Colombia is, without a doubt, our favourite country to date. No doubt you’ve heard many travellers say the same. Well, it’s true and yet it’s still underrated and undersold. Our first time meeting the love of our lives, it took us three months to explore Colombia and we barely made a dent.
So when our 14-month-13-country-Latin-America-journey came to an end in Rio de Janeiro, we rushed to the airport and flew straight back to the only country that we felt we could one day call home.
We have, in fact, made a promise and pact that when our kids have grown and the grandkids are happy out, the Ungraceful Granny and Grandad will be setting up camp on a farm near Medellín. Sure isn’t that a cool little summer holiday for the grandkids?
As expected we always research a country before arriving but nothing – no photo, no video, no description – nada will give a hint as to how you will feel when there.
We’ve fallen in love with a lot of places, not just in Latin America but around the world. However, nowhere has given me the feeling like Colombia, other than my hometown of Dublin of course. But that’s a different kind of feeling. That is a patriotic love for the place I’ve called home for my entire life. That’s where my family and friends live their lives and where I feel most loved and most comfortable.
Whereas Colombia is where I really started to figure out what kind of person I am. Such a turning point in my adventures, it was here that my Spanish started to improve and so I gained the confidence to express myself by speaking more of it. It was in Colombia where any fears, possible regrets and concerns about our newfound life vanished. The place that transformed me from the overly organised yet slightly lost and overwhelmed tourist into the brave budget-savvy backpacker with no fucks given.
It was also here that I was introduced to ayahuasca, the therapeutic Amazonian vine and medicinal plant that literally changed my entire perspective and world.
It’s like true love I suppose. When I met Luke, everything made sense. It clicked, a switch flicked, and all the questions I had were somehow answered. Explained, no. But I’m not greedy. I know a good thing when I have it.
Colombia is my mistress. Except, I didn’t have an affair. We had a threesome. So while you must read this and think I’ve lost the plot altogether, let me share some little minuscule bits and bobs we learned about the sassy gal.
Some may help and others may be pointless information. But you’re here so let’s make sure you click off with some knowledge at least, and maybe even a smile.
If that does happen, then this blog was worth it.
Table of Contents
#1 Spelling C:
I’ve started with this one for good measure. Lads, I hate to break it to you but it’s spelled Colombia.
Man, if I had a penny for every time I noted this error, I’d be richer than the famous drug lord himself.
Columbia is a famous university located in New York City. It is also a popular clothing company.
And for the really confused, the Italian explorer is called Christopher
#2 Central America to South America Border Crossing:
This one sucks, so let’s get it out of the way. No, you cannot cross into South America, from Central America, by land. No matter how much you research and how much you ask, it’s impossible.
As land roamers, we don’t like to fly if we don’t have to. An experience on a bus is far more interesting and enriching than being stuck in a cabin thousands of feet over the land you wish to explore. The isolated and very dangerous jungle between Panama and Colombia means it’s off limits, and if you think you could risk it, g’luck ya mad bastard ya.
Between the wild and dangerous animals, the concerns of drug traffickers, paramilitaries, and the good old-fashioned law, you’re most likely to be lost, killed, kidnapped or arrested. True story. No exaggeration.
We’ve heard whispers that some made it through, Chinese whispers maybe. So all you can do is shamelessly board a plane or fork out on a whopping €500-€800 and take a four-day San Blas boat trip.
See! It sucks! We flew. Cheaper, quicker and meant we weren’t boat-bound with a load of tourists, eating what was served and living on someone else’s time. Sorry, we’re social introverts. No offence, that’s us. Everyone is different. Each to their own and all that.
A quick Google will return the paradise that is Slan Blas but the costs are absolutely insane so instead check with Viva Colombia airline (also owned by Ryanair) for the cheapest flights and get your ass to Colombia ASAP.
#3 Onward Proof of Travel:
We’re not entirely sure if this is the case for those who take the Slan Blas trip, but it’s definite for the flyers.
To enter Colombia, you need to provide proof of onward travel. Always a burden when you don’t like to plan too far in advance.
Thankfully, we found a simple way to avoid confirming any flights or spending any money. We use a Panamanian airline called CopAir to reserve flights online without giving any card details.
The airline holds the selected flights for 24 hours, sending a flight itinerary via email, one that you can easily screenshot or print to flash at the airport clerks.
For a more detailed guide on this visit here.
#4 Whether V Weather:
The weather varies throughout the country, with each region representing a season.
From the chilly, cloudy and rainy feel of the country’s capital Bogotá, to Medellín’s all-year-round spring-like weather.
Head north to Cartagena and La Guajira for sun-stroke, or south towards Salento for its warm days, bitter nights and fresh breezes.
#5 Colombia Has A Desert:
This one was such an awesome surprise.
We knew that Colombia was the bearer of nature. It was another gateway to the Amazon, which has a Caribbean coast, tropical islands, postcard beaches, slick cities, colonial towns, mass coffee regions and snowy mountain peaks. But we did not know that it had a desert.
A beautiful discovery we made throughout our exploring up north, other than making chocolate in Medellín, our visit to the deserted La Guajira region was a major highlight.
The home of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu tribe, famous for making mochilas (woven bags) and chinchorros (large woven hammocks), this region is one of poverty. The Wayuu so courageously suffer with smiles even though they lack the basic human necessity, running water. Oh, and it hasn’t rained in over 5 years.
This is something you really should chuck on your Colombia ‘must see’ list, especially since your visit and cash injection will go such a long way for these hard-working folk.
For more on “Wayuu” should visit the desert, read all about it here
#6 Arepas and Empanadas:
Get ready for the flour-rich diet you’re about to live.
Arepas are thick circular tortillas made of corn flour and served with every dish. The plain, moist taste accompanies dishes from breakfast to dinner, or grab one that is stuffed with melted cheese for less than €1. An addictive snack!
Empanadas, well they’re life. We would live off these crispy pockets if we could. Corn dough wrapped around a filling of your choice, they have everything from potato, meat, chicken, cheese, pork, mince and egg. They are then deep-fat fried, and served hot with both sweet and savoury sauces such as pineapple, salsa rosa, BBQ and even condensed milk. Empanadas usually cost €0.50.
In every area we have visited in Colombia, we made it our mission to find the best local empanadas and so we are smug and genuine when we call ourselves ex-panada-erts.
#7 The Bandeja Paisa:
Since we are on the topic of food, one of the best gastronomic inventions is the ‘Bandeja Paisa’. Although the dish is available anywhere in Colombia, since it originates in the Antioquia region, this is the area where you really want to indulge.
A large plate, with the aim of making you explode, is crammed with flavour. There are varieties available but generally, it is; avocado, salad, beans, rice, minced meat, churrasco (crispy pork), chorizo, topped with a fried egg and served with an arepa.
Sounds easy but trust me; wear elastic pants and fast for the day.
You have to try this!
#8 The Perfect ‘Paisa’:
The word ‘Paisa’ isn’t just to describe a traditional dish, but is also frequently used to describe an individual across Antioquia, especially in Medellin.
To be a paisa is to be of the highest order of individualism. Proud people, positive people, charming and intriguing. A paisa can have you wrapped around a finger of their choosing, and charmed to the brink of true love.
They could sell ice to an Eskimo, and have a wonderful reputation as the ultimate tongue-in-cheek salespeople. Our favourite being a thick skin. Sit and chat with Paisa and prepare to have the piss completely taken. They love to laugh, but making others laugh harder is their true trait. It’s never a dull moment around Paisa.
Quite like the Irish really! Maybe that is why we felt so at home in Antioquia.
#9 The Famous Man:
We’ve briefly touched on the topic of Pablo Escobar in this blog. How we transformed from two fanatic tourists into completely biassed and more knowledgeable paisas, and that was in the space of a week.
Today, Colombia is far from the violence that once saw it as the most dangerous country in the world.
Even as we announced our plans to visit our now second home, there were gasps of concern from friends and families alike. We have even met backpackers who skipped it altogether, genuinely out of fear. To all weary visitors, we beg that you shake this incorrect perception of a dangerous or drug-fuelled land. It’s anything but!
At first, we were so excited to arrive at the place Pablo put on the map and remember exiting the Bogotá to Medellín bus to the Narcos theme song. Jesus, I’m going bright red even thinking of that now.
To our embarrassment, a few days in Medellin smacked us a little as it made us pull our heads out of the asses of Hollywood. We realised we had neglected the other side of the life-destroying drug war.
Starting with THE BEST free walking tour we have ever done where our guide, no older than Luke, told us how walking to school meant stepping over dead bodies. Daily.
A trip to Casa Memoria, a highly engaging and visual museum, shares the struggles Medellín suffered due to the war on drugs, the paramilitaries and the government. What we found most interesting is that this museum so clearly breaks down the painful history at the hands of the drug lord yet the only mention of Escobar is the announcement of his death. To us, that speaks volumes.
We also had many chats with the Colombian people. Discovering how the majority feel ill at the very mention of him. They spoke to us about the ‘Pablo fans’ a combination of uneducated tourists (us!) and the loyal locals who continue to celebrate his birthday each December by wearing a Shirt with his face on it. You will also spot car stickers or photos in windows, but let us tell you that they are the minority. These celebrations tend to piss people off and rightly so – nearly every family or household in Medellín lost something to the war on drugs.
It made us think of how angry the Irish can become over the English (a dragged-out and tiresome hatred in my opinion!). Now imagine if your neighbour had a photo of say Thatcher in their window or car. Celebrating who she was when really, she was a murderous woman with agendas, greed, too much power, a negative impact and so much more.
A willingness to research, ask and learn really has stretched our eyes. Our thoughts are completely different and our opinions now changed – for the better. The once excited but ignorant big kids, eager to take every Pablo Escobar tour available, are now armed with newfound knowledge and a different outlook.
The ‘famous man’ as we call him (we prefer not to mention his name in public) doesn’t deserve to be associated with the magic of Medellín, the busy Bogota and the character that is Colombia itself.
The memory of his evil legacy is not welcomed and that’s a bandwagon we now ride on.
Speaking of himself, it really is quite devastating to hear how difficult it is for Colombia to shake its drug-fuelled past. Still to this day it carries an unfair stigma and stereotype all because of the greed of one individual.
Although there have been astounding social improvements over the last 20 years, it has left an interesting relationship between Colombians and the drug world, one that say Ireland could not and may never understand.
What I’m trying to say is don’t be shocked to see people openly smoke marijuana and snort cocaine in the streets of Colombia.
Again, forget the Narcos stereotype that this wonderful land can’t be rid of, it’s not necessarily a skag or stoner town. Colombians who do dabble with drugs are known to treat it with somewhat respect, and never abuse it.
The use of both marijuana and cocaine has been decriminalised, and one day soon may become legal. A blind eye is turned towards personal consumption and so it’s not unusual to see crowds of people from all walks of life; young teens, older students, mothers, fathers, couples, business folk, and even fitness freaks, etc. puff away on blunt joints.
We have also witnessed vendors having a quick snort at their stalls, a motorcyclist once stopped to sniff while we waited for his passenger, and locals dabbing a little white as they watched the local footy game. It’s quite surreal!
Obviously, as a foreigner and tourist, this is not an issue and does not need to be a concern. It is nothing that will affect you or your time there.
For example, you might not even see cocaine use. For us, it was mostly in the city center of Medellín but across the country, you will most definitely see local parks seep with smoke and the giddy nature of the semi-high locals buying munch from the equally stoned street vendors. It makes watching people even more fun.
One day in Bogotà, we came across a large protest that drew the presence of heavily armed riot police. Intrigued, we stuck our nose in to see what was happening and met thousands of people (again of all ages) marching and munching in solidarity to legalise marijuana. The riot cops were bored out of their minds (or maybe stoned too!).
It has to be said that we do not in any way condone the use or buying of drugs, and feel the need to mention the stupidity involved if you do so.
It’s still considered illegal to buy and sell, and that is why you won’t ever be approached. Which is strange really!
In nearly every country we have visited we have come across either a tuk tuk driver or a local hoping to sell us their stock, especially in Central America. ALWAYS denying it (obviously!) we started to look at the funny side thinking we really must look like druggie hippies. As Luke’s hair grew longer, we cannot count how many times foreigners approached us to BUY drugs, thinking we would know just the place.
Colombia was a wonderful break from this. The world capital of cocaine (according to many) and yet never were we hassled or even approached. Not once!
I just found that so interesting.
In reality, this list will be endless.
Not a corner was turned in Colombia without viewing something unexpected or learning something new.
But look, lads, when we do eventually buy our farm in Colombia, the door will be open and it’ll be a free gaff and session for you all to come see for yourself.
Oh, did we mention we love Colombia?!