Flag in Cartagena Colombia

13 days in Colombia: My travel notes

When I was in college, I would routinely takes notes in class — and then seldom look at them again, and not just because my handwriting was nearly illegible. I found that the mere act of writing things down helped me remember them.

And this is the reason behind these travel notes: I don’t get to travel nearly as often as I wish, and I hope that writing down (or, in this ease, typing) my reflections will help me immerse myself in the experience as I soon begin a two-week trip to Colombia. I’m not writing for anyone other than myself, so don’t expect any polish, but I won’t complain if anyone else finds these notes useful or enjoyable.

The reason of my trip? Because travel beckons. I can’t help but want to visit new places and see what I haven’t seen before. I hope to return with a heightened sense of both myself and the world around me. I’ll be visiting historical sites, going to museums, speaking Spanish, hiking a bit, eating new food, meeting people and doing what travelers do.

Edited to add: During the trip, I was hampered by having to use Spanish-language keyboards. So I wrote less than I wanted, but that’s OK. I’ve done a bit more editing than planned on my return, but I’ve added little so as to keep my freshest memories the ones in print.

Day 0: The plane is on time!

When I bought my plane tickets, I didn’t know that my flight from Salt Lake City to the hub in Fort Lauderdale had an on-time record in the zeroeth percentile. Yes, you read that right. I checked before I left, and about 10 percent of the flights had been missing the Florida connection. So I have to admit I was a bit nervous about the beginning of the trip.

Lo destacado de hoy: The plane left with plenty of time to spare.

Day 1: Off to a good start

One thing I learned today is that whatever ability I once had to sleep on airplanes is gone. I don’t remember sleeping at all, although I probably did.

Despite my fatigue, the first day in Colombia was wonderful, even though I didn’t do much during the day except wander the streets near the place where I’m staying at, the República Hostel. I had a wonderful first meal in the country, a vegetarian lunch of brown rice, barley soup, a soybean patty, vegetables with lentils, blackberry juice and cornbread, all for $3 U.S. My dinner, a grilled chicken breast at something like a fast-food place, wasn’t as good or as cheap, but it filled me up.

I chose the República mostly because of its central location, as my plans include ventures to both the north and south. It’s also in a safe area well away from the city’s main tourist zone.

Lo destacado de hoy: Playing Uno with six other people, all less than half my age and none from the United States. I had some hesitation about staying in hostels, since I knew I would be more than twice the age of most people staying at them, but my fears were quickly dispelled. I have no doubt I’ll enjoy my stay here.

Day 2: Good variety

I started out the day with a visit to Bogotá’s Latter-day Saint temple, and then I spent the rest of the day in the historic downtown. And I saw something I didn’t expect to see: a march for world peace by the city’s Hindus. At least that’s what I think it was.

Lo destacado de hoy: A Colombian Abba tribute band had a concert about a block from the hostel. How could I resist?

Day 3: Another religious experience

I visited the Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral), a huge underground cathedral dug out of a salt mine. It was beautiful, and I found myself contemplating the varieties of religious expression I had already encountered on my trip.

Lo destacado de hoy: The cathedral, of course.

Day 4: A day with nature

The La Chorrera waterfall is every bit as beautiful as the pictures that led me to pick this destination. I found it fascinating that a place that seems so remote can exist only about 20 miles as the crow flies from a city the the size of Bogotá.

Lo destacado de hoy: The falls, which required my walking about 10 miles, was my favorite destination so far. (Edited to add: It turned out to be my favorite destination of the trip. Find me on Instagram under “stillmoretosay” for pictures.)

Day 5: Caribbean Sea, here I come

Attending church this morning, a few hours before my flight to Santa Marta, gave me a rare opportunity to interact with Colombians not involved with tourism, selling things or serving food.

Lo destacado de hoy: When my bus to the airport for my trip to the Caribbean coast failed to arrive, I found myself with two local women at the bus stop who also were in danger of having their plans disrupted; one was going to the airport, the other to work near the airport. One of them suggested we share a taxi, I said yes, and she took care of things from there. Colombians are a friendly people, and I’m glad this stranger reached out to me.

Day 6: A day in steaming paradise

What can I say? Tayrona National Natural Park was every bit as beautiful as the pictures. And the sea was even bluer than it turned out in my own photos. I did manage to get myself dehydrated, which is too long of a story to explain on this cumbersome keyboard, but there was nothing that copious amounts of water and Coca-Cola and a lunch of shrimp rice on the beach could not cure.

Lo destacado de hoy: Watching the monkeys play on the trees in the jungle on the way to the beach.

Day 7: Arriving in Cartagena

Today I headed to Cartagena, the most touristy of my destinations by far. It is a major international resort city, yet I have been surprised how few Americans there are here. I have met far more tourists from the Netherlands than I have from the United States.

I did have some trouble getting out of Santa Marta. I had a quite inexpensive breakfast, yet I made a mistake in knowing how much money I had with me. (I was on my way to an ATM when I saw a small place serving breakfasts, and I should have double-checked before ordering my meal, but I did not, to see how much money I had.) I was 2,000 pesos short (60-some cents), so I told the owner I was on my way to a bank anyway and would be right back. But the first bank I went to had a long line, so I found another one with two ATMs, where the line was also long, but I figured that with two ATMs I would be back to the restaurant in no time.

But I was close to the front of the line when one of the cajeros ran out of money. But it was already the start of the one-hour window in which my ride could arrive, and I did not have any choice but to go way out of the way to pay for the 2,000 pesos left on my breakfast. I was in a hurry, so I gave the owner a 10,000-peso bill and called it good while running out of there.

But I still had to pack my things and check out. As I was hurriedly packing, the man from the front desk came to tell me my ride was waiting. I was the first passenger, so any time the driver had to wait for me would add to the time every other passenger would have to walk. It was not until I arrived in Cartagena that I realized I had left a few things behind in the rush, although nothing that could not be replaced at minimal expense. Maybe they will still be there when I return to the same hostel on my way home.

Lo destacado de hoy: Roaming the streets of Cartegena near my hostel, which were lively and filled with locals and tourists alike. This is going to be a fun place for four nights.

Day 8: Cannot complain about free

As I start writing this, it is midday, and I just finished a free walking tour (donations gladly accepted, as the tours are run by a local organization that promotes Colombia without any government help). I went on the Spanish-language tour, joining others from (I presume) elsewhere in Colombia and South America. The guide was amazingly good at what guides do. He spoke clearly and distinctly with a heavy dose of gestures using his full body — hands, feet, arms, vocal tone, and so on. Far from being a distraction, the gestures made him easier to understand despite his use of colloquialisms. I am not in the business of making product endorsements, but I will gladly give Beyond Colombia five of five stars. This actually was a tour designed to informatively showcase the city, not to promote tourist traps.

Lo destacado de hoy: Sometimes there’s advantages to traveling to the off-season. Late in the afternoon I went to what was supposed to a group introduction to salsa (the dance). So I got what was in effect a private salsa lesson from Mauricio, one of the instructors at Crazy Salsa. He was great. In about 90 minutes I learned the basics of salsa rhythm and a workout in the process. He complimented me more than I probably deserved, telling me that if quit thinking so much about what I was doing I’d be fine. I’m not sure I’m ready to try this with a partner yet, but that wasn’t my goal anyway.

Day 9: My day at the beach

I was planning on going to the beach a day earlier through a package offered by the hostel I’m saying at. But they needed 10 participants to make the trip, and only nine signed up. Most of the area’s beaches aren’t reachable by public transportation, and few of the other beach packages being offered around the city fit the right combo of fun and price, so I went to Airbnb to look for an alternative. (Although known for acting as a conduit for private parties to offer lodging, Airbnb also arranges for what it calls “experiences” offered by locals.)

And I found what I was looking for: a full-day trip to Playa Blanca that ended with a viewing of luminescent plankton, and at about half the price of one of the commercial trips. For me, the fact it was offered only in Spanish was a plus. The man hosting the trip was great to talk to, as were the couple from Barcelona who made up the rest of our small group. I spent most of the beach afternoon chatting with a Colombian family and a few of their friends; I had met the wife and mother out in the sea. I don’t remember who started the conversation, but I assume it was probably she, since I found out that she is the type of person who makes friends wherever she goes. And now I’m a Facebook friend of her husband, so there’s that.

Lo destacado de hoy: Plankton tours are fairly popular here. About two dozen people are taken out into a sheltered bay, where they are basically dumped in the water while wearing life jackets. The plankton were interesting, but I enjoyed something else more: seeing the abundance of stars in the sky I could see while floating in the water. Thanks to light pollution, I seldom see them. I was even able to see the Milky Way, which I hadn’t seen in probably more than a decade.

Day 10: Stormy times ahead, but for whom?

The first thing I did when I awoke was to check the Hurricane Dorian forecast. Yesterday it looked promising for me, but now it looks as if it could strike Fort Lauderdale at about the time I’m supposed to be making a flight connection there on the way home. For me, it would be best if the storm heads to South Carolina, not that I want people there to suffer either. We’ll see.

Today was the first day I didn’t have any major activities planned, so I didn’t do anything major, and that’s OK. But maybe climbing to the top of a fortress built in 1657 is something major. I walked to the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, which is within easy walking distance of where I’m staying at the República Hostel (a sister hostel to the one in Bogotá) in the historic city center. I am not sure how much of the structure is original; certainly tourists must have worn down the stones significantly over the years. The site offers one of the best views of Cartagena, which blends the old and the modern.

Lo destacado de hoy: In the evening I went to see ¿Qué dirá la gente?, a Pakistani-Norwegian film shown with Spanish subtitles. That’s something hard to do at a theater in the United States, and it was a better-than-average film, about a teenage immigrant in Oslo who clashed with her family over her adoption of a Western lifestyle.

Day 11: Another lazy day

Today I returned to Santa Marta in a six-hour ride including stops to pick up people at various hotels in Cartagena and drop them/us off at various hotels in Santa Marta. It was an uneventful ride. I finally made progress on a book I had bought specifically for the trip. I suppose it’s a good thing I have yet to finish the book. I know there are people who would be bored traveling alone for 11 days, but I haven’t had that problem yet. And here I returned to where I had stayed for two nights early, the Masaya Hostel, a three-story colonial structure in the heart of this historic district. And, yes, they still had the sandals, shorts and phone charger I had left behind.

Lo destacado de hoy: Roaming the streets of Santa Marta’s historic downtown. Cartagena and Santa Marta are both coastal cities of around a million people, but the differences are stunning. In Santa Marta, the poverty of Colombia is painfully obvious; in Cartagena it is fairly well hidden from most tourists. In both places I have lodged in luxury (although my hostels have been cheap by U.S. standards, the ones in the two cities have swimming pools), but here in Santa Marta I am surrounded by crumbling sidewalks, vacant colonial buildings, and streets filled with people who obviously have little going for them financially. Here, I can’t but help think of how privileged I am.

Day 12: Surprisingly different

It isn’t unusual for Latter-day Saints to attend church services when away from home. And invariably, so it has seemed to me, they can expect a church service pretty much like what they are used to. In fact, that was the case in Bogotá, which was just like a church service in the U.S., but in Spanish.

But today was different. I attended a service in Santa Marta this morning, and it wasn’t what I expected. For one, the congregation of around 150 (quite a few for a branch, which is usually a small organization), sang the hymns with enthusiasm. They were as off-key as I was, but they were loud. And there was never any waiting for members to address the congregation, a common ritual held the first Sunday of each month. And while most people were dressed in what Utah saints consider Sunday best, quite a few weren’t. Not all women covered their shoulders, and some wore pants, either one of which might (sadly) cause a minor scandal in some places in Utah. And one of the boys serving the communion bread and water wasn’t even wearing a tie. The people seemed like they wanted to be there, not because they were expected to. I met four missionaries at the church, all of them from South America, and others were friendly to me as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed worship at this church. I have a hard time explaining why; I think it’s mostly that I found the people here so genuine.

In the afternoon I took a short bus ride to the home where Simón Bolívar died and walked to some historical sites downtown. All totaled, it was fitting way to spend the last non-travel day of my trip.

Lo destacado de hoy: Singing Creo en Cristo, the Spanish version of I Believe in Christ, with a group of devoted people with backgrounds far different from mine. The power of the song literally almost brought me to tears.

Day 13: A day of wondering

After a short plane trip back to Bogotá, I write this less than 11 hours before I’m supposed to head to the airport, and I still don’t know for sure whether I’ll be taking the last legs of my journey tomorrow. I’m giving the uncertainty more emotional attention than is good, so maybe it is time to think of something else. In any case, it’s good to be back in the capital city and at a hostel that feels something like a home away from home. The coastal hostels had much better, even luxurious, facilities, but this one feels like a place where I belong.

On the way back from a walk to an ATM, I couldn’t resist when I saw a small café offering fresh-squeezed orange juice, and I watched it made right in front of me. Drink doesn’t get much better than that unless it’s a limonada de coco, my new favorite. It’s a Colombian specialty that is something like a fruit smoothie made of lime juice and coconut. I’ll need to get the recipe!

Lo destacado de hoy: The República Hostel is incredibly conducive to conversations with strangers. Tonight I spent about 90 minutes in a conversation with two Europeans about travel (of course) and our perspectives on love and marriage. One was a 30-year-old Italian man traveling alone, the other a Belgian woman in her mid-20s traveling with her boyfriend. Their perspectives couldn’t have been more different from each other, nor from mine.Thanks in part to probing questions from the Italian, the conversation was a remarkably intimate one for people who had just met, and I think all three of us came away with respect for each other and our similarities and differences. Conversations like that don’t happen often enough.

Day 14: Home!

I don’t count this as a day in Colombia, because I did little in the country except get up, shower, and go to the Bogotá airport, a modern and new facility that in most ways is like any other major international airport. But there was a good choice of Colombian as well as international foods there, and I enjoyed my last limonada de coco.

Lo destacado de hoy: I didn’t know for sure until about 1 a.m. that I’d be coming home that day, as that was when I found out that the Fort Lauderdale airport had scheduled a noon reopening. The airport was a bit eerie, as I arrived not long after the reopening, and there were no crowds and the customs/immigration area was empty until my plane arrived. As much as I enjoyed Colombia and had a buen viaje, it is also great to be home.


Photo in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, by Carlos Castro Ruge, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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