With the decades-long insurgency over, crime plummeting, and the economy humming along, Colombia is having its day in the sun. Tourism has doubled and quadrupled in recent years and for good reason; ask any backpacker their favorite part of South America, and at least half will rave about Colombia.
Most backpackers traveling the gringo trail either start or end their journey in Colombia. Personally I began my trip in Colombia, but I wish I had ended there; starting in Colombia is like starting with dessert.
Cartagena, the Colonial Gem
Cartagena feels as much Caribbean as it does South American. Think beaches, seafood, tropical heat, Afro-Caribbean beats. Founded in 1533, Cartagena was one of the first Spanish settlements in the New World and remains the only city on the continent to retain its colonial-era walls.
If not for the narrow but decisive defeat of the British navy at the Castle of San Felipe in 1741, South America might very well be an English-speaking continent.
The top of the castle affords an impressive panorama of both the old city and the Bocadillo, a beachfront district of modern high-rises and luxury hotels which might well be Colombia’s answer to Miami Beach.
As Colombia’s number one tourist destination for decades, Cartagena’s nostalgic old city has been gentrified and commercialized almost beyond recognition. If you wander its more out-of-the-way residential corners, though, you may still get a sense of the authentic local Cartagena of years past.
Bogotá, the Capital
Elevated on a chilly plateau high in the Andes, Colombia’s capital Bogotá is a sprawling megapolis of 9 million that just won’t stop growing. With well-curated museums, legendary nightlife, and a liberal live-and-let-live atmosphere, Bogotá is often described as the New York of Colombia.
Andres’s parents invited me to join their weekly jog to Monserrate, a famous 17th century monastery and sacred site perched on a hill high above the city. For a panoramic view of Bogotá, this is the spot.Bogotá’s crowded infrastructure and gray architecture begins to weigh on the spirit after a while, but Monserrate lifts you high above it all to a tranquil bastion of greenery, space, and fresh air.
You may came across many empty lots in central Bogotá where one might have reasonably expected to find dense urbanism. These are the sites of former “death zones,” the most violent neighborhoods of Colombia which the city ultimately decided to demolish in order to stop the bloodshed
Violence in Colombia’s cities tends to be highly localized, often concentrating intensely in specific blocks, but this method of crime prevention through erasure of the physical cityscape raises a lot of questions. Can aspects of the built environment predispose a neighborhood to violence? What is the threshold past which a neighborhood merits demolition? Does forcibly relocating residents reduce crime or disperse it to other neighborhoods?
As much as wandering is integral to independent travel, in Bogotá, you probably shouldn’t. Around major tourist sites and in the city’s northern half, you need not worry as much, but security conditions can deteriorate very quickly elsewhere.
We stopped in Tequendama Falls 32 km west of Bogotá on our way to visit Andres’s grandparents in the countryside. At a height of 433 feet, Tequendama is one of the highest waterfalls in the world and a popular suicide spot for Bogotoans.
Zipaquirá, a day trip
I also went on an ill-fated road trip to a town called Zipaquirá with another friend from Couchsurfing. His car broke down as soon as we arrived.
Zipaquirá is known mostly for its salt cathedral. In the 1940s, the abandoned salt mines of Zipaquirá were converted into a vast underground cathedral complex spanning hundreds of chambers.
Medellín, “City of Eternal Spring”
Medellín, Colombia’s second city, gained notoriety in 1980s as the world’s most violent city under the reign of resident narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar. Today’s Medellín is quite a world apart. Widely appreciated as Colombia’s most livable city, Medellín has the fastest economic growth in all of Latin America. Expats from the United States and Europe have flocked to the city in droves, attracted by the city’s pleasant climate and relative affordability.
As in elsewhere in Latin America, the Medellín’s affluent live in the valley while the poor concentrate in the hills. The socioeconomic segregation induced by Medellín topography has prompted an assortment of novel urban design innovations aimed at improving hill dwellers’ access to downtown Medellín.
This series of orange-roofed outdoor escalators scales the side of a mountain in six segments transforming what once once a grueling trek up the equivalent of a 28-story building into a breezy 6-minute commute. This has given a new lease on life for the long-suffering residents of Commune 13 who, until recently, were endlessly victimized by guerrillas and gangs.
The commune was so violent that the military laid sieged to the neighborhood in 2002, which ended with 9 civilian casualties and hundreds injured. Fortunately, conditions in the district have improved in recent years as tourists drawn by its colorful street art bring a new source of revenue and employment to the coomune.
The Medellín Metro is the only modern mass transit system in Colombia, but much of Medellín’s population lives in areas too hilly for the trains to reach. City planners tackled this issue by installing several cable-car lines linking distant hill districts with metro stops in the urban core. Twenty-thousand commuters ride the cable cars per day.
Only a short bus ride from Medellín is Guatapé, a colorful folksy town that looks like it was drawn by a child with a box of crayons. Here each buildings is adorned with colorful hand-made panels called Zocalos that depict the story of the family or business that owns it. No two buildings have the same Zocalos.
El Peñol de la Piedra
There’s a big granite rock just outside Guatapé with a 740-step staircase leading to a tower at the summit. Those who brave the climb are rewarded with breathtaking view.
The farmland and villages surrounding the rock were inundated by water displaced by the construction of a hydroelectric dam. The receding flood waters left behind a scenic waterscape dotted with islands and peninsulas.
Cali, Colombia’s third largest city, is a hot gritty crime cake that doesn’t exactly impress. I had a great time because I adore my host, but I’d be lying if I said I like Cali.
From a downtown dominated by bank towers and highways the city fans out into vast car-oriented sprawl. The city boasts a small and mostly vacant historic district in the hills near San Antonio’s church where a brave handful of start-ups and hostels quiver behind thick security.
Popayán, the “White City”
A bit south from Cali is Popayán, a gorgeous unspoiled gem of a town with a well-preserved colonial core and very little to actually do. Few tourists make it to this town, which, unlike Cartagena or Guatapé, retains its authenticity, despite its charm.
Popayán is often referred to as “the White City” because all buildings in its historic center are painted white. The beauty of Popayán is difficult to capture in photographs, which, I think, is part of the reason why it hasn’t been ruined by mass tourism.
Juan, a 24-year-old local dental student showed me around Popayán while my actual host, Paolo was out doing whatever it is that Paolo does.
Is Colombia worth the risk?
Absolutely. Don’t be misled by the statistics. Most crime happens in specific neighborhoods that tourists do not visit anyways. There are some countries that are too dangerous to visit altogether, but Colombia is not one of them. If crime is a big concern for you, then sort out which neighborhoods are safe in each city before you visit them.
I never felt seriously endangered in Cartagena, Medellín, or Cali. In Bogotá I did, but only because I was staying in a shady neighborhood and spent time most of my time in the city’s unsafe districts. In the end, I still managed to avoid getting robbed because I knew what to look out for. If you don’t, then simply read up on it.