This article is just what the headline says. I have so many thoughts about my recent trip that I want to write them down before I forget them. And if anyone should find these musings helpful, so much the better.
Any links to outside sources are here simply because I thought they might be useful or clarifying. Unlike many travel writers, I get no money based on the few recommendations I make.
Where are all the Americans?
The one thing that surprised me the most about Colombia is how few tourists I saw from the United States. Sure, I knew that when many Americans think about traveling to Latin America they have destinations such as Cancún and Cozumel in mind, or maybe Costa Rica or Machu Picchu, but in even the most touristy parts of Colombia I was surprised on the rare occasions I heard someone speak with an American accent. I heard plenty of English — but it was mostly from Europeans using it as a second language.
I have yet to figure out why the lack of appeal to Americans. A place such as Cartagena would seem to have everything an American tourist could want: Caribbean beaches with palm trees and white sand, hotels ranging from pricey all-inclusives to $10/night hostels, restaurants that offer the gamut of international cuisine, shopping of all sorts, sites of historic and cultural interest, and so on. It safe, and it’s inexpensive when compared with resort cities such as Las Vegas or Orlando.
My guess is that the reputation of Colombia as a country run by terrorists and drug lords still has yet to catch up with the reality of a nation that it putting its past behind; although troubled parts of the country remain, they are far from the area generally visited by foreigners. And there are still Americans who are leery of foreign travel unless it’s to a place where “everybody speaks English” — and even in a well-touristed place such as Cartagena that isn’t the case.
Hostels: It didn’t matter that I’m not in the target demographic
On previous trips to Latin America, I’ve stayed in just about every kind of lodging: pensiones (something like a B&B), luxury hotels, cheap hotels without locks on the doors, even a private home. But this was the first time I’ve spent a trip staying in hostels. (By definition, hostels are places of temporary lodging in which at least one room is a dormitory, where strangers share a room and are assigned to beds. Traditionally, hostels have been the province of “backbackers,” young-adult travelers on trips that last months rather than weeks.)
I wouldn’t have considered hostels, except I have a son who has stayed in them while traveling throughout the world even though he could afford to stay in standard hotels. The idea did sound appealing: The price is right (I averaged under $15 per night, and that was staying at upscale hostels), and they are often close to tourist attractions and public transportation.
But I also knew that the average person staying in a hostel is around my son’s age, in the 20s, and often even younger. I knew that if I took this approach, I would be in places where there might not be anyone else around more than half my age.
But my son told me that wouldn’t be a problem, and so did a co-worker friend of mine of about the same age who has stayed in hostels in Asia. So I booked my rooms (I mean beds), figuring that if I didn’t like the experience I could cancel my reservations after one or two days and go a more traditional route.
But even as I got off the plane in Bogotá, I was having my doubts. I feared being asked by some millennial: What’s an old guy like you doing here? (For the record, I don’t think I’m old, but a 20-something-year-old probably does.) I thought it might be awkward sharing a room with “adults” younger than most of my children, especially women. And, basically, I just thought it might be a weird thing to do (not that that always stops me from being unconventional).
But my fears were allayed the moment I walked in the República Hostel in Bogotá. The receptionist greeted me warmly as if I were a typical guest. The place looked like a comfortable home away from home, with plenty of sofas, chairs, and tables suited for relaxation and conversation. By the end of the first evening, I found myself playing Uno (the card game) with six other people, all of them under 30 and only one of them speaking English as a first language. They treated me as a fellow traveler, not as someone different, and that continued to hold true throughout my trip. I can’t think of a better way to be introduced to the world of hosteling.
It helped that I chose hostels with a modern design — instead of dormitories with standard bunk beds, the dormitories featured beds that were something like “pods” with individual reading lights and plug-ins and separated from each other in way affording as much privacy as a person might want. Someone who wanted to hide all day and not be seen could get in bed and close the curtain. It wasn’t as much like sharing as bedroom as it was sharing an entryway into tiny individual sleeping areas. The photo below is of my bed in Cartagena; this room slept six, yet there was enough separation from my “roommates” that they never woke me while I slept.
If I were traveling alone, I’d definitely go the hostel route again. And if I were traveling with one or two others, I’d consider staying in a private room in a hostel if I were interested in meeting fellow travelers.
Cash only, almost everywhere
If you’re used to using your cash or debit card for everything, you’ll find yourself out of the habit quickly in Colombia.
It isn’t that there aren’t places that accept cards. But those places are limited, and they may require you to show your passport if you are using a foreign bank. Also, many of them impose a surcharge of a few percent to make up for the merchants’ bank fees. And some places you might think would accept cards — I’m thinking specifically of some airport restaurants — don’t.
All that wouldn’t be a big deal, but spending cash can be a problem too. U.S. debit cards work fine at ATMs for getting cash, but ATMs often have long lines (I waited half an hour once) and may run out of money (I saw it happen twice). At least one bank, Davivienda, doesn’t impose transaction fees on foreigners’ cash withdrawals, while some others charge as much as $5 U.S.
But a bigger problem is that ATMs dispense most of their cash in $50,000-peso bills (yes, Colombians use the same $ symbol as we do in the U.S. for dollars). $50,000 pesos is worth about $15 U.S., yet many merchants, especially those on the street, don’t like accepting them for purchases of a few thousand pesos, such as for a snack or a bottle of water. It’s something like using $100 bills in the U.S.
Use a $50,000-peso bill or even one of $20,000 pesos or $10,000 pesos, and the recipient will often look at it carefully to check the anti-counterfeiting markings. I often worried that I would inadvertently pass on a counterfeit, since I never examined the change given to me, but as far as I know it never happened.
Prices in Colombia are low by U.S. standards, especially in Bogotá, although luxury and imported items can cost as much as in the U.S. City bus rides come in under $1 U.S., $15 or so will get you a taxi ride from the Bogotá airport to most hotels, and fixed-menu meals often go for $3 to $4 U.S. The tourist city of Cartagena is said to be the most expensive place in Colombia, although even there you won’t get gouged, at least in low season.
The phone app that made the most difference on my trip was Moovit, which never failed me while navigating around Bogotá and Santa Marta using public transportation (I didn’t try it in Cartagena). It includes buses that aren’t listed on Google Maps, and with few exceptions it provided good walking directions as well.
These were my favorite destinations:
- Favorite of the outdoors: Its hard to find better than Tayrona National Natural Park, the country’s top outdoor tourist attraction, and I totally loved it and would go back, but La Chorrera did it for me. It’s everything a mountain waterfall should be, and it’s in a different world than Bogotá even though the entrance is only an hour bus ride away.
- Favorite beach: I’ve got to give Tayrona park recognition for something, so I’d be remiss not to mention the postcard-perfect beach at Cabo San Juan. Although it’s reachable by boat, I’d recommend the steamy jungle hike in for the green as well as the photogenic monkeys.
- Favorite underground site: I’d call the Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral) my favorite historical site, but it was dug out in the 1990s, so I’m not sure it counts as historical. You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the devotion that was required to dig out this place of worship from deep below the surface.
- Favorite museum: One of the top tourist draws in Bogotá, the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) wows with its prehistoric artwork and informative displays.
- Favorite historical site: There’s not much here in terms of interpretative displays, but I still enjoyed climbing to the top of the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a fortress in Cartagena whose construction started in the 1500s.
Food and drink
Colombian cuisine, which relies a lot on meat and fried foods, isn’t my favorite, but I found the limonada de coco to be irresistible. It’s something like a piña colada smoothie with lime instead of pineapple. Another coconut specialty, arroz con coco (coconut rice) is pretty good as well. And so are the cheese arepas (cornmeal cakes) found from street vendors.
Photo by G.F. Erichsen of the road to La Chorrera, near Bogotá. Photo may be used for noncommercial purposes provided full credit is given.