One look out of the plane’s window was enough to realize we were about to enter a different sort of land. For so long, we had been hearing wonderful stories about South America and the Andes, and now we were just two national layovers away from actually being there. Our first plane landed in Bogota, the second in Medellin, and the last one in Cartagena, our destination. The unexpected upside of buying cheap plane tickets with our miles was that we got to fly over almost every major city in Colombia. From the sky, we were able to appreciate just how diverse Colombia is. We saw the beginning of the Andes, the ocean, coffee plantations, the high-altitude capital city of Bogota, the red brick city of Medellin, and much more. By the time we landed in Cartagena, I couldn’t wait to get off the plane, to be in South America, to taste the food, meet the people, see the colors, get carsick on the windy roads, admire the landscapes, and feel the climate change as we move from one city to another.
Outside the airport, we were greeted by a wave of heat and humidity. We were absolutely exhausted from our entire night and day of travel, but the sight of the beach and the fortress city of Cartagena served as an express battery charger. We made our way to the Airbnb we had booked in the heart of Getsemani for the next 5 days, dropped our things, and left almost immediately for a walk around town. It’s not that I don’t like rice and beans, but the sight of other foods after months of the same made me smile and Doug jump with joy. Just out on the street we saw people selling all sorts of food: Mango biche (unripe mango cut out in strips, marinated with lime), Colombian arepas, ceviche, bollos, quibes, empanadas, etc. In the land of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, magical realism came true. Something about Colombia felt really close to Mexico, my home. Maybe it was the people, the architecture, or the variety of flavors, but something made me feel en casa.
I have never been as hot as I was during my days in Cartagena. The humidity and heat made it absolutely impossible to stop sweating. I remember sitting in the outdoors kitchen of our Airbnb with a fan blowing straight at me while I took a phone call, as minutes passed by, I felt more and more drops of sweat emanating from my skin. My clothes became damp in a matter of minutes and it was then when I saw the reflection of my face; a frantic combination of disbelief and extreme discomfort flooded me. Just like a baby eating a lime for the first time. Nonetheless, we loved the city. Together with Doug’s mom and younger sister Julia, we walked all over Cartagena, had some amazing meals, and went to some of the surrounding attractions. It was kind of hard to leave, but the road was calling and we had to go.
So, we made our way down to Medellin on a night bus without any plans. While on the bus, we booked another Aribnb, as it seemed to be the cheaper option in Colombia. We showed up at the house and had our absolute worst lodging experience so far. The sheets were dirty and hanging off the bed, the blanket had just a bit of dog poo on it, the kitchen was disgusting (literally saw bugs crawling over dirty plates), and there was no toilet paper to be found. Doug and I gave our host a second chance, but after 6 hours passed and we still had dog-poo covered sheets, we decided it was too much. Time to walk away and leave the house to find other accommodations. Luckily for us, there was an hospedaje (family run inn) just down the road. After that misfortunate Airbnb fluke, our Medellin experience was just fantastic. We loved it!
On our first day there, we visited Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum aimed to teach people about the history of violence that Medellin, and Colombia, have suffered due to narcotraffic, the FARC, and local guerrillas; the idea being that one must learn from the mistakes of the past and one can only do so if one knows said past. We must be conscious of our history in order to not repeat it. The museum shook me to the core and almost brought tears to my eyes at times. Medellin is a city in the process of transmutation, transforming a violent and bloody past into a future with lots of hope. The city and its inhabitants are proud of how much progress has been achieved in such a short time. The transportation system is amazing, the parks are being revamped, and people celebrate life in weekend park ferias. In the upcoming days we saw Plaza Botero, Arvi park, El Pueblito Paisa, Lleras Park, the planetarium, the wish fountain, and Guatape, among others.
That being said, the absolute best part of Medellin was the friends we met there. While visiting Arvi Park (a national reserve outside the city and accessible by cable car), we went on a guided hike. A couple in our group happened to get engaged at a beautiful lake at the end of the hike. It was the BEST icebreaker ever! We were all so happy for them. They were Venezuelans, as were other two people on the hike. We ended up talking all the way down the mountain and then going out for dinner and drinks to celebrate. Soon we were making plans for the next day and the one after that. A group of 6 became a group of 10 on the second day. All of them from Venezuela, except for a Colombian, Doug, and me. Since most of us didn’t know Medellin at all, it was the perfect opportunity to get to know the city while making good friends.
The very day we met, we all piled into Andres’ 5-person car and bottomed out at every speedbump on the way to Pueblito Paisa, where we laughed and joked over a delicious dinner. As we ate our bandeja paisa, we took in the nighttime cityscape, filled with twinkling lights up and down the surrounding mountains. We all happened to be outside our comfort zone, far away from home, far from our families, with little money to spend, and, in most cases with a big question mark ahead. Life brought us together, an atypical group of people bonding over the shared experience of being new and alone in a foreign city.
Over the next couple of days, which happened to include a national holiday, we bussed and cable-car-ed all over Medellin. We went to Comuna 13, a vibrant and poor hillside neighborhood with amazing graffiti art, parks and playgrounds. This neighborhood was home to brutal attacks a couple of decades back, and the community has made a lot of effort to turn things around. Now, kids laugh and play around, the elderly sit outside their homes, and young folks play in the local soccer fields. We also went to Plaza Botero to admire the statues of overweight characters, to the planetarium and to the wish fountain park where we lied on the grass and talked for a couple hours. Our final night, we ate $1 dollar burgers at midnight after drinking a celebratory bottle of rum. It was definitely the best burger I’ve had in a while and the best company we could have hoped for. Once again, it was hard to leave a Colombian city behind, but we boarded our night bus for the capital city.
Our next stops were Bogota, Cali, and Ipiales. In Bogota, we stumbled off our night bus, dumped our stuff at a hostel, and did a walking tour where we got to see a lot of the city center and taste local chicha, fruits, coffee, and snacks. We visited some museums and enjoyed learning even more about Colombian history. In Cali, we mostly explored the city on foot. Some of the churches were breathtaking and the walk along the river was very serene. We also took a much-needed break from full-time touristing to chill out, plan for Machu Picchu, and nap. Finally, it was time for our last Colombian night bus to the border city of Ipiales. We had been warned to be very careful with our belongings on that bus route and I was thankful for the advice, as it kept me alert and I was able to notice when someone pulled on my bag around 4:00 AM. When confronted, the offender claimed to be looking for a water bottle. My spidey senses tickled and very sternly I conveyed the message that there were no water bottles to be found there, and to please refrain from looking back at all. Luckily for us, nothing happened to our bags, although someone else on the bus did get their belongings taken away. It was a good lesson on night busses, and since, we have adapted our strategy to be even safer and more careful with our things.
Once we arrived in Ipiales we found a decently priced hotel, left our belongings, and went to visit the Lady of Lajas Sanctuary, a hidden gem just 20 minutes away from the center of Ipiales. It was absolutely stunning! The sanctuary resembles an Elvish castle out of Lord of the Rings. It took more than 200 years to build this architectural masterpiece. Outside the sanctuary, the canyon walls are covered with plaques made by followers and believers of the Lady of Lajas as thank yous for miracles performed, which ranged from regaining health, to being able to conceive a child, to family prosperity. The wall serves as evidence of the power of the Lady of Lajas and every year thousands of people make a pilgrimage to worship the miraculous Lady. It was definitely a surprise to find something so beautifully intricate in such a remote place. Given how small the town is, it was no wonder we were among just a handful of tourists visiting. We went back to Ipiales that night and got ready to cross the boarder into Ecuador the following morning.
At the end, when I look back I have nothing but a smile when I think of Colombia. We spent three wonderful weeks crossing the country from north to south. The expectations our three plane rides created were met completely. Colombia is an incredibly beautiful and diverse country. From our first days in the coastal fortress of Cartagena, to our last day in Ipiales admiring the beginning of the Andes, we were completely trapped by the beauty of the country. There are many different worlds inside the landmass called Colombia. Honestly, they were so rich that we have no choice but to come back again in the future.