A first look into Colombia
So what do people usually say when you travel to Colombia? "Are you crazy - that is too dangerous" and for sure we all have the pictures of Pablo Escobar and the stories of his drug cartel in mind. Further Colombia came into a negative light through the ongoing fights with the guerilla troops of the FARC army. However since a peace agreement in December 2016 these and other groups of the organized crime have agreed to put down their weapons, which is executed at the moment - of course this does not mean that you can travel freely anywhere now in Colombia, but a lot of places got much safer and in some parts like Bogota(Colombia's capital), Medellin or Cartagena tourism is on the rise. So for all the explorers among you - I can really recommend to check it out there. Unfortunately I was only on a relatively short work trip in Bogota followed by a weekend in Cartagena - but what I saw made me curious to come back for more Colombian food, coffee & culture.
The first surprise was actually already the state airline Avianca (www.avianca.com) with which we flew into Bogota airport from Rio. A very nice and new aircraft with friendly service and a surprising good entertainment system with some of the latest movies. Also when landing in Bogota the airport made a good first impression. We took from there a cab to the hotel and later organized with the same driver a small City Tour, which costed 50 USD for the two of us and which lasted around 4 hours.
The picturesque El Senor Caido church (iglesia el señor caido) is on top of the 3125 meter high Monserrat mountain with nice views over the city - well, if you are able to see the city and not get surprised like us by a thunderstorm for which they closed the cable car and captured us up there for some time. You have the option to use the cable car or a funicular up to the church. Once there you can have a walk around on the plateau with a visit to the church and even if you are not into buying some kitsch souvenirs have a look at the small tourist market behind the church to try out some Coca tea. No worries the boiled leaves have no real affect, but the Colombians swear on it to boost their health and to heat them up on cold days. There are also two restaurants beside the cable car station, but we have not tried them so I can not comment about them, but I saw that one had a nice terrace outside at least to take a drink with a good view.
La Candelaria in Bogota is a historic neighborhood in downtonw Bogota. On a stroll through this Old City you can enjoy the Spanish Colonial, Baroque and Art Deco style of the houses and churches.
You can also find some "wilder" streets with local graffiti street art in the area.
Candelaria is also a good place for a stop in the many bars and cafes and to try out some local food - a nice authentic restaurant close to the Plaza de Bolivia is Balcones de Candelaria (Carrera 6, No. 8.21), where you can try for example the typical Tamal which is a mix of chicken, pork belly (Colombians love pork belly in all variations - hello cholesterol), boiled egg, carrots, peas, potatoes, rice, condiments and all wrapped up with plantain leaves. Super filling but very good.
Another recommended restaurant is just next door - La Puerta Falsa (Calle 11) - which also serves traditional food in an historic ambiance, but is also a bit touristic.
La Candelaria is a nice place for a discovery tour during the day, but avoid to be there at night as then it does not count to the safest places in Bogota as we were told.
Catedral de Sal
Another must-see in Bogota is the Catedral de Sal - which is around 50 km out of the city in the town of Zipaquira, so best to arrange a driver to go there, we paid around 90 USD for car and driver. The Salt Cathedral is an underground Roman Catholic church built from miners within the tunnels of a salt mine 200 meter underground (www.catedraldesal.gov.co). There are various tours and activities on offer, as we had only limited time we chose the classical tour, which takes around 90 minutes and which is also suitable for people with slight claustrophobic fears as the tunnels and halls are quite high and spacious. On the way down to the main church hall you pass by impressive crosses made out of the mountain stones. Once you reach in the main cathedral hall the atmosphere is just magic - in our case we were almost alone and they played the "Ave Maria" - a real mystical atmosphere, even so it sounds a bit too theatrical here. The souvenir shops and light show that follows afterwards is just some side business that does not really impress after such a magic experience.
Where to stay in Bogota
Bogota has a wide range of hotels of all categories and it is easy to find them in the common online booking portals. Bogota covers a quite large area with different centralized neighborhoods. We were staying at Nico Apart Suites in Zona G (www.hotelsnico.com), which is close to the lively Chapinero neighborhood and Calle 67 which hosts many fancy bars and restaurants. The furnished apartments are very spacious and in loft style - the only negative point was the shower which was either boiling hot or chilling cold. Also the apartment itself was very chilly as we were in an unusual cold period in Bogota and proper heaters are not common there. But the friendly staff tried to help out with some small plug-in heaters. Also for some common amenities as hair dryer you have to ask for at the reception. Breakfast is in a nice ambiance, maybe not with many different choices but every day with some other fruits and sweet selections, they also prepare for you any choice of eggs and the traditional Arepas - made of ground maize dough or cooked flour.
Where to eat and go out
If Nico Apart Suites is your choice to stay you have right beside a very nice restaurant called Vitto (www.facebook.com/VITTOBOGOTA), which serves international modern cuisine and especially the Pizzas there are delicious. At night a DJ entertains the diners - a concept that is very popular in Bogota these days and also the outside garden terrace is a good choice for warmer days.
Vitto is at the beginning of Calle 69 where you can find many other restaurant options as well as in the streets around. So it is a good place for a stroll to try out some different bars and restaurants - the area is known as Rosales, which is one of the most exclusive and traditional neighborhoods in Bogota.
Another great option for a night out is the so called Zona Rosa - where you have a large choice of bars, restaurants, clubs and also fashion shops and shopping malls during the day. We had dinner at the lively Cabrera Resto-Bar (www.facebook.com/cabrera.restobar), which serves inventive cross-over food accompanied with a wide selection of drinks and to the tunes of a DJ or Live Band. You won't be disappointed here.
A must-see place for all tourists is Andres - and it is far away from being a tourist trap, as it is also so popular with the locals that you have to reserve a table if you want to come in the evening (www.andrescarnederes.com). Actually you have two different choices there, one is the all-day dining La Plaza de Andres inside the Centro Comercial El Retiro - the whole place is set up like a big colorful market and you can order your food from the various kitchen stations like a fish station, grill station and so on. Super good food and here is the right place to try out one of the national Colombian dishes - Bandeja Paisa, which is actually a big mixed up plate full of everything - chorizo sausage, fried pork, rice, red beans, fried eggs, avocados and sweet bananas - yes, you have listened right this comes all on one plate and if you had that for lunch it will still put you through for dinner and breakfast the next day :-)
When you leave the Shopping Mall and you go to your right side you can see the entrance of Andres DC - which is the-place-to-be at night and gets extremely crowded, so don't forget to reserve your table if you want to eat there. Otherwise you can also just come for a drink, however they will charge you an entrance fee. The place goes over several floors - each overloaded with colorful decor items and filled with people in their best mood. So later in the night that place becomes a real dancing party to the eclectic beats of any kind of Latin American music - that is where the real FIESTA is - ole, and they have some real cool drink creations as well, so what you need more! Andres has even its own little souvenir shop on the ground floor to bring the memory of Andres back into your home.
2. Cartagena de Indias
After our stay in Bogota we took advantage of the up-coming weekend and booked us on an Avianca plane to Cartagena, which is 1 hour flight away from Bogota and at the Caribbean coastline. As we had a quite chilly weather in Bogota we enjoyed the tropical breeze that welcomed us in Cartagena and the palm trees at the airport already put us in vacation mood. The historic center of Cartagena is just a short taxi ride away from the airport.
Where to stay
In Cartagena you have basically two choices: either to stay in the Historic Center which is in between the old stone wall or outside in the New City on the beach stretch which reminds a bit of Miami with all its modern high rise buildings. I definitely prefer the Historic Center as you have some real nice Boutique Hotels there that won't cost you too much (for example Bantu Boutique Hotel / (www.bantuhotel.com) or if you want to have more luxury I would recommend the amazing Sofitel Legend Santa Clara (www.accorhotels.com)that is located in the historic walls of an Old Convent. The advantage of staying at the Historic Center is that you have many bars and restaurants in the evening that are all in walking distance and you can enjoy the lively vibes of a Latin city.
We did our hotel booking very quickly through booking.com at the Torre de Reloj Hotel (www.hoteltorredereloj.com), good things first it is centrally located at one of the main entrances of the old city and has a real nice rooftop terrace El Mirador at night (which I can recommend in general also for non-hotel guests). About the rest, well we did not expect much for the 60 USD we paid per night for a double room - but the place was disappointing with super tiny rooms, dirty bed sheets, a shower that didn't work and curtains that did not close. I have to raise here the flag for the staff - that were really kind and tried to sort out problems, even with a theatrical acrobat show on our balcony when they tried to fix our curtain - but that place is so runned down that all friendliness can not help it anymore. Furthermore at night in one corner of the Plaza outside some of the bars seem to be popular with local prostitutes and I am not sure if they are not using that hotel as well with clients. Also the Plaza is a big meeting point for the youngsters of the city and if you have a room facing outside, the noise won't let you sleep. So look for some better options!
If you do not want spend much on your accommodation or are a backpacker I saw some pretty good hostals as well as for example the Hostal Santo Domingo (www.hostalsantodomingocartagena.com) - however I did not see the rooms from inside.
Pictures Torre de Reloj - not edited but they are still looking better than the reality :-) the bed sheets in the picture they bought new after we have complained about the filthy ones we got in the beginning.
Picture Sofitel Legend Santa Clara - colonial style in an old Convent.
Picture Hostal Santo Domingo.
Picture Bantu Boutique Hotel.
What to do in the Old City
The Old City sightseeing (sitios turisticos) can basically be explored on foot - main sight are the colorful houses in itself that are decorated with blooming flowers. The government of the city had actually a smart idea - as more flowers you have on your balcony as less tax you have to pay, thus they transferred the historic city in a touristic site for itself. On hot days a visit to one of the many churches will offer you a chilled break and also the museums have many interesting things to show. Or just sit down in one of the small parks, observing locals and tourists alike and get some vitamins or refreshments from the colorful fruit selling ladies. Sometimes you need to step off the main roads which are often filled with noisy cruise ship tourists to enjoy the relaxed and tranquil vibe of that tiny historic center. You can also find many art and souvenir shops or street sellers around for all shopping souls.
Where to eat and drink
Well, in Cartagena you have to make your choices as it is just to many options on offer - even the small little street bars and restaurants serve delicious food for little money.....and of course with the sea outside the city walls you can get a lot of fresh fish dishes everywhere.
Here are some options that I can recommend, but of course there are many more to explore!
Marzola Parrilla (www.facebook.com/marzolaparrillaarg) - for some real good steaks Argentinian style.
Juan del Mar (www.juandelmar.com) - for some excellent seafood. At night a Latin band will entertain the guests in the courtyard.
Moshi (www.moshico.com.co) - for some well prepared Sushi and Asian cross-over cuisine also with live band at night.
Cafe del Mar (www.cafedelmarcartagena.com.co) - best place for a sunset drink. Situated on top of the old fortress wall it is the perfect place to admire the sun setting down over the sea - however do not expect any romance here because the place is crowded and people will start to come early to get a table. They are taking reservations only on week days for groups of 4 persons and above. It is rather a place for drinks than food and although it is touristic over there the sunset is stunning.
In Cartagena directly the beaches are not very good, so I recommend you to take a boat trip to one of the various islands not far from the city. They are all belonging to the Islas Rosario archipelago, which is one of the 46th Natural Parks of Colombia and that was founded to protect the important coral reefs. So diving and snorkeling is the main thing over here beside sunbathing on beautiful Caribbean beaches. At Isla Rosario you can also visit an Aquarium and Oceanarium.
There are many operators that offer various trips in different kind of boats - we chose a one hour speedboat ride to Isla Grande, which we booked through Vivamos Colombia Travel (www.vivamoscolombiatravel.com). They also offer various other tours in and around Cartagena.
They come in the morning to pick you up or you can just walk over to the boat pier outside of the main city wall. The ride to the island took around one hour. First you will cruise along the skyline of the city and after they will speed up into the open sea.
Our destination was basically a private island that hosts as well a hotel - Gente de Mar (www.gentedemar.co), so if you want you can stay overnight there as well and enjoy the tranquility of the island after the day tourists have left. The hotel consists of various bungalows that are built in an airy colonial island style and you can see that the owners are art lovers with all the nice art objects around.
However the best there is of course the BEACH. As a day guest they give you towels and sunbeds and against a surcharge you can go on a snorkel tour as well or join some ball game for free. If that is all too much just enjoy a cocktail and stretch out on the clean white sand.
Later in the day you also have a lunch included that is served outdoor in their spacious garden area.
In the later afternoon we started our return to the city. On below picture the world was still in order - well, we have noted already on the island that the wind had speeded up and that there were pretty high waves, but we didn't expect how our ride back would be. Within seconds away from the island we already got our first shower and for the next 40 minutes we were just washed by the ocean and couldn't open our eyes anymore, we only felt how the boat was flying over the waves - nothing for the faint hearted although we had of course life vests on.
On the way back they took us also through a kind of river on another island of the nature park where you can observe birds and the rural life of the fishermen.
So this time it was only a very short trip and first glance into Colombia, but for sure I will come back for more. Next time I want to explore the artist city of Medellin, once one of the most dangerous cities in the world and home to Pablo Escobar, became now a major tourist hub and a very modern and innovative city.
Hast luego Colombia!