I chose Colombia for several reasons, the art and music scene; the energy and vibrancy of this country is all consuming, it is literally full of beans. Salsa and regathon music can be heard day and night. I was also fascinated by the history and how far it has come in the past twenty years which is truly inspiring. And then of course the diversity of the landscape from palm fringed Caribbean beaches to Amazonian jungle, which was pretty attractive too. We had only two weeks to explore this huge diverse country, it is just not possible to see all the country has to offer in such a short period of time. We decided to fly into the cosmopolitan city of Medellín, spend three days there and then it was onto to the beautiful Colonial city of Cartagena after that we left the itinerary open to decide when we got there. Not many Colombians speak English so it is vital to have a little Spanish or definitely have a translator app downloaded on your phone.
First stop - Medellín
Colombia's second biggest city. This metropolis has made a remarkable turnaround since the 90's when it was Colombia's Murder Capital. Back then there were around three thousand murders a year, it was the cocaine epicentre and the worlds most violent city. Now however things have changed completely and it is a city Colombia can be proud of. We arrived at the beginning of the Feria de las Flores, which is Medellin's yearly flower festival in July. Nice time to visit the city, it is covered in flamboyant flower arrangements and there are parades and parties throughout the city. It is even more energetic at this time, if that's even possible.
Climate: Medellin is known as the 'city of eternal spring', although it can rain quite a bit in particular in May and October, it has a very pleasant climate all year long.
Getting around: The city is full of little yellow taxis that are very cheap. It cost around £3 to get from one side of the city to the other. There is also a very good metro/bus system to easily and cheaply get around the city.
Accommodation: We stayed in two types of accommodation while in Medellin. A hostel and a boutique hotel, details of both below. We chose to stay in the El Poblado area and I would recommend this to all visitors. It is safe and there are some great bars and restaurants within walking distance from most of the hostels and hotels.
Los Patios Hostel - as hostels go this one was quite stylish. Since we arrived during the Feria de las Flores, this mean't most accommodation was fully booked and quite expensive so we opted for a hostel. The staff were very helpful who all spoke English (this was a bonus we discovered). It has a really cool rooftop bar and it is decorated in a very minimal but very trendy way. It cost around £50 for a double room per night but that was peak season.
Art Hotel, www.arthotel.com.co - we stayed here for our last night in Colombia. Medellin is not exactly flush with boutique hotels but this one fit the bill which is why we chose it. The rooms are warehouse style with lots of bare brick work. Having said that it is a bit on the dark side and not as plush as it could be and we found the reception staff quite unhelpful, I'll assume it was just a bad day for them. However it has a pretty impressive rooftop bar and restaurant. The views at night of Medellin are spectacular, it's worth a visit just for this. At £50 a night, you can't really go wrong.
Things not to miss: there are quite a few tours to do in the city but the following were my highlights.
Pablo Escobar Tour www.paisaroad.com - As morbid as this was I personally couldn't visit the world's most dangerous druglord's home city without doing this tour. We were part of a small group and taken by a local guide to areas of the city that represent Escobar and his Medellin cartel with full English commentary throughout. We used a company called Paisa Road who organise all of the best tours of the city. This tour cost around £15.
Medellin Football Match www.paisaroad.com - For football supporters and non football supporters there is nothing like the experience of seeing Medellin's teams play in their home ground. Deportivo Independiente and Atletico Nacional share there own home ground at the Estadio Atansio Giradot, most easily reached by metro or just jump in a little yellow taxi. Paisa Road also organise football tours with pick-ups from various hostels which is the easier way to do this as a tourist. The football itself is not really the highlight here it's actually the crowd, they sing, dance, chant like you have never seen at any other match before. The atmosphere is pretty electric, I would highly recommend this. Tickets for this tour were also cheap at around £10 each
Where to eat and drink:
Ole Ole Tapas Bar, El Poblado - We randomly came across this tapas bar without any recommendation and it ended up being our favourite restaurant in Medellin. I have had many tapas both in Spain and around the world but these tapas could possibly beat them all. I cannot recommend this place enough. What a find!
Chef Burger, El Poblado - The best burger restaurant in town. Again we just happened to randomly find this place too and we loved it. It is what it says on the tin, but what they do they do very well. There is also live musicians there daily playing a very cool acoustic set which is just the perfect accompaniment to your burger and beer.
Eco Bar, El Poblado - This is a rather chilled out bar away from the madness of the Zona Rosa's banging dance bars. The music is a mixture of rock, reggae and blues. It has a very pleasant outdoor area to hang out in. Cocktails are very good.
Niagara 5 Puertas, El Poblado - This is Poblado's oldest bar, it is really authentic so definitely worth a visit for at least one beer. It's a beer and chat type of place, good place to start your night out.
Berlin Bar, El Poblado - if you want a break from the salsa music, this alternative bar is where you want to be. Good indie music and a very cool bohemian interior. Nice terrace too.
Next stop - The Caribbean Coast
As with most trips to the Caribbean coast ours started off in Cartagena from there we took a bus up the coast to the historical city of Santa Marta and explored some of the bone white beaches around nearby Tayrona National Park.
Cartagena - The Colonial Gem
This is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited. Within the walled Centro Historico it is hard not to fall in love with the romantic colourful colonial architecture. The talented local salsa dancers will dance up a storm right beside you as you dine al fresco and you will have musicians entertaining you throughout your evening. It is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the magic of this place. It is hot and humid all year round in Cartagena but best time to visit is December to March when humidity and rainfall is at it's lowest. You can fly direct to Cartagena from most major Colombian cities and you can also fly direct from some US cities. It was a short one hour flight from Medellin and there are several budget airlines that fly there so prices are very cheap.
Where to stay: There are so many beautiful boutique hotels and guesthouses in Cartagena. Unfortunately on arrival at our hotel, Casa de la Tablada by HMC we were told that our room had been flooded as they had experienced torrential rainfall in that period. They transferred us to one of their other properties which unfortunately I cannot recommend.
Where to eat and drink:
Quebracho, Cl. 33 #2-69, Centro Historico - We were both very much in the mood for a steak and a large red wine on arrival in Cartagena and we came across this Argentinian restaurant. Good steak with a lovely cozy atmosphere.
Juan Del Mar, Plaza de San Diego - This seafood & pizza restaurant is fun and always busy. Try to get a table outside as this is the perfect spot to be entertained by the street musicians and dancers, it really is the best place to be sitting for dinner in the Historical center. Pizza, wine and salsa dancers are a good combination..trust me :-)
El Balcon, Plaza de San Diego - This budget friendly restaurant was not our favourite for food but the decor is so pretty and the views from the balcony overlooking the plaza make up for what the food lacks. It's a great place to go for early evening drinks.
Shopping in Cartagena:
Cartagena is a bohemian shoppers paradise which is one of the many reasons why I had to visit. The artisans of this area are incredibly talented and I was lucky enough to pick up some stunning pieces for Bohemian Lifestyle. You can pick up the most beautiful multicolured bags and hammocks which are made by the Wayuu people of La Guajira and are a big part of Colombian culture.
Santa Marta - Colombia's Oldest City
We based ourselves in Santa Marta to explore some of the best beaches Colombia has to offer in nearby Tayrona National Park. Santa Marta is a city with a large poverty stricken population who still resent the gentrification of the old centre and therefore has a reputation for street crime. Generally it's safe during the day but you must take care at night. We took a taxi to and from our hotel to Parque de los Novios, which is where most of the bars and restaurants are and is the part of city that is most regenerated.
Santa Marta street art
Where to stay:
Casa Carolina, Cl. 12 #3-40 www.hotelcasacarolina.com - This fabulous boutique hotel was our preferred hotel of the trip. It has a lovely courtyard with a swimming pool in the middle of it and a roof deck with hot tub. Cocktails are a must here. Rooms are luxurious with wifi, cable tv and it has English speaking staff (bonus!). Prices start at around £48 which is amazing value for this type of hotel.
Where to eat and drink:
Ouzo, Parque de los Novios - This Mediterranean style restaurant was by far the best of our trip for both food and wine. It is a must if you are in Santa Marta, we loved it so much we did not want to go anywhere else. You can't book and it is always busy with a queue but it moves fast and is well worth the wait.
Hemingway Bar, Parque de los Novios - This bar/restaurant is better for drinks than food. It has a cool open air roof deck upstairs overlooking the plaza and is right beside Ouzo so perfect to go grab a drink while waiting for your table.
La Azotea, Parque de los Novios - This rooftop disco bar is great fun and is the perfect end to a night out in Parque de los Novios. Great cocktails, nice crowd and you will definitely be salsa dancing into the early hours.
Tayrona National Park
As we were stuck for time we took a one day boat trip departing from Santa Marta and visited some of the best beaches in the park, but I would recommend if you have more time you should do a trek through the park itself from beach to beach as you will experience not only the sensational beaches but also the lush jungle, as this is Colombia's unspoiled tropical wilderness. It is a 45 minute drive to the entrance of the park from Santa Marta. I would avoid the resort of Taganga, from what we heard it is quite dirty and the beach is very unappealing, there is also a bit of street crime there too.
The Beaches - the stars of the park
Cabo San Juan
Most major airlines fly to Colombia. There are no direct flights from the UK to Medellin, we flew via Madrid with Avianca, however you can get direct flights to Bogata. Internal flights are cheap and frequent and the easiest way to get from city to city.
If you have Colombia on your bucket list, tick it off, it will be well worth it. But if you can, take 3 to 4 weeks to do it as there is so much ground to cover and so much more beauty to be discovered. I hope you enjoyed my blog and safe travels xx