|One of many graffiti-painted walls in Bogota|
Response: While we were visiting Costa Rica last year, we used a small family company for all our transportation needs. Over the weeks, we became familiar with most of the family and learned that they were planning on travelling to Cartagena, Colombia for their family holiday. Prior to that comment, Colombia wasn't even on the radar but, the more time I spent researching, the more certain I was that this was a destination we should see. Tourism is still in the early stages of development throughout much of the country due to its long history of political instability and drug related violence.
Question: What was your first impression of Colombia?
Response: When we landed at Bogota, I was beginning to wonder whether we might not have bitten off a little more than we could chew. We were told long before we landed not to accept a ride in anything but a gov't-owned taxi and here we were, following a young man to who knows where but definitely not moving in the direction of the long line of gov't-owned taxis. In hindsight, I give him credit; as soon as he understood our apprehension, he immediately walked us back to the line. I felt a little guilty because we would more than likely have been perfectly fine; the poor guy was only trying to make a living.
The ride to our small, family-owned hotel in the La Candelaria district was also a bit of an eye-opener, but in a good way. While Bogota is no different than any other urban area when it comes to homelessness, the City appeared to be very clean and well maintained. I was especially impressed by the myriad of living walls we saw along the freeway. In fact, Bogota boasts the largest vertical garden in the world, with 85,000 plants covering 3,100 square metres which produces enough oxygen for more the 3,100 people every single year, processing 1,708 pounds of heavy metals, filters more than 1,000 tons of harmful fumes and catches more than 881 pounds of dust!
Response: Eric and I differ in terms of personal safety needs. While I tend to remain aware of my surroundings, I have always travelled with an open mind, assuming that most of the people in the world are friends. Eric is a little more skeptical in that regard. Upon first arriving, we generally spend a few hours familiarizing ourselves, first with our accommodations, and then the nearby community. We move around during daylight hours and stay to the main thoroughfares and public spaces. Because we were meeting a tour company, we arrived a day early, putting faith in the company that the neighbourhood and hotel were well situated. We did, however, take a few extra precautions that we haven't taken during previous travels. Eric invested in a money belt and I invested in a well made handbag as we had both read that pick pockets and petty theft was a huge problem in Colombia, particularly in the larger cities. In other words, we take measures to ensure we do not become victims, which seems to meet both of our safety needs. That said, I never felt threatened in Bogota or any of the larger centres.
Away from the big cities was a different story altogether. In fact, I marveled at the locks on the doors (or lack thereof) of our various accommodations. Seriously, I think we have higher security on our bedroom door at home. It should be noted that, after a couple of days of itchy scratchy, the money belt found it's way into the suitcase never to be removed until we returned home.
Question: How was the weather?
Response: Situated high in the Andes Mountains, at 8,500' above sea level, Bogota is cooler than much of Colombia but 15C felt pretty balmy to two of us arriving from Western Canada. It was definitely shorts weather for the rest of the trip, ranging from the mid-20s in Armenia to the low 30s in Cartagena. We didn't see a speck of rain. We were told that January and February are generally the dryer months.
|Parque de los Periodistas|
Response: Bogota and, in fact, much of Colombia, is well known for its street art. Before leaving for Canada, I signed up for a 3-hour Original Bogota Graffiti Tour. In 2011 an Australian street artist and a Canadian graffiti writer decided they wanted to share Bogota's urban art scene. While the tour operator is a certified guide, the tour is accompanied by a street artist who eagerly shares a passion and knowledge for this urban art form. The tour is free but a suggested 20-30mil pesos will help the company reinvest in the community.
Our first order of business was to find the Parque de los Periodistas, where we were to meet the tour group. After wondering around the La Candelaria district we finally stumbled into a small square a few blocks from our hotel. While English is not widely spoken throughout Colombia, we were able to discern that we were indeed in the right location. We spent the next hour checking out nearby sights and people watching.
|Colombia Express Itinerary, by G Adventures|
That evening, we met with our G Adventures representative, Luis, and members of our group, for an orientation dinner. The following morning we made a whirlwind visit to Paloquemao Market, with its myriad food stalls, flowers shops, cafes and everything in between. They say Colombia is a fruit lover's paradise and we certainly learned why! We sampled many exotic tropical fruits including badea, borojo, caimito, and a number of others that I can't even begin to tell you the names of!
|a sample of some of the many fruits available in Colombia|
Question: How did you come about choosing a tour company?
Response: First, we have never travelled with a tour company. We have, however, had some magnificent experiences retaining the services of a guide to take us into various parts of Mexico, in all cases either in very small groups or just the two of us. I had certain places I wanted to see in Colombia and I really didn't know how else to do it After doing some reading, I felt a small group tour was a better way to go as I didn't take kindly to the idea of being herded like cattle in a larger group of 30 or more. I also had some concerns about the dynamics of a large group and the impact it might have on the community. After exploring a few options, the G-Adventures' business model aligned best with our personal travel style. First, G Adventures is Canadian; in fact, the founder, Bruce Poon Tip, was raised just down the road in Calgary, Alberta! Second, it embraces a responsible and sustainable model, ensuring that we are giving back as much of more to the communities than we are taking away. Third, the largest group is 16 people, with the average being 12! It didn't take either of us long to figure out that we made the right choice for us.
|A nice way to break in the group was to |
spend time relaxing near the pool
Response: I must say, Luis was pretty darn good at getting us to the airport and onto Avianca Airlines for a two-night hacienda stay in Colombia's beautiful coffee region. The hacienda was charming in every respect. The grounds were beautifully maintained, the accommodation simple but pleasant, and the food was ample. On the way, we stopped at a small mercado (market) for snacks and liquor to enjoy while we relaxed by the pool and acquainted ourselves with our fellow travelers.
I was impressed by the diversity of our group and how well we all got along. Our youngest member was a 28-year-old Austrian woman while our eldest I would guess was a very fit and youthful 70-something gentleman. Guests embarked from Ireland; Scotland, Austria, Canada, USA and Singapore. My first thoughts was that, while this tour company clearly attracted well educated individuals, someone else aptly corrected me, suggesting that it attracted open-minded people looking for real life experiences. A surprise for me was that couples were the minority, in fact, single women were strongly represented. I, for one, would definitely consider G Adventures for solo travel.
|A bit of fun at the coffee plantation|
|The beginning of the hike into the Cocora Valley|
Our hike was about 2.5 hours round trip though I understand there is an amazing 5 hour, 12 km hike as well. Be warned, while the ascent is pretty straightforward, the descent is a little more strenuous due to the significant grade of the grassed valley wall. I suspect it could be a wee bit treacherous in wet conditions.
|G Adventures thought of everything, including a flag representing each of us|
|One of several Escalators |
A mere twenty-five years ago, Time Magazine dubbed Medellin 'the most dangerous city on earth'. Even 10 years ago, it was still considered pretty bad-ass. Fast forward to 2013 and it is hailed as the most innovative city in the world by the Urban Land Institute. When the Metro was constructed in 1994, it was one of the first positive changes in the city in decades. Today, under the leadership of several very forward thinking mayors, Medellin boasts cable cars and escalators connecting the labyrinth of barios that cling to the mountain sides of the City.
|The flying of white rages eventually ended the siege|
|Our Comuna 13 guide, Andres, sharing the history of his community |
where he was born and raised, and still remains in
|The transformation continue today|
|Symbols of hope, prayers for peace|
We were then taken to the building that Escobar constructed as his own personal prison from what was originally a monastery. The building is now used to house disabled seniors; once again, we were not welcomed.
In fact, we were met with a poster-sized sign from the Administration: "Foundation Santa Gertrudis La "Magna" Center for Attention to the Elderly with Disability. Mr. visitor, ladies and gentlemen tour guides please respect the facilities and we ask you to stop deceiving your customers. Here there is nothing of the dreadful time that we lived, what you see was built with much sacrifice on the part of the administrator monk. Do not deceive them and hopefully they will not be fooled. PERMIT US TO REPEAT, these spaces are not part of 'narco tourism' please leave us alone. The spaces are private property and therefore can not be violated, we are not responsible for any accidents, much less the attitudes of the different guardians of the neighbouring properties that you, through a petty and morbid desire, go through the different properties jumping and damaging the fences. Please take care of the environment by not throwing or spilling garbage. Where is the culture that they preach so much in their countries? We have a police station and constant vigilance abstain from using drugs this place is not for that, respect the schedules established for entry to the place. The Administration"
|Escobar grave site|
|Iglesia de Piedr|
Rising some 7,000' in elevation, the Rock can be ascended by a 720+-step stairway. While many consider it quite the feat, most of our group managed without too many hardships. In case you're wondering, I was not one of the climbers; not only was it not something I felt driven to do, by this time I found myself with a lower respiratory infection, barely holding my own walking around the community.
|Zocalos of Guatapé|
|Hello in There|
|Cartagena's Old Town|
|A restaurant inside Historic Cartagena|
We chose to end our time in Cartagena in Bocagrande, the area of the city known for it's skyscrapers and containing the bulk of the city's tourist facilities. If truth be known, we were looking for something a little quieter, near a beach and with a pool. The Hotel Dann met all those requirements. Here we wiled away the last few days of our holiday in Cartagena. It gave us both a chance to recoup our health (as I had generously passed along my illness to Eric); lounge by the pool with a good book, and reflect on our time in this beautiful country.
Response: If we could somehow recover those 4 or 5 hours spent on the Escobar tour, we would! It did not answer any the many questions I had. While we were told the man was vile even as a child, how was it that he was able to garner the support so many Colombians and ultimately end up in a position of great power within the government? While the guide repeatedly advised that it was the US Drug Enforcement Administration that ultimately flushed Escobar out, my research suggests that there was as much political interference from both the Colombian and American governments which literally enabled Escobar's life of crime as there is evidence these governments are what finally destroyed him. My research suggests that it was ultimately the Colombia people, sick of the violence and bloodshed, that ultimately turned on Escobar; those that profited from him, later betrayed him. There's an interesting article, The Afterlife of Pablo Escobar, that tells more of the far-reaching implications of the man, even today, than anything I saw or heard on the tour. No Colombian in history shaped public opinion as Escobar did. At the peak of his rampage, Medellin was the murder capital of the world, with more than 6,000 homicides in 1991 alone. In the last two decades, this city has transformed itself. I wanted to learn how it did that. I wanted to learn how the residents of Medellin continue to work diligently toward putting a dead drug lord as far from the collective mind of the World, as humanly possible. I wanted to learn about the peace treaty signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and the Marxist guerrilla army (FARC0 a known Escobar supporter. I did not learn these things, but I'm still searching, all the same.
If we could somehow recover those 4 or 5 hours, I would gladly spend them exploring the beautiful city of Medellin. I didn't need my background in land use planning to recognize how innovative this City is when it comes to quelling violence and high rates of crime to bring about security, and social inclusion. This “Medellin Lab” is the first living laboratory program in Colombia, organized by Medellin’s International Cooperation and Investment Agency, the World Bank, USAID, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities network. If I could make one small suggestion to G Adventures, it would be to add a tour and more in-depth acknowledgement of this very important, very creative, and very impressive accomplishment.
Question: How did G Adventures rate in terms of a holiday experience?
Response: We have been privileged to spend time with one of the most knowledgeable guides of his respective area. We were so impressed with our first tour with Miguel that we retained his services on two other occasions. When presented with our tickets, we were also gifted a copy of Looptail, Bruce Poon Tip's personal account of why and how he created a highly-successful international travel adventure company known for keeping both clients and staff extremely satisfied. By the time my feet hit Colombian soil, I had some pretty high expectations. Did G Adventures meet them all? No, it did not but, once some of the human causes were factored into the equation Eric and I can confidently give G Adventures two thumbs up. Not only would we highly recommend this form of travel, I strongly suspect G Adventures will see us back in the very near future.
It was downright impressive the way Luis, always the consummate professional, ushered us through his country, whether it be by way of subway or plane. If we were the least bit worried about being left behind, or the whereabouts of our luggage, it didn't take any of us long to realize that we needn't be; Luis accounted for every single person and suitcase, at every single stop. While it may have taken us a moment to recognize our cue to get ready to move, it wasn't long before all eyes were turned on Luis, awaiting a single word, Vamous! Let's Go!
|Luis with our G Adventures Group in Comuna 13|
In terms of accommodation, while simple, we very please with, and would be happy to return to, all but one hotel. Our last hotel inside the Walled City was not to our standards. We understand there was a mix-up with our particular room which may account for some of the problem; not only was it small, but we had a few uninvited multi-legged guests. Perhaps that is to be expected in ancient buildings but we didn't embrace the experience. That said, the food and staff were wonderful and we were given an opportunity to switch rooms, which we declined; we simply felt it was too much bother for a single night, as we were already unpacked. I should emphasize that this incident had little impact on our overall impression of G Adventures. We not only recommend this company but will likely use it in the near future.
Question: What word of advice would you pass along to someone considering visiting Colombia?
Response: GO! By all means, GO! We have always been pleasantly pleased by how receptive the local people have been to us in every single country we have visited. We tend to approach each destination with respect and a real desire to learn as much as we can from the people we come into contact with, whether they are part of the tourism industry or simply someone on the street. We have not been disappointed. But I don't believe I have ever been to a country with such a violent past; and such a recent past at that. I have repeatedly used the word 'resilient' to describe Colombians but they are more than that. They are indeed irrepressible and I can't help but admire that quality, right down to the very tips of my toes.
And manners! Oh, what manners! When is the last time you saw a man stand up on a bus to offer his seat to a woman? When did you see a young woman offer her seat to an elder or perhaps another woman with a small child? When was the last time a total stranger was waiting at the door of the bus, offering you his hand in assistance? These were actions are not anomalies; we experienced them in every major city we travelled in! Chivalry is not dead! It's alive, well and thriving throughout Colombia!
One last Question: What was something that happened on your trip that struck your funny bone?
Response: We were travelling with Andres, our Comuna 13 guide, on the cable cars. This lovely young man didn't speak English and our bilingual guide was in another cable car with the other half of our tour group. Andres, an aspiring singer, was determined to entertain us. First he showed us a video of a well known artist, singing along. We were able to communicate to him that we would like to hear one of his own and he happily acquiesed. Alas, Andres appeared to be a wee bit smitten with one of the women in our group who was indeed a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty with a fairly athletic frame. She was also quite well endowed on her lower half, if you get my drift. Well, guess what folks? So are many of the women of Colombia! Andres was doing his best to compliment our companion when he pointed to her thighs, held out his hands and started exclaiming, 'Grande! Magnifico!' No English aside, he was aptly able to communicate his admiration for her build; she would make an excellent Colombian woman! Some would be a bit put off by having a man point out our perhaps somewhat larger rear-end but, ever the consummate lady, she took it all in stride, and accepted his words as they were intended. . . .sincere compliments.
The fact that the women of Colombia were not the twigs our North American culture seems to deify was not lost on me either. Much to Eric's surprise, one day I stopped to photograph mannequins in a storefront in Cartagena. Not only did many have rather plump rear-ends, they had large breasts! Having spent an entire lifetime learning to love my own ample endowments, I admit, I smiled in appreciation, not to mention gratitude. Who knows, perhaps there is a little South American blood coursing through these veins!