It was as if I had declared my intention to walk through Times Square in 1975 alone and unarmed. “Colombia? Why?” was the response almost every single time I shared the holiday travel plans I had with my husband. And my response in turn? A defiant “Why not?” of course.
In truth, situations came together that gave us the option to fly off somewhere for a week, including that my daughter would be spending the break with her father and his family in Florida. We only had a week to travel, so our bucket list spots that would require longer (meaning a day or more each way spent in transit and more than a 3-hour jetlag) were off the table. As we are in the middle of home renovations, spending a bunch of money was out of the question too. What to do? Log on to the American Airlines website, plug in our miles and see where they take us. Bogotá! 1. It was the cheapest miles ticket over the holidays. 2. Neither of us have been to Colombia (a huge plus). 3. Cartagena, the glamorous Caribbean city only an hour and a half from the capital by air, has been popping up on countless “Best of” travel lists from over the last year and for 2015. And the best part? It’s not crawling with Americans in fanny packs and white sneakers yet. Done. (Note: My Spanish is terrible. My husband, a gringo from Texas, fares much better but is far from fluent.)
We arrived in Bogotá at midnight, crashed at the airport Aloft Hotel for a few hours, then hopped an early flight out to Cartagena on the coast. Bogotá was cold, so stepping off the plane after such a short flight and getting hit with the hot tropical air was a welcome shock. Most of the people we encountered were tourists as well, mostly from other South American countries, and the security and cabs were all accustomed to people who had no idea where they were going and were very helpful. We got to our hotel, the Hilton Cartagena (using points from previous travels), checked in without incident, and were soon lounging at the pool with fruity cocktails and a beautiful view of the Caribbean. It was Christmas Eve but you would never know it aside from the decorations. We weren’t far from the Old Town, about 10 minutes by cab (a consistent equivalent of about US$3) so for our three days we spent evening hours there after afternoons by the beach or pool. The old city was much like New Orleans with its architecture and party spirit, music, food and pedestrian streets, and it truly came alive at night. We cocktailed at the elegant Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena, formerly a convent and now a favorite of part-time neighbor Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with live music, roaring fans, English-speaking staff, and air-conditioned bathrooms (more on that later), and dined at little cafés around the town. The top spots were booked up weeks and months in advance, long before we’d booked our trip, but we ate well and imbibed even better. In Cartagena you can’t beat the Caribbean favorites ceviche, local cerveza, and rum cocktails.
And we walked. We traced out the paths of the characters in Love in the Time of Cholera, scoped out the beautiful cathedrals, and took dozens of pictures of the gorgeous architecture and the walls of the old fortress. During the day we needed frequent breaks from the heat, so returning to the cool and fragrant halls of the Santa Clara was invaluable for rest and a cold drink or two. Other favorite places in Cartagena included Café del Mar, an open air restaurant/club on the walls of the old city (pricey but worth it for the view- go for at least a glass of wine at sunset), Demente Tapas Bar in the trendy (and more local) Getsemani neighborhood adjacent to the old city (chat up well-traveled owner Nicolas as he puffs his cigar and plays American blues on his computer behind the bar- he gave us great recommendations for Bogotá), and Café Havana, where we listened to live Cuban music and attempted to salsa dance after midnight when the party finally started.
Bogotá was something completely different, as only an hour and a half flight took us from 7 ft elevation to 8660 ft. elevation. In Love in the Time of Cholera the city was described as like Paris: often grey, rainy, and cold, but rich in culture. Although the high altitude was noticeable, we got really lucky and arrived for some sunny and warm days, perfect for exploring the city by foot. The first element of Bogotá that grabbed our attention was the prevalent graffiti; even statues and monuments are tagged. But much of the street art works are gorgeous murals taking up entire buildings, and there were clearly significant styles. I wanted to know more, and my online searching turned up a website for Bogotá Graffiti tours, done in English by an Australian street artist who is now a resident of Bogotá. We were intrigued and signed up for the next day, not knowing at all what to expect. It turned out to be one of the best choices I’ve made while traveling. While our first day exploring the city was lovely and informative,
including the absolute MUSTS- the Botero Museum, Museo del Oro (Gold Museum), and Museo Histórico Policía (dedicated mostly to the country’s wars with drug lord Pablo Escobar and guerrilla groups M-19 and FARC), the most interesting and informative part of our Colombia adventure was this two and a half hour tour. Our guide explained the battles and the partnerships between the artists and the authorities, the reasoning for the art and the legality of it. We started to notice the different styles and tags, and came to understand the messages that they conveyed and why. In a country where the media is still tightly controlled and individual rights are limited, this art is a necessary form of communication. In order to truly understand the culture and history of Colombians, learning about their struggles from different sides is essential (including the role that the U.S. has played) and we are truly glad that we got the opportunity during our time in their country.
Our nightlife experiences in Bogotá were quite different than Cartagena and other cities around the world, because it was very clear that this is a place where caution is key. Of course that’s the case everywhere when traveling, but here there are still powerful groups of people with political points to make, and they control large parts of the country. Safety is stressed by guidebooks, hotels, and locals alike, especially when it comes to what neighborhoods you go to and how you get there. This is one of the only cities I’ve spent time in where I didn’t use public transportation. When leaving the Hilton Bogotá, the staff walked us to a car, noted who we left with and where we went. Leaving a museum, the front desk called a car for us, gave us the license place of the car that would come, and gave us a code to give the driver so that our route could be tracked. At one point on our way to the historic La Candelaria district our driver got stuck in standstill traffic because of a protest, and it was evident we would be late to our destination. Being seasoned travelers, we offered to pay up and walk the rest of the way but driver would not allow it, even calling the hotel to have one of their representatives talk to us. He explained that the two remaining blocks might look safe but were not for us, which was unnerving. A fellow American who was staying at our hotel had grown up in Colombia and had a teaching job in another city, but the day we met she had just been robbed by a cab driver. So suffice it to say, our evenings were early and nightcaps were in the hotel bar. Boring, maybe, but thankfully we now have no bad stories to tell.
Highlights of Bogotá included the restaurants Black Bear (swanky New York vibe and modern dishes, a recommendation from Nicolas in Cartagena) and Andres DC (we went to the one in the city but the BIG one is 45 minutes away; I would describe it as a House of Blues on, well, when in Colombia), and the cable car trip up the mountain to the breathtaking views from Montserrate at 10,341 ft. If you are lucky enough to get a sunny day, like we were, drop everything else you had planned and get up there then. I’ve met many travelers who never got the opportunity to see a view other than fog, sadly.
Overall, the country is certainly not the backwards and scary Romancing the Stone version that Americans seem to envision still. For the most part we felt very safe and cared for, and the people really wanted us to have a good time. Many said “You will come back, right? And tell your friends to come!” as we left. If you, like us, prefer to travel to places that will challenge you, where you will not be surrounded by other American tourists, it’s worth it to travel to Colombia. Knowledge of the language is a good idea no matter where you go in the world, but here it’s more important as English isn’t as prevalent. If we’d been fluent we likely would have taken more risks and had more fun, frankly. We did leave with beautiful memories though, and thanks to utilizing miles and points, it was a very inexpensive trip that we are glad we took. But Colombia has quite a ways to go before we would recommend it to everyone, and after meeting the people and seeing some of the beautiful country, we sincerely hope that they can get there.