Just back from… Colombia Edition
After spending much of last year traversing Southeast Asia, it was time for a different kind of adventure – and Colombia delivered! Over the course of eight action (and food!) packed days we visited three of Colombia’s most popular destinations: Bogotá, Medellin, and Cartagena, along with some wonderful side trips to outlying areas.
“It’s ludicrous this place exists and everybody doesn’t want to live here.” – Anthony Bourdain.
The capital city of Bogotá is a natural starting point for those who want to really discover Colombia. Although I had visions of a chaotic developing metropolis, Bogotá pleasantly surprised me in many ways! It’s known as one of the more cosmopolitan cities in South America, and there’s just something about the clouds rolling over the mountains and through the city streets that makes you feel the magical realism that Colombia’s most recognized authors made famous.
From Bogotá it’s just a quick hour long hop on a flight over to Medellin, a fascinating city which has undergone an impressive transformation over the past decade. Many people today still associate Medellin with its grim history from the 90s and early 2000s, but today it’s a thriving city working hard to raise a new generation of proud citizens who realize that their city’s history doesn’t need to define them. Medellin was ground zero for Pablo Escobar and Colombia’s drug rebels in the early 90s, which at one point made it the most violent city in the world. Today it welcomes a growing number of international tourists, digital nomads, and expats who embrace the warm people, temperate climate, and beautiful landscapes.
The highlight of Medellin for me was spending an afternoon with a local community leader, Kbala, in Comuna 13 which was historically one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. Born and raised in Comuna 13, Kbala never believed that a violent lifestyle was the answer and set out to effect change through street art, hip hop music, break dancing, and job training programs. Learning about the community’s past, present, and hopeful vision for the future through Kbala’s eyes was an absolutely unforgettable experience.
Next we escaped the city life for a quick night, taking refuge in the charming lakeside town of Guatapé. This colorful Andean resort town located on a huge manmade reservoir, complete with dozens of islands, is a favorite getaway for city dwellers. Thanks to Big Five Tours’ insider access, we spent the night in magical luxury glamping domes overlooking a quiet corner of the lake. No detail has been overlooked in the making of this very eco-friendly glamping resort, complete with instagram-worthy outdoor showers, unobstructed lake views, and delicious farm to table cuisine.
Next up: the legendary Cartagena. Chances are, if you have friends who have traveled to Colombia in the past few years they may have jetted directly to Cartagena. And I can’t say that I blame them! Cartagena seems a world away from the capital Bogotá, high up in the Andean clouds. Temperatures in Cartagena average between 80-84°F year round and you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported straight to a Caribbean island. Salsa, reggaeton, and the local champeta music pulse through the streets day and night with locals and visitors alike fueled by the excellent local rum. The main draw of Cartagena is its exquisitely preserved walled colonial old town, founded by the Spanish in 1533. Known as one of South America’s most impressively preserved historic cities, Cartagena has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984.
In Cartagena we were spoiled by one treat after the next: a private rooftop rum tasting with the incredibly entertaining and knowledgeable Abraham; a most delicious cooking class with Carolina; a historic walking tour with a descendant of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; a gorgeous dinner with the best dessert I’ve ever tasted at the Sofitel Santa Clara hotel; and to top it off, an evening out on the town with a professional salsa dancer!
Needless to say, I knew that I was about to fall head over heels for Cartagena before I even stepped off the shuttle into the fabulous Casa San Agustin, a boutique hotel in the heart of Cartagena’s old town. A member of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World, it’s known as one of the finest authentic luxury hotels in all of South America. Make sure to treat yourself to this special experience when in Cartagena!
As difficult as it was to leave Cartagena behind, I couldn’t have prepared for how incredible our next and final stop would be. Imagine a magically luxurious, playful, and stunningly beautiful Robinson Crusoe-esque treehouse resort built into the mangroves of a quiet Caribbean island. Welcome to Hotel Las Islas in Barú! Just a quick and scenic 45 minute speedboat ride into the Caribbean Sea from the main port in Cartagena, and you’ve arrived in paradise.
We were greeted with a private lunch table set in the sand on the island’s main beach, with plenty of icy coconut lemonade and fresh ceviche to get us off to a refreshing start. This is a place to truly kick back and forget about the outside world, whether it’s in the hammock suspended in your treehouse high above the mangrove trees, or paddle boarding across the crystal waters. Take your personal bike for a stroll through the paths that crisscross the island, go for a sunset catamaran sail, or join the nighttime bioluminescence tour to see what lurks below. Immediately upon arriving at Hotel Las Islas, I knew that I had stumbled across something special!
That was a wrap for this year’s adventures in Colombia, although there will certainly be more trips there in the future! My visit was truly a seamless, safe, and one of a kind experience thanks to Big Five Tours and Expeditions, who were one of the pioneers to begin offering custom tours in Colombia just as the country was beginning to open up to tourism not so many years ago. I experienced firsthand their commitment to ethical, responsible tourism and giving back to the communities where they operate. And of course, had a total blast with their guides who I can personally recommend to anyone!
Has Colombia been lingering on your bucket list for just a tad too long? Or maybe you’ve been to other places in South America and are thinking about the next adventure? Send us a note to ask about our custom designed Colombia itineraries, perfect for anything from a girls’ trip to Cartagena, to a family wildlife adventure in the Amazon. And as always, we’ll include VIP access to perks and upgrades at the best hospitality that Colombia has to offer.