Text and images by JENNA SY
I wasn’t too sure why I chose to travel to Colombia for the holidays when there were just two things I’ve heard of the place—coffee and Pablo Escobar. I am not a coffee lover nor have I ever watched an episode of the hit Netflix show, Narcos. But I am drawn towards this historical, culturally rich and adventure-filled country in South America. Salsa aside, let me share with you six unforgettable things I loved about my trip to Colombia.
Exploring the wilderness in the Amazonas
The Amazon makes up a large part of South America, and is made up of several countries. Initially, I thought they were all the same until I found out about the Colombian Amazon.
The Amazon city of Leticia is by the Amazon River, and is part of the Tres Fronteras—where borders of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil meet. Every day, I would go to the port and ride the boat to reach the different islands. From Leticia, I went to hike in Puerto Nariño and take the canoe to look for some of the Amazon rainforest animals including caymans, sloths, and pink dolphins. Colombia has the most number of bird species in the world, so spending a sunset watching hundreds of birds fly together was wonderful.
After exploring the Colombian Amazon, I stayed overnight in Puerto Alegria, Peru where different activities within the natural reserve were offered. I did a lot of outdoor activities and fed wild animals during the day; and went on night safari and stargazed at the beautiful constellations of the Orion, Milky Way, and Seven Sisters at night.
On the last day of my Amazon trip, I went to Tabatinga, Brazil. The place doesn’t have as many touristic activities unlike Colombia and Peru as it is more of a military base site but I still went to get myself some things Brazilians are known for—barbecue and chocolates!
Horseback riding in the Andes Mountains
San Agustin is home to the largest collection of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in Latin America. I visited the Archeological Park where most of the discovered sculptures are. The tribes did not leave any trace of their culture, except for temples, tombs, megaliths, and carvings. Though nothing much is known of the tribes, early civilization most definitely existed. It was fascinating learning and interpreting each and every artifact from hundreds of years ago.
While I appreciated the ruins, it was the horseback riding and the landscape that I enjoyed most. Located in the middle of the Colombian Massif (still part of the Andes), the pre-Colombian artifacts are spread out in different far away locations, and the best way to explore was by horseback riding.
I have never thought I’d be in a saddle, with a galloping horse, on top of steep, chilly mountains with the most picturesque view of nature. In addition to the mountain ranges, I got a glimpse of Colombia’s main water source, Magdalena River. The water is so clear and clean enough that you can see the bottom of the riverbed, a rare sight nowadays. I ended my day going back to the town with my trusty horse to enjoy the old Hispanic architecture of San Augustin.
Experiencing the Caribbean coasts
The Caribbean islands have accessible snorkeling spots where one can see an abundant and diverse amount of vibrant corals and fishes up close underwater. I booked a trip to one of the private island resorts of Islas del Rosario, an archipelago very close to the shores of Cartagena, and spent time in the fine white sands and turquoise blue waters of Playa Bora Bora. I swam, snorkeled, and even had a massage while waiting for the sundown!
While in Cartagena, it is worth to wander leisurely at its charming Walled City. Packed with plazas, cafeterias, museums, and churches, I personally enjoyed strolling around the Old Town, trying different street snacks, while savoring the colonial architectural beauty. At night, the vibrant city transforms into a partyzone with both locals and tourists singing and dancing in the streets.
After exploring Cartagena, I went to the much-anticipated Carnaval de Barranquilla, the second largest carnaval in South America. An Africarribean culture, the carnaval is held annually (in February or March) before lent. La Batalla de Flores, the grand parade and opening ceremony, showcases the most colorful and lively floats representing communities and organizations. They make it an interactive experience as they have spectacularly dressed models, dancers, and artists entertaining the crowd. With or without tickets, everybody is dancing and partying in the streets day and night!
Sipping through the Coffee Region (that is not just about coffee)
Colombia is one of the four major countries that supply 75 percent of the coffee beans to the world. I don’t drink coffee, and initially, going to the coffee region didn’t quite interest me. Apparently, coffee region Quindio is not just about coffee. While you can spend countless hours in the touristy village Salento, the biggest attraction lies at the Cocora Valley. Valle de Cocorais surrounded by endangered 60-meter tall wax palm trees—the highest in the world, with an altitude of more than 2,500 meters above sea level! The mountains were very steep and the paths were narrow, but the landscape blew me away. The prairies, jungles, rivers, and cliffs of the national park seemed very much untouched. I had the grandest time horseback riding and hiking to the very top of the mountains and lying down on the grass, overlooking the vistas!
While coffee was never part of my morning ritual, I still join the coffee tour. There is so much to be appreciated about Colombian coffee. Colombians are proud of maintaining good quality coffee beans, with farmers meticulously handpicking each and every bean they produce. To my surprise, I actually liked their traditional coffee tinto. Even with its light flavor, it hits the spot! The smell and caffeine content speaks for itself and the better coffee does not need to have a strong taste which is exactly how Colombian coffee is.
Getting lost in the ‘most notorious’ city on earth
Over three decades ago, Escobar and his Medellin drug cartel ruled the city, government officials were assassinated, guerillas and paramilitaries invaded lands, and civil society was destroyed. Fast-forward to 2018, Pablo Escobar no longer reigns in the city, and so is the bad reputation Medellin was once known for. The city has become a modern day renaissance, being able to put itself back together.
In the bustling streets surrounding downtown Medellin lies Museo de Antioquia, which houses a fine collection of contemporary artist Fernando Botero. As if a four-full hour museum tour wasn’t enough for me to stare at his works, there were 23 more gigantic bronze sculptures just right outside, in Plaza Botero. Behind the museum, I spent hours walking along Estacion Parque Berrío—Medellin’s busiest Metro station, snacking on empanadas, and drinking cold cups of fresh fruit juices!
Contrasting Botero’s masterpieces, I visited the hip neighborhood of Comuna 13 where I gazed at eclectic graffiti and street murals by young local artists, each with their own stories to tell about Medellin’s past. Located on top of the hills, Comuna 13 gives a very good viewpoint of the city.
Being the modern, progressive city that it is, I thought Medellin is more about exploring. Its public transport is very convenient, and there are so many parks to visit. The Paisastake pride on their food with the best and most innovative restaurants in Latin America found in Medellin!
Embracing the history and culture of La Capital Colombiana
In the middle of all the modern skyscrapers and high-rise apartments, you’ll find colonial mansions, squares, museums, and beautiful canals in Bogota. The heart of the city, downtown La Candelaria is Bogota’s seat of government and touristy neighborhood. I thought it wouldn’t take long in the historic streets of La Candelaria, but time flew by as I strolled through the pigeon-filled Plaza Bolivar, and wandered around the country’s top universities and old cathedrals. It took me a while gazing at thousands of stunning pre-Hispanic gold artwork and artifacts at the Museo de Oro, and the impressive collection of paintings and sculptures of Fernando Botero and other famous artists in the Botero Museum. I also climbed up the Monserrate, which offers some of the finest views of the capital. I got up just in time for the sunset and waited for the city to light up!
La Candelaria aside, I also visited Plaza de Mercado de Paloquemao—the biggest food market in Bogota, and stopped by vibrant Usaquen, a trendy flea market and foodie destination. At night, Zona Rosa is the best place to be in for young travelers. With all these, you just know that there is never nothing to do in Bogota. I can say that at the end of my adventure here, I had the most rewarding time exploring and discovering under-the-radar Colombia.
Jenna Sy is a brand experiences specialist and publicist based in Manila. She is a business manager, curator, but also a wanderer. She enjoys her life in retail and PR but still makes sure that she allots time for herself and her love for travelling. Want to know where she’s off to next? Visit www.jennasypr.com and follow her Instagram account, @jennasypr for her wandering updates!
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