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Trip Report Colombia Trip Report

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When and Where: One week in Colombia, four nights in Bogota, with a day trip to Zipaquira and Nemocon, and three nights in Santa Marta. The idea was to go to three different places instead of two, but didn't quite work out that way.

Flight: COPA from JFK to Bogota through Panama, return from Barranquilla. COPA will get you there, but that's it. Taca is much better. Domestic flight from BOG to Santa Marta on Avianca. Tried to book online, but later got an email that my cc couldn't be charged. Tried by phone, but if it's your first time using that card, there is a 48 hour waiting period while they check with your bank. Finally went to their office in Bogota and used the very same card with no problem. Incidentally, fares are lower by phone or in person than online.

Guidebooks: LP and the new Michelin guide just released. LP has much more detail on hotels and transport. Michelin lists a lot more sites and small towns. If you read LP closely, you'll see that places rated as "our pick", such as Casa Platypus, are the places where the authors spent much of their time and whose owners provided much of their information. That doesn't necessarily make them the best places to stay.

Language: Ain't much English spoken, not even at the airports or hotels. Good idea to brush up on Spanish.

Safety: In the weeks before I left, I worried an awful lot, as I always do when visiting Latin America. And as on all previous trips, I found that once I arrived those fears disappeared pretty quickly. Bogota seems much like New York before it was cleaned up. Bustling with activity, but lots of beggars and some shady looking people around the city center. I got punched in the arm by a homeless man while waiting to cross a street one night around 7:30 PM. Didn't even notice him until he turned around, mumbled something and punched me. Wasn't hurt and nothing was stolen, but this was my first ever travel safety issue and a reminder that things can happen randomly like that. Was a bit nervous for the next day or so, but soon forgot it. LP describes the Santa Marta centro as "very seedy" at night and Michelin says if you must be out at night, take a cab. Nonsense. There are plenty of people out and about and plenty of police.

Otherwise, didn't encounter any of the fake police, taxi robberies, police planting drugs on tourists, intense drug searches at the airport or anything like that. And, with only one exception, found cab drivers to be completely honest, which is rare.

Hotels: Went more upscale this time. Casa de La Botica in the Candelaria, just a block from Plaza de Bolivar. About 40 rooms but no more than 7 filled at any time. Convenient for city sites, but very quiet at night, which is both good and bad. Casa Verde in Santa Marta, where I was the only one there. Beautifully renovated colonial house with a pool. Owner has great advice about the area.

Weather: Bogota is not "cold" as it's often described. Maybe compared to the rest of Colombia, but not for those of us coming from the north. Rained heavily for a few hours one day, but that's it. Cloudy my first day and a half in Santa Marta, then sunny and very warm.

Number of Visitors: In Bogota, I saw few other foreigners. Around Santa Marta, a lot more than expected. A lot more than in Honduras, El Salvador or even parts of Brazil, which was surprising. If you think you'll be one of the first to go to Colombia, there are a lot of others who thought the same.

Friendly people: There is much talk about how friendly everyone is in Colombia and I found almost everyone very polite and helpful when asked. However, it was not quite Nicaragua or India, where everyone wants to know where you're from and what you think of their country and take your picture.

Bogota: Liked it a lot more than expected. Definitely stay in the candelaria, much more character than the north. And definitely visit the Botero Museum. It's open on Mondays when most museums are closed and it's free. Museo del Oro is also worth a visit. Also saw police, military, national, and modern art museums, all of which were just ok. The Iglesia de Santa Clara is quite beautiful. But really just enjoyed walking around, particularly the area around the Universidad de Los Andes and the Universidad Autonoma, and a walk from the Plaza de Bolivar to the modern art museum around Calle 26.

Day Trip to Zipaquira: Very nice colonial town with a sunny plaza, cathedral and palm trees. Very nice people. The salt cathedral is worth a visit, even if it feels a bit like an amusement park. Took a buseta from Zipa to Nemocon where there is little to see but the town is beautiful. Multicolored colonial buildings on one side, bright green fields with cows on the others, with the mountains topped by gray storm clouds in the background. Absolutely beautiful.

Santa Marta: My first thought was Why Did I Come Here? But it got better. They are building furiously everywhere, so go now before it turns into Cartagena. I actually liked it better at night. Walk through the streets and suddenly find a narrow alley lined with restaurants. Or streets that suddenly open into a pretty plaza lined with bars where you can sit outside and enjoy the music. There are plenty of hotels, most of them empty, but impossible to tell from the outside what they look like inside. Highly recommend Ben and Josep's for dinner. People do swim at the city beach, but it's not terribly pretty. My hotel recommended Taganga, which is prettier, but beach is small and rocky. Very popular with backpackers for reasons I still don't understand.

Day Trip to Tayrona Park: It was cloudy the day I was there, which may have impacted my thoughts. It is doable as a day trip, but START EARLY. I started later than planned. It's a one hour ride to El Zaino, then a shuttle to Canaveral, than an hour walk to Arrecifies, then 20 minutes to La Pisicina which is swimmable. Walked to Cabo San Juan, where you can stay in a barebones camp on top of a cliff overlooking three beaches. However, by the time I got there, I needed to start back to avoid hiking in the dark. It's a long dirty hike back to get the shuttle and I followed the Colombian tourists to flag down a bus on the main road. The bus was a frightening contraption that looked like something out of Eastern Europe from 50 years ago. We were stopped three times at police checkpoints on the way back.

Minca: A beautiful town in the mountains with greenery, flowers, quaint homes and the sound of trickling streams. Hiked to Pozo Azul to find a whole tour group there. Definitely worth a half-day trip or longer.

Playa Salguero: This was recommended by my hotel owner and was absolutely perfect. A great beach just beyond the Santa Marta hotel zone which I shared with just one Colombian family. The area is still a fishing village with roaming chickens, but the high rises are encroaching quickly. But for now, a perfect day at the beach.

Advice: *Bogota is close to the equator and at a high elevation. Even if it is cloudy, as I've now learned, use sunscreen. *If using the transmillenio, find out in advance which line you need, since the maps are like reading Chinese. And buy your tickets before rush hour since the lines are very long. And be prepared for lots of pushing and shoving. *Enjoy the street food - empanadas, arepas, freshly grilled potato chips, churros. It's often better than restaurant fare. * If you're leaving from Barranquilla, it's a long and expensive ride to the airport. Leave lots of time.

I would like to go back to Colombia, maybe to Medellin or Cali and definitely Salento and Valle de Cocora.