Mini Colombia Backpacking Trip

Bogota Panorama

Lindsay and I went to Colombia in June. There we met Kyle, Sean (Lindsay’s brothers) as well as our dear friend Corie Brown.

I’m a bit late describing this trip, but it was one of the bigger trips of the year (actually, travel wise it is the biggest in the last two years) so I wanted to at least mention it.

I took 5 days of vacation, making a 9 day trip. Lindsay had two full weeks, as did Kyle and Sean.

I was the first to depart to Colombia. Not wanting to waste any vacation (and opting to spend more money to optimize time) I left on Friday and had a red-eye, or Red Eye, or Redeye. Whatever it was, it wasn’t all that great. My flight left around 11pm, which is a bit later then ideal, and arrived in Houston sometime around the middle of the night. This was a medium-ish flight, perhaps 4 hours or so. Then I had a slightly longer flight (but still not long enough to really get much sleep on) to Bogota, Colombia. Overall the travel was without issue.

I arrived in Bogota (btw, sorry, I do realize it’s “Bogotá”) around 5:30 am. It was early and the airport was pretty dead. Going through customs was interesting – I’m actually not totally sure that I actually WENT through customs as the people at the customs station were just sitting around talking to each other. Not the strangest entry into a country I’ve ever had (for instance, entering into Cambodia was pretty different!) but still pretty obvious we weren’t in the US any longer.

Coffee

Corie came to pick me up around 6:15. That was perfect really, because it gave me about an hour to spend taking in the language/people around me – I actually enjoy this, being by myself in a new country, because I think it’s a bit different then when traveling with another person (or even a group of people). I ordered a cappuccino because 1) I wanted one and 2) I wanted to have my first spanish only speaking experience. I ended up with the drink, in the size I wanted, in ~3 times the time it probably would have taken me to order had I been a native speaker. I’d give myself a respectable 8/10.

Now, let’s not rush past this coffee. It was pretty good, but not great. I’d say that was a theme across the entire trip when it comes to coffee, and to be honest, the rest of the food. The normal coffee drink in Colombia (and in particular Bogota, as I understand it) is the “tinto” (sp?). This is essentially what must be a micro-shot of espresso, plus hot water, plus way too much sugar (disclosure: I don’t put sugar in my coffee). Or, if you prefer, a very small americano plus way too much sugar. Espresso drinks seemed to be more of a normal thing in Colombia, either mixed with water or milk. The issue here is that from what I could tell, most milk seemed to be of the shelf-stable variety that comes in bags. The bag itself is no problem (see: Canada) but the shelf-stableness is in the sense that the milk does not taste like “normal” milk.

All of this bitching aside, the reality is that throughout the short trip coffee was probably the most enjoyable food item for me. There was a small coffee shop that Corie took me to near her house that made great coffee drinks that I really enjoyed. And honestly, this was such a relatively short trip that I barely got a chance to acclimate myself to the flavors of the country.

Moving onto the food, I think the general consensus of most of the world, including Colombians, is that Colombia does not have the best cuisine in the world. If you google “food in colombia vs other countries” or just read many travel blogs about the country you’ll see. Obviously taste/flavor is very subjective and I didn’t spend enough time in Colombia to have a really informed option, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt :). The problem is that the food in general is just not very flavorful. Not spicy, not particularly salty, not garlicy, not ______y, etc. Just pretty bland.

See, the lunch looks a bit "bland", doesn't it?
See, here is lunch

The main food items that we tried (and honestly thank you VERY much Corie for showing us everything!) include:
Arepa – think corn tortilla flavor/consistency meets pita bread form-factor
Poker (beer) – a cheap and 100% perfect for me beer that has 1/52 playing cards on each label
Other – we had a bunch of other foods like traditional breakfast(s), lunches, etc

Ok, not exactly an exhaustive list. We also went to an awesome fruit market and bought one of nearly every fruit they had to offer (though we didn’t end up eating all of them!). I think if you are a fruit lover, the fruit selection here is pretty amazing. Even if you aren’t a fruit lover, given time the fruit here would be something you really appreciated. For me, whether or not I loved the food in Colombia, I really appreciated having somebody (Corie) to show us stuff and explain things.

Fruit

So ANYWAY, Corie picked me up from the airport at around 6:15am. We went back to her place, I talked at length about my for-fun morse code project Morsel for way longer then you’d think one would talk about such a thing at 6:15 in the AM, and then the real adventure began!I’ve sort of already spoiled some of the events of this first day by talking about the food, because we did a lot of food related stuff (which was 100% the perfect thing for me) – coffee shop, grocery stores, street vendors, etc.

One thing in particular that we did on that first day when it was just Corie and I is go up a tall building that overlooked the city. I didn’t have a great sense of how large Bogota is, but on top of this tower it became clear that it was not small. Wikipedia says it’s population is somewhere around 7.67 million, which blew my mind because that’s basically the size of the entire city of New York. And by “basically the same” I mean if you round each to the nearest million, they ARE the same! If you follow that train of thought, 8 million – 8 million = nil/NO/0, but then let the math sort of come back in at the back of your mind then the difference of 0 is greater then the population of Oakland (~400,000) by far. Anyway, it’s a big city by numbers.

Later that evening after taking a nap (which happens once every few months), we went to the airport. Kyle and Sean got in first. They brought bright orange rape whistles, and I’m glad they did so that I could write this sentence. It was great to see the guys, even if it made me feel slightly less impressively tall. We went and had a not-particularly-authentic dinner (crepes) and waited for Lindsay. Lindsay’s plane was delayed, a few times, but eventually she got in. We went back to Corie’s apartment, drank a beer, and went to bed.

And then the days went by…

We did a bunch of stuff in Bogota, including visiting the Candelaria “district” to have a great breakfast and watch Corie’s concert, explore various markets and food places, walk around, drink Poker…

Photo Jun 24, 4 01 15 PM

Monserrate…

Monserrate

Etc.

A few days in, we decided that we all wanted to do at least some traveling outside of Bogota. Everybody was very nice and because I was going to be in Colombia for the shortest length of time my desires weighed in a bit heavier. The thing that I wanted to do, more then anything really, was swim. And because Bogota is even chillier then the California Bay Area (low to mid 60s I’d guess?), that meant leaving the city and heading to the coast. So that’s what we did!

We took a short, hour-ish long flight to Cartagena. Now, this could easily be it’s own blog post (and in general I’d prefer that it was! But I’m trying to recap this entire trip in one blog post) but oh well. Cartegena is on the northish coast of Colombia and is a relatively large, seemingly industrial city. Cities being larger is a theme I experienced several times, but I suppose when I heard that we were going to a coastal town where you could go to the beach I was picturing something smaller. Size was not a problem however, because we didn’t stay in the city proper for long. Our goal was to head to this small area on an Island called Playa Blanca.

Getting to Playa Blanca was relatively straight forward, but perhaps a bit frustrating. In my experience traveling, generally the thing to do is go with the flow, being as clear as possible with your intentions, and be sure that all parties involved have as concrete an understanding of the agreement/costs/etc as possible. Then, expect that you will more then likely be screwed a bit, and write that off as a cost of traveling in a more developing country. Well, even with this in mind things didn’t go too smoothly. We read (<3 wikitravel) that if you weren’t very careful the boats that went from the mainland to the island would stop at various places where you had the option of sitting on a hot crowded beach for 2 hours or paying the equivalent of $25 to do one of various activities. In the end, even after directly asking various questions (even in Spanish) to insure we were getting a DIRECT boat to the island, all of the talk and discussion and arguing did nothing and we still got the extended tour. I’d consider this to be an annoyance, because generally when I’ve been places you start of expecting to get screwed, but again if you put in the time and effort to make it clear what you expect and what you expect to pay for, then you will be rewarded by more or less getting what you agree to. This was not the case in this situation.

waiting

But oh well! The slight hickup in logistics aside, the trip was honestly awesome. I’d also say that in a way it was humbling. I felt (and feel!) like a bad ass sometimes because of Lindz and my 6ish (Nick) month backpacking trip throughout SE Asia. We went to lots of places and generally weren’t able to talk with most people on account of not speaking Khmer or Thai or Vietnamese or … But the reality is that the travel was pretty easy. We stayed on one tropical island for a while (a week or two maybe?) in a little hut on the beach, but the little hut had a shower (cold water only, and directly above the toilette) and even an electric fan that we turned on while we slept. This island in Colombia had no such luxury. Electricity was via generator only, and only when it was totally dark. The re was NO running water, potable or otherwise, so the only chance you had to was yourself off after a day in the sun and sand and salt water was literally a small pitcher of water between the hours of 5 and 7.

But look!

Playa Blanca

That is the beach. And about 50 feet from that is the little bungalow that we all slept in:

Photo Jun 26, 12 03 45 PM

At night empty water jugs with candles in them were put out when it started to get dark. I managed to read an entire book from Song of Ice and Fire (the fourth – A Feast for Crows) on this trip.

Reading by candle light

This type of experience was exactly what I had been looking for. Though it would have been great if the masquitto nets didn’t have holes in them, or if we had a fan of some sort. I woke up most mornings (and throughout the night!) sweating and covered in bights. But when the sun came up, I jumped straight into the amazingly warm and beautiful water and snorkeled around, and when not snorkeling I read.

Every night we ate some sort of fish that was deep fried whole, plus rice with cocoa (awesome) and fried plantains. And by “every night” I mean the two nights we spent on the Island.

Corie eating

Lindsay ended up getting a pretty bad sunburn (note to Lindsay: please wear sunblock) but other then that, we made it back to the mainland a bit tanner and swimmed out, which was exactly perfect.

Island

Our last night in Cartagena we found a pretty nice hostel/hotel/guesthouse that had air conditioning which was pretty spectacular. I read for most of the night which was amazing, and Kyle, Sean, Corie, and Lindsay went out to dance Salsa and generally be a bit more exciting :).

Next morning we caught a flight back to Bogota.

We met a few great people back in Bogota, some of Corie’s friends, co-workers, etc. One in particular, Santiago, took us to his families “finca” (something like a weekend home outside of the city) which was sort of like something out of a movie.

Lindsay in the Finca

Lindsay and Corie went swimming in a river, which I liked to imagine had piranhas in it. I have to give them credit for toughing it out. Despite loving the water, I opted to skip rocks with Kyle, Sean, and Santiago instead of swimming.

Swimming in Colombia River

The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful, we traveled around a bit more of Bogota,I drank more coffee. Eventually I went home. Everybody else stayed and did what sounds like some amazing things. Playing a game in which you throw rocks at small bits of dynamite while drinking beer (very sad I missed that one). Hiking to a waterfall. Seeing more of the areas outside of the city.

So, that’s about it. My overall impressions are this:

1) Kyle, Sean, Corie, and Lindsay are great people to spend time with
2) Colombia is a diverse country, safer and more developed then I had expected (at least in the larger cities)
3) The Colombian food is not something to travel to Colombia specifically for
4) Travel in South America, or at least Colombia, seems a bit tougher then SE Asia
5) People are very nice in Colombia
6) I really liked the 4th Song of Ice and Fire book
7) Colombia isn’t quite as cheap as I’d have thought it might be

Well, that’s about it re: colombia. I’m sure that I’m missing lots of detail, but this is at least a pretty good overview.