You hear about Colombia. Up and down Central America. Across oceans. It’s an amazing destination. The landscapes varied, the cities vibrant, the people incredibly open and friendly. When we first sketched out the timeline for our trip, we knew that we would want a lot of time in Colombia, so we aimed for a month. Unfortunately, it is the final country we planned to visit before making our way to Brazil for the World Cup. As the World Cup obviously has a start date, and tickets and accommodation were paid for back in November or so, we certainly need to be there on time. And then every time we got a little stuck somewhere – two weeks in El Tunco, El Salvador; a month in Nicaragua; five days in transit from Panama – little by little, bit by bit, it ate into our time in Colombia. We arrived in Cartagena on May 20th. We are scheduled to be in Manaus, Brazil on June 10th. We booked a flight out to Amazonas on June 5th from Bogota to give us enough time to get down to Manaus by boat on the Amazon. This left us with just over two weeks in Colombia. This is not enough time, not even close.
But we did our best. Our journey began in Cartagena, where we spent two nights. Cartagena is a beautiful city. Its walled old town houses countless treasures, from an entire street selling local sweets, to innovative artists selling their wares in the cobbled alleys, to excellent coffee shops and restaurants. We stayed in Getsemani, an area of backpacker hostels, cheap hotels, bars, and budget restaurants. Though it lacks the beauty and atmosphere of the old town, the cost savings make it an attractive option and the walled city is only about a five-minute walk away.
Cartagena is immensely enjoyable, and you could spend several happy days wandering the city. It is also quite possible to waste away several mornings, as the nightlife is better than much we’d stumbled upon recently. We were pleased and surprised to find Colombia was not as costly as we had been led to expect. We had found dorm beds for 20,000 Colombian pesos, dinner for 7,000, and beer for 1,500. (1 USD = 1800 Colombian pesos.) After a big day of exploring the city, we met up with many of the people from our boat for what turned into a bit of an excessive night out. Unfortunately, with that, we took our leave from Cartagena.
From Cartagena there are many popular next stops. Along the coast are Santa Marta and Taganga, backpacker havens and diving hotspots. Tayrona National Park graces the north of Colombia as well, which is home to the popular Lost City Trek. We decided to head south instead, mainly because every beach we wandered our bare feet over would very likely pale in comparison to the San Blas, and we just wanted something different.
We took an overnight bus to Medellin during which I very nearly froze to death, despite wearing most things that I own. The rationale behind sub-zero temperatures on all long bus journeys in much of the world has always confused me. We arrived in Medellin and embraced the Colombian novelty of the metro: Medellin is home to the only subway system in Colombia. It actually has quite an outstandingly progressive transit system, which I’ll get into later. We metro’d close to Poblado, where we intended to house ourselves for the next couple of days. Unfortunately, we hadn’t booked ahead (as per usual) and had a bit of trouble finding an empty hostel to take us in. Eventually I wandered past a small place and was met with one of the warmest people I’d stumbled upon in ages when I inquired about a room. We secured a double for 60,000 per night, which was at least as cheap as many of the backpacker shambles on offer, and were put up in a lovely room. The entire place was spotless, the shower was hot, and the modern kitchen was well equipped for guest use. It very much felt like staying in somebody’s home and we relished in small luxuries such as eating at a proper kitchen table. (I unfortunately cannot remember the name of this place, but it is located on Carrera 36, just down from Calle 10, across the street from a sandwich place.)
Medellin has a lot on offer. It is home to one of the most popular free walking tours across the world, which was, unfortunately, full and then not operating for both of our days in the city. It is easy enough, though, to take yourself on one of the cheapest sightseeing tours around, simply by buying a metro ticket.
The Medellin metro system is really quite outstanding. A ride costs 1,800 pesos ($1) and will take you to most major points around the city. The metro is above ground, so you get a scenic view of the city as you travel. Particularly when heading north, it’s actually very worth getting off at a few of the central stations to take photos, and then hopping on the next train that comes along. The truly unique and impressive aspect of Medellin transit is not the metro but the cable cars.
Medellin spreads from the centre of the city up onto the steep, surrounding hillsides. As with many South American cities, these hillsides are not filled with houses of grandeur with impressive views; they are home to the cities poorest residents. The thousands of tiny, crowed homes with corrugated metal roofing spread for miles. For a long time, the residents of these more disadvantaged areas were at even more of a disadvantage due to their difficult logistical placement: it would be impossible to build a metro into the hills and even buses have trouble navigating the steep, winding roads. The only transport into the city – which often meant the only chance to reach work opportunities, education, and services – was to walk. Often for 2-3 hours. The solution? In 2004 and 2008, Medellin opened two separate cable car lines as a form of public transport into the hillside communities. There is no additional cost from a metro ticket: you can ride the metro from one end of the city to the other and, provided you don’t exit the station, use the same ticket to take you up the cable car line. It is a unique concept, using a cable car as a form of mass transport, but it has worked incredibly well and has helped to bring the city closer together and opportunities closer for everyone. Indeed, Medellin credits its transport system as a large factor in the transformation of the city. Infamously known as Pablo Escobar’s hangout and drug cartel base, Medellin was lorded as the most dangerous city in the world, coke capital of the world, and other frightening titles. In not too many years, the city has reinvented itself; it has become a world-leader in public transport, and an international destination for tourism. In 2013, it was named as the most innovative city in the world. There are still social and economic issues, still crime – as with any major city. But the achievements of Medellin should be celebrated.
We took the metro cable up towards Santo Domingo station and had a birds-eye view of hundreds of residents going about their daily lives below us. Kids played football in small public squares, teens filled up makeshift swimming pools, and adults trotted up and down the steep staircases that link the communities. The houses were tiny – pulled together under scrap metal roofs. People seemed to be getting on, relatively fine, but the shocking contrast in wealth between this and the shiny districts we had been was most certainly unsettling.
When you reach Santo Domingo station on the cable car, you can simply stay put and ride the line back down, or you can disembark. From here, you can explore the area on foot. (I’ve heard varying opinions on how safe Santo Domingo is. My impression is you would be fine in the day time, particularly if you stayed on busy streets and did not flash cameras or iPhones.) The other option is to take a second cable car line, the tourist metro cable, to Park Arví for 4000 additional pesos. We did this, as we’d come this far, and were shocked with how far it actually took us. Mostly over wooded parkland, the views of the city soon were swallowed by nature. The ride probably took 15 minutes. I’d read a few brief reports on the park at the end of the line, which requires a bit of exploration before coming upon anything particularly interesting, so we opted to stay in our cable car and return to the city. Unless you are particularly interested in exploring the area, or really love cable cars, I’d recommend only taking the ride as far as Santo Domingo.
Once back at ground level, we travelled back into the centre of town, where we explored lunch options and some of the city. Set lunch meals in Colombia tend to be excellent value: you get soup, a hearty portion of rice and meat, and a drink for around 6000-8000 Colombian pesos at most budget eateries (3 – 4 USD). After filling up on one of these in the centre of town, we wandered around Plaza Botero, famous for its collection of 23 bronze Fernando Botero sculptures, meandered through some markets, and made our way back home.