One of the reasons I decided to live in the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia in 2016, away from the trendy restaurants and bars or even cafes offering free Wi-Fi, was so I could afford to travel. I tried to justify commuting to work a total of 2 hours every weekday because living far away from the action meant cheaper rent, and cheaper rent meant I could put more money towards traveling through Colombia. But thanks to a 9-5 office job and weekend soccer tournaments, I didn’t see much of my new country in 2016.
That all changed in early 2017 when I began a new job as an online marketing manager for a tour company. I was (and still am) allowed to work anywhere with Internet connection and was sent on a few company trips so I could write about the tours and check out possible new tour destinations. I’m so grateful to be in a position where travel (and writing about travel) is such a big component of my job.
Take a look at the Colombian destinations I visited in 2017. Some of these were work trips, some were a combination of business and pleasure, and some were simply mini-getaways where I would work from the hostel.
Located about an hour away from Bogotá, this national natural park sits in a cloud forest. When the clouds loom, it feels like you’re in a creepy horror film. It’s really cool but isn’t ideal for pictures. Sometimes the clouds clear and then you’re faced with stunning, rolling mountains and miles (I need to start using kilometers) of hiking trails. In addition to hiking, visitors can also go horseback riding, zip-lining and repelling.
Favorite part: Sleeping in the lodge in the middle of the park. It’s simple but full of rustic charm. There’s a restaurant in the lodge as well as a wooden balcony that offers a few hammocks so you can drift off while peering over the treetops.
Tip: Parque Chicaque is colder than even chilly Bogotá. Bring a heavy jacket and scarf. If you are staying in the park overnight, pack warm pajamas.
Guatavita and Zipaquirá
During this day trip for work, I visited Lake Guatavita, a quaint pueblo called Guatavita la Nueva and the gorgeous Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá is an underground salt mine featuring the Stations of the Cross, which represent the life and death of Jesus Christ. I have been in various caves and mines in the United States, but this experience offered something different because there was a story behind each station and I learned more about Catholicism in Colombia.
This day trip tour also brought me to Lake Guatavita, an important religious site for the indigenous Muisca people. It’s also said to be the site that sparked the Legend of El Dorado and the European gold craze (a nicer term for pillaging, rape and murder). We also had time to meander through the colonial town of Guatavita la Nueva. I’m a sucker for white walls, terracotta roofs and bougainvillea spilling down houses, so I found this place very charming.
Favorite part: The short hike to get to Lake Guatavita. It was not extremely difficult, but it got my heart pumping and the mountains surrounding the lake could be straight from a post card.
Tip: Don’t go to the Salt Cathedral during a Colombian holiday, especially during Holy Week. Everyone and their mamas are there trying to peep the crosses. Check out this site that lists all the Colombian holidays, and boy are there a lot!
My fiancé and I took an overnight bus from Bogotá to Cali to visit his friend who lives there and fawn over the friend’s new baby. We stayed in a quaint hostel and spent the long weekend in what is deemed “the salsa capital of the world.” We didn’t do a lot of touristy things, but we did take a very informative free walking tour through the old part of the city. Cali isn’t particularly stunning, but the warm weather was a welcomed change from Bogotá’s chilly climate.
This may sound like I’m pandering to black folks, but another reason I appreciated Cali was seeing more melanin. There are a ton more black people in Cali. Since Colombia is so regionalized, you don’t see a lot of diversity in Bogotá.
Favorite part: Playing with that sweet baby and visiting the Cali zoo. It’s one of the best zoos I have been to and it wasn’t crowded.
Tip: Take a salsa lesson, or if you already know how to dance, visit a salsa club.
Medellín was the first Colombian city I visited and was the perfect place to start my Colombian adventure before I even knew I would be calling Colombia home. This time around, work sent us on a day tour to Comuna 13 and Parque Arví. Comuna 13 was once the most dangerous neighborhood in Medellín, but it’s now a spot to admire creative graffiti art and learn how the area improved its image. It’s a rags to, well not riches story, but you’ll leave the neighborhood feeling optimistic about the future of Colombia.
We also took a day trip to Guatapé, a colorful town located about 2 hours from Medellín. The touristy town is splashed with color and sits along a reservoir. Overlooking that reservoir is a gigantic rock formation that goes by a few names in Spanish, but is commonly referred to as “El Peñol.” We climbed the 659 steps to the top of this beast and enjoyed the views of the emerald water below.
Favorite part: The climb up to El Peñol during the day trip to Guatapé.
Tip: The traditional Colombian dish called Bandeja Paisa originated in this part of the country. If you are a meat-eater, chow down on this protein-packed dish. If you prefer a meat-free snack, the arepas in Medellín (that come with huge slices of cheese on top) will make your mouth water.
I hurt my knee during a soccer game and couldn’t walk properly for a month. Maybe a future post will be “The Joys of Getting a MRI in Colombia.”
Okay, I know Puerto Rico is not in Colombia, but that’s where I went in June. My mom was nice enough to treat me and my siblings to the 5-day trip. She had always wanted to see Puerto Rico and it was great to be able to see my family since I live abroad.
Obviously, 5 days isn’t enough to really get to know a place, but it was enough to make some observations. Some areas in San Juan felt a bit like South Florida. The historic area of San Juan reminded me of a more tranquil Cartagena, Colombia.
It definitely did not feel like we were in the United States, even though Puerto Rico is an American territory. It’s a fact many people seemed to have forgotten or purposefully overlooked after Hurricane Maria ravaged the small island months ago and still there are people without clean water or electricity.
Favorite part: Visiting El Yunque Rain Forest and La Mina Falls. (Keep in mind that Hurricane Maria sadly destroyed this national park.)
Tip: Brush up on your Spanish. Many of the people we encountered away from the tourist spots did not speak English. Plus, it’s always nice to attempt to speak the language of locals wherever you are.
Amazon, Villavicencio, La Calera, Cali (again)
I didn’t realize I traveled so much in July until I looked back at the pictures on my phone. To keep this post moving, I’m just going to focus on the Amazon.
Work sent me on this 4-day Amazon tour and it was absolutely incredible. I started in Letica, the city in southern Colombia that sits along the Amazon River and shares a boarder with Brazil. I slept in an eco-lodge in a natural reserve in Peru. I also went canoeing, learned how to fish, spent an afternoon in an indigenous town and searched for black caiman during an evening canoe ride.
I wrote about it extensively here if you want more info.
Favorite Part: Seeing the black caiman and venturing into Brazil, even if it was just for a few hours. It was fun to say that I was in Brazil, Colombia and Peru all in one day.
Tip: For the love of sweet baby Jesus, bring bug spray and long pants for hiking in the jungle.
The Coffee Region
This long weekend trip was a combination of business and pleasure. My dude and I had both been wanting to see the Coffee Region, so we made plans to go and my company hooked us up with a tour while we were there. The day tour was visiting small pueblos around the Coffee Region via Jeep. The Jeep, known as a Willy in the region, had a removable roof, so we stood up and held on tight as the vehicle made its way over the sloping mountains dotted with coffee plants. I know I have talked about the views in other destinations above, but I still can’t get over the pretty, green mountains in the Coffee Region. Speaking of views, Cocora Valley will also make your mouth gape open. We were lucky to have a blue sky the day we visited the valley, home to towering wax palm trees and a hiking trail.
Favorite Part: Cocora Valley, no question. It’s really easy to get to the valley from Salento and I know I need to shut up about the views…but oh, the views!
Tip: The trail around Cocora Valley is steep, muddy and takes about 5 hours to complete. Don’t think it’s going to be a leisurely stroll like we did.
I didn’t leave Bogotá in September. I’m not sure why.
I went home to Florida in October to see my family and its newest addition – my baby cousin. I gorged myself on Halloween candy and the scent of new baby.
Favorite Part: Seeing my family.
Tip: Spirit Airlines has really cheap flights between Colombia and Florida. They are one of the airlines that charges for everything like a carry-on or drinks on the flight. If you pack lightly, you can save a lot of money.
I didn’t go anywhere in November because we knew we would be in Cartagena in December and Cartagena is expensive.
We ended 2017 in Cartagena. This was the most memorable trip because this is where Eduardo proposed. The day he popped the question, my company sent us on a La Boquilla day tour. La Boquilla is located about 20 minutes by car from Cartagena’s historic area. We plopped into a canoe and glided through the mangroves. This experience was especially magical because the mangrove tunnels are almost identical to the ones in my hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s my favorite outdoors destination in St. Pete, but Eduardo has never seen it because he doesn’t have a visa to visit the United States. (Thanks unnecessarily strict immigration regulations!) I was happy he got to experience an area that is almost identical to my treasured hometown spot. It was just as peaceful, just as beautiful, and our guide taught us how to cast a fishing net and set crab traps before eating a scrumptious seafood lunch.
In the evening, after we cleaned up, Eduardo took me to a nice restaurant in Cartagena’s historic district. We chowed down on more mouth-watering seafood. When dessert time rolled around, the waitress brought a brownie and ice cream with an engagement ring on top, all while the band covered Carlos Vives’ Volvi a nacer (Quiero casarme contigo). I said yes and we finished the night with a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride through the historic district.
Favorite Part: Being proposed to, duh.
Tip: Make sure wherever you are staying has air conditioning. Some backpacker hostels only have fans. I’m from Florida, so I’m used to the heat, but Cartagena is stifling.
I’m so grateful I was able to see more of Colombia this year with someone so special to me by my side for many of the experiences. Here’s to more adventures in 2018!