During our walking tour around Medellín, our fabulous tour guide asked the group of around 20 people if anyone had parents that were happy they were visiting Colombia – only Stella and Fin put up their hands. That’s the thing about Colombia, it has a terrible reputation based on its terrifying recent history. Drug wars, gang wars, political wars, guerrilla wars – there hasn’t been a lot of peace in the last few decades. But walking around the positive and dynamic city of Medellín, previously only famous as the home of drug lord Pablo Escobar, there is a palatable sense that this is changing and that Colombia is on the up.
And throughout our two and half week long road trip around Colombia this was our overriding impression. People are positive and so very friendly – they really want you to enjoy their country and they give you a real sense of joy that you are visiting – it is a sign that the country is now safe and that Colombia is definitely on the up.
Our trip started with a few days with lovely friends in the busy bustling capital Bogotá. Our first impression was COLD (first time wearing jeans in a year!) and then crazy as our taxi veered in and out of the mad chaotic traffic. But staying with people who actually live in and know the country always adds so much more to a visit. It gives the country context and extends your understanding of the culture. An added bonus is that they always know the best places to visit. We had a whirlwind but lovely day in the city visiting a few of the major tourist attractions: we strolled through the charming old town La Candelaria, learnt some new facts at the impressive gold museum, Museo del Oro, and took the funicular up to the church on Monserrate, a hill above the city, to walk in the footsteps of the pilgrims. But our favourite was hanging out with our friends at their lovely home – Stella and Fin were delighted to have playmates and we all jumped at the chance to join them for the weekend in Villa De Leyva.
We hired a little Renault Clio but not a sat nav – big mistake! There is a reason most of the guidebooks don’t recommend hiring a car – this country is mountainous!!! And the roads…well. But mostly I think it’s due to the other drivers. Overtaking on blind corners must be a national sport and if you’re a 20 TON lorry or a coach full of passengers all the better!! After a fascinating visit to the rather impressive underground salt cathedral in Zipaquirá, we headed to Villa de Leyva expecting to meet our friends around three hours later. Unfortunately we took the wrong road – this turned out to be the first of many detours, wrong roads or ‘alternative’ routes on our road trip over the next two weeks as our poor over worked mobile phone GPS tried to keep up with the mountainous terrain and lack of signal! But this was our first and it was dark and we were in the middle of nowhere in the mountains on a dirt road and there were strange men in cowboy hats squeezing into the back of the our car with the kids offering to show us the way! Needless to say it was a little nerve wracking, our Spanish was truly tested and our poor little Renault Clio really put through it’s paces. But the friendly campesinos (farmers) managed to point us vaguely in the right direction and we finally ended up safely where we were meant to be.
Fortunately despite the rather ominous start the weekend took on a far more relaxed feel. We were totally spoilt – we stayed in the most gorgeous spot in the valley, just out of town surrounded by spectacular mountains. The kids played with their mates, the men made a BBQ while the ladies walked into town to visit the scenic local market in the lovely Villa de Leyva. It was a perfect weekend filled with delicious food and drink and amazing Colombian hospitality.
We sadly waved goodbye to the lovely Hasslacher family and started to make our way West towards Medellín. We had spent hours over the weekend debating the best route. Our map showed a more direct route but our hosts and google maps were adamant we needed to retrace our steps back to Bogotá for the quickest way. We fortunately decided to listen to local expertise and so took the longer (in distance) but definitely easier and faster route on the double lane toll highway.
The distances we covered on this trip were vast and the roads often narrow single lane winding paths over the mountains so we made slow progress even when we took the right road. But the scenery – wow! Colombia is breathtaking – it kept changing, it kept us interested and intrigued and in awe. So mostly we didn’t mind all the driving and we were always thankful we weren’t on the bus that was overtaking us on a blind corner.
Our first stop was the wonderful Reserva Natural Cañon de Rio Claro. The reserve is on a river which has carved a stunning canyon from its marble bed. The scenery is gorgeous, brimming with the sounds of the jungle and abundant birdlife. Our room, on the edge of the river, faced the jungle, completely open to elements and we spent a dramatic night there as a huge thunderstorm shook the whole building and echoed through the canyon. The next day was much calmer, as we gently rafted down the river through the beautiful canyon to the sounds of toucans and tree frogs.
Next stop was the lovely brightly coloured town of Guatapé. This charming little town is located on the banks of a sprawling artificial lake and dwarfed by Piedra del Peñol, a 200m high granite monolith. We climbed the 740 steps to the top of Colombia’s “sugarloaf mountain” and wandered around the town admiring the fresco-like adornment of its traditional houses. Fin and P went trout fishing and caught our dinner which we BBQ’d back at the hostel. Our hostel was packed with hip young things closer in age to the kids than Patrick and I but everyone was friendly and welcoming and we joined in the general chaos of the shared kitchen, enjoyed listening to the backpacker musicians and playing with the resident puppies.
The cities in Colombia have a traffic control system known locally as pico y placa which limits the cars on the road by their number plates: even/odds have access on different days during peak times. Yet despite this initiative the roads in the cities are mad or maybe we’ve just been living on a boat for too long! Either way the chaos of the Medellín roads almost resulted in divorce court as we circled the same one way roads infinitum trying to reach our hostel. Fortunately Medellín, unlike Bogota, has a fabulous metro system so we were able to save our nerves, tempers and marriage by parking the car at the hostel and taking the local transport for the rest of our stay!
Known as the city of ‘eternal spring’, it poured with rain for a lot of our three day visit. But by now we were getting used to the amazingly dramatic Colombian thunderstorms! We packed a lot into our visit to this fascinating city. Top of the list was the brilliant Real City Tours walking tour of downtown Medellín. Under the violent leadership of Pablo Escobar, Medellín became the capital of the world’s cocaine business. Gun battles were common, and the city’s homicide rate was among the highest on the planet. The city has been through a very difficult past but the way the local ‘Paisa’ people are rebuilding, redefining and rewriting their future is impressive. We learnt about the city through the eyes of our really positive local guide and were completely inspired by her passion and positivity. The website said ‘not recommended for kids’ which we really should have taken a little more seriously! However our lovely tour guide was subtle and sensitive when dealing with the more sensational aspects of the city and its history. And let’s just say we’ve managed to cross a few ‘educational’ things off of our boat-school list!
While in Medellin we also visited the excellent Parque Explora, an interactive hands-on science museum which the kids loved. We walked around the interesting Communa 13 area. Formerly gang-ridden and violent, the neighbourhood clings to the hillside on the edge of town. As part of the area’s regeneration, the mayor’s office installed six flights of escalators up the hillside, along with kids play parks, slides and youth clubs. It is still a poor neighbourhood but one with better access, a better quality of life, more positivity and definitely on the up. The whole area is covered with beautiful positive graffiti yet another way to transform the area. You see this a lot around Medellín – turning negatives into positives, integrated urban projects which focus on access, education, pride and rejuvenation. We also took the nearby cable car to San Javier giving us a bird’s eye view of the sprawling city. Along with the metro, there are three cable car lines connecting the outlying areas to the city centre. This modern and efficient public transport system is a great example of how in Medellín regeneration means improving the life for the poor rather than shifting them out of the city to replace them with the rich. Local people are proud of the change, shown in the metro which is completely immaculate. They are friendly, loved meeting our kids, seemed fascinated by their white hair and are totally delighted you are visiting their city. For them it’s a real sign that things are changing.
We had heard that the Colombians are football fanatics and you certainly see many yellow shirts proudly in evidence on days of international games so we were keen to attend a match. We were lucky enough to get tickets to watch one of Medellín’s league teams, Deportivo Independiente Medellín, play. Although the stadium wasn’t completely full, the atmosphere was great and the crowd were passionate and very loud – banging drums, singing, chanting, jumping up and down on the thin hand rails! Although the local team lost and the fans were obviously disappointed there was still a gentle friendly feeling – we really enjoyed ourselves and were thrilled with our free supporters t-shirts!
We loved exploring the hustle and bustle of Medellín but were also eager to get back on the road as our next destination raised a knowing smile in most Colombians that we met. We were off to Jardin. After another hour-long ‘detour’, this time to the top of a mountain, we finally arrived at Jardin in the mid-afternoon on a drizzly Sunday and the town was buzzing! The town square was chock full of colourful wooden tables and chairs and it seemed almost everyone was there, eating and drinking or proudly riding their horses around the streets – this was cowboy town and it was fabulous! The town is totally charming, full of brightly painted two-story houses surrounded by small coffee farms that cling impossibly to the slopes of majestic green mountains. We had a great hike up the mountain and a knee trembling trip back down to town in a homemade little yellow cable car! Jardin seemed to sum up Colombia for me – the scenery was spectacular and the people authentic and warm.
Colombia is the third-largest coffee exporter in the world and the only big producer that grows arabica beans exclusively. However while the country is a major coffee producer, outside the Zona Cafetera Colombians are not huge coffee drinkers and almost all the best beans are picked for export. Surprisingly most Colombia’s drink a very sweet watery black coffee called Tinto so we were very keen to visit the Coffee Zone to taste the best for ourselves.
We stayed in the middle of nowhere on the worst road of our whole trip so arriving in the dark and trying to dodge the huge potholes was very challenging! But our hostel was so worth it. Swimming pool, hammocks, games rooms, great food, lovely hosts and surrounded by pretty coffee fincas – stunning! We had a fabulous time exploring the charming nearby town of Filandia, we went zip-lining over the coffee plantations of a nearby farm and had a bean to cup coffee tour completely in Spanish! We also visited the lovely town of Salento. A famous stop on the tourist route and packed with cute cafes and artisan shops, we visited on the day that LG and Ariel were in town. They had set up a huge marquee full of washing machines in the middle of the town square and seemed to be doing the whole town’s laundry – a very odd scene until we learnt that they were trying to enter the Guinness Book of Records for most clothes washed in 24 hours!
In a country full of beautiful landscapes, Valle de Cocora is one of the most striking and also one of the most well known hikes. The five-hour loop went past a trout farm, wiggling through farmland at the foot of the lower part of the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, with a broad green valley framed by sharp peaks before entering the jungle. We hiked through cloud forest, crossing rickety Indiana Jones style bridges across rivers, stopping at a hummingbird reserve for hot chocolate and local cheese (a bizarrely delicious combination!) and then it was up, up, up! Once you’re at the top you leave the jungle behind and enter the area full of palmas de cera – the famous wax palms and the largest palm in the world (up to 60m tall). It’s Colombia’s national tree. Set amid the misty green hills, they are breathtaking to behold.
After spending all day hiking everyone was keen to have a ‘hammock’ day and so we spent the next day with two lovely families – one French family who are backpacking around the world for a year and the Swiss family from SY Nomad – just relaxing at our hostel. There was a scavenger hunt, coffee tasting, lots of games, a bit of swimming, football, a sickly sweet green cake and much needed down time for all.
And then all too soon, it was time to wind the long road back to Bogotá for our flight home to Blue Zulu. Whilst the scenery of our road trip through Colombia certainly left us in awe and the towns we visited charmed us, it was really the people who captured our hearts – positive, friendly, warm and amazingly helpful – everyone made us feel so welcome. We loved our trip and had such fun but we also realised how lucky we usually are to travel with our home. Being on the road, living out of a bag is tough, driving in an unfamiliar country (on the other side of the road!) is difficult and staying in different places every night is tiring. We were very happy to get home – back to our beloved Blue Zulu.
- Visit the wonderful Reserva Natural Cañon de Rio Claro http://www.rioclaroelrefugio.com – there are lots of great activities on offer.
- Medellín’s excellent Parque Explora is definitely a great visit for kids: http://www.parqueexplora.org – but leave plenty of time – we unfortunately had to cut our visit short.
- Book online for a free walking tour of Medellín – it will leave you with a whole new view of the city: http://www.realcitytours.com
- Zip-lining in Coffee Area was a huge hit with us all – also learning about the coffee production and collecting the beans in our little baskets was fun and educational – tick!
- Book accommodation through Hostel World – we stayed at the following places: Casa Kayam in Guatapé, Macondo Guesthouse in Medellin, Hotel Jardin and Casa Country Finca near Filandia
- Flights with Viva Colombia were reasonable but like most low-cost airlines watch out for the extras: wwww.vivacolombia.co