Okay, so you’re headed to Colombia. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:
Don’t forget to pack a few extra: Earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. I consider myself a world-class bedbug; I can generally fall asleep facedown on tile on a train platform, but Colombia tested even my powers of somnolence. In Medellin, the booms of construction and the cacophony of rush-hour start painfully early, and in towns like Barranquilla during Carnaval, you can forget about getting more than 3 hours of sleep per night. Makeshift turntables and basement bands pop up on every corner during the festival, and competing reggaeton and salsa blasts at you from opposite sides until 5AM, kicking in again at 7AM. Most towns I slept in featured a vegetable salesman who roamed the streets at dawn with a megaphone, screaming at you to buy his avocadoes at liquidation prices.
If you only have 24-48 hours in Colombia, you must visit: Medellin. The name has long stricken fear into the hearts of travellers, but the dark metropolis of cocaine capos in the 1980s is experiencing a Renaissance of art and culture in the wake of waning drug violence in Colombia. Botero statues bedizen packed urban parks, impromptu concerts with pulsing Latin beats ricochet off the plazas teeming with young hipsters. Colourful street art, trendy shops, and modern architecture abound. The sparkling metro leads you to 23rd century sky-gondolas which rise up the steep sides of the valley to colourful suburbs, previously the home of the worst of the worst cocaine mafia assassins. It is not the safest place in the world, but Medellin is coming out of its cocaine coma, and witnessing a city reawakening is a travel experience not to be missed.
If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: It is a dance, baby. It is a balanced cumbia between you and the seller. So keep it fun, keep it light, keep it flirty. Pitch them a price 40 percent below what they offer and then whoop and spin when they counter. Pretend to walk away and then curve back when they catcall. Eventually you’ll come together at a price in the middle and hey, even if you don’t, you got a free dance!
The one food I totally loved was: Bandeja Paisa in Antioquia. This typical dish of the Paisa region is a heavy, hearty, rich collusion of rice, beans, chorizo, ground beef, pork shavings, avocado, arepa and plantain, topped with a fried egg. It is huevos rancheros on steroids, people, and it will add 50 percent thickness to your arteries in 12 minutes flat. Good luck finishing the entire plate, and better luck not craving one again tomorrow.
And the one food I will pass on in the future is: Hormigas culonas. In Barichara, they are a local specialty, freshest in April or May after the harvest. Not a harvest of plants mind you, but a march of, literally, “big-ass Colombian ants.” Fried, dried, and kept in preserve jars for sale all year round, the gigantic insects have their wings and pincers plucked to make them more palatable and to spare the diner oral lacerations. But believe me, they still have an earthy, crunchy aftertaste of dirt. Bon appetit!
I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: Dancing in the Carnaval in Barranquilla! Travellers flock to Rio for the world’s largest Fat Tuesday celebration, but the party in Colombia’s Caribbean port city ranks second in size and provides a swirling, twirling sea of colour and chaos for the intrepid traveller. But don’t just sit in the stands and watch the world go by, join a float troupe or cumbia group and thrust yourself into the heart of the action! Myriad processions conga through town for three straight days in front of crowds of 100,000+ screaming revellers. Your feet will be barking, but your soul will soar as you help give life to the biggest most raucous fiesta you’ve ever seen.
But as an independent traveler in Colombia, the one thing I would avoid is: Travelling solo to the south of Colombia and the borders with Venezuela and the Amazon. Leftist guerrilla and paramilitary activity has certainly been quelled since the crackdown of President Uribe, but rebel danger still lurks off the beaten path in Colombia. And even in government-controlled areas, the military can be heavy-handed in its treatment of locals and travellers alike. Medellin and Cali may be safer than any time in the recent past, and the Caribbean Coast still feels lazily tranquil, but there are patches of violence that spring up in the hinterlands from time to time. Be aware of recent flare-ups and check your government’s travel warnings website for current danger zones.
I was really surprised by: How safe I felt in Colombia, and how few foreign travellers I saw there. It seems like a contradiction with my previous answer, but the route I travelled between Medellin, Bucaramanga, the Andes, Valledupar and the Caribbean Coast took me to not one location in which I felt intimidated or tense. The Colombians are naturally energetic, inviting, and exceedingly warm, and the country has so very much to offer in terms of geology, wildlife, culture, history and charm. In the two weeks before I reached the Caribbean Coast, I saw a total of three foreign travellers; it felt as though Colombia were laying herself at my feet and I was unworthy of the offering. I can understand the reticence of travellers to put themselves in danger, but the moderated risk of visiting Colombia is undoubtedly well worth it.
The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to yourself is to: Wear pants and leave the fanny pack at home! It sounds ridiculous, but for the blasting heat and ludicrous humidity, Latin Americans are a people that generally wear long pants. And they can pick the tourists out from a kilometre off by the pleated shorts, baseball hat, bum bag and sneakers. Try dressing as the Colombians dress: jeans or slacks, t-shirt or buttoned shirt, no backpacks or belt bags. Medellin, Cali and Bogota offer some trendy shops with swanky fashion you will be keen to collect anyway. Drape yourself in local duds and be that much closer to blending when you break in your rudimentary Spanish on the bus.
When it comes to getting around, I recommend: The inter-city bus services. There is no better place to connect with the locals, live like they live, and get the straight skinny on where to go than on a two hour bus-ride with your new Colombian friends. Vendors hop on the vehicle to sell tasty snacks at each stop, the driver is cranking the latest salsa CD while singing along, and the ranchers sitting next to you are more than proud to brag a bit about their village. A bit of Spanish will come in handy, but lacking that, share an orange slice with the kids in front and get ready for a ride.
A good place to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) is: The home-spun mercado stores on the corner of any small town. Named anything from Mini-super (mini super mart) to Tienda Veronica (Veronica’s Shop), the mom-and-pop establishments are usually painted with a neon shellac, run by three generations of a single family, and feature a TV over the counter blasting Colombian soap operas. They sell anything from chocolate pops to panties to machetes, and if they don’t have it they can point you in the right direction with a smile and a “Suerte!” (Good luck!).
And it’s always nice to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘how much?’ in the native tongue. And that is:
Please – POR FAVOR
Thank You / Thank You Very Much / 1000 Thanks – GRACIAS / MUCHAS GRACIAS / MIL GRACIAS
How Much – ¿CUÁNTO CUESTA?