheap, public transit was amazing and clean, expansive nature is just outside the city. It had great history, museums, art galleries, nightlife, restaurants... It was really one of the best city tourism experiences I've ever had.
Colombia was sooooo great. I feel like there’s a number of places in the world that are
“undiscovered” as far as tourist destinations go, I wouldn't quite put Colombia in this category anymore.
In the words the walking city tour guide:
“One year ago, if I saw gringos in the near our meeting point, they were 100% on my tour. But less than one year later I couldn't assume that anymore!”
All right, it's not that flowery of a quote but it gets the point across.
There's so much we didn't see in Colombia. We didn't see the Caribbean or the Pacific coasts, we didn't see the rainforest, we didn't see any of the pre-colonial archaeological sites, and we just barely saw the Andes.
There's lots to do here, we'd love to go back.