Exploring Colombia in style
By Erika Hernandez
Colombia is a country that has been the center of attention since colonial times. Inspired by the legends of El Dorado, Spanish explorers rushed to conquer and settle there. They extracted gold, emeralds and other treasures, as well as traded slaves. During the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia often made the international news headlines due to the civil war perpetrated by the guerrillas and paramilitary groups, as well as violence caused by drug trafficking. But after five decades of killings, disappearances, and extortions, former President Juan Manuel Santos successfully engaged the country in peace negotiations.
Although some members of society did not agree with the peace process, Colombia now boasts that its remarkable improvement and tourism has exponentially increased. Today, Colombia is highly visited and has become the go-to place for weddings as well as plastic surgeries. After reading about great travel experiences, I decided to venture to Colombia. Despite its drug trafficking reputation, it has a lot to offer: Caribbean beaches, reduced crime, and non-stop parties and glamour. Knowing Spanish made it easier for me to get around, although it was not easy peasy. Caribbean Spanish is particularly difficult for me to understand---a store attendant got offended after I showed my lack of understanding. As a country, Colombia also has numerous idioms. I recommend learning a few to get around. For instance, bacano or chévere both mean “very cool.”
I visited Cartagena, Medellín and Bogotá. In Cartagena, I went to the Ciudad Amurallada that displays beautiful post-colonial architecture and has colorful stores.
There, a new Peruvian friend and I drank delicious cocktails at Café del Mar during sunset time. I also took a guided tour to the San Felipe Castle, which I highly recommend. Since the days of the conquistadors, Cartagena served as a port for shipping all the gold to Spain, making it vulnerable to pirates and foreign invasions so the castle served as a fortress, designed to prevent attacks. The Islas del Rosario – named due to their resemblance to a Catholic rosary---were nice with sky blue water. While snorkeling, I found out that around 95% of the coral was dead. My heart was broken. Next, I took a one-day trip to visit the Totumo volcano where I immersed myself in a gooey mud with “medicinal properties.” Whether this is true or not, it was a unique experience.
After four days in Cartagena, I flew to Medellín. During the 1990s, it was home of the Medellín cartel run by Pablo Escobar, but is a safe area now. Today, you can see the remnants of its narco past by observing the plastic surgery culture. Numerous young Colombianas seem to have perfect bodies but many of them are products of cosmetic surgery. But reality hit me while exploring downtown. I saw numerous Venezuelan refugees with young children on the streets begging and trying to figure out how to make ends meet. While talking to Colombians, many of them remembered that they had been in the same situation. At the end of the 1990s, many fled violence caused by the civil war and settled in Venezuela. “Somos vecinos. Hay que tener compasión,” a Colombian told me.
I further visited Communa 13 –a former slum that had undergone horrifying violence between cartels, gangs and paramilitary, and was just recently turned into a peaceful and colorful community. Our tour guide mentioned that several of his family members disappeared during the violent period. Comuna 13 is now a lovely small town that you can visit even late at night. There, I learned that a violent past does not have to define your present. In fact, we can all change just as Medellín did. Afterwards, I took a one-day trip to Guatapé and Piedra del Peñol where we ate bandeja paisa and tried some tasty Colombian coffee. The views from Guatapé were astounding. We saw Pablo Escobar’s former summer mansion at Lake Guatapé during our boat tour. The arts crafts at Piedra del Peñol are expensive so make sure you buy elsewhere.
Once in Medellín, I walked around the old town of Candelaria, visited the emerald museum, as well as Botero’s museum. If you go, head up to the second floor where you will see Botero’s paintings portraying Colombia’s difficult past and his opposition to violence. I advise only using Uber in Medellín for safety reasons. You can go to typical places in downtown like El Chorro but go during daytime since there are robberies at night. I also experienced the night life. I booked a pub crawl tour at Zona T, which is a very safe area with numerous trendy restaurants and bars. I also took the cable car to Monserrat mountain. The sightseeing was absolutely beautiful. Monserrat tends to get decorated with lights during Christmas time, so I highly recommend visiting them. My trip concluded with a special night trip: dining at authentic French food à la carte since I had eaten Colombian food throughout all my trip. I thought to myself: “I made it, yet again, all by myself and made awesome new friends. ¡Gracias Colombia!
Colombia has slowly become a peaceful Latin country that you can visit, where you can gain perspective on overcoming a violent past, and see how peace is possible. As I saw a diverse array of people dance salsa at night, I saw hardened hearts soften. Perhaps a little bit of Colombian salsa and coffee could ease our gringo worries.