Medellín, Cartagena, Santa Marta, PNN Tayrona, Taganga, Bogotá

Pretty much since I started my journey, everyone that I met who had been to Colombia and heard I was planning to go there told me how amazing this country was, and how much they had enjoyed their time there. They raved about its natural beauty and diversity, the openness and kindness of its people and most of all how this was just a place where people tried to enjoy life to the fullest. Suffice to say that I arrived with great expectations, eager to find out if all of these travelers were right. After having spent nearly a month here, I can safely say that I’m in full agreement, and then some.

Let’s start with the rollercoaster ride that is Medellín. I spent nearly two weeks there, and it’s easily in my top 5 of favorite cities I’ve ever visited. The economic heart of Colombia, it sprawls over a vast stretch of valley, crawling up the slopes of the massive green hills all around. There is an incredible amount of life and activity happening everywhere, from the touristy and night life center of Poblado to the outer barrios reachable by aerial cable car. The people of the Medellín are called Paisas, and I experienced them to be savoring everyday life in a way most Europeans don’t ever get close to. They talk loudly and laugh often, help you without you even having to ask and without wanting anything in return. They work hard during the day, and during the night… they dance like there is no tomorrow.

In Medellín, and Colombia by extension, everybody dances. And not the distant, constrained, solitary jumping to a techno beat you see so often at home. Complex patterns and rhythms make up the art of salsa, while the thumping beat of the super popular reggaeton invites for intense and aggressive grinding that at times can best be described as dry humping on the dance floor. Dancing is engrained in Latin American culture, and practically everyone is good at it. Or at least has the confidence to not give a shit and just live it up. Being in this environment is a fantastic experience, because you discover that this approach is much more real, and far less pretentious.

Of course there is another side to Medellín as well, connected with its relatively recent and violent past that has been overturned over the course of just fifteen years, back when it was the most dangerous city in the world. The guide of the walking tour I went on told some heartbreaking stories about the impact the cocaine trade has had on the city and its inhabitants, in particular under the reign of the most famous drug lord in history, Pablo Escobar. At sad as that part of history may be, the fact that the safety has so dramatically improved is absolutely remarkable. There are still areas where visitors should not venture, and drugs can be purchased with incredible ease, but overall the reputation of this place is steadily rising to that of a vastly interesting metropolitan tourist destination. It’s obvious that the people want nothing to do with the past, live very much in the present and look forward to the future. Their attitude is a sign of their resolve to rid the outside world of all prejudices concerning Colombia and its citizens.

After a brief repose in Guatapé, I went over for about two weeks to the Caribbean coast of Colombia, easily the warmest and most visited part of the country. Compared to the eternal spring climate of central Colombia, the humid heat of Cartagena came as a sweaty slap in the face. The Spanish colonial old town was amazingly scenic, at least for the five minutes at a time you could spend outside away from AC to admire it. At any rate, being back at the seaside was a joy. I visited Tayrona national park, which was just astounding. Hiking and swimming during the day, and sleeping in open-air hammocks in a little tower on top of a rock overlooking the sea, beach and jungle beyond. Unfortunately I did lose my camera I bought back in November in Bangkok, which I’d really become accustomed to and was quite valuable. So back to smartphone photos for the remainder of the trip, which is a sad reality I’ll have to get used to again.

While leaving Tayrona to spend a few days in the backpacker hideout of Taganga (a strange seaside town with an overwhelming presence of Israeli ex-military backpackers consuming vast amounts of drugs and alcohol) a girl stepped onto the local bus. She opened a case and took out a violin, quickly tuned it and for the following ten minutes played beautiful Colombian folk songs while we were driving over winding roads circling steep cliffs down into the town. I hadn’t seen a violin being played up close like that since I left home, let alone as good as she was doing it. It was a magical moment, and I just sat there mesmerized and watched as she played with her eyes closed. It once again made me realize how much I miss playing. I wanted to go up to her and say hi, ask about her violin and if I could perhaps play a few notes. As I contemplated the complex social situation where a complete stranger who barely speaks Spanish approaches a girl on a crowded bus asking to play on what is probably her most precious possession, she thanked the driver and got off as suddenly as she appeared. The moment was gone, and I cursed myself for not being more forward in the face of this rare opportunity. It was a tiny event in a vast string of experiences, but for me it stands out and I’ll remember it for a long time to come.

I’m spending the final few days of my stay in Colombia in the capital. Bogotá is even larger than Medellin, the fifth largest city on the whole American continent, with a colder climate and a chaotic and bustling atmosphere. I’m mostly by myself, enjoying some solitary days walking around in the midst of it all, visiting museums of pre-colonial Colombian gold and the contemporary art of Botero, taking salsa classes, eating delicious arepas and empanadas, drinking the world-renowned Colombian coffee, sipping some Aguardiente.

Colombia has been an absolute revelation, and probably my favorite country of the whole trip so far. I can recommend a visit wholeheartedly and I’ll be sad to leave. At the same time, I’m excited to move on to Peru and all its splendor, with Machu Picchu as a definite highlight. I’ll keep you posted.

Hasta luego!

June 1st, 2017

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