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5 Nights in Colombia (Medellin & Bogota): Trip Notes

5 Nights in Colombia (Medellin & Bogota): Trip Notes

Old Aug 14th, 2023, 03:15 AM
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5 Nights in Colombia (Medellin & Bogota): Trip Notes

We just came back from a 5-night trip to Colombia, visiting Medellin and Bogota (plus day trips from each city). While Colombia does not offer some of the famous “must see before you die” places to visit that are found elsewhere in Latin America, we found our short trip to Colombia to be very interesting and fun. We had a lot of nice and varied experiences that added up to a really enjoyable trip, particularly watching the annual Silleteros Parade in Medellin, taking trips to authentic rural coffee and chocolate farms, and exploring two interesting Colombian cities.

Below are some very detailed trip notes focused on providing practical information to those planning a trip to Colombia, rather than a diary-style trip report.

OUR BASIC ITINERARY

Day 1: arrive MDE at 12:30pm; visit Comuna 13; o/n Medellin

Day 2: explore Medellin city sights in morning (Pueblito Paisa & El Centro); Silleteros Parade in afternoon; o/n Medellin

Day 3: Day trip to El Penol & Guatape; 4pm MDE-BOG flight; o/n Bogota

Day 4: full day exploring Bogota city sights (Monserrate, Gold Museum, Botero Museum & La Candelaria); o/n Bogota

Day 5: Day trip to coffee & cocoa farms; o/n Bogota

Day 6: 10am flight home from BOG

MEDELLIN CITY SIGHTS

We allocated essentially a full day to see the Medellin city sights: the first afternoon for a walking tour of Comuna 13 and the following morning for visiting Pueblito Paisa and El Centro. Medellin doesn’t really have so much to offer within the city in terms of tourist attractions, and we found one day is plenty to see the basic sites. What follows is more detail on visiting Comuna 13, and Pueblito Paisa and El Centro.

* Comuna 13 *

A 2-3 hour walking tour around the Comuna 13 neighborhood is atop any list of tourist things to do in Medellin. We didn’t find visiting Comuna 13 to be some particularly amazing cultural experience, but it’s decent and certainly worth doing if you’re already in Medellin.

Comuna 13 was a very dangerous shantytown that’s now been revitalized and transformed essentially into a tourist attraction. The neighborhood is now filled with street artwork, escalators installed by the city to shuttle tourists up and down, and made-for-tourist shops every which way (vendors peddling the usual Chinese-made junk, bars, food stalls, etc.). Tourism employs the vast majority of the residents and brings a ton of money into the neighborhood, so the residents have an inventive to keep the neighborhood safe and tourist-friendly.

It was nice to see the neighborhood up close, take in the amazing views of the city from high up, see the impressive street art, and learn about an urban success story. That being said, Comuna 13 is still a rather fake made-for-tourists experience.

It’s nice for the residents that they’ve managed to use tourism to turn their formerly hopeless neighborhood into a success story, but the success story has turned the place into somewhat of a Disneyland.

For better or worse, visiting Comuna 13 isn’t “poverty tourism” by any means. And that makes visiting Comuna 13 rather plain and sterile. At this point, it’s not “poverty tourism”; it’s simply commercialized tourism. Comuna 13 is worth visiting for the visuals (buildings, views and art), but don’t expect any kind of interesting or fascinating cultural experience from your visit.

We visited Comuna 13 with our excellent guide, Juan (more detail on him below). There are free group walking tours of Comuna 13, and any guide / travel agency will offer Comuna 13 tours. We read that it’s unsafe to visit without a guide, but this seems rather overcautious since there are so many tourists around.

* Pueblito Paisa *

Pueblito Paisa is a small replica of a traditional village that’s located on a hill in the middle of the city. It’s relatively quick and easy to visit, and worth a stop. This fake “village” is totally made-for-tourists, but it’s still very colorful and picaresque. Plus, the hill offers great 360-degree views of the city. We spent about a half-hour in total at Pueblito Paisa, and we were glad we went.

* El Centro *

El Centro is Medellin’s “downtown” area, and it hosts much of what would be considered Medellin’s major “sites.” Botero Plaza, filled with about 30 large Botero statues, is the definite highlight. We didn’t find anything else to be particularly special. 2 hours was plenty of time to comfortably cover El Centro.

As mentioned, Botero Plaza was our favorite. Botero’s art – with its iconic exaggerated fat faces – is unique and fun. Even if one isn’t an “art person,” they will probably enjoy Botero’s art.

Around Botero Plaza, there is some interesting architecture. Adjacent to Botero Plaza is the Cultural Palace, which is a cool building with a black and white checkerboard pattern. Nearby are a couple of art-deco buildings – the Hotel Nutibara and the Palacio National (now a mall).

Adjacent to Botero Plaza is Junin Street, a pedestrianized street that runs for 5 blocks. The street is mostly filled with stalls and shops selling everyday goods for locals to buy, and wasn’t the least bit interesting.

A few minutes away is Plaza Cisneros, also known as Parque de Las Luces for its many large light fixtures. It’s very “Instagrammy” public art installation.

SILLETEROS PARADE

The Silleteros Parade was absolutely incredible, and we lucked out that we were able to take a trip to Colombia in early August and arrange our itinerary to be in Medellin on the day of the parade.

Medellin has a two-week long Flower Festival (Feria de Las Flores) every Summer, which culminates with the Silleteros Parade (Desfile de Silleteros) on the final day. The Silleteros Parade is said to be one of Latin America’s best cultural events (up there with the likes of Rio’s Carnival), and one might describe it as the Rose Parade of Latin America.

The festival/parade commemorates the Medellin flower farmers (“silleteros”) who used to trek into the city every day carrying wooden flower baskets (“silletas”) on their backs hold the flowers that they would sell in the city. Nowadays, the various flower farms in the Medellin countryside participate in the parade by each creating an elaborate round ornamental “silleta” made entirely of flowers, and one of the farmers (a “silletero”) walks the parade route carrying this very heavy “silleta” – weighing over 200 pounds with the food – on his or her back.

The parade was beautiful, passionate and emotional. We arrived 4 hours before the start of the parade and snagged “front row” seats along the railing on the last kilometer of the parade route, and it was amazing to be so close to the action. The silletas are so colorful and so beautiful. As the silleteros passed by, the crowd would shout “vuelta” in order to get the silletero to spin around and show off his silleta. The silleteros were men and women, young and old, and they were filled with pride, passion and emotion as they carried their silletas past us down the final stretch of the parade. Directly across from us were some locals who were handing out liquor shots to the silleteros and seemed to know a lot of them, which was great for us because it got them to stop and show off their silletas right in front of us. Between the silleteros and the crowd, there was an incredible amount of energy and local pride on display – and this was an amazing event to witness up close.

In terms of logistics, we found it was incredibly difficult to find any practical information about the parade on the Internet. It doesn’t even seem like the date of the parade is announced until a few weeks before. We found no information about the parade route, where to go, getting tickets, etc. But, thankfully, our excellent guide Juan told us what we needed to know, and where and when we needed to go.

While the parade starts at 2pm, and people start showing up early in the morning in order to stake out the best spots. The city assembles several rows of plastic chairs along the parade route. While the seats are ostensibly free, the night before, opportunistic local squatters “snag” up all the seats and then resell them to those who are willing to pay. We arrived at about 10:15 am, many front row seats along the parade route were already taken but there were still plenty of front row seats available in nice areas under the shade. A squatter tried to charge us 20,000 pesos per seat; the nice local woman next to us who had been many times before told us that she paid 15,000 pesos, so we negotiated with the squatter and got him to take 16,000 pesos to get him off our back. By 11:30am or noon, it seemed like all the front frow seats were long gone, and by 1pm the parade was incredibly packed – with 5-7 rows deep of people.

As we were near the finish line, the parade didn’t even reach us until almost 4pm, which meant almost 6 hours of waiting around on a hot day. There was a very cool municipal “pre-parade” parade – with police bands, policewomen dancing, military vehicles, old cars, etc. – that passed us from about 12:30pm to 1pm.Thankfully, there were plenty of venders selling cold drinks. Between day-drinking, people watching and the “pre-parade,” the time passed by soon enough and we had a good time with all the anticipation.

Getting back to our hotel following the parade was a total hassle. Many major streets around the parade are blocked off, and the surrounding traffic is a total disaster. It took us a half-hour to walk from the parade to a street that wasn’t closed off. From there, we tried ordering an Uber, and Uber drivers kept accepting the ride and then cancelling it – probably because they didn’t want to deal with the traffic. We then decided to walk to the metro station, and there was a line with 200 people waiting to buy tickets and 2 ticket machines. Not wanting to wait in that massive line, we tried again ordering an Uber from the metro station, and thankfully we were able to get one that actually showed up.

The parade – plus all the waiting around and getting back – was quite a big investment of time and effort, but it was well worth it. We didn’t spot any other gringos in the crowd in our vicinity, and the crowd seemed like a mix of Medellin locals and Colombians from elsewhere. This was an incredibly authentic and traditional experience that is very worth planning a trip around.

EL PENOL & GUATAPE

A day trip to El Penol and Guatape seems to be the most popular day trip from Medellin. While not totally amazing, we found the trip very enjoyable and worth doing.

El Penol is a huge monolithic rock surrounding various man-made lakes created by a hydroelectric dam, and it can be climbed via about 700 steps. The climb up a cement staircase is very easy because the stairs of the same stable and safe quality that would be found inside a building. There’s no rock climbing, scrambling or creaky wooden staircases involved, and anyone remotely healthy should be able to make it to the top.

The whole area is quite scenic. The views along the way up and at the top of the rock are impressive. And this massive rock is quite dramatic when viewed from a distance from a good viewpoint. That being said, the fact that all this beautiful lake scenery is man-made – created by a dam – certainly takes something away from the appeal.

Guatape is small village that’s covered in beautiful buildings painted in bright colors and adorned with 3D panel carvings (called zocalos). The town is incredibly photogenic. However, the aesthetics are entirely fake and were created for the sole purpose of tourism; that also takes away from the appeal. The town sits along the man-made lakes, and walking around the waterfront (malecon) was relaxing and pretty.

In terms of logistics, there are three ways to do this day trip: 1) DIY using the public buses, 2) an organized group tour on a big tour bus, and 3) a private driver / guide. Obviously, the choice depends on travel style, time and budget. Since we despise group tours and had limited time (and couldn’t wait around for public buses), we went with our excellent guide Juan.

We left Medellin at 6 am in order to beat the crowds, and it was a game changer. We had both the rock and Guatape pretty much to ourselves. As we were getting ready to leave Guatape, hoards of tour buses were starting to show up. If you can avoid the crowds, a day trip to El Penol and Guatape is well worth it.

MEDELLIN GUIDE / DRIVER RECOMMENDATION: JUAN CAMILO AGUILAR

We highly recommend, without reservation, our excellent guide / driver, Juan Camilo Aguilar. His WhatsApp number is +57 316 8334225. We found a few reviews of him on TripAdvisor and on travel blogs, and learned that he has a ton of experience working with both tourists and expats. We spoke to him on the phone, and we were very impressed with him.

Juan is honest and reliable, his car is nice, and he is a very safe and good driver. He has incredible insight on dealing with anything local (safety, money matters, parade logistics, etc.). He is also a very interesting guy to talk to about all things Colombia, and we had good conversations with him about recent politics, economics, history, etc.

Juan lived in the US for over a decade and spent much of that time working a fancy country club, so he has very good English and is very well versed in notions of American “customer service” and making his guests happy.

We would not hesitate to recommend Juan for anything you could possibly need in Medellin – guiding, local transportation, logistics assistance / bureaucratic fixing, etc.

BOGOTA CITY SIGHTS

We had a full day to see the city sights of Botoga, which was just the right amount of time to comfortably visit Monserrate, Gold Museum, Botero Museum and walk around La Candelaria. No one stop was totally amazing, but it was a good mix of places and made for a really interesting day.

Monserrate is a very green mountain in the middle of the city with a church at the top. We found the views of the city from atop the mountain to be spectacular. The funicular operates in the morning and the cable car operates in the afternoon. One can also hike up and down, but we read that there are often bandits along the trail so we did not want to take the risk. We read that the funicular / cable car lines get crazy as the day goes on (particularly on the weekends) and to go as early in the morning possible, which we did – and it was very much the right move. Though, be careful to monitor the weather the weather; it was drizzling and foggy when we first departed, but thankfully cleared up while we were still on the mountain.

The Gold Museum is interesting and well presented. The museum is first-world, modern and professional – with good lighting and useful, interesting signage in well-written English. We’d seen other gold museums in Latin America so this museum didn’t feel so unique, but it’s still very cool to see another interesting gold museum and learn about the more localized Colombia history.

The Botero Museum was also impressive. The museum has an extensive selection of Botero paintings and small sculptures. As mentioned regarding the Botero Plaza in Medellin, one can’t help but have fun looking at Botero’s unique fat figures. In addition to Botero’s works, the museum contains various works of modern art from Botero’s personal collection by giants such as Picasso, Dali, Monet and Chagal. The museum didn’t contain any background on Botero’s life, and it would have been nice if there was some information about the man and an explanation about how he managed to assemble such an impressive personal collection.

We spent the remainder of the day walking around the La Candelaria area, including Bolivar Plaza (the city’s central square) and Plazoleta Chorro de Quevedo (a grungy bohemian area). The area offers great colonial architecture, interesting history, colorful buildings and cool street art. Overall, we had a very good day in Bogota.

COFFEE & COCOA FARMS

Our final day was a day trip from Bogota to authentic rural coffee and chocolate farms in the Andes mountains. We did this tour with Andes Eco Tours, and it was excellent and a highlight of our trip.

This was a very long day trip that took almost 12 hours, with a ton of driving through windy and bumpy mountainous roads (beautiful) and horrible traffic jams getting out of and into Bogota (ugly). The coffee farm is 2 hours from Bogota, and the chocolate farm is another hour past the coffee farm. Our experiences at the two farms were great, and made the long day well worth it.

At each farm, we observed – and participated in – the entire process of harvesting and producing coffee and cocoa. We picked beans, watched them ferment, dried them out, grinded them, etc. At the end, we got to sit down and sample the coffee and chocolate, each of which were delicious.

These two farms are totally off the beaten tourist path, and no other company besides Andes brings tourists to them. The farmers seemed genuinely happy and excited to show us their farms and their processes, and it didn’t at all seem like they were going through the motions and shoveling hoards of tour buses in and out of their farms on a daily basis. We learned a ton about the coffee and chocolate processes, and the whole experience felt very genuine and authentic – to people who are skeptical about made-for-tourist gimmicks.

There was zero pressure to buy anything to take home, but we bought some coffee and chocolate as gifts to bring home because it’s nice to support the farmers, because the quality seemed outstanding, and because the prices much cheaper than prices in the cities.

We ended up on a private tour, which was very nice. There could have been a maximum of 5 guests on our tour, but we were the only ones who booked that day. We could have paid extra to guarantee a private tour, but I guess we lucked out with a private tour without having to pay extra.

We also paid extra for an English guide/interpreter, in addition to our Spanish speaking driver. Our guide Jose Luis was a total pleasure, and he really enhanced our experience acting as an interpreter between us and the farmers at the farms. Additionally, we had great discussions with him about all things Colombia during the very long car journey, which prevented us from getting bored. Our driver Hector, who does this trip 3-4 times a week, was incredibly safe and careful on these very difficult roads that he knew very well.

There are plenty of commercialized, made-for-tourists coffee farm tours near Medellin and Bogota, and which didn’t particularly appeal to us. We also liked the idea of touring a cocoa farm, but found that they are very far from either Medellin or Bogota. Upon research, we discovered that Andes offered this day trip covering both an authentic coffee farm and an authentic cocoa farm in one day. We didn’t find that any other company offered anything similar. We were impressed with the reviews of Andes Eco Tour’s coffee and chocolate tour, and our excellent trip certainly lived up to their strong reviews.

MEDELLIN VS. BOGOTA

Based on our very limited time in these two cities, we think a first-time tourist to Colombia should certainly visit both cities. We feel that Bogota has somewhat of a bad reputation, and both expats and Colombians told us that Medellin is way better than Bogota – some even suggesting to not even bother visiting Bogota.

We definitely see why expats and digital nomads strongly prefer Medellin to Bogota for living. Medellin has pretty much everything that they might be looking for – good weather, clubs, public drinking, drugs, prostitutes, etc. But for the basic tourist experience, we felt that Bogota offered more than Medellin – more interesting colonial architecture, better museums, and a more classy / sophisticated (and less trashy) city. That being said, there’s no reason not to visit both places on a first trip to Colombia.

THE PEOPLE

Overall, we found the people of Colombia and Bogota to be very warm, helpful and pleasant – both people in the tourism/service industry and random locals we met during our journeys. People in the service industry seemed generally honest and not looking rip off and scam gringos. Random locals we met seemed happy to welcome gringo tourists into their country and seemed happy and proud that Colombia has transformed from a dangerous hellhole into a legitimate tourist destination. The nice people are a definite asset to a trip.

The English level in Colombia is generally quite poor, even at tourist places. Between us knowing minimal Spanish, the locals knowing minimal English, and Google Translate, we got by just fine and never had a problem. We wish we spoke halfway decent Spanish because it would have allowed us to better opportunities to connect with these very warm people. But it’s perfectly easy to visit Colombia even without knowing a word of Spanish.

SAFETY

We didn’t have any safety issues, but Colombia certainly doesn’t feel like a safe country and we were very vigilant and on guard at all times. Not only are the country’s crime stats pretty dismal, but there are quite a few reports on the travel forums about tourists being pickpocketed or worse (i.e., robbed at knife/gunpoint).

Our best advice is to heed all the common-sense safety advice and don’t let your guard down and assume Colombia is perfectly safe because other tourists on the Internet report that nothing bad happened to them. Such common-sense safety device would include: keeping passports in the hotel safe and carrying photocopies instead, using a money belt, only walking around with enough cash for the day and leaving the rest of the cash in the hotel safe, avoiding streets or areas where the crowds are either dense or deserted, and not keeping anything valuable in a backpack. Assume something bad may happen to you at any moment, and be vigilant at all times.

HOTELS

In both cities, we decided to stay in the most popular tourist areas – Poblado in Medellin and La Candelaria in Bogota. For a short trip, being centrally located is very helpful and convenient. In those neighborhoods, there are tons of hotel options at all price points.

In Medellin, we stayed at the Florencia Plaza Hotel. It’s supposedly a 4*, but felt more like a US 2.5*. The location was convenient and the hotel was perfectly adequate for the under $60/night that we paid – though the room wasn’t particularly nice and the service wasn’t particularly good.

In Bogota, we “splurged” on the Hotel de la Opera. It’s a 5* and was a great deal for around $105/night. The hotel is situated in a beautifully renovated colonial building that is a block away from Bolivar Plaza, and our modern room was outstanding. The service was very attentive. This hotel is very highly rated on TripAdvisor, and provides incredibly good value for the price.

GETTING AROUND

Uber is easy, safe and convenient to use within both cities of Medellin and Bogota. We’d never mess with taxis – or other ride-share apps that the locals use where the price isn’t fixed and prepaid like with Uber.

That being said, while Uber is perfectly fine for airport drop-offs, it’s not a good idea to use Uber for airport pickups. Uber is illegal in Colombia, and there’s tons of policing of Uber at the airport; we didn’t want to end up stuck waiting around while our Uber driver was detained by the police. We ended up having our guide Juan pick us up from the airport in Medellin and having our hotel pick us up from the airport in Botoga. Airport taxis are generally shady, so pre-arrange your airport pickup if you can.

MONEY

Credit cards are widely accepted at most tourist sites, but it’s best to have cash for smaller stores, street vendors, etc.

ATMs are all over the cities. However, every ATM machine “offered” us the scam “accept currency conversion” deal, which means having the local Colombian bank convert your money at ~10% worse than what your bank would convert it as. Be careful to decline any currency conversion.

THE CHECK-MIG FORM

All tourists are required to complete the official Check-Mig immigration forms between 1 and 72 hours before their inbound flight into Columbia and between 1 and 72 hours before their outbound flight exiting Colombia. The airlines irresponsibly fail to mention this, and we only learned about it from online forums.

There are a lot of scam sites out there purporting to be the official Check-Mig site, but here is the link to the official site: https://apps.migracioncolombia.gov.c.../en/DatosViaje

A number of people online seem to report difficulty using the form, but we had no problems completing the forms either using a computer from the US or using our phone from Columbia.

We found that the form is actually available 2 calendar days prior to the flight, not 72 hours prior to your flight. That is, if your flight is at noon on a Sunday, you can complete the form starting anytime on Friday; the form will not be available at noon on Thursday, 72 hours before the flight.

The strange thing was that nobody – either the airlines or Colombia immigration – ever asked to see our forms. Perhaps we were already “in the system” and Colombia immigration did not need the forms because we they saw our info. Or perhaps the forms are totally pointless and unnecessary. It’s not clear, but it’s best to fill them out.

FINAL THOUGHTS

We had a great and enjoyable 5-nights trip to Colombia. With convenient non-stop flights from the US and little/no time difference, Colombia makes for a very convenient short trip for Americans.

With only 5 nights, we obviously didn’t cover a whole lot of the country and missed destinations like Cartagena and the Amazon. Still, visiting Medellin and Bogota, and doing nice nature day trips from those two cities, gave us a very good introduction to Colombia and was well worth the short trip.

For someone who has never been to Latin America and is looking to check the boxes on the more famous destinations, Colombia is probably not the ideal first trip to Latin America. But for a seasoned traveler who has been around Latin America (especially one from the US who can get to Colombia with relative ease), Colombia is a very nice country to try and visit one day.
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Old Sep 17th, 2023, 02:59 PM
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I think this is the best review I saw on internet about Colombia trip in a very short time. Thanks for your review.
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Old Nov 12th, 2023, 02:04 PM
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Thank you for this informative report!
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