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Trip Report 45 days in Colombia - Our Experience

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During our Round The World, we travelled to Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile & Uruguay but bypassed Colombia, since we were not sure about safety travelling overland. We deeply regretted it, when we listened to the first enthusiastic reports from travelers arriving from there. So we used the next possible opportunity to make up for that mistake and traveled Colombia intensively for 45 days in July and August 2009.
Our main destinations were: Pereira & Salento - Popayan, Tierradentro & San Agustin - Neiva & the Desierto de Tatacoa - Bogota - Villa de Leyva, San Gil, Barichara & Bucaramanga - Medellin - La Guajira - Santa Marta, Taganga & the Parque Nacional Tayrona - Cartagena. Unfortunately we had no time to go to the Pacific Coast and missed out on scuba diving with baby whales. The Amazon we never intended to go to, since we spent quite some time in Bolivia in the Amazon basin.
Let’s start with the big concern many people have. YES, travelling in Colombia is safe, very safe! Actually, Colombia is one of the safest in South America, as far as we can tell. It is light years from its disreputable image of a country of drugs and guns.
Colombia is also a country that is extremely diverse. There is not “the one big highlight” like Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls, Angkor Wat or the Taj Mahal, but a vast number of places offer impressive, very different experiences.
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Those impressions will always stay in our mind when thinking of Colombia:
* Very gentle & helpful people, trying hard to welcome visitors as best as they can, proud that actually visitors from other countries / other continents come to their country / their city. This is unfortunately far less true for the Caribbean Coast, which seem to be both another country and another culture
* Great pride to be Colombian and the wish to show the good sides of the country to visitors
* A very clean and well organized country, where things run astonishingly well
* A country made of small highlights that add up to an impressive experience, so you keep on moving around
* Chivas in the south, which are never full and stop every ten meters to allow passengers to get on or off
* “A la orden”, a phrase which can be heard all day, meant to encourage you to buy something or to offer a service without being pushy
* Vallenato music non stop
* An impressive military presence - but very professional & helpful soldiers / police officers, even ready to exchange a joke with the few foreigners they encounter
* A fair share of party hostels - especially in Bogota, Medellin and on the Caribbean Coast
* And last but not least … Lots of possibilities to develop the touristic infrastructures: except in major cities, there is lack of restaurants that offer anything else than the usual “Pollo con arroz” grub. A few times we could not find enough people to rent a jeep and share the costs, for example in Villa de Leyva. In Riohacha, preparing a tour to La Guajira, we only found one person (!) to join us to go to Punta Gallinas, which made it an expensive tour.

The highlights of these almost seven weeks in Colombia were:
* The people, very gentle & helpful
* The province of Santander, with two remarkable colonial cities, Villa de Leyva (ok, it is almost Santander) & Barichara, and San Gil, the place for great outdoor activities like paragliding, white water rafting or anything of the kind at a very reasonable price
* The Zona Cafetera, Salento and the Valle de Cocora
* The archaeological sites of Tierradentro & San Agustin
* The 3 Colombian deserts: Desierto de Tatacoa, Canyon de Chicamocha & La Guajira, where it feels like arriving at the end of the world
* Medellin, a nice city so easy to discover with its metro & cable cars with the biggest, most vivid, most incredible “Zona Rosa” we have ever seen

A few things we did not like:
* Very basic or pricey hostels. Some of the owners created a great atmosphere, only a few times were we truly content. Either we lacked comfort, or we paid more and were without a backpacker infrastructure and information
* Food gets a bit monotonous if you stick to a cheap fare. Breakfast with the inevitable eggs and sweetish bread & lunch over Comida Corrientes with “Pollo con arroz y frijoles”
* Noisy Taganga with a beach full of rubble
* Many aspects of the Caribbean Coast: extreme noise, with people playing music at full blast every weekend and holiday; lots of plastic garbage everywhere and actually few nice beaches, either on islands or in national parks

A few things we did not do due to lack of time or because it was not a priority:
* Ciudad Perdida: although everybody we talked to loved it, we did not fancy trekking in this heat, we felt we had done our share in Chile, Peru and Venezuela in 2007.
* Scuba diving with whales on the Pacific Coast we would have loved to do, but extra costs and lack of time were the reasons for not going there

Of course, few things we should have done differently:
* Visit Medellin during the Fiesta de las Flores only with a reservation for a liveable accommodation
* Spend less time on the Caribbean Coast, more time in Santander and the south
* Travel at a lower pace: travelling in Colombia is challenging and tiring, with huge travel times especially in the south

Colombia is a great destination to travel, with an immense diversity to discover and enjoy, the kindest people you can imagine, picturesque colonial cities, magnificent scenery, some of the oldest archaeological sites of the Americas and if this is what you are looking for, great places to party.
“El riesgo es que te quieras quedar”. The risk is you may want to stay, as the Colombian Tourist Board’s clever slogan claims!

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