Con Gusto y Mas: A Solo Week in Colombia

The majority of this year I’ve spent in various parts of Europe and the United States. When faced with nine free days between trips and cheap flights between New York and Colombia, I decided to travel to Bogotá, Cartagena, and Medellín. During a tour in Medellín, our guide asked if our decision to travel to Colombia had unpleasantly surprised our families. For my mother, the answer was yes and she promptly sent me a number of articles discussing crime in Colombia.  However, I rarely felt unsafe alone though I took a number of precautions (most I also take at home). In Colombia, they have an expression “no dar papaya,” which literally means “do not give papaya” and in practice means don’t give someone motivation or opportunity to harm you (e.g. don’t walk around looking at your cell phone).

Graffiti reminder

I began my trip with a SuperShuttle to Newark Airport for a United flight to Bogotá. I avoid flying out of Newark because of the commute time but I’ve found SuperShuttle to be an amazing value to get directly from my apartment to the airport. The United flight was pretty basic for a five hour flight (no WiFi, outlets/USB ports, or screens) but at least it was uneventful compared to recent events for United passengers!

Bogota

After a late arrival in Bogotá, I headed to the Bogo Hostel in La Candelaria, a historic neighborhood filled with street art, colonial buildings, restaurants, bars and universities. In the morning, I enjoyed a quick continental breakfast courtesy of Bogo, and walked over to meet up with the Bogotá Graffiti Tour. The donation-based tour was a great way to learn more about the worldwide artists behind La Candelaria’s street art, the neighborhood itself, Bogotá weather (rain, sun, and everything in between in minutes), and Colombian history and current events. I was aware of the United States’ interventionist bent with drugs in Mexico but wasn’t informed about the US’ funding of Operation Colombia, which took a similarly deadly toll.

Can you spot Reagan in this piece about corruption?

During our tour, the guide mentioned that the current mayor of Bogotá is not as supportive of street art and would like to have the art painted over with colonial era colors over the next few years. Street art has long been subversive so it’s hard to believe artists would leave the repainted walls alone, not to mention buildings can continue to commission works.

After a few hours of walking I was ready for lunch. Before the trip, I made a reservation at Tabula, a restaurant highlighted by Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown. The restaurant had a nice ambiance but unfortunately was one of two Colombian Bourdain recommendations with average food and above average prices.

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Extremely tough grilled beef tongue with sundried tomato vinagriette & corn tortillas
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How do you make chorizo and shrimp not taste good? There’s a way

With my sole afternoon in Bogotá remaining, I headed to the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum). The museum was small but offered a detailed history of pre Colombian gold and has over 55,000 gold pieces. If you’re not a metallurgy buff, I would recommend aiming for a free tour Tuesday to Saturday or going for free (no tours offered) on Sunday.

Throughout the day, different people said that going up Monserrate, a mountain that looks over already-elevated Bogotá, was a must. That evening I realized that a couple that also went on the grafitti tour were staying at my hostel and also wanted to climb the mountain in the morning. We headed out first thing in the morning and I was very glad for the company. Between the elevation and an extremely unhealthy Memorial Day weekend before Colombia, alone I might have called it quits and opted for one of the non-athletic methods of transportation up the mountain. A sweaty hour later, we were on top of the mountain and (unlike Bourdain’s recommendations) it was not overrated, the view is incredible and allowed us to see Bogotá’s sprawl. The cable car ride down took two minutes max, only slightly demoralizing.

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We made it!

Cartagena

I was then off to Cartagena for some time in the sun. I stepped out of the airport and realized I was in for a little more sun than I had bargained for. Combined with having a little bit of altitude sickness from the Bogotá climb, I could not wait to get into my air conditioned hotel room. I stayed at the Hotel Patio de Getsemani, a bed and breakfast located closed to the center of Getsemani, a colorful neighborhood located only about 10 minutes from central Cartagena’s walled city.

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Street art in Getsemani

When I finally emerged from my hotel room into the heat, I realized that walking around Cartagena alone was not going to be like walking around Bogotá alone. Almost every single man I passed provided some commentary in Spanish. I’m used to street harrassment in New York but this was on another level and overall made me not find Cartagena to be as charming as described to me. Cartagena has a lot of vice tourism similar to Bangkok and I wonder if that’s impacted the street culture there for the worse. Nonetheless, there’s not many moods I’ve had that can’t be improved by good food and drinks and the highly recomended Demente Tapas Bar was only a few minutes from my hotel. Demente is low key and, with its location in Plaza Trinidad, made for excellent people watching. While the Plaza is quiet during the day, on a weekend night it is transformed with various food and drink vendors, a trampoline for kids, and an al fresco zumba class.

Octopus (really good), sea bass ceviche (ok) with good chicharron

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​One of my friends had visited Colombia a few months prior and recommended the company Cartagena Connections to me, which besides offering tours has a website that’s a great resource for finding other things to do in Cartagena from restaurants to exercise classes. My second day in Cartagena I went on CC’s street food tour, which took us from San Diego (central Cartagena) to Getsemani. Cartagena was South America’s largest slave port and the African technique of deep frying was on showcase throughout the tour.

Cheese, empanadas, arepas, and yuca & pork

Our tour guide did a great job of weaving in Cartagena history throughout the tour, touching on everything from Cartagena’s door knockers, to its climate (he swore it wasn’t usually so hot), and the affect of gentrification on those living in Getsemani. Even though Cartagena is one of the poorest parts of Colombia, its popularity as a tourist destination is a double edged sword for residents, both providing jobs but also raising the cost of living. After two hours of sweating, the tour ended with the best possible street food for Cartagena, a corozo (a cherry/cranberry type of fruit) popsicle sold by a woman through a window in her living room.

Each door knocker used to represent the kind of family that lived inside, a lizard symbolizes royalty
Corozo paleta (popsicle)

After the tour, I knew I had to spend the next day on the beach close to cold water and reached out to Cartagena Connections about a trip to the Beach Hostel at Tierra Bomba. While there is beachfront in Cartagena, it’s not that scenic and filled with vendors. There are much more scenic beaches in the Islas Rosarios but I didn’t wake up early enough to grab a shuttle bus there (oops). Tierra Bomba ended being a great choice since I met two other Americans who I ended up up hanging out with after the beach outing.

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Yes, new friends! (No Drake here)

That evening we ate dinner at La Cevicheria, another Bourdain recommendation. Just in case you didn’t know that Anthony Bourdain ate there on his show, the restaurant had photos of him in the restaurant as well as on all the menus. I went for the ceviche since it was the specialty and it was too sweet from the inclusion of mandarin juice and not well balanced. Another lesson learned about not believing everything on TV!

After dinner we went to get drinks at Alquímico. Lined with jars infusing fruit into various liquors, the bar has a creative cocktail menu, a refreshing change from mojito and sex on the beach filled drink menus.

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The mood lighting rendered my drink photos unusable 😦

For my last day in Cartagena, I opted for the most low maintenance way of staying cool outside, the hotel pool, though not my pool since my hotel didn’t have one. I first stopped by Movich to check out the hotel’s rooftop pool. For about $65 US, you can spend the day on the rooftop and half is credited towards the purchase of food and drink. ​​

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View from Movich’s rooftop

​In a more budget friendly option, I headed to meet up with the two Americans I had met at the beach at one’s pool. While lying around in the water, we ended up meeting another American who was also on a solo trip to Cartagena (basically if you want to meet people in Cartagena seek cold water). He was amused by meeting in his words “bougie black people” (all three of us had attended Ivy League schools) after years of never meeting any at the hotel and ended up taking us out for steaks at Quebracho Parilla Argentina, a great and delicious way to end my time in Cartagena.

Medellín

I was beyond ready for cooler temperatures since I have a three day cap for sitting by a pool or a beach and was excited to head into Medellín the next afternoon. Driving towards my Airbnb in the upscale El Poblado neighborhood, I had that “we’re not in Kansas anymore” feeling seeing hundreds of high-rise buildings.

More high-rise buildings to come

I settled into and walked over to to the Medellín Museum of Modern Art (“MAMM”). MAMM isn’t the largest modern art museum but I thought it was very thoughtfully laid out and had a lot of helpful information about the art throughout. Compared to a recent Whitney Museum experience at $25 for about 2 floors of work, the $3 cost for MAMM felt like a great deal. The museum also has a lovely terrace looking over Medellín and a store with fun items.

Temporary exhibition space showing work from Colombian artists
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Commentary on the legal system in Colombia, the papers were buried in the ground for two years to deteriorate
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View from MAMM’s terrace

The following day I was not thrilled to wake up to pouring rain before a four hour walking tour by Real City Tours. Upon the tour beginning our tour guide Julio said the rainy day tours are always the best tours since we’re the most committed to attending. Over the four hours, we actually did a decent amount of sitting (avoiding the rain) and a lot of learning about Medellín’s history and transformation from one of the most dangerous cities in the world to one of the safest in Latin America.

Julio discussing the investments in education, healthcare, and infrastructure (Medellin is home to Latin America’s only train system) that helped the country’s turnaround.
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In 1995, a bombing in a Medellin parking killed 30 people. The top bird, a Botero sculpture, was asked to be left in the park by Botero to remind those who visit of the past. The bottom bird is an additional sculpture that now is alongside the original

At the end of our tour, our guide asked us how is it possible that Colombians are so happy given the country’s very recently violent past, not to mention a corrupt government past and present (and probably future)? He said Colombians choose to have a good memory about positive events and a bad memory about negative events, and hoped that their happiness could inspire us to be happy in our own countries regardless of current events. Since this is something I struggle with, it was an important reminder before I returned home to New York.

Miscellaneous Recommendations:

Cartagena

Maria Restaurant: Slightly upscale dining with local ingredients, great bar for solo dining
Beiyu: After days of fried and/or carb heavy food, it was amazing to find this fresh food oasis with very reasonable prices

Medellín

Carmen Restaurant: Upscale dining with great value tasting menus, overall my favorite meal in Colombia (there’s also a location in Cartagena)
Restaurante Piqeuo: Great Peruvian food and cocktails
Restaurante Desayunadero de la 10: Cheap breakfast offerings
Pergamino Cafe: Excellent coffee and one of the rare places you can get cold brew
Museum of Antioquia: Art museum containing a large collection of works by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. The plaza outside also has a number of sculptures donated by Botero

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