The Dirty Little Word in Colombia

When we initially made plans to travel to Colombia, I must confess, we really knew very little about the country before we started to research it. When we thought of Colombia, two things came to mind – Coffee & Cocaine.

You can’t mention the country of Colombia without witnessing the widening of peoples eyes and the inevitable question – what about the drug lords?

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You won’t find Narcos in Colombia.

Pablo Escabor and the terrifying grip he had on the country in the 80s is an undeniable and sad part of Colombia’s history. You can’t seem to get away from it and the glamorization of it by the West – just turn on Netflix and watch the success of Narcos if you don’t believe me!

I cannot state it enough – we did not book our trip to Colombia to do drugs. A lot has transpired in the country over the last 2 decades and now it is a much safer place to travel to, so the fear of running into some drug lord territory was quite low. However, we did recognize the fear and misunderstandings that people had about the region that made ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ and the drug fueled disco era of the 80s, possible.

Throughout the 90s, with the fall of Escobar, increased security and the (sometimes misguided) assistance of the U.S. – the country of Colombia has mostly stabilized. I am by no means an expert on politics of the region – but we did have a chance to discuss the history and background of the country with the locals to get their perspective.

The bottom line is this – while there is still political corruption (and that is undeniable) the country is no longer the haven for drug lords that it once was. People feel much safer there. The drug lords that descended to take over the business after Escobars fall have now largely moved north, to Venezuela and Mexico. While sad for them, it has provided relief for the country of Colombia and the people that reside there. They’ve been able to now essentially take back their country and focus on nurturing the many rich assets of the region. In fact, economically speaking they have strong oil reserves, an incredible climate for coffee plantations, bio diversity that enables them to be the world’s largest export of roses and so much more. In fact, people have been moving back to Colombia and investing in the region like never before – even Medellin is turning out to be the next ‘hub’ for start-ups, attracting talent from all over the world.

IMG_3672Locals also rightfully informed us that the Coca plant itself was used (and still is used) for medicinal purposes. Cocaine is a transformed, chemically treated version of the plant and violates its intended use. Coca is used to ease digestive problems, provide energy, help with arthritis, ease pain, help with depression, calm migraines, and so more. In fact, in Colombia you can buy and drink Coca tea, which is the natural form of the plant (and tasty I might add). It does provide a calming effect, we enjoyed it and would even recommend it.

Yet, the scars from Escobar’s reign do still exist. Maybe it’s because we weren’t looking for it, but Cocaine was not something that seemed to be used by the locals there. In fact, the use of it is frowned upon and represents a dark history. If you’re looking to travel to the region and party, I’m sure you’ll find an outlet for it but don’t expect the locals to embrace you. The people themselves don’t want to be known or associated with the painful past of the Cocaine drug trade in the same way Germans don’t want to be known solely for the pain of the Nazi takeover. It’s a shameful and extremely painful time that Colombians don’t even like to talk about. Many of them, I suspect, were impacted personally by that time period and they are still healing from it.

If you do travel to Colombia, be mindful and respectful of this. Do not ask them about Escobar or the illegal drug business unless they bring it up and / or you develop a relationship where you can talk about it respectfully. The people want to be known for the riches and beauty of their country, as well as the beauty and kindness of their people. And believe me, there is plenty of beauty to take in.

Airbnb Or Hotel?

When traveling abroad or to a new location one must ask: where do we stay?

There are countless of options on Booking.com, Hotel.com, luxury travel sites, Airbnb and more. The choices can get a bit overwhelming, especially if you really don’t know the location you are going to all that well. And if you’re trying to stay on a budget but want to avoid the hostel? That really leaves you scratching your head.

Airbnb’s are fantastic options and allow you to see a part of a city and enjoy accommodations you totally would have missed otherwise. However, in my experience, it’s best to go with an Airbnb when you feel more comfortable with the city you are visiting and won’t require the assistance of a concierge.

Before we visited Cartagena, we did some research on the neighborhoods and highly toured destinations. Therefore, we felt comfortable focusing in on The Old City in Cartagena, a destination popular among tourists, where English was widely spoken and opted for an Airbnb that came with pretty high reviews.

The place was incredible! Aside a confusing few turns where we accidentally walked into the home of a family that happened to live on the 2nd floor (and a man that had just gotten out of  a bath – my eyes can never un-see what was seen) we arrived at our destination. A two-story accommodation with a rooftop balcony complete with a hot top and incredible views of Cartagena! The picture below captures the pure joy upon our discovery.

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We never would have found such a unique place if it had not been for Airbnb! The place could sleep 4 people and was only $100 American dollars a night plus it was within walking distance to everywhere we wanted to be. It was a total steal!

With Airbnb’s, there are always a few hiccups along the way, but overall we felt safe, comfortable and loved our accommodations. I have to say the ‘security guard’ that slept outside the building at night comfortably in his chair, was a nice touch. But seriously, we felt safe, the people were SO friendly and seemed genuinely happy to have us there. We would absolutely stay there again.

When it came to Bogota, however, we had been told that English was scarce and that safety could vary upon different neighborhoods. We didn’t want to risk it and peace of mind was more valuable to us –  so we selected to stay at NH Hotel in Zona Rosa – a highly acclaimed location in Bogota famed for music venues, nightlife, shopping and more.  You can find deals via Hotel.com and Booking.com.

The hotel was fantastic. In a city like Bogota, I don’t think we would have been nearly as comfortable anywhere else. Their concierge spoke English, gave us recommendations on where to go and even arranged private cars and city tours just for us so we felt safe. They went out of their way to make us feel safe, comfortable and made sure that we would enjoy our time in their city. This all was priced very reasonably as well. The hotel cost $100 a night and could easily have slept 4 people. Taxi rides were on average maybe 9,000 pesos (which equates to $3 American dollars) and our private day-long city tour through Bogota? That only cost us $30 American Dollars per person. You couldn’t beat it.

Also, special shout out to Marcos, our private driver and tour guide that took care of us. We didn’t speak Spanish well and he wasn’t fluent in English, but we made it work by communicating in Spanglish all day. He was like our Bogota father making sure we stayed safe and had fun – while taking us to little known beautiful parts in the city and not to mention, a coveted lunch spot for the BEST Ajiaco ever (a traditional chicken, corn and potato Colombian soup – it’s da bomb). Thank you Marcos!

So there you have it. Definitely try out the Airbnb’s in beachy, comfortable tourist towns for an authentic experience. Yet when you want to take the guess work out of where to go or how to arrange transportation in a really foreign land? Opt for the hotel with concierge. That’s our travel tip – enjoy!

 

Viva La Colombia!!

Welcome fellow travel lovers! We are excited to kick off our travel blog. Here we’ll be covering a lot of travel adventures – ones we take independently as well as those we take together – so you’ll get a taste of everything. To start, we’ll cover our latest trip – Colombia!

If you are anything like my parents – or anyone else I’ve encountered – you may ask: Why Colombia? Immediately images of Narcos, Pablo Escabor and cocaine dealers from the 90s come to mind. Violence, desperation, kidnappings even! I get it, I really do. But I have to tell you, Colombia is nothing like I imagined – it was better. And we didn’t encounter a single drug dealer. Would I have made this journey 10 or even 5 years ago? No. However, Colombia has come a long way since then and if you’re willing to stretch outside your comfort zone, I can guarantee you’ll have a great time.

So, to start. Why Colombia? Well, we didn’t choose Colombia as much as Colombia seemed to choose us. Randomly one evening, my dear friend (and fellow blog contributor) Corinne and I were having dinner (and maybe a few too many drinks) when we were discussing our travel aspirations.

“I always wanted to go to South America” I said.

“I’m down” said Corinne. And that was that. Very little arm twisting was needed.

I knew I had flight miles I could use and started looking up places that were on Delta’s flight path. Brazil, Colombia and a few other countries were all options. We settled on Colombia because they didn’t require a Visa like Brazil did and we liked the pictures we saw. That’s all it took!

We zoned in on a few cities, but settled on two: Cartagena and Bogota. Cartagena is a beachy, colonial town right on the coast and Bogota is the country’s capital located right in the mountains. It seemed to be the best of both world’s and a great way to get a taste of multiple aspects of the country. I couldn’t pronounce either of those names but figured as long as I had a credit card and a passport, I wouldn’t let that stop me. Voila! The tickets were booked for the last week of March and we were ready.

We did some research and decided on the following outline to get us started:

CARTAGENA
  • Saturday – Arrive & settle into our Airbnb. Then proceed to out dancing!! Bailamos!

BOGOTA

  • Thursday – Visit Cerro de Monserratea church on top of the famed mountains in Bogota with a complete view of the city. It came highly recommended.
  •  http://www.cerromonserrate.com/en/
  • Saturday – Tour the rest of Bogota, hit up a graffiti art tour and check out  Zona Rosa in the evening.
  • Sunday – Departure – back to New York.

That was our agenda and for the most part we stuck to it, only deviating slightly from the plan to incorporate a few fun activities other travelers recommended to us along the way. Stay tuned for following posts where we cover the events that transpired!