I have always perceived Colombia as a country divided through conflict. Visiting Colombia never occurred to me simply because I have always been told that it was unsafe and dangerous. Now I have spent three weeks travelling through the country. Staying in the most ‘dangerous’ cities, I have a whole new perspective of Colombia, and it’s a beautiful one. The vast landscapes, white sandy beaches of its numerous national parks and historic colonial hotspots have blown me away. A country blighted by war and corruption, Colombia has proven to the world that the past does not have to keep a country from thriving in the future. Recent political developments saw the FARC hand over their entire armoury to the state in a bid to go legitimate, eventually holding seats in government. This would have been unthinkable to most inhabitants a few decades ago. Many associate Colombia with drugs and violence, most notably its infamous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, a man who is currently being glorified in Hollywood. He instigated crime and terror throughout the country murdering thousands and allegedly blowing up a plane. He was plotting to kill Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, the current campaigning president. However on the 27th November 1989, Cesar was not on board the aircraft Avianca 203, instead 107 innocent people were killed. At one point in his life, Pablo was earning 420 million USD a week. Spending $2,500 a month on elastic bands to wrap his money together. Rumour has it, when Pablo’s daughter was ill, he burnt 2 million USD to keep her warm.
Since his death, Pablo’s burnt down mansion has been turned into a tourist attraction, where people are able to go paintballing in the stables and admire the lush green scenery that encircles the flooded islands of Pablo’s hometown. As we toured through the broken down building, our guide sat us down. He asked us, ‘how many of you came to Colombia to see where Pablo Escobar lived ?’ To which we all put our hands up. He then asked, ‘and do any of you know much else about Colombia ? Did you know that we have the largest variety of orchids in the world? Over 300 different orchids ? Have you seen the stunning white beaches in Tyrona national park? Did you know we have the deadliest frog in the world? It’s so small and yellow, with one touch it can kill you ?’
Colombia has so much more to offer than just Pablo Escobar. In fact his name is hardly ever mentioned between the people of Colombia. To them, he is not a figure to be proud of. Colombia’s heritage, thriving modern cities and its forna and flora are its proudest achievements.
To this day, Pablo’s mansion has not been restored to its former glory, following its repeated bombing decades ago. It’s remnants serve as a reminder of the destruction and chaos that Pablo Escobar’s reign brought with it. Next to the burnt rotting building, there is a great damn – which holds water for all of the city Medellin. In the damn there are many islands. These quirky islands are the product of massive floods and now huge mansions sit on them, with real estate prices to match the area of natural beauty.
Near the gorgeous colourful town Guatape, visitors are able to climb 750 steps to the top of a huge rock called El Penon de Guatape. At the top of this rock you can see a birds eye view of Guatape lake and its surrounding islands and you’d think it was a picture postcard of Thailand. It looks spectacular and juxtaposes Pablo Escobar’s run down, paintball infused house, shedding some light on what Colombia is really about.
In this blog I will list some of my favourite places in Colombia. Not only the beauty the country has to offer, but also the hope and prosperity the people of Colombia have to show the world.
First The City of Medellin
Our first glimpse of Medellin was during our taxi journey. We rolled down the windy roads in the car, overlooking the tall buildings and the great city huddled into a vast valley from the mountain side. My first impression was, ‘ how could a city look so great and beautiful from above, yet hold such a poor reputation of past conflict and violence.’ Medellin is the local city to Pablo Escobar’s home, and therefore used to be the centre of crime and conflict during the drug war. However, since Escobar’s death, the city and more specifically, the district of Pueblo, boasts numerous cafes, restaurant, bars and boutiques. Medellin has worked tirelessly to change its haunting reputation and the restored architecture around around the city. Plaza Cisneros, or Park of Lights, is a clear example of this. This square has a formation of 300 tall light poles in the centre of the square. Originally, Plaza Cisneros had a poor reputation to be the centre of the cities crime and neglect. The tall poles that project beams of light above the square, infer a new era within the area, one that brings beams of light through Medellin.
We took a walking tour with Real City Tours, a company well known for their tours to be honest and inspirational. Our tour guide took us to a large square called San Antonio Place. She asked us ‘what to you see in this square.’ One of the visitors replied ‘not much, it’s empty.’ She agreed, the square was completely empty. ‘But it is not always this empty’ she told us. ‘This square was and is used for great concerts and festivals.’ She stood in front of a sculpture that looked like it had been melted or vandalised. She explained to us that the sculpture used to be a bird. On the 10th June 1995, a great concert was held in the square. Someone had placed a bomb in the sculpture which went off and killed 30 people. A great tragedy for Medellin and something we found hard to listen to. It hit home for many of us English in the tour as we have our own tragedies back in England we could relate to. The tour guide understood this, she told us that the sculpture would have been removed had the government (and the artist) not been so adamant to show the people of Medellin that a past of tragedy should not mean a future of sadness. They decided to create a new sculpture of a bird the same as the previous, but complete and standing tall. They placed the sculptures next to one another. This is to prove not only to the people of Medellin but those who visit the city, that the past is not something to forget but something to learn from in order to outline a better and hopeful future.
We also visited Comuna 13. A neighbourhood in the city renowned to be the most dangerous area in the whole of Medellin. Since it’s restoration after the war, Comuna 13 is now a museum of street art. Escalators are installed so that visitors can effortlessly glide up the layers and layers of houses and look at the colourful display of art coating the alleyways and hidden gems of the district. I was totally blown away with the life each work of art gave the neighbourhood. From a place people feared to enter, Comuna 13 is now a highly recommended tourist attraction in Medellin.
Second: The Tallest Palm Trees in the World
Just five hours south of Medellin is a small, very sweet, picturesque town called Salento. Salento is located in a valley surrounded by mountainous jungle, oozing with wildlife and humidity. It’s colonial buildings and vibrant colours make the town look like it had been picked out of a fairy tale. You can sense community in Salento, every evening at 9:00pm a loud alarm rings through the whole town. The alarm sounds something between a toy fire engine and a set for a World War II film. I looked around to find cover should a plastic bomb fall on my head. We asked our hostel receptionist in the calmest of manners, should we be a little bit worried ? He laughed and explained the alarm is a curfew for all the children to be inside. Quite soon after, we saw police riding mopeds through the streets telling kids it’s time to be off back to mum for tea and bed. It seemed that everyone in Salento looks out for one another, although the alarm did create a slight World War II vibe to the towns neighbourhood watch.
But, when you want to experience the countryside of Colombia, Salento is the place to be. It is an exciting place for hiking, exploring coffee plantations, horse riding, humming birds and the tallest palm trees in the world. We managed to catch a ride by hopping onto the back of a rusty land rover and drive through the winding roads to Cocora Valley. Before our hike, we had the option to either horseback ride or walk ourselves. Being cheap and very broke backpackers, we chose to walk. We hiked through both the countryside in the valley and the jungle that clinged onto the side of the mountains. The hike wasn’t long, however it was very pleasant and we felt independent finding our way through the jungle, climbing rocks and balancing ourselves on unstable bridges over rivers and waterfalls.
Further up the mountain, there is a hummingbird farm ran by a family. Here you are able to drink homemade hot chocolate and sit and watch the fast and somehow incredibly co-ordinated hummingbirds fly around and darting through one another. They would stop to have a drink for a minimum of half a second before flying off again. Trying to take a picture seemed to be much more of a challenge than a pleasure. Although these hummingbirds mastered teasing any human being, we were still able to appreciate just how beautiful and colourful the birds are. From black and white to blue with shades of green and long tails that feathered behind them.
As we hiked further down the mountain back to Cocora Valley, we could see the tops of palm trees level with our heads. We thought that the trunk would finish at some point as we descended down the mountain, but they never did. We soon finished in Cocora Valley below the mountain and eventually the trees finished. We stood looking up into the sky and could just about see the tops of the palm trees. It was pretty incredible how tall these palm trees have grown and how they have balanced a head of heavy leaves on a thin trunk and not snap in the wind. We gazed in amazement, until Ali, the delightful show stopper, bellowed out ‘ wow! A coconut falling from that height would definitely kill you.’ We soon realised after the lovely interruption, that we were in the prime area for a coconut disaster. We quickly left the valley.
Our time in Salento was a relaxing and very pleasant one. The town and the valley together created a beautiful fairy tale kingdom. A land where you are able to take yourself far far away from the hustle and bustle of Salento’s surrounding cities Medellin and Bogota.
Third: Tyrona National Park
Tyrona national park is situated in the north of Colombia. It’s a vast area of outstanding natural beauty measuring 150km2. The park is by the sea and consists of thick jungle and huge sandy white beaches. The area of Tyrona is open for people to visit, camp, hike and explore. There are a few campsites dotted around the park, so we decided to stay for 3 nights and sleep in hammocks provided in the campsites. Our supplies for the expedition consisted of rice, tinned vegetables, onions and garlic. We did not need to think about breakfast because we forgot. Or lunch, because we forgot that too. Luckily we were able to gorge on the mangos ripening in the park. So that is what we had to survive on, plus 7 litres of water each. Little did we know, each campsite has supplies of water, food and we even found a little restaurant. Every night we had to find dry palm leaves to light a fire to cook our rice and tinned vegetables. This process would take about an hour for the fire to be lit and for water to be boiling. Once our rice and vegetables were cooked, we managed to make them so stodgy we decided to call it risotto for supper. Although our meal tasted of spam oat meal, we ate it up and refused to talk about what we just ate after we finished.
The walk to the campsite took us through beautiful stretches of jungle and long white beaches with not a single soul on them. It really was the essence of paradise. Looking up the tall tree trunks with long vines dangling down, I saw an ant eater making its way up the tree, attempting to find its food within the holes of the tree bark. We spent the 3 days exploring the jungle finding groups of monkeys, the odd iguana and lying on the beaches and swimming in the crystal blue ocean. As I sunbathed on the beach, Ali and Will returned from some afternoon exploring with pockets full of hand sized mangos. I could not believe it. Hand sized mangos. This meant that you could peal the mango and eat it like an apple. All my Christmases came at once. How did I not know about this before !? They were so juicy and so ripe, I had about five there and then. I demanded to be shown the tree where these beautiful fruits came from. The boys took me to the sacred plant and it must have been in season because it was raining mangos. We soon found out that the cost of food in the national park was a little expensive and we really did not have enough cash to spend. So we resulted in returning back to the mango tree every day and eating mangos for breakfast and lunch for three days. Although I can claim that mangos are the fruit of the gods, I could not eat another mango for a good few weeks after my time in Tyrona.
Our last evening was spent sleeping in a raised hut on a formation of rocks looking out to sea. It was so peaceful waking up to the sunrise over the ocean and watching from my hammock. I felt like I could have spent thousands of pounds to watch the same sunrise that morning.
There is more to Colombia than its history of drug trafficking and violence. Colombia and its people have taught me that learning from the past can help develop a brighter future. It’s people are friendly and welcoming and this is not a country to be afraid of. Colombia can be appreciated for its beauty and spectacular biodiversity. I have thoroughly enjoyed wading through jungles full of wildlife and vegetation, and relaxing on white sandy beaches. I loved meeting people who believe in their country so much, they are happy to prove to you why they love Colombia. And I too am happy to let them show me, even if that does mean a diet of stodgy rice and mangos, or getting scared of a coconut. Whatever the sacrifice, I am going to return to you Colombia and make sure I have a long time to explore you even more.