We had a couple of nights in Bogota before the flight that we’d booked to Quito, Ecuador. We got back to our hotel and the staff were all pleased to see us. In many ways it is the closest to a homecoming that we’ll get in the next 6 months so it was nice to back somewhere that we knew. Having had a brief taste of home with our Indian food in Salento and still craving spice, we had dinner that evening at an Indian in Usaquen. Although it was not a cheap meal it was as good as a curry back home and a welcome change!
In between leaving Bogotá the first time and our return I’d managed to get in touch with Mariana, one of my colleagues from the 2010 trip to India with IBM and we’d arranged to meet up in Bogota on the Sunday. She arrived at our hotel with her partner Andres and they took us out for Sunday lunch. Having not seen Mariana in 5 years it was great to see a friendly face and catch up. Andres turned out to be a bit of a cultural ambassador for Colombia and over the next hour or so we walked around the Sunday markets of Usaquen while talking about Colombian history, politics and culture! Eventually Mariana and Andres had to go and we headed back to the hotel. After sorting out a few arrangements for the upcoming flight to Ecuador we walked out of the hotel to find most of the local restaurants closed. Luckily we found an Italian place that was open around the corner that did a great pizza. As we’d walked around during the afternoon I’d just started to feel a little ill, so feeling somewhat less than 100% we headed home. The next morning the time passed quickly and soon enough we were on our way back to the Airport to fly out to Quito, Ecuador. The flight got us into Quito for the early evening.
That night we’d arranged to stay at a Hilton in the centre of Quito using some of my points. We got a taxi there and not having seen much in the way of local restaurants, and with me feeling somewhat ill at this point, we found one of the hotel’s restaurants and had a pleasant but slightly overpriced dinner.
Our journey in Colombia was now over and it was time to experience a new country. I already have plenty to write about Ecuador and it will be the subject of many posts, but for now I just want to reflect a little on what we found in Colombia. After three weeks in Colombia we formed opinions of a country that was totally unknown to us previously.
Before we left England the typical response when you tell someone that you are starting your travels by flying to Colombia is a mixture of confusion and shock. More than once people (sometimes but not always joking) said they’d start saving for our ransom or just couldn’t understand why we’d want to visit somewhere with such a terrible reputation. We ourselves often wondered (before leaving home) if we’d made a mistake and deliberately only planned two weeks for Colombia in case we didn’t find much that we liked. The reality once we arrived in Colombia was totally different to our preconceptions.
First and foremost in everyone’s mind is the security situation. While I have no doubt that there are still many problems in Colombia, we felt extremely safe at all times. This might have been partly due to the fairly extreme police presence. I’ve honestly never been to a country where I’ve seen so many police patrolling the roads and streets. The one exception to our feeling of total safety was in Candelaria (the historical centre of Bogota) although it felt perfectly safe in the daytime, we’d been warned not to walk around at night and when we were there in the early evening we just started to feel why this might be the case. Regarding the police, we read many times that there is much corruption in the police for and they can hassle tourists in an attempt to procure a bribe. At no time in the three weeks that we were in Colombia were we stopped, searched or hassled in any way by the police even though we walked passed many every day! Although we were mostly in tourist friendly locations, we did take local buses out of Colombia, Santa Marta and Salento and had no problems or felt at all unsafe.
This brings me onto my next point, the people. Without exception we found Colombians to be extremely friendly and helpful. Our first experience of this was the bus to Zipaquira. The bus conductor had obviously seen tourists taking the same route before and when we got of the bus in Zipaquira he got off with us and gave us a directions in rapid Spanish. When he realised that his instructions hadn’t all soaked in on the first attempt he repeated them more (slightly) slowly and physically pointed us in the right direction! This experience was repeated every day, with nervous schoolchildren wanting a photo with the gringos, and hotel and hostel staff being keen to tell us about their towns. On our second to last day in Colombia the security guard at the mall who, after radioing his colleagues to find out where the post office was, actually walked us to the other end of the mall to show us where the post office was so that we could return the next day on our own (it being a Sunday, the office was shut).
Next, onto a subject close to my heart, the food. We were constantly surprised to find a high quality and varied types of food nearly everywhere we visited. Admittedly again we were in tourist towns that had customers with money to pay for good food, however even in these markets I’ve generally found the local interpretation of international food can be pretty variable. For example I’ve never had a good curry in America, yet we managed to find a great one in Bogota and we even managed to find a microbrewery in Bogota that brewed a good IPA. On the vegetarian front I’ve also been surprised, in Cartagena I found Seitan (not in an Asian restaurant) something that I’ve made at home but never found in a restaurant England. Finally the local food was excellent, although much of it was simple, for example rice, plantains, salad and fish, the ingredients were generally extremely fresh and cooked to perfection. On several occasions Alex had fish that had been caught only hours before at the beach where we were eating.
I can only really compare my experiences of Colombia with experiences of travelling in other countries. Colombia definitely felt more western than either Peru or Ecuador, probably partly because the carribbean coast is completely different to the more Andean parts; but also because the restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions seemed to be more focused on western standards. This is obviously a double edged sword, as for example much of Cartagena felt a lot like other Carribbean destinations, especially Havana. The friendliness that we experienced here was more often friendliness with a professional distance which is what we’re used to, but never quite as genuine as what we have experienced in a few other places.
My overall feeling upon leaving Colombia is that this is a country that is ready for a big influx of tourists, but at the moment is hampered by its reputation. Every traveller we met in Colombia said they’d been pleasantly surprised by the country and had extended their time in the country. Every traveller we’ve met who is starting in Ecuador has remarked that everyone has had good things to say about Colombia & they wish they had time to go!
If you need any further persuasion did I mention that it is cheap? Internal flights cost us between £20 and £80 each rooms in hostels with a private bathroom, a basic breakfast and WiFi were around £30 for the room per night with chain hotels starting from around £40 per room per night. Food was also cheap, our most expensive meal was £40 for three courses and wine (which is surprisingly expensive, and was nearly half of that bill) however you can eat very happily for half of that and when we ate with people on a budget it was often less than £5 between us.
So if you are reading this, forget what you’ve heard about Colombia and consider it for your next holiday. Cartagena alone shouldn’t be missed, and there are so many other things to do and see that you can easily spend a few weeks in Colombia and have an amazing time. I strongly suspect that in a few years Colombia will be overrun by tourists so now is the perfect time to visit.